As it turns out, mental health was a MacGuffin on FX's Marvel Comics series Legion. For all of the scenes set in psychiatric hospitals and references to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, Legion never actually set out to tackle mental illness. Playing David Haller, the world's most powerful mutant, Dan Stevens gave a beautifully nuanced performance as a character who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia but wasn't actually schizophrenic. It was a condition laid on him by men who either didn't understand his gifts or knew the full scope of them and sought to control him. In that respect, Noah Hawley's series operates as a modern update of the ’70s paranoid thriller, revamped for the age of fake news and openly dishonest politicians.
Paranoid thrillers often feature journalists, government officials, or someone in the wrong place at the wrong time unraveling a mystery that goes well above their pay grade. The genre feeds into the fears of the most vulnerable communities in America, which also tend to be the quickest to buy into conspiracy theories. Whether it's the idea that Ronald Reagan created AIDS or that 9/11 was an inside job, these are fears fueled by events in which our government really did keep dangerous secrets from its citizens — the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Watergate, and George W. Bush's lies about WMDs are just a few American conspiracies that turned out to be frighteningly real.
“Maybe there’s another CIA ... inside the CIA,” Robert Redford muses in Three Days of the Condor, one of several topically paranoid thrillers conceived and released in the wake of Watergate, like The Conversation and All the President’s Men. In Condor, Redford plays a CIA researcher targeted for death by his own government; just under four decades later, Anthony and Joe Russo paid homage to that film's plot in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s first attempt at mixing the DNA of ’70s conspiracy drama into the superhero formula. In Winter Soldier, Captain America realizes that the neo-Nazi organization Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and is intent on destroying democracy.
Legion leans into the same genre, not only with its themes of government conspiracy and mistrust, but also with its stylized ’60s- and ’70s-era music, costume, and set design choices. But it's amazing to see how much has changed since Winter Soldier was released in 2014. It was before American politics were truly inundated with fake news and a president that openly lies to the American people about things such as a former president ordering wiretaps on him. With this much bullshit swirling around in our daily digestion of the news, is there anything to mine in the fear of the unknown when what we do know is frightening enough?
After Haller is rescued from Clockworks, the mental facility where he's been imprisoned, he's repeatedly told by Jean Smart's Melanie Bird that everything he's ever experienced in his life is real, even the things he thinks are too fantastic to be true. His true enemies are those who have lied to him about his gifts and his own mind, which has become infected by a mutant known as The Shadow King, who's responsible for warping Haller's memories and driving him to question his own sanity. The idea that the protagonist has invented their own conspiracy mechanism isn't a new take on the thriller — Ethan and Joel Coen deftly tackled the concept in 2008's Burn After Reading, in which the central conspiracy turned out to be the product of the overactive imaginations of its supposed participants.
In that respect, it's disappointing that mental health ended up being a mere MacGuffin in Hawley's Legion. The show touted an exciting take on mental health in the series, but explaining away Haller's struggle as the work of an all-powerful Big Bad deprives the show of its potential to say something about the toll that mental warfare can exact. Sure, Haller is the world's most powerful mutant. But years of believing lies about his abilities would have surely weighed on him mentally in the same way the 24-hour news cycle has a way of beating you down through the repetition of statements from Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway that we know aren't true. Calls to suicide hotlines surged in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory.
In this case, Legion has a lot more in common with Iron Fist, Marvel's other recent superhero television series. The latter series devoted an episode to Danny Rand's nemeses locking him in a psychiatric hospital in an attempt to convince him that he’s imagined his superpowers. Danny escapes unscathed when he learns that he's actually a superhero, not mentally ill. Marvel superheroes have always been meant to be a reflection of society, especially X-Men. The X-Men comics that inspired Legion in particular were conduits for stories about race, homosexuality, and the AIDS crisis. So to have Haller's mental distress explained away as the work of a malevolent external force feels like a cop-out, betraying not only the true nature of the X-Men but also the rules of the paranoid thriller in general, in which the devil you know is always worse.