I imagine many people saw news of a new superhero show on FX and reacted lukewarmly. Upon hearing Legion was yet another entry in the already saturated X-Men franchise some might even have scoffed. If you’ve decided you’re not interested in yet another superhero show or X-Men show or have an overly-stuffed television schedule that can’t possibly fit another show, I’m here to tell you to make room. Legion’s premiere was a winner that everyone should give a shot.
It’s stylish, it’s different, and it’s a thrill ride of brain-twisting weirdness unlike any superhero show you have ever seen.
As a warning, this review contains spoilers for “Chapter 1,” as well as a content warning for attempted suicide.
The episode begins with a montage of main character David Haller growing up from baby to healthy boy to the full manifestation of his powers, which sent his life in a downwards spiral. We quickly get a sense of how badly this change affected him. David becomes violent, begins drinking, starts taking prescription pills, and eventually the montage ends with him hanging himself. It’s quick and effective.
So, not exactly your typical superhero here.
The scene transitions to David’s sister Amy lighting a candle in a cupcake. She is visiting him on his birthday in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, and judging by their conversation he has been there long enough to grow used to it, but obviously not long enough for his sister to know he can’t take the cupcake from her.
It is also established that David hears voices and sees hallucinations. He sees them here as well, even as his sister insists he seems better.
Next we see David’s normal routine, which mainly consists of taking his prescribed medication and hanging out with his best friend Lenny. He also experiences more hallucinations. Quick note: Aubrey Plaza is delightful as Lenny. This character was written as a middle-aged man, but when Plaza was cast she insisted they not change anything. As a result she constantly references old TV shows and makes crass, but innocent remarks about women. Combined with her mannerisms, she really comes across as unisexual. She is so much fun to watch.
Also take note of the man in the greenery. They revisit him multiple times.
David and Lenny are watching a man drooling on himself when another main character comes walking down the stairs, one Sydney Barrett. All the while Plaza makes crass remarks. David is immediately drawn to her and tries to talk to her, but when he bumps into her, she does not like it and hurries away.
Legion then gives us another montage (they happen quite a bit) while David sleeps. There are a variety of shots: him as a child and teenager, him hanging himself, a variety of appliances flying around a kitchen, and his brief meeting with Sydney. A voice asks him about a devil with yellow eyes. After a shot of some very strange bald humanoid with a gigantic fat neck (gee, it has yellow eyes!), David’s bed crashes to the ground and breaks. A bunch of hospital staff rush into the room to subdue him despite David’s pleas that it’s not necessary.
I’ll take this moment to say the montages are a little bit exposition-y. Legion tried to pack a lot into its extra-sized premiere and the montages were a necessary evil to do so. As one of those weirdos who likes to see the drawn out details of character interaction, I do look at some of these as a missed opportunity. They did the job, but I can’t help but want more.
From here we see a group therapy session with his therapist, Dr. Kissinger. There’s reference to an incident with another doctor when David stopped taking medication. Sydney joins them and immediately contradicts the doctor’s insistence that David’s issues are mental, and whatever power he feels is not real. Immediately you wonder who Sydney is and what she’s doing there. Her words here are way too specific.
We also learn that Sydney does not like to be touched. She also prefers isolation. When she says that a person’s problems are “what makes you you,” David asks if she will be his girlfriend. She agrees, so long as he never touches her.
Guess what? Time for another montage! This one focuses on David and Sydney hanging out around the hospital. Perfect example of my earlier point despite the montage generally working. It makes their time seem like it took place over a long time, but considering they never wear anything different it’s more likely this all took place in the same day. There is a shot of them walking down the hallway holding a piece of cloth to substitute holding hands that is really adorable.
At the end of the day they stare out a window at the city, and Sydney shows him how she imagines herself outside the hospital. David uses their reflections to “kiss.” What a romantic.
Normally a sequence like this would do little to nothing for me. This one worked, though. Maybe it’s because I suspected something more to Sydney’s interest, or because I was happy to see David so eagerly respect her boundaries. We do still live in a world where such respect immediate from the man towards the woman is uncommon on TV. Whatever the reason, I really loved this. I felt like they actually cared for each other despite their short time together.
