Our understanding of the world is unavoidably shaped by our limited perspective. Time and again, scientists tell us that our eyes are unreliable, that our memory is terrible, and we constantly reshape events and ideas to fit them into our preconceived notions of who we are and how the world works. In short, we make for rotten recording devices. Humans are like a camcorder with a mic that haphazardly cuts in and out and a lens continually distorting and even blotting out physical objects altogether, as though someone were digitally altering the film stock with the impetuous whimsy of a child. For a species that bases its claim to dominance on self-awareness and higher communication functions, we’re remarkably shitty at both.
And yet. It’s not just some egotistical drive to be the interpreter of the world that drives us back ever more reassuringly to our own memories and understandings of our lives. It’s the texture of those sensory encounters—the “grain” of our senses, if you will. A cloudy day isn’t just darker than a sunny one. There’s a smell to it, and a certain way the shadows move, and a hundred other little idiosyncratic differences that make our cloudy day different from everybody else’s. More importantly (perhaps most important), there’s our emotions. Depending on if we’re happy or sad, energetic or reflective, frustrated or calm, the outside world changes according to our non-transferable and spontaneous moods, coloring everything we see, hear, and do. We don’t want to lose that texture. It gives meaning to the senses. Without it, we’re just a faulty camcorder. We may not be able to trust our eyes and ears, but we can trust our emotions, because they have no basis in facts.
David Haller believes he is broken. He’s been told it so many times, in so many different ways, that he long ago gave up trusting his own senses. The opening montage, set to The Who’s “Happy Jack,” depicts this transformation from happy youth to hopeless man, through a series of slow-motion tableaus. But it’s his first couple of appearances in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital that convey the shaky self-perception he has. After years in the system (his “260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship Mental Health,” as he says), he’s retreated into the easy cynicism of the long-term patient. He sits back and lets the world happen around him, because he’s experienced what happened when he tried to take an active role. He’s been affixed with a label that reads, “Mentally ill: sees and hears imaginary things,” and that tarring has shredded his confidence and faith in himself. But now, after all this time, he has a reason to fight through the numbing fog—or more accurately, fight to get back the mental chaos. He might have to blow up a few rooms to make it happen, but people have done worse for love.
But even if his feelings are real, they’re about all he can be sure of. As “Chapter 1” repeatedly emphasizes, David has a tough time with reality. It’s not just that years of being institutionalized have left him ill-equipped to handle the rapidly unfolding events that occur in the premiere episode of Legion. It’s that his own mind adds and subtracts from his reality at will. We’re not sure what’s real, because David can’t be sure. The man perpetually ensconced in the foliage of Clockworks’ wall—is he really there? Are the nurses and orderlies’ outfits as they appear? Does Clockworks’ institutional design possess such large-than-life colors and layouts, or is David adding to them with his psyche? Right up until the end, when bullets are flying and impossible things are happening to soldiers wherever he turns, David has to get confirmation from an outside party that yes, this is all really happening. Inside the psychiatric hospital, he relied on Lenny to affirm the existence of other people. But now, even that’s up for debate. After all, she’s dead, so anything she says could be deceptive.
Legion begins in uncertainty, and throughout its running time, it places the viewer over and over in a position of questioning what we’re seeing. Time loops, flashbacks, and visions all serve to further destabilize our perspective, meaning we’re just as blind as David when it comes to knowing what’s actually taking place. A surrealistic nightmare triggers a display of power that he wasn’t even awake for. A kiss not only leads to body-swapping, but a hallucination of a grassy hill, covered with televisions all showing different images from his life. Even the periodically mentioned “devil with the yellow eyes,” an unsettling creature that looks like a reject from Hellraiser, can appear or disappear in any situation, and we’re left to wonder whether it’s really there, or just another fragment of David’s always-shifting perception. It’s enough to make you admire the young mutant’s ability to hold it together; imagine yourself dealing with these issues, and his relative stability starts to seem downright heroic.
