No show exists quite like Legion. This needs to be said immediately, just right out of the gate. Noah Hawley's latest series for FX (he previously helmed the first two seasons of the Fargo anthology series, which is also brilliant and should be considered required viewing) is a bold, self-assured, and impressionistic take on the superhero genre, and is one that wastes no time setting itself apart not just from the rest of its peers but from just about everything else that's on TV right now. Those closest possible comparison I can think to make is Hannibal, which is another show that used to make me go, "Wow, I kind of can't believe this is on TV." (Though I was far less surprised to see something this groundbreaking on FX than I was to see something like Hannibal on NBC.)
Legion's pilot episode is an insane, trippy look into the mind and experiences of someone who has superpowers but doesn't know it yet. Jessica Jones might be the only other show whose focus isn't on the benefits that come with having enhanced abilities, but rather the increasingly difficult experiences that often come along with them. Sure, some superhero stories flirt with this idea, but the deepest the superhero genre tends to dive into more subjective or emotional territory is the well-worn "responsibility" trip. It's an overwhelmingly masculine story, and it's been just told to death, which is why it's so refreshing to see Legion set its sights squarely on the emotional experience that comes along with having a particular set of powers (and the disorientation that often comes as ancillary to that experience).
Dan Stevens (The Guest, Downton Abbey) delivers a wonderfully twitchy, layered performance as David Haller, who we're told is potentially one of the most powerful mutants in the world. The relativity of this statement — made to us in the pilot — is kept unclear. One of the most arresting aspects of Legion is its bizarrely unknowable temporal setting. Think Archer, brought to life as faithfully as possible. Costumes and clothing are retro, but never in a way that doesn't work or is outright unstylish. Flat screen TVs are present on walls, and old-school monochrome tube monitors are used to control contemporary-looking MRI machines. This makes the setting and production design among the most engaging that have appeared on TV since Pushing Daisies, but also makes it tough to nail down the context within which the mutant drama takes place. We don't know much about where mutants stand in the world, how many there are, or how powerful they can be. So far, the Summerland facility visited in the second episode feels like an early version of Xavier's School for Gifted Children, with everyone involved appearing to be aware of their powers and able to use them.
Haller begins the series — after a quick and inspired montage set to "Happy Jack" that takes us through the opening few decades of his life — in a mental hospital. Named Clockworks, it's one of many references to 1960s British counterculture that permeate the episode, including the eventual introduction of David's love interest Syd Barrett. Syd is introduced as a sort of take on the standard Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetype, quickly catching David's eye as she flouts his support group's typical boring optimism. They strike up a courtship before she's revealed to be involved with a group led by a woman named Melanie, dedicated to fostering young mutants and helping them develop their powers. There's some body switching, everything literally goes upside-down for a few minutes, and both Syd and David wind up making their escape from Clockworks before finally reuniting at Summerland. If it seems like I'm glossing over a lot, that's not only because I am, but because the pilot episode is so impressionistic and disorienting at times that it's tough to fully wrap one's head around exactly what happened or exactly how things have played out. This, however, is by design and is also one of the show's biggest triumphs: some of the details are murky, but this is because Legion is a show dedicated to connecting us directly with our main character's experience. The pilot episode makes it clear in its opening minutes that is depiction of the world is as David experiences it. In short, we don't know what the fuck just happened because David doesn't exactly know what the fuck just happened. And it's brilliant.
Legion's second chapter ditches a lot of the pilot's fluorescent lights and retrofuturism for the metal, glass, moss, and wood of Summerland, the mutant camp located deep in the forest. With government bad guys Division Three hot on their tail, Melanie, Syd, and David make a pit stop with memory artist Ptonomy to take a deep dive through some of David's most formative experiences. The result is a somewhat muddled, slightly disjointed (though at this point it's more or less apparent that that's this show's "thing") episode that hops around through time and and plays with the malleability of memory like a Charlie Kauffman script. Chapter 2 is light on plot, instead focusing more on introducing us to Team Summerland and filling in some of the blanks about David's past. The result is a less exciting, but more thoughtful episode, which makes sense: everybody would definitely need something of a breather after the crazy finale of the first episode, but we're shown Division Three henchman The Eye in hot pursuit throughout the episode so nobody forgets that there's a distantly ticking clock at play.
Jean Smart's Melanie is turning out to be the show's most interesting character, especially while we know so little about her true motivations. She is ostensibly "here to help," but we've been told very little about who she is or why she wants to help in the way that she does, and the Laws of TV Writing tell us that this means everything she says may or may not be suspect. To me she veers with surprising quickness between matronly and just a little but cult leader-esque. She has a tendency to give David vague, almost platitude-like assurances ("What if I could...help you re-write the story of your life?), and repeatedly tells David, "We're going to make you whole again" whenever he expresses doubt or seems unsure about what's going on. Maybe this is all red herring type material, but until we know more about Melanie, there's no way to tell what she's actually up to.
Subjective experience is clearly one of Legion's main points of interest, and David's perspective of the world is as unique as it gets. Up to this point it seems like David has been experiencing himself and the world the way he is told to by others. Doctors say he's sick. Melanie says he's not; he's powerful. The latter is obviously true, and it even seems as though David is either manifesting or displaying new powers towards the end of the second episode, as he basically astral projects and sees his sister Amy kidnapped by The Eye. This compels him to take action, leave Summerland, and go get his sister...until someone else (Syd), tells him not to, and he complies. David remains a somewhat passive participant in his own life, despite his massive power, and I'm willing to bet his journey towards self-actualization is definitely going to be one worth watching.
OH, AND ALSO...
• Fun fact! Kerry, the MRI technician, is played by Bill Irwin, who was TARS in Interstellar!
• The Eye is definitely in the running for Most Equally Formidable and Goofy-Looking Henchman.
• The production design on this show is absolutely incredibly.