By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
An unreliable narrator is an interesting storytelling device. But Fox’s Legion, which premiered Feb. 8, takes that idea to an extreme – with an unreliable reality.
Legion is the story of twentysomething David Haller (Dan Stevens) who, unfortunately, is an inmate of a psychiatric institute. As the story progresses, various flashbacks show that Haller sees and hears things that aren’t there. He spends his time in the day room waiting for meals and medication with a chatterbox girl named Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), whose upbeat personality belies her drug and alcohol addictions. Then arrives a girl named Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), with whom Haller is immediately smitten. Despite a fear of being touched – presumably haphephobia is why she is institutionalized – Syd agrees to be Haller’s girlfriend.
But when they do touch (a kiss, actually), something very strange happens. Well, more than strange. Violent. Inexplicable. And pretty lethal for just about everyone around them. Which leads Haller to the realization that the things he sees and hears might really be there – in fact, he might be the most powerful mutant alive. And he’s being watched …
Rachel Keller (left) stars as Syd Barrett (played by Rachel Keller, left) and David Haller (Dan Stevens) hold “hands” by holding a sash between them, because Syd can’t stand being touched.
Or not. Ha ha! That’s the beauty of the show – not only can Haller not trust what he sees and hears, neither can the audience. Some scenes are shown more than once, with different outcomes. Sometimes Haller is a very powerful mutant being rescued from government clutches by other mutants, sometimes he lives in a very ordinary world where that’s a fantasy.
And, yes, it’s a superhero show. Don’t look for capes and tights, though, because you won’t find any. As Marvel’s Stan Lee proved in the 1960s, “superhero” isn’t a genre, but a vehicle for telling all kinds of stories. And this one is a psychological thriller – with (maybe) super-powers.
Legion is based on a character from Marvel’s X-Men line of books (the word “mutant” was probably a tip-off), who is the son of Charles “Professor X” Xavier and a woman he had an affair with before he formed the X-Men. In both the comics and movies, Xavier had the most powerful mutant mind on earth.
Until David Haller was introduced, that is, in 1985. Haller was so powerful he could re-shape reality with his mind. The catch was that he was caught in a terrorist attack while still a young boy, which activated his powers prematurely – killing all the terrorists, but absorbing many of the minds present into his own. That resulted in dissociative identity disorder. It also left him catatonic.
It got worse when he woke up in his twenties, because his psyche was fractured, and each of the personalities in his head manifested his psionic ability as a different super-power. He’s a powerful telepath when the terrorist Jemail Karami is in the driver’s seat. When he calls himself “Jack Wayne” he’s an aggressive telekinetic. A little girl named Cyndi is a firestarter. And so forth. That led to his being tagged “Legion,” after the guy in the Bible who, possessed by a multitude of demons, tells Jesus “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:9).
So, yeah, the most powerful mutant on earth was a nutter.
David Haller had a lot of adventures in various comics, from New Mutants to X-Men: Legacy, each more bizarre than the last. For the most part, he was usually the villain of the piece, as one personality or another started wreaking havoc and various configurations of X-Men would rise to stop him. Many such stories took place entirely on the psychic plane – in Haller’s mind, that is – and a couple of them resulted in his death.
Yeah, death. But he’d get better. He does, after all, have a lot of different “lives” to play with.
Not that any of this is significant for the TV show, which uses the Legion stories in the comics as inspiration more than holy writ. The show is nominally connected to the X-Men film series, at least in spirit, but I wouldn’t expect Deadpool or Wolverine to drop in for a visit. Maybe Haller’s dad will show up, played by either James McAvoy (young Professor X) or Patrick Stewart (old Professor X), which would be pretty awesome.
But even if one of those fine actors agreed to a guest appearance, would it be “real”? Or would it all be in David’s mind? Maybe one of his personalities trying on David’s body for size and taking it for a wheelchair ride?
All of this uncertainty could make for a confusing and off-putting show. But it’s brought to us by Noah Hawley, who also developed Fargo for television. And if you’ve ever watched that show, you know that Hawley can do weird but still make it coherent. I don’t know if we’ll get UFOs in Legion, too, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Hawley does give us a bunch of new characters, although if you watched Fargo some of the actors will ring a bell. Jean Smart (who plays Melanie Bird) and Keller are both Fargo veterans.
Smart’s character is still mostly a mystery, but she seems like a Professor X stand-in, someone protecting mutants – if she’s real, that is, and not just a figment of Haller’s mind. But she’s the one who sketches out the alternative reading of Haller’s, uh, situation.
Jean Smart plays Melanie Bird, who is the leader of mutant freedom fighters. Probably.
“David, your whole life people told you that were sick,” she says, according to TVfanatic.com. “What if I told you that's a lie? What if I told you, every memory you have of mental illness – voices, hallucinations – was just your power? And what if I could do more than just tell you? What if I could show you? Help you re-write the story of your life?”
Keller’s character, interestingly, is named for Syd Barrett, the original leader of Pink Floyd. It’s no surprise that Pink Floyd’s The Wall could serve as inspiration for Legion, given that it explores themes of abandonment, isolation, physical abuse and drug abuse.
And Barrett’s fear of being touched is, at least in one scene, the result of having a super-power that is activated by skin-to-skin contact. That probably sounds familiar to fans of Rogue, the X-Man (X-Woman? X-Person?) who absorbs memories, minds and super-powers uncontrollably from those she touches. No, I don’t think Barrett is Rogue. She’s probably more of an echo of Rogue, a parallel that should make X-Men fans feel at home.
Then there’s Lenny, who appeared to die in the premiere episode but happily will be around for a while. (“Stop looking at me like that, man. I know, I’m dead – you killed me. And I gotta say: Not cool, man.”) Not only does actress Aubrey Plaza steal every scene she’s in, but she and series star Stevens really do “unbalanced” well. Both seem mostly normal, but the twitches, the manic energy – there’s always something a little off about them.
Aubrey Plaza plays the recently deceased, but still really talkative, Lenny “Cornflakes” Busker.
So we have the oddness of Fargo, related by an unreliable narrator living in an unreliable reality. And while the usual Legion posse from the comics isn’t in evidence – Professor X, Rogue, Legion girlfriend Blindfold – we do get other characters who fill those slots. And when Bird shows up, she does so with super-powered mutants who engage in combat with mysterious, black-ops troops, supplying the necessary spectacle.
In short, Legion is a show unlike any other; one that set a record as the most time-shifted FX series premiere ever within the first three days (according to FX); and brought to us by an experienced showrunner, great writing and fine actors.
At least, I think it is. Because the show, this column and my entire life could all be taking place in David Haller’s mind.
Not cool, man.
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I'm watching episode 5 now and have the rest of them. It's pretty great.
FX is the network that brought us American Horror Story, The Americans, The Strain and Fargo, among others. This network has a lot of guts.
One of my favorite things about the show: All of the great new characters it has introduced into the X-universe. Much more interesting than anything we've seen in the comics probably since Grant Morrison's run.
They already did!
Doctor Hmmm? said:
So mindbending and enjoyable. It demands that you keep up. FX is crazy (sorry) if it doesn't renew this one.
We watched the last four episodes on Friday. It all made sense after we were introduced to the Shadow King. I loved the car trip ending
Especially since we know it's not the end of the series. Plus, Aubrey Plaza continues! She steals every scene she's in.
Legion returns on Tuesday, April 3.