What’s Real And What’s Madness In The Jaw-Dropping ‘Legion’ Premiere?

FX’s Legion debuted tonight. I loved the early episodes, and have a spoiler-filled review of the first episode coming up just as soon as I master the art of eating with a spoon…

“He believes he’s mentally ill, but at the same time, part of him knows the powers are real.” — The Interrogator

Is any of this real? Is David Haller the most powerful mutant the government has ever encountered? Is he just mentally ill and experiencing a complex set of delusions?

Or is he hugely powerful and mentally ill at the same time?

This is the core question at the heart of Legion, and while “Chapter 1” seems to confirm by the end that this is real — Syd even says as much when she and the others rescue David from the swimming pool — it very much leaves open the idea that, to borrow a line from another current series with a protagonist often accused of mental instability, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.

Legion is fundamentally a superhero origin story, but because of David’s condition and/or powers, Noah Hawley (who wrote and directed this tour de force) makes sure it feels unlike any filmed superhero origin before it. The goal in the first episode is less to explain how David’s powers work or who the players are battling for control of him than to put us inside David’s very crowded mind to give a sense of how he experiences the world, and why as a result he might find it very easy to accept the psychiatrists’ diagnoses and very difficult to realize that at least some of this is really happening.

We open with that stunning collection of tableau images, scored to The Who’s “Happy Jack,” as we follow David from his days as a peaceful and innocent baby to the troubled young man who attempts to hang himself, with many highs and lows in between. Each image is gorgeous, and each tells a full story in and of itself about that moment in David’s life (the delight on his face as his school chemistry experiment burns out of control says so much), while also raising troubling new questions. When he’s surrounded by people screaming in his face in the middle of a downpour, is that real? Is it telepathy run amok? Or do these people and voices exist only inside his head, mutant or not?

Even when the story proper begins, Hawley makes sure to keep us on uncertain footing. When is this? Where is this? The fashion styles look like the Mod Sixties — or what a Mod might have imagined the future looking like — but the Interrogator uses a tablet more advanced than anything we’ve got while he’s considering what to do with David, and Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital itself feels less like an actual institution than like the kind of place David might have dreamed into being after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest one too many times.

Yet even within this disorienting blur of past and present and future, of reality and fantasy, Hawley’s many stylistic indulgences work because he grounds so much of it in David’s relationships: with sister Amy, best friend Lenny, and especially with would-be girlfriend Syd. Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller are wonderful as the two alleged crazies get to know each other during their time at Clockworks, trying to work around both the monitoring of the staff and her aversion to being touched. As a result, it’s an incredibly chaste, sweet affair, with them finding workarounds like walking down the hall holding opposite ends of the same cloth in lieu of holding hands, or kissing each other’s reflections in a window because they can’t touch lips.

Of course, we later find out that Syd’s fear of touching isn’t an emotional disorder, but another superpower: touch her skin-to-skin (as David does when he surprises her with a kiss), and you switch bodies with her. And in this case, the swap has tragic consequences, since Syd-as-David doesn’t have control over his powers the way he does (even if he doesn’t realize he does), and reflexively teleports everyone back into their rooms with so little fine control that Lenny ends up dead inside one of the walls.

This is the catastrophe that finally puts David on the radar of the Interrogator, the Eye, and the various other shady forces keeping him prisoner inside that abandoned swimming pool, and the incident that also puts him on the radar of Jean Smart’s Melanie and the mutants who come to rescue him. It’s here that Legion could take an easy turn for the conventional, but it never does. We keep flashing between the interview and David’s time in and out of Clockworks, moving in and out of sequence and degrees of reality. Did David and Syd lead the other patients in a French New Wave dance number, for instance, or is that a romantic dream he has while sleeping in Amy’s basement?

Either way, it’s a lovely little interlude before the action really begins, including that complicated shot, which runs a little over a minute as we follow David, Syd, and the others from the pool building to their escape boat. Making all the action look like a single, fluid take is a way for Hawley to show off what mutant powers might look like in practice like this, but it also continues the ambiguity over exactly who and what David is, and what he can do: note how the camera whips away from him when he’s confronted by a soldier on a hill, and when the others catch up to him, that guy is just down on the ground. David obviously did something to him, but the David we’ve been following for most of this episode is only vaguely aware that he has powers, and seems too afraid to actively do anything with them; was this another reflex like what Syd did when she was in his body, or did Hawley pan away so we wouldn’t see exactly how it went down?

In another show, that oner of a fight scene would be the show-stopper; with the Legion premiere, I’m not even sure it makes the top five list of shots, once you start considering the “Happy Jack” sequence, the kitchen contents flying at David when he loses his temper, the aftermath of David and Syd’s kiss (both the camera turning 180 degrees and the image of his consciousness as flatscreen TV images in a field), or our fleeting glimpses of the nightmare figure whom David refers to as “The Devil With Yellow Eyes.” I just want to watch it again and again, sometimes with the sound off so I can focus on the pictures, at others with the speakers at full blast so I can enjoy the musical choices and the way Stevens, Keller, Aubrey Plaza, and others deliver Hawley’s dialogue.

The Devil With Yellow Eyes is unsurprisingly waiting for David when Syd and the others bring him to meet Melanie. Whether it’s a creature he can see with his powers, or a symptom of his maladies, it’s not going away. David Haller is free. He is perhaps all-powerful. But he doesn’t seem anywhere close to well just yet.

Jaw dropped, again. And again and again.

Some other thoughts:

* At press tour, I spoke with Noah Hawley about coming up with the look and feel for the series, getting to play in a very remote corner of the X-universe where he gets to make things up as he goes, and a lot more. I particularly like what he has to say about making sure to always give us enough information that we aren’t just watching the show as a puzzle to be solved. You can go frame-by-frame through the body swap sequence, or the escape from the pool, looking for clues and hints, but most of what’s relevant is happening in clear daylight, and David is well drawn enough so he’s not just a walking enigma.

* I also spoke that day with Aubrey Plaza. I was initially surprised to see her in the supporting cast for this show, since she’s mainly been focusing on movies since Parks and Rec ended, and when Lenny died from being teleported inside the wall, I chalked her presence up to the “kill off the famous co-star in the pilot for added shock value” device. But it’s more complicated than that. Plaza and I don’t get into spoilers for what comes next, but we do talk about why she wanted to be on the show, what advice she solicited from Nick Offerman (who was worked with Hawley on Fargo) and Chris Pratt (who’s now hugely famous thanks to a different Marvel franchise), and more.

* Beyond “Happy Jack” for the opening montage, songs this week included The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” (Syd and David fall in love), Jane’s Addiction’s “Up the Beach” (David unleashes his powers during interrogation) and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Pauvre Lola” (dance sequence back at Clockworks).

* Hamish Linklater, who played David’s interrogator, has some history with Fox-produced Marvel titles, having played Doctor Doom’s assistant in the first of the mid-’00s Fantastic Four films (back when Chris Evans was the Human Torch instead of Captain America).

* I really don’t want to think too much about how the powers work on a show as abstract and non-linear as this, but if we’re meant to take all the body-swapping business literally, as opposed to David misremembering, then I want to know a lot more about the moment when David is at the cafe in Syd’s body at one moment, and in his own the next. Does that mean Syd — whether she was still at Clockworks or already with Melanie and friends — just reverted to her own self, wherever she was? In the initial swap, at least, they don’t appear to change locations.

* Also, note how the image of all the Clockworks patients screaming at Syd-as-David as she tries to keep it together evokes the earlier “Happy Jack” image of young David standing in the rain, surrounded by an unruly mob. A nice callback I didn’t notice until my second or third viewing.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com