[Note: The following contains spoilers from the series premiere of FX’s Legion.]
In the last scene of the Legion premiere, after David Haller (Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey) and Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller from the second season of Fargo) make their way through heavy gunfire to the bottom of a ravine, David asks what everyone who had just watched the preceding 90 minutes had also been wondering.
“I have to know,” he says, “is this—is this real?”
Sydney answers in the affirmative, but that’s probably what you’d expect a figment of your imagination to say if you were schizophrenic. There are hints throughout the episode—whispering voices, narrative skips, a Bollywood dance sequence, etc.—that David is mentally unstable. I mean, he does spend most of the episode in a mental hospital. Plus, the double-chinned, oompa-loompa-lookin’ troll that had popped up in odd places throughout the episode was lounging in the background there at the end, which may as well have been a CNN crawl that said, “BREAKING: Crazy Shit Is Happening Here.”
On the other hand, Legion is a Marvel Television production, and David Haller has a 30-year history as a powerful “Omega-level”—that is, super-duper powerful—mutant with the ability to read minds, control objects and travel through time. In the comics, those powers manifest through multiple personalities, with each having its own subset of powers. That got convoluted over time and would be doubly convoluted if presented from David’s schizophrenic point of view, which is the tack the series has taken.
If you believe most of what’s believable in the premiere, the barest outline is this: David grew up hearing voices, feeling unsettled and acting out. He was a troubled youth who probably was a headcase, but not for reasons the people around him may have thought. The voices in his head were more than his sanity could handle, but they were real voices that he could hear because he was telepathic. He spent several years as a young adult at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital where he wore awesome tracksuits, stayed heavily medicated and met Syd Barrett. David’s sister (Katie Aselton from The League) brings him a cupcake on his birthday.
Something happens with David and Syd. The day Syd is leaving this hospital, David kisses her and the world turns upside down. A shadowy government agency called Division 3 has him, and they seem to know what’s up. “If the readings are right, he may be the most powerful mutant we have ever encountered,” the interrogator (Hamish Linklater) says. Everything else—the aforementioned oompa-loompa (credited as “Devil with the yellow eyes”), the dude who looks like Sappity Tappity, the swirling kitchen utensils, whether David and Syd had a Freaky Friday-style body swap when the kissed—is open to interpretation and, we hope, further explanation in later episodes.
If Legion had been written and directed by, say, David Lynch or Westworld’s Jonathan Nolan, I’d advise strapping in for the long, demented haul, but the creator here is Noah Hawley, the brains behind hypnotic though fairly straightforward suspense novels like last year’s Before the Fall and two seasons of FX’s compulsively watchable Fargo. Given Hawley’s pedigree and Legion’s—and the fact that I’ve seen the next two episodes of the series—I think we’re headed for a compelling pulse-pounder about alienation and persecution that you’ll recognize as existing in the X-Men film universe.
In the second episode, the show’s narrative approach begins to take on less stream of consciousness and more Inception-style nested stories. He’s in an MRI machine having a memory of having another memory that may have been partly hallucinated. It’s still knotty and confusing and a little trippy, but you start to see cues to what’s a memory, what’s a hallucination and what’s actually happening. David really is special, and the nice people at Summerland, akin to Xavier’s Home for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men, are helping him sort it out.
Which is not to say that he’s safe. Remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the black helicopters aren’t coming for you, and every indication in David’s case is that they very much are.