Happy Jack – The Who (1966)
The kids couldn’t hurt Jack
They tried and tried and tried
They dropped things on his back
And lied and lied and lied and lied and lied
But they couldn’t stop Jack, or the waters lapping
And they couldn’t prevent Jack from feeling happy
What if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they’re not even problems? – Syd Barrett
Noah Hawley has earned my trust. While his name was likely unknown to most of the public three years ago, at least for those who pay attention, that’s not the case anymore. He’s the showrunner and creator of Fargo, which remains my favorite overall show on all of TV, and so when FX takes on a second Hawley project, my ears perk up. Then you tell me it’s a Marvel Comics adaptation of an X-Men tie-in comic, and I’m very intrigued. Then you tell me it’s not a series built for children, much darker and more daring than anything we’ve seen from the CW or even Netflix, I’m geeked and ready.
Folks, Legion is an incredible show. I’ve seen the first three episodes, and while this review will only cover the events of the opener, let me tell you this, FX’s win streak isn’t ending anytime soon. I’m still thinking about what I’ve watched thus far, and it’s been WEEKS since I saw much of it. As visually disconcerting and flat-out strange as Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot series was, Legion is on another level. This is a colorful, off-center acid trip in a hypnotic candy factory, but one with both foundation and awareness Elliot Alderson hasn’t ever seen. As odd as it gets, Legion is still grounded in basic emotions, and Noah Hawley isn’t as interested in tricks as he is telling a well-rounded story that grips you and doesn’t let you go.
From the second The Who’s “Happy Jack” hits to open the show, you can instantly recognize the signs of something unique. Comic series have fallen into certain traps, both those on streaming services and those on cable networks, but Legion avoids all of them. It’s mysterious from its first moments, and while those who have read the comic of the same name will know the story, it’s entirely immaterial to one’s enjoyment of the show. I say that as someone who has never read a word of Legion, which is a rarity relative to the plethora of comic properties that have hit airwaves and big screens over the past decade.
Within the montage, we see David Haller attempt to hang himself with an electrical cord, and Hawley uses the visual of the emerging spark to flip to a birthday celebration with his sister, Amy. If we didn’t know it was different, we damn sure do now. Haller’s history isn’t fully revealed by the show, at least not yet, but we know he’s special. And, as is often the case with geniuses or the extreme eccentrics, modern society reacts in a frightened, uncomfortable fashion. Usually, people think they’re jerks, because they either don’t think the same, don’t act the same, or don’t have time for the mundane observation. David isn’t a complete ass, but he’s a nutjob, primarily because he’s been told he’s abnormal.
He’s a mutant, but he thinks and knows he has a mental instability. Institutionalized, poked, prodded, and medicated, David sees things others don’t, including a horrifying creature the show refers to as “The Devil With Yellow Eyes.” He can control his environment, and impose his mental and physical will on a room. He’s on Haldol, an anti-psychotic often used to treat schizophrenia and other personality or mood disorders, and his day-to-day existence is anything but easy.
He doesn’t ever fully buy into his own deficiency, because the examples continue to crop up in his life. Unfortunately, there’s no differentiation between David Haller, the mutant, and David Haller, the mentally unstable, societal danger. And, in truth, especially after all he’s been through, he’s definitely not “right.” It makes the role a difficult one to play, and just as Rami Malek became a household name thanks to Sam Esmail, Dan Stevens has re-entered the national conversation. Most know him from Downton Abbey, but this is the role he owns, and in a similar manner to Downton, he’s amidst a ridiculous ensemble cast in Legion.
Whereas Malek plays a nearly comatose, drugged and depressed paranoid hacker in Mr. Robot, Haller plays a nearly crazy, thinking and often moving with abruptness, and it’s not an easy character to play. However, it’s one he can sink his teeth into, and what grounds David and makes it an inviting fictional life to watch is the relationship with Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). No, it’s not a coincidence that her name matches that of the Pink Floyd founder, as Hawley has openly mentioned the band as a key influence on the show. The instantaneous chemistry between Stevens and Keller is remarkable, and Rachel picks right up where she left off in Fargo, where she was arguably THE breakout performance on that show’s outstanding second season. These two just fit together, which makes the characters match, and both are performers you want to see.
Syd is a beautiful young lady, but David can’t touch her, even after the two become an official couple. Speaking of which, Legion’s humor is understated but effective. “Do you want to be my girlfriend,” after barely knowing each other, and her affirmative response was really funny stuff. There’s a matter-of-factness to the show and it’s characters. Mr. Robot plays games with its dialogue. Legion goes the other way,
The three women in Haller’s life, Syd, Lenny Busker, and Melanie Bird, are the most important in his life. In fact, make it four, as his sister (Katie Aselton) also certainly qualifies. Whether intentional or not, it’s interesting that the four corners of this man’s life can be defined as sister and upbringing, his love interest and likely soulmate, his drug addict and mentally ill bad influence of a friend, and the experimental psychotherapist that finally opened his eyes to his quirks being blessings. Outside of David, the show is driven by its female cast, and then you add in Bill Irwin, who is always awesome, especially when playing weird roles. Legion feels like a jello fruit salad, and before you wonder what I’ve been ingesting, think about it. It’s colorful, it’s got a few unnatural objects within it, but it’s all held together well.
