I just finished watching the most amazing show, Legion, by creator Noah Hawley. It’s technically a show about mutants in the X-Men universe, but I didn’t realize that going into it. I didn’t know quite what to expect, except a superhero show. But it wasn’t like other superhero shows. That first episode features such explosive action — all based on mental abilities rather than super-strength or some more traditional power — I knew this would be something really different to watch.
And it was. Instead of constant action, the show focuses on the disturbed mental state of protagonist David Haller, and midway through the season I was hooked. This is a hallucinogenic drug of a show that explores mutant abilities and mental illness, like two sides of a coin. It’s also a character study of a man with inner demons that are more real than any you or I could ever have.
Here are a few reasons I fell in love with this show. Some minor (not end-of-show!) spoilers to follow, but I hope reading this is incentive to watch it if you haven’t yet. :)
A Psychedelic Cinema
In many ways, Legion feels like a psychedelic trip back to the 1960s and ’70s. From the bright color palettes to the trippy visual sequences depicting David’s mind and memories, the show is inundated with this bright nostalgia. The music harkens back to that era, and some of the characters’ outfits feel retro — headbands, mini-skirts, skinny jeans (for guys), bodysuits, and turtlenecks — even when they don’t fit a specific time period. The secluded forest setting of the school where David is learning to control his mind could easily be a hippie getaway, too.
X-Men has also been a series of stories about outsiders trying to understand their place in the world. Legion is about mutants in this world, but it doesn’t reference X-Men heavily. Instead, it forges its own path. Apparently Hawley didn’t want actors reading the Legion comics, as he wanted to create something different here. Since I don’t know the source material either, I can only say that this show feels like the stoned, brainy little sister to the X-Men comics and action movies I do know.
Some of this comes down to the characters’ powers, such as swapping bodies and abilities through physical contact, exploring memories to the point of being able to rewind and fast-forward them like videos, and venturing into other realms (mentally, at least).
The cinematography and actors’ performances do an amazing job of bringing all of this trippiness to life, making something on the mental plane something that can be tangibly experienced. Thoughts become visual. Color shifts indicate mental states. When David shatters everything in a kitchen during one of his episodes, time seems to stop so we can see every shattered piece of glass suspended in the air around him. In a great scene late in the series, slow-motion gave me, the viewer, time to figure out what was going on just as the character on the show was watching and understanding for the first time too. There’s even a dance number.
The way all of this is presented is beautiful and bizarre — and perfect for what Legion is about.
Mental Illness, Explored
A big part of the reason the show feels “psychedelic” is simply that it centers so much on David’s odd mental state. It dives right into his memories and depicts the way his mind works so we can see what the world is really like versus what he is seeing.
Sometimes this difference is very evident. For instance, when he sees a monster that’s not really there, the world turns red and music screeches to indicate his fear. We know this is not real.
But at other times, things are hairier. That’s because we’re learning about David as we go — things that he doesn’t even know about himself, memories he’s blacked out, things he’s mis-remembered. We see some of this as he sees it, even though it’s not real. Later, other characters explore his mind without him and realize, gradually, what’s really going on. The reason for the divide between what David sees and what’s real is not schizophrenia, which is what he thinks — it’s a parasitic monster that’s inhabiting him.
The show does a fantastic job of exploring mental illness, given it the gravity it deserves without being overly dark. David doesn’t really have schizophrenia, but he thinks he does for a very long time. He spends time in a mental institution. His family abandons him because of his episodes. Even after spending time at the school where he can learn about his mutant abilities, he doubts himself right up to the last episode of the show, saying that what all people with schizophrenia fear is that the illness will take over and make them believe they don’t have it. This school, these mutant abilities, all of this justification for what’s happened to him — it could be the schizophrenia talking, right?
All of this seems to point to our human need to classify everything. What we don’t understand, we try to cure. And when we can’t cure it, we demonize it. (So what if it’s really a demon…?)
