Watching Legion is work. I’m going to be clear about that right now. It’s rewarding work, but it’s an effort to keep your realities straight. Channeling the layered realities found in movies like “Inception” or ::insert David Lynch movie here:: or the Thirteenth Floor, this show piles on the mental realms like a multi-tiered wedding cake of chaotic mutant shenanigans! The talents in cinematography, vision, tone and performances summoned for this show by Noah Hawley hot of the ridiculously great show Fargo are not lost on the more fantastically-natured but just as grounded and real Marvel material here.
The character of Legion AKA David Haller (whose depth and range of character is expertly handled by Dan Stevens) has a long but rather less well known history in the Marvel universe. A child of Professor X in the comics, he grows to be considered one of the most powerful mentally-powered mutants in existence. And this power is so great it influences how his show is presented to the viewer! His power lets him absorb a person’s consciousness into his own mind. When he does, an alternate personality is formed and he is able to use the absorbed person’s superhuman abilities when that personality is dominant. As a result, he suffers from severe dissociative identity disorder, leaving him never quite sure who he really is or what his true reality is like. The show has started us in a mental hospital where David is being treated, but the reality of what he sees and who he interacts with is strained. The viewers objective viewpoint comes from the agency that breaks him out and uses their own telepath to map his mind and help him to control and use his powers to fight governments and organizations that seek to harm mutants.
He develops a relationship with most literally in-accessible woman ever, Syd Barret (Rachel Kelley of Fargo acclaim), a mutant who swaps bodies with anyone she touches physically, which of course adds to David’s already stressful existence. But what they lack in physical contact and passion, they make up for in relationship development and growth as people. And that is where this show really diverges from other superhero shows and films. Instead of a race from plot point to plot point, and battle scene to battle scene, the show mostly ignores that in favor of taking its time and pacing itself. The show allows itself time breathe and have moments in long, extended shots, and long extended conversations, focusing on the brief moments when David is able to connect to the people and world around him (the real world that is) before he is thrust back, often times violently and with jarring disillusion to himself and the viewer, into the psyches of those he has absorbed. This occurs either by will or circumstance, as he is often forced to defend himself against the evil Division 3 as he searches for his sister, or agains the creepy doctors after him, or even against the driven but compassionate leader of their mutant band, Melanie Bird (played by the amazing and the illustrious Jean Smart), as their team probes his psyche to find its powers, limits, strengths, and weaknesses, (and secretly to find Melanie’s husband Oliver, lost for 20 years on the astral plane!).
A real standout is Aubrey Plaza as David’s psychotic, manipulative, and violent super powered alterego Lenny (or Benny? as David is now unsure as to who she really was). She goads his more sadistic and chaotic impulses along, challenging him to let her side out and play with his power. In a world full of attempted control that David must face, she is the delightfully mad and playful antithetical reaction to it all, and some of the best scenes in the show involve their interaction.
The plot is compelling but not rushed, as in between attempts to control, capture, or probe David, he is allowed to explore himself and his relationship with Syd. Already a few episodes in, their is confusion, heartbreak, mystery and a few laughs. Expect the same quality of filming, music use, editing, special effects and acting from both the main and supporting cast that were present in Noah Hawley’s Fargo in his outing with Legion. They are all insanely high. The only problem is that it verges on the too chaotic, disjointed, and unreliably narrated sometimes, pushing the viewer from having to piece things together to perhaps being a bit frustrated ( like the jump from the tolerable craziness of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive to the absolutely insane and hard to watch Inland Empire). But that may just be this reviewer getting pushed out of his comfort zone. The villains have not been rounded out yet, but hints of their deeper dimensions and more to come are abound. And then there is the elusive symbolism of the Angry Boy and the Fat Man, evil looking beings that inhabit David’s mind. Can’t nail down what they mean yet or what they are hiding, but like I said, this show is cerebral work with emotional payoff. Be sure to watch it on the FX channel!