This past Wednesday, FX finally premiered the long-awaited Legion, written and produced by Fargo’s Noah Hawley. Although the show is based on the lesser-known character from the X-Men universe, Hawley has described it as an adaptation built on the same foundation as the original’s volatile powers and identity.
Chapter 1 opens with a montage of scenes of David Haller’s (Dan Stevens) childhood. The sequence starts innocently enough, with moments that could have been plucked from any family album in mid-century middle America, before progressing through increasingly chaotic scenes that hint at the scope of David’s powers and instability. The series appears to have taken a page from Breaking Bad, adopting a saturated and vivid palette in which each color has its own significance. Take the opening two scenes: the montage and the hospital visit. David’s early childhood is rendered with the nostalgia of sepia and pastels. As his powers grow and the whispers grow louder, everything darkens, the lighting deepening to more ominous shades that culminate in his attempted suicide. He vanishes downward, leaving only darkness bisected by an orange electric cord.
In the next scene, David has risen from the bottom of the frame and is dressed in a lighter palette, the earth tones that recur throughout the psychiatric hospital where he is being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. Even his hair is lighter. Sitting opposite him is a woman later identified as his sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), clad in bright green and navy blue that pop incongruously against the wan décor of the visiting room and David’s more muted shades. She offers him the saddest birthday cupcake of all time, which becomes improbably sadder when a guard denies David even a taste of chocolatey goodness. The visit ends abruptly when an orderly announces it’s time for his next pill, and before he leaves the table, David mutters to his bewildered visitor, “Something new needs to happen soon.”
And then it does: David spots a new inmate. Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller) picks her way through the ward, anxiously and assiduously avoiding physical contact. Smitten immediately, he offers her Twizzlers stolen from his (understandably miffed) ward buddy Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). Thus begins a charming and innocent courtship conducted over evening skylines and cherry pie. But the time is already out of joint: One moment David is standing to receive his pill, and the next an orderly is pushing him along in a wheelchair. It’s unclear how much time has passed between those two shots, or since his sister’s visit. The transition – so seamless I initially missed it – sets up a series of cuts worthy of Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorian time-jumps.
By his own admission, David is an unreliable narrator. Dogged by voices and visions of a creepy Humpty-Dumpty demon (The Devil with Yellow Eyes), his grip on reality is tenuous at best. That he is aware of this does nothing to help ground him or viewers. The first chapter doesn’t so much play out as it assembles a disorienting collage of non-linear moments. It’s nearly perpetually unclear whether we’re seeing the present, a flashback (that is, an accurate depiction of a past event), a memory (an event as recorded by the notoriously unreliable human brain), a hallucination or dream, an alternate timeline, or some cocktail of all of the above. I have a theory about what happened but you probably have one too, and it’s anybody’s guess how well that squares with David Haller’s (or Noah Hawley’s) chronology.
One moment David and Sydney are sharing a quiet evening, and the next David is hunched over a candy-apple red table in a very white room. Now in civilian clothes, he’s being questioned by a polished official in a brown suit (Hamish Linklater) while a sinister whittler with a weird eye (Mackenzie Gray) lurks at the edges of the room. By degrees, the interrogation – intercut with what we’ll call flashbacks – reveals that David possesses telepathic and telekinetic powers, that the latter tend to manifest spectacularly in moments of great stress, and that something very bad happened at the hospital. That incident – which coincided with Sydney’s discharge from the hospital – killed Lenny, shook the building to its foundation, and sealed every patient behind doorless walls.
Only it wasn’t Sydney who was discharged: When they kissed each other goodbye, Sydney and David switched bodies, and David’s mind emerged from the hospital in Sydney’s body. Several scenes later, David’s body somehow catches up while “Sydney” is sitting in an outdoor café. He makes his way to his sister’s place on what turns out to be Halloween and eats every waffle in the house before retiring to the basement to apologize to a hallucination of his former ward buddy. At least, you assume it’s a hallucination until David’s sister pops in to check up on him and the camera shows Lenny’s reflection in a nearby mirror. Silent and motionless, Lenny watches as David crouches over the fragments of a (telekinetically) shattered lamp and his sister absconds with every nearby sharp implement as diplomatically as possible.
