"Legion," which premiered last night on FX, is maybe the most un-recappable show in the history of modern television. There are so many time jumps, narrative shifts, flashbacks, and potential dream sequences, that even following it can be a bit of a challenge. Actually putting it into some kind of linear analysis seems like a fools errand at best and actively self-destructive at worse.
So, instead of a straight recap, what I'm going to do is answer some questions, put the show into context, and add a little bit of insight -- or at least try to, anyway.
Wait, What Is "Legion"?
I know. Those commercials during the Super Bowl were really confusing. And it's a shame because "Legion" is probably the most exciting new series to come along in a while. "Legion" is created by certifiable genius Noah Hawley, who reconfigured the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" into one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed cable shows on air and stars "Downton Abbey" breakout star Dan Stevens in the role of David Haller, a man who may or may not be losing his mind (and who may or may not have extraordinary powers). Much of the pilot takes place in the nefarious, Kubrickian Clockworks Institute, a kind of mental health facility for incredibly troubled individuals (in a virtuoso opening montage, we see David grow up and eventually try to commit suicide). Oh, and it's sort of based on a character from Marvel's long-running "X-Men" comic book franchise. Did I forget to mention that?
So It's Based on a Comic Book?
Well, yes. It's based on a character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, who made his debut in "The New Mutants," a spin-off of the incredibly popular "Uncanny X-Men." Heller, in the comic books at least, is someone who has multiple personalities and whose personalities take a very literal form -- disparate characters would fight for control over Heller's mind (some were good and some were very, very bad). It was incredibly ambitious and hard to visualize, which makes the decision to base an entire series around this character (the titular "Legion" are those inside of Heller wrestling for psychic superiority).
But What About the X-Men?
Despite FX running two "X-Men" movies back-to-back before the premiere of "Legion," there's no real connection (so far) between the mutants and the show. In the comic books, Heller is found out to be the son of Charles Xavier, the grand leader of the X-Men (played in the films, alternately, by Patrick Stewart and Michael Fassbender). It seems unlikely, given the kaleidoscopic nature of the show and its stubborn refusal to be placed into any one box (especially one marked "comic books") that this connection will be fortified, and not just because it would take a lot to get either of those actors to appear on a basic cable series. "Legion" is unlike anything you've seen on television and anything even remotely related to the superhero movies that populate our multiplexes or the serialized sagas on television. This is some next level stuff.
How Is the First Episode?
Amazing. It's a disorienting, fully realized trip and a huge reminder that Hawley is one of TV's brightest visionaries, in or out of the snow.What Actually Happens?
Well, that's the biggest question.
In this first episode, David is being questioned by several doctors, both in the Clockworks Institute and by a mysterious paramilitary force led by an inquisitive, creepy doctor played by indie movie favorite Hamish Linklater. A suicide attempt might have gotten him institutionalized, but a large psychic outbreak (his powers are very extreme) is what landed him in the company of the bad guys. The episode toggles between a number of timelines, so it's unclear when, exactly, the events are unfolding, although a rather violent escape at the end of the episode suggests that David has escaped the baddies and has now joined with some benevolent freedom fighters, led by Jean Smart (obviously). But what's more important than what actually happens, on a narrative-level, is the world that Hawley and company have set up.
David is about as unreliable a main character as you're likely to find, and his psychological state is such that even if characters die off, they can return in his consciousness. (My theory is that this is going to be like their version of the comic book's multiple characters; instead of personalities fighting for control of David, other characters will simply visit him inside of his consciousness.) At one point, Hawley had told press that the entire series takes place within David, so that definitely throws a wrench in things. (The inspired production design, too, is beautiful and disorienting, mixing modernism with high-tech gadgetry in a really incredible way. It's very hard to pin down.) What is happening? What is real? What is fantasy? And does it really matter? The only thing I know the answer to is the last question and it's a big fat NO.
"Legion" weaves a singular spell around the audience that's hard to shake, and while there are certainly a number of mysteries presented in this initial offering (who or what is the devil with the yellow eyes?), it's the kind of thing that's best experienced and not intellectualized. Also, keep in mind that I haven't even discussed Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett, another mutant who swaps bodies with David at one point. Just typing this stuff out is a reminder of how bonkers this show really, truly is. Ah, I love it.
So Where Does It Go From Here?
I haven't watched anymore episodes and stayed away from the "next week on 'Legion'" teaser because, honestly, who wants to get spoiled? From the looks of it, David will fall in line with Jean Smart and whatever she's up to, while outrunning the villainous forces we were introduced to in the pilot. Just from casting notices, we know that the always wonderful Jemaine Clement will be a member of Smart's resistance (he plays her husband, who has "spent the last 20 years on the astral plane"). There are, of course, looming questions, like: How does the devil with the yellow eyes fit into all this? What is the exact chronology of everything? And, who are these forces on either side of the fight? But, more than that, the show will hopefully let us into David's world, watching him grow and change, and, hopefully, stop causing so many things to blow up with his mind.
Either way, we'll see you next week for another recap.