The Marvel(ous) X-Man and the Fantastic (Meta)phor/s
Thoughts on Series 1 of Legion
(NB – I haven’t seen Series 2 yet, and was distressed to see El saying it had become disqualifyingly “rapey”. Why do they ruin everything?)
Legion might be the first show since Hannibal to genuinely achieve substance through style. Of course, I haven’t seen every show since Hannibal, but I know Westworld didn’t manage it.
Legion takes place in a corner of the X-Men universe, in which (as per the concept) some humans are being born as ‘mutants’ with special powers. In line with how these things usually go, the most powerful mutant so far discovered turns out to be David, a mediocre white guy with a Harry Potter-esque backstory. He and his fellow mutants are, naturally, being hunted by a sinister government agency.
So far, so clichéd. But Legion does some genuinely interesting things with these concepts.
It is deeply divergent from almost all TV/movie genre SF/Fantasy now, especially the Marvelverse, with which it is obviously most likely to be compared. Its style is light years away from the Marvel shows (Daredevil, etc) and from the movies. The nearest Marvel movie to Legion in terms of style is Doctor Strange, but that seems tame by comparison. There’s a deep 70s-genre-TV-ness about it, and especially about the effects sequences. It goes with the 60s/70sness of the production design generally. The quiddity of this aesthetic is more than just ‘cheapness’; it’s rooted in a particular approach to the fantastic which Legion seems to want to resurrect.
There is a peculiar and distinct aesthetic to the effects sequences in Legion. They seem to have deliberately gone for a kind of visible… ‘effectyness’. They want you to notice the effects, and notice that they are effects. This is what they want you to do instead of playing the usual game of accepting effects as if you don’t realise they’re mock-ups of unreal and impossible things while simultaneously enjoying their rendering of unreality and impossibility, via a kind of mental game of pocket billiards whereby you pretend to accept (and thus do accept) those ideological notions about what is or isn’t convincing.
Against the odds, it works. Especially in those sequences where ‘effecty’ things – particularly in the form of the surreal intrusions – interact with real environments. The show repeatedly creates tableaux in which very obviously ‘unreal’ things are obtrusively mapped into real settings. Like the ice cube which descends through the ceiling into Cary’s bedroom in the imaginary mental hospital.
It could just be my influences showing, but it looks to me as if they have deliberately attempted to create something of the accidental TV-version of the ‘alienation effect’ that occurs in 1970s British television SF/Fantasy, most notably via the use of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO). Legion does not of course use that creaky old tech, but it seems enamoured of it, and of the strange byproducts it had.
There is something very Sapphire and Steel about Legion. But then Sapphire and Steel was only (arguably) the most pronounced example of the psychedelia-inflected ‘video effect surrealism’ that was rampant throughout UK genre TV around the time. Something happens in the British SF/Fantasy of that era. And also in comedy. And to a certain extent in variety too – though it seems less pregnant in television which doesn’t attempt to create a diegetic fictional ‘reality’ – something I find suggestive in itself.
The crackly, shifting line between the studio shot and the image CSOed in begins to look like the crack in reality that divides our world from Faerie, or inner space, or other planets and times, or whatever the individual show’s lingo was when it set up divisions between spaces arranged on hierarchies of ‘reality’.
Legion is intensely concerned with the dividing lines between different versions of reality within narrative, and it explicitly engages with different versions of this concept: past/present, true/false memories, fiction/reality, macroverse/microverse, alternate timelines, psyche vs social world… and it is always interested in how such distinctions, such dividing lines, are understood, and thus how such narrative spaces, such tesselating boxes within the narrative, are arranged in relation to each other.
I mentioned the imaginary mental hospital. It exists inside the heads of (some of) the main characters. Late in the series, they are put there and kept there by the Shadow King, an entity which lives inside the head of the hero, David. The Shadow King itself takes various forms. It manifests in the hero’s memories as a monster, but in his ‘real life’ as a sort of imaginary friend – played by the transcendent Aubrey Plaza. It puts characters into an imaginary mental hospital to gaslight them into believing that they are not, in fact, mutants with special powers, but actually troubled people suffering from delusions. Of course, this being a fantasy narrative, the reality of their lives makes considerably less sense than the idea that they are actually just delusional.
