I have been really encouraged by the emphasis on mental illness in television and film, as of late. I was struck by The Millennium Trilogy from Sweden. Based on Steig Larsson’s books, the films were directed by Swedish filmmakers Neils Arden Oplev and Daniel Alfredson and featured Noomi Rapace as the enigmatic and engaging heroine Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher made his own version, the best American film of 2011, with the Rooney Mara as Salander. She isn’t just a badass goth computer hacker who beats Nazi offspring with a golf club and drives a motorcycle. Lisbeth Salander is a boldly queer, sex positive woman and a rape survivor; she’s a survivor of the foster system living with PTSD, clinical depression, and severe social anxiety. Salander’s story is the story of violence against women. It is the story of the unwanted rising up and taking control of their lives and their bodies. It is the story of living with mental illness in the face of perceived “reality” and not accepting evil when it rears its ugly head.
Oplev teamed up with gifted young writer Sam Esmail to create the USA TV series, Mr. Robot. It is a sensation, and Rami Malek’s performance as Eliot is the most honest depiction of mental illness I have ever seen depicted on a screen (read my review and assessment of the series here).
Lev Grossman wrote the popular fantasy trilogy The Magicians that has been turned into a SyFy TV series. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is a combination Harry Potter and Peter Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia, if Harry and Peter were mentally ill and trying to avoid commitment to yet another psych ward. Lisbeth, Eliot, and Quentin are all living in dark circumstances, in their minds as well as in their communities. Unlike the clean cut, white boys of Marvel and DC, Lisbeth, Eliot, and Quentin are heroes who cannot shed their illness. They don’t wear masks and capes. Their heroism comes from and perhaps in spite of their suffering.
Speaking of Marvel, the popular studio’s Legion joins the ranks of James Mangold’s Logan as an important reimagining of the Marvel X-Men mythos. Young writer/director Noah Hawley is the perfect choice when it comes to reimagining important American mythologies. Hawley’s big breakthrough was the imaginative, complex, and engaging Fargo anthology TV series based on the classic film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Hawley’s Fargo, both the first and second seasons, is the closest I can get to damn near flawless television. Legion, however, might be more demanding of Hawley. It asks him to join Disney and Netflix as one of the many storytellers engaged in the rebirth of Marvel for the common conscience. It also asks Hawley to undertake a little known comic book tale from the New Mutants chapter of X-Men history. Legion aka David Charles Haller first appeared in 1985 and is the son of mutants Professor Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller. He is the first and only Marvel superhero living with a mental illness.
Dan Stevens played the handsome, naïve, and boring Matthew Crawley in the posh and mysterious BBC Masterpiece Theatre sensation Downton Abbey and is currently the Beast in Disney’s live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast. Now he is the manic, bug-eyed, emaciated title character in FX’s Legion. Dan Stevens, despite being quite talented, is living proof that if you lose enough weight and put enough product in your hair, you can play any major role you like. I’ve never been impressed with Stevens until he was cast as David Charles Haller. David is a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia who knows little to nothing about his own background. All he knows is that in the past, at times of great rage, he has somehow moved household objects with his mind. David and his friend Lenny (a spectacular Aubrey Plaza) are confined to a psych ward where they do the day-in, day-out prescribed routines of meds and activities until new patient Syd Barrett (Fargo Season Two’s Rachel Heller) arrives. Syd is a strange, pretty woman who has an ongoing, stream-of-consciousness critique of the mental health system constantly going in he head and, subsequently, out of her mouth. In the pilot episode, David asks her to be his girlfriend in a group therapy session. She agrees but has one condition, “Don’t ever touch me.” David and Syd are adorable as they walk the halls holding a piece of cloth together in lieu of handholding and they sleep together with a pillow between them. These scenes do more than create a beloved quirkiness for the viewers, something Hawley is quite gifted at, but it serves to fuse our tangible, fleshy reality with the reality of people who crave touch but simply cannot have it.
“Is this, all of this, real?” David asks Syd at the conclusion of the pilot episode of Legion. Eliot asks a similar question in Mr. Robot: “Are you seeing this, too?” The mentally ill heroes of these troubled tales are always forced to question their reality. It is a foundational plot device, for good or ill. While the writers and directors look they’re having a hell of a lot of fun messing with the reality of the hero and, in turn, our perception of the hero’s reality, they rarely, if ever, rescue them from the chaos and confusion. It would, after all, be disingenuous to “rescue” a hero living with mental illness from their illness. What the writers of Legion do is riskier and pays off in full: The entire first season features the captivating Jean Smart as Dr. Melanie Bird, who in league with Syd and others, is trying to prove to David that his diagnosed mental illness isn’t actually an illness at all. It is, in fact, a gift.
I love Marvel’s X-Men but I have never read any of the Legion stories by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. I don’t know how the story turns out, which I like. Hawley has the great gift of stringing his viewers along through whimsical and terrifying worlds, journeys of which we cannot see the end. It is clear, to me, that Dr. Bird and Syd have some ties to the X-Men, but that’s all I got. It doesn’t feel like a Marvel series, which is nice. While I appreciate the creativity and tangible humanity that is on display in each of the new Netflix Marvel outings, I find that FX’s Legion is breathing new life, not into Marvel necessarily, but into American television’s narratives of mental illness. What visionary storytellers like Claremont, Sienkiewicz, and Hawley have done here is bold. They are, essentially, making the claim that David’s schizophrenia is a gift that can change the world for the better. What if we told this story in our contemporary culture and ordinary, mundane day-to-day experiences? The point isn’t to ask, “What if mentally ill persons are actually powerful mutants?” but rather “What if those living with mental illness are actually some of our bravest and most important heroes?” A question like that changes the game, doesn’t it?
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.