Season One, Episode One — “Chapter I”
By Jarrod Jones. It’ll be easy enough to shift into the druggy head space of Legion, the latest high concept jamboree from FX and Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley. For comic book fans, however, it may be a little more difficult to sit still: Hawley, who has done marvelous things with the Coen’s Fargo, wrote and directed Legion‘s heady opening salvo with his notoriously keen eye for details, so good luck trying not to infer a half dozen crackpot theories from this sugar-coated extravaganza.
For everyone else, Legion wants you to know that it stands apart from its superpowered onscreen brethren. Even as a loose adaptation of the Marvel Comics character (created by Chris Claremont, and Bill Sienkiewicz), Legion is decidedly chill about its four-colored origins. It wears many hats and it’s never satisfied with any of them. You can blame that on Hawley’s psychotropic attitude with the show’s narrative: We weave in and out of memories, flashbacks, flash-forwards, interludes (including a show-stopping dance number set to Serge Gainsbourg), and, since this is a Marvel Comics joint, a one-take action set piece.
Relax, there’s only one action sequence, though it does kinda tug you out of this dreamy (and, at times, nightmarish) melodrama. It’s the only moment that grounds the show in a sense of genre familiarity. The rest of the time we’re left to ponder over Dan Stevens’ squirrely performance as David Haller, and the show is all the better for it.
Stevens is spectacular here, as much an intriguing (and devilishly striking) presence as he was in The Guest, and while Legion will likely demand quite a bit from Stevens before it’s all over, for this debut episode anyway, the actor is a titan to behold. David’s current predicament as a mental patient, labeled as a paranoid schizophrenic by the psychiatric community, is compounded by a hostile investigation from a shadowy government cabal who’s convinced they just found “the most powerful mutant alive.” Whatever he may actually be (spoilers: he’s totally a mutant), David is clearly plagued by voices in his head and it’s affecting literally everybody who comes into his path. Case in point: whenever he becomes especially agitated by these cerebral whispers stuff has a tendency to explode around him.
Yet you can never quite tell if David is tormented by his burgeoning gifts, titillated by them, or both. He seems to keep a pretty upbeat attitude about his current living situation — even if it keeps him from enjoying the little things, like a chocolate cupcake — and he keeps pretty beguiling company. Aubrey Plaza is Lenny (though I think I heard somebody call her “Cornflakes”), a Twizzler munchin’, wild-eyed newt who could definitely compare notes with Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Monkeys.
Lenny is meant to be David’s Sancho Panza; she’s quick with the wit and lightens the mood whenever she’s on the screen. Plaza oozes back and forth whether she’s standing in place or lounging in a chair, bopping to a tune we can only assume is coming from inside her head instead of her pair of ridiculously over-sized headphones. Wherever David goes next in this paranoid rock opera you can bet Lenny will be there, though in what form is quickly becoming one of the show’s more prominent question marks.
Another passenger on David’s “cruise ship Mental Health” is Rachel Keller’s Sydney Barrett. (Yes, as in that Syd Barrett.) Syd is David’s white rabbit, a mutant whose special ability causes her mind to transfer into whomever she makes skin-on-skin contact. There’s a bit of a Tenenbaum wistfulness to Syd’s relationship to David — as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”, they can only touch each other by holding onto the same scarf — though it’s plain to see the dangerous nature of their romance, especially when it becomes clear that mutant persecution isn’t an entirely new concept for her.
Oh, and about those mutants. Above all Legion is a cleansing shot in the arm for Fox’s dusty, tonally directionless X-Men franchise. It’s fitting that a television show about Marvel’s merry mutants would go out of its way to remind everyone that evolution is not only inevitable, it’s necessary.
“Is this real?” – David. And it’s a question that I hope will continue to drive this entire show.
BEST MOMENT: Sydney/David navigate the Clockwork hospital’s post-freakout labyrinth of walled-off pathways. Drenched in neon reds, horrified off-camera screams (and, shockingly) the viscera of Lenny, the sequence is set to moody, John Carpenter-esque synths. You’ll definitely take a minute to blink after it’s all through.
EPISODE’S MVP: The debut of Legion belongs to Dan Stevens, though I can see Aubrey Plaza sneaking in an upset or two before this season is ended. Also keep an eye out for Jean Smart, who is always spectacular, especially when she’s working with Hawley.
WELCOME TO THE MACHINE:
– Peppered throughout those ruby quartzed nightmare sequences (and elsewhere throughout the episode) is David’s subconscious tormentor: the “devil with yellow eyes”. Who is he? MJ thinks it’s Mojo, the portly, slug-like X-Men villain who bears a striking resemblance to the monster onscreen. My completely unfounded theory? Red seems to be a recurring entity for the show, and anytime David is beset with visions, splashes of red stain the screen. And when I think of red in the X-Men saga, my mind goes directly to Mr. Sinister, though he doesn’t share the nemesis’ dandelion irises.
– That interrogation sequence, where David is put in front of a clear red table underneath protruding ceiling blocks, is the most visually hostile environment I can think of for such a process. (Aesthetically, anyway. Ick.)
– Oh, and that curly-haired dude in the green suit? Mackenzie Gray, Jax-Ur in Man of Steel and Lex Luthor’s lanky clone in Smallville.
– Mackenzie Gray is also a Noah Hawley veteran: he had a bit role in the second season of Fargo.
– So who is the Devil With Yellow Eyes? Will we meet Professor X at some point this season? (Probably not.) Whatever you think, sound off in the comments section below.
8.5 out of 10
Next: “Chapter II”, soon.