San Diego Comic-Con 2016 was a great time for fans. The Walking Dead’s trailer for the seventh season promised something great that would hopefully make up for the Season Six cliffhanger ending.
Marvel Studios introduced The Defenders and officially confirmed the news we all knew- that Brie Larson had been cast as Carol Danvers. And DC, in addition to showing a trailer for Wonder Woman, gave a surprise look at the upcoming Justice League film.
But never mind that. My eyes were glued to Legion: an X-Men series coming to FX. And the reason for my focus on this all had to do with one man: Noah Hawley. Mr. Hawley won me over with his two seasons of Fargo, so to hear that he would be writing an X-Men television show excited me more than anything from the DC Extended Universe, Marvel Cinematic Universe, or other world.
It helped that the X-Men themselves, as far as films go, were in an odd position. Deadpool surpassed expectations, X-Men: Apocalypse made money, but wasn’t as well-received as Days of Future Past, though I enjoyed the film myself. Aside from Deadpool sequels leading to X-Force and Josh Boone directing an upcoming New Mutants film, it didn’t seem that there was a lot on the horizon for the X-Men.
Then Legion came along and the trailer looked like something we hadn’t seen before from most comic book based shows or films with the possible exceptions of Preacher and Doctor Strange. And FX itself has been on a roll lately with its programming, so the idea of Hawley bringing his writing abilities not just to another FX series, but an X-Men one at that, seemed pretty interesting.
Despite the back and forth on whether Legion would or wouldn’t address or be a part of the film universe, and even the odd notion that this show would be part of the MCU, I was still excited regardless of whether this show would acknowledging that David Haller is Charles Xavier’s son, as well as the rest of Haller’s connection to X-Men canon. Hawley has shown that he is a good writer, so I was in no matter the continuity.
But I’ve gushed enough. It’s time to sit down, put your brains to work, and jump into the mind of David Haller. Let’s take a look at Legion.
The series begins with, of all things, a young boy going through the phases of his life. This is David Haller, and let’s watch as he grows up, wrecks police cruisers with his mind, and is eventually given prescriptions to deal with the voices in his heads. Oh, and he’s had a brush with suicide as well. All to the sound of “Happy Jack” by The Who.
We then end up at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital as David, played by Dan Stevens, speaks with his sister, Amy, played by Katie Aselton, who has come to give him a birthday cupcake. He can’t have it, though, so Amy tastes it herself. David doesn’t even get a party or better drugs. Some birthday, indeed. To him, today is just the 260th Thursday on the Mental Health cruise ship..
Amy is certain that David is getting better at dealing with the voices and seeing things that aren’t there. David wants to come home, but his doctor maintains that if David believes he’s seeing people that aren’t there, then he is, in fact, crazy. Amy offers to talk with the doctors on David’s behalf, but that won’t be happening now. As David is taken away for his meds, he tells his sister that something needs to happen soon.
As David is wheeled into the hospital, all while having flashes and seeing what may or may not be there, he’s saddled next to Lenny Busker, played by Aubrey Plaza, and the two observe a drooling specimen. Lenny is torn on whether the drool is spit or possibly yogurt. Requires further research, I’m sure.
The two then spot a woman heading into the main room to receive her meds. This is Sydney Barrett, played by Rachel Keller…and you know what? Let’s just stick with Syd. Anyway, Lenny admires Syd’s hair and ass, she finds her a tad jittery. David rushes out of his wheelchair and over to Syd, but his attempt to give her a Twizzler ends with him getting far too close and bumping into her. She leaves in a rush.
That evening, as David sleeps, he hears the voice of his doctor, who asks him how he feels. David feels and is having visions of a devil with yellow eyes. The thoughts become so intense that David’s bed, now in the air, comes crashing down. This noise gets the attention of doctors who rush in and sedate David.
The next day, David, Lenny, and other patients have a session with Dr. Kissinger, played by David Ferry, when Syd joins the session. She’s not here to contribute, though- she’d prefer everyone continue talking so they can keep pretending their problems are just in their heads. However, she does say that David is probably here because someone told him that he wasn’t normal. But hey, Einstein and Picasso weren’t normal either.