The casting makes sense and it works, and even Aselton, whose FX resume is dominated by her longstanding role on The League, fits wonderfully. The substance keeping the gelatin in place just as Hawley, his people, and his players ensure that as strange as it gets, you’re never taken out of the proceedings. While David is seeing Syd’s face on the back of a bald man’s head, it all still registers properly within the confines of Noah’s universe. The Haller character enables Hawley to play with his settings, his eras, his music, his visuals, and everything in between. Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz brought the Marvel story to life on comic pages, and the power of print is in the freedom of it. You can do damn near anything in a comic book. Just ask Grant Morrison, who turned weird and unapproachable into an art form for DC over the past 20 years. When you adapt a series, it’s more difficult, because you have to actually make a drawing into a reality. As technology and technique has caught up with creativity, all of a sudden comics are everywhere on television. Even Archie is on TV in 2017.
Noah Hawley can’t really go “too far” with Legion, because the source material reveled in its eccentricity. In Fargo, he had to keep everything closer to the surface. Those were crime stories, mixed with character studies. This is wide-ass open and it’s the first time in history that a superhero television series may well make an Emmy run. FX has the attention of the voters, the critics, and the countries. Despite the mediocrity of Taboo, the track record is awfully good. Legion goes with dream sequences, drug-induced hallucinations, violence up to and almost including torture, unpleasant imagery, but it’s drama and storytelling of the highest order.
What’s the genre? You’ve seen the first episode, and I’ve seen the first three. There’s a definite horror component to the proceedings, but whenever I see the yellow eyed demon, I think of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Lenny being trapped in a wall? Yeah that was problematic. The scary images ramp up over the next few weeks, but one thing we’ve already seen is Hawley isn’t worried about long introductions. There are many shows where the happenings inside the institution or scenes from childhood could fill up half-a-season. By the end of Chapter 1, Noah has already introduced us to Melanie Byrd.
X-Men has always concerned itself with prejudice and fear, but Legion instead takes us inside the head of its protagonist, and lets us see his flaws, and his awakenings. This is not going to be an easy transition for David to make, but we get him out of the bubble almost immediately. When I returned to my notes, which I separated by episode as I screened what was made available to critics, I was stunned at how much happened in this episode. Legion wasted no time, and got us from point A to point G, not point B. The breakout scene was unreal, and god was it ever daring. The interrogation was intense and its conclusion was captivating beyond belief. The colors used in the various hallways, from the deep red to the hauntingly regal purple, all with the discombobulation of David Haller. We never know if we can trust our narrator, or anyone else, because our vantage point is largely through Heller’s perspective.
The moment where if you’re on the fence, you may have jumped off it on the proper side had to be the second David realized that he was in complete CONTROL of the chaos around him when the kitchen basically explodes under his command. He can see his power, and wields it with maturity, perhaps for the first time in his life. Okay, there’s a point behind all that just happened. It’s the storm before the calm before the storm before the calm. It’s going to be a struggle, possibly until the bitter end, between David’s sense of authority and subservience. Can he ever fully buy in? It’s a question to answer. It’s a compelling reason to watch.
Aubrey Plaza was made to play Lenny, because she’s admittedly weird, and excels playing maladjusted young women. Her involvement also adds to the Cuckoo’s Nest feel of David’s psyche. She’s a manipulator, but not necessarily nefarious. Her brain has been destroyed by drugs, and her arcane optimism allows her to do what she wants without a conscience to save her from herself. Syd may not be the angel on David’s shoulder, but her motivations are positive. Lenny is assuredly the red-cloaked girl poking him with the pitchfork on the other side. She’s the Tyler Durden of the early stages of our story.
The episode ends with David’s discovery of Syd’s larger plan. She didn’t leave him. She came back for him. “I have to know. Sydney, is this real?” Her response is telling. “I’m real. This is real okay? I came back for you. I love you, okay?” He still can’t touch her, but his visions aren’t all false. The two people following him aren’t evil, they’re not out to get him, they’re keeping him safe. Everything, by the end of the episode, has a conclusion at least washes with what came before.
It was a busy start, it was all over the place, but that’s Legion. In my experience with the series thus far, if you liked the start, you’re going to be a huge fan. I imagine some will be scared off, but anyone who reaches the Chapter 1 conclusion should come away with an indication that things do make sense in this world, even if the initial appearance would say otherwise. Hawley isn’t trying to shock us. He’s just having a blast. So am I.
I can’t wait to talk about Legion with you guys all season, as I’ll be writing weekly on the series. It’s going to be fun. I think we may have our new obsession. TV is about to get really good, really fast. Legion, The Americans, Better Call Saul, The Leftovers, and Veep just to name a few. All will be rolling by May, and all will be weekly covers here at Outkick. You can add Billions to the list, which should make the boss man happy as well.
David Haller is a character unlike anything on television, the driving force behind a series unlike anything on television. It’s uncharted waters, but as I began this review, I trust Noah Hawley. And, after three hours watching Legion, my faith was rewarded. Legion is crazy and defies any genre description. There’s action, horror, drama, mindbending effects, subtle humor, and examples of stream-of-consciousness plotting, but there’s also a nucleus from which it all springs. It’s a winner. I’m sure there will be decisions we’ll like better than others, but it’s an undeniably can’t miss show that demands your attention.
Just like its heroes, Legion isn’t at all normal.
I’m @JMartOutkick. And then I looked in the mirror, and I was her.