Unfortunately, it all comes crashing down when the episode transitions to David being questioned in a room about “the woman who disappeared.” This takes place after he left Clockworks. Another incident has taken place and the man questioning David claims to be looking for Sydney, all the while questioning whether she actually existed.
We quick cut back to Clockworks while Dr. Kissinger talks to David about hanging himself, before just as quickly cutting back to the interrogation (even here it was obvious this was an interrogation). The interrogator initially decides not to talk about David’s past, before sharing a moment with a colleague and changing his mind.
David talks about the decision to hang himself. He had recently been expelled from college, the voices bothered him terribly, and he decided to end his life despite the voices trying to stop him. Yet apparently no noose was found when the police found him, just David with burns on his neck. He’s asked, after another brief flashback of him telling Kissinger about his mental powers, whether he still believes he has those powers. David says he doesn’t believe that anymore, but asks if that’s why he’s being questioned, if his interrogators think whatever incident occurred is because of some power David has. Also revealed is that this vague “incident” has left some woman dead.
Back in his time at the hospital, Sydney comes to David’s room while he sleeps to tell him she has been approved for release. There’s also more respect of Sydney’s opposition to touching here which I really love. Obviously this news bothers David and he briefly tries to kiss her. I know, this goes against the respect I just said he showed but he does not react badly to being denied. It’s more of a “oops I forgot” moment.
The interrogator asks about her aversion to touching. David talks about not questioning it, since many people in the hospital have something that bothers them. He loses his cool and asks for a break. The interrogator leaves the room and travels through what turns out to gym. Various armed special forces types inhabit the place. He reaches a surveillance area where he talks with an older man, confirming that they know David has powers, and he may be the most powerful mutant they’ve ever encountered.
They believe David is innately aware of his powers but does not understand or control them. The older man wants to kill him but the interrogator asks to be allowed to keep going.
Back with David, he asks for the man sitting across from him to leave. Notice the carving of the dog. I suppose it is somehow related to the dog shown at the end of the previous scene. He slips into a memory of a scene we saw earlier where the kitchen appliances flew around the room. Notice again the yellow-eyed demon.
He returns to normal as the interrogator comes into the room with a bunch of men rolling monitoring equipment into the room. He notices they are all scared of him when he doesn’t immediately comply with them. The interrogator insists they are worried for him, because he is ill, but obviously we know he’s lying. David, however, lets them put the equipment on him.
Finally, we get a look at the incident which landed him in this room, which happened at Clockworks. Sydney readies to leave with Dr. Kissinger. She asks Lenny were David is, and Lenny stalls her by asking Sydney to bring her a candy bar she saw on TV. David comes rushing into the room and kisses her. As they kiss, the camera zooms onto and through David’s mind, showing images of his life.
When the episode returns, we see that the kiss sent both of them sprawling away from each other. David starts panicking while the other patients and staff try to restrain him. The lights go out. David starts walking among the other patients in the dark room, and the yellow-eyed demon shows up again. At this point I think it’s clear that thing means bad news. I was willing to give its evil appearance a pass at first, but something messed up is clearly about to go down specifically signaled by its presence.
The hospital shakes while Kissinger tends to Sydney. It becomes clear it is not actually Sydney. The episode cuts back to the interrogation room where David tells the man questioning him the kiss must have switched their minds. He thinks that was the reason she never let anyone touch her. He again panics, and Chekov’s pen on the table begins to shake.
Yes, I just spoiled you. Reading this means you either know what happens or were reading spoilers anyway.
The interrogator calms David down and asks him to continue the story. We see Dr. Kissinger walk back to the spot where the kiss happened. Sydney/David follows him. They follow the sounds of screaming and pounding fists to the hallway where the patient rooms are. Only the doors are gone and solid wall stands in their place. Eventually they find Lenny dead, half of her body sticking out of the wall.
No! Come on, Aubrey Plaza was so great! She can’t be done already!
Based on the story, David and the interrogator believe that after Sydney transferred into his body, she lost control of his powers and caused the incident which brought David to the room.
