Seek television that breaks concepts down to dust, a story of the mind that tinkers with perception, deception, time and personality, every bit as warped and alien as a dream. All of those arguments you’ve ever had about what a superpower should be capable of are great fodder for a creative mind, but it’s so rare to see the product of those arguments come to mainstream television. This kind of arthouse flexing of the thought muscles, toying with metaphors brought to life, the landscape of the mind turned into a battlefield, that’s usually the reserve of Sundance Festivals and indie game developers.
Legion, a series based on a lesser known X-Men character, and played by Dan Stevens, who you’ll know if you watched Apostle on Netflix at all. Legion is the son of Charles Xavier himself, and like his father he is a staggeringly powerful telepath, actually a great deal more powerful, but there’s a few complications attached to his ability. At a very early age, David Haller was subject to a dark parasite that piggy-backed off the strength of his mind, another telepath – Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King, disembodied but no less alive, arrogant and malevolent, and harbouring a vendetta against David’s father.
Now, whether it was because of Farouk, the strain of carrying the indomitable will from an early age, or the side effects of having the bogeyman that haunts you for decades, or if it was already part of his mind, David… Legion, suffers a host of mental health issues, not least of which being dissociative identity disorder on a massive scale. He’s a bucket of voices, a classroom of toddlers piloting a psychological tank, and the results are amazing.
Where Legion breaks the comic book mould is that war between telepaths isn’t an action packed romp of explosions, gunfire and thrown fists, they’re wars of words, and emotions, and concepts, which leads to battles of song, dance, hallucinations, haunted-house style walks through memories, and the reshaping of reality, not just mental reality but the physical world.
The series features surreal and dark performances from Aubrey Plaza and Jemaine Clement, predominantly comedy actors but masters of the strange, and brilliant at creating unsettling characters. One can never be certain if Aubrey’s character, Lenny, is real or a mask of the Shadow King, worn to gain trust, even to the very end it’s near impossible to know for sure. As for Jemaine’s character, Oliver, is never entirely certain if he is real, being so wholly attuned to his own mind and the myriad worlds and sweet jazz therein, that his body has become a fiction to him.
The “side cast” are also arranged to explore psychological concepts; memory, identity, loss, dependence, addiction, and all of the madnesses that dog these parts of human interaction, and because they each represent a part of the human condition we get chance to explore their feelings and their characters through interconnected narratives that drive towards a single, many layered plot.
It’s all strangely beautiful, and set to a 60’s/70’s backdrop, colour scheme, and soundtrack, meaning everything is cast in this psychedelic clash of colours and images, equal parts horror film, musical, and emotional drama, but dotted with anachronisms to There’s astonishingly little in common with anything else based in a comic book universe, although I’d say it has fingerprints in the Joker, being based on the struggles of mental health. We’d have seen something like it in the New Mutants, a project so quagmired in production limbo it looks set to sink into oblivion.
But it’s more than just comic books, I don’t remember the last thing I saw that was so willing to violate the basics of narrative to the point where it becomes an aesthetic study of character rather than a straight forward beginning-to-end story. And sure, there’s a narrative to follow, but it’s impossible to know what parts are story, what parts are fictions, what takes place in the mind, or out of it. This is television that plays with the medium, rolling camera angles, shifting aspect ratios, clever transitions, unapologetic use of colour motifs, even the recaps that begin some episodes replace “previously” with “apparently” or “ostensibly”. When season three introduces the mere concept of time travel, it’s not a shark jumped, more a continuation of themes, themes of warped narrative and the inherent instability of the mind. We cannot trust our narrator, not the accuracy of his story, or his motives, or the way he perceives himself.
The only thing I’ve seen come close is American Gods, or perhaps Westworld, and more should be done like it, mentally challenging, shifting sands of ideas that force the brain to work harder instead of accepting a linear and heavily simplified story telling upon which our brains grow fat. A little mental junkfood is all well and good, and I’m not saying that this is your meat and potatoes as such… perhaps a more accurate analogy would be that it’s like a long holiday somewhere far from home compared to a weekend in the same old pub. One expands the mind, the other is all too comfortable to promote active thought. There’s nothing wrong with either, but too much of one makes the other lose value.