But for all the psychedelic visuals and elliptical structure, Legion’s pilot tells a relatively coherent story, once it starts to fall into place in the back half of the episode. “Chapter 1” uses the interrogation-room tactic in order to dispense not only with a large amount of backstory (albeit with plenty of blank spots to fill in later), but as a means to break with the uncertainty of the Clockworks setting and David’s unreliable perspective. The first time we start to see the world as it is comes when The Interrogator departs the room where David’s being questioned, as the camera follows him through an empty swimming pool, what looks like a gymnasium or stage hall (is this a school?), past hordes of soldiers, and into a small area where another man advocates for murdering our protagonist before he realizes his “abilities.” Suddenly, there’s firm ground upon which to stand, narratively. David really is a mutant; he has incredible powers of telekinesis and more; and whoever these people are, they want him either dead or in their control.
And that’s where the connections to Fargo, Legion showrunner Noah Hawley’s other series, start to become clearer. Hawley is again demonstrating his interest isn’t in the canon of these pre-established universes or the complex mythology behind them. He cares about people—whether ordinary or gifted with immense powers—reacting to extraordinary events in unusual but realistic ways. Both shows are capable of droll comedy or outsized intensity, depending not only on the circumstances but on the people involved. A gruesome event can be tragic to one set of eyes, or darkly funny to another. In some ways, Legion allows Hawley to tackle his interests in the most straightforward way possible, by building the conflicting interpretations of events and individuals right into a single character. Fargo would have multiple characters read a situation differently, to rich and compelling results; David can do that all by himself.
But David’s story is inextricable from Sydney’s, because without her, none of this would have happened. It’s how he realizes his powers might exist after all—it took Sydney getting shunted into his body to trigger an event large enough to make it impossible for David to chalk it up to illness. The montage showing their blossoming romance (set to the Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow,” another on-the-nose but apropos selection) doubles as a sequence of David finding a reason to care about his life again. Honestly, for as impressive and kinetic as that climactic tracking shot was—and it was a hell of a feat—the most exciting development isn’t David’s delivery to the mysterious Melanie (Jean Smart), abetted by others who possess equally astonishing powers. It’s the realization that David doesn’t actually know Sydney at all. Was she sent to Clockworks in the first place to form a bond with him? Did she actually fall for David? It’s not just David’s own mind playing tricks on him—even if her intentions are good, Sydney has some explaining to do.
With the recent exception of Preacher, it’s rare to encounter a pilot that conveys so much story, and yet leaves the audience wondering, “Wait, what the hell is happening?” Having watched it twice now, I’m still discovering new surprises and catching things I missed the first time around. This is a dense show, packed with layer upon layer of story and symbolism, but it’s also not shy about exploring odd little tangents and asides that aren’t necessarily part of some larger scheme. That playfulness is freeing, and prevents it from getting weighted down with a Lost-like “everything has some hidden meaning” portentousness. Sometimes, a hallucinated cigar is just a hallucinated cigar.
Almost every bad guy we met was fried to a crisp, but the basic parameters of this fight have been outlined. David’s with a group of people Sydney has allied herself with, and that‘s good enough for him, for now anyway. This is a hell of a kickoff to a new series—visually arresting, sometimes frustrating, but never less than compelling. Who needs the larger X-Men universe when you’ve got the inside of Noah Hawley’s mind?
- Welcome, everyone, to the weekly reviews of Legion. I suspect this will be a show that benefits greatly from discussion with others, so I’m looking forward to your comments, your tweets, and the inevitable disagreements about just how bananas this series will eventually get. For now, it’s enough to just let this pilot—one I’m already willing to bet remains among the most striking of the coming year—soak in, Bollywood dance routines and all.
- If you were wondering how, exactly, the Clockworks disaster happened when Sydney’s psyche was in control of David’s body and powers, Lenny’s ghost sums it up nicely: “Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and be surprised when she blows shit up.”
- “We’re in your mind, they can’t track us here.” For now, I’m assuming one of Sydney’s associates has the power to pull off this maneuver.
- I was genuinely shocked by the reveal of Lenny’s death—not just because it was visually disturbing, but it’s a bold move to kill off Aubrey Plaza halfway through your first episode. Hoping she’s a regular as a ghost. (You should also check out our interview with Plaza about her experiences shooting this episode.)
- After his interrogator tells him he’s mis-remembering the car outside the hospital, David’s reply: “Well, you don’t need to be a dick about it...” At that point, making a pen fly into the guy’s cheek felt justified. Too bad his memory turned out to be faulty after all. Dramatic irony!