Embarking on a new TV show is like dating someone new. There’s got to be some level of attraction to get the relationship off the ground—some sort of visual, intellectual, or emotional appeal. You have to be invested in what happens next, whether it’s a plot twist or sleeping over for the first time. The question is whether your investment pays off. Will the two of you come in hot, then cool into something more manageable, but less fiery (Mr. Robot)? Will your new beau be a cold, good-looking dud with nothing more to offer than sexual scars (Westworld)? Or will this be that rarest of things, the one where you go the distance, where every week is better than the one before, where eventually you can’t imagine your life without it?
The first few episodes of Legion feel like a fresh, strongly promising relationship. It’s based on an X-Men character, which triggers all sorts of preconceived notions, but the guy guiding the ship is Noah Hawley, who turned the Coen Brothers’ Fargo into a richly layered, sustainable world for television. If anyone’s going to turn a Marvel character on his ear, it’s Hawley.
I’m hesitant to tell you what Legion’s deal is. The less you know, the better. I’m three episodes in, and only a few pieces of the puzzle are connected so far: The main character, David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), has a combination of telepathic and telekinetic powers, but he’s hounded by visions, often terrifying ones. The people keeping him under watch at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital think he’s schizophrenic. But he comes into contact with some people who know more about this whole being-a-mutant thing, and their leader, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), suspects David’s perfectly healthy. David’s not so sure.
The first episode of Legion is a sprawling, tumultuous piece of filmmaking—one of the most exciting pilots I’ve seen. It’s also one of the most confusing: Hawley unfolds events in chronological switchbacks, with stream-of-consciousness and experimental filmmaking techniques. On a plot level, the story—already thick with hallucinations—is nearly illegible.
But Hawley finds Legion’s emotional throughline from the first frames, which depict David’s childhood in a series of vivid, economic tableaux. From then on, we experience Legion intuitively rather than rationally. The pull is so strong that every time you think, “Wait, what the fu—” Hawley’s already wrenched you forward into the next scene. The visual palette, too, is more intuitive than logical, utilizing the same oranges and blues from the French and English films of the ’60s that inspired Wes Anderson.
It’s all giddy, good fun. And yet I’m a little trepidatious about Legion. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of the show, which seems to be telling an emotional story about mental wellness against a backdrop of metaphysics. It might be almost too good, at least at the outset—where can it possibly go from here? And its tricksy habit of playing its cards close to the vest could easily wear thin after a few more episodes.
But there are signs of real promise: Stevens is exceptional—warm and pathetic and, occasionally, scary. He’s matched by an incredible Rachel Keller as David’s girlfriend, Syd Barrett (the show is full of Pink Floyd references). Syd’s own powers, which I won’t spoil, make their relationship, uh, unconventional, and while I’m oddly stressed out about their future as a couple, the emotional space they share right now is riveting.
All told, watching Legion—at least at this early stage—is infatuating. I don’t know if it will be the healthiest relationship in the long run. Honestly, I don’t really even see how it can continue at this rate. But I’m ready to make a commitment, and even if it all crashes and burns in the end, I’m hooked. Crap.