Even before airing the first season finale of Legion this past Wednesday, Noah Hawley and his team of writers have created some of the best work we have seen in television. It would not be a stretch by any means to say Legion is groundbreaking. It has vastly opened the horizons of what can be explored in superhero source material. There are plenty of superhero shows in television right now and plenty more superhero films, but most of them so often opt for the easy way out with bland storytelling.
That is why watching the very first episode of Legion itself is such a wonderful jolt. Legion is about David Haller, who we are introduced to as a patient in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. He suffers from schizophrenia, but as the show goes on, the viewers realize that there is a lot more going on in David’s head than that. He has incredibly powerful abilities, but he doesn’t know it yet and can’t seem to differentiate it from being an illness. The positive thing for him is he is taken into the wings of Melanie Bird, a psychiatrist and also some sort of a leader for a group of mutants. She knows for sure that David doesn’t have schizophrenia and he has just been told that all his life in an attempt to explain his powers. She needs him to learn to control his powers so he can be a major weapon for the mutants’ cause as they fight for survival against the government. However, it is not so simple as it turns out David’s mind is a lot more messed up than anyone anticipates.
The creators of Legion decide to throw us right into the psyche of David. We are discovering stuff just as he is discovering, but as we try to uncover more, we get more and more locked up in the trippy and twisted mind of David. That is essentially what gets Legion to be so enticing. Each episode is a maze both narratively and visually. It is a mind trip like no other on television, but one that is gorgeously shot as well as grounded with a plot that is good enough to make our invested interest worthwhile. The more David starts to get his mind clear, the more the narration becomes clear. This style is intriguing enough for a psychological thriller to work without any science fiction elements, but having these elements at their disposal, they play with it so well.
In an attempt to tackle some of David’s past trauma, Melanie Bird uses the power of her colleague Ptonomy to literally go into his mind and skip through the memories. This plot device is used to literally take the viewers and the characters inside the head of David, which is full nightmare material. The makers are clearly having immense fun with this going from its sometimes horrifying nightmarish sequences in David’s mind to delightful dance numbers in dream sequences. They also do this with incredible pace so that before we can process everything, the episode is over. Stylistically, the show has very little competition. The show has some great writing, but the direction is jaw dropping. Many would point to the “bolero” sequence in episode 7 as a testament to that and that may as well be the peak of euphoria in the show so far, but there were so many well-executed moments throughout the show.
The execution of this show is so good that it may have covered up that the writing may be running thin. As we got a clearer idea of what was going on, the trance of the mind trip wore off and the plot suddenly felt like whatever was left to explore will not be at the same level. This makes sense because it is almost impossible to maintain a full on David Lynch tone forever and the fact that they managed to make it work so well for so long is an achievement of its own. It is also why making the first season only 8 episodes long was a very good idea and something other showrunners/platforms should look into (especially Netflix). There was little time wasted and no filler, which made the style of the show even more affecting.
As good as this show has been, the thing that worries me is how they improve from here. The most fascinating part of the show was unlocking David’s mind and fighting the Shadow King inside this astral space. Now the Shadow King is out and David is as clear as he has ever been, so how will the show orchestrate something just as exciting? From the looks of it, the second season will essentially play with a similar conflict with the Shadow King now in Olivier Bird’s mind. Olivier is clearly more proficient with his powers than David ever was, so that would make him much more daunting and lead to exploring much more. Of course, seeing more Jermaine Clement is definitely not a problem. He is fantastic in this. On the other hand, Olivier being much more skilled may create a sense of order as opposed to the chaos in David’s mind and that wouldn’t be as enticing.
An integral part of this first season was the unreliable narrator in David. So would there be much more time spent in the point of view of Olivier? The makers clearly have put out a couple of prospective paths for themselves, but there is a part of me that worries that this will turn into a more external conflict with David versus the Shadow King.
The precedent that the writers have set so far this season suggests that I shouldn’t really be worried. This was an incredibly tricky task as they could have easily gone down a treacherous path by indulging excessively, but they made sure to dedicate ample time to progress the story at hand and answer enough questions to maintain interest. It is important to slow down occasionally and answer some questions time to time or else it may start to suffer a lot of the problems seen with the second season of Mr. Robot, a show in which the very talented Sam Esmail had gone over-indulgent in the puzzle he is creating. In fact, Mr. Robot is a lot more similar to Legion than I initially thought and perhaps that is what worries me about the direction of the show. Both first seasons stole the show with their ferocious direction and their success tackling the tricky unreliable narrator style. However, the benefit here for Noah Hawley and his team is that the complexity is not in the plot (whereas the story of Mr. Robot is a bit of a convoluted mess), but more in their structure and tone. In addition, the writers of Legion have a bit more creative freedom because the limits are expanded in the superhero universe they are in.
Regardless of what Noah Hawley and the writers have planned for the future, this first season of Legion is a true triumph. It excites from start to finish and rarely missteps. Previous shows based on superpowers often focus primarily on the powers rather than using that facet to further an already strong script. Legion is a show about a man with superpowers rather than being a superhero show. That is why the makers of Legion have succeeded. As for next season, half of the job would be complete by giving Aubrey Plaza more screen time. She is the scene-stealer of the show despite there being such great work from Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, and Jean Smart. This season was so good that it is a lot to ask to follow this up, but I am cautiously optimistic.