“We need to write about Legion. We NEED to write about Legion”. “I don’t know where to start”. That’s pretty much how the 25YL editor chat went, and it’s true I don’t really know where to start because Legion is so dense and so unique that it will require a LOT of dissecting, way more than I could ever say in one essay, but let’s at least start to get this ball rolling.
I put off watching Legion for a long time. I had heard it was brilliant and saw many, many memes on Facebook that I must admit sparked my interest, but I wasn’t that fussed on X-Men and I didn’t think I could be bothered to get into yet another comic book show. But that’s just it, Legion is NOT just another comic book show. and it is nothing like the X-Men films I have seen. The best way I can describe it is if Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch got together, somehow made a baby (if anyone could do it, it would be those two) and that baby grew up and spent its days taking a shit load of acid and creating a TV Show. That baby actually turned out to be Noah Hawley*, the man behind the television series Fargo which probably should have been enough to make me realise Legion was going to be much more than your usual Marvel superhero series.
*disclaimer: I have no evidence whatsoever of Noah Hawley taking acid.
I am no Legion scholar. I have never once read a Legion comic, I knew nothing at all of the history of the character David Haller/Legion before starting and the great thing is you really don’t have to know anything at all to enjoy this show. Do what I did: let it wash over you, just sit back, and enjoy the ride. A ride is what it is; there is no time to catch your breath, there are no long lingering scenes that allow you to percolate what you have just witnessed, indeed you will probably need to watch each episode over and over before the pieces start to fit. I haven’t done that yet. I watched the first series in a few short weeks (it’s too much for the mind to comprehend to binge watch in my opinion) and I am about to embark on Series 2 which has already begun airing in the US on FX and in the UK on Fox.
Taking all that into account this is my basic introduction to Legion. I want you to watch this, because quite frankly not enough people are and I am pretty confident in my convictions when I say that Legion will be a show we are still talking about in 25 years. It has the potential to be a Twin Peaks, a Lost, another The Prisoner. Legion transcends genre and sets the bar very high for other Marvel series, even Marvel films.
So what’s it all about? Our main man is David Haller, played by British actor Dan Stevens, known for his role in Downton Abbey. Not selling him to you there? Don’t be fooled, he is brilliant. He plays the part of our unlikely hero perfectly — his facial expressions alone deserve an Emmy — but it’s the humour that he brings to the character that really makes him lovable, a Paul Rudd-esque boyish silliness and just as easy on the eye — not that it should matter but it kinda adds to the fun. Indeed it is the humour that makes this whole show so special. It has the potential to completely disappear up its own ass but the humour keeps it grounded.
David was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a youth and has a number of ‘personalities’. It soon becomes clear that there is much more to this and in fact David is a Mutant, an incredibly powerful Mutant in fact. Much of the show is trying to work out if what we are seeing are projections of his illness or really happening. Is he mentally ill at all? Is the whole thing a delusion? Maybe a bit of both? This is the journey of David discovering what and who he really is, how he has to take control of his powers and the demons living inside his mind.
We first meet David at a Psychiatric Facility, Clockworks (yes this of course a nod to A Clockwork Orange, the visual style of which slathers the show — more on that later), hanging out with his best buddy/ powerful, manic, evil, mutant psychic villain, Lenny Busker played by Aubrey Plaza. I was going to say she is one of the best characters, yet ALL of the characters are interesting. But she really is something else. Seamlessly jumping from being annoying to terrifying, from grotesque to the sexiest woman in the world from one scene to the next — all that whilst being both male and female simultaneously, but not androgynous. Her character was originally intended to be played by a middle-aged male, but when they discovered Plaza they put her in the role and didn’t change any of her lines.
It is at Clockworks that David also meets love interest Sydney ‘Syd’ Barrett (seriously, so cool — more on the links to Pink Floyd later). Her ‘mental illness’ means she doesn’t like to be touched. Of course, like David, there is more to her than meets the eye.
As well as David’s internal fight, there is also a ‘real world’ battle to be fought. Division 3 is a US Government organisation created to deal with the Mutant threat. They are hot on the trail of David whom they have come to learn is more powerful than any other they have seen before. They could use him as a weapon or destroy him…and so the story begins. I am not going to spoil the story for you here, of course, to be honest, I’m not even sure I could put it into words but I will tell you about some aspects of the show.
What makes Legion different for me is that I have learned to really care about the characters. With most comic book series I really don’t care. They aren’t likeable, their ‘humanity’ is forced, their struggle is overdone, it’s all a bit pretentious. Legion deals with complex emotional issues either subtly without having to say a word or by making literally a big song and dance about it. How marvellous it is when they do.
David & Syd
The love between David and Syd is sweetly tragic whichever way you look at the story, either through the lens of their mental illness or their Mutant ability. They long to be together, but they cannot touch without all hell breaking loose either literally or in their minds. So close but a million miles apart. Their love is strong enough though that they will find a way to make it work, even if it’s just by the power of imagination, making the best of their baggage in the most beautiful way.
