RIVALS ALL OTHER SUPERHERO STORIES
There is certainly no shortage of superhero film and television, but very few shows devour its viewers quite like Legion does. Noah Hawley—the creator of the critically acclaimed television adaptation of the Coen Brothers film, Fargo—and FX have recently concluded the first season of the X-Men spin-off, which has been noted as one of the most dauntless superhero shows that a major network has hosted. It stars Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Jemaine Clement, and Rachel Keller.
The series features one of X-Men’s least known but perhaps most interesting characters—for the non-super fans, a chillingly powerful mutant with telekinetic abilities named David “Legion” Haller played by Stevens, who is primarily known for his roles on Downton Abbey and most recently as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
In the series, David has been misdiagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and the audience first sees him in a sickeningly yellow-toned, sci-fi inspired psychiatric hospital straight out of the 1950s. David has extreme difficulty distinguishing between his telepathic abilities and simply “hearing voices” that has been labeled as mental illness.
Hawley does an absurdly good job at breaking down the boundary between reality and surreality, establishing the mistrust that David has with his own memories and that the viewer has with him. The entire series is set in a world that isn’t quite the future but not quite in the past. Many of the female characters don 1950s and 60s-styled clothing and hairstyles, but modern technology is still consciously on display throughout the series. The effect is disorienting in its evocativeness.
The front half of the season is maniacal in the best way possible. As viewers delve into the mind and memories of David Haller, there are innumerable twists and turns alongside explorations of the brain’s own complexities. The audience is forced to constantly consider and reconsider what is false and what is factual. The series is thoroughly alluring, and after experiencing the surreal visuals and engaging plot line, it’s almost disappointing to see the season start to establish clarity as it comes to a close.
Despite David’s blatant instability as a powerful mutant, he is a character that viewers unconsciously—or maybe consciously—root for, and that engrossment holds true with the entire cast of characters. Perhaps what makes Legion such an innovative and fascinating series is the candid and empathetic address of mental illness and all of the triumphs and troubles that come with it.
Many shows have dabbled with the idea of mental illness, but just as that—an idea. They rarely evolve beyond a surface-level exploration of a completely deeper issue. Hawley takes the experience—not the concept—of mental illness and creates a protagonist who is not only a powerful mutant, but also an individual who has gone to therapy, has taken prescribed (and illicit) medication, and been through extensive treatment.
Although in the series David is not mentally ill but actually has superpowers, this path into the mind and its complexities is satisfying. Legion traverses from sci-fi to psychology with poise and intelligence; it expresses the notion that perhaps mental illness isn’t really “an illness,” but yet another thing that can make an individual extraordinary—no mutant powers required.