But then the imaginary mental hospital is an image of a real mental hospital in which the hero was imprisoned at the start of the series. Or so we are left able to assume. The full or partial ‘reality’ of the setting is left ultimately ambiguous, so that even when the characters succeed in escaping from the imaginary mental hospital, there remains uncertainty about how much of the ‘reality’ they escape into is real. It isn’t that the show indulges in the rather cheap trick of implying that the whole thing might just be in their heads, and then foreclosing on this implication, thus achieving the illusion of having done something clever and metatextual while also staying a fantasy story. It isn’t just that the show questions the dividing lines between reality and fantasy. It is rather that the show is interested in how we aesthetically understand divisions and distinctions between artificially hierarchized planes within fantasy narratives. It is less interested in questioning which parts of the story are ‘real’, and more interested in why and how we understand different levels of ‘real’ within fiction, and why we do it.
By its general destabilising of the categories of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, done via a use of aesthetics that is both extremely clear and extremely questioning, Legion manages to interrogate the contradictions inherent to this kind of story while also retaining a certain fidelity to genre. This allows it to be clever about its genre tropes, and to develop a kind of theory about what they generally mean in these kinds of narratives, without seeming simply to be smugly undermining them for the sake of it.
Legion mixes up levels of time too. Not only is time outside in the ‘real world’ seemingly moving very slowly while the heroes are trapped – or in the process of escaping from – the fake reality the Shadow King has put them into, whereas it is actually moving at normal speed and they are simply experiencing it as moving more slowly because they are operating at a different mental level.
The show also mixes up time in a larger sense, so that the present day seems to be recognisable as ours (but with key differences) while also being the 60s or 70s… or perhaps somewhere in the ‘Long 60s’, that interzone where ‘The 60s’ and ‘The 70s’ merge and transition. (These terms for decades and their constructed cultural meaning are artificial boxes; real history doesn’t work like that – yet the boxes express something real. Social constructs are not ‘unreal’. Again, this is partly what Legion is getting at, I think.) This mixing up of time is done via the introduction of ‘Long 60s’ clothes/decor designs into everyday life in such a way that we notice the clash while also noticing that the characters are not conscious of any dissonance. (And I can’t help noticing that a lot of design aesthetic employed by the show features riffs on boxes and intersections – as lots of 60s pop-Modernism did.) It looks like an alternate history in which the 60s-70s never quite ended, even today… or maybe one in which aspects of our current level of technology (though not all of them) arrived ‘early’ and crashed into the 60s and 70s. Or it could be now, but now as it would be if the original X-Men tales had occurred at time of publication (eschewing movie continuities and timeline) and changed our history. It should also be remembered that tinkering with time is one of the realities of life in the world of the X-Men.
The 60s/70s-esque alt-ab-pseudo-present of the show is at once cutesy and oddly disturbing. It gives everything an overdesigned, over-produced feel. I don’t mean that it makes the show seem overdesigned or over-produced… at least not in any simple way. Rather, the show makes reality – the reality its characters live in – seem overdesigned and over-produced. Yet the aesthetics it uses to do this are inherently homely, because we are accustomed to seeing the tattered debris of the long 60s era cluttering the corners of our world, and to see it constantly reiterated in our media in a less self-aware – or overly self-aware – manner. We’re used to seeing the aesthetics of that era being reproduced (re-produced), both straight faced as ‘classic’ or tongue-in-cheek as ‘kitsch’. Instead of this, Legion resurrects them with an archness that is simultaneously accepted by everyone living inside them. It makes them seem both old and new at once, and consequently lends to this representation of an alt-history or ab-history an intense believability. It is believable because that is exactly how we experience the world, especially the produced world of the commodity in which we are utterly lost now: as, dizzyingly, both old and new at once.