Sydney/David is rushed from the hospital despite his pleas that he was not Sydney. A black car pulls up and two people exit it. David insists that his interrogator was a third person in the car. The interrogator insists he’s wrong and that he wants to know who the people in the car were. David finally loses his cool and uses his power to send the pen flying into the interrogator’s cheek. He destroys the room with basically a flick of the wrist before gas is pumped into the room to knock him out.
While he’s out we get some recollections of David and his sister as children interspersed with Sydney sitting at a café somewhere. However, when a waitress walks away it is David sitting there, throwing into question whether the mind switch happened at all. Honestly, this is where the brain-twisty stuff might have been a bit much. It’s never made clear at all what the hell happened here. Was the switch fake? Was this David after their minds eventually switched to normal?
I honestly have no idea. David probably doesn’t either.
The memory continues with David showing up at his sister’s house on Halloween (notice the kids at the door wearing prison pinstripes). Amy and her husband are understandably cautious to see him. After serving him some waffles (David apparently loves waffles), she sets David up in a room.
And hey, Aubrey Plaza is back! Though Lenny is still dead. David hallucinates her, and she blames him for killing her. She doesn’t let him use the excuse that Sydney did it. However, she is not upset about her death. Then she warns him that “they” are coming to find and kill him. David breaks a lamp while panicking, and his sister comes down to check on him. And takes every sharp object in the basement before she leaves. I can’t say I blame her.
After David goes to sleep, we get the weirdest part of the episode, which says a lot considering how much weird stuff happens. While Sydney calls his name, he dreams of Sydney, Lenny, himself, and the other patients dancing in the hospital. Why is this here? What does it mean? I have no idea. I’ll leave the theorizing to those who know interpretive art symbolism better than I do.
When David comes to, he has been seated in a chair inside the pool in the gym. Powered cables sit inside the water to electrocute him if he makes a wrong move. David, however, laughs, thinking it’s all another illusion. The interrogator drops all pretense of helping him. He says he knows about David’s power, he knows about Sydney, he knows that people came for her the day of the incident, and wants to find her.
David says he went looking for Sydney, and we see the memory of him doing so. He calls the hospital only to be told they have no record of her. He hangs up when he spots the two people from the car earlier and hurries away. Eventually he gives them the slip, but Sydney’s head appears on the back of a man’s head. Then Sydney herself shows up. She tells him this isn’t real, it’s his memory, and she’s been projected into his memory.
Okay, Legion, seriously. This is perfectly timed confusion, and because of the X-Men universe, completely makes sense. Bravo.
The memory rewinds as they walk along, the two chasers back on David’s tail. Sydney tells him he is in a government facility and those people are not cops. She tells him to slide out of his chair and when he sees the lights, stay underwater until he sees her. Then the interrogator’s guys nab him.
David comes to back in his chair in the pool. He realizes the third person in the car he mistook as the interrogator was a woman. The swimming area heats up visibly, making everyone uncomfortable. The interrogator asks again where the girl is. Lights start appearing, and when the interrogator tries to electrocute David the button doesn’t work. David slips into the water and all hell breaks loose.
When he surfaces, Sydney is waiting with the two people from the black car. She introduces the man as Ptonomy and the woman as Kerry, before telling him “Melanie” is waiting for them. The episode ends with a badass breakout scene. They all blast through the special forces with ease, mostly due to a guy we don’t learn the name of who tosses the ground and boulders and shit around to smash people.
I’m just going to call him “The Boulder” until we learn his name. And maybe keep calling him that afterwards.
David eventually stops Sydney to get a reassurance that everything happening is real. Thank you, David! Because seriously, at this point everyone watching probably wonders the same thing. If Legion has taught us anything at this point, we should question everything happening. Sydney assures him this is real, that she came back for him and it’s real and she loves him. Then she reminds him to say it back and he does happily. Seriously, how do I love this relationship so much already? There’s not that much special to it.
Melanie Bird (played by the amazing Jean Smart) waits for them, and we cut to black when David takes her hand.
Phew, that was a long, fun, confusing ride.
Legion’s premiere was something else. And to be clear, something really, really good.
I suppose some people will be turned away by the confusing nature of this episode. It jumps timelines from scene to scene, and keeping track becomes tough sometimes. David’s hallucinations make the validity of what you see hard to determine. Not everyone likes shows where you can’t be sure what’s real from moment to moment.
