“Is this real?” David Haller (Dan Stevens) demands of his girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) in the closing moments of the first episode of creator Noah Hawley’s Legion. This question is representative of both the guiding appeal of the show and the reaction I believe many viewers will have to it. Being that Legion is loosely set within the world of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film series, casual viewers may be reluctant to accept it. Superheroes are taking over television just as they have film and while being a longtime comic-book fan I couldn’t be happier, I understand why members of the general audience may be suffering some fatigue. However this is actually where much of Legion’s appeal lies; this show (or at least its pilot) stands apart as highly original and unique among comic book television adaptations and television in general. Admirable technical production, mind-bending twists, heartfelt emotion, and a powerful performance by Dan Stevens are just some of the many wonderful qualities on display in Legion‘s extended debut.
Despite being one of the lesser known characters in Marvel’s X-Men family of comics, the story of David Haller (Legion is his code-name in the comics) lends itself to teleivision quite well. Comic-book David has severe multiple personality disorder and while the show’s pilot leaves his diagnosis vague, (even if the voices that can often be noticed quietly speaking in the background hint at a condition that is at least similar) it doubles down on using him as an unreliable narrator (a trend becoming more and more popular on cable), questioning whether David is truly a mutant and whether or not the supernatural events he experiences are truly happening or not, and if so, how. Around half of this 90 minute episode consists of scenes depicting David’s time in a mental institution (calling them flashbacks may not actually prove true given the show’s nonlinear storytelling). While the show is clearly designed less as an exploration of mental illness and more to entice audience members with the question of how much of what they are witnessing is actually happening versus how much is a construct of David’s troubled mind, it doesn’t sensationalize David’s condition. The viewer wants David to get better, even if his mental state opens up intriguing storytelling possibilities.
Much of the sympathy the viewer has for David is earned by Stevens. The Downton Abbey alum does admirable work here, playing David’s anger and confusion as well as his kindness and humor with equal grace. The pilot’s constant alternation between time frames allow Stevens to craft a multifaceted performance that is highlighted by the differences between scenes in which David’s behavior is regulated by medication and those when it is not. Throughout all of this Stevens imbues his performance with a foundational sense of longing and pain that is moving.
While Stevens himself is elctrifying, the first episode of Legion is strong across all categories. The supporting cast is solid, even if Keller and Aubrey Plaza (playing David’s best friend) make noticeably stronger impressions than other actors such as Katie Aselton and Hamish Linklater (as David’s sister and a possible government agent respectively). The first episode is expertly paced and edited, knowing which scenes need to be allowed to slow down and breathe, while also making use of a couple of well-executed montages. One does wonder, however, if the show will have to speed up a little in future episodes with traditional run times. Despite all this, the real star of Legion other than Stevens is Hawley’s style and visual storytelling. This is an aesthetically stunning episode of television with vibrant cinematography that adds to the emotion of every scene. An early scene in which David kisses Syd’s reflection in a window to work their way around her phobia of physical contact is one of the most beautiful, visually and emotionally, that I have seen on television in a while. Skilled direction ensures that the viewer recognizes they are seeing everything from David’s perspective, which adds to the show’s mystery, given that we know how unreliable that perspective is.
Ultimately Legion is a gem, with one of the best pilots a comic book show has ever had, behind only those of Jessica Jones and Daredevil. The questions this show asks are highly intriguing and I believe anyone who watches this episode will feel compelled to stay with the series to find the answers. While television savvy offers the most probable explanations to some of the most obvious questions (I for one don’t predict that the series will end by saying David has truly imagined all his powers), but there are many more areas in which it is genuinely impossible for me to see where it is going. And that is very exciting. Is this real? I certainly hope so.