Note: This article contains light spoilers.
Clarity and concision are the key to most successful TV pilots. After setting the scene and introducing the central characters as quickly and memorably as possible, the writers must launch into a plot compelling enough to hook viewers. But since FX’s superhero drama “Legion” prides itself on being the kind of show that isn’t afraid to be confusing, its series premiere opens with a sort of overture. “Happy Jack” by the Who scores a montage of slow-motion scenes from a man’s life, from birth to juvenile delinquency to a suicide attempt.
The man turns out to be the show’s hero, David Haller, an apparently schizophrenic mental patient played by Dan Stevens. Juxtaposed with increasingly alarming moments from David’s childhood, from winning sports trophies to setting the chemistry lab on fire, “Happy Jack” takes on a darker resonance, too. In the song, Jack is relentlessly tormented by children, but those pint-sized harassers can’t spoil his good mood. Because of his telekinetic powers, which may be delusions, David is almost physically invulnerable. The irony is, rather than keeping him happy, his abilities only bring him misery.
Beyond the cleverness of the sync, this opening sequence signals that music will be an integral part of “Legion.” Louder in the mix than the ambient sounds in scenes from David’s past, the song essentially transforms the montage of bright colors and dreamlike images into a music video. The mood of the intro makes a bigger impression than the content. And that’s the point. “The show is a little surreal,” creator Noah Hawley (“Fargo”) explained in an interview, “and sometimes the shortest distance between two points is yellow.”
“Legion” is, in other words, a psychedelic TV show. Its bright color palette and deceptively loose structure recall ’60s cult classics like 2001: A Space Oddity and the films of Kenneth Anger. David’s love interest, a fellow patient at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital who urges him to embrace his powers, is named Syd Barrett, after Pink Floyd’s original frontman (not to mention a LSD enthusiast and probable schizophrenic). Music supervisor Maggie Phillips (“Fargo,” Ingrid Goes West) wisely exercised restraint in waiting until the season one finale to cue up Floyd’s “Breathe (In the Air)” and “On the Run,” opening the show with trippy, retro rock tracks by the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, and Jane’s Addiction instead. But her syncs have become much more diverse—and daring—in the show’s current second season, which finds a more rational David literally entering the minds of the people around him.
Throughout the series, lush but disorienting sensory elements tap into life as seen through David’s eyes. It’s often as hard for viewers as it is for him to differentiate between scenes that take place in the “real world” and scenes that play out solely in the mind. Like too many other shows in 2018, “Legion” is a series of interlocking puzzles. Each of its many mysteries boils down to: What is real, what is illusory, and is there anything in between? The advantage “Legion” has over equally gimmicky series like “Westworld” and “The OA” is that its sights and sounds make our confusion pleasurable.
Musically, that means a pop soundtrack that works in tandem with a protean score by Jeff Russo, a composer best known for his work on HBO’s “The Night Of” and his other collaboration with Hawley, “Fargo.” Juxtaposing a string quartet with electronic instruments, otherworldly choral elements, and ambient sounds like crickets, Russo creates aural environments propulsive enough to accompany climactic chase scenes (of which “Legion” has many) but idiosyncratic enough to reflect David’s and other characters’ points of view. In yet another nod to Pink Floyd, the score incorporates the Synthi AKS, which the band famously used on Dark Side of the Moon. In an interview last year, Russo pointed out that the album “is sort of the ’70s soundtrack to schizophrenia, so why wouldn’t I tip my hat to that style of music?”
In the show’s most surreal moments, the pop syncs come to the fore. After rescuing David from Clockworks, a team of other allegedly superpowered researchers starts to map his memories. In episode three, he drifts into the recollection of a traumatic childhood Halloween, to Robert Plant’s eerie “Monkey.” There’s an elaborate dance sequence every few episodes, beginning with Clockworks patients’ synchronized production number, set to Serge Gainsbourg’s jaunty “Pauvre Lola,” in the premiere. Some of these scenes take place in dreams; some, like solo songs in musicals, hint at characters’ deeper motivations; and others are intentionally light on context.
There are a few contemporary songs in the first season. Radiohead’s sad, disgusted “The Daily Mail” accompanies a montage that reveals to the researchers that David is capable of horrific acts of violence. “Undiscovered First” by Feist scores a slow-motion montage of characters fighting and dancing. But David is absent from the first scene and unconscious in the second. The trippy, old-school songs that dominate season one aren’t the sounds of “Legion,” really—they’re the sounds that define its central character’s journey.
In season two, as Hawley starts exploring other characters’ emotional landscapes and backstories, this distinction becomes clearer. The most recent episode (205) uses the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to poignant effect, in a scene where David’s old Clockworks buddy Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is scared, confused, and alone. A lifelong addict, she was brutally murdered, had her disembodied mind manipulated to nefarious ends, and has now been reanimated by a force even she doesn’t understand. Lou Reed’s opening lyric, “I don’t know just where I’m going,” has never sounded so appropriate.
Eventually, David’s friends are stricken with an immobilizing psychological illness and he must literally navigate the mazes of their minds to heal them. The most affecting of these adventures takes up the entirety of the fourth episode of season two, which he spends inside Syd’s consciousness, forced to rewatch the movie of her life on a loop until he can figure out what she needs from him. The first time it plays, we see her grow up to Bon Iver’s wistful, overripe “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” When she reaches her teen years, the National’s more aggressive “Turtleneck” takes over. “There’s something about her eyes, I think her roots are rotten/This must be the reason she wears her hair up in knots,” Matt Berninger sings. The lyric captures young Syd’s punk phase, down to the hairstyle.
It’s a lovely sequence that calls back to the series’ opening “Happy Jack” montage. But for all that the music heightens our emotions, this particular flashback doesn’t give David any answers. A subsequent repetition of Syd’s life story, where David realizes that she’s telling him love can’t save them from an impending apocalypse, is set to Tame Impala’s “It Is Not to Be.” The song fuses his psychedelic subjectivity with the indie rock that soundtracks her memories, at precisely the moment when their bond is being tested. It isn’t a single flashback that ultimately drives home Syd’s warning; it’s all of them stacked on top of each other. Just as the intentions behind “Legion”’s tangled storylines and over-the-top montages rarely reveal themselves in a single moment, the meaning behind its ever-changing music evolves scene by scene. All we can know for sure is that we won’t know what it all means until it’s over.
“Legion” airs on FX at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.