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Part ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Part Art Film: ‘Legion’ Raises the Stakes for Comic-to-TV Shows


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Simply labeling Legion as merely another comicbook turned television program would not only be oversimplifying the series, but also doing it a great disservice.  Yet it’s that very same misnomer that served as the underlying reason I had out-and-out forsaken the show—until now.

When the series premiered on FX in February, admittedly I was apprehensive about binging on yet another comic-to-tv show only to be disappointed.  Honestly, too many superhero shows are unwatchable and downright daft.  Therefore, Legion was temporarily shelved to “fritter and waste the hours in another off-hand way.”  I’m not a comic wonk, so I knew little to nothing about the character, but it was obvious that the show had connections to the Marvel multiverse—as evidenced by the not-so-subtle addition of the X-Men “Ⓧ” within the title.  Despite the malaise of skepticism, I finally watched the series last week.  Within the first moments, it was abundantly clear that Legion had less in common with its superhero series contemporaries and more so with Pink Floyd’s progressive-rock album The Dark Side of the Moon and the surreal drama Twin Peaks.

Legion wastes no time introducing us to our charming, but troubled protagonist David Haller, played by Dan Stevens.  Through a series of layered flashbacks, viewers witness firsthand David’s earliest memories, including the moment he began hearing the voices inside his head.  Eventually David—diagnosed with what is believed to be dissociative identity disorder—is hospitalized in a psychiatric facility where he is visited by his sister.  After a bizarre encounter with an ethereal young woman suffering from haphephobia, David learns that he may not be schizophrenic after all, but rather a mutant with powerful and uncanny psychic abilities such as telekinesis and telepathy—like his father, Charles Xavier, aka Professor X.  Now wait, is that true?  Unfortunately, David (among others) proves to be an unreliable narrator throughout the series, making Legion a mind-bending, time-traveling, non-linear, prism-like narrative that will have audiences questioning what’s reality and what’s simply psychosis.

There’s many reasons why Dark Side of the Moon, a nearly 45 year old artifact, remains influential, but for me it comes down to this—it’s a beautifully dreamlike album, that’s open to interpretation.  Its sum is greater than its parts and each time I encounter it, I discover new and subtle, oftentimes previously unheard nuances, that makes it even more enjoyable.  Legion is like that.  They’re both monumental endeavors, conceptual and heady, yet spellbinding.  Taking participants on a dizzying ride, which at times feels like an out-of-body-experience, and just when you believe you’re on to something, an unexpected turn, an abrupt drop, and then—it’s over.  Each explores a new layer in the dawning awareness, the heartbeat, the tolling bells and bellowing sounds of mental illness, featured throughout its characters—possibly multiple inside one—who, just like in the real world, are often scared themselves, and misunderstood, maligned and marginalized by society.  Mental illness, once, and probably still considered taboo, especially on tv, is at the forefront of the show and it’s depicted in a way that’s not only empathetic and genuine, but also relatable—a looking glass into the mind and a reflection of human nature.  Surfacing all the internal conflicts and personal struggles, the incessant an opposing voices clambering for our attention—the anxieties, pleasure, guilt, insecurities, sadness, mania, fears, vulnerabilities and doubts—we all experience to some degree.  To whom should we/do we listen to?  So, is David/Legion an all-powerful mutant, one who can use multiple personalities to warp reality as we know it?  Or simply a guy who’s suffering some form of mental illness and in need of his medication? Perhaps they’re one in the same.  Are there actually nefarious and shadowy forces out to get him, or is David’s biggest enemy himself and his own internal demons?  Is any of this even really happening?

Legion is arresting in another way—it’s aesthetically gorgeous: Kubrickian in its cinematography, and calculating and fervent in its attention to detail.  Characters are juxtaposed against environments that reflect their reality, such as: long and empty labyrinthian interiors, or lush and dense forests, confined spaces, or celestial, out-of-this-world ones.  Similarly, settings are often divided somehow, reflecting the schisms mirroring David’s bifurcated mind.  Likewise, the series relies heavily on color theory, using warm colors (red, orange, yellow) to communicate the physiological reactions to anger, fear and impending hostility, and cool colors (blues and greens) evoking more relaxed and safe feelings of human consciousness.  It’s Lynchian and surreal during some of the most mundane moments.

Finally, the series features a stellar cast including Stevens, but also great performances from: Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as Lenny Busker, Katie Aselton (The League) as Amy Heller, Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as Oliver Bird, and Rachel Keller (Fargo) as Syd Barrett.  That last name should ring a bell if you’ve been following along.  Writer Noah Hawley is often lauded for turning Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers classic and brilliant film in its own right, into an award-winning television series.  He’s done the same for Legion, receiving high praise for making David/Legion not only a compelling character and series as a whole, but also one that stands out in a well-established and highly successful Marvel franchise.  Legion is a groundbreaking series.  Yin yang, trippy television at its best, and certainly a difficult act to follow.

If you want to have your mind-blown, after you’ve finished watching Legion in its entirety, do the following:
Start Legion: Chapter 1, without any commercial interruptions.
Mute the sound.
Once the title screen of LEGIⓍN appears, shortly before it fades to black. (Timing is everything)
Begin playing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety.
Breathe” should sync up with the rain/voices scene in the early montage, and “Money” later on when David is with his doctor. (Watch his eyes and mannerisms)

Now, I’m not suggesting that any of this actually works, but I’m not going to say that it doesn’t either. You’ll have to experience it for yourself.

Enjoy!

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Legion is rated TV-MA

Article written by Matthew Mahone

Some consider me, well, neither Shakespeare, nor Melville. Follow me on Twitter @M_E_Mahone