David hears voices and learns he's not alone on the series premiere of Legion

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Feb 8, 2017

Spoilers ahead for Legion's first episode, "Chapter 1."

The short version: David Haller (Dan Stevens) hears voices, lives in a mental institution, falls in love and learns there's more to his problems than paranoid schizophrenia.

THE GOOD

In future recap installments, we'll focus more on plot and character as the story unfolds, but a pilot episode is just as much about tone-setting as it is about storytelling, so let's talk about that. You know why? Because Legion is very, very good at it.

I don't know about you, but I'm absolutely obsessed with the design of this series, from the costumes to the lighting to the gorgeous sets that range in tone from Kubrickian minimalism to nostalgic Lynchian melancholy. The Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital looks like something out of a '70s sci-fi drama, with its central medication booth, oppressive light fixtures and weird hanging garden. The interrogation room, where David gets a grilling from the Investigator (Hamish Linklater), looks like something straight out of a strangely sparse nightmare (and perhaps that's the point), until they bring in that testing machine that looks like it came from the set of Frankenstein.

It all forces you to question everything about when and where the show takes place, right down to the color choices. For instance, I'm now absolutely convinced that the color red is very important to David's psyche. Red on the counter during the kitchen incident, red on the interrogation room desk, red lights when he starts having visions, even red on Lenny's (Aubrey Plaza) shirt while she's still alive. It may just be my brain picking out details and stringing them together because this show absolutely demands close watching, but that's part of Legion's brilliance. My brain seems to adapt to its conditions.

Now, on to story. At times it feels like this episode is going to veer off into nothing more than a brightly colored tone poem about being misunderstood and finding that other misunderstood person -- in this case, Syd (Rachel Keller) -- who you can spend your life with. Early on, we can't be sure if David really levitated his entire kitchen or if he just imagined it. Then he levitates his bed at Clockworks, but maybe he just dreamed that, orderlies and all. David's own frustration with others questioning his sanity begins to gnaw at the viewer too, because we're demanding something real. Then comes The Kiss.

I must admit I had to watch Syd and David's first kiss more than once to really get every detail, but the whole sequence is just a masterwork, deliberately and meticulously disorienting right up until the very second it all makes sense. The groundwork is perfectly laid, the tension perfectly wound, and the moment when we see Lenny's body perfectly devastating. Lenny's death is the first concrete example we have as viewers that David's powers are real, that he's affecting others with what he can do (though in this case Syd technically did it). Armed with that knowledge now safely in its arsenal, the episode lets David loose in that glorious table-shattering sequence.

The revelation that David's powers are indeed real, coupled with the revelation that the interrogation room is just a construct to mask a more sinister government group, then buys the show the ability to get super comic-booky for the climax. David suspended in an electrified pool feels like something a supervillain would devise, those charred corpses are just over-the-top enough to be cool, and the dizzying final action sequence is worth watching several times just to glimpse every little detail. By the time the hour is over, you know you just watched a comic book show that knows how to flex its mutant muscles.

THE BAD

Honestly, I didn't see much at all, but I don't want to set the precedent that Legion is perfect (it realllllly kinda is, though), so let's nitpick about a little something here. I found the use of David's childhood memories given the home movies treatment to be the only thing in the episode that verged on cliche. It just didn't add anything for me, and it felt like the only thing in the episode that wasn't there for a reason other than to conjure up the idea that David wasn't always so troubled. If that's the case, fair, but didn't the opening montage already serve that purpose in a more creative way? It's quite possible those moments will pay off in future episodes, but they felt out of place here.

THE UNCANNY

We've already discussed the incidents in the kitchen and the interrogation room, but there are a few other amazing mutant moments to consider. For one thing, Syd's ability to switch places with someone else is so complete that David, in Syd's body, actually switches his body back to match his mind, rather than the other way around. That could make for some interesting moments down the line, particularly since the characters still sound the way they always do to the viewer. Plus, we don't even know what Ptonomy, Kerry and Melanie can do yet, but at least one other member of this band of outsiders has some serious telekinesis going on. Then there's the weird whittling man, that sinister cage the leader of the government agents keeps in his hideout, and of course ... The Devil with Yellow Eyes. Every time he popped up I was searching my brain for a comic book connection and drawing a blank, which may be the point. Any theories?

And that's it for this week! We'll see you next Wednesday for "Chapter 2." In the meantime, let us know what you thought of the premiere in the comments.