The point is this is to embed the story within History. History is a central aspect of narratives about the destabilisation of reality, or the liminality of reality. (It’s almost as if the entire idea of distrust of grand narratives it not only dependent upon the grand narratives it distrusts but also a grand narrative itself.) The entire idea of the hole in reality, or the portal to a different world, is a metaphor for how we experience the churning history of modernity. This is amplified when we are talking about time travel stories. Legion is a time travel story. Not in the same way as Doctor Who, which represents time travel literally, as a technological (or rather technomagical) process, and then uses this as a way to interact with history, both as that which is written and the process of historical change, through various figurative literary devices such as satire and pastiche. Not in the same way as Sapphire and Steel, which is also about the process of historical change but is far more about the way we are haunted by the various ways we attempt to psychologically understand, metaphoricise, remember, memorialise, forget, edit, and thus control the process. Legion, rather, is interested in how we interact with history as a series of environments, both external and internal, social and psychic.
There are few things more linked to how we socially and individually interact with history than the interactions between our memories and our social memory. And in consumer capitalism our social memory is made up, to a huge degree, of aesthetics. This is an inevitable byproduct of a society made of commodities which accumulate, depreciate, are revolutionised, redesigned, and resold. It has long been noted that ‘the 60s’ has become an event made of signs. Miniskirts, the Beatles walking across a zebra crossing, Charles Manson, Woodstock, Twiggy… all these things commodities or commodified. That’s just life in our world. The point is the effect by which an entire historical epoch is now ideologically renegotiated and reconceptualised via its commodities. This can happen because the entire idea of history coming in chunks with set meanings is inherently an artefact of commodity society. It is only a short step from ideologically manufacturing history as a commodity to plundering the inside of that commodity for more commodities. It is essentially the same process as Coca-Cola becoming a multitude of different flavours of Coke, and a merchandising line, and a system of signs within a brand, the signs themselves saleable beyond their own role in selling Coke.
This process strips history of content. But new content may be generated by interrogating that very stripping away of content. ‘All contact leaves traces’, goes the founding maxim of the forensic scientists. The reduction of history to a system of signs leaves traces in the mind, and in the world, because history as we live it is not just a system of signs.
Legion is very interested in the fault lines that exist between the signs and the traces. The Shadow King is a force that reduces history – inner and, it wants, outer – to a system of empty signs that it controls. It reorganises the interiors of the heads of those it parasitises, and also tries to leak out into the ‘real’ world and reorganise it, so that innerspace and outerspace – actual history as far as we can materially grasp it and mental history as it has been signified – seem to seamlessly match, in a way that suits it and enables its parasitism.
The Shadow King is a force of history but also a distortion of history, a material force but also invasive of the psyche, a coloniser and occupier of the body and mind, a systematiser and controller of life through signs, a chaotic figure that seeks total order, a multifarious entity with an inner essence but an ever shifting shape, a force that circulates and thus grows fatter and fatter through its cycle of accumulation.
It is nothing so much as a reiteration of the monstrous representations of the commodity form, and even more essentially capital itself, that those particular SF/Fantasy shows of the late 60s and 70s that we were talking about, and which Legion seems interested in plundering for affect – among themDoctor Who – managed to create, stimulated by the actual motor of ‘The 60s’ or ‘Long 60s’, i.e. the most profound revolutionary moment in Western culture since 1917. As we’ve seen, these stories tend to be intensely concerned with history – though, interestingly, Doctor Who has an unusual schizophrenia, an artefact of its original conception, which causes it to keep attempting to separate its historical concerns from its concerns about capital.
A corollary of this ‘moment’ in genre storytelling, and also part of what made it possible, is the particular level of technique available to the people telling those kinds of stories. And this, of course, connects back to the kind of aesthetics those stories had. The possibilities determined the choices and the kinds of stories that could be told, just as the kinds of stories people wanted to tell determined the development of the technology of television effects.
