Legion‘s first season was wildly stylised; examining reality, fantasy, mental illness and mutants

Sometimes a new show comes along and it feels like a breath of fresh air in amongst a genre that has been feeling a little formulaic and stale. Legion created and developed by Noah Hawley (Fargo) takes a deeply dramatic dive into the world of mutants and superpowers. We meet David Haller (Dan Stevens) and his girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) and travel down the rabbit hole path into a series that examines, reality, fantasy, mental illness and superpowers all in a wildly stylised series. We took a look at the show’s first few episodes and put together an initial impressions piece. Now we compile some thoughts on the season as a whole, and potentially where the second season can go.

REALITY VS FANTASY AND MENTAL ILLNESS

Most shows are set firmly in either reality or a fantasy. Very rarely does a show dabble in both, let alone make it a focus and a core component of a mental illness narrative. The first few episodes uses quick editing cuts, jumping back and forth in time and a variety of settings to convey the concepts of reality, fantasy and whether this is all part of David’s mental illness.

It’s also a brave and courageous leap to jump into the territory of mental illness and portray its effects on an individual. And even though in actual fact David’s schizophrenia isn’t real and it’s the result of something else entirely, a parasitic mutant called the Shadow King, it’s still important to acknowledge the representation of mental illness onscreen.

CASTING

Who’d have thought that the guy from Downton Abbey would end up getting the lead role in an American drama series about mutants huh? Dan Stevens has had one of those blink and suddenly it’s a meteoric rise to stardom. Stevens gets to showcase a man of multiple personas over the course of the season and with any luck we’ll get to see even more as the show progresses.

Joining Stevens is Parks And Recreation alum Aubrey Plaza playing the deliciously wicked Lenny who turns out to be the most wicked of them all. Just like Stevens she gets to show not only a multitude of personas but has a number of costume changes as her true character is revealed. Adding to the casting lineup is Rachel Keller, the fascinating Hamish Linklater (from The New Adventures of Old Christine) and also Jean Smart (of Fargo). This show has a wonderful variety of those in front of the camera that bring these characters to life.

UNLIKELY HEROES

Throughout the course of this season we’ve been treated to a variety of unlikely heroes. Each one of our characters gets a moment to show a particular trait that in turn makes them a hero, even if it’s only fleeting.

“Babe, I don’t care if you save me, or the world, if you don’t save yourself” – Syd over the course of the season has proven her devotion and loyalty to David. Hardly a damsel in distress herself, she would much rather David find peace and a chance to be free from all his troubles.

“Remember, it’s not real, unless you make it real” – Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement), the mysterious diver, the beat-poet and jazz aficionado. After stumbling upon David lost in an astral plane, he manages to give him some mutant-life coaching before guiding him back out.

Legion. Dan Stevens as David and Rachel Keller as Syd

DESIGN / COLOUR / SOUND

Hawley gets to tweak this futuristic world by using design to his advantage. The mysterious Division 3 may have some fancy high tech equipment, but Cary’s (Bill Irwin) equipment back at Summerland is a little more rudimentary, cobbling bits and pieces together in order to scan and test David. The juxtaposition between new VS old is an interesting one and leaves us questioning what time period we’re in.

Stylistically Hawley and the assorted directors in charge of the episodes use a variety of techniques to bring a unique take on this drama. Colour is used to bring emotion and mood to the settings, with the colour red literally being a red flag for whenever the Shadow King is present. But as David’s mind becomes clearer and free of the medications and hold of the psychiatric hospital the focus becomes sharper and there are less edited cuts. Then there are also the ridiculously beautiful slow motion shots when David’s telekinetic powers come into play.

Jeff Russo of Tonic fame gets to provide his musical scoring for the show, and as somebody who has worked with Hawley before you may recognise similarities here too. Where he works best is creating particular musical cues and themes to represent certain characters. But then there are also a number of songs used almost as in-jokes and self-awareness from Pink Floyd to Kermit The Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”. So as the season progresses, not only do we get colours but also musical cues that help us to follow the narrative.

THE LONG NARRATIVE

There are plenty of shows on tv that tend to work to a procedural formula. Usually with one long over-arching mystery but each individual episode being neatly wrapped up. Hawley prefers to work with a different style, dropping small clues in every single episode that then lead up to a much larger reveal. Even by the end of Season One, we’re still not entirely sure of how Division 3 plays into things but they will have to somehow work together with David and his band of misfit mutants to try and track down the Shadow King. Also the mid-credit sting of the season finale leaves us with more questions than answers.

Legion has become an almost instant fan favourite with its unique, mind-bending take on the superhero genre. With any luck it will also be a show that is lauded with awards once the small screen ceremonies roll around. In the interim though, let the speculations for Season Two commence and in the meantime let’s enjoy this brand new and fresh take on seeing mutants and superheroes on the small screen.

Legion aired on FX on Foxtel, replay episodes are being shown, check your local guides.