TV Review: Legion: Chapter One


S1, E1: ‘Chapter One’

It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you

Grade: B+




Legion (created by Noah Hawley, of Fargo fame) takes the classic starting point of any heroic origin story: what if you only suffer because you’re special? And then, having baited its hook, whispers in your ear: ‘well, not the only reason you suffer…’

David Haller (Dan Stevens, unrecognisable from his sleek and pampered Cousin Matthew days) is in a mental institution, living from pill to pill with a slumped passivity and occasional visions that he wisely doesn’t mention. After all, if you tell people about the ‘devil with the yellow eyes’, they tend to think you’re a bit off. And similarly if you tell people that you can move objects with your mind. He is resigned to his ‘260th day on the Good Ship Mental Health’ and exchanging snark with his junkie friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), until a pigtailed Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Syd (Rachel Keller) walks into his life, refusing to be touched and telling him that ‘all the crazy shit, whatever’ is what makes him him.

Soon the two are walking down the corridors of their institution, holding on to the same bit of cloth (no holding hands, remember?) and posing for portraits… until Syd announces that she needs to leave. And David nerves himself to kiss his girlfriend….and that’s when it all goes horribly, horribly right. And wrong. And upside down and sideways.

Because here’s the thing: yes, David actually is a tremendously powerful telepath who can move very, very heavy objects with his mind. And Syd refuses to be touched because when David kisses her, they swap bodies and she is so overwhelmed by his power that she explodes – killing poor Lenny in a particularly grisly manner. And Syd whisks David off to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Children the tender care of Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). And yes, Syd loves David (or does she?)

But David is, as well, the quintessence of an unreliable narrator. Heroic wish fulfilment fantasies are all well and good, but Legion seems to be much, much more interested in the treacherous nature of reality. What is a true memory, and what is not? Is the mental institution, for instance, really the brightly-coloured, Kubrickian design monstrosity it seems to be? Is David really being held in a gym/stage school/whatever? What is the devil with the yellow eyes and why does it seem to be a sort of diminutive Jabba the Hutt?

And it gets more slippery than that. At one point, David tells a man he remembers him. When we later see the memory David’s referring to, the man’s not in it. David casually corrects the memory, but how can we believe him? At another point, Syd tells David she’s projected into his memory at a particular point. So is the event we’re watching meant to be happening, or is it David’s memory of it, or a reliving of David’s memory with the Syd-projection?

This isn’t new, of course: fiction has been obsessed with perspective, memory and reframing ever since it began. And the visual medium is uniquely well-suited to fuck with its audience’s head about perspective and illusion. But Legion has style to burn, and burn it does. I’ve mentioned the bright, kitschy institution already, so here’s another: after David kisses Syd, he sees a grassy knoll covered with TV screens playing images of his own life.

legion chapter 1 screenshot grass tv screen

And here’s another: David dreams a sumptuous, extended Bollywood dance with Syd.

legion chapter 1 bollywood.gif

And I know it’s clear what the stylistic influence is here, but

  1. I swear to God I have actually seen this choreography in an actual Bollywood film, starring I wanna say Ranbir Kapoor?
  2. I can already tell you that it makes sense for David to see his romance in precisely that way

So at the very least, there is much to pleasure the senses here. I am a little wary about the fact that the female characters with the most lines so far seem to exist almost entirely as outgrowths (damn near literally) of David so far, and that both seem to in some sense be the Various Forms of Cool Girl Who May One Day Let Sensitive Boys Make Out With Them. Yes, even you, Lenny. I see you with your artfully dishevelled hair and your beautiful Aubrey Plaza eyes and your sexy androgynous suspenders and your laconic forgiveness of the hero’s crimes. But let us see.

X-Ray Vision

  • Anyone have recommendations for a primer on Legion that I could read to see if there are any X-Men Easter Eggs I should watch for?

Odds and sods

  • Yes, the song choices were a bit on-the-nose. ‘Happy Jack’ as the episode begins, as Young David metamorphoses from the chipper young mutant to the hollow-eyed adult of now. ‘She’s a Rainbow’ as David and Syd’s Young Love Montage plays… never mind.
  • Thanks to madgeface for the heads-up! This is on you, my friend.

2 thoughts on “TV Review: Legion: Chapter One

  1. I’m glad you started watching and reviewing this, if only for the selfish reason that you’ll help me make sense of it. I read what wikipedia has to say about Legion, which seems to be a reasonable summary of the character but as far as I can tell, the show isn’t closely following any of the comic story arcs. Take that with a grain of salt tho – I read wikipedia, not any of the comics. The dance number was a surprise to me and didn’t really fit, but I also haven’t seen the entirety of any Bollywood movies so the mention of them does give me a better clue.

    Liked by 1 person

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