There are moments when Legion feels like an extended branch of the X-Men family, but those times are rare, and the show succeeds because of that.
[Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for the first three episodes of Legion.]
Legion doesn’t ignore the elements that make up X-Men movies and comics; there are government agents who want to control and abolish mutants, a school for gifted individuals, and the identity crisis that most of Marvel’s most famous mutants have to come to terms with. Still, Legion doesn’t go out of its way to acknowledge its mutant connection, and the benefit that decision gives showrunner Noah Hawley is being able to focus on a much more important theme: mental illness.
Legion follows a man named David Haller (Dan Stevens), who has lived in a mental institution for most of his adult life after suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Haller is abandoned by his family — save for a sister — and he resigns himself to the belief that he’s “crazy,” taking the diagnosis and his current living arrangement in stride.
Despite everything he’s told by doctors, however, Haller can’t help but shake the feeling that there’s more going on. Whenever he gets angry, objects go flying and people get hurt. It’s only through an encounter with another mental patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), that Haller starts to question whether or not the voices are actually just figments of his imagination.
It’s after this that Haller learns he holds powerful telekinetic abilities and is brought to a school where he can learn to harness those abilities. Through his self-discovery process, Haller also figures out that while there are people who want to help him control his abilities and use them for good, like his new teacher, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), there are government agents who would prefer he act as a weapon for their army.
In this way, Legion is an X-Men series, but that’s the least interesting thing about it. Where Legion finds its brilliance is in the way it portrays mental illness. Everything that Haller is going through is terrifying. He’s confused, alienated and discouraged by the disease he has, but through it all, he manages to keep a positive attitude. He has friends — Aubrey Plaza shines in the role of his best friend, Lenny Busker — and a girlfriend. Throughout all of his hardships, he never once believes that the end of the world is approaching his doorstep.
Hawley uses Legion to focus on Haller’s response to what’s happening around him instead of the obvious mutant angle. This isn’t a show about misguided, extraordinary beings who come together to save the world from surefire devastation. It’s a show about one man’s ability to cope with the illness he’s been given, learning how to navigate relationships that put people first instead of their illnesses.
Hawley also never tries to lighten the mood about how devastating mental illness can be. Legion is without doubt one of the most tense shows on television. It never seems to let up, even in its moments of quirky humor, but it’s very intentional. Hawley has created a show that feels like a funhouse, with winding hallways and deceiving mirrors, creating a reality that’s difficult to navigate. Legion feels like a valid representation of what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and Hawley toes the line between glamorizing the disease and sensationalizing it with a sense of earnest respect that many other showrunners don’t have.
Hawley’s direction for the show wouldn’t have been as successful without excellent performances from Stevens, Keller and Plaza. The three actors go from distraught to funny in a snap, but never seem to leave behind the reality of their situations. There’s a weight on each of their shoulders the actors carry around brilliantly, reminding you that even in their brightest moments, they are viewed as outsiders. They have been abandoned, and even though they managed to build a family with others like them, the isolation of not belonging to mainstream society can be felt in all of their actions.
The last aspect of Legion that should be brought to attention is its jarring and stunning visual effects. The show feels cinematic with what it’s trying to accomplish, and Hawley uses a wide range of colors to help convey what Haller is going through. In moments when Haller is losing control of his emotions, unable to logically examine what’s happening, Hawley uses quick cuts to illustrate the difference between what’s real and what Haller is seeing, going from pitch black to angry red. The scenes are blurred and the score picks up. Haller’s psychosis doesn’t just rely on Stevens’ portrayal of the character; the aesthetic of the show is used as an extra tool to strike home the point that he has lost the ability to tell what is real and what is not.
In other moments, everything is slowed down to a snail’s pace. As objects float around Haller and people move by him, it seems like he’s frozen in place. It allows the audience to see what Haller is seeing, and try to understand what’s going on at the same time he is. Hawley uses the visual effects to create an immersive experience for the audience, and the payoff is noticeable. It’s hard not to get caught up in the stunning, vibrant and, quite frankly, violent world that Hawley and his effects team have created.
Legion could have been another superhero series, like the dozens available to watch right now, but Hawley’s decision to focus on the ordinary human instead of the extraordinary mutant is where the show finds its heart. It’s a drama that manages to start a conversation about the harsh realities of mental illness without changing the natural story to force the narrative. Legion is proof that mature comic book stories can be told without exaggerating the grittiness of its source material or treating its audience like children.
It almost feels like a show about mutants doesn’t deserve to be this good, but Legion demonstrates what the future of comic book adaptations on both TV and film should look like.
Legion premieres on FX on Feb. 8.