David is such a fun character to spend time with through all of this, because despite how disturbed he is, he’s also energetic and positive. Dan Stevens playing him is hilarious to watch, as he can be cracking jokes one minute and freaking out the next. There’s a great episode where he seems full of ego as he builds a mental place for him and his girlfriend to spend special time together. At other times, he’s in his psychiatrist’s office in the past, trying to focus on the question at hand but getting distracted, talking too fast, and fidgeting. Seeing him in so many different states and moods also means that I felt like I really knew him. It’s been awhile since I had such a great time watching a character in action, or just getting to know them.
Equally entertaining is Syd Barrett (played by Rachel Keller), another young woman with mutant abilities who finds him in the mental institution. They strike up a romantic relationship, but because her power is changing bodies when she touches someone, she can’t touch David. She’s one of those earnest, romantic characters who’s smart without becoming cynical. I loved watching her talk back to the institute’s director and teacher, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), saying that she doesn’t care at all what Melanie wants but will do whatever she can for David because he’s “my man.” Because she’s such a different character, I found it hard to predict what she was going to do in any given situation. She’s a big part of what kept the show interesting for me.
Beyond them, David’s mysterious friend Lenny is this canvas of a character who Aubrey Plaza just Jackson Pollocks all over. She is incredible to watch as a drug-addicted wiseass who is more than what she seems. As we learn more about her, she’s able to be even more multi-faceted. She is definitely the craziest of the characters and is all over the place — making a joke one minute, threatening the next, and I never knew quite what she was up to in those early episodes.
One of the most interesting relationships in the story is between Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder), two beings who can share a body. At one point Cary explains how he was born instead of the Native American girl his parents were expecting — until one day, years later, that expected girl appeared in his room. She can live inside of him, and only when she’s outside of his body does she actually age. The male Cary is now middle-aged, whereas the female Kerry looks to be around 20 years old.
While Cary is a scientific genius, Kerry is the fighter. She says she protects him. At one point, when she gets injured, he’s able to absorb her to treat her. Later, they are separated but have bedrooms next to each other, and they knock on the wall between them as a comfort since they cannot share a body then. It’s a relationship that unveils itself as the story progresses, so while at first I barely noticed the two of them, by the end of the season, I was amazed at their unparalleled connection.
The Romance of It All
Legion is also a surprisingly romantic show. It may not be what strikes most people first, but love is a major theme. If X-Men is often about mutants feeling like outsiders, then connection with others — a feeling of belonging — is huge. In Legion, this often takes a romantic turn.
The most obvious example is with David and Syd, who became boyfriend-girlfriend in a very schoolyard way when they’re in the mental institution together. Their opening up to each other helps characterize each of them — their conversations are one of the main ways you get to know what each is like. Yet because Syd can’t touch David, they have unique obstacles to their physical relationship, which makes things especially intriguing. At first, it builds the sexual tension. Later, it gives David a way to explore his powers, as he creates a mental space for them to carry out physical actions using their minds rather than their bodies. (It’s like virtual reality, but it all feels real too.) Their first kiss results in them swapping bodies, which is what sets off their escape from the mental institution and David joining the school to learn about his abilities. The next kiss, at the end of the show — well, I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s a perfect bookmark to that.
The less obvious but more poignant example of the love theme is with Melanie Bird and her long-lost husband, Oliver (played amazingly by Jemaine Clement). His mental abilities, similar to David’s, allowed him to explore another mental realm which he eventually got lost in. It’s like he preferred spending time there, where he was this invincible creator, rather than in this more limited world. It’s been 20 years, but Melanie misses him to the point of making the institute’s devices speak in his voice, and she visits his body (in an old-fashioned diver’s suit) to ask him to return even though she knows it’s probably in vain. I won’t give away what happens to him, but their romance has such bittersweet moments, and it made me nostalgic for people who were right next to me. Lovers, separated, are always a heartbreaking thing, but what’s special here is that you hold out hope that they’ll be reunited.
These are just a few things that I personally loved about Legion. I went into it expecting a superhero show — so lots of action. Instead, I was whipped up into this psychedelic whirlwind of a story that left me wanting more at the end of each episode. It’s not for everyone — some might find it either too slow-paced or too strange — but if you want something truly offbeat, this is it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all, and that’s an awesome thing.