FX’s Legion features an X-Men related character with strong ties to Marvel’s team of mutant heroes, but it does not contain Wolverine’s infamous snikt sound or Deadpool’s potty humor. This slow burning series is a deep dive into the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens formerly Downton Abbey’s Cousin Matthew Crawley). Legion continuously hits you with blasts of psychic drama that may leave you perplexed.
Part of the genius and frustration of Legion is the show’s protagonist is an unreliable narrator. This is something that fans of Mr. Robot, another show featuring a lead also suffering from mental health issues, experience on a regular basis. By the end of three episodes viewers are still trying to discern whether David is a mutant savior, a deeply disturbed individual or quite possibly something else altogether.
Legion’s pilot opens with a View-Master style retelling of David’s life from infancy through his commitment to the Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital. The 65 minute pilot takes you on a series of disjointed and non-linear misadventures told from David’s perspective. Keeping David (and by extension the audience) grounded in reality is his love for fellow psychiatric patient Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller – FX’s version of Fargo) and his sister Amy (The League’s Katie Aselton).
Unlike Mr. Robot, Legion provides the tools needed to start understanding David’s psyche fairly quickly. During the last five minutes of the pilot, David is introduced to Melanie Bird (Jean Smart from Designing Women) and her mutant saving crusaders dubbed Summerland. Think X-Men minus the costumes and supersonic vehicles like their SR-71 Blackbird. David’s journey down the Summerland rabbit hole begins with a ‘memory work’ session conducted by Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris) in episode two. Ptonomy’s mutant ability to delve into someone’s memories allows Melanie to begin deciphering the riddle of David Haller’s brain.
Mutant powers may be the engine driving the plot, but Legion never allows the audience to forget the characters’ emotional entanglements. At its core the series is about a young man struggling with very relatable issues such as love, understanding and acceptance. The pacing of chapters two and three allow David and Sydney to further explore their burgeoning relationship in between Ptonomy’s memory sessions. These sessions also help the individuals at Summerland understand David’s reliance upon his sister Amy even though she is not a mutant. David attempts to buy into Melanie’s mission, but is occasionally derailed by his own personal Jiminy Cricket, Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation).
Legion’s ties to the X-Men franchise appear to be tenuous after three episodes. However the character’s comic book version has been the impetus behind several major X-Men storylines including The Age of Apocalypse. Legion debuted in The New Mutants issue 25 in 1985; he was created by legendary X-Men scribe Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. The character has been brimming with psychic powers from his inception, but writers (including Claremont) often treated David like a McGuffin. Legion received a bit more agency when the character starred in a solo title (X-Men: Legacy) written by Simon Spurrier; the title ran from 2013-2014. Individuals who have read Spurrier’s X-Men: Legacy series may notice some thematic overlap with the Legion television series.
The showrunner Noah Hawley is no stranger to developing television series that borrows from a franchise’s mythology; he also oversees FX’s Fargo. The connective tissue between the X-Men films and Legion appears to be non-existent, but it is clear the production team enjoys using X-Men archetypes. Melanie Bird appears to be heavily influenced by the scientist version of Moira MacTaggert that appeared for decades in various titles. The comic book version of Dr. MacTaggert oversaw a Summerland-like mutant research facility. Sydney Barrett’s mutant ability is similar to Rogue’s power set; Barrett is able to swap bodies with someone through skin contact.
Based on the first three episodes of Legion, this series is not for television viewers yearning for something that resembles an X-Men film (or even other Marvel television shows). Legion has visual language and pacing that is unlike any other comic book property currently airing. Viewers must be willing to wield a psychic scalpel in order to untangle David Haller’s story. Individuals with little affinity for the X-Men (or the superhero genre) may like the show’s science fiction and psychological aspects, especially if you love films like Memento. Comic fans such as me who are steeped in X-Men lore will enjoy Legion; it is fun trying to determine which bits of continuity are being repackaged for the show. Legion may not be the superhero show you were expecting but it is worth viewing. Be patient and enjoy the long strange trip into David Haller’s mind.