Legion is the greatest superhero origin story ever told on TV
The mind is a powerful and terrifying place. It can trap you in deceptive, winding corridors and erase the exits, all while muddling your ability to decipher time, reality, and the truth. Imagine, for a moment, you start hearing voices. Then, inanimate objects begin moving on their own, and you suddenly have visions of people and places. This would be pretty terrifying, right? You and your family and friends would probably think you'd need treatment of some kind—pills and therapy, to make the voices and visions go away.
It's from this perspective that the viewer enters Legion, the new X-Men series on FX that's unlike any superhero story told on television. The hero, David Haller, is a mental patient who has been placed under the care of doctors to treat his schizophrenia. But, despite this setting, he might have the most logical response of any young superhero to his sudden mysterious powers. When he makes the objects of a room orbit around himself with his mind, the doctors tell him he had a psychotic episode—something any rational person would believe. Our mind is trained to protect itself, and being crazy is more logical than being magical. So David takes his pills, eats his hospital food, does the therapy, and tries to ignore the visions.
And to tell this story, Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley has created a surreal world that defies timelines and traditional linear structure, on in which its unreliable narrator can't tell the difference between reality, his powers, or his mind screwing with him. In a TV and film landscape oversaturated by superheroes, Legion is by far the most ambitious of them all. It's told between illogical jumps in setting and time with David Lynch-ian hallucinations and even a dance number more meme-able than Ex Machina's. David, normally strapped to a chair with probes on his head, is played by a twitchy and anxious Dan Stevens. He's been drugged into submission by therapists, with whom he's actually working to get better. The real villain here is his own mind.
You're meant to be as confused as the main character. You should be constantly questioning what and who you're seeing. Is his junkie, pessimist friend and fellow patient Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) actually there? How about his hospital-bound love interest Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who refuses to be touched and was named after Pink Floyd's original singer, who was briefly institutionalized? Do you know what year it is? The clothes, the technology, the sets—they are all from some ambiguous era that could be anytime between the near future and the late-'60s. We hardly even know how this fits into the X-Men canon. Is Legion the son of X-Men leader Professor X, as he is in the comics? That's another mystery to add to the list.
For all the rules that it transcends, Legion gets trapped when it reveals the truth of the story. It feels all too soon that at the conclusion of the first episode he breaks out of the institution to begin his hero training. That One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest setting is gone, replaced by your traditional Secret Superhero Compound, which seems boring by comparison. I get why: FX probably thought an entire season of this guy trapped in a hospital not knowing if he was insane or gifted wouldn't fly. And even though the next two episodes largely take place in David's mind, they feel so traditional after the groundbreaking debut episode.
Given the narrator's unstable condition, however, there's still much more opportunity for Legion to trick and deceive its audience. Even thematically, Legion has much more to explore. Like Jessica Jones used the superhero genre to explore feminism and abuse, Legion addresses mental health in an honest way. Even with the hospital far behind, there's a lot of potential in Legion's deceptive world. Let's just hope it stays weird.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.