With all the Super Bowl ad hype, I went into the Legion premier on February 8 with equal parts interest and skepticism. Then again, I go into most things with skepticism so that’s not really anything new. The first episode was equal parts surreal beauty and awkward trope with some mysterious plot thrown into the mix.
At the very least, I’d like to give credit where credit is due and make sure it gets seen. If you’re into trippy, hallucinogenic visuals, Legion is going to be your jam. To be honest, it might have been one step slightly overwhelming visually, but I dug it. Legion doesn’t ease you into its visuals.
As a grunge girl from the 1990’s, the introduction sucks you in with a very Pearl Jammy “Jeremy” sequence. We follow David from his childhood through his teen years. As we watch, he slowly becomes unhinged. His face turns from one of innocence to one of anger as his powers slowly unleash. Combining the overly vibrant colors with a slightly atonal Beatles-esque musical background, the opening scenes close with a segment reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. With all of this imagery jam-packed into the first three minutes, Legion‘s aesthetic is clearly set.
In fact, for me, the aesthetic was the best part of the show. With the vibrant 70’s oranges and yellows, the timing is clearly set for the work. Throughout the show, particular design elements place it as futuristically surreal yet particularly grounded in the disco-era. For example, the interrogation room is a baby nursery of stimulating colors with white, red, and black dominating. The sharp lines of the squares and the harsh contrast of the colors makes for a visually stunning, minimalistic approach that allows you to focus on the characters. The mental hospital’s ceilings have a similar futuristic 70’s look with gigantic, white, circular light fixtures. In one scene, the institution’s welcome desk is centered in the shot with the ceiling and light fixtures. The desk is columnular, almost like the controls in the TARDIS and the circular fixtures come together to visually evoke the science fiction staple creating that futuristic feel. Artistically, Legion is stunning.
The “howevers” to me are huge.
Legion is set in a mental institution. We can argue that sci-fi has always done a poor job of portraying mental health. This is totally agreed. We can argue that the setting being the 70’s/80’s makes what I’m about to argue ok. To be honest, in 2016, I don’t feel that answer works.
First, let’s take a look at the original Legion comic. In the original comic (which can be found on Marvel Unlimited where I read it before writing this piece), David Haller is an autistic in a mutant research facility. His psychic powers have damaged his brain and made him, as he says in one of his earlier appearances, “Bat%^$& crazy.” Fair enough. The dude’s nuts. The dude’s violent. The dude’s a freakin’ mess. However, even in his earliest appearances where he’s being controlled by the Shadow King, he’s not in a mental institution. This means that placing him in one for the show deviates from the character’s comics origin. Therefore, how it’s handled is on the show writers. The show writers live in 2016, and thus, reflecting some kind of outdated 1970/80’s mental institute characters that fall within tropes is just not cool. With all of the work that mental health advocates have done, people with mental health issues deserve better. Second, let’s bring out the fact that any reference to David/Legion incorporates his autism. Even in the original books they refer to him as “the autistic.” In a scenario where an autistic character could be well represented, they shove him in a mental institute.
When we meet Syd, she tells David that, “The voices – that’s what makes you, you.” More of this would have been wonderful. In fact, it’s the only point in the entire show where we see a normalization of mental health issues. Yes, he’s got problems, but that’s what makes him who he is. To that extent, I suppose we can argue that the tropiness of the representation of mental health could be seen as an outside villain with Syd and the other mutants as saviors. It is possible to argue that the perception of mental health as incapacitating is as villainous as the actual villains. I could, on some level, accept that argument. I think. Maybe. However, the reality is that this is only one line out of an hour and a half of television show. While this line is important, I do not feel that it exonerates the rest of the treatment of mental health. I specifically do not believe that the conflation of schizophrenia with a traditionally autistic character is an appropriate representation of either of those disabilities. Further, the continued representation of schizophrenia as a dangerous and violent mental illness is a damaging one that should not be made in 2016. Yes, this is the character’s history in the comics. However, reinventing a character should allow for changes to that character’s history. It’s been done numerous times in movies, television shows, and even recent Marvel reboots. Going forward, FX could do a better job normalizing schizophrenia in a heroic instead of tropes violent way.
At best, this is a poorly incorporated discussion of mental health. At the worst, this promotes continued misunderstanding and stereotyping of mental health. To be honest, this turned me off almost more than anything else.
See how I said, “almost”?
Yeah, that. The Legion plot uses a particularly rape-culture plot device that is, as a woman, unacceptable. When we meet David in the institution, he’s stumbling along as a loner. Then, in one of those moments that stop everything, Syd walks into the asylum. David stops his conversation with his best friend Lenny, takes her Twizzlers, and approaches Syd, who runs screaming. Well done, Syd. You should have continued to do so. When David asks Syd in the middle of a group session to be his girlfriend, she agrees so long as he doesn’t touch her. He agrees, and we’re treated to an adorable little montage of “not touching but touching” romantic involvement. They hold a scarf instead of hands. The “kiss” in a mirrored glass is adorable and totally perfect. He seems all respectful.
Notice that is all in capital letters. UNTIL. The night before Syd is to be released, she enters his room with a body pillow, climbs into his bed, and tells him she will be leaving the next day. Devastated, he rolls over and attempts to kiss her. After all, didn’t she come into his bed? What did she expect? Obviously, this is what she wanted, right?
No. Just no. That is the thing that every rapist tells himself. It’s her fault. She came to him. It was her idea. He was perfectly in his rights to try to invade her space. That body pillow between them meant nothing.
No. Nope. Nope. Nopity nope nope nope. Do you see how many no’s there are there? He went into the relationship knowing she doesn’t want to be touched. He assumed that her coming into his room is her wanting to be touched. This is precisely what a rapist or sexual assaulter tells himself and everyone around him.
She wanted it.
No, she didn’t.
But wait! There’s more!
As if that scene wasn’t bad enough? David’s release from the mental hospital is totally related to him kissing Syd as she repeats, “No. No. No.” In a nutshell, David’s freedom comes at the price of kissing a woman against her explicit no.
Let’s revisit that for a second.
She says no.
He kisses her.
He gets out of the mental hospital and is free in society for the first time in years.
Think about that message for a second.
Now think again.
Now, let’s all repeat with me: Nope, nope. Nopity nope nope nope. In all of the nopes ever to nope.
I get it. It’s science fiction. Legion has a platform on FX to do better, to be better. However, as visually stunning as it is, the rape culture tropes and the representations of mental health make it a one-watch wonder for me.