To Syd, maybe David’s so-called problems aren’t problems at all or even in his head. She talks of magazine cartoons where a man is on an island with a single palm tree. She thinks often of when people say go to your happy place. In essence, maybe people are wrong when they call the likes of Syd crazy. Maybe those things, the voices they hear- that’s what makes them who they are.
Because he must be bold, David asks Syd if she’ll be his girlfriend. And like that, she agrees. There’s one caveat: David can’t touch her. According to Syd’s file, she doesn’t like to be touched, even though animals apparently need physical contact to feel love. Syd welcomes David to find her at dinner.
At dinner, the two bond as Syd tells David all about her dislikes: for example, she doesn’t like orange or cherry-flavored things. Oddly specific. Later that evening, when the two are alone, Syd tells David that after the sun goes down and the light is right, if you un-focus your eyes, and then look back out, you see how the hospital disappears and it’s like watching yourself outside. David implores Syd to hold still and look out the window.
He closes his eyes and begins to focus as he hears a voice asking him about a girl who was taken. David is certain that there was a hospital and that Syd is real woman, but according to The Interrogator, played by Hamish Linklater, tells David the hospital has no records of Syd ever being a patient and Kissinger probably won’t back David’s story anyway.
More than that, The Interrogator just wants to focus on David’s schizophrenia. The Interrogator hypothesizes that David’s state of mind is due to his illness.
We cut to Kissinger telling David that his job is to assess whether David is a threat to others or himself, given that he did try to commit suicide. David then goes into his history: he was expelled from college and wasn’t thinking straight most of the time. The anger and voices in his head drove him mad.
As for his suicide attempt, David tells Kissinger that the voices didn’t tell him to tie the knot and try to hang himself. Hell, they tried to stop him. Though David survived, police still found rope burns on his neck. David feels better now, but he’s asked if he feels he can control things with his mind.
The Interrogator asks David if he could control things, and this prompts David to ask if he’s being accused of Syd’s death. He isn’t. For now. The Interrogator just wants the truth.
The episode flashes back to David in his bed as he dreams of Syd, who soon joins him in his room. She tells him to remain under the covers while she sleeps on top of the sheets with a divider between them. Turns out Syd will be getting out soon since Kissinger has said she’s clear. She wants David to get better so she can leave, too. David goes in for a kiss, but Syd recoils. Remember, no touching.
In the present, The Interrogator asks why David didn’t touch Syd. Well, it was a mental hospital, so it might not have felt right. When David is granted a break, The Interrogator leaves the room, walks through a drained swimming pool, and ends up in a gym where soldiers are arming themselves.
The Interrogator speaks with a man who is observing the interrogation. The Interrogator tells the man that David has had a spike in telepathic activity. David may know that he’s crazy, but part of him knows that his power is real. And if the readings are correct, David Haller may be the most powerful mutant ever encountered. After what happened in Red Hook, that’s a bit of an understatement.
The problem is that David doesn’t fully understand or know how to control his power, so some, including the old man here, believe David should be killed before he realizes what he is. The Interrogator at least wants to give David until the end of the day. After all, there hasn’t been a study like him before. But if things go south, David is to be moved to Level Two.
David, meanwhile, asks if he can be left alone, but the man in the room with him just leaves him a dog figurine before leaving David in the room by himself.
We flash back to David arguing with his girlfriend he continues to hear voices. He manages to silence them, but not for long as the kitchen begins to rumble and, in seconds, everything goes haywire. Drawers, cabinets, everything opens and kitchenware explodes and flies all around him. David cowers in fear, but he soon spots a blob with yellow eyes staring at him.
The Interrogator returns with some doctors in order to read David’s brain while they talk. He implores for calm, saying that he’s afraid for David since he’s off his meds and could be a danger to both himself and others around him. David believes that the doctors are afraid of him, but he does agree to have the electrodes placed on his head. He then begins to tell The Interrogator about a certain incident.
We flash back to Syd about to leave the facility. Dr. Kissinger tells her that she can leave David a note. As he escorts her out, they’re interrupted by Lenny, who needs a minute to talk with Syd about lady stuff. This lady stuff up being about a new candy bar that Lenny would love Syd to but and mail to her.