Cary & Kerry Loudermilk
Cary (Bill Irwin) is a Mutant scientist and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) is a savant with powerful fighting skills. They share a body. Cary was unexpectedly born as a male Caucasian, his parents were expecting a Native baby girl (that didn’t go down well with their father). Kerry only ages when she is outside of Cary’s body making her much younger than him. What would happen to Kerry if Cary died? We don’t know, but this is not the reason why Kerry is so protective of her host. They have a true devotion, a connection like that of identical or conjoined twins, which in a weird way they are, except they are not identical, nor conjoined. They are perhaps a transgender metaphor with a sci-fi twist; a lesson that the body you are born into is not necessarily the person you are. However there is much more to Cary than just a vessel and their bond is the sweetest thing in Legion. Her no-nonsense kick ass attitude balances his brilliant neurosis perfectly.
Oliver & Melanie Bird
Oliver Bird is one of the greatest/coolest/silliest characters ever written, and also ever played (by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame). Oozing with a smooth 60’s vibe, he — along with his wife Melanie (Jean Smart) and Cary — started Summerland, a haven for Mutants like themselves. Oliver is a powerful psychic and through his powers was able to access the very cosmic, astral plane where he had spent the last 20 years, building a kingdom, mostly living in an ice-cube listening to jazz and contemplating…everything. Since he left the physical world on his travels, his wife Melanie, now head of Summerland, has kept his body cryogenically frozen inside a deep sea diving suit reminiscent of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Oliver, it appears, has forgotten much of his ‘real life’ and in particular Melanie, when he returns from the astral plane to help David and the team fight against the parasites in his head and Division 3. Nevertheless there is still a connection, a spark of flirtation between them. Melanie is a patient woman. She finally has her husband back but it is bittersweet. He returned, but not for her.
Each character has a deep background story, if only touched upon briefly, enough to make you sympathise even with the ‘bad guys’. David’s Division 3 nemesis, Clark Debussy (Hamish Linklater) is horribly disfigured by fireball in a battle with David, a deserved punishment at first, but as we become witness to his difficult recovery and the loving relationship between he and his husband and their adopted African American son, we realise there really are two sides to every story. This is a facet not often explored in comic hero stories.
So from what I’ve written above this all sounds pretty straightforward right? Yeah, it’s really not. Throughout this whole narrative we are battered with a visual spectacular — never knowing from one scene to the next what is real, what is a thought projection, what really happened? Are they in a dream? Is this bit a hallucination? Are they dead? Is this future or is it past?
Yes of course that is a reference to Twin Peaks, and this a show absolutely littered with them. Legion has clearly been written in a Lynchian tone. We are not supposed to know what is real and what is not, and trying to work it out is all part of the fun. The similarities to Peaks could probably warrant an article of their own so I won’t go too far down that rabbit hole yet, but here, have a little taste of cherry pie:
Whilst the show has Lynchian themes, visually it not comparable. As I mentioned earlier the aesthetic style if it can be compared to anything, is closest to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with its stark white, modern 60’s furniture, splashed with oranges and browns. Like Twin Peaks there are references of Kubrick’s work scattered throughout Legion.
Talking of the 60’s, it is hard to say exactly when Legion is set (what year is this?) as the clothing and hairstyles of some of the female characters especially are very ‘mod’ but — again similarly to Twin Peaks which was set in present-day at the time but had a strong 50’s glamour feel — Legion does the same with the Psychedelic era.
Then there’s the soundscape. Wow! It is pretty breathtaking and matches the show so perfectly. The Composer, Jeff Russo, was apparently told by Hawley that he wanted the series to sound like Pink Floyd‘s The Dark Side of the Moon, explaining “that album more than anything is really the soundscape of mental illness to some degree”. Russo specifically found a Synthi AKS synthesizer for the show, as that instrument was used during the making of the Pink Floyd album. He absolutely perfected that sound and atmosphere.
As well as the score, we are treated to classics from Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Janes Addiction, The Who, Talking Heads, Serge Gainsbourg, Nina Simone and many more. To compare to Twin Peaks yet again, like Angelo Badalamenti’s work, there is a mix of theme tunes for characters, for love stories and brooding moments, all washed in with brilliant popular music that fit the moment just perfectly. Genius.
Don’t be fooled by all this loveliness, Legion is dark! It is ultimately a dazzling thriller, a race against the clock and there is a sense of foreboding that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. As I said earlier, I have watched it once and I need to go back to starting positions to find my way to the centre of the maze.
So what are you waiting for? If you like the sound of this psychedelic story of love, confusion and self-discovery, sprinkled with dance-offs, epic battles and really, really super powers watch Legion! It will get inside your head.