If ever there was a series that benefited from repeat viewings it’s “Legion,” FX’s new sci-fi thriller very loosely based on Marvel’s X-Men universe.
Developed by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”), the series borrows from the comics David Haller, the mentally ill son of Charles Xavier created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, and places him in a world almost completely divorced from that of the X-Men. Oh, sure, there are mutants and government conspiracies, but while you see brown tracksuits and at least one otherworldly creature in the premiere episode, we’re unlikely to encounter Spandex costumes or a fully realized super-team.
Instead, we’re presented with David Haller, a young man who’s spent much of his adult life in and out of psychiatric wards trying to grapple with the voices in his head and his sometimes-tenuous grasp on reality. His already topsy-turvy life is again turned upside down when he meets another patient at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, and he’s suddenly confronted with the possibility that those voices and visions he experiences may be real.
Last week’s premiere episode unfolded in a nonlinear fashion, utilizing flashbacks, memory fragments, dreams and, yes, even a dream sequence. It was a brightly colored, and smartly choreographed, whirlwind that left us intrigued, entertained and, on more than one occasion, asking “WTF?” Ahead of tonight’s episode, we try to answer at least some of those questions.
What’s Up With the Colors and Music?
None of the elements in “Legion” appears accidental, inviting us to scour every scene for musical cues, curious anachronisms and repetitions of color. With the show’s many layers, flashbacks, body-swapping and detours into fractured memories and altered realities, such a search for meaning will likely produce as many revelations as it does wild goose chases, but, hey, it’s fun to theorize.
The central setting for “Legion’s” premiere is Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, whose name and design are presumably meant to evoke the works of director Stanley Kubrick. Like David Haller’s childhood memories, Clockworks is something from another decade, where its patients wear brown tracksuits, dine at an automat and receive their medications at a nurse’s station with a light that resembles an enormous pill capsule. Into the hospital’s 1960s- and ’70s-inspired decor is injected bursts of calming green– they’re presumably calming reminders of the world beyond the walls — in the form of artificial trees in the common area (which provide perfect camouflage for one reclusive patient) and a mural in the group-therapy room.
Red becomes prominent whenever David’s mutant powers surface, ultimately engulfing entire scenes (such as in the aftermath of the incident in the hospital’s common area). However, the color also creeps in more subtly, in the counter of the apartment David shared with his girlfriend, in the table and chairs of the room where he’s interrogated, and in the lock on the entrance to the common area — all just before his powers are unleashed in awe-inspiring, and terrifying, ways. Green, too, reemerges as a symbol of the outside world, as the color of the coat worn by David’s sister as she visits for his birthday, and of Syd’s luggage as she’s released from Clockworks. (There are a couple of more color examples, which we’ll get to below.)
Music also proves key in “Legion’s” first episode, with The Who’s “Happy Jack” used as the soundtrack for the montage of David’s life, taking viewers from his seemingly idyllic childhood to his troubled adolescence and early adulthood. That’s followed by the evolution of his relationship with Syd Barrett, set to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” which is perhaps a little on the nose. But taken together, the two 1960s songs further infuse David’s memories, and aspects of his life in Clockworks, with a dream-like quality, existing outside of time. So, then, what do we read in the use of Jane’s Addiction’s 1988 single “Up the Beach” in the scene in which David, quite literally, turns the table on his interrogators?
Who’s Syd Barrett?
No, not the late co-founder of Pink Floyd, but rather the object of David’s affection and the key to his escape from Clockworks and, ultimately, a mysterious government facility that may or may not be an abandoned school. Introduced as a prickly but highly perceptive patient with an aversion to human contact, she’s soon revealed to be much more than she seems — namely, a mutant whose touch triggers a body-swapping change of consciousness, and part of a group of similarly gifted people operating in opposition to the shadowy government organization that abducts David. As Syd (Rachel Keller) is about to be discharged from Clockworks, David finally kisses her, triggering a body exchange that not only frees him from the hospital but also releases his reality-bending powers, to bewildering and, in at least one case, gruesomely fatal results.
Like the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on “Star Trek,” the patients of Clockworks are apparently organized by color, with their brown tracksuits sporting yellow, white or red stripes. We might hypothesize that the color coding corresponds to their ward assignments, but it’s interesting to note that David’s is yellow, Lenny’s is red and Syd’s is white. However, Syd becomes more closely associated with orange — first with her headband and then, as she’s about to leave the hospital, with her scarf and coat. Orange is obviously a mixture of red and yellow, but it’s unclear what the color signifies for Syd. Still, as with all things on “Legion,” we can be sure it’s no accident.
What’s the Deal With Lenny?
Played by Aubrey Plaza, Lenny Busker is David’s friend and fellow patient at Clockworks, and in many ways the one-woman Greek chorus of “Legion’s” premiere. She gives voice to David’s thoughts, comments on the unfolding events, and even seemingly delays Syd’s departure from the hospital until David can arrive to say goodbye. That last act proves fatal, because when David and Syd kiss and exchange bodies, Syd is unable to control his reality-warping powers, which results in the doors disappearing from the rooms of the hospital, and Syd trapped partly — horribly — in its walls. “Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and act surprised when she blows things up,” Lenny later lectures David, appearing following her apparent death as an aspect of his subconscious.
