A lot of things have been deemed unadaptable but have been adapted anyway: Watchmen, High Rise, Dune, but Legion wants to go one better. Legion has an entire character whose comic book counterpart is less of a character than an all-powerful Deus Ex Machina. David Haller: aka Legion is the illegitimate son of Professor X and possibly the most powerful mutant in the X-men live action universe. He’s more of a plot device in the comics so for him to be the protagonist in Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchises first small screen attempt at grabbing some of that sweet sweet Defenders/Arrowverse money is a bold move. Don’t worry though, Fox has put Noah Hawley in charge: a showrunner that looks at challenges like Legion and thinks “piece of cake”. So far so obvious shared universe potential. Yet as I have already said, a few times now, Haller isn’t the most commercially viable hero that Fox could have built a show around, but with Hawley at the helm Legion, on the evidence of Chapter One, could be a new breed of superhero show.
To understand Legion it would be prudent to say what it’s not. It’s not your typical superhero origin story, with a pilot with the sole purpose to acclimatise the viewer to the hero and the city, or world that they are tasked with protecting like Arrow or The Flash. It us not an episodic caper with our hero taking on and defeating costumed villains with wacky gimmicks (there’s a time and a place for that, and it’s not on FX). Instead, Legion is a serialised Russian doll narrative with Dan Stevens as David Haller at the eye of a storm he might be responsible for.
Chapter One is 67 minutes of television designed to keep we the audience, and David, guessing just what exactly is going on. Written and directed by Hawley, it may be the most ambitious pilot since The Walking Dead’s introduction. Like David, we only have certain characters and settings to ground us in the action: David is in a psychiatric ward, then he is being interrogated by suits that may or may not be part of the government, he is questioned about the disappearance of a woman who might not actually exist. During all of this David suffers from hallucinations, never knowing if what he is experiencing is real or not, and, by extension, neither do we.
This kind of disorientation is achieved by Hawley by a use of various techniques starting with costuming. Never has what characters are wearing been so important, since the colour purple in Breaking Bad at least. The costuming of each character is important because it tells us nothing, it doesn’t point to a recognisable era of fashion meaning that it could be anyone’s guess when the show is actually set. David’s sister dresses in a sixties style, while Aubrey Plaza comments that Syd Barret (Rachael Keller) has moxy, as the kids of today call it. Then there are the hints that the how is taking place in the present, the high tech equipment used by the organisation that interrogates David as one example.
Then there’s the series visual identity which is just as schizophrenic as David believes he is. Never has a show worked so hard to portray the visual life of its main character. Of course there will be criticisms about the shows portrayal of mental health, that making it the basis for a powerful mutants origin story trivialises those who suffer from it, and in a way there is no way that the show can escape that. Except this is an X-Men story, a comic, and a cast of characters that represent societies outsiders, as many people who suffer from mental health problems can empathise with this point of view. I’m not saying that people won’t find problems with the shows use of mental health, but genres like science fiction have always used this type of dressed up story-telling to create discourse for issues like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m basing this on the first episode, Legion has seven more in which it is possible to drop the ball, but I remain optimistic.
While watching Chapter One it was easy to forget that I was watching the beginning of a story, due to all of the narrative gaps, and an almost Burroughs’s technique of cutting up the narrative. So what does the first episode tell us? David is possibly the most powerful mutant on the planet, he doesn’t know this, people think that he killed Syd, and he thinks that he switched bodies with her leading her to unleash his power due to the panic caused by this swap leading to the inmates of Clockwork being trapped in their rooms. We don’t see David and Syd switch back. After saving David from the mysterious organisation Syd professes her love for David. There is so much crucial information missing, information that David needs to understand his new situation. The job of the next seven episodes is to keep us interested in find out what all of this means.
9/10 – Chapter One is a tremendous pilot but Hawley may need to reign in all of this intrigue to keep viewer in the loop. That said, no other TV show so far this year has offered anything as interesting, head scratching, and downright thrilling as Legion. Let’s hope this continues.