The first episode of Legion, FX’s new X-Men TV series from Fargo maestro Noah Hawley, has left viewers with a lot of questions. Which bits (if any) are real? Is Professor X this David’s father? How did David and Syd switch back after their impromptu body-swap? What’s Melanie really up to? Is Aubrey Plaza really dead? How has Rachel Keller not been in more things? But none are quite as pressing as something that should be so much more simple: when is the series even set?
Aesthetically, it’s pure seventies, with Hawley clearly drawing on some elements from Fargo’s prequel season 2 – the general production design and costuming feels like something out of a low-budget 1970s Brit-production and the music choices really back this up. It’s elegant rather than tacky, but 100% of a time. Yet within that there are splatterings of modernity in the mannerisms and structure, giving an anachronistic feel – it’s almost like High-Rise, or a companion to the equally hard-to-place A Series of Unfortunate Events.
What makes it so weird, though, is the lack of attention paid to the setting. Typically, a film or series set in the past will hammer that fact home, at least to begin with. That Legion doesn’t is certainly refreshing in contrast to films that trot out the biggest contemporary pop hit, but it’s so blazé that the reasoning has become a mystery of its own. This is especially true given the showrunner’s history of heightened place; Fargo Season 2 actively mocked the tropes established in the first season in its 1979 setting, with Patrick Wilson at a urinal next to Bruce Campbell’s Ronald Reagan and story “holes” plugged by a random flying saucer. Quite simply, the period was a character. In Legion, it’s more tonal, which increases the already intense unease of its story.
How Does Setting Affect The Show’s Reality?
In a show where the main character is defined by his psychological abilities, what we see is always suspect, and this is especially true of visual trappings.
Indeed, most of “Chapter 1” was actually from inside Legion’s mind; once Syd reveals that David’s reliving his memories, everything aside from the interrogation becomes a skewed interpretation of the truth and not truly real – memories change when repeated, and this effect will surely be compounded for someone this telekinetically powerful and mentally unstable. And, taking things a step further, there’s the slight suggestion that the mutant team breaking David out isn’t quite the baseline either – there’s shots of his reality flickering between the action-packed escape and him still in the hospital.
With that all considered, there’s every possibility that only about two seconds of Legion is pure, unadulterated reality, making the 1970s influences possibily just a shield to the truth; because he’s in his own memories, David chooses when he is, but with a broken mind it’s not in a form viewers can instinctively place.
This interpretation is backed up by Hawley himself. Talking about the show to Entertainment Weekly, the writer said he originally wrote it to be in the present, but when developing the production realized that it would work better with a different feel.
“When I wrote the script I assumed it was set in present day and in our world, and I think the network assumed that too. Then when it came time to make it I thought about it more as a fable on some level and I realized I wanted to make something subjective. Which is to say this whole show is not the world, it’s David’s experience of the world. He’s piecing his world together from nostalgia and memory and the world becomes that. I found myself watching A Clockwork Orange and Quadrophenia and a lot of ’60s British films. Costume-wise, Clockwork had a specific look to it that I wanted to play with. I wanted to create a world that had its own rules, and that was about putting you into David’s head and seeing things that are there or aren’t there. You wonder: Who is this guy if everything he’s thought about himself is wrong?”
The Wider X-World
Of course, we’re talking about an X-Men series, so even if the show is rather insular, there’s a wider world to take into account; especially as, in the comics, David is the son of Professor X.
As a result of that fact, in the wake of “Chapter 1”, there’s been a lot of theorizing about how Legion fits into the movies. However, this is all a bit off-point; ever since it was announced, Legion has been established as being in its own world, and while Bryan Singer has since commented at hopes of making the elements cross over, this is 100% not on Hawley’s mind at the moment. It’s been stated in several interviews he approached the property from a story side first and built his own, unique world from it, not paying even lip-service to the films (and it’s not like Singer’s the best at balancing continuity, seen with his flagrant disregard for his own canon-reset in Days of Future Past with Apocalypse).
This is rather evident from the show itself, with the whole mutant phenomenon a new development in Legion’s world, hence the unease of the interrogators and David’s obliviousness to the notion of powers. In the words of Hawley, we’re in a parallel universe where mutations are a lesser known, widely unexplored quantity.
While this doesn’t give us much information in regards to the period setting, it does concretely ground the makeup of the world – in terms of X-Men evolution, we’re in the early days of mutant-kind.
Based on the first episode, Legion is set in a vaguely constructed late-1960s, early-1970s with some heightened reality thrown in. But given all the teases of David’s mind and the vagueness of the extent of his powers, it feels like we’ve only scraped the surface of what’s really going on. “When” is just a bigger part of the “what”, something we’re bound to see unfold over the next eight weeks. For now, the lack of a definite period setting is one of the show’s many subtle filmmaking tics to get the audience inside the protagonist’s head.