TV Recap: Legion - Chapter One
I’m pretty easy to win over as it is, but when the first second of your show opens up with The Who I’m immediately on your side. Even if it’s not a particular favorite song of mine, like “Happy Jack”. Played over a slow-motion montage of our main character, David Haller, maturing from blissfully ignorant infancy to older, alienated, adulthood, the visuals and music all reek of Quadrophenia, a likely intentional connection considering both deal in mental health and varying perspectives all being displayed at once.
David Haller’s mental health is the forefront of “Chapter One” and as I would expect, Legion as a whole. Doused in surreal imagery and the constant reminder of an untrustworthy narrator, most of the pilot is shown to us through his eyes. This means it’s incongruous, inconsistent, and nonlinear. For the most part it works, considering the episode has the good grace to, more or less, root itself in reality by its final minutes. Well, root itself in its reality.
At the beginning of the episode Haller is in Clockworks, a rehabilitation center for the mentally ill. Here he meets, and falls hard for, Sydney Barrett (a blunt-force-trauma grade reference to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett), a troubled girl who can’t stand to be touched. The two fall for each other, and we’re treated to some time with their lived in, comfortable relationship. Moments like the pair holding opposite ends of a towel to replicate holding hands provide the building of their relationship through montage some actual emotional heat, and with Aubrey Plaza as David’s friend and comic relief sidekick, we’ve got all the makings for a quirky romantic comedy. Of course, David also spends his free time accidentally levitating himself in his sleep and having visions of “The Devil with Yellow Eyes”.
Yes, let’s not forget that David Haller is a “mutant” (a word not mentioned until roughly a third into the 90 minute premiere) and his not-yet fully defined powers include uncontrolled telekinesis. Legion doesn’t really worry about us remembering it’s technically an X-Men show, and instead opts to hammer home the fact it’s a “mental illness” show. Haller’s mental state is the main focus here, and when things around him do start to get pretty superhuman, his question is very simple: “Is this real?” If it weren’t for the fact this IS an X-Men show, that’d undoubtedly be a question the audience was asking too: Perhaps the show’s entire twist is that this is all taking place in his head. Hell, creator Noah Hawley hasn’t shown much interest in preserving any connection to the character’s origins to begin with so making his X-Men show about a world where X-Men don’t even actually exist doesn’t sound too far-fetched at this point.
Pilots are, intentionally or not, a show’s thesis. They almost always get refined, stretched a little, and maybe just outright swapped, but that first episode will always come off as your basis for where the show is going, why, and how it’s going to get there. I spent most of “Chapter One” worried that Legion might be following the template of other recent first seasons like Preacher and Westworld. Both shows spent their entire first seasons developing their premise. Everything felt like foreshadowing and delaying plot revelations required keeping the audience in the dark, often at the expense of character development. Yet by the end of this episode, people who came off as potential antagonists and allies alike are dead, we’re introduced to a whole new set of characters, and all the while got to know our two leads and learn a little about the world Hawley is building.
“Chapter One” did what a good pilot should and set up characters and plots for us to explore and live in over the course of the upcoming season, while maintaining mystery and uncertainty to keep the audience questioning and, ultimately, coming back. The reliance on Haller’s mental state, both for visual purposes and displaying how Hawley intends to explore “superpowers” is ultimately the biggest crux of the show, but there’s no point in trying to use this one episode to determine what Legion is. We have seven more episodes this season, a tight order promising that Hawley knows exactly what he wants to accomplish and how to get there. The relationship between Haller and Syd, coupled with the unique approach from Haller’s perspective, seems able to sustain the show on its own, so when the superhero aspects get introduced to a stronger degree there’s likely going to be a lot of thesis shifting going on.