How ‘Legion’ Uses Superpowers to Explore Mental Illness

first_img Superheroes are myths, and myths are metaphors. They’re tools that human beings use to explain the unexplainable and explore both the world around us and the worlds inside of us. So it’s no surprise that artists and writers have done the same throughout the history of the medium. The X-Men as an analogy for civil rights, Superman for the immigrant experience, Batman for grief and mourning. You get it. One of the most unique and compelling superhero analogies in the world right now is FX’s mind-bending show Legion, which starts its third and final season this week. Come with us as we explore the battlefield of the mind through the prism of its lead character.Patient FilesLegion is an odd pick for a superhero show. Its main character, David Haller, was introduced in the pages of New Mutants #25. The son of Charles Xavier, one of the world’s most powerful mutants, David was born from a brief fling and Xavier never knew of his existence. When he was young, a massive trauma caused his powers to manifest and drove him into a catatonic state. He remained that way until he was a young man, when he awakened and was possessed by the malevolent mutant Amahl Farouk, also known as the Shadow King.The basic gimmick for David — then dubbed Legion — is this: he suffers from multiple personality disorder, that ill-understood condition in which one person has many consciousnesses, each with their own personalities and memories, living within them. Each of David’s personalities has access to one of his mental abilities — macho Jack Wayne can move things with telekinesis, while bratty Cyndi can set things on fire with her mind. And then there’s Jemail Karami, a terrorist leader who had his entire consciousness absorbed by David during his trauma and now lives within his mind.Over the years, the X-Men comics have brought Legion back as both antagonist and ally, fleshing the character out as our understanding of mental health has grown. His most recent starring role came in the X-Men: Legacy series, where he worked to keep his many personalities under control while tackling high-level threats to mutantkind.When Legion came to TV, showrunner Noah Hawley wanted to step away from the multiple personality aspect of the character, which is often used to pretty corny effect, and sink deeper into the general worldview of a disordered mind. So let’s see how that was done.First ConsultationAlthough Legion is obviously part of the Marvel extended universe, you won’t see any other superheroes saving the world here. Hawley told the press that he wanted to do the “Breaking Bad of superhero stories,” a closely-focused narrative that followed David’s development as he learned about himself. Instead of MPD, the character was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental condition that often manifests in young men at puberty (much like mutant powers in the Marvel universe). Schizophrenics experience disordered, chaotic thinking, agitated movement and hallucinations.When the series starts, David is an inmate at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where he’s been for six years. There, he falls in love with a young woman named Syd who refuses to be touched. That’s for good reason – she’s a mutant like he is, with the uncontrollable ability to switch bodies through physical contact. When she winds up in David’s head, his abilities go wildly out of control and wreck the hospital, killing his friend Lenny. He’s not there to see it, though, as he’s been whisked off to Summerland, a facility run by Melanie Bird to train mutants in the use of their powers.The first season is a narrative of treatment, as Melanie and her team work to dig through David’s memories to find the root cause of his fractured psyche. On the way, they experience a number of hallucinatory adventures and are bedeviled by a grotesque yellow-eyed man who also takes the form of a traumatizing children’s book drawing and David’s friend Lenny. What’s great about this narrative is how grounded it is, despite all the surreal things happening around the characters. David needs to do the work to understand his disease, and as he does he slowly becomes more able to communicate and relate to Syd and the others.And then the payoff comes: that man that’s lurked outside David’s field of vision in some of his worst moments is no hallucination. He’s a malevolent psychic presence, the Shadow King, latched on to him like a parasite. But what makes the reveal work is that Legion doesn’t go for the clean ending of having the villain be responsible for the hero’s break from reality. Instead, even with the Shadow King expelled, David is still damaged, but in a different way. The second season saw him more proactive, hunting down Farouk to prevent him from reobtaining his original body. His schizophrenia manifests in different ways — instead of the reclusive, inward folding he did in the first season, Haller now pushes outwards in ways that alienate and hurt his friends and allies. He’s able to act in the world, but he’s still not well — and now that he’s not undergoing treatment, he may not be able to pull back from the abyss.We’re not sure where the third and final season of Legion will go, but smart money’s on it giving us a lot to chew on, especially with future Syd telling us David will be the one to bring on the end of the world as we know it.The Mind PalaceInterpreting mental illness can be a difficult thing. As opposed to other diseases, where symptoms are physical and quantifiable, conditions like schizophrenia are troublingly elusive.Here’s a great example: a small subset of human beings have a condition called tetrachromacy, where their eye has a mutation that lets them see colors outside of the normal spectrum of human vision. How would somebody describe those colors to somebody that can’t see them, using a language that has no words for them? It’s virtually impossible to express something so internal and personal.What’s great about Legion is that it has a built-in tool for externalizing these internal processes. Because David is a superhumanly powerful telekinetic, he can make the world around him just as chaotic as his mind. One of the first season’s most affecting recurring images is David standing in a kitchen he’s tearing apart with his mind, hundreds of utensils and pieces of debris suspended in the air around him in one frozen moment. Psychotic breaks of the kind associated with schizophrenia can feel like that, both instantaneous and eternal.His telepathy works to make talk therapy – one of the most vital courses of action for schizophrenics —something more than just dialogue, as treks into David’s memory are tangible things. But the show never comes out and says that what he’s recalling is truth, reminding us that we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives.It’s not just David that wrestles with mental illness and trauma, either – each of the show’s main characters can be seen as a metaphor for a different sort of condition, and the throughline of the series is how they heal both themselves and each other when they can. The premise of the second season — that David was thought to be “cured” because of the Shadow King’s expulsion, only to find himself falling into old patterns and behaviors — illustrated just how fraught that process is.We’re very excited to see how Legion‘s final season explores David’s treatment. After his despicable deeds at the end of season 2, he has a lot to answer for. While we’re not expecting a traditional happy ending, there are as many different directions David’s story could go as there are stars in the sky.The third and final season of Legion premieres June 24, 2019 on FX.More on Great TV Shows With Terrible EndingsThe Story of ‘Warrior,” Bruce Lee’s Long-Delayed TV Series20 Years Later, How ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ Still Feels Fresh Christian Bale Shares Cheeky Batsuit Advice for Robert PattinsonRobert Pattinson Describes Trying on the Batsuit for First Time Stay on targetlast_img

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