It is often said that we are living in the golden age of television, which to many means it’s really a reprieve for what they consider to be one (or five) too many capes invading multiplexes every year. Yet, increasingly television is also embracing the superhero genre at every opportunity, from broadcast networks to streaming services. How fortuitous it is then for those who fret about genre hegemony that Noah Hawley, one of the most lucid voices in the current television landscape, is the showrunner on Legion, FX and Marvel Television’s first overture into the X-Men mythology.
After seeing the first 20-some minutes of the pilot, which was screened at New York Comic Con, the sincerest compliment I can give it is that while being obviously set in a comic book world of mutants, it absolutely feels nothing like a product of the modern superhero genre. And whereas Marvel Television’s recent Netflix series have established a certain familiar style at this point—and are very keen on letting you know they’re set in the same world where the Avengers exist—the showrunner of FX’s Fargo is taking a unique and welcome left turn with Marvel’s mutant corner, creating something that is intentionally mystifying but eminently fascinating.
For those who might not be aware, Dan Stevens’ David Haller is the son of Charles Xavier—which is not addressed in the pilot, albeit a wheelchair is very knowingly showcased within the first few minutes—and he is also a mutant who is unsure which, if any, of the voices in his head are real. Yet, viewers are likewise going to be quickly lost in his fever dream of reality. Ultimately, we are helpless at understanding what is real and what is fantasy, much to the show’s engrossing benefit.
During the subsequent panel, Hawley explained this choice where the narrative is as fractured as the POV character’s misdiagnosed schizophrenia (David is actually a mutant with extreme telepathic abilities).
“I found my way to David’s character, which really clicked for me,” Hawley told the NYCC crowd. “This idea that he was a man who was either schizophrenic or he had these powers. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ To think about making a show where he doesn’t know what’s real and the show is subjective. You’re in his head, you’re in his world, so you don’t necessarily know what’s real either. That felt like a really fun and fresh idea.”
Indeed, the pilot puts its hooks in early with much of the first 20 minutes taking place in a surreal, dystopian beige that feels like it’s trapped in the kind of 1960s mental health hospital that Don Draper would have nightmares about. While this series is presumably set in 2017 (or even later in the future given some of the technology in the preview’s final scene), many of the characters around Dan Stevens’ Haller have the style of a Harry Palmer movie, which might be par for the course for James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, whom we first met in a 1962 setting with X-Men: First Class.
When asked about the dreamlike quality of these scenes, Hawley explained, “I learned to trust my instincts and I can’t explain it rationally, except when I started to think about putting it on its feet, it sort of wanted to feel like a 1964 Terrence Stamp movie for some reason. I mean, maybe it had something to do with the fact that the last three X-Men movies have been period pieces, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to root us in a particular time, but I liked the idea of there’s a character who doesn’t know what’s real. And some things are very retro, and some things feel very modern, and there is this sort of alternate universe. And it becomes almost a parable or a fable, almost.”
However, all of these scenes are quickly contrasted with the revelation that they are occurring in a flashback as Haller is being interviewed by another authority figure (the only character who ever brings up words like “mutant” and “telepathy”), and this man has a futuristic looking version of an iPad. And the kicker is that everything David Haller claims to remember—about his time in a Go-Go ‘60s-esque asylum—his new therapist doesn’t dispute as a dream or hallucination. He simply keeps inferring that something has happened between Haller’s idyllic views of being in a mental ward in the past and the present—most of which involves a young woman who might just literally be the girl of David’s dreams.
To take a step back, the general set-up of the pilot appears to be that after David tries to hang himself at the end of a gripping opening montage about the deterioration of his young life, he winds up in a mental hospital where he meets Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). Lenny is mostly David’s pal and might be even more strung out in her own little world than him. It also refreshingly makes full use of Ms. Plaza’s talent, and she immediately slays with her familiar deadpan, but with a disheveled and spaced out visage that is far more unhinged than anything audiences are accustomed to from her.
Soon, they both meet Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), whom David is instantly smitten with (maybe it’s the pigtails or the “devil may care” view of mental health?). During a group therapy session, our telepathic Romeo asks for Syd to be his girlfriend and she agrees on one condition: he never touch her. Despite these parameters, David enjoys a happy life in a trippy state with Syd, who may or may not have vanished at a point between these flashbacks and the present. If she exists at all. It’s hazy, because, as Hawley admitted when a fan asked, Syd Barrett’s moniker is named after a founding member of psychedelic rock group, Pink Floyd.
“Oh yes, Syd Barrett, that name feels right for this kind of character,” Hawley said with a smile. “The first conversation I had with Jeff Russo, who’s the composer, I said, ‘This show should sound like Dark Side of the Moon. That is my goal to sound like Dark Side of the Moon, because that album, more than anything, is really the soundscape of mental illness to some degree. So that was my insight into Pink Floyd’s work.” Barrett was long gone from Pink Floyd by the time they recorded Dark Side of The Moon, but his battle with mental illness inspired the albums themes.
Perhaps that is the best way to describe the heaping sample of Legion that fans were giftwrapped at New York Comic Con. While the whole pilot wasn’t screened, what we saw is immediately gripping and appealingly confounding. Generally, the tone of the show appears like uses mutant powers as an excuse to create a tonal puzzle box of a narrative that is less about action than it is of characters being allowed to breathe.
That seemed to also be the general angle that Hawley and fellow executive producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Jeph Loeb were trying to use while promoting the show in the subsequent panel. Also joined by lead actors Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Amber Midthunder, Jeremie Harris, Katy Aselton, and Bill Irwin, they spoke with broad generalities about their characters and the overall arc of the eight-episode season. Still, the focus was clearly on doing something different that felt universes apart from the X-Men movies.
“For me, this is exactly what I wanted, because it is far away from the X-Men movies, yet it still lives within that universe,” said Donner, who has also been a producer on every X-Men movie since 2000. “It’s another way to be original and surprise each time out.”
However, the question remains whether this franchise will be connected to the actual X-Men movies. Hawley definitely left the door open to that possibility without confirming it:
“There’s a certain degree of that which is to be determined. As I said, we’re in this subjective reality of David, so it’s hard for us to tell. One of the things that’s attractive about the X-Men universe is that there are all of these alternate timelines, and alternate universes. So it does have this sort of fable quality. We have to realize that we’re also seeing this world through multiple layers of the confusion and mixed signals that Dan’s character is getting. So I think it would be a spoiler in the true sense to say, but I like the idea of making things that are unexpected, yet in the end feel inevitable. So, I’ll say that we are true to the origins of this character and just leave it at that.”
Of course, if one is being true to David Haller’s origins, then the fact that he’s the son of Charles Xavier must be crucial to the show, right? Hawley wouldn’t disagree and seemed to confirm that the bald X-Men mentor will be mentioned or explored in some way during Legion’s first season.
“Yeah, I don’t really think you can tell the story without that element to it. So I would say, you probably will [see Charles Xavier addressed]?”
And again, as Dan Stevens himself noted, the very first scene does feature a wheelchair.
You can see for yourself when Legion debuts on FX in early 2017.
*NYCC photos provided by Kayti Burt.