Legion is an exercise in keeping your feet on the ground, whilst never letting you be entirely sure where that ground is. That’s the most impressive thing about the show, to me, the way it makes you think it’s the most insane, confusing, trippy thing in the world, while never leaving you lost. It guides you through the story with a careful hand, revealing every snippet of the information you need, precisely at the moment you need it. Yet throughout the whole messy tale, at every twist and turn, the audience is left with just enough questions to make us feel like our whole understanding of the show is unreliable.
The series follows David, a young man whose strange and colourful life has led him to a mental institution, inside which he’s kept subdued and passive at all times. It swiftly becomes clear, however, that certain people think there’s more to David than meets the eye. The first episode of the show is effectively a little puzzle, one that the shadowy figures questioning David, alongside the audience, are franticly trying to solve. His life flies at us from all angles, jumbled and confused, and it’s left to us to piece it back together. Except, and here’s the spanner in the works that makes the whole show tick, this whole twisted story is ostensibly set in the X-Men universe.
It’s about as much to do with the X-Men as my parents death is to do with me, meaning not very much at all. You don’t have to have watched the X-Men films or read the X-Men comics or ever done anything but scowl at the swathe of marvel movies popping up on cinema screens to enjoy Legion. You don’t have to enjoy superhero stuff at all. The reason that the show’s placement inside the X-Men universe makes it so special has nothing to do with the X-Men, or any other marvel franchise for that matter. It has everything to do with magic.
The show has a certain amount of craziness that you just accept thanks to its association with superheroes. In most shows witnessing impossible things happen inside the mind of a mentally ill guy in an asylum wouldn’t have any mystery to it at all. Of course it’s all fake, of course it’s all in his mind, there’s no way any of what we’re seeing is real. In the world of media we expect things to resolve themselves in a realistic, sensible way, unless the story explicitly warns us that the world in which the fiction sits isn’t at all the same as our own. Legion does this by virtue of making it a part of something bigger. In the world of the show, we take it for granted that the X-Men are real. Our natural assumptions based around a story like this, then, are flipped. The idea that it’s all really just in his mind becomes the more unlikely option. The idea that any of it, any single impossible second, isn’t as true as my most everlasting grief, becomes a twist rather than an assumption. In doing this Legion keeps alive the mystery. Some of it has to be real, but how much? How much has been twisted by whatever’s going on? How much of what we see is truth, how much is a lie, how much is important and how much will turn out to be nothing more than an inconsequential detail? These questions only remain alive and exciting because of the fact that a man with adamantium claws is running around somewhere, stabbing Russians and saving cities. In telling us the impossible is real, it makes even the most absurd possibilities distinctly plausible. It keeps your feet on the ground, while making sure you don’t know where that ground is.
Then there’s the editing. The editing that draws so much attention to itself that it’s almost obnoxious. What saves it, however, is that it’s just having so much fun. The show has a schizophrenic energy that holds throughout even the quieter moments, injecting the story with yet another layer of thematic weirdness in large part thanks to the inventive editing. This bleeds into the set design, which is filled with pulsing reds and bright yellows, and the costumes, an eclectic mix of 60s scifi and clinical specificity, and even the performances, equal part wacky and straight faced.
Dan Stevens when playing David, the main character, demonstrates the pure, maniacal joy of seeing the impossible and believing in it. He has this brilliant sly grin that tells you everything about how it must feel to live inside his head. Aubrey Plaza injects joyful, unhampered strangeness into every scene she’s in. Even characters who barely speak, who barely act, who are barely in the show at all, are filled to bursting with exaggerated, fun personalities. It’s a kaleidoscope of bizarre, fascinating people, and the actors manage to forge relatable moments in even the most strange of situations.
In the end, the most encouraging thing I can say about the show is that it’s weird. It’s very, very weird. It’s fun, and different, and a rare example of something that benefits from (sort of) taking place in a wider cinematic universe. It’s good. It’s really good. You should watch the good thing. You will watch the good thing. You will watch the good thing. It’s good, see. It’s really, really good.