A meeting point where these two tracks, coming from opposite directions, converge is along the crackly edge of the CSO effect, the fuzzy border between the material set and the image ethereally mapped in from elsewhere, both present and not present.
The line where the colour is separated, within which the colour becomes something else, some phantasmic intrusion, is inherently also the line that separates one realm or version of reality from another. It is the membrane that thins and breaks at Samhainn. It is the line between the wardrobe set and Narnia within. It is the portal to faerie with which so much fantasy is concerned.
(It would be interesting to theorise why – beyond the fiddly nature of the task – classic Doctor Who never used CSO to show us the console room inside the Police Box. It is something so unprecedented that the thirtieth anniversary fan-produced documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS made a big deal of doing it. ‘The Sensorites’ does it in reverse, showing us the world outside seen from inside the console room, and showing us the crew walking from inside to outside. Early Doctor Who creates the feeling of liminality at the TARDIS entrance mainly via the great televisual technique that makes Doctor Who possible in the first place: the cut from one camera to another with which the director creates an ‘as it happens’ edit. By the time CSO had come along, the precedent of doing it with a cut was set in stone. But that rather begs the question. Why was the show blindly faithful to this precedent? It is tempting to suspect that the boundary between inside and outside the TARDIS is felt to be a different kind of liminality to the other kinds the show deals with, as if the TARDIS is too directly metaphorical for television itself, and thus for the technological ‘producedness’ of the drama, for the form of Doctor Who, whereas the liminalities outside the TARDIS, embedded in this week’s world/allegory/satire, stand for the content of Doctor Who, its thematic engagement with history, politics, and society. It would be especially interesting if Legion mimicked some of early Doctor Who’s interest in the cut as a way of arranging spaces… and it kind of does. It is also extremely interested in another very Whoish thing: the television screen as a way of connecting levels of reality, layers of time, metaphors about audience, etc.)
Another key marker of the difference in Legion’s aesthetics compared to those of most SF/Fantasy shows today is in its representation of technology. Today, computers in fantastic narratives tend to project dynamic schematics and explorable maps in immersive displays with which the characters can physically interact. We get animated, blown-up, 3D holographic displays that can be physically manipulated. Such things are clearly extrapolations of how we interact with complex unreal environments – continuua of windows and boxes, contiguous virtual maps, etc – on our touch-screen phones. We navigate and arrange aesthetic representations of information by physical contact and gesture, in a manner that suggests the potential – certainty, more like – for further merging of body and data. Given the show’s interest in the liminal spaces between different kinds of reality, arranged in unstable ways owing to shifting notions of hierarchical ‘realness’, you’d think it would be fascinated by just this sort of thing. But actually, beyond the presence of very under-stressed modern phones, such things are almost totally absent. The technology we see in the series looks like repurposed technology of the past, and it tends to play a figurative purpose – like the old-fashioned diving suit with which Oliver survives limited excursions outside of the ice cube in which he is trapped, which itself stands for… well, it’s complicated. Oliver is a man trapped inside his own sleeping mind. And he is stuck in a dated persona. Though, this being Legion, even as we know his persona is dated, it also dates to one of the ‘presents’ which overlap in the historically jumbled alternate ‘now’ of the story. Oliver is trapped in the past, but so is the world he can’t escape back into. Inside his ice cube, history stopped accumulating and piling up. He is frozen, making his ice cube a pun so outrageously literal it entirely jumps over its own crudeness. Inside his ice cube, he has the latest sound system (Oliver loves his jazz), and it is ancient. But then all the tech in the show is ancient, even the new stuff. The sinister government agency uses little boxy televisions (told you) to spy on people. Cary’s lab is of the type where masses of wires plug into skullcap helmets, noisy procedures are started by pushing big red levers, dials must be twiddled, readouts are scribbled in ink onto revolving paper rolls on drums, and things with the word ‘scope’ in their name regularly go bing. It looks, in short, like the kind of tech you get in the SF/Fantasy television of the 60s and 70s. Again. And again, perhaps especially the British SF/Fantasy television of the 60s and 70s. It’s not just the tech. In line with the show’s strategy of calling attention to the ‘effectyness’ of its effects, and choosing this particular type of effectyness, the icy walls of the interior of Oliver’s metaphysical ice cube look very distinctly like crinkly clear plastic backed with pale blue. They look the way Doctor Who would’ve done – in fact, did do – walls of ice, back in the day.
