Mind, memory, mutants: Legion comes to TV

If you had told 12-year-old James that there would come a time when there would be too many live-action comic-book series on television to keep up with — heck, forget about that, too many good live-action comic-book series to keep up with — he would have laughed scornfully at you. And yet here we are in whatever alternate timeline features high-brow TV critics talking about Iron Fist and your neighbour knowing who Wild Dog — Wild for gosh sakes Dog! — is. Into this world comes yet another entry into the superhero show genre, FX’s Legion.

And while that’s true, it’s a bit unfair. Legion is anything but yet another superhero show, and I say that as someone with great affection for the run of high-quality serial adventure shows we’re getting at the moment. Legion comes with some pretty hefty TV credentials: it was created by Noah Hawley, best-known for the critically-acclaimed Fargo TV series. And as an experience, it owes a lot more to that off-beat, visually-arresting show than it does to more conventional superhero action-adventure stories.

Let’s start with the character: David Haller, codenamed Legion, first appeared during Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s run on New Mutants in 1985. David was a powerful mutant telepath who suffered from dissociative identity disorder, commonly called “multiple personalities.” Each personality was associated with a different one of his seemingly limitless range of powers, and they didn’t all get on with each other. Where did David get his powers? Well, from this father, naturally — David was the son of Professor X and Gabrielle Haller, an Israeli woman Charles Xavier had an affair with in the 1950s.

David’s distinctive hairstyle and eyebrows make him one of those characters, like Warlock, who works best when he’s drawn by someone like Sienkiewicz rather than an artist with a more naturalistic style.

Over the years, David (he prefers to be called David) has appeared in plenty of other stories — he kickstarted the huge 1995 Age of Apocalypse crossover, for instance, and he recently(ish) appeared in Simon Spurrier’s well-regarded X-Men: Legacy run. Like any Marvel character, he’s changed, grown, loved, lost, died, come back to life … all that kind of thing. But at the core of the idea remains the multiple-personality concept, the irreducible center of the character. Right?

Well … no. In fact, the TV version of David Haller (played by Dan Stevens) doesn’t have dissociative identity disorder, at least not in the series’ first few episodes. Instead, he’s diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, which isn’t the same thing at all. It’s not a bad decision — Legion’s multiple-personality gimmick reflected the popular-culture understanding of the condition 30 years ago, which needless to say doesn’t quite reflect how people see it today. David does see people and hear voices, but the doctors tell him they’re hallucinations rather than other personalities. And I say “the doctors tell him” advisedly — as the series progresses, David’s mentor figure, Melanie Bird (played by Fargo veteran Jean Smart) tells him that he’s not mentally ill at all. Paranoid schizophrenia is simply how a doctor would interpret the very real effects of David’s uncontrolled psychic powers. Alternatively, it could be a convenient excuse to get David into the clutches of the sinister government organisation experimenting on mutants.

Speaking of which, what’s the deal with how this show relates to the Fox X-Men films in general? Melanie Bird is obviously a kind of stand-in for Moira MacTaggart, and her rag-tag group of mutant scientists are similar to MacTaggart’s X-books supporting cast, or even one of the many teams of mutant heroes. But since MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) is already a character in the movies, we get a different version of a character who plays the same narrative role here. In general, that’s the overall pattern: we get the big themes of the X-Men franchise here, without many familiar characters.


The other big theme, of course, is the theme of distorted perception. Delusional or not, David’s view of the world is so strange that it’s hard to know what’s in front of him and what isn’t. The convoluted, recursive plot makes this clear (well, unclear, but you know what I mean), especially in the pilot episode. And of course, Legion is visually gorgeous. The combination of psychedelic soundtrack and eerie visuals contribute to the overall sense of weirdness and unreality. It’s a compelling, interesting show, anchored by some great performances. I’ve mentioned Bird and Stevens, but also watch out for another Fargo alum, Rachel Keller, as Syd Barrett, the love interest with the Pink Floyd homage name who plays the reserved counterpart to David’s fractured strangeness.

We’ve still got the back half of Legion‘s eight-episode season to go, which means we still have more questions than answers about its plot. But so far it’s an intriguing, visually powerful story that takes on the idea of superpowers without superheroes. Probably too much has been made of the X-Men connection by the hype machine, so if you’re watching it purely to see your favourite X-characters, you’re going to be disappointed. But don’t let that trick you into overlooking a fascinating take on the genre.

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