Legion Season One Review: War is Over if You Want It

by Eric Onkenhout

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. Season one of Legion is a trippy ride through the mind of one of Marvel’s most powerful mutants.

This article contains plot points for Legion Season One.

Legion season one explores the life of one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe, David Haller. Written and primarily directed by Noah Hawley, Legion goes places no other Marvel series has dared to venture and does it in an unexpectedly chilling way. The narrative visually tells a story using cinematographic effects that intentionally make it a challenge to follow, by forcing the viewer to see the through Haller’s eyes. The use of warped framing, zooming, and a strategically used color palette puts you in the mind of David, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at a young age. Noah Hawley wrote the story according to the subject matter, which is, in this case, mental illness.

Legion makes it easy to forget that he is part of the X-Men series. There is no mention of the superhero team and even the revelation of David’s father is very subtle. Dan Stevens, who plays David Haller, is absolutely incredible in his role. His performance doesn’t come off as directed—it’s more natural (think Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys). It’s as if Hawley is telling the cast to do whatever feels right to them, instead of directing them precisely how to act. Hawley did a lot of research visiting mental hospitals and speaking with some patients, and it shows. Legion season one, which airs on the FX channel, allows for more adult content and more engaging stories which make for a better show because it enables the creatives to take the story places a series on Hulu or ABC couldn’t. The use of more elaborate techniques in storytelling, especially ones about mental illness gives the Hawley the go-ahead to use more disturbing images.

Prognosis Negative!

Legion Season One

Aubrey Plaza (Lenny) and Dan Stevens (David Haller)

Legion season one examines mental illness as a label for anyone different either intellectually or artistically. So many past intellectual genius’s or artistic masters in hindsight have been categorized as mentally unstable, which is what sets them apart. I.E., Einstein, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Cobain. Heck, even a character on the show was named Sydney Barrett, after a member of Pink Floyd who had left the band after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mental illness is sometimes chalked up as a personality quirk or a gift that makes a person unique because they interpret things differently. “Who teaches us to be normal when we’re one of kind?”

Legion would ask that question repeatedly throughout the first season, as it examines how much of what is seen was real and how much of it was taking place inside David’s mind. Indeed, after that fantastic opening sequence, the pilot spends much of its running time in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital where David (Dan Stevens) meets fellow patient Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). Clockworks, although not explicitly stated was probably a nod to the Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange, which dealt with themes of behavioral psychology. By Chapter 8, David knows about his powers and has come to terms with them. Although, he is still convinced he is schizophrenic because “not believing you have it when you do is a result of having it. You convince yourself you are healthy.”

Legion Season One

The Devil with Yellow Eyes as Lenny

Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny would also prove to be an essential part of the show as the season progressed. At first depicted as a fellow inmate at Clockworks, even after she died Lenny would continue to appear to David in his visions as a projection of the Devil with Yellow Eyes. Hawley was hugely influenced by Stanley Kubrick, and it showed. The creep factor of Legion season one was unexpected. Despite one of the genre’s of the show being psychological horror, it’s still based on a comic book character so how much horror can there be? A lot more than any other series of this nature. The way characters like the Devil with Yellow Eyes, aka The Shadow King, and the Angry boy were utilized combined with the effects and music was absolutely brilliant. It works very much the way music works in a horror film; it tricks the brain into a state of suspense that compounds the overall effect. Quick shots of the Angry Boy in the background also served to play tricks on both the viewer and the character—was that really there? Did that really happen?

Psycho Killer

Legion season one has very little to nothing to do with the X-Men other than by name, and it didn’t need to. Unlike The Gifted (a Fox series based loosely on the X-Men), the premise of Legion was more than strong enough to stand on its own. Standout performances by Rachel Keller (Sydney), Aubrey Plaza (Lenny), and Bill Irwin (Cary Loudermilk) are all worthy of an award. Each actor became their character, which gave an air of authenticity rarely seen. The mention of mutant powers is present but is more of an afterthought. David’s ability is said to originate from a parasite that has buried itself within his brain at a very young age. The parasite/creature makes him forget his memories and rewrites new ones. Fortunately, David is strong enough to handle the monster; otherwise, he would go insane. Eventually, it’s revealed that it’s an older mutant whose consciousness left his body; living in David’s for 30 years.

Legion Season One

Rachel Keller as Sydney Barrett

In episode 7, “Chapter 7,” it’s explained that the mental hospital was a mental projection created by the monster. Fittingly enough, Sydney says, “I’ve been paying attention.” One has to, to follow along for the entire series. Seriously, it’s highly recommended to leave your phone alone and pay super close attention because it’s not hard to get lost in the events. After all, the narrative of Legion season one is nonlinear with an unreliable narrator in David. Syd continues to explain, “Our bodies are in David’s childhood bedroom probably frozen in time. Someone fired a machine gun, so when time starts again, we’ll all be killed. We have to distract the monster, which looks like Lenny but isn’t so we can save our bodies without her knowing and then find a way to end the hospital fantasy and save David.” Got that?

Thankfully, in a Legion for Dummies sort of way,  the last few episodes straight out explained much of what had transpired in the previous five episodes. In one scene, Syd was given glasses by Cary that filters out what is real from what is an illusion. This is Hawley giving the audience the answers from the back of the book for those who need a little help. In a very meta scene, David has a conversation with his rational mind, who has a British accent. Actor Dan Stevens is from the UK, so that was brilliant on Hawley’s part to have Dan speaking to someone who is literally his real-life self.

It’s All Inside of You

Legion Season One

The Shadow King possesses Syd

In the penultimate episode, David and his rational-self storyboard how David became who he is and his relationship to the monster. David is adopted (his real father is Professor Xavier), the beast is a parasite; a mutant living off of David’s power. Since Lenny knew his father, that means his father was a mutant. David’s father and the monster fought using their powers in the Astral Plane. After his father defeated the beast, the monster’s consciousness floated away. David’s parents decided it wasn’t safe and gave David up for adoption. The creature watched David from afar and possessing him for revenge. This made David sick. His powers weren’t any help; hearing voices and seeing things. The longer this went on, the sicker David got and more powerful the monster became. Until Syd came into his life; the beast couldn’t hide anymore. With this help from his rational mind, David realizes he’s not sick anymore and vows to get his mind back.

Final Thoughts on Legion Season One

While Legion season one never got boring, the show did come dangerously close to plateauing early on in its first few episodes as the questions surrounding David, and his past got a little repetitive. Legion season one was a psychedelic, creative jump off the deep end as far as comic book adaptations go, proving that material such as this can be ingested by creators like Noah Hawley and reimagined into an entirely new and transcendent form.

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