Legion is also very horror inflected. It borrows openly from Insidious and The Babadook. But better.
A word of explanation. My dissing The Babadook is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Well, unlike most people, I didn’t like it. I wrote about it here, but my objection boils down to the way it announces itself to be about Serious Real Things like depression and grief, etc, rather than about the uncanny or the inexplicable, which it forecloses upon with an ultimate literalism as crude as the metaphor it disavows. The supernatural in fiction expresses the truth of life’s real horrors arguably more profoundly than realism. At least attempting this is what Horror is for and about. When you foreclose on the supernatural in horror fiction as being anything more than a metaphor – especially when you perform the metaphor in order to undermine it – you are working from an assumption that the metaphor is not sufficiently truthful. In fact, horror that truly grasps after sublime and inexplicable supernatural terror is more truthful than a ‘realistic’ depiction of non-supernatural things underlying the apparently supernatural. This is why, again unlike almost everyone, I also don’t like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents.
The Shadow King lodged in David’s head is of course open to being read metaphorically. However, the show both uses and explicitly disavows all the obvious metaphors. Paradoxically, this doesn’t negate them. You can’t make something as powerful as a good metaphor not be there just by saying it isn’t. The problem with The Babadook isn’t that it disavows the metaphor. On the contrary, it hammers it home. It then explicitly acknowledges that it’s a metaphor, and tells us precisely what it’s a metaphor for. But, in so doing, it robs it of its power. A good metaphor is only potent because it exists in a liminal space between diegetically real and diegetically unreal, with the possibility always open that it is real for the characters.
Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of ‘the Fantastic’ sees the genre bifurcating into the ‘uncanny’ and the ‘marvelous’ according to what happens in a given story. Crudely, the former is when something fantastic is found to be ‘unreal’ within the story, i.e. a delusion or trick, and the latter is when it is ‘real’, i.e. an actual supernatural intrusion. By that schema, I would say that the category of the ‘uncanny’ would indeed describe the Babadook – and that’s also why I find him unsatisfactory. He is not really there, at least not as an actual external entity. The movie is sometimes said to have left this ambiguous but I beg to differ. Even his nature as a metaphor is explained as a psychological phenomenon; he is a hallucinated embodiment of a fiction the main character invented to express her feelings. The alternative is the ‘marvelous’, in which the intrusion of the supernatural is ‘real’, i.e. something impinging on the characters from outside their own psyche.
The thing is, even the ‘marvelous’ forces fantastic storytelling to fall down on one side of the other. The ‘marvelous’ is itself a form of decision and certainty, a form of this-sidedness. The ghost is ‘real’. Whatever it is, it’s there. It definitely isn’t not there.
Even if the supernatural intrusion is kept as opaque, alienating and inexplicable as possible – the entire project of the Weird, some would say – there is still no doubt that the opaque, alienating and inexplicable things are there to defy understanding. The tendency is to play with the possibility that the narrator or characters are delusional, only to prove them otherwise. And I’m far from rejecting this approach. Indeed, as I say, I like horror storytelling to embrace the supernatural rather than disavow it. But it remains a collapsing of potentials.
Of course, there is always the old gothic instability of narration lurking. The narrator or narrative voice – be it an actual 1st person address in a novel or a privileged (and not necessarily personalised) perspective in visual media – could always be insane, or lying. This possibility haunts the gothic. Indeed, it often haunts the fictional narrators within the genre themselves. They are often themselves anxious about their own reliability.
