At one key point in this utterly remarkable, highly-original and deliriously imaginative show, the protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens), an Omega-level mutant on the run from as yet-unnamed Bad Guys stops and asks his girlfriend/rescuer from certain death, Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), “Is this real?”
Granted they’re fleeing for their lives at the time and there are probably better times for such a direct, existentially-loaded question, but in the context of his life, and the show as a whole, it’s a question that bears asking.
In fact, as you are immersed ever deeper in Marvel’s latest attempt to translate its cinematic success to the small screen – and immersed is most definitely the word; there is no way you can simply watch this most extraordinary of shows which demands, on every level, to be experienced – it’s a question you will find yourself asking again and again, partly in puzzlement, partly in delight, and always with an every growing sense of wondrous curiosity.
Legion is, after all, a wholly original televisual beast, dressed in a rich, bright comics-intense aesthetic that is any one of Wes Anderson’s films meets the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine meets Blake’s Seven and yet wholly its own thing, that owes few allegiances to anything that has gone before it.
But to understand why it is so off-the-wall different, you first need to understand the story it is trying to tell; well, as much as you can figure out in the first episode which to be honest, is less about narrative directness and more about plunging into a disorienting sense of time and place, of self and otherness, one that mirrors and matches the palpable confusion that David Haller has known all his life.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, and in and out of trouble and mental hospitals thereafter, David is convinced there is something very wrong with him.
While he is aware at the dim reaches of his mind that he has powers he can’t explain, he bow to the prevailing narrative that has pervaded his life to this point, and created more than a few literally explosive moments, and accepts that he needs to be fixed, to be repaired and made whole.
But what if, asks Legion, if he’s not broken at all and his perception of reality, weird, spiky, dreamy and off-the-charts crazy though it seems at times, is actually right on the money?
What if indeed? What makes Legion such an unusual, distinctive, and no doubt to some, bizarre, viewing experience – there’s that word again but it’s the only one that fits; you simply do not just watch Legion – is that never comes out and hands you the answers on a platter.
In fact, by the end of the first dynamic episode which variously features some One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Clockwork Orange moments – the mental hospital where David meets the literally untouchable Sydney aka Syd is called Clock Works Mental Hospital – a choreographed dance number by mental patients and staff, and some lavishly comic book-like sequences that dazzle the eyes and confound the senses – it’s fair to say that your grasp, anyone’s grasp of what’s actually going on, is tenuous at best.
All you can really say beyond the fact that David isn’t crazy – rather he’s a mutant with significant telepathic and telekinetic powers – is that there are Bad Guys and Good Guys, or at least people who may be members of both camps, and that something rather big is in the offing.
But then the purpose of Legion you suspect, isn’t so much to tell a straightforward story, even though it somewhat does that in gloriously dreamlike stops and starts, but to take you deep into the mind, the reality of David, of a world shaped by misinformation, misunderstanding and a tragic sense that something is irreparably, irredeemably broken.
If this sounds all a little too intense, and at times it can be because after all, we’re diving deep into someone’s life and mind here with no guarantees of what is real and what is not, and even when we are with the visual palette suggesting a retro ’60s look and feel, Dan Stevens’ performance as David gives the show a grounded humanity that stops it drifting off into arty weirdness.
For starters, David comes across as a genuinely befuddled, bewildered and times, angry young man.
He has all this strange stuff happening to him, he’s told repeatedly it’s a figment of his imagination even when, in one utterly spectacular scene, every single item in a kitchen becomes airborne, creating an kaleidoscopic tornado that comes close to killing him when an errant knife whizzes too close for comfort, and he has no explanation for it bar the one that mental health professionals and his mother hand him.
But he knows deep down that what he is told isn’t real, actually is in some ways and Chapter 1 as it the pilot episode is prosaically titled – trust me when I say it is the only prosaic thing about this wholly magical show – spends a great deal of time separating fact from fiction, truth from lies, reality from dreams, or at least as much as it can given what is happening to David is so fantastical and so outside the norm.
Noah Hawley, who created the show and directed its spellbindingly arresting first episode, has a gift for marrying the immensely odd, strange and different with the mundane and the natural in such a way that working out which way is up, and exactly what David’s reality is, becomes a puzzle of epic proportions.
Thrown in actors of the calibre of Aubrey Plaza, who has a gift for playing the other and the strange and yet likeable into the bargain, and Legion becomes a delightfully warped excursion into David’s world which it turns out by episode’s end, is whole lot more sane than he, or anyone else for that matter ever gave it credit for.
Legion has a real chance of being that one of a kind show that beguiles with its originality and strong sense of self, both narrative and aesthetic while telling a down to earth, deeply human, emotionally authentic story that straight out dares to challenge everything we thought we knew about the world around us.