Fictional Parasites and Real-life Trauma in “Legion”

FX's Legion

As I watched the impressive first season of FX’s Legion, it occurred to me that the experience of sorting through David Haller’s fractured and scattered memories felt remarkably similar to one of my own real life experiences: piecing together a loved one’s traumatic past.

David’s past is frustratingly difficult to reconstruct. There are noticeable gaps, events told in the wrong order, and a general sense of dread that lurks along the edges of each memory. It is as if his own mind is preventing him — protecting him — from remembering something terrible. And it’s a behavior that I instantly recognized.

For the unaware, Legion takes place within the same universe as Marvel’s X-Men franchise and adapts the comic book series of the same name. The X-Men franchise often uses its mutants to explore issues of discrimination and otherization, but whereas other mainstream adaptations have utilized the mutants as a stand-in for marginalized groups as a whole, Legion’s mutants differ in that they are scrutinized through the more narrowed lens of mental illness.

All of the main cast’s powers can be seen as metaphors for real life neuroses or disorders.

For example: Sydney’s pathological fear of intimacy, Cary/Kerry’s split personality, Ptonomy’s fixation on a tragic event in his past. David himself is said to have paranoid schizophrenia, due to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which his doctors dismiss as hallucinations.

However, the parasite that infects his mind is a slightly different beast, both narratively and metaphorically. It specializes in deception and disguise. It gleefully splices David’s memories in an effort to conceal itself. It utilizes any and all means to hide from perceived danger. Throughout its run, Legion gradually reveals the extent to which the parasite manipulated David’s perception of his own life. The more that others prod into his past, the more he seems to rebel in defense. Certain events are intentionally obscured from prying eyes, and those who intrude are forcibly ejected from his mind. Even David himself seems to want nothing more than to avert his eyes from his own memories.

Then there is the parasite’s alter ego, who most often takes the form of David’s deceased friend Lenny. This alter ego is a master of manipulation. She is not only the parasite’s voice, but she also provides a voice for all of David’s worst thoughts about himself and the people surrounding him. She is the one who goads him into mistrusting others and who taunts him for being useless.

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Though the parasite is depicted as a supernatural creature, it exhibits behaviors and thought patterns that exist in the real world, particularly amongst people who wish to repress or forget certain memories. In my own life, I am close to someone who survived a particularly terrible childhood. When this person recalls their past, their memories feel scattered. They will repeatedly recall some events, while glossing over others that are of a similar importance. They occasionally fall prey to their own negative thought patterns, which have been cultivated after years of abuse and neglect. They have trouble remembering details and past experiences because, in their own words, they have trained themselves not to remember.

In the world of Legion, the parasite itself is representative of this trauma.

Its mere existence is a harmful, horrible secret that David’s mind struggles to contend with. It is so deeply embedded within David that he considers it to be a part of himself. And he is only relieved of its burden once his loved ones expose themselves to it and take on its weight.

Just like real life trauma, it might be impossible for David to ever truly free himself of his parasite. But despite the first season’s open ended conclusion, in the end, Legion feels like a hopeful story. Though the parasite still lives, David’s loved ones help to make its presence in his life more manageable. And for some, that companionship is comfort enough.

Promotional image taken from Syfy Wire.

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