However, I’m not convinced Lenny — at least as we saw her in the first episode — was ever anything more than a figment of David’s imagination. In most of her scenes, Lenny’s comments and actions are noticed only by David: In group therapy, where Dr. Kissinger appears to signal for her to remove her vintage headphones, it’s possible he was instead addressing the other patient, who’d pulled his shirt and jacket collars up over his mouth and ears. As Lenny delays Syd’s departure, David appears from virtually nowhere — his room is shown empty — and Lenny all but disappears from the sequence; it’s almost as if he’s replaced her. If you view Lenny as the id to David’s ego, that makes sense, as she’s who spurs him to finally kiss Syd (she was also in the group-therapy room when he asked Syd to be his girlfriend). She comes back into frame as we see the immediate after-effects of the cataclysmic kiss — but unlike everyone else in the immediate vicinity, she appears unaffected by the “shockwave.”
But what about that horrific scene where Lenny’s dead body is shown entombed in the wall? At that point David’s mind is in Syd’s body, so he is the one to discover her; it’s unclear what Dr. Kissinger actually sees. And although the Interrogator mentions Lenny’s death, it’s difficult to say whether that’s based on eyewitness accounts or David’s own words. That Lenny wears red — a color linked to the manifestation of David’s powers — raises further doubts about her existence, or “realness.” When she pops up after he death in the basement of David’s sister’s house, she no longer wears red and is instead clad in a black shirt and brown overalls.
Who, or What, is the Demon With Yellow Eyes?
First referred to by Dr. Kissinger, this grotesque Lynchian creature has apparently haunted David for years. Throughout the premiere episode, the figure crops up in times of stress, when David’s mutant abilities manifest themselves — in his room at Clockworks, in a flashback to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, in the common area at the hospital, and so on. But the demon also appears in the background as David is rescued by Syd Barrett and the others and introduced to Melanie Bird.
Some have already speculated the Demon With Yellow Eyes could be Mojo, a Marvel Comics villain who’s had numerous encounters with the X-Men and their allies. That seems unlikely, however, considering the character a.) has no direct comic-book connection to David Haller; and b.) “Legion” creator Noah Hawley has demonstrated no interest in taking a deep dive into X-Men mythology. It’s more probable that the Demon With Yellow Eyes is a manifestation of something buried within David’s psyche, and shows up as either a warning of danger or a threat.
Who Are the Guys in Riot Gear?
They’re the menacing, and mostly faceless, agents of the mysterious government organization known as Division 3. On the back of the soldiers’ uniforms is a logo with three dots that looks a lot like a domino, but also — if you squint your eyes and tilt your head — like two people on the opposite side of the wall from a third. It’s probably too early to dwell on that aspect, though. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s an enormous “3” on the wall of the Clockworks stairwell which, again, probably isn’t a coincidence. It seems more likely that Division 3 has some kind of hand in the hospital.
What little we know about the organization comes from those operatives whose faces we do see: the Interrogator, who, as his name suggests, leads David’s questioning, at least until he resorts to more drastic measures; the Eye, who so far mostly watches and whittles; and Brubaker, played by veteran actor David Selby, Division 3’s apparent chief who’s well-versed in David Haller’s history, and more than a little worried about what he can do. “But if the readings are right,” the Interrogator reports, “[David] may be the most powerful mutant that we’ve ever encountered.” “After what happened in Red Hook,” Brubaker responds, “I’d say that’s an understatement.” It’s not clear yet what occurred in Red Hook, although it’s possible that’s a reference to the incident in David’s apartment, and whatever happened to his girlfriend. Either that, or a trip to IKEA went south.
We also see in the government facility — which appears to be an abandoned school, complete with a pool, stage and gym — technicians dressed like crew members of the Belafonte from Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” That would probably help to explain their anachronistic scientific equipment.
So … is That a Wolf?
In the corner of the makeshift command center of Division 3’s secret facility, beneath a tarp and a helmet, is a cage. And within that cage is something … something definitely canine, and possibly a wolf. It’s initially heard, and seen, in the background as Brubaker talks with the Interrogator, but then the furry creature becomes the focus, growling in the shadows as “Legion” cuts to commercial.
It might be dismissed as another Lynchian flair or a curious decision made by the director to break up an otherwise-static scene, except for two things: 1.) The growling animal is bathed in red, which we’ve already established as significant; and 2.) it’s juxtaposed with the Eye placing a wooden carving of a similarly shaped dog or wolf on the table beside of David. Whether it’s a warning, or a bit of foreshadowing, is anyone’s guess.
Who Are These People?
The closest we’re ever going to come to the X-Men in “Legion,” Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, at center) and her team of specialists stage an impressive rescue of David from the clutches of Division 3. Although it’s not entirely clear, we know at this point that most of them are mutants: In addition to Syd, there’s the gun-toting Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris, far left), who can read the memories of others, and the unnamed man at the far right, who displays telekinetic abilities. Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder, at right) may be pyrokinetic, as the Division 3 operatives holding David in a swimming pool are reduced to crispy charcoal corpses by a blast of fire.
As stated previously, Hawley has indicated little to no interest in adapting the Marvel Comics source material, but it’s probably worth noting that each of David Haller’s personalities in the comic books manifested a different psionic ability, with terrorist Jemail Karami possessing telepathy, adventurer Jack Wayne possessing telekinesis, the rebellious Cyndi pyrokinesis, and so on. That’s not to suggest these characters are analogs of the comics creations, but in a series that plays with reality, memories and perception like “Legion” does, there’s certainly a possibility that Melanie Bird’s specialists may simply be aspects of David’s psyche.
“Legion” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.