Todorov talks about the tension between possible interpretations of fantastic events in fiction; tension which lasts until the story collapses one way or another. He uses the word ‘hesitation’ to describe the state of tension in which the reader exists until the collapse. It’s a bit like the way Schrodinger’s cat dies or lives depending on the 50/50 chance of what a subatomic particle does.
But the crux of Schrodinger’s fable is the part of the story where the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, because we haven’t yet observed its state. At this point, its fate is dependant upon a quantum event that could go either way, and also depends upon being observed before it ‘decides’ which way it went. That’s the extrapolation Schrodinger makes from quantum theory; it’s his attempt to illustrate its absurdity. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that, it’s a great story. It caught on beyond and outside its original context, and is known by people who have never read the original, like all the biggest stories – Frankenstein, the Bible, etc. And the thing that captivates us about it is the cat’s presence in two incompatible states simultaneously. It is this impossibility that fascinates, and the fact that we have to try to imagine it (because, by definition, it is impossible for us to observe it without ending the state of simultaneity). Its existence as an impossibility is dependant upon our not knowing whether or not it is happening. As a story then, it relies upon an event that is irresolvably fantastic in two senses. Firstly, it is something that cannot be happening and yet is, making its existence undeniably real – in that we are forced to contemplate it – while also being utterly unreal. Secondly, it is something that it is definitionally impossible for us to resolve either way.
That’s different to what Todorov called the ‘marvelous’. In the marvelous, the cat is definitely dead because we can see its ghost – probably angry about the whole being-killed-in-a-thought-experiment thing – and we know, at least provisionally, that we’re not imagining it. In Schrodinger’s story, the cat’s eternal indeterminacy is the point. The point of the story is the eternal and irresolvable hesitation, to use Todorov’s word.
I think the best metaphors are like the cat, both in one state and another simultaneously. Indeed, they are like this twice over. Firstly, they inhabit that zone of unresolved contradiction where they are both diegetically real and diegetically unreal because the narrative hasn’t collapsed things one way or another by ‘opening the box’ yet. Secondly, they both refer to something specific and refuse to refer to it – or have been (notionally) precluded from referring to it by something else in the narrative.
The crowning glory of this approach in the fantastic genre may be in Kubrick’s movie The Shining, which suggests non-supernatural readings only to preclude them, but unconvincingly, and makes its own metaphors both very clear and intensely evasive. It is, ironically, the film’s very lack of any clarity on these issues that makes its such a sharp political intervention.
I’m not going to claim Legion is quite in the same class as Kubrick’s Shining – which I will happily say is the greatest movie ever made – but its approach is essentially the same. And this is not something you see very much. In fact, the last show I can think of that did anything like it was… Hannibal. Which probably tells you something about my tastes.
Hannibal continually danced in the interzone between the symbolic and the literally supernatural, between expressionism and hauntology. It always left open various supernatural possibilities without ever either foreclosing upon them or endorsing them. Like all the best stories of this type, it posed the riddle so well that the answer stopped mattering. It really doesn’t matter if Hannibal is literally Satan, or possessed by Satan or a demon, or a Manitou, or the ‘evil’ creator-god of the gnostics, etc, etc. What matters is the network of implications raised by the possibility, the overlaying of one cat over another, both of them in irreconcilable quantum states. What matters is the eternal hesitation.
Similarly, in Legion, David’s notional mental illnesses are repeatedly rejected as a cause of his behaviour, despite them making much more sense as an explanation than the version of events the narrative privileges: that he is a powerful psychic and telekinetic who is also possessed by the psyche of another such entity. And yet the show doesn’t so much reject such ‘real’ things in favour of fantastical concepts so much as – again – collapse the distinction. And, as Hannibal does, it collapses the distinction while keeping it intact.
