Legion S01E01 “Chapter 1” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- And so we open. On young David as he’s born, grows up, wins a soccer trophy, blows stuff up in a science experiment while laughing maniacally, and screams and screams and screams and screams in the middle of a crowd…
- He gets older. He gets drunker. He gets arrested. And all the time we cut back to him surrounded by a group of people, screaming at him as the rain falls upwards.
- David laughs.
- Every window of the police car he’s sitting in explodes.
- David is committed. David is medicated.
- David gets older.
- David tries to kill himself as the voices just keep coming.
- And then it’s his birthday. And his sister, who looks like she’s stepped out of the 1970s, is talking to him. She reassures him, eats his cake and then… it’s time for his meds.
- We see David at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. We see him flash between events of his childhood and the profoundly odd world around him. Lights come on, people hide in the artificial woodland at the centre of the room. David’s best friend Lenny and he speculate on just what is causing the vast rope of spit in a fellow patient’s mouth to not break and then…
- She appears.
- A beautiful young woman whom Dave singularly fails to communicate successfully with.
- We cut back to the visiting room. To the police car. To David’s room shattering and rebuilding, to David eating tape. His therapist asks if the Devil With The Yellow Eyes is here now and the camera dives through a hole under David’s bed into a fleshy tunnel with someone awful at the end.
- Then David’s bed is in mid air.
- Then it isn’t.
- Then he’s drugged and passes out and… is back in therapy. He talks about what he did to a doctor. The hallucinations he suffers. The girl in the blue top comes in and hijacks the group. She talks about how “normal” is a suit they’re told to wear, but people like Picasso or Einstein weren’t normal.
- The conversation continues and David asks her if she wants to be his girlfriend. She agrees. But she asks him not to touch her.
- We see a montage of them getting to know each other which is weird and awkward and really, really sweet. She draws him, they hold hands, through her scarf. It is completely adorable.
- David finds her looking out of the window later that night. She tells him to unfocus his eyes a little because if you do that, the hospital disappears a little and they can imagine themselves outside. He tells her to close her eyes, the light switches red and…
- A different therapist asks him about Sydney Barrett. The girl who disappeared.
- David is dressed differently. He’s barefoot. He’s calm and polite and barely holding it together. And then we find out that the person interviewing him is not a therapist. When David suggests he talk to Doctor Kissinger, the man questions whether or not Doctor Kissinger could corroborate what he’s telling them and then…
- We see Doctor Kissinger briefly, talking about David’s suicide attempt.
- Back in the room David talks about what happened after he was expelled from college. We see the shattered kitchen again, we see his girlfriend leave. He talks, very calmly, about deciding to kill himself. His interrogator asks him if his voices told him to do this. No, he says in a wonderful inversion of the norm, they told me to stop.
- We’re told that the girl is dead. We see David dreaming, seeing Syd in flashes in his mind.
- And then, in the room, clear as day. She wakes him up, sits a pillow between them and lies down next to him. They, sort of, are sleeping together. And David’s overjoyed. Until Sydney tells him she’s getting out tomorrow. He’s crushed, and she tells him to get better so he can get out too. He leans in to kiss her, she backs away and everything goes awkward.
- In the interview, David is asked why he couldn’t touch her and explains that he thought it was just her condition. He implies that something very different was the truth. He asks to take a break and his interviewer agrees. He steps out and we see that David is being held in a hurriedly converted swimming pool where the “office” is a shell and a command post is installed upstairs.
- His interviewer, the Interrogator, talks to his boss and uses the word we’ve been waiting for: “Mutant”.
- Everything David has been saying is true.
- The two men argue over whether to kill David and it’s agreed to let him live, for now.
- Back in the cell, David asks to be left alone to eat. The interviewer’s partner leaves him with a wooden carving of a dog, similar to the one apparently held in a cage upstairs…
- We flash back to the past, to the kitchen. The room slowly shakes apart around David. Then, shatters in a slow-motion flash of chaotic, detail-heavy violence.
- Violence David can control, everything moving in slow motion around him…
- He glimpses someone, tiny and horrifying with Yellow Eyes at the edge of his vision. And then?
- Back to the interview, now with added scientific tests. David gets agitated, and, just, is talked down. He relaxes and then realises something important; they’re afraid of him. The tests begin, and he’s asked about the incident.
- We see Sydney, dressed and ready for the outside. David is nowhere to be found, refusing to accept she’s leaving. Lenny delays her, David rushes in, kisses her and…
- …glimpses a meadow filled with televisions, each one showing one of his memories. There’s a spark, Sydney and David are thrown apart and Sydney is dragged away as David absolutely loses it.
