Visually stunning ‘Legion’ continues to surprise
Nicholas Ottone | Thursday, April 19, 2018
“Legion,” now airing its second season on FX, is obsessed with the concept of madness. It seeps into the visual aesthetic, structure and sound. “Legion” poses a universe slightly skewed from our own to examine the delicate and easily upset balance between order and chaos. Yet, its most terrifying stretches delve deep into the human mind, the battleground between the madness and what we believe is reality. Welcome to the creepily familiar and totally unexpected world of “Legion.”
Roughly based on the “X-Men” comic books, “Legion” follows David Haller (Dan Stevens) as he learns about his psychic abilities and fights the Shadow King, a parasite that lived in his mind since childhood. His girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller) steals him away to Summerland, a safe haven run by psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). Summerland is staffed by a variety of mutants, including Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthumber) — connected since birth — as well as Ptonomy (Jermie Harris), cursed with perfect memory. In the second season, these characters collaborate with the government to fight the Shadow King’s increasing power. The premise might sound boilerplate, but the series showcases familiar superhero beats in thrillingly unexpected ways. Fights become dance battles, physical intimacy becomes mental and the villain is inside the hero.
Yet, despite usually compelling narratives, “Legion” struggles with character. One welcome exception is Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, an inscrutably mischievous slacker possessed by the Shadow King. Plaza struts through memories, delivers withering one-liners and chews scenery like no other. However, David and Syd, ostensibly main characters, remain thinly sketched ciphers whose motivations emerge to serve visually striking set pieces and weird imagery. Secondary characters fare far worse, a single tragedy or trait defining the pivotal figures. Most serialized television series rely on sharply written characters or complicated plots to drive interest. But “Legion” is compelling largely because of its atmosphere, style and thematic interest in mental illness.
In its second season, “Legion” doubles down on surrealist imagery and confounding set pieces. “Educational” segments, narrated by Jon Hamm, frame themes of disorder, adding to the story instead of distracting from it. Off-kilter compositions emphasize the characters’ disorientation. Reality visually glitches and sonically sizzles. The eerily rhythmic chattering of teeth, the season’s aural centerpiece thus far, grants insanity its own distinct sound. I could never apply the pejorative label “style over substance” to “Legion” despite its apparent truth. The style is the substance and the reason for its existence.
For “Legion,” the striking imagery and sumptuous sound design supplement its subjective narrative mode. Viewers are largely confined to David’s frazzled mind; we see the world as he does. The literary device of unreliable narrator rarely translates to the screen. We see a similarly themed, yet differently styled, counterpart in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where Milos Forman discarded Ken Kesey’s unreliable narrator of Chief Bromden. But “Legion” benefits from television’s recent surge in surrealism and subjectivity from “Twin Peaks” to “Mr. Robot,” crafting a world filtered through its protagonist’s perspective. Thus, the overly stylized design is not a distraction; it is key to understanding the protagonist’s fractured mindset.
At its heart, “Legion” is, surprisingly enough, a show about living with mental illness, coping with a body or mind rebelling against your will. Disconnected from themselves and society, these characters long for normalcy, rest and intimacy. Yet their powers are obstacles, not gifts, as Melanie Bird says. “Legion” is far from the realism associated with sensitive depictions of mental illness, but through its fantastical premise, it reaches a difficult truth nonetheless. The universe is chaotic, and the mind even more so. We must learn to live with the whole of ourselves and trust the people we love, no matter what reality we see before us.