There are wobbles. The basically unavoidable literalism of the possession plot, which – in the manner of literalism – paradoxically opens it up to crude metaphors, is lampshaded in the penultimate episode in the infodump scenes inside David’s head. The people making the show lean into the infodump. They put the scene in a university lecture hall in David’s subconscious. The archness is an attempt to undermine the literalism. It doesn’t quite work.
Even so, the metaphors which breed from the literalism bear scrutiny. The Shadow King lodged inside David’s head could be read as a metaphor for the seed of cruelty and selfishness in him, a malignancy stemming from damage caused to David by emotional neglect and a lifetime of social isolation. (The metaphorical resonances about difference, closeting, stigma, and resentful rebellion are still ‘in’ X-Men stories, still as problematic as ever, and probably can’t ever be taken out, any more than eggs can be taken out of a cake.)
The Shadow King is also power itself. The power conferred by mutation. This is a leap on from the moralism of other X-Men media, where unearned power from mutation may be used for good or ill but doesn’t itself distort the lives, minds and behaviour of essentially good people. The other possibility which the show keeps open is that the mental distortion is actually the source of the power. This certainly seems to be true for the Shadow King itself/himself. The Shadow King is animated by its/his/her cruelty and sadism. It is also the case that many of David’s most intense and extreme demonstrations of power, distinct from the actions of the Shadow King through him (though never entirely so – that would be too easy), are sparked by moments of rage, frustration, a desire for vengeance, and a love of his own power. Again, as with Hannibal, the complexity of the moral dimensions at work both collapses and also sustains the thrill of the overlapping and incompatible moralities. Hannibal, as we know, somehow manages to seem like a radical champion of the oppressed against the oppressor, or at least of the concept of the oppressed against the universal concept of oppression. The master/slave dialectic is strong in him, as if the radical reading of the luciferian that Milton included without realising it (according to Blake). He transcends the specious radicalism of, say, the Joker. The Joker, as Christopher Nolan realised, is a reactionary conservative who thinks he’s an anarchist. (A type familiar to my readers.) Hannibal, as Bryan Fuller realised, is a self-aware embodiment of a cosmic principle of liberatory chaos, and is thus satanic in the best sense. Of these two poles, it has to be admitted that the Shadow King spirals closer to the jokerian than to the hannibalian. (It is probably no accident that, when playing the Shadow King in fully-declared sadistic homicidal prankster mode, Aubrey Plaza seems gloriously like a gender-flipped Joker – a role I’d kill to see her in.) But David, within whom the Shadow King has been hiding and living, with whom the Shadow King has been converging, has the potential to be something closer to Hannibal (if without his style). A revolution in the form of an earthquake. An upending of power relations, and thus an ally – on the universal scale – to those crushed by them, in the same way that a tsunami upends the power relations inherent in a coastal shanty town. Like the queer coding, the social darwinist implications of the X-Men stories are probably irremovable at this point; surgery would kill the patient… but then, as I’ve been suggesting, and as Hannibal knows, even deadly surgery has a radical charge to it.
But then again, aside from the metaphors that the concept of mutation automatically imports into X-Men stories, mutation in Legion is also more-or-less openly code for magic. Hence, perhaps, the show cheekily stressing the similarity of David’s backstory with that of Harry Potter. Summerland – the hideaway and HQ and research lab and training college of the rogue mutants in Legion – literalises the Xavier Academy-ness of Hogwarts, or the Hogwartsiness of Xavier Academy. But the attitude to the mutants’ powers themselves is far more ambivalent.
Magic is the manipulation of the world through aesthetics, via the sticky-out bits of aesthetics that we can grab hold of like handles, i.e. symbols… or signs, or signifiers. Hence the ‘mutations’ in Legion are all based on symbols, either literal or narrative.
The show deliberately oversignifies mutation. Syd’s mutation/disorder/magic is heavily symbolic: she can’t be touched without mentally switching places with the person touching her. (I can’t help noticing that David’s girlfriend essentially suffers from an empathy disorder.) It’s the same with Cary/Kerry; they are two people in one and thus a clear metaphor for co-dependence. With David it is schizophrenia… and possibly also a streak of abusive rageaholism.
