THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE TV SHOW "LEGION" ON FX. DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS. IF YOU DO, THOUGH, READ ON MY FRIEND, READ ON.
I want to talk about LEGION, yes the show on FX.
I want to talk about it because I am a published writer with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type (for those of you new to this blog), and I have a lot to say about the show — both in how accurately it portrayed schizophrenia, and about the myths it cultivates.
Before we go any further, I want to say: I liked the show. I liked the show a lot. I am excited for another season; eager for it, even. For those of you familiar with an earlier post on television and mental illness, I did not watch season two of that show.
LEGION was a comprehensive show — its actors, writing, and composition gave three non-mentally ill friends a glimpse into my life. They were constantly questioning what was real and what was not real. For those of you who are confused, some of us with a schizophrenia disorder double/triple/quadruple check our reality to make sure that each thing we experience actually just happened. (At least I do. It’s why I drink so much caffeine -- this is exhausting.) My non-mentally ill friends left LEGION wondering if any of it ever happened, while I had no question that it did.
Who of us was right? Who knows? But I didn’t question David’s perception of reality. Yes, I was aware of when he was hallucinating and when he was delusional, but when David was in the real world experiencing real things, I believed everything.
I’m losing track. What problems did I have with LEGION? I’ll intersperse them with things I liked, because while I had some problems, there were also a lot of things I liked about the show. I found the show much easier to watch than BLACK SWAN, which did not go over well. I identified a lot with LEGION, and felt at home watching it. LEGION empowered me, but also unsettled me.
Let’s get into that shall we?
In addition to being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type (where my delusions and hallucinations show up when I'm manic or depressed), I also have a Masters in Clinical Social work and worked as both a therapist and medical social worker for almost ten years before being declared disabled. I have a wider scope on my mental illness than most people who do not have my clinical background.
One of the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia is Delusional Thinking. Delusional Thinking can be as simple as, “I have bionic hearing.” Or it can be, “I don’t have schizophrenia, I have superpowers,” which is exactly the plot of LEGION. David doesn’t have schizophrenia, he has superpowers. Which is part of the genius of the show — he’s been trained not to think this way by a decade of doctors and time in Clockworks — but it makes for not such a healthy show for people with a schizophrenia disorder to be watching.
I am very stable. I take my medication as prescribed, and always have. My psychotic break was the scariest thing I have ever lived through, and I don’t want a repeat performance. So I take my medication. Plus, psychotic symptoms are frightening. Symptoms can still show up, and you bet I call my doctors the moment they do, but delusional thinking is more sneaky than that. Why? Cause it can be rationalized, sometimes by more delusional thinking. One moment, someone less stable than me is watching LEGION, and the next they’re off their medication because they could be convinced they’re telepathic, and they’ve come up with a million examples that it’s worked.
I’ve talked about the single story of a culture or ethnicity. This also works for mental illness. Does LEGION break away from the “single story” of the violent schizophrenic? Well … sort of. Before we get to that, let’s go into some things I liked about the show.
David (portrayed by Dan Stevens) exhibits a lot of symptoms that I have been trying to explain to people years. Symptoms people have told me are “part of life” or “normal” or “part of the aging process” when I’m not even 40 yet.
It was nice to see myself on screen. Things like his aphasia (forgetting words), or when Syd and him switch bodies and she complains about how loud the day room in the hospital was (filtering out noise almost impossible for us). But what I really liked was seeing the exact same gesture and pause for collection when someone accuses him of sounding “crazy” when he’s really reporting the truth.
And again, I believed David. If he said something happened. I believed it. It was interesting to find out my non-mentally ill friends did not. They had problems believing his point of view. They were more likely to believe Syd point of view episodes than his.
Now, did this contribute to the single story of the violent schizophrenic? YES.
More than once on the show, people in places of authority at Summerland say, “Schizophrenics are violent.” Saying it this way implies it is an absolute truth applying to all people with a schizophrenia disorder. This is not an absolute truth. Not all people with schizophrenia are violent, not all of them harm people, or animals, or themselves. The show did a very good job through depictions of David’s memories and people in authority spouting myth, to perpetuate this well-held belief. But it’s simply not true, and perpetuating this myth is stigmatizing and does nothing but makes it harder for people with schizophrenia disorders (and other mental illnesses) to live openly in society.
Another thing I wasn’t a fan of about the show — and this comes up in the last episode, so, spoilers — David says that as a person with schizophrenia he can’t live a normal life and fall in love and have a family.
This is entirely untrue. It is in fact easier for David to have a family than a woman with schizophrenia as he would not have to go off his medications for nine months to gestate his new bouncing son or daughter. And while many people with schizophrenia have trouble forming long-lasting relationships and friendships, many others have no issue and get married.
Full disclosure: I am married. My husband and I have been together since 1999 and married for 11 years. I also have a Masters degree and a mortgage. I have a dog that I train every day. I held a professional job that required a license and I renewed that license twice during my time at it. Since having to leave that job due to being declared disabled, I took up writing. I have since been published six times in less than two years.
People with schizophrenia can live normal lives. They can even live exceptional ones. Saying something like that, while it makes sense for the character, and not having it be countered by Syd or anyone else, leaves the myth hanging in the air like unopposed fact. People can believe what they hear on television. They think the myth is a truth, because the actor’s portrayal and the script-writing has done such a solid job of breathing accuracy into the mental illness so far.
Was the show beautiful and well acted and well written? Yes. Did I like it? Yes. Do I want to dispel these myths they talked about? Yes. Do I want to say that it might not be the most healthy portrayal of schizophrenia out there? Yes. And I know he didn’t actually have schizophrenia, and that’s the point, but that’s also why the show isn’t healthy.
But the show is good! I want more. That’s why I wanted to write this. I can voice my problems as a writer and a person with a similar disorder and say, “Yes, but …” and still enjoy what I’m watching. Being entertained isn’t binary for me.
Also, the comics are totally different. If you want to engage me on a discussion about the comics, you might want to talk to someone else. Apparently they didn’t even touch on much of the original source material for the show, and they changed a lot. I haven’t read the comics, so I can’t engage anyone on a discussion about the comics. The show? Let’s go.
Excited for season two and more awesome Aubrey Plaza.