Legion is exactly the kind of television I should like. It’s full of the things I love. There are great TV actors like Dan Stevens (if you haven’t seen The Guest, omg go stream it immediately), Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Katie Aselton, and the phenomenal Jean Smart. It’s a comic book show outside the limitations and purview of a meddling film studio—just look at the consistently enjoyable CW, DC, and Netflix Marvel mini-’verses that are as good as they are because they more or less stand alone from the film franchises. And it’s got a bananas premise by a creator (Noah Hawley) known for his steady yet absurdist work, quality notwithstanding (*cough* My Generation and The Unusuals were undermined by too much quirk and not enough plot *cough*).
So why, after all that, is Legion not my new favorite show? Let’s dig down into the first four episodes and try to uncover what the show gets right and what it’s fumbled.
“Chapter One” introduced us to David (Stevens) in the psych ward, his budding romance with Syd (Rachel Keller), another supposedly mentally ill young woman who refuses to touch anyone, as well as his weird and inexplicable friendship with Lenny (Plaza). There, he’s interrogated by representatives of Division 3—who, we later learn, want to either turn him into a weapon or kill him. After Syd unexpectedly (and accidentally) uses her powers to swap bodies with David, they are both forcibly rescued by the Summerland crew run by Dr. Melanie Bird (Smart).
“Chapter Two” delivers David to Dr. Bird’s compound in the woods. Cary Loudermilk (Irwin) and his body-sharing sibling Kerry (Amber Midthunder), run brain scans trying to determine exactly what kind of mutant David really is. Meanwhile Dr. Bird, with the assistance of “memory artist” Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), explore David’s memories looking for the onset of his powers. If they can learn what triggered his abilities as a child they can help him control them as an adult. As it turns out, David wasn’t always the put-upon nice guy we thought he was. During his tempestuous relationship with his last girlfriend, Philly (Ellie Araiza), he and Lenny were addicts of some kind of vapor drug, leading to him robbing his own shrink (Scott Lawrence) to fuel his habit.
Meanwhile, David’s sister Amy (Aselton) is captured and tortured by The Eye (Mackenzie Gray), the mutant psychic muscle for Division 3. David’s uncontrollable powers—which now include levitation, telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation, and a possibly sentient subconscious—turn against Syd, Ptonomy, and Dr. Bird when they take an ill-advised excursion deep into David’s mind. There, they’re chased by the yellow-eyed monster and its childish companion/counterpart The World’s Angriest Boy. Neither creature is an organic part of David’s memories; they’re something else, something powerful, something semi-independent.
The show goes down the rabbit hole for “Chapter Four.” With David in a catatonic state as he wanders the astral plane, Kerry, Syd, and Ptonomy go on the hunt for answers to David’s past. Turns out, Lenny was really a dude named Benny, that David’s childhood dog King didn’t exist at all, and that he broke into his shrink’s office to destroy evidence and nearly killed his doctor. David finally breaks free of the astral plane after a disheartening conversation with Dr. Bird’s husband (Jemaine Clement), but in his haste The Eye shoots Kerry and escapes.
Where the first episode was all flair and little substance and the second all substance with little flair, the third manages to balance equal amounts of both without boring or overwhelming the audience. The fourth episode goes all in on the bizarre, and depending on your tolerance for cryptic-for-the-sake-of-cool visuals, it either worked like gangbusters or fell flat like it did for me.
On the surface, Legion tells the story of David Haller, a young man who is either mentally ill, a mutant, or a mentally ill mutant. In the first case, given what we’ve seen so far, it’s quite possible that David is hallucinating everything involving Syd and Lenny and that he’s still in his tiny room in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. The third possibility raises the question as to whether his mental illness is separate from, or caused/triggered by, his mutant abilities. (Mr. Robot is rooted in a similar premise and has worked wonders with it, even throughout a wonky second season.) The second option, though, veers into some uncomfortable territory in terms of disability tropes—he’s crazy, no wait, he’s magic!—in which case ugh, no, please don’t. It’s only been four episodes and we don’t have enough information to know what’s happening, but I suspect they’re going to take the laziest route possible and make David’s disability a superpower, because TV and movies always take the easy route.
It’s his relationship with Syd that I think I have the hardest time buying, and that’s saying a lot given that Legion is a comic book show about mutants. What we see of her relationship with David is intentionally enigmatic. I barely tolerate insta-love in books and Hawley has the guts (or gall?) to base a whole show on it. I totally buy David and Syd being romantically and sexually attracted to one another—make two conventionally pretty, cishet white people the stars of your show/movie and Hollywood law dictates that they must have the hots for each other—but with very little setup, the audience is supposed to believe that they’re both willing to risk their lives for each other. Something else has to be going on, right?
Visually, the show is spectacular. Jaw-droppingly spectacular. In every episode, Hawley and company pull off one mind-boggling and gorgeous visual set piece…then do two or three more like it’s a piece of cake. The trips into David’s subconscious in the second and third episodes left me goggling in admiration. Not to mention the stellar contradictions between the 1960s Mod costume design and the futuristic technology. What era is Legion set in? Who the hell knows, and that it really doesn’t matter is part of the fun.
Legion’s biggest problem right now is that it’s too reliant on earning the mantle of prestige TV, to the point where the story keeps getting buried under all the sparkly. Not every show needs to be wall-to-wall action. Some of the best prestige TV, shows like Rectify or The Leftovers, let their characters drive the plot. Even Hawley’s Fargo is largely contemplative save for bursts of bloody activity. So far Legion hasn’t figured out how to balance character-driven introspection with a fantastical structure without falling into the cryptic enigma zone. Legion doesn’t necessarily need to be about anything at all, but it seems so intent on meaning something important, or at least telling an important story—yet hasn’t done the story work to earn it.
Frankly, if I weren’t covering this for Tor.com, I’d probably just pile the eps in my DVR and binge the whole season one weekend over the summer. For me, the plot and the characters are fairly meh, but the visuals, music, and actors are what keep me coming back for more. Legion is a good show, maybe on the way to being great if it can work out its kinks.
- “Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and be surprised when she blows shit up.”
- “That bitch’s secrets have secrets.”
- “He believes he’s mentally ill, but at the same time, part of him knows the powers are real.”
- In case you don’t know (potential spoilers via the original comics): Legion was the illegitimate son of Charles Xavier and Gabby Haller. Not only can he absorb the personalities of others but he also has multiple split personalities, as well telekinesis, telepathy, pyrokinesis, and the ability to both time travel and warp reality. Eventually David had thousands of split and absorbed personalities all trying to gain control of him and his powers. I think he currently no longer exists—he erased himself from existing—but Marvel has yet another new event crossover looming on the horizon so he of the bizarro hairdo could always return.
- Oh man, forgot to mention the killer soundtrack. Wowza.
- That dance number in the first episode was completely pointless, plot-wise, but it was awesome to behold.
- Check the nods to Kubrick and Pink Floyd.
- The story that Dr. Bird’s dead husband-slash-coffee machine tells her about the woodcutter and the crane? Back in 2006 the Decemberists did a hauntingly beautiful album based on that folktale called “”The Crane Wife” that you should definitely check out.
- So far, David is the only straight-up X-Men mutant I recognize, and even then he’s only tangentially related to the comics—no Charles Xavier as a dad, for instance, despite all the X-Men logos. Syd’s closest relation would probably be Rogue. Hawley’s stated that the show won’t play into the X-Men franchise or universe.
- Due to some winter-related shenanigans, I couldn’t cover the premiere, but I’ll be back at the end of March to cover the last half of the season and the finale.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.