A Series of Profiles That Never Took Place
by ELEANOR MORROW
creator Noah Hawley
Dan Stevens knew the moment he leapt out of his wheelchair on Downtown Abbey that he was destined for a better show. “The first thing I thought to myself,” he says, “was that I needed to find out where Julian Fellowes was, and find a flight of stairs to thrown him down.” (Dan Stevens is the toughest man in show business, possibly the world. When he smokes a cigarette it is like the cigarette is smoking him. When he plays baseball he is the shortshop, and when he has sex he has it twice, once for you and once for him.) Dan Stevens is a walking Esquire profile In Search Of a Role which has eluded him for some time. That of a man who is as good at something as he is at acting.
Enter Noah Hawley. Hawley wrote a novel or two, a screenplay (The Alibi) or two, nothing really that great. Then suddenly he made Fargo, season two of which was probably the best thing ever produced on television to that point. Now that he is in Fox’s talons, they are never letting him go. For some reason they have given him the worse possible project, the one that no one in their right mind could ever really do justice to, a property that has resulted in about eight terrible movies that no one ever wants to see again, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the slow decline of Hugh Jackman’s career, and he has made that art, too.
Sitting on a veranda at a Los Angeles hotspot, Hawley discusses how losing his virginity changed him as a working writer. “Before that moment,” he says with a crab leg dangling from his lower lip, reeking somewhat of chamomile and bourbon, “I thought that intercourse was the great barrier. One had to depict it truly and all else would follow. After I had sex, I realized that not touching was far more erotic and would be the basis of Legion.”
Confined to a mental institution with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, “There are no small parts, only the same schtick I do in every single role,” Plaza says, half a steak tartare dangling from her lower lip”), Dan Stevens has only his sister Amy (Katie Aselton) to visit him. One day Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) walks in. Dan asks her to be his girlfriend, and she agrees as long as they never have to touch.
Or does she? Or is she even there? That is what kind of show Legion is, except for one key aspect of the series’ milieu — it does not really truly matter whether something is occurring in the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens, who describes his friendship with Rebecca Hall in the most concrete terms: “She’s the most wonderful godmother to my daughter Willow,” he says, tossing a macaroon in the air and catching it with his teeth.) It only matters whether something feels like it happening at the moment it happens to be happening. Looking back, it may not have actually happened, it may be a memory of something happening, only the memory is not quite as exact as the actual experience. It could be in the head of Dan Stevens, who.
Hawley shoots Legion on a series of endlessly wonderful sets and places, stretching the budget he has been given for the show in every direction. Ultimately it looks like we are dealing with a single campus, but this is warped and circled around so many times it feels like a true variety of different places and perspectives. Often shooting above, below and across his subjects, Hawley is the most preternaturally talented director in his medium despite training mostly as a writer. As with Fargo, Hawley is at his best when he is diverging from concepts that have already been established. He seems to most enjoy modifying an existing aesthetic and playing off our expectations of that genre.
Legion‘s sprawling, ninety-minute pilot winds our way through much of David Haller’s life. Of course, we never learn any really salient facts about him; for example, who his parents are, or when he lost his virginity, or where the disturbing devil with yellow eyes that haunts his mental fabric originates. Hawley loves to slowly peel back the onion of the characters he brings to the screen, and it is relief to know so little and be drip fed the rest.
The key aspect of a shared psychotic disorder, or folie a deux, is the fantasy that develops in a sane person who has a close relationship with an inducer, sometimes called “the primary case”, who already has a psychotic ailment with more developed fantasies, and who is usually the dominant figure pushing his or her own worldview over their weaker, less-ill submissive. Sometimes I feel like that properly represents every person who has ever dealt with Bryan Singer, who gets an executive producer credit on Legion. Certainly what he did to the X-Men, and a lot of other people, should never be forgiven.
Possibly the only present action of Legion is the room where a government operative (Hamish Linklater) decides whether or would be more prudent to murder David Haller where he sits, later in a pool so they can electrocute him if necessary, or use him as a kind of weapon. This familiar dilemma feels a bit forced, so Hawley resolves it completely in the first episode. Haller’s escape into the company of Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) sets up a more interesting dynamic: even after Dan Stevens has found someone to trust, can he trust himself to know it is real?
Jean Smart worked with Hawley on Fargo, and you can see why she is exactly his type of actress — she even looks like Stevens, which means she is probably his mother or at least an important aunt. Like her potential son, she is great at delivering lines in humorous but also sinister manners, and shuffling back and forth between comedy and drama, which is where Hawley’s tonality always lies. He is constantly testing our boundaries, to see if we are capable of laughing at how absurd something is and then forcing us to imagine it could be happening to us as well. As he does this, he eats a banana split.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.