Another superhero TV show, you say? It’s true: FX’s new marquee series Legion is based on a character from the X-Men universe, and it does come stamped with the Marvel Studios imprimatur. But trust us when we say this is no ordinary capes-and-costumes saga. The latest brainchild of Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, this surreal side trip through Fox’s mutantverse is far more reminiscent of the auteurist cinema of Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch than standard comic-book blockbuster fare. Fans expecting quippy one-liners and the usual let’s-destroy-a-city-block-for-the-hell-of-it set pieces might be advised to look elsewhere.
Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens stars as David Haller, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who slowly begins to accept the possibility that the voices he hears and visions he sees are not manifestations of his illness – rather, they’re an indication of a great Homo superior gift. With the help of an unconventional therapist, he struggles to come to terms with this new reality. But in the world of the show, reality is not an easy concept to define. David’s dreams, memories and hallucinations frequently collide, wreaking havoc in his own mind and on the unexpected romance he’s found with a similarly gifted woman.
Legion begins its eight-episode run Wednesday, Feb. 8th; here’s everything you need to know before tuning in.
You don’t need to know anything – or even like anything – about the X-Men comics/films to appreciate it.
Cinematic universes might be all the rage these days, but this TV show arrives as a true stand-alone tale (a wise move considering it has its own heady narrative to establish). An opening montage – scored to The Who’s “Happy Jack” – summarizes David’s evolution from innocent tot to disturbed, suicidal adult, then cuts to Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where David’s older sister Amy (Katie Aselton) is paying him a birthday visit. He’s been living out his heavily medicated days at the institution in the company of his best friend, an addict named Lenny Busker (a gloriously unhinged Aubrey Plaza), and the monotony of the routine is beginning to take its toll. “Something new needs to happen soon,” David tells Amy.
That something is actually someone – a new patient named Sydney Barrett (Fargo‘s Rachel Keller) whose arrival quickly upsets the established order. She can’t abide being touched, so she and David strike up a platonic romance. Before long, an inexplicable incident lands them outside the hospital and in the care of Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), an unconventional therapist determined to help her charges understand and harness their powers.
At the bucolic facility Bird operates, one designed by her late husband to uplift and support emerging mutants, our addled hero is encouraged to harness his power by studying key moments from his past. That “memory work” is aided by another mutant, Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), who has the ability to bring people into David’s past … including David himself. And some of his secrets remain closely guarded for reasons not even he can explain.
Bird and her team of specialists – which includes Bill Irwin as geneticist Cary Loudermilk and Amber Midthunder as Kerry Loudermilk (the name thing is intentional) – aren’t the only ones interested in learning what David can do with his unusual talents. He’s also being sought by a mysterious team of government operatives, including a man known as The Eye (Mackenzie Gray).
Admittedly, special powers, covert operatives and unusual monikers are the bare-bones essentials of superhero lore, but funneled through a truly warped perspective, the story becomes something far more personal: a desperate attempt to subdue inner demons and experience true connection with another person. And Stevens, who also is set to star in Disney’s upcoming retelling of Beauty and the Beast, delivers a fine-tuned performance that is extraordinary.
Ok, but what is David’s backstory in the comics?
The character of David Haller first appeared in New Mutants #25 and was created in the mid-1980s by Chris Claremont (who penned such iconic X-Men tales as the Dark Phoenix saga and “Days of Future Past”) and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. He is, in fact, the son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller, the offspring of an affair between the two that took place in Israel, though Xavier doesn’t learn of David’s existence until years later. The boy witnesses the murder of his stepfather at age 10, and it’s that traumatic event that catalyzes his abilities. But his powers – which include telekinesis, shape-shifting, time-travel and teleportation – are each controlled by a different persona, some that are quite sinister. The moniker, Legion, has devilish roots, too. It comes a New Testament reference to a man possessed by demons who Jesus encounters in the book of Mark. When asked his name, the afflicted responds, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
You could watch it with the sound off, and it would still be great.
Hawley has said that he wrote Legion with the idea that the series was set in today’s world, but visually, it exists in a time period that’s completely out of time. Production designer Michael Wylie (Pushing Daisies, Masters of Sex) and costume designer Carol Case (Fargo) borrow period flourishes from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, but the overall design is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 1970s futurism (that overt reference to A Clockwork Orange is not for nothing – the same goes for the conspicuous Syd Barret/Pink Floyd reference as well). The showrunner also wrote and directed the premiere, which brilliantly employs forced perspective and weaves together trippy, unnerving flashback and dream sequences to create an otherworldly visual landscape that amplifies the dislocation our protagonist feels. And the imminently creepy Devil with Yellow Eyes character, who keeps showing up in Haller’s visions and may or may not be real, feels like a straight-up hat tip to Twin Peaks-era David Lynch.
X-Men fans should not expect a Hugh Jackman cameo anytime soon.
With Fargo, Hawley has proven that he’s an endlessly inventive storyteller, and he has said that he approached Legion in the same fashion as the Coen brothers spin-off – in this case, taking one existing character and placing him in a newly invented world. He’s been intentionally vague about whether other X-Men might ever drop into the storyline, but neither he nor any of the show’s executive producers (including frequent X-movie director Bryan Singer) have given any indication that the series will eventually fit within the franchise’s cinematic timeline at all. Instead, executive producer Simon Kinberg (who wrote and produced the most recent two X-Men movies) has suggested this series was conceived as the comic book world’s answer to Breaking Bad. Does that make David Haller the new Walter White? If so, the Eye might want to watch out for his Heisenberg persona.