Halfway through its first season, Legion has broken all preconceptions of what a comic book series can be.
“In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”
If there’s one word or phrase that characterizes the X-Men franchise as it applies to live-action, it’s “careful.” From the beginning, this franchise has done everything it possibly can to tiptoe around the frankly insane source material from which it sprung. Even the wildest of the live-action films, 2003’s X2: X-Men United, provided us with a tamer, more measured version of Wolverine’s origin story.
This is understandable to a point, especially in those early, bygone days where comic book movies were an unproven commodity on the big screen and not roughly 45% of America’s film industry. Even by comic book standards, the X-Men have a long history of completely insane bullshit. It’s honestly sort of the foundational conceit of the series. On one hand, we’re going to get parables about bigotry, hatred and the need for tolerance in a post-WWII world, and on the other, we’re going to send our spaceman to punch a giant floating island in the face to save his friends who are all constantly on fire.
Enter Noah Hawley.
Perhaps no single chunk of X-Men lore is more insane than the titular character of FX’s Legion, David Haller. If any single attribute is characteristic of both Legion the character and Legion the show, it is insanity. As our David McGinnis said in his review of the Pilot episode (one of the very best pilot episodes I’ve ever seen) one of this show’s central wonders is trying to determine if David’s powers derive from his fundamental madness, or are the underlying cause of it. For the uninitiated, perhaps a quick rundown of Legion’s powers might be helpful. To put it simply: he has all of them, but they’re all locked behind one of his seemingly innumerable split personalities. It remains to be seen if this show will go that route (though it opens up some interesting theories about some supporting characters), or if it will just restrict him to telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis and matter creation. You know, the classics.
“We had seen things, heard things. But could we believe our eyes?”
Metaphysical musings aside, this is a television show, and perhaps the most delightful thing about it is that it doesn’t require any sort of knowledge of X-Men lore to understand (as much as it can be understood). Through the first three episodes, we’ve thoroughly explored the psyche of David (played by Dan Stevens with a wild-eyed mania) through use of flashback, memory, flashback posing as memory and memory posing as flashback. This story is being told almost entirely from David’s perspective, and his perspective is one with near omnipotence and some form of schizophrenia. He’s an unreliable narrator, to say the least.
A common criticism of Legion has been that it’s almost condescending in how it parses out information, obscuring what might be the real meat of the show behind stylish transitions and cryptic meanderings. I happened to err on the side of thinking that this show would be more than the different variations of psychiatry by fire it was in the first three episodes (all eminently watchable, but perhaps a little blurred together).
It’s a pleasure, then, that the fourth episode spends so much time illuminating the side characters. Rogue-adjacent love interest Syd (Rachel Keller), memory detective Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), double persons Cary and Kerry (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder) and of course the steely and slightly sinister den mother Melanie (Jean Smart) all get extended time in “Chapter 4” as they wait for David to come out of his astral coma. As befitting a Noah Hawley show, the entire cast has brought their best stuff, rounding out very nicely into an eclectic bunch. This goes without mentioning Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), David’s recently deceased-but-not-really best friend from the insane asylum. Playing a character originally conceived of as a man, she’s having what appears to be the time of her life portraying what has to be the best devil anyone’s ever had on their proverbial shoulder.
“Alice went down the rabbit hole. Dorothy landed in Oz. Or did she?”
Something that really helps ground this episode where at least Chapters 2 and 3 weren’t is how these side characters have conversations about the world they live in, the things they have to do, and the reality of it all. I think it’s a general rule of fiction that if characters are openly wondering whether or not something is real, it’s real.
This episode is one split into two halves: one where Kerry, Syd and Ptonomy head out into the world to verify some of the memories they found in David’s head. Generally, they are unsuccessful. The other, perhaps more interesting half focuses on David’s adventures in the astral plane with Oliver (Jemaine Clement), Melanie’s beatnik husband who is still stuck in the 60s (or early 70s. It’s hard to nail down a precise time period with this show, which only helps play into the uncertainty of it all). I actually won’t go into the specifics of the episode, as this is more of a check in on the full season, but this installment goes a long way towards helping David (and the viewer) understand his power a little better, and help nudge him a little closer to rescuing his sister Amy (Katie Aselton) from the clutches of the nefarious Division 3.
Is David insane? Is the monster inside his head real, or just something his mind made up to protect itself? (it certainly seems the former is true) What did the stars say? These are questions that only work rhetorically, and for the show to answer them outright would make it less interesting. I can, however, understand if this sort of thing is off-putting. It is art after all, controlled only by the eye of the one who beholds it, but I’m into everything thus far. It’s not just pretentiousness for show. There’s a point. Somewhere, there’s a monster at the end of this tunnel. The only question that remains is whether it’s David or not.