- Clockworks is locked down. Sydney is taken to an examining room in clear distress. David is restrained at the middle of a crowd and…
- …time slows down…
- …the lights run red…
- …The Devil with the Yellow Eyes appears…
- Sydney is left alone by Doctor Kissinger. She gets up, touches her face as though seeing herself for the first time, touches her breasts and…
- We’re back the interview where David tries to explain that he and Sydney swapped bodies when they kissed. He gets agitated again, tells them he wants out and is, again, calmed down.
- Back in the flashback, Doctor Kissinger investigates what happened. He finds the patient hall locked and doused in red light and… deserted. Sydney/David appears behind him and they watch a pingpong ball bounce towards them. Screaming echoes from a nearby corridor and they head towards it. They walk down the corridor towards the noise and Sydney realises something.
- There are no doors. Every patient is sealed into their rooms now.
- And then Sydney/David spots the blood running down a wall nearby.
- And David’s friend Lenny embedded in it.
- Sydney, trapped in David’s body, screams to be let out and the camera pans across both of them and… Sydney/David is marched out of the building by Doctor X. A car pulls up, three people get out and…
- Back at the interview, David remembers the interviewer arriving at the hospital. He starts to freak out, gets talked down and then the interviewer’s pen is fired into the side of his face.
- David isn’t calm anymore.
- He stands, raises his hands and everyone in the room – everything in the room – is hurled backwards.
- Smiling, he yanks the electrodes off his face and is promptly gassed.
- We see him hit the ground, face-first, and the camera sinks down a deep, earth filled hole…
- We fade back up on a montage of images of David’s childhood and Sydney patiently waiting at a coffee shop. Except it’s actually David and all of a sudden he actually IS David. Out in the world. Alive. Safe.
- We see David, holding Sydney’s case, make his way through streets filled with trick or treaters. He arrives at home and is met by a clearly less-than-pleased sister. She agrees to let him stay and there’s a tender, sweet moment where he settles in and flashes back to childhood.
- And then Lenny asks him what it felt like having breasts.
- Who’s dead.
- She is surprisingly cool with being dead. Especially as David’s in way more trouble than she is. Because they’re coming for David. And they’re going to kill him.
- She laughs and laughs and David hurls the lamp across the room with his brain.
- Later that night, sleeping with the creakily restored lamp back on, David dreams of Sydney at the institute. In a full-on Bollywood dance routine no less. He’s happy and calm and then Sydney tells him to wake up.
- The drained swimming pool he was in is no longer drained.
- The Interrogator explains that David is tied to a chair in the middle of the pool and if he tries anything they’ll electrocute him. The interviewer explains that someone came for Sydney at the hospital. They want her too.
- David explains he looked for her and she was gone. We flashback to him at a phonebox trying to get her records as two of the people he saw at the hospital stalk towards him. He flees and they pursue him. He evades them and almost immediately runs into Sydney.
- More specifically, Sydney’s face coming out of the back of a man’s head. A man who disappears and is then replaced by her.
- He tries to reason with her and she tells him the truth; She isn’t really there. The flashback is his memory of the day he called the hospital. She’s been projected into the memory. She tells him to slowly slide into the water and not come up until he sees her and then…
- Back in the pool.
- David remembers the day at the hospital. Clearly now. It wasn’t the Interrogator who came for him. It was a woman.
- The interviewer pleads with him to stay calm and David, smiling, asks who they are. The Interrogator, sweating and nervous, asks him again where the girl is. As lights swarm around them David smiles and says, “I think you’re about to find out.”
- He dives underwater. There’s a flash of light. Incinerated bodies fall past him.
- He surfaces. Sydney smiles and says, “Hi,” and holds a hand out. Behind her are the two people David’s been avoiding: Ptonomy and Carrie. They pull David out and straight into the midlde of a pitched superhuman battle. They run and gun down a winding hillside path towards a tiny boat. David finally stops Syd and begs her to tell him if it’s all real.
- It all is.
- She tells him she came back for him. She tells him she loves him. She introduces him to Miss Bird, who asks him to take her hand. David glances at the Devil With Yellow Eyes behind him, shakes his head and takes her hand.
Legion is the least Marvel TV series or movie you will ever see. At least for most of its running time.
When the series cuts loose at the end – and it really does – then we’re on slightly more familiar territory. Mutants in pitched battle with government forces is the X-Men’s bread and butter after all and there’s more than a hint of that here. But, impressive as that sequence is, it isn’t the special effects that stay with you but the humanity. A single bullet hit that will make you wince. The scream of a soldier flung telekinetically into the air. David Heller’s face as he, innocently, and genuinely, asks whether any of this is real.
David is the heart of the show and it’s one of those roles that, if miscast, would kill a series dead. With Dan Stevens, it’s the engine it needs to be. Stevens, best known for his work on Downton Abbey, plays David absolutely right. He’s not twitchy or uncertain, there’s no caricature here. Instead, he’s a polite, quiet young man who is terrified of the thing sitting inside him and would really like to not wake it up. It’s a calm, reticent performance with awkward but unforced charm and it works brilliantly. Especially in the few moments where David lets whatever lives in the basement of his mind loose…
Elsewhere the rest of cast also impresses. Hamis Linklater is especially great as The Interrogator but the other standouts are Aubrey Plaza and Rachel Keller. Plaza is great fun as David’s cheerfully laid-back friend Lenny. The series plays very deliberately with just how real she is, and when you get the answer (or perhaps, the first answer…) it’s one of the show’s best moments.
