Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We're All Mad Here: Thoughts on Legion

The superhero genre has been the dominant mode of our pop culture for at least ten years.  Which has turned out to be a bit of a problem, since, even by the relatively modest standards of blockbuster entertainment, superheroes do not lend themselves to particularly deep or thought-provoking ideas.  This is, after all, a genre that is still furiously debating the oh-so-provocative question, "should there be jokes?"  And so, as the years have passed, as character types have repeated themselves, as CGI spectacles have grown tedious and familiar, and as writers finally grew tired of rehashing 9/11 for the millionth time, we have inevitably reached the point where creators start experimenting, trying to prove that there's more to this genre by changing its preoccupations or storytelling methods.  In 2016, this meant political superhero stories, many wondering how civil society will cope with the emergence of superpowered people--which, for the most part, fell flat on their faces, because no amount of po-faced writing will change the fact that the answer to that question is "it can't".  In 2017, therefore, the focus has shifted from substance to style.  Instead of being political, superhero stories are now trying to be artful--from the barren, sun-dried landscapes and Western-inspired soulfulness of Logan[1] to the 80s-flavored camp extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok.  And nowhere is the triumph of style over substance as blatant--or as much fun--as FX's recent series Legion.

Based on a relatively obscure X-Men character, Legion tells the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man who has spent his life in and out of psychiatric facilities because of, as he believes, schizophrenia.  In one of these facilities, David meets and falls in love with Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), who turns out to be a mutant with the power to switch bodies with whoever she touches.  Through Sydney, David comes into contact with the Summerland institute, a group who seek to help mutants understand and control their powers, and who oppose the government-run Division Three, who want to exterminate mutants they consider too dangerous.  Summerland's leader, Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), assures David that what he and his doctors took for mental illness was actually a tremendous psychic ability, but as she and David work together to understand his powers, they discover hints of a malevolent entity hiding within David's mind and seeking to control him and his power.

The thing that made Legion interesting when it was first announced--beyond the fact that this is the first superhero series produced by a cable channel--was the involvement of Noah Hawley.  Hawley burst onto the scene two years ago with his improbably successful adaptation of the Coen Brothers' 1996 movie Fargo into an anthology crime series, and that show's distinctive style and approach to storytelling seemed to promise very interesting things for a genre that, until this year, has been extremely hidebound on both counts.  In its first two seasons (the third began just last week, so it's hard to tell yet how it will turn out) Fargo was characterized by a cheerful willingness to go over the top, to use bombastic music, striking visuals, and almost cartoonish characters to draw the viewer in.  It balances this excess of style with clockwork-precise storytelling that often hangs on the smallest of details.  Many scenes in Fargo feel like short movies in their own right, often revolving around a character thinking their way out of a problem, constantly two steps ahead of the audience.[2] 

Visually, then, Hawley was absolutely the right man to make something new and different out of the superhero concept, but plot-wise, he was in a bit of a jam.  The kind of precision storytelling he specialized in in Fargo relies on characters who are faced with concrete limitations which they then must work to overcome; it doesn't work in a world where people can fling each other across a room with their minds, or turn invisible, or change the properties of matter.[3]  Hawley's approach with Legion, therefore, was to turn the visual zaniness he employed in Fargo up to eleven, combine it with an almost labyrinthine structure, and use both to convey the turmoil and confusion of David's mind.  The pilot episode, in particular, bounces so swiftly from past to present, from fantasy to reality, that it's not until its final minutes that we can start to piece together what has happened.  And throughout the show's first season, we are constantly being wrongfooted, finding ourselves having to question what is real, and then, to parse different layers of fantasy.  Is David dreaming, or is he in the astral plane?  Are the repeated visions he has of Lenny, his friend from the mental hospital (Aubrey Plaza), a construct created by his own mind, or is she something else?

A lot of the joy of watching Legion comes from the audacity of its structural and visual choices.  We've gotten used to superhero movies and shows spoon-feeding us their stories and character arcs, hewing so closely to the conventional that even something relatively half-baked, like the spy movie homages in Winter Soldier, feels revolutionary.  Legion's willingness to challenge us means that it can find something fresh and new in even the most shopworn of superhero tropes--when Melanie's team sees recordings of a possessed David taking on an entire Division Three base on his own, or when they storm his childhood home and find themselves unable to speak, proceeding in total silence, there's a thrill of horror and tension that I haven't felt from a superhero story in a long time, if ever.  The centerpiece of the season is Plaza's magnificent villain turn, sliding from vaguely disturbing to strangely sinister to all-out derangement with such impeccable logic that by the time she shimmies her way through David's mind to the sound of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good", or cackles like a mad scientist in a silent, black-and-white monster movie, one can't help but gasp in exhilaration.

