Noah Hawley’s “Legion” Explores Mutant Minds
In the second episode of Legion, Fargo creator Noah Hawley’s first attempt at a Marvel television series, the protagonist, David, tells his lover — whom he is forbidden to touch — that they are engaged in “a romance of the mind.” This is as much of a mission statement as the show’s mind-boggling, brilliant and often elusive script is willing to provide. Hawley’s fascination with the human mind is the entry point for the series, which tells David’s story and follows his path from disempowerment to untold amounts of power. David quickly learns that the symptoms of schizophrenia that placed him in a psychiatric institution, where the show’s pilot is set, might not be the caused by mental illness at all. He soon becomes embroiled in an impending war between humans and mutants, who tell him that he harbors incredible potential as a powerful mutant. From this simple and potentially problematic premise, the show embarks upon a thrilling journey through David’s psyche, interlacing world-building, character and plot development within the framework of his mind. That it succeeds so well is testament to Hawley’s genius; given unfettered creative control by host network FX, he manages an impressive cast with finesse. Legion is the best new television series this year, and if the latter half of the season sustains the mastery of its first four episodes, then it may hold that title for a long time.
The show’s boldest choice, to spend almost every minute of its time operating from David’s perspective, is also its most compelling. From the outset, Hawley establishes a unique visual style best described as hallucinatory. At no juncture is it entirely clear whether David’s perceived reality is real at all, leading the viewer down a cinematic rabbit hole of memorable imagery ranging from gorgeous to horrific. This unpredictability fosters a near-constant sense of tension, allayed only when Hawley decides to relax his grip, which is rare. Even in its slower moments, the sheer amount of artistic inventiveness on display proves that Legion is a rare example of a series that distributes its budget evenly from episode to episode. After the jaw-dropping breadth and style of the pilot, one would be forgiven for expecting the show to dial back its CGI trickery. But all of the episodes watched for review — especially the fourth, which contains an unforgettable sequence that ranks as the show’s best so far — are brimming with the kind of moments one rewinds to show their friends. It’s arresting.
It almost seems unfair to claim that the visual spectacle of the show is secondary to its performances, but it’s true. Dan Stevens, previously known for his role as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, pulls off a thoroughly convincing American accent as David — high-pitched, gritty and sharp, his delivery elevates every line. There is a careful line to toe when it comes to playing the role of a mentally ill character, and Stevens’ effort to bring passion and respect to David’s most charged moments is consistently admirable and ranks among the best television performances in recent memory. Sharing the spotlight is Rachel Keller as Syd, a fellow mutant and David’s love interest, whose genuine pathos and determination prove the perfect counterweight to her boyfriend. This is really David and Syd’s story; the other characters are well-written but ultimately peripheral, with some exceptions as the scale begins to widen in the third and fourth episodes. The show will undoubtedly have to continue to expand its focus to survive over a 10-hour run-time, but the intensity of Legion’s concern for its two central characters is more than welcome — it’s essential.
Westworld repopularised — and, to some, wore thin — the trappings of a “puzzle-box” narrative, but where that series used mystery to provide tension on top of a straightforward story, Legion’s story is only confusing to the extent that David himself is confused. His mind is the puzzle, and as both he and the other mutants struggle to piece it together, the biggest questions that arise are not about a distant endgame, but rather David’s past, and, more importantly for him, his own mind. This is where the show’s setup might threaten to derail its attempts at philosophy; if David isn’t schizophrenic, as some around him assert, then is mental health treated as an on-or-off switch? In short: not even close. Hawley’s skill at navigating the human mind brings the issue of sanity front and center. David and Syd, having both been institutionalized, know very well that the source of the voices he’s heard all his life has no bearing on the psychological cost of their presence. The effect on his mind is the same, and it’s clear early on that the trauma caused since childhood by unknowingly reading thoughts and conjuring visions has had a profound impact on David. The symptoms of his powers were diagnosed as schizophrenia for a reason. Whether the series will continue to expound on these questions remains to be seen, but the nuanced treatment of mental health is one of its core tenets. In examining David’s mind so closely, the show finds its voice.
More so than perhaps any other show on television, Legion never stops being surprising. It boasts something like a cornucopia of genre influences, switching from Lynchian abstraction to sappy romance to intense action and back again. By the third episode, it’s begun to veer into the realm of psychological horror, serving up some inspired, nightmarish set pieces. David’s subconscious hides some deeply terrifying secrets; Hawley mines a lot of excellent material from a fictional children’s book with a macabre twist. That kind of specificity permeates every facet of the show’s design, leaving a lasting impression hour after hour.
Blessed with a strong sense of identity and clarity of vision, Legion is a critic’s show, possessing a brand of biting originality that reminds us that the golden age of television is far from over. With a riveting, believable romance at its center, subtle world building at its fringes and a trademark visual style, the show so far is a compelling argument for the value of creative control. This is Noah Hawley’s work through and through, and that should be incentive enough to tag along on this beautiful, twisted romance of the mind.