FX’s gonzo quasi-superhero series must be seen to be believed, if not fully understood.
How does that make you feel?
Is there anything Noah Hawley can’t do? Already an acclaimed novelist in his own right, Hawley is still best known for nurturing Fargo from “I can’t believe they’re making a series out of Fargo” to “this might be better than the original Fargo.” He’s exhibited a watchmaker’s precision in juggling large ensembles and intricate plotting, with an ear for laconic dialogue and exquisite character names (Gus Grimley, Lorne Malvo, Mike Milligan). Where he hasn’t really had opportunity to show off, at least up to now, is directorial style.
Legion’s “Chapter 1” is only Hawley’s second spin behind the camera, following the premiere of Fargo’s second season. But one thing is immediately apparent: he’s just as gifted a visual storyteller as he is with the written word. From the opening sequence, a slow-mo, “Happy Jack”-scored journey through David Haller’s childhood, we know we’re in safe hands; the rest of the hour treats us to dynamic transitions, aspect ratio switcheroos, deadpan Andersonian long takes, and acid-tinged dream sequences.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though. What exactly IS Legion? At its basest level, it’s a superhero origin story. If you’re as sick to death of those as I am, that doesn’t sound inspiring. But Hawley comes at the comic book aspects obliquely, preferring to focus on David’s fractured psyche, keeping us guessing as to where we are, when we are, and how much of what we’re seeing is real. It’s not until episode’s end, after that marvelous long take tracking David’s escape from The Interrogator’s facility to Jean Smart’s boat, that Legion starts to show its cards. Comic fans already know that David is the son of Professor X; whether the show goes all the way in on that is up in the air (though they could do it, with Marvel’s blessing, without having to keep to the films’ already tangled continuity). Not that it needs to, of course; Hawley is doing his own unique thing, and no one needs to utter the word “mutant” for the series to be effective.
Dan Stevens (who my wife has never forgiven for leaving Downton Abbey) plays the older David Heller, longtime resident of Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, with wide eyes and manic glee. Resigned to a life of taking his meds and keeping “the voices” at bay, his world is rocked by the appearance of Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, and no, I don’t assume Syd sharing a name with the founding songwriter of Pink Floyd is a coincidence). Syd’s thing is that she doesn’t like to be touched; as her power is revealed in fits and starts, we learn she’s more like a body-switching version of Rogue. But David is immediately smitten; Hawley’s camera frames her with glorious backlight, and the damaged pair become pseudo-boyfriend/girlfriend. They use a scarf to “hold hands.” They kiss in glass reflections. It’s whimsical in a Pushing Daisies kind of way, and Hawley’s choice to score it to primarily British Invasion music is another choice Wes Anderson would approve of.
The entire time, however, we’re toggling back and forth between multiple timelines: Clockworks, hazy flashes of David’s childhood, a breakdown in an ex’s kitchen that leaves it destroyed, and his capture by the mysterious Interrogator (Hamish Linklater), who wants to get to the bottom of whatever circumstances got David busted out of the psych ward. The costumes and sets hint at the Mods of the 1970s, but the Interrogator’s tablet is a piece of fantastical (too fantastical? Is that a clue?) high tech. We’re struggling to make sense of it all as much as David is, beguiled by Bollywood dance sequences and the Demon with the Yellow Eyes, not sure what to trust, or how it all fits together. But watching the premiere, I don’t have a shred of doubt that Hawley knows exactly what he’s doing, and seemingly random bits of dialogue or images are bread crumbs leading to something much larger and stranger. Is David crazy, crazy powerful, or both? Is his madness fueling his abilities, or the other way around?
“Strange” is also the word for the great Aubrey Plaza, the series’ most familiar face. As Lenny, David’s frizzy-haired, walkman-toting buddy at Clockworks, Plaza brings unfiltered unpredictability to a role that was originally written as a 60-year-old man (whose dialogue, at Plaza’s request, was never changed when she was cast); most surprisingly, she dies halfway through the episode, trapped inside a wall like Han Solo in carbonite. David believes he and Syd switched bodies when they kissed, giving Syd sudden access to powers she had never used before. Exactly how that happened, or how they switched back, or if it even happened at all, is unclear. But fortunately for us, Plaza’s not a one-and-done guest star (sorry, Hamish Linklater); her markedly casual appearance in David’s sister’s basement suggests that she still has a part to play, and won’t be the only member of his imaginary menagerie.
Hawley has said in interviews that Legion is definitely not a “puzzle show,” where we’re meant to spend more of our mental energies deciphering mysteries than attaching to characters (looking at you, Westworld). “Chapter 1” throws a lot of balls in the air at once, but the aim here isn’t to trick the audience, but put us inside David’s head as much as Hawley can. I’m certainly not going to suggest that with all this setup out of the way the narrative will now become more “straightforward” or conventional, but we’re definitely on a path to something, and if Legion can keep up this level of visual inventiveness, that something could be quite special. I’m in. I’m way in.