It’s clear from the opening scenes Legion won’t be your typical live-action X-Men story. While it’s about the usual epic battle for the future of humanity, those are just backgrounds. The real focus of Legionwhich debuted on FX last night is one man’s struggle to become a hero while coping with mental illness.
Filmed in a hazy alternate reality that looks like a mashup of the 60s and 2060s, the first episode opens with strange, stylized images of a child growing up in a suburb. We flicker between slo-mo memories of cycling and whimsical snippets of a contemporary mental hospital where our hero David Haller (a wonderfully nervous Dan Stevens) has lived for six years. Gradually we realize that one of the most powerful mutants in history is addicted to psychic drugs, fully convinced that his almost limitless abilities are just a delusion.
The life of the (mutant) mind
But this isn’t your standard psychic story, where a person who is labeled as crazy by the world turns out to be healthy and gifted. David indeed suffers from schizophrenia, which is closely related to his abilities. Legion is intensely personal and addresses issues such as child abuse and addiction. There’s plenty of action, but it mostly comes from the mind of one person. This makes for unexpectedly gripping and emotionally gripping drama.
In a way, David is his own villain. Objects around him occasionally hover and teleport; he hears and sees things that no one else can; and worst of all, manifestations of his power are accompanied by terrifying visions of a yellow-eyed man who looks like a slightly slimmer version of Jabba the Hutt. Haunted since he was a child by an inexplicable ability to do… stuffDavid is never sure what is real.
To escape the voices in his head, David turns to drugs. He and his best friend Lenny Busker (a snarling wild-eyed Aubrey Plaza) are addicted to a blue chemical that they vaporize with a plastic cat toy. Yes, it’s as bizarre as it sounds. The problem is, David’s powers and illness increase at the same rate – and eventually he and Lenny do something that lands them both in the surreal, futuristic mental hospital.
No one uses the term X-Men in this series, although there is some loose talk about mutants and evolution. There are a few people clattering with ‘powers’, some under the control of a ruthless government agency, and some taking shelter in a remote psychiatric/rehabilitation facility called Summerland. But David is essentially alone, at least until he meets fellow inmate Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who hates touch because of her own untapped powers.
Although David and Syd are eventually drawn into the orbits of other mutants, the series is not a straightforward tale of the battle between mutants and humanity. It is structured as a psychological mystery, the clues of which are all locked up in David’s memory. Shuttled between therapists, neuroscientists and telepaths, David delves back into his troubled past to find out what his powers are and when they are activated.
Heroism and Mental Illness
X-Men stories often explore the idea that one’s disability is actually their greatest strength. Power is vulnerability and vice versa. But rarely has there been an X-Men story, at least outside of the comics, that openly deals with living with a disability like Legion is. David struggles every day to deal with his hallucinations, just to become the protagonist of his own life.
Does David hear voices from his subconscious or is he picking up on Syd’s thoughts? Is he teleporting his sister’s room onto a glowing cloud or is he just imagining it? We never know for sure, and our uncertainty is only increased by: Legion‘s trippy satirical tone and psychedelic style, always reminding us that we see everything from David’s powerful, trauma-saturated point of view. This series has turned the clichéd story of the origins of superheroes into a thrilling exploration of disability and freedom.
The first few episodes of the series don’t offer David easy answers. Therapy and drugs can help a little bit, but a big part of his recovery involves learning to deal with what will likely be a serious lifelong problem. It is also not to be shunned that David suffers terribly and sometimes hurts the people around him. And yet the show does its best not to pathologize David or turn him into some sort of schizo stereotype. He’s charismatic and funny, and he has insights that no one else has. Like many X-Men stories, this series celebrates neurodiversity; as we meet more mutants, it is clear that no one is “normal” and that common sense is in the eyes of the beholder.
The show’s creator, Noah Hawley, most recently worked on the series fargo, so he’s no stranger to strange, harrowing stories. In interviews, Hawley has said he was trying to paint a realistic picture of mental illness. “There are a lot of years where the human potential is the same for everyone. And then, at some point, when the mental illness kicks in, a lot of people have to really adjust their expectations of what their lives are going to be and the level of normalcy that they can have,” Hawley said. “That struggle is constant.”
While the show is structured in a way that makes you wonder what’s real, there’s one thing that isn’t quite on David’s mind. Hawley has said that David is absolutely in love with Syd, and that Syd is real. (And yes, Syd was named after the band’s first vocalist Pink Floyd — keep an eye out for other Pink Floyd hat tips in the series, too.)
Where are the X-Men?
Much of this season’s eight-episode arc will be figuring out David’s powers and illness. In the comics, the character Legion is an Omega-level mutant, possibly even more powerful than Jean Gray, with dozens of powers. One of these powers is the ability to absorb other people’s minds, literally having a legion of people in his head. He is also the son of Professor X. Hawley has said, however, that the series is not a slavish recreation of the X-Men character, so changes are likely to come.
And don’t expect David to team up with Mystique on screen anytime soon. “Despite conflicting reports in recent months about the show’s relationship with the X-Men movies, it seems they are set in totally separate universes,” he said. Vulture.
So forget what you know about the X-Men and the world they inhabit. Legion is the story of a man injured by a dark experience in his past and handicapped by mental illness in the present. He can also kill you with his ghost. Once you venture into his brilliant, uncontrollable brain, you’ll definitely want to go back for more.
Legion airs on FX on Wednesday evenings in the US, and the Fox channel (Sky, Virgin, NowTV) on Thursday evenings in the UK.
List image by FX