'Legion' is fascinating, even if you can't trust your own lying eyes

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 …

Credit: Chris Large/FX

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.


Credit: Chris Large/FX

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.


Credit: Chris Large/FX

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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Watched the first two episodes and really liked them. This is some next level stuff as far as superhero tv shows go.

I was wondering if the Syd Barrett character might be based on Rogue or Karma but then I started wondering if maybe all of these characters are just figments of Haller's imagination.

I'm impressed so far......but...
I worry if there is an audience/market and if they know to watch.
Are the apparent lack of 'villains' and the constant 'is it real or not' question enough to carry the narrative and the viewer?

Mrs M gave up very quickly in confusion and I wonder what the viewing figures will be for episode six, say, compared with the opening promise?

Those are good questions, Richard. I'm afraid I don't have much faith in my fellow Americans when it comes to discernment and taste, especially when it requires them to think, so I'm not optimistic.

But my wife and I loved the first two episodes, and are eager for the next.

Watched the most recent episode last night. I really like this show a lot and I hope it's able to survive despite being somewhat inaccessible to a general audience.

One question occurred to me last night though. What time period is the show set in? There are times when it seems ike the same weird 1970s universe that Fargo season 2 was set in and other times when it has more of a modern day look. More evidence that it's all happening inside Haller's mind maybe?

The guy in the crystal room was dressed like the '70s, but his musical tastes and dancing style was pure '50s Beatnik. There's a '70s vibe to the whole show, and suddenly I can't recall if anyone's used a cell phone or anything indicating the present.

It could be the showrunner just mixing decades to fuzzy the issue, or you're right, 'Tec -- it could be just how Haller sees the world, or maybe the whole show is in his head.

I think it's awesome that we don't know.

My wife and I just watched the fourth episode. We’re both enjoying it. It makes you pay attention and work to try to understand it. Kerry and Cary Loudermilk seem to be the same person(?). Cary (Bill Irwin) is part of the brain trust in the institution and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) is a trench-coated X-character. Hopefully we will get a little clarification at the end of the eight episodes. If Fargo is a guide, the story will wrap at the end of the season and a different, partially-related story will be in a hoped-for season two.

I’ve always loved Aubrey Plaza in everything I’ve watched. As you say, she is a scene-stealer. I don’t remember Dan Stevens in the Fargo show, but Jean Smart and Rachel Keller were both impressive in it.

The Oliver Bird character in the “astral plane,” wearing what I think is a leisure suit, asks if free love and lack of bras are still current, so I think it’s set in some time after the 70s. Offhand, I haven’t seen any cell phones, either. Perhaps the changes in size and appearance of cell phones is a distraction so they choose to omit them.

That is a '70s outfit on Bird (whom some will recognize as an actor from Flight of the Conchords), but not expressly a leisure suit, although it shares many qualities.

Gotham also doesn't do a specific time thing, like the 1989 Batman movie. You see cars, phones, clothes, technology and other time specifiers from all sorts of decades, going back at least to the '50s and maybe the '30s. In both cases, I think it's to maintain the gothic vibe that could give us a Batman instead of, say, Jetpackman. 

With Legion, though, I do think they're messing with our heads. Probably. Or maybe not. That's what I like about the show -- the uncertainty makes me think, and it deprives me of my usual techniques for guessing what's going to happen next. (Which can ruin things for me. I guessed the twist in The Usual Suspects in the initial interrogation scene. Without that central mystery, it was a pretty boring movie.)

I think what we're going to find out is that David really is a schizophrenic -- AND he's a powerful mutant and always has been. Lenny, The Angriest Boy In the World and the Yellow-Eyed Demon, I think, are just a few of his personalities. Which could mean that every scene where one of them shows up is in David's head. Or he might be able to manifest them.

That's the thing: Even if I'm right, it doesn't define anything, or prevent anything from happening, or predict what will happen next.

Some shows that start out weird descend into nonsense and become unwatchable.  This one is seriously addictive.

Last night's episode featured a pretty satisfying information dump. And it even came with pictures. Plus we saw a flashback that seemed to depict Professor X's wheelchair and confirmation about the identity of the parasite that lives in Haller's mind. All of it very artfully done. Great stuff! 

Another great episode last night. I guess it was the season finale. And just when things were really getting good. 

I can't believe this show ever got a green light. And I'm even more shocked that it's been renewed for a 10 episode season 2.  Can't wait to see what they come up with next.

I missed the wheelchair. Amal Farouhk, the Shadow King, is right out of the comics. Fun stuff!

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