“Something new needs to happen soon,” says David Haller (Dan Stevens) in the first episode of FX’s Legion, which premieres Wednesday night. He’s railing against the mind-numbing boredom of life in a mental institution, where he’s been placed after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but David’s imperative is also, nakedly, a statement of purpose from the show’s creator, Noah Hawley. (This surely won’t be the only review that quotes it.) Its target is the purportedly inertial state of the superhero genre, which Hawley and Co. have come to shake up and reinvent; Legion is inspired by a character from Marvel Comics’ X-Men universe, but it’s at pains to avoid anything that looks like traditional comic-book iconography. And television is, by Hawley’s lights, the perfect medium in which to do so. As he explained in an interview:
What a television show can do that a movie can’t do is it’s not just a plot delivery device. It’s not about action, it’s about character and theme and as we see in Fargo, you can really play with structure and you can deconstruct the story in a big way. Whereas in a two-hour movie, it’s “What’s the problem? Where’s the bad guy? Let’s go get him!”
Leaving aside the persistent-but-fruitless debate over whether the TV series or the theatrical feature is the superior format—are knives better than forks?—this has to be one of the most reductive and self-serving descriptions of the motion picture medium in its century-plus history. (Lest there be any confusion, the Fargo to which he refers is the Hawley-created TV series, not Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie, a famous example of the “What’s the problem? Where’s the bad guy? Let’s go get him!” school of filmmaking.) “Deconstruct” is a word Hawley uses with the fervor of a dewy-eyed graduate student but it doesn’t seem like an accurate description of what the series is doing, or even trying to do.
Exactly what it is trying to do remains unclear, even after watching the three episodes (out of eight) provided to critics in advance. The series begins with an impressionistic montage set to the Who’s “Happy Jack,” a succession of shots that take David from a beaming baby in his crib, to a sullen teenager calmly strolling away from a flaming storefront, to an anguished young man attempting to hang himself with an electrical cord, finally depositing us at the Clockworks psychiatric hospital in what might be the present day. (The combination of vintage outfits and near-future technology seems designed to prevent our pinpointing when, or perhaps if, this is all taking place.)
Given that the comic-book version of David Haller, created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, is an all-powerful X-Man with hundreds of distinct personas, one might have expected Hawley to opt for something off Quadrophenia instead, but the choice of an early single from a time before Pete Townshend got into writing songs about childhood trauma and mental illness is like a subliminal heads-up that we’re effectively coming into the story before the beginning. Like Westworld, Legion seems to be building to its premise rather than starting with it; even three hours in, we’ve only scratched the surface of David’s powers, which begin with telepathy and telekinesis but don’t seem to end there. The show seduces you with style and self-assurance like a friend with a flashlight leading you down a dark hallway: You won’t know where we are going, but trust me, when we get there, you’re gonna love it.
Hawley loves his classics, both rock and film, and he wants you to know it. Clockworks is named for one Stanley Kubrick film and patterned after another, with gleaming white 2001 hallways that flash HAL 9000–red when David loses his temper. The similarly superpowered Clockworks patient he meets, played by Rachel Keller, is named Sydney Barrett—a Pink Floyd reference that’s less a nod than a spasmodic jerk. Hawley’s Fargo was a pastiche by design, a mix-n-match fan edit of the Coen brothers’ entire oeuvre, but unless there’s a Usual Suspects–type twist in the works revealing David’s entire story was made up while scrolling through a Spotify “Hits of the ’60s” playlist, the dorm-room name come off as a sophomoric affectation.
The second and third episodes drop some of the pilot’s more rococo touches, which include a dance number set to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Pauvre Lola,” trading psychedelic phantasmagoria for encroaching horror. After David and Syd escape the asylum, they come under the supervision of Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird, an enigmatic authority figure who’s gathering together like-empowered mutants to protect them from the secret government agency that wants to either control or destroy them. Although David’s flight is abetted by a telekinetic mutant who flicks away armored troops with a wave of his hand, the two fellow mutants who get the most screen time have more internally focused abilities: There’s Cary (Bill Irwin), a nattily attired scientist who’s sometimes also a young woman named Kerry (Amber Midthunder), and Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), a “memory artist” who allows people to explore their own memories as if they were talking through the rooms of a house.
David’s memories turn out to be a uniquely forbidding place full of dark patches and impassible zones of a kind neither Ptonomy nor Melanie have ever seen before. As he sifts through them, a shoulderless creature called “the devil with yellow eyes” keeps turning up in the corner or between strobe-light flashes, sometimes accompanied by a trumpet blast that’s meant to jolt you out of your seat, and we keep circling back to a scene of David’s father, whose face we never see, reading him a children’s book about a boy who chops off his mother’s head. (Have you seen The Babadook? Noah Hawley has.) There’s no trace of David’s parents in the present day, only a sister (Katie Aselton) who quickly falls into the government’s clutches; in the comics, he’s revealed as the son of the X-Men’s Professor Xavier, but for both contractual and artistic reasons that’s unlikely to be the case here. So we’re left for now to imagine the precise nature of the childhood trauma David is obviously repressing, and how much of what’s presented as reality is actually a fiction he’s created to keep those memories hidden.
Like Fargo, Legion is a well-appointed show: It’s handsomely shot, and smartly acted, and ingeniously constructed enough to suggest there’s something mind-blowing lurking at its center. (It practically begs to be dissected and fan-theorized in a way that’s as much marketing gimmick as narrative strategy.) But as Hawley pushes from jazzed-up origin story to psychodrama, it starts to feel like a show with a Rubik’s cube where its heart should be. Stevens is shouldering a tremendous weight here, responsible for getting viewers to invest in David’s emotional crisis whether he’s fleeing mortal danger or talking with the sarcastic ghost of a dead friend, and he sometimes buckles and twitches under the strain. This particular version of David Haller may or may not have multiple personalities, but Legion itself does, and it can’t seem to decide which one should take the lead.