Legion: Season One (Review)
By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
After seeing all the Avengers together and in their solo movies, all the X-Men films, and every Marvel television show on networks or Netflix, you might think you know exactly what to expect from Marvel. However, FX’s Legion may have broken the mold, daring to create something new that might be in the Marvel universe, but doesn’t feel as if it is of the Marvel universe. Keep reading for a spoiler-free review of the first break-out season of Legion.
Within minutes of starting the first episode of the 8 episode long season, it’s clear that Legion is going to take you down a rabbit hole. Creator and writer Noah Hawley (Fargo) took the comic by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and made it something unique not only within the genre, but also within the framework of television today. Hawley wanted to create a show with “its own internal logic,” much like Hannibal, which Hawley has said is “a great example of something that had this almost fetishistic beauty that you saw, whether it was food or violence.” Clearly, the director and producer of the new Marvel FX show had a goal in mind, and I believe that goal was achieved. (I actually compared Legion to Hannibal myself when trying to describe how it felt to watch it.) Legion is something so entirely its own that I had to adjust to that world before I could take it in. Although initially indecisive, I was fairly certain I was going to like it, once I wasn’t overwhelmed by the new feel of it. Shows like Legion aren’t just about enjoying a storyline or characters; Legion is about being immersed in an experience entirely. The show is admittedly strange and off-beat, so it’s not for everyone. But if you decide, like Alice, to head down the rabbit hole and accept the inevitable oddities, you won’t regret it.
The bold and original look of the show is part of its appeal. There are wardrobe, hair, and make-up styles reminiscent of the late 1960s or early 70s, but with characters using more modern technology in some cases, it’s difficult to even place the show within a particular time. We can chalk that up to another goal achieved by Hawley, as he has stated that he wanted Legion to have its “own visual aesthetic to it, and part of that is being a story kind of out of time and out of place.” While Legion uses absolutely stunning sets and color palettes to their full effect, it can be difficult to take it all in at first when placed within such a surreal story. In fact, it even contributes to the disorientation often felt while watching the show. But if you can get past the disorientation, you’ll be able to enjoy a visually stunning exploding kitchen (created by actually blowing things out of drawers and cabinets, not CGI), military/security members emerging from the walls, floor and everything in between, or a building decorated with taxidermy. You’ll be able to follow the main character into an ice cube, or see the unbearably white room in his mind, amongst other memorable settings of Legion.
The clothing and sets aren’t the only interesting factors at play on screen. Legion plays with your mind through your eyes and ears. Much like the word “moist” or the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard can cause physical reactions in people, Legion is visceral in the same way. From the slick and unappealing yellow-eyed demon with spider-like fingers to the dissonant sounds and music by Jeff Russo, feelings and impressions have a way of bubbling up, unbidden, while watching Legion. I am no art connoisseur, but in my opinion, real art will make you feel something. That feeling might be happiness or joy, a sense of romanticism, or even disgust. But if you feel something, anything, then that piece of art is a success. Legion is sometimes sweet, sometimes uncomfortable and disturbing. It is not just a show, it is art… and darn good art, at that!
Another artistic aspect of the show is the telling of the plot. Legion’s method of story-telling is off-kilter, to say the least. A visionary way to pull viewers into the experience, the story comes from the unreliable narrator (and focal character), David. A man who has grown up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the world around him is over-stimulating and confusing, jumbled into pure chaos sometimes. As viewers, we experience the world as David does, and it’s a psychedelic trip full of frustration! We find that the memories of David are corrupted and therefore no one can be sure what is real and what isn’t. To understand David, his powers, and his supposed disorder, we have to try to put the pieces of his mind back together in some semblance of order. However, it’s almost as if all the pieces are flipped over and we have no picture to guide us. We only receive clarity as David finds what he believes to be the truth. As he gains structure, so does the story-telling. If you’re looking for a typical “superhero” television series with a linear timeline and a plot that make perfect sense, the first season of Legion will not be right for you. If you like to perpetually question whether everything you see is real or just a figment of David’s imagination, then it’s definitely worth a go!
To be able to connect with a show that is so surreal and other-wordly, it is positively essential that the characters be able to carry that out while also serving as the grounding the audience can fix on. Legion operates with an understanding that if the audience doesn’t get the story, at the very least they have to get the characters. Such a mission requires tremendous talent on the part of the actors playing the roles, who have to make material that could look campy or silly on the page come to life as spooky and maybe even relatable. Legion has a cast that is amazingly up to the demanding challenge! The two stand-out performances come from Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast), as David Haller, and Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Rec), as Lenny/Farouk/the Shadow King.
Dan Stevens does an incredible job of making David likable and sweet, while simultaneously conveying the emotional and mental torture he withstands on a daily basis. He can make David look confident and happy, distressed, angry, or even dark and brooding. He can pluck on a banjo and sing a happy tune while looking rigid and frightened. Stevens is capable of showing fortitude or fear, all with the same level of believability. Even if his hair length wasn’t a visual marker, Stevens would still manage to help us distinguish his character’s drug-laden past self from the current, more realized self. As if that wasn’t enough, he gives award-winning performances, all while working in an American accent (except for that time he has a lovely conversation with himself, and the other him has his native British accent). The subtleties apparent in Stevens’ acting are astounding!
Aubrey Plaza gives an equally impressive performance, filling more than one role in Legion. The character was actually originally supposed to be a middle-aged man, but Plaza won the role and even insisted on the writers keeping her character’s lines the same. Thus, we get a haunting performance by Plaza who is able to portray a playfully sinister character that could easily be the stuff of nightmares (and in fact is for David). Plaza had the task of often playing the friend or therapist, all the while allowing darkness to ooze out of her. When she is given the freedom to be blatantly menacing, she doesn’t disappoint. Freddy and Jason would be preferable to the frightening character Plaza portrays with such amazing talent!
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is no less capable in their respective roles! Legion is overflowing with talent from Jean Smart (as Melanie Bird), Rachel Keller (as Sydney Barrett), Katie Aselton (as David’s sister Amy), Jemaine Clement (as Oliver Bird), Hamish Linklater (as Clark), Bill Irwin (as Cary), Amber Midthunder (as counterpart Kerry), and Jeremie Harris (as memory artist, Ptonomy).
Overall, FX’s Legion isn’t for everyone. Yes, it does feature super-powers (which are creative and cool in their own right), but not in any way you’ve really seen on screen in the last few years. It’s unorthodox, to say the least. But the show is fresh and unique, a journey worth undertaking. Watch it once. Watch it again. It’ll be a different experience each time you watch. (I promise. I’ve done it.) I cannot sing the praises of Legion enough!