Then David rushes in just as Syd tells him that she was looking for him. Against Syd’s request, he goes in for the kiss. In a flash, after David sees a field of televisions, the world goes topsy-turvy and the two are knocked backwards.
The facility is put on mandatory lockdown. Doctors restrain David while Kissinger whisks Syd away. As the doctors try to restrain David, a red hue overtakes the room as everything goes dark. David soon sees the blob creature again.
At the same time, Kissinger leaves Syd alone in a small infirmary. With new curiosity, Syd observes her hands, heads to the mirror, and…starts cradling her breasts.
This is where The Interrogator cuts off David, who insists that he ended up switching bodies with Syd due to her powers, which would explain why she doesn’t like being touched. Ah, okay. Objects in the interrogation room begin to rattle as a frustrated David tells The Interrogator to leave, but The Interrogator wants David to continue.
So back in the past, Kissinger joins Syd, unaware that it’s actually David. Syd, meanwhile, in David’s body, is freaking out. Kissinger and Syd soon head down a hallway that is now bereft of doors, but not room numbers. The two continue to hear screams from within the walls, but they soon find the dead body of Lenny sticking halfway out of the wall. Back in the present, The Interrogator asks David if Syd has any extra-sensory powers.
Kissinger takes Syd outside, though she insists that Syd herself is still in the facility. As the two leave, they spot several people, The Interrogator apparently among them, exiting a limousine.
David confronts The Interrogator on whether he was one of the people who exited the limousine. The Interrogator denies this and and demands that David tell him about the people in the limousine, but David begins to lose control again. How much? Well, he sends The Interrogator’s pen into the man’s cheek.
David rises and turns the interrogation cell upside down as everything and everyone within goes haywire. David seems satisfied with what he’s done, but then he gets the gas.
The story continues as we hear the voice of David’s mother. David, still as Syd, eventually regains control of his own body. He heads off with Syd’s suitcase.
He ends up at Amy’s place and tells her that he’s been released, so now he needs a place to stay for awhile. Amy is surprised, but agrees. She runs it past her husband, Ben, played by Matt Hamilton, who is also fine with this new arrangement.
After feasting on some waffles- Eleven would be proud of him- David is taken to a setup downstairs in the basement. Amy instructs him not to answer the phone. As David gets himself settled, he gets a visit from Lenny’s ghost. She insists that she’s not upset about David killing her.
And it’s not Syd’s fault because she was just a passenger in David’s body. Lenny isn’t too bothered about her death. She would’ve just kept popping pills. Besides, David has enough problems on his hands because people who know about the hospital incident are coming for him. In addition, because of what Syd did while she was in David’s body, David himself is in deep shit.
The shit is so deep that it causes David to destroy the basement lamp. This gets Amy’s attention and she heads downstairs to discover what David has done. And in a moment I can’t help but love, she removes all of the gardening tools.
Then, David, Syd, and the rest of the inmates take part in a dance number.
Okay. Syd implores David to wake up and he does as we return to the present and find David in a now filled pool surrounded by The Interrogator and some guards. If David pulls any funny stuff, he’ll get 100,000 volts. David laughs, calling this a delusion. The Interrogator tells David that Syd was taken under the assumption that she was David.
David insists that he did go looking for Syd. To prove that, the episode then flashes back to David using a pay phone and calling the hospital to learn about Syd, as he’s pretending to be her father. However, the hospital has no records of Syd. David then notices two people- two of the same that exited the limo- following him.
He manages to give them the slip, but then he spots Syd’s face on someone else’s head- some real Voldemort shit here- and soon Syd herself appears and tells him not to stop. Thing is Syd’s not really here. This is just the memory of the day David called the hospital and Syd has been projected into his memory, where his pursuers can’t track him. The agents speaking to him aren’t cops, either.
As for the current pool situation, Syd tells David to slide out of his chair get in the water, and wait until he sees her. Before David can do anything else, he’s hauled into a van.