Neither does it help when Legion never clarifies certain things. Maybe I’m just slow to understand the whole mind switch, for example, but they never really explained what happened. Legion will require an investment from viewers; you’ll need to stick out the entire ride and journey into full awareness right along David.
Which is the point of the confusion, of course. We learn the story right alongside him. Our confusion mirrors his own. As the season progresses and David obtains a better grasp of his powers, his grasp on reality should tighten as well. So will ours along with him.
I think Legion actually did a good job establishing David and the world he lived in despite the jumpy nature of the scenes. Within the first ten minutes you had a good idea of what happened to David, how it affected him, what his life was like in the hospital, and how he interacted with those in his life. You also had a decent idea what he was capable of.
I suppose not everyone will like it. Some simply don’t take to this style of show. At the very least you need a main character who makes it worth the shifting timelines and plot points. Mr. Robot, for example, would not be half so good if Elliot was an awful character. Many shows fail at narratives like this specifically because of weak main characters, whether because of poor writing or playing second-fiddle to plot.
Which makes me highly appreciate how good a main character David proved to be. After all, character is king. He was charming, he was vulnerable, and he was relatable. He shared the audience’s confusion in ways that make the general confusion of the episode much easier to swallow. Most important of all, David was interesting.
Really, this episode succeeded in making every character they wanted to stick out do so. Lenny was highly entertaining. David sold every scene no matter how confusing. Sydney was a great mix of her own mental illness and a greater knowledge kept secret from David and viewers. The interrogator was terrifying.
Legion hit the mark with everyone. I can’t wait to see what happens with the entire cast moving forward.
And while everyone may not like the confusing stuff, I think the episode did a good job keeping you engaged while you try to figure it out. A big part of that is owed to the style. I’m a sucker for style. My failures to understand symbolism in dance aside, I love a show that flat out looks beautiful. Those familiar with Noah Hawley’s work on Fargo won’t be surprised by Legion’s visual excellence. That show has some of the best looking scenes of any recent television.
He keeps up the quality here. Legion’s premiere may actually have been better than Fargo here; the colors pop, the clothing feeds into the ambiguity of the timeline, and the cinematography is excellent. It avoids the default drabness superhero shows use to come across realistically. The general design is unique and perfect for Legion’s content. Honestly, even if you’re not sure what the hell is happening (probably by design), you will have fun looking at it all.
The one area the production might fail is the first full-scale fight scene to end the episode. I may have loved The Boulder, but the rest of the fighting came across kind of clunky. People just kind of stand there while the heroes run up and disarm them. I’m also one to hate the Stormtrooper effect. You know, where the highly trained killers can’t hit a target right in front of them with a precise automatic rifle for some reason. No theories about purposely letting the rebels go exist here, unfortunately.
There are also those who worry the breakout here means Legion might now default to your typical superhero show. The team is assembled, the big bad government is after them, now David will develop his powers and take them down. I’m not worried about that. Noah Hawley is an excellent showrunner who I trust completely. Legion’s premiere gave me no reason to trust him less.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Melanie Bird is less than ideal from a moral standpoint herself, along with those who side from her. Sydney is too perfect, and her proclamation of love too easy considering she worked from the beginning to get David out of the hospital. I love their relationship in the premiere, but I’m not blind. Sydney almost definitely manipulated him.
One thing I can’t comment on is the handling of mental health and psychiatric institutions. It’s quite possible that the portrayal of both was handled improperly or insensitively and I’m unaware. I feel like they treated the issue of mental health with respect; perhaps Lenny is a little too comic relief without any focus on the reason she is admitted to Clockworks. Again, I trust Hawley here, and the nature of Legion guarantees we will see more of Lenny, both in memories and as a representation of David’s conscience.
To repeat my bottom line from earlier; give Legion a shot. Maybe the plot is too jumpy for you. Maybe you don’t think they can take the confusion of the premiere and make something coherent from it. I suppose such fears may prove to be right. I doubt it, though. This is one of the best showrunners currently working and a property full of potential for him to work with.
Legion is weird. Legion is confusing. Most of all, Legion is worth watching.