At one point during "Chapter 1," the premiere episode of Legion, which aired last night on FX, the main character is sitting in chest-high water trying to hide his actions beneath the surface. This is an apt metaphor for the show itself—despite so much happening in plain sight, there's so much more going on. The show could be compared to a Russian nesting doll or an Escher painting, what with its shifting timelines and multiple perspectives that double back on themselves. We can never be sure if what we're watching is real, imagined by our protagonist, or both. Flashbacks shift to other flashbacks to dream sequences that turn out to be memories. And there's a dance sequence. It's a thrilling show.
David Haller is introduced as a patient at Clockworks Mental Hospital, more or less, having suffered from seeing and hearing things that aren't there. He is eventually revealed to be one of the most powerful mutants in the known world. Unfortunately, his abilities sometime get the better of him and manifest in destructive ways. He meets and falls in love with Sydney Barrett, a development that might seem rushed if it weren't so sweet, and if we weren't asked to call the young woman’s existence into question.
It turns out that Sydney is real, and has mutant powers of her own. David pieces this together, recalling how they swapped bodies after their first kiss, which is why Syd is so afraid of touching people. Intercut between this story and David's time at the hospital, a man known only as the Interrogator asks David all sorts of questions about Sydney and a girl who died. The questions get so intense, David's powers are triggered more than once, and his captors gas him. He does manage to escape and piece together some of his memories better, but ultimately more questions are raised than answered.
This first episode, written and directed by show creator Noah Hawley, does an excellent job of keeping the viewer on their toes, not just with narrative tricks and expert camerawork but smaller details. The outfits worn by David's sister range from contemporary to vintage in style. The Interrogator consults a very high-tech tablet, but another scene shows David using a phone booth. We are not given any clues as to when or where this story takes place. The patients at Clockworks all wear orange jumpsuits, establishing them as a type of team before any fantastic elements are introduced to the story.
There's a particular resonance for gay fans in this story about a hero who knows something about himself but can't quite express it, all while being told that he's actually crazy. It's a loose metaphor, and could easily lapse into dangerous territory, but Legion offers more than smartly color-coordinated costumes and the usual superhero allegories for the gay experience.
It's tempting to describe Legion as the superhero show for people tired of superhero shows, but it offers a great deal more than that. It may be based on a Marvel comic created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, but it has one of the most challenging and daring first episodes of a series in recent memory. I look forward to unraveling its threads in the weeks to come.