Starring Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Bill Irwin, Amber Midthunder, Katie Aselton, Jeremie Harris and Jean Smart
Directed by Noah Hawley, Michael Uppendahl, Larysa Kondracki, Tim Mielants, Hiro Murai and Dennie Gordon
Written by Noah Hawley, Peter Calloway, Nathaniel Halpern and Jennifer Yale
Developed for Television by Noah Hawley
Airing on FX
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
David Haller is many things. He’s a world-breaker, a savior for mutantkind, and the most powerful being on this or any plane. Legion recently wrapped its first season on FX, and it, too was many things; a brava acting showcase, a stylish slice of cinematic artistry, and arguably one of the best X-Men shows this side of the Fox animated series.
Fargo mastermind Noah Hawley took the hallucinatory bedrock of Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and projected it into an entertaining cable drama that celebrates the hip weirdness of X-Men comic books. Across eight “chapters,” Hawley and his team of talented writers and directors, including in-demand Atlanta director Hiro Murai, took us through the dreamlike struggle of David Haller and his new friends as they worked to free him from a deliciously vile parasite nesting in his mind.
And while many of the X-Men movies tripped over continuity, Legion danced deftly around the edges, giving us just enough to inform the show’s action but not enough to keep it from standing as its own beautifully strange experience. While X-related movies and TV shows have been hit or miss affairs over the years, Legion's first season rose above that stigma by embracing what makes mutants and their stories so engaging, strengthened by fantastic performances and plenty of water cooler-worthy moments.
Taking cues from the original Claremont/Sienkiewicz New Mutants as well as Si Spurrier and Tan Eng Huat's run on X-Men: Legacy, Legion has had dynamite visuals but its real power laid in its character work. Hawley and his writer’s room learned the right lessons from the above mentioned runs and treated David like an actual cast member instead of a plot device. Dan Stevens displayed an astounding range as David, moving from twitchy and unsure in the early episodes to confident, godlike and enlightened across the entire season. Stevens’ innate charm and affability, traits that served him well on Downton Abbey, radiated from David as he battles for his mind and finds love and a family among the Wes Anderson-inspired home of Summerland, a refuge for wayward mutants.
But while the show bore his codename, David wasn’t the sole focus. Like the best X-Men stories, Legion built an engaging team around David and stood as more of an ensemble piece than I expected. Rachel Keller’s Syd was a razor-sharp and capable foil for David as the show framed their budding relationship as the backbone of its superheroic theatrics. Aubrey Plaza, meanwhile, was the clear breakout of the show as the villainous Lenny, turning in a performance that should have heaps of trophies hoisted upon it come awards season. Katie Aselton provides a drolly funny take on David's long suffering adoptive sister Amy, and gives David a real connection to the mundane world outside of mutants.
Amber Midthunder and Bill Irwin’s Loudermilks provided the brawn and brains of the team and even got one of the show’s best action sequences; a constant cross cut between the syncopated movements of Cary dancing gracefully through his lab, while his counterpart Kerry fights a group of armed soldiers. The always great Jean Smart and Jeremie Harris rounded out the main recurring cast and provided a nice rudder for the team of misfits, as the team’s erstwhile leader and second-in-command respectively.
Legion also delivered some fantastic set pieces rooted in the show’s ethos. Instead of just smashing the characters together like action figures, the show’s directors took the dreamlike logic of the scripts and translated them into stirring, explosive, and sometimes terrifying set pieces. Starting with Noah Hawley’s pilot episode escape from a Division 3 stronghold and continuing across the show’s multiple dance sequences - not to mention a horror movie chase presented like a silent film from standout director Hiro Murai - Legion eschews the usual leather-bound heroics of the X-Men franchise and delivers what might be best described as artisanal superhero action.
Like its titular character, Legion contained multitudes. Made whole by the production design of Michael Wylie, the Prisoner-inspired costume design of Carol Case, and the haunting score of Jeff Russo, supplemented by the tremendous needledrops that Hawley’s shows have become known for, this first season blasted away any cobwebs from the X-Men's meat-and-potatoes aesthetic and delivered something wholly unique. If recent mutant stories are bumming you out, I suggest you turn on, tune in, and drop out with Legion. It’s a trip well worth taking.