Heller, as Syd Barrett (yes that’s deliberate), has as difficult a job as Stevens and does just as well. Syd’s gradual evolution from “idealised girl” to the switched-on member of their relationship doesn’t feel unearned at any point. Plus the moment where she’s playing David in Syd’s body is absolutely note perfect and lands one of the show’s best WTF?! moments.
And there are plenty of those. The first episode, possibly deliberately, apes Fight Club with a flashback nested inside a flashback. Hawley uses colour and speed to play with our perception of time – and David’s too – and it makes for an immensely unsettling hour of TV. You, like David, are never quite sure what’s real and the show lands at least three moments you absolutely don’t see coming. Whether it can maintain that remains to be seen but honestly, right now we’re liking Hawley’s chances.
Legion is on course to be the 21st Century’s version of The Prisoner. That’s not praise we give lightly and it’s deserved. Minor pacing issues aside this feels like a quantum leap forward for superhero TV; a clever, dark, sweet and immensely strange descent into the mind of David Heller. It is going to be one Hell of a ride. And we cannot wait for episode 2.
- Every single performance. Especially Stevens, Plaza and Keller.
- The tone. This thing feels SCARY in a way that nothing else Marvel have put out has managed.
- The direction. Hawley uses shifting colour and angles of vision to move us between levels of the story. It’s always balletic and always immense fun to watch. In particular, the first tracking shot up through the facility where David is being held. The carefully timeless nature of the wardrobing too, especially on David’s sister.
- MASSIVE OSCILLOSCOPE SCIENCE ATTACK!
- The transition from the noose to the birthday candle is great.
- David and Syd holding hands through her scarf is absolutely adorable.
- DANCE SEQUENCE!
- “My 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship Mental Health.” Stevens nails David’s slightly unconscious humour and intelligence brilliantly.
- “Something new needs to happen soon.” Oh it will. Any second…
- “That’s sad.”
“That’s Sad? You’re in a mental hospital.” Syd Barrett, puller of no punches
- “You’re afraid of me.”
“I’m afraid for you.” We actually rather hope the Interrogator comes back as Hamish Linklater is always great value and this line especially suggested he may not be a bad guy…
- “You’re saying after you entered the body of a woman and escaped from a mental hospital where all the patients had been magically sealed inside their rooms you think you saw me getting out of a car?”
“…Well you don’t have to be a dick about it and yes it was you.”
- “Don’t give a newbie a bazooka and act surprised when she blows shit up.”
- The pacing is just a little off. The episode runs an hour and seven minutes and there’s maybe a smidge too much “Or IS IT?” in there. That being said, this is the pilot. The heavy lifting, and steep learning curve, is right here and the show’s off to a great start.
And The Random:
- Dan Stevens is best known for Downton Abbey, of course, but has genre chops that also impress. As well as a great turn in Night At The Museum III, he’s turned up in A Walk Among The Tombstones and had a career-making turn in The Guest. In fact if you haven’t seen The Guest yet and liked this? Read nothing about it and see it now. You won’t be disappointed.
- Aubrey Plaza is, of course, best known for Parks And Recreation. She’s also appeared in a raft of TV shows and movies and been great in all of them. We’d especially recommend the lovely, and deeply odd, Safety Not Guaranteed and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.
- Rachel Keller has appeared on Supernatural and The Mentalist and got her big break in Fargo season two, also written and created by Noah Hawley. She’s not the only Fargo alumni on the show either, with Jean Smart, who plays Melanie Bird, also stepping across.
- Also, it’s not just us, right? The music playing when Syd and Doctor Kissinger were investigating the corridor was basically the Stranger Things theme?
- Mutant Music: An amazing soundtrack for Chapter One, including:
• “Happy Jack” by The Who – played over the opening montage
• “She’s A Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – played over the romance montage
• “Up The Beach” by Jane’s Addiction – played over David’s second psychic Hulk-out
• “Pauvre Lola” by Serge Gainsbourg – played over the Bollywood dance scene
- Just A Few Questions:
• So was Lenny already one of David’s voices? One he could project physically?
• Just when is all this taking place? A lot of the fashions are very late 1970s but that was an ulta high-tech tablet the Interrogator had.
• While we’re on the subject, did you notice David’s photo flick to someone else’s briefly when he opened the tablet?
• Does Ms Bird have any relation to the X-Men? We’re guessing maybe.
• What is the Demon With Yellow Eyes?
Review by Alasdair Stuart