David snaps back to the interrogation to find he’s been moved to a filled swimming pool rigged with high voltage cables. In true Bond villain fashion, his interrogator looms over him brandishing a kill switch; and in true Bond villain fashion, he and all his henchmen are incinerated in a near-cosmic conflagration that leaves the building (and of course David) untouched. The explosion announces the arrival of a rescue team led by (who else?) Syd Barrett, who takes them to a boat launch where Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) awaits. After one last leer from the Devil with Yellow Eyes, David takes Ms. Bird’s hand, and – what do you mean the next episode isn’t for another week?!
Show runner Noah Hawley is in his usual fine form, with every line, shot, cut, and costume composed with the rigor of Fargo and the panache of The Unusuals. Catchy and eclectic soundtracks are another Hawley trademark, and here as well Legion lives up to its predecessors. The aesthetic genuflects to Pink Floyd even as the show defies viewers to place it in a recognizable historical moment. This appears to be intentional as well, both as a world-building and thematic choice: Asking when all this happens or whether it even happens in our universe distracts us from the more material how. Unfortunately every potential answer to the latter is terrifying; sharing David’s sense of dislocation is less frightening than considering he is in possession of an immense power that he cannot control.
We all construct our own realities, but what happens when you can bend reality – whether you want to or not? What happens when you can’t know whether your delusions manipulate your perceptions or the actual fabric of space-time? David’s power unmoors him from every dimension we rely on to make sense of our experiences – but of course, that’s the point. The combination of his power and mental illness keep him at a remove, inspiring a fear that reaches past allies and enemies into the world we like to call real. I wouldn’t want to have his power, but I can’t wait to see what he’ll do with it next.
- “My 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship Mental Health.”
- “Do you…wanna be my girlfriend?”
- “Okay. But don’t touch me.”
- “If he so much as farts too loud, we’re moving to Level Two.”
- “Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and then act surprised when she blows shit up.”
- “What’s so funny?”
“I’m insane, you idiot. This is my delusion.”
ODDS & ENDS
- Full disclosure: I haven’t read the Legion comics, although I have done some Internet research in preparation for the series. Any references to the comics will be sourced and linked for comics fans who care to check my work. If you haven’t read the comics either, CBR has a pretty good primer.
- Hawley has said the show won’t be a blow-by-blow recreation of Legion’s history or arcs, but he is trying to do justice to Sienkiewicz’s signature visual style. (Related: The Hair has been promised.)
- So far, the only nod to the X-Men aside from the X in the show’s title card is the yellow and blue color scheme of David’s pajamas. Hawley has suggested that the show takes place in one of X-Men’s alternate universes, but the title card suggests that the two worlds will eventually collide.
- I will not pretend to have any idea what was up with that dance sequence, but if you’re interested, it was set to “Pauvre Lola” by Serge Gainsbourg.
- The other two songs featured prominently were The Who’s “Happy Jack” (the opening montage) and The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” (David and Syd’s courtship). And yes, Sydney is named after Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.
- Legion opened with several Hawley show alum, and I’m hoping for more. The most notable appearances in this chapter are Jean Smart and Rachel Keller, who starred in Season 2 of Fargo as Floyd and Simone Gerhardt. Mackenzie Gray and Brad Mann have also appeared in Fargo and Hamish Linklater is slated for Season 3.
- Other notable cast members: Aubrey Plaza and Dan Stevens. Stevens played Matthew Crawley on Downtown Abbey. Plaza is probably best known for April Ludgate in Parks & Recreation and Daria in a briefly viral CollegeHumor trailer, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn she also voiced deadpan creepytwin Eska on The Legend of Korra.
- Hawley is a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and is also working on adapting Cat’s Cradle for FX.
- The ambulance parked in front of Clockworks after the incident bears the name Calvino, no doubt a nod to postmodern novelist Italo Calvino. My eyes are now peeled for a sly reference to The Nonexistent Knight.
