Marvel’s offbeat superhero series Legion is unlike anything on television, from its design to its narrative style. It’s fresh, weird, and even disturbing, with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley using every trick and tool in his war chest to trouble his main character, and challenge viewers in the process. To understand how a show like this works, it’s good to understand how those tools are being used.
In the series’ excellent second episode, David, a powerful but thoroughly unhinged mutant who can theoretically alter reality, has escaped his government captors with the help of his girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller) and other powerful mutants. Led by telepathic therapist Dr. Melanie Bird (Fargo’s Jean Smart), the group takes him a new facility called Summerland, where they recruit him to help them win a war against… it’s not clear what yet. But first, he needs to master his powers.
Mild spoilers ahead.
In the episode’s early minutes, David struggles with his telepathy, so Dr. Bird instructs him to tune out the noise. She has him envision a giant stereo dial to turn the volume down on the voices he hears in his head, so we see him physically adjust that giant dial as though it actually existed. It’s a far-out image, but it’s designed to make David feel safe and at home in a way he hasn’t experienced in a long time. “Very good,” Dr. Bird says to him, soothingly. “That’s what we call telepathy.”
“What we wanted to do was make it all seem like he was being hugged with giant comfortable arms,” series set designer Michael Wylie tells The Verge. “[The Summerland specialists] are literally there to make him feel safe. It’s diametrically opposed to what we’ve just been through.”
Wylie, who developed the sets for Agent Carter and Pushing Daisies, worked with Hawley to design locations that correspond to David’s state of mind. In the premiere, David is alternately at the Clockworks Psychiatric Facility and an unnamed interrogation site. Both places are claustrophobic and closed off, informed by Vancouver’s harsh, Brutalist architecture. Viewers get a clear sense that David is more or less in a constant state of terror — mostly over himself and his powers. But at Summerland, he’s invited to finally feel at ease. The place’s name alone should suggest a more welcoming, organic environment than a place called “Clockworks.”
“Summerland is very bucolic and has lots of trees and lakes and sky,” says Wylie. “That’s what David’s been dreaming about, since he’s been locked up in that place for years. That was done through using lots of whites, and lots of organic material, and the beautiful countryside of British Columbia.”
At Summerland, David can theoretically escape his tormentors from the premiere, and better understand who and what he is. But that doesn’t mean he’s escaped the idea of living in a psychiatric facility. Episode two doubles down on the idea that clinical settings are an integral part of David’s life, reminding us that this is still a show about mental illness. At Summerland, he meets specialist Ptolemy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), a so-called “memory artist” who transports David into his own memories in order to piece together past trauma. He and Bird do this with support and care, which contrasts with the medicated near-isolation David was accustomed to at Clockworks.
Things get weirder and far, far darker, however, when Dr. Bird and Ptolemy dive deeper into David’s memories of scoring drugs with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), or trying to cope with his illness. And the darkest memories seem to involve his father, who died while David was at Clockworks. One recollection involves David’s father reading a nasty, violent little bedtime story called The Angriest Boy in the World, which is so unsettling that David pushes himself out of the memory by force.
The text of the scene is frightening on its own. What happened to David’s mother? What really happened to his father? David is confronting something from his past that he fears, even if he’s not entirely sure why it’s frightening. But Wylie sells the scene with careful use of color and lighting. Where Summerland is bright, white, and comfortable, David’s memory of his bedroom is a dark perversion of a happy childhood memory, with one of the few lamps in the room turning his father’s face into an eerie silhouette. That approach, according to Wylie, makes everything David sees “plausible, yet vague,” and it informs the entire show.
“Because we’re seeing this place subjectively through David’s eyes, the colors change all the time,” he explains. “Sometimes we repaint the same rooms in different colors. The director of photography can [also] change the color of the room using the lights. So lots of times we’ll go into a room, and then go back into it, and it’ll be a completely different color, messing with people’s perceptions of where they are, and how real it is.”
David is never allowed to forget that things may not be as real as they appear. (Neither is the audience.) The only things rooting him to anything resembling reality are Syd, who joins him in what David calls a “romance of the mind,” and his sister Amy, who might be in danger, according to one of David’s visions. David can’t be sure what will come next, but for now, he believes he has the power to help the people he cares about. That’s all that’s pushing him toward the next phase in his journey. But in upcoming episodes, he’s only going to see his world only get crazier. “We get to see really strange things that have not even a single toe in the pond of reality, ” Wylie says. “We want you to very slightly feel like you don’t know what’s going on.”