When I heard that Fox and Marvel were adapting Chris Claremont’s X-Men character Legion for TV, I had many thoughts of what that TV show might look like. Coincidentally, an eclectic and fascinating psychological thriller was not one of those thoughts.
Note: This review is based only on the pilot episode of the show.
In short, David Haller is a paranoid schizophrenic. He hears voices, sees things that aren’t there (most notably a yellow-eyed demon with a goiter), and has delusions of superpowers.
Had delusions, he would say. I’m getting better, he would say.
And by all accounts, he seems to be. He takes his medicine, keeps his head down, acknowledges that those delusions were in fact just delusions, and if he sees anything that he knows he shouldn’t, he just tells himself that it’s notthere and tries his best to ignore it. In every way that counts, this mental hospital seems to be doing him some good. He asks when he can come home, looks forward to trying to put his life back together again in some small way.
But then bad things start to happen. His girlfriend, the girlfriend that everyone around him has interacted with, too, goes missing. And not just goes missing, but the hospital has no record of her ever being there. Intimidating men from the government, supposedly investigating her disappearance, show up and things start to get darker and more troublesome. All of this, spearheaded by Dan Stevens’s terrific performance, is leading up to one question: “Is this real?”
Perhaps the most clever thing about the show’s structure is its accessibility – you don’t have to know anything at all about the X-Men franchise in order to get into this show. It starts from the level of reality as we know it to be, intending later (presumably) to open us up to the greater mythology of the franchise. But the second layer of the show, which reveals what its true brilliance is likely to be, comes with that question: “Is this real?”
In many psychological thrillers, there is a special emphasis on, or at least flirtation with, existentialism: the idea that (culturally speaking, at least) the individual gives his or her own meaning to life (to be fair, philosophical existentialism is much more complicated, but this is how the ideas express themselves in the culture). In psychological thrillers such as those dealing with mental illness, this typically results in some ending that challenges us on whether what we are experiencing is actually real – can we trust our senses, and can we discern any reality as true? For most of these stories, the answer is no, much like the ending of Christopher Nolan’s Inception – which reality does the spinning top point us to at the end? Your answer is as good as mine, and it’s hard telling if Nolan himself knows which it’s supposed to be, or even if it is supposed to be one or the other.
But when it comes to David Haller, one answer isn’t just as good as another. He desperately needs to know what’s real and what isn’t. In many ways, we’re watching his journey to that discovery. In that sense, Legion is a subversion of the psychological thriller genre, using its tropes to tell a story that is the mirror image of genre norms. For all of these reasons, Legion is fascinating, thrilling, and moving all at the same time. It uses a philosophical framework that is much more robust than its contemporaries, even while painting an intense emotional picture of his struggle in not being able to trust his own mind, and using a very intriguing visual style to do so.
It does all of this even while having relatively few content concerns. In the first episode, the only sexual content is a blink-and-you-miss-it clip of David sitting on the edge of a bed presumably after sex (a woman behind him, with explicit nudity obscured), and some innuendo. The language, while present, is relatively mild for the show’s TV-MA rating. In short, this is a very promising start to a very intriguing TV show, and one that, if it continues to be grounded in objectivity, could be a solid basis for a thrilling series.