- The character debuted in 1985, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. In the comics, David Haller/Legion suffers from multiple personality disorder – his name is based on the biblical story in which a group of demons possessing a human identify themselves as Legion – and each personality controls a different power. I think something similar is going on in the show (more on that in Fan Theories).
FAN THEORIES, or WHAT THE HELL I THINK IS GOING ON
- I don’t believe Sydney Barrett is real. Ditto for Rudy (Brad Mann) [I may have gotten the name wrong, but the telekinetic dude in black tactical wear]. My theory is that Sydney is a psychokinetic projection of one of David’s latent personalities, and that Rudy is either psychokinetic or hallucinatory projection of another latent personality. This would explain why Lenny and Dr. Kissinger both see Sydney, why David kissing her generates a concussive energy wave (as David suddenly adopts Sydney’s body and leaves a psychokinetic projection of David behind), and how David finds himself – body and mind – sitting in a chair previously occupied by “Sydney.” Both Sydney and Rudy demonstrate powers we already know David to possess – telepathy and telekinesis, respectively.
- The nature of David’s illness prevents him from recognizing these projections as aspects of his own mind.
- I’m on the fence about Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder). It’s 50/50 between them being additional latent personalities OR employees of Melanie Bird (whose existence I’m buying for the time being). They don’t seem to possess any mutant powers, but they do speak in a slightly stilted manner that seems more imagined than natural.
- At least some of David’s hallucinations aren’t hallucinations. He possesses the ability to reach into parallel universes (mentally if not physically) and what looks like unreality to viewers and squares is actually David accessing a world of (if you will) alternative facts. That Lenny’s reflection appears in a mirror that is out of David’s line of sight suggests to me that her existence is not a quirk of rogue brain chemistry.
- Chronology: David is sharing a house with girlfriend Philly and several housemates. After a bad fight, Philly storms off and David retreats to the kitchen, where his tumultuous emotions manifest in a poltergeist-type phenomenon that gives us a glimpse of The Devil with the Yellow Eyes. Shortly afterward he laces up an electric cord and tries to hang himself, which leads to his six-year occupancy of the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. The cupcake visit occurs in the fifth year of his tenure; after a time jump of less than a year he meets and befriends Syd Barrett. In the latter’s form he eventually convinces Dr. Kissinger to discharge them, performs the psychokinetic switch described above, and escapes the facility in year six. Nevertheless, the stress of Syd’s “departure” provokes the incident that kills Lenny and seals the ward. After approximately a week of freedom, David calls the hospital hoping to talk to Syd, only to be told that they have no record of any such patient. Ptonomy and Kerry try to pick him up, only to be intercepted by The Eye and his SWAT minions. David comes to in the interrogation room, vanishes his lunch tray, blows shit up, and gets knocked out and removed to the pool. From there he musters some nasty pyrokinesis and makes his daring escape.
- Every color signifies something. Pastels and sepia tones are childhood memories. Earth tones (muted oranges, yellows, and dull greens) recur throughout Clockworks, both on the inmates and in the décor. Syd’s overcoat and kerchief are also orange, suggesting she is inextricable from Clockworks even after she leaves. However, she carries a bright green suitcase which echoes the lime and then Kelly greens sported Amy Haller; these shades only appear on those free to leave the hospital. David is wearing gray when he loses control, first in the shared house kitchen and again during what I affectionately call the InterroBang. Fittingly, his latent personalities wear black – Sydney’s track jacket is black, as are the clothes she’s wearing the day she leaves the hospital. Dead Lenny is wearing a black tank top under beige overalls, a manifestation that he didn’t create from whole cloth because alive Lenny was real. The last colors that jumped out at me are also the hardest to parse: white and red. Both the interrogation room and the orderlies’ uniforms include broad, geometrically rigid blocks of white. I have no idea what this means. And when David exercises his power with great force, a lurid red glow suffuses the screen. This red glow also silhouettes the dog(?) sitting in a kennel in the government facility where David is interrogated, implying an as-yet unrevealed connection. Red also seems to accompany moments of profound anxiety, reverie, or dislocation: It features prominently in the house kitchen counters, the café tables and chairs, and of course the table in the interrogation room.