As mentioned, The Shadow King, when attempting to neutralise the mutant heroes, imprisons them inside a simulacrum of the mental hospital at the start of the series, and attempt to convince them that they are patients, their mutations and powers mere delusions. This sort of thing has popped up before in SF/Fantasy. But Legion’s use of this trope is changed by the context of the rest of the series, and its deconstruction of clear lines of demarcation between the metaphor and literalism, and then metaphor and its objects, and then between various of those objects. There is a sense in which the Shadow King’s victims are barely convinced by the deception, or not convinced for very long, or that it barely matters whether they are convinced or not. Their lives are not actually all that materially different as a random community of mental patients – bedevilled by natures that see them ostracised by ‘sane’ society, constrained by meds and orderlies and lockdown procedures, analysed by a therapist who controls their fate – to how they were when they were a ragtag collection of mutants, outcasts with special powers, hiding from a hostile world in an HQ in the woods, menaced by a powerful enemy who can bend reality, and also by faceless authority figures. The point is not the deception and its subsequent revelation and reversal – those these happen with due inevitability – but rather the fact that the deception is itself just another metaphor, and it slots only too well into their lives, and into the metaphors those fictional lives are made of. The metaphor of the mental hospital should be seen less as a deception and more as a trapdoor in the story, one made of the same fabric as the story itself.
‘Legion’ comes, of course, from the Bible story of the man Christ encounters who is possessed by many devils. “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion does not specifically become David’s X-Men moniker in the show, but it is strongly suggested that he is the ‘Legion’ of the title. His great power then, is not his telepathy and telekinesis, but his possession. Or rather, his possession by the Shadow King is as much a source of his strength as it is a weakness battening upon his strength. The site of contestation, the territory being fought over – the inside of David’s head, and then later his moral soul – is also the point at which he is empowered, in ways that are both destructive and constructive in ways that flow back and forth depending on the balance of forces within him. This seems to me to suggest more profound metaphors than struggles within the divided self. But it doesn’t reject that metaphor. Rather, it connects it to wider social and historical struggles, which find their locus for all of us inside ourselves as individual human subjects, fighting over ownership of ourselves in a world determined to rob us of subjectivity even as it atomises us. This clearly connects to the Shadow King as a monster of capital. But it also connects to capital’s eternal twin – as linked to it as Mr Hyde is to Dr Jekyll. (And yes, Mr Hyde is the proletariat to Jekyll’s powerful, arrogant, sanctimonious, hypocritical bourgeoisie; the proletariat is the anarchic force, the rebellion, the bad conscience of the jailer in riot.) As linked as Kerry is to Cary in Legion.
Remember, just as possesion has become a central motif of horror in the age of private property, so “we are many” was turned to socialism via Shelley’s “Ye are many”.
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December 29, 2018 @ 6:39 pm
Do you see the season 2 ?
December 29, 2018 @ 6:42 pm
Sorry, I didn’t see the NB.
December 30, 2018 @ 12:01 am
I’m pretty sure Legion is also the first televisual X-Men story to make the blindingly obvious choice to use O You Pretty Things, which brought upon me a great wave of cathartic release.
I found the show’s trend towards the literal by the end a bit disappointing. Basically the only thing buoying by that point were the weird performances of Clement and Plaza.
December 30, 2018 @ 7:59 am
“However, the show both uses and explicitly disavows all the obvious metaphors. Paradoxically, this doesn’t negate them. You can’t make something as powerful as a good metaphor not be there just by saying it isn’t.”
I too am a Kill The Moon truther.
January 2, 2019 @ 5:50 pm
Bookmarked to read later, as it appears to be exactly the take I wanted to read after watching s1. I’ll have to wait to read until the disappointment of s2 wears off.
I’ve never experienced anything like the way this show squandered all my goodwill over a season. Someone has to do a history of what went wrong someday. Everything about s2 screams troubled showrunneritis