Back in the present, The Interrogator asks David about the two people who chased him. David realizes that the third person who exited the limo wasn’t The Interrogator, but a woman. When asked about where Syd is, David tells The Interrogator that he’s about to find out. With that, David slides into the water. This prompts the guards to open fire and there’s soon an explosion. Charred skeletons land in the pool.
When David emerges, he finds Syd waiting for him, along with the two people who pursued him: Ptonomy Wallace, played by Jeremie Harris, and Kerry Loudermilk, played by Amber Midthunder. Syd, wearing gloves, reminds David not to touch her skin.
The four exit through a hole in the wall and enter a war zone as they duck and dodge gunfire. As the group reaches the bottom of the hill, David implores Syd to stop and asks if any of this is real. What if they’re just back at the hospital and none of this happened? Syd insists that she and everything happening around David is real. She even came back for David because she loves him.
And it’s here that Syd introduces David to the other woman who exited the limousine: Melanie Bird, played by Jean Smart. Melanie beckons David to take her hand, and as David spots the yellow-eyed blog yet again, he takes Melanie’s hand as the episode comes to a close.
Wow. This is a fantastic start for Legion and while I was left scratching my head many times, knowing this will require a second, maybe even third watch, this was a great pilot.
I’ll come out and admit that aside from knowing that David Haller is Charles Xavier’s son, more on that connection in a bit, I know next to nothing about this creation from the minds of Bill Sienkiewicz and Chris Claremont. And to be honest, that doesn’t seem to matter.
As products like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, just to name a few, have shown, some of the most memorable superhero or comic book based properties can come from those that don’t even feel like they’re based on comic books.
Hell, even on the Netflix side of things, Daredevil often feels like a crime drama and Jessica Jones is a noir. The main characters just happened to be based on prior source material.
So despite the word ‘mutant’ being name-dropped once and only once, despite David’s abilities, I get the sense that Legion wasn’t made exclusively for X-Men fans. It’s made for those who like drama, science fiction, and people who enjoy a look at the psychological.
And I’ll admit my bias towards the man based on his prior work, but Noah Hawley is a great pick for this. Fargo alone is proof that Hawley is a great writer, can deal with an ensemble cast, give them complex material, and make a compelling piece of television. With him on board, he’s given us a very unique comic book based property that doesn’t feel like any other adaptation right now.
We have certain expectations of superhero and comic based properties nowadays. The street-level MCU programs we get on Netflix are a departure from what we get on network television like Agents of SHIELD, Gotham, or any of the many Greg Berlanti-created programs. While those programs are good in their own ways, they often tend to follow set patterns and conventions.
Legion, though, isn’t interested in conventions. Rather, it breaks them. Hell, the show killed Aubrey Plaza in the pilot. Now I know she’ll appear again, but it’s still a bold move. The show is non-linear, not everything gets explained right away, if at all, our protagonist doesn’t see himself as a hero and isn’t even sure what’s real, and the approach in storytelling, whether in its script or visuals, set it apart from the other comic properties.
What’s more, it helps that this show isn’t tied to any continuity. While SHIELD likes to play up the ‘It’s all connected’ game and act like it’s still relevant within the MCU, Legion, despite the conflicting reports we received, is not interested in the continuity established by the X-Men films.
Could the show eventually tie into the films? Yeah, I suppose, but right now, there’s no need. And not being bound by any pre-established plot allows Legion to stand on its own and tell a unique story.
And that great storytelling is complimented by equally impressive visuals and cinematography. Hawley’s direction puts you right into David’s mind as we see his view of the world, what happens when his powers manifest, when he loses control, and how he processes everything around him. It all gave me a similar experience to when I saw Doctor Strange at the cinema.
It’s a well-done psychological drama and it pays respect to some recent greats that we’ve gotten in the past few years. Spending so much time on a main character’s mental state gave me huge Mr. Robot vibes, though unlike Elliot, David’s powers are quite real. Whether everything around him is all real is another question.
And an unstable mental patient unsure how to control their abilities, but they have a huge love of waffles?
Not sure if this show was filmed or written at the same time as Stranger Things, but I think David and Eleven would make great friends.