Another strength of the show is in rejecting the mundane realism that dominates in most of this genre, which refuses to allow even stories about Norse gods or wizards or aliens from Krypton to ever be weird.  The show's time period, for example, is impossible to fix--the clothing and interior design are all straight out of a mid-century magazine, but people reference email at the same time that they use archaic technology like magnetic tapes.[4]  Perhaps the most interesting choice that Legion makes is to present Summerland using terms that deliberately recall the communes and cults of the 70s.  This not only raises the possibility that Melanie and her project for David might be a sinister one, but completely deflates the more common superhero story approach of treating the superhero team like a bunch of badass commandos.  When David finally comes face-to-face with Division Three, his intimidating catchphrase is "War is over, if you want it".

Even Melanie's secret agenda turns out to be something weird and rather affecting.  She's trying to find her husband, Oliver (Jemaine Clement), a powerful telepath who got lost on the astral plane twenty years ago.  When David meets him, Oliver turns out to be an absent-minded dandy, always at least half-soused, and prone to breaking out into slam poetry or making plans to form a barbershop quartet.  It's such a delightfully unexpected touch, in any genre, and only made more delightful when it turns out that beneath his vagueness, Oliver has actually got his finger on the pulse of the situation, and may be the only person who can help David reclaim his mind.

It's a good thing that Legion has so many entertaining secondary characters, and such a penchant for weirdness, because the person that the show is actually about is, well, not even boring so much as half-formed.  This is, to be clear, entirely deliberate--the show's conceit is that David has spent so much of his life in a haze of medication, and in completely structured environments, that he's had no chance to develop a personality.  Stripped of its adornments, the season's main storyline is a rather familiar psychiatric drama, in which a sympathetic therapist helps a long-term patient push through to the origins of their disease--usually a suppressed memory of trauma--only after which can they begin to build a life for themselves.

But while the fact that David is barely a person is justified by the narrative, the devotion that more developed characters end up feeling for him is not.  This is particularly blatant in the case of Syd, a strong-minded, self-possessed young woman whose love for David only gets more inexplicable the more she dedicates herself to his cause.  Especially when you consider that the glimpses we do get of David's personality are not terribly appealing.  The season's plot only kicks into gear because he kisses Syd against her will, triggering a body-swap that brings both of them to Summerland and Division Three's attention. And even after that, he continues to try to push against her clearly-stated boundaries, for example the fact that she doesn't like being touched even when there's no risk of body-swapping.  When he starts to gain control of his powers, David immediately transitions from his earlier bewilderment to arrogance, and even his growth into social responsibility at the season's end, trying to broker a peace between Summerland and Division Three, feels like a power grab, a young man who only became aware of a problem a few weeks ago trying to supplant a middle-aged woman who has been dealing with it for decades.[5]

These, however, are all are fairly familiar flaws of the superhero story.  What makes Legion uniquely frustrating is its handling--or rather, its failure to handle--the issue of mental illness.  Pop culture keeps trying to use superpowers as a metaphor for marginalized groups such as POCs, Jews, LGBT people, or immigrants--an approach whose flaws keep being reiterated, and which is nevertheless attempted again and again.  But I've been saying for a while that a much more fruitful parallel can be made with mental illness, chronic illness, and disability.  It allows for a wide variety of origins and expressions--some people's illness is congenital and even hereditary, and some develop it because of trauma or the circumstances of their life; some people's illness is invisible, and some are unable to function in society because of it--and a wide variety of attitudes.  It allows for the vast array of damaging preconceptions that society imposes--that the mentally ill are dangerous and out of control, or that disabled people are a drain on society.  Most importantly, it allows for the delicate balancing act between the recognition that your illness is a part of who you are and has shaped you as a person, and the need for tools and resources to help you deal with it and live a good life.[6]

