No one could blame you for being a little confused while watching the series premiere of Legion. If you go in knowing nothing, you may find Noah Hawley’s arresting visual style—which lies somewhere between his other FX series, Fargo and Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina—hard to place. If you’ve heard that Legion is Marvel’s latest foray into television, you may find yourself wondering where all the powers and aliens and action sequences are. If you, ike me, are familiar with Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s comics, on which the TV series is based, you may have been expecting something completely different altogether.
It’s okay. Take a minute. Breathe. And hang in there, because Legion is here to subvert your expectations in the best way possible.
On paper, the premise of “Chapter 1” reads a bit like a quirky early-2000s romantic comedy. David (Dan Stevens) grows up the beloved youngest in an upper-middle-class home somewhere in that idyllic part of America where movie children always seem to live before things go terribly wrong. In his teenage years, David begins acting out and is ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia. This leads to a suicide attempt, after which David is confined to a psychiatric institution where his only friend is the spunky yet inappropriate Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). Everything changes when Syd (Rachel Keller) arrives, and an unconventional romance—he’s schizophrenic, she won’t let anyone touch her—ensues, helping David embrace his “weirdness” fully and accept himself as he is.
Oh, there’s one thing I forgot: David’s not just any young man fighting mental illness. He’s also an extremely powerful mutant who may or may not be imagining everything, including his time in the institution and the people he meets there. As for Syd, it’s not that she doesn’t like to be touched, but (in true X-Men fashion) that she has a mutation, triggered by skin-to-skin contact, which might result in disaster. Will result in disaster. So, maybe not so much like a romantic comedy after all.
Don’t get me wrong, romance is at the heart of tonight’s episode. Watching David and Syd fall in love creates a safe space of familiarity in which Hawley can begin to employ a collection of extremely complex—and, yes, sometimes confusing—visual and aural cues to convey the disorder and uncertainty that exist in David’s mind. So, if you watched “Chapter 1” and had trouble keeping up, don’t worry. That’s kind of the point. We’re meant to feel as untethered as our protagonist. We’re meant to be unsure of what is really there and what isn’t, unclear on the distinctions between the symptoms of David’s schizophrenia, misremembered events, and the manifestations of his mutant personalities. It’s complicated, and at times exhausting, but it’s well worth it, too. At minimum, Hawley’s simplified dialogue—there’s a general lack of subtext in “Chapter 1” that’s done hilariously right—and a few moments in which things come to a standstill simply to explain what’s going on serve to keep any frustration at bay.
The cast is stellar as well, diving into the stylized movement and speech patterns of what is essentially a made up time period (somewhere between modern military intelligence and 1960s Tupperware party) with a surprising lack of self-consciousness—not an easy feat for a Marvel property, in which even the finest actors often seem to be giving a perpetual wink to the camera. I’ll be up front: Dan Stevens is a favorite of mine, and watching his exasperated reactions to other people for more than an hour is an experience I was already down for. Slightly more surprising are Keller (Fargo), as Syd, and Katie Aselton The League), as David’s sister, Amy. Convincingly playing the “normal” characters in science fiction is no easy task; it requires accepting the world of the show as true, but acting as though everything within it is strange. (It’s enough to give any actor a headache.) There are other promising performances as well, though Plaza does fall a little flat as a slightly more unhinged version of her Parks and Recreation character, April; time will tell if this is merely an example of typecasting fatigue or something more problematic.
Realistic elements aside, this is definitely a Marvel show. It takes time to get there, but sci-fi and action sequences abound as David’s interrogated by a shady government agency and terrorized by his multiple mutant personalities, the “legion” of the title. A slower burn than other Marvel series, such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil, does nothing to hurt Legion. Instead, it follows a pattern akin to Jessica Jones, taking the time to build relationships and lay out its core concept before pulling out all the stops for visual effects and battle sequences. You’ll have to wait it out, but when these moments come, they’re beautifully timed and wonderfully executed.
Not only a fun ride, but also a series with something to say about the nature of love and sanity, Legion sets a high bar for itself in “Chapter 1”: Pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to get right, as series often struggle to find their voice in the initial stages. Legion has no such worries. Its voice is clear, its style bold. All that remains to be seen is whether Hawley can do it again. Like, at least 7 more times.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website or follow her on Twitter.