Legion is X-Men meets Mr. Robot meets Stranger Things and it’s a great blend of what makes those three properties great, in addition to having some great humor to boot, such as Amy taking away the sharp tools so David doesn’t cause more harm to himself or the basement.
I’m a big fan of non-linear storytelling when done well and Legion excels in that. The trips to David’s youth or journeys through his mind aren’t just there to fill in the blanks or give us extra story, but also show his mental state, as he’s unable to maintain control of his powers. More than that, while these flashbacks and glimpses show us David’s upbringing, his scattered mind makes it hard to determine what’s real.
David accepts that he has clear problems, but are these really issues just because he’s been told that? Legion asks who gets to determine what’s normal. Syd, for example, believes those nuances make us who we are. Geniuses and prodigies are often called oddities or any number of words that make them seem outside the range of normal, as if being outside what society expects makes you a pariah.
These are the sorts of the things that mutants often deal with in the X-Men series, but Legion isn’t pulling an X-Men: First Class here and making statements like “Mutant and proud.” Hawley is a much smarter writer than that and this show, from what I can tell, is less concerned with the mutant agenda and more with unpacking David’s mind, challenging as that is.
It’s almost like we’re experiencing David’s journey along with him, as the trips, flashbacks, and distortions don’t just mess with your mind, but give visual examples to his schizophrenia. He’s in an endless battle with his mind, and, as Kissinger says, could be a threat to others as well as himself.
The casting was on the mark for this character. I love the many facial expressions of Dan Stevens, as if he’s always contemplating if what he sees and hears are real or just in his head. And if they’re real, is this a sign of his powers manifesting or is he imagining everything? He’s already uncertain of what he sees, as he mistakenly saw The Interrogator exiting the limo instead of Melanie Bird, so who knows if he’s to be trusted.
His relationship with Syd is an interesting one. As evidenced by the kiss and her unwillingness to be touched, Syd has great powers just as David does. Is she just as much a threat to others as David is, or has she accepted her abilities in the same way that she’s fine being seen as abnormal? It looks to be fate that she and David are linked, but I’m curious to see how this odd relationship develops.
And another good casting. I already loved Rachel Keller based on her work on Fargo’s second season, but she’s excellent here as well. And while the name Syd Barrett is an obvious nod to Pink Floyd, I don’t believe Keller’s character here is based off of any mutant in X-Men mythology. But Syd is so serious about not being touched. Someone at Fox needs to have needs to have Keller play Rogue at some point.
Hell, Fox as a whole needs to take a few pointers, and this is where I’ll go on a mini X-Men rant. Look, I liked Apocalypse, but not as much as Days of Future Past. And with Fox set to do another run at Dark Phoenix, you need not just a great director, but also a writer who can get into a character’s head and explore their psyche. If Legion is any indication, it’s that Hawley has what it takes to add complexity to Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey.
Even though there’s nothing concrete about the next main series X-Men film, aside from this rumored title of X-Men: Supernova, if the people at Fox, whether that’s Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner, or whomever is steering the X-Men film ship, aren’t looking at Noah Hawley writing prowess and the fresh take he could bring to the X-Men, then they aren’t doing their job.
I said this on Twitter, but could you imagine taking this visual flair and storytelling about controlling your powers and applying it to Jean Grey’s struggle to combat the Phoenix? The writing is on the wall and should Legion prove to be a success, Fox should consider having Hawley help writing the X-Men films. Between Legion, Fargo, and his other projects, Hawley is a busy man, I’m sure, but Fox should consider it.
With all that said, Legion hits the ground running and doesn’t fall back on traditions when it comes to a comic-based property. And with so many questions, I can’t wait to see where this all heads. Will David be able to control his powers? How, if at all, will Melanie Bird be able to help him? Will the government still pursue David?
Free to work outside of the X-Men universe, Noah Hawley has set to tell his own story and he’s given us a complex look at the inner workings of David Haller’s mind.
In a time where we hear ‘superhero fatigue’ tossed around, for whatever reason, this show does well to set itself apart from what you’d expect from a comic book adaptation. It’s stylish, unconventional, thought-provoking, and is a fresh take on the X-Men property. Legion is off to a great start and I’m all in for the journey.