In the past few years, superheroes have taken television by storm. The CW has a DC show for almost every day of the week, and Marvel has partnered with ABC and Netflix to broadcast a handful of popular shows like “Daredevil” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Just when it seemed like the formula for a comic book show was obvious, FX’s “Legion” arrived to turn everything on its head.
Even though “Legion” takes its titular character from the X-Men comics, its universe seems entirely independent of famed mutants like Wolverine or Magneto. David Haller (Dan Stevens) has spent most of his life moving from one mental institution to the next, constantly sedated to keep his dangerous schizophrenia at bay. But the arrival of a strange, alluring patient named Syd (Rachel Keller) and some intimidating government agents disrupt his drug-induced stupor and send him on a bizarre journey.
What if all the voices in David’s head aren’t fake? What if those visions of floating objects aren’t visions at all? No, Syd reveals to David that he’s not crazy. Instead, he’s a mutant of startling power, capable of telepathy, telekinesis and even creating astral planes. And David’s not alone; Syd temporarily switches bodies with anyone she touches, and her friend Ptonomy can travel into anyone’s memories.
This might sound a little mind-boggling, but you don’t know half of it; revealing any more plot information would be delving into spoiler territory, but “Legion” has one of the most purposely evasive and confusing first seasons in television. Much of the show takes place in David’s fragmented and damaged mind. As a team of mutants—including Syd, David’s love interest—try to find out what’s fractured his psyche, they come across a dangerous entity known simply as the Devil with Yellow Eyes.
As a mystery, “Legion” works brilliantly, carefully pacing its reveals and surrounding them with surreal, stunning imagery. The season’s basic plot could probably be explained in less than hour, and yet the eight hour-long episodes never feel unnecessarily bloated. And David’s struggle with mental illness feels fresh and essential in a genre that has been known to avoid heavy topics.
Show creator Noah Hawley has proven his genius on the brilliant anthology series “Fargo,” and he orchestrates the chaos of “Legion” with uncanny precision. Oftentimes, the most basic assertions one must establish in any story—is this reality or fake? A dream or a waking moment? —are deliberately toyed with, and any less-capable creative team could have easily let the complexity get the better of them.
But the show’s directors—namely Michael Uppendahl—understand how to distinguish the real from the fantastic with wacky cinematography and set pieces. For example, when the entire cast breaks out in song and dance, the viewer can catch on that something’s not right. The same applies when it’s turned into a silent film from the 1920s complete with dialogue cards, or when David begins having conversations with a suave, English version of himself.
Unique, stunning images abound; a man has spent decades listening to disco and reciting slam poetry in an ice cube, Aubrey Plaza plays David’s deceased friend who still appears in maniacal visions and a knife-wielding boy from a creepy children’s book— “The Angriest Boy in the World”—terrorizes the characters. The tone effortlessly flows from disturbing to hilarious to surprisingly emotional.
“Legion” is bound to turn off plenty of people. Even though Legion is the comic book son of Charles Xavier, the show barely addresses its connection to the X-Men franchise. It’s not straightforward enough to be a pure superhero show, and its confusing elements could definitely be frustrating to some. But beneath all that craziness is a story with real heart. David is an empathetic character whose concern that he’s imagining everything prevents genuine joy, and his romance with Syd is made powerful and unconventional considering that they can’t touch each other.
The season finale does an amazing job of establishing new, exciting conflicts and character dynamics without resolving the biggest, most intriguing conflict. Its effectiveness as an intriguing thriller despite the labyrinthine mental acrobatics encapsulates what makes “Legion” special; while most shows aim to either provoke thought or purely entertain, this does both without breaking a sweat. Much like its protagonist, it’s schizophrenic, mysterious and utterly captivating.