Samuel Brace on why you should be watching Legion…
There is only one possible answer to the question of which superhero show is the best on television. That answer is, of course, Legion, a delectable tapestry that weaves together all of that which makes a TV show great. Daredevil may perhaps retake its crown after two years away once its third season arrives to Netflix, but this seems to me a task beyond its means. After all, Legion does everything that the Netflix MCU shows do so well but only better. Legion has every tool in its toolbox sharpened to a razor’s edge and unlike its competitors in a genre bloated with excess; the FX drama has no fat to trim. The number of episodes, at least so far, meets the length of Legion’s plot, not the reverse, which is a frustrating flaw too often found elsewhere. It appears to me that Legion is indisputably the king of the genre, so it strikes me as rather odd that chatter on the subject is non-existent, that our collective energy is directed towards other, far less impressive and far less watchable efforts. I firmly believe that no other superhero show can compare, and if you’re not watching Legion, you’re making a huge mistake. If you will, please read on for a handful of reasons why.
Every show, no matter its genre, needs a compelling protagonist at its centre. Without a main character that is interesting to watch and without a lead actor that is able to capture your attention, a series can only climb so high – this is to say, not very high at all. This is an area where Legion not only checks an important box but an area where the show excels in places only very few are capable. Dan Stevens, who plays mentally troubled mutant David Haller, is nothing less than a delight to watch on screen: charismatic, charming, frightening when he needs to be – he simply has that quality that so few actors possess. I suppose they call it screen presence. Fortunately, the character Stevens plays also happens to be not only one of the most interesting superhero protagonist on screen (big or small), but one of TV’s finest protagonists anywhere today.
The plight of David’s mind is the nexus of all that Legion is. His fractured and deeply tormented psyche is the lens through which we experience all that occurs, and the fact that our hero is such a delicate soul by nature, only elevates what is an endlessly fascinating battle for this young man’s sanity. Unreliable narrators are always enormous fun, a wise tool to employ with infinite room for creativity, and I believe one can argue a posteriori that David is the best example of such an untrustworthy television driver since Hannibal’s Will Graham. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to simply witness the disturbing nightmares of our hero week in and week out unless there was something else occurring, which is why the careful transmutation of David’s very being is oh so important and will continue to be oh so enjoyable.
Legion’s antagonist is a little more nebulous than what is on offer from your usual superhero offerings – which, I figure, to be just the way creator Noah Hawley wants it to be. Things are a little clearer now as we move into season two but the opacity of Legion’s darkness is still a key component of the show’s brilliance. To put it simply, David’s mind is infected with a similarly gifted parasite that is using our hero’s body as a host – the terrifying foe goes by the name The Shadow King (a name X-Men comic readers will be familiar with). And while this demonic entity becomes somewhat more of a tangible opponent as the show progresses, the character’s use of different faces to torment David and Legion’s audience are congruent with the dreamlike quality that the show is permeated with.
In this lies the majesty of what the series has been able to achieve. You see, The Shadow King, David, and the show itself are almost simpatico. Unlike lesser series, everything about Legion is perfectly designed and perfectly aligned, nothing is by accident, the show’s existence depends on both David and The Shadow King – Legion without either of these entities is nearly impossible to imagine. But the brilliance of Legion’s enemy extends even further than this. The horror of Legion isn’t just in the nightmare fuel provided to us by The Shadow King but in David himself, as we don’t really know how well David can be relied upon. We can trust David as far as we can throw him, which is to say not very far at all. His mind, as of season two, is beginning to fracture, it seems like it won’t be long before David is no less of a threat to the well-being of the show’s characters than our assumed villain.
It’s impossible to argue that Legion is not the most stupendously glorious visual piece of content currently residing on TV. Since the likes of Hannibal, The Leftovers, and Twin Peaks have departed, the throne belongs to only one show. Those who have enjoyed the work of Noah Hawley on his other exquisite FX series, Fargo, will be familiar with his visual prowess and his love for allowing directors and cinematographers to paint images on screen that one wouldn’t normally expect. Legion is different in this regard but takes the striking aesthetics of Fargo and goes to places far beyond the imagination.
One imagines Hawley waking from a dream, a dream he dreams as David himself, and quickly records what transpired in order to transfer the bizarre images that have been revealed to him behind closed eyes. The nature of Legion lends itself perfectly to a place where such surreal and audacious visuals can be garnered. The fact that so much of what we witness on screen takes place in the mind, or somewhere even more ethereal, demands such an approach, and has allowed the show’s creative players to shake off all restraints, to shoot for the moon, and has thusly delivered a variety of images that even the mind of David Lynch would be proud. Speaking of whom, if the exiting of Twin Peaks from TV’s stage has left you wanting and you’re not tuning into Legion, it seems to me that you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice. I suggest you act accordingly.
It’s more than its genre
Perhaps the main reason why Legion excels, why it reaches such lofty heights and never falls much more than an inch, is because this is a show that has simply transcended its genre. Legion is far more than just a superhero show, and I could have quite easily written the words above without but a reference to its comic book roots and X-Men connections. There is, of course, plenty there for those ensconced in the world of mutants and superheroes, but Legion is also a series that extends its hand to anyone in search of premium TV drama. There’s no spandex to be found here, no costumes or catchphrases. The super-powered action sequences of Legion are indeed executed in fine fashion, and even more impressive for the small scene, but are few and far between, shot both with restraint and style. The truth is that Legion’s wow factor exists elsewhere, residing in the conversational exchanges, instead of the trading of blows. And there are plenty of references to the character’s origins for those who enjoy such things but it’s never alienating to the layman.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the following. There’s a reason why The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero film of all time. There’s a reason why the likes of Daredevil and The Punisher worked so well (though not quite to this degree). It’s because their creators concentrated on making a great story and worried about everything else afterward. This is Legion’s main strength. It’s a compelling drama, starring wonderful actors who are playing fascinating characters, speaking expertly crafted dialogue, filmed by visual artists at the top of their game.
The images presented on screen might at times be ineffable, but the reason for Legion’s success certainly isn’t. If you’ve watched the show and don’t like it, that’s fair enough, to each his own, but if you’ve avoided the series for whatever reason, with great importunity I ask that you re-consider. For those that do, you won’t find a much better TV offering today.