Of course, this all requires very delicate handling, of the kind that one rarely finds in either superhero stories or fictional depictions of mental illness.  Legion, unfortunately, falls into some very predictable traps.  At the root of its handling of David's mental illness is a simplistic binary: is David crazy, or does he have superpowers?  Are the events of the show actually happening, or are they a delusion brought on by his schizophrenia?  Obviously, by phrasing the question as an either/or, the show tips its hand--even in a show this weird, we were clearly never going to discover that the entire story had been a madman's fantasy.  Around the middle of the season, the show suggests that David might have both superpowers and mental health issues, but it immediately undercuts that idea by revealing that those issues are the fact that he has been possessed by an evil mutant.  David's mental health problems are thus externally imposed and, more importantly, removable.  The entire structure of the season--the familiar dramatic conceit whereby discovering the root of your problems makes them go away--is mirrored in David and the other characters' efforts to uproot the mutant possessing him.  But implicit within that structure is the assumption that therapy, and recovery, are an on/off state.  David can either be sick, and thus of no use to anyone--"I was in Clockworks for six years.  Drugged.  Doing nothing.  Contributing nothing"--or he can be healed, and thus completely over his problem (which was never his problem in the first place).  The possibility that people might be able to live productive, contributive lives with mental illness, or that recovery is a process, often a lifelong one, is never even entertained.

It's a shame, because in the periphery to David's story there are some interesting moments where the show seems to recognize that people who are abnormal might still have a perspective on the world that they would value and cherish, even as it caused them difficulties.  Discussing her power with David, Syd explains that the ability to be so many different people has convinced her of the existence of the soul, which probably contributes to the sense one gets from her, that here is a woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants.  In a darker moment, however, she tells David about switching bodies with her mother in order to have sex with her boyfriend, and muses "who teaches us to be normal when we're one of a kind?"[7]  Ptonomy, whose power is the ability to remember everything and travel through others' memories, describes the ability to perfectly recall even the most painful moments of his life as not unlike being a time traveler.

In moments like these, Legion seems open to the idea that it is possible to be both a superpowered person, and someone with problems they need to work through.  But for most of the season the show seems convinced that you can either be one or the other.  When David first meets Syd in the hospital, she insists that "You're in here because somebody said you're not normal ... what if your problems aren't in your head?  What if they aren't even problems?"  In a later episode, when the being in David's mind convinces him and the rest of the characters that they are all patients in a mental hospital, Ptonomy explains to David that "that's the lie, the cruel-ish joke.  How somehow with the right dosage, the right therapy, stand on one leg, touch your nose, we could all go back to [being normal]".  The lesson, in other words, is that if you're really mentally ill, then there's no hope for you, but that if you have powers, then your problems aren't even problems.  It's wrong both coming and going.

I rewatched Legion before sitting down to write this essay.  In hindsight, I probably would have written a more positive review if I hadn't done that.  A lot of what feels audacious about the season the first time around is no longer surprising on the second, which makes it easier to notice how much the show relies for its effect on the reaction of "I can't believe they did that (in a superhero story)".  It's therefore all the more unfortunate that Legion couldn't find anything meaningful to say about mental illness, or anything else that might make it feel less hollow on a second look.  I'm still looking forward to what the show does next--or, if nothing else, to letting Plaza, Clement, and hopefully some of the rest of the cast cut loose on my screen.  But I have to wonder if the need to keep topping itself will eventually be the show's doom, and if we haven't yet again proved that there really isn't that much you can do with superhero stories to make them interesting and meaningful.


[1] Which, to be fair, also has a fair bit of political subtext.

[2] Most of these traits are things that Fargo shares with Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul, but whereas those shows view their problem-solving characters with awe, Fargo is a catalogue of human folly.  Even its smartest characters can't keep themselves from getting into the messes they end up having to think their way out of.

[3] This is a problem that superhero stories keep running up against.  Consider Ant-Man, which wanted quite badly to be a smart caper story, but eventually had to admit defeat, collapsing into a generic superhero punch-up in its final act.

[4] This is a particularly interesting choice given how strongly recent X-Men movies have presented themselves as being rooted in their time period.  There's been talk, for example, of Professor X appearing on Legion, but one could just as easily make the argument for James McAvoy as Patrick Stewart, and neither one feels as if they would be completely welcome in the show's world, which is deliberately non-realistic.

[5] It's especially frustrating that the only person on Melanie's team who tries to challenge the notion that David is uniquely important or particularly heroic, Jeremie Harris's Ptonomy, is also a person of color, and that he is sidelined for the most of the season's final act.

