Love for Legion, and Total Submission to Aubrey Plaza
I didn’t realize I was watching a show about superheroes until the very end of the first episode. And I mean that as a compliment.
Legion, which aired on FX in the spring of 2017, is about as far removed from standard superhero fare as humanly possible, with only the X crossing the O of the show’s title in the (gloriously) brief opening credits to remind me that, yes, this reality-bending piece of narrative quicksand is a component of the Marvel universe.
The plot wanders the labyrinthine thought process of one David Haller (played by Dan Stevens), a tormented soul who is either a) a paranoid schizophrenic, b) an extremely powerful mutant with incredible telepathic powers, or c) both at the same time. David is a spectacularly unreliable narrator. He obscures facts, shuffles the characters in his memories, and is up to his neck in people who “just want to help” but whose personal motivations are never entirely clear. The eternal question of whether or not David’s perceptions can be trusted bounces back and forth like the ping pong ball in the rec room of Clockworks Mental Hospital; the setting that opens the first episode and to which David returns over and over.
Because Legion is not so much a linear narrative, as it is a spiral. Most of the story takes place inside David’s head — rather than outside it — via talk therapy, nightmares, memory palaces, and even the astral plane. I began to view David’s world as a series of concentric rings of perception: an outer ring in consensus reality, an inner ring of delusion, confusion and protective emotional barriers, and an innermost ring of genuine personal truth and authentic memory. And then, of course, the astral plane, permeating the whole thing like a ghost walking through walls.
If that sounds like an impossible thing to film, well… it’s not. The team on this production do an absolutely stunning job of weaving together the disparate pieces of David’s reality. No matter how many times David’s stream of conscious circles on itself or takes a sudden left turn, the audience is never left behind. The writing coheres as seamlessly as the sets, where a door in an apartment can open into a hallway in a different house in a different time.
This is not entertainment for the faint of heart. A viewer who doesn’t stay engaged is bound to lose track of the shapeshifting psychological landscapes. Anybody unsettled by a philosophical discussion of what — if anything — is truly real should find a more straight forward superhero flick (it’s not like there’s a shortage). And while I certainly wouldn’t describe Legion as frightening, they do throw the occasional jump scare the audience’s way.
I’ve saved the best for last. Most TV viewers know Aubrey Plaza as the charmingly morose April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation (i.e., Wednesday Addams all grown up with a bureaucratic day job). Although far and away one of my favorite characters on the show, April Ludgate is a little bit of a one-trick pony, whose primary role is to deliver gothy one-liners in a bitter teenage deadpan. Hilarious, but understated.
Aubrey Plaza’s role in Legion is the complete and total opposite of understated. I’m a huge fan of scenery chewing (all part of a balanced breakfast), and boy, does Aubrey chew some scenery. And yet, when it’s time to reign in her performance, she does so effortlessly. As David Haller’s close friend (?) Lennie, Plaza ends up playing essentially four different characters, and she blurs the lines between all of them, ultimately becoming one great big chimera of crazy. She steals every scene, devours all the best lines, and completely justifies a Bassnectar remix of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good that would be unforgivable in almost any other context.
If Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate seems like a flat expanse of Indiana farmland, then Aubrey Plaza as Lennie Busker is a dizzying and jagged mountain range running up and down Canada’s west coast (Legion was filmed in beautiful British Columbia, by the way). Plaza enjoys every minute of her role in Legion, and her demonic glee is infectious. Every time she appears on screen, I feel like a greedy kid with his hand in a frog-shaped psychedelic cookie jar. I just can’t enough.
I can’t wait for season two, y’all.