[6] Much as I believe in the potential of this approach, I have to admit that very few superhero shows or movies have attempted it, much less managed it well.  The short-lived Syfy series Alphas did some interesting work with superpowered characters whose powers were paralleled with, or the cause of, various mental health issues.  And one of these days I will get around to writing about iZombie, which in its best moments executes this trope flawlessly.

[7] Though if I'm being honest, I don't think that "raping people is wrong" is a lesson that requires case-by-case instruction.

6 comments:

Pascoe said...

Yes, I had a similar response to Sid and David's relationship. Somewhat counterintuitively, they work best as a couple in that first episode, when Sid is an enigma.

Still, even if David's vagueness as a character is to blame there, that element did offer up one of my favourite things in Legion, something that I've never seen another show do - the way that David's role in the story shifts constantly episode to episode, he playing straightforward protagonist, mystery for others to solve, side character in ensemble, villain as the series went on.

stevenjohnson said...

It seems to me that pop (mass commercial) culture equates mental illness with demonic possession, while always implying demonic possession is a natural outcome of an innate evil. The demon always takes up residence with an invitation, it's never a home invasion. I think this very backward. Legion's Shadow King I also think puts the series squarely in that camp. The show explicitly tells us David's attempted suicide is the outcome of his struggle against his internal evil, a kind of attempted martyrdom. The thing is, if he'd succeeded, according to the show premises, this then would have been a moral triumph, and a boon to humanity. So too then for all people struggling with their demons.

The visual creativity is extraordinary for a TV series.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, good point about how demonic possession is often used as a metaphor for mental illness, with all the attendant problems of that approach. In David's case, however, he can't fairly be said to have invited the Shadow King, since he was a baby when the possession took root. But it is presented as a sort of sins of the father situation, since David's father failed to fully defeat the Shadow King, and the choice of David as a target was intended as a long-term act of revenge against him.

I hadn't even considered the implications of David's suicide attempt in light of his illness actually being a possession. In the show's slight defense, that's something you need to read into it - at no point does anyone say "if only David had succeeded in killing himself, we wouldn't be in all this trouble". But that could still be on the way - it's clear that there's a lot more backstory that we haven't seen, and we still haven't doubled back to the suicide attempt - and either way, you're right that given the myriad issues surrounding suicide and mental illness in our society, making that connection is highly irresponsible and offensive.

pangloss said...

Side thought about mental illness and super powers - it would wonderful to see an adaptation of the second Shade the Changing Man series ( the milligan/Bachalo one) which quite magnificently intersected the two. Actually Legion sounds quite like Shade with bits of Mr Ronot - must see if can find it here.

pangloss said...

Having now seen Legion (a) I bloody adored it (b) it really really is more an adaptation of Shade than X Men, I swear, having read both. In fact the fact we have a Lennie who was an extremely similar character in Shade of sand name - and I remember no Lennie in the New Mutants run - seems a complete giveaway. ( In Shade, the rather dull (as you say) David-cypher protagonist was supplanted in his romantic relationship with Syd-equivalent - who he also meets in a mental hospital but in a more interesting way - in favour of a lesbian relationship with Lennie. So if we get tags next season I'm claiming my no prize. ( Shade is DC so presumably cannot be mentioned.)

Anyway apart from this nerdy obsession, I think ( as I often do) you're somewhat hard. This is glorious spell bounding entertainment doing wonderful things unheard of in genre TV with visuals and structure. I spent the first three episodes seriously making mental notes as to what was real and what happens when. It made me work! As I said on Fb it's the best weird shit since first series a twin Pesks and a I think it would actively diminish it if it had a quiet tied in a knot message about mental illness. And adding a Jason Whyngarde lookalike played by someone from Flights of the Conchords as both Brains from Thunderbirds then romantic tragedy then villain cocoon.. Well it flies beyond inventive. ( It's also funny in X Men lore because the Amin villain who serve Jeabn agree to become Dark Phoenix was also loosely though rather less parodic ally based on Jason Wyngarde. Someone knows their comics though Indoubt it's Noah Hawley.)

And come on! Bolero! Silent movie captions! Men in white suits up ladders with wrenches! A quiet sensible conversation and alliance between the evil mutant killer and torturer and the plucky band? I think in eight episodes this made incredible progress. I really hope series 2 does not settle into wilful obscurity like Mr Robot did.

pangloss said...

Ps a sorry as usual I can never see a what to fix typos on this site. And b for writing about this - I am desperate for intelligent commentary on it!

Post a Comment