‘Legion’ Season 2 Finds David Haller Struggling to Recover His Memories in Trippy Premiere

Call it Mutant arthouse. After a grandiose first season which featured multiple genres mixed into one show, FX’s “Legion” opens its second outing as a trippy hallucination. If David Lynch ever decided to direct a Marvel movie it would probably look something like this episode. Nearly every scene is devoted to a dreamscape and psychedelic exuberance. At one point our hero starts reciting the words from Jefferson Airplane’s classic “White Rabbit.” By the end credits more questions than answers are delivered and time itself slows down for our hero, who finds himself farther away from stopping his arch nemesis. But as an intro to a new season this is a boldly conceived chapter.

Summarizing what happens in this episode is the equivalent of describing a hazy, complicated dream you had last night. But the bare bones of it is that 362 days have passed since David Haller (Dan Stevens) was sucked into a strange orb which has left him with fuzzy, fractured memories. During his psychic imprisonment, David’s comrades in the Summerland crew have now teamed up with Division 3 to try and find Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement), whose body is now possessed by Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban), who happens to be the dreaded Shadow King. David’s own memories seem to recall seeing Farouk at a nightclub, but as he tries to clear his mind everything takes on a surreal tinge and reality starts bending out of shape. He has to move fast to recover what he must know in order to catch up to the Shadow King and stop the spread of a mental virus leaving humans in a near-catatonic state.

“Legion” is one of the best-looking shows on television and the second season’s premiere went places seldom seen on primetime. This is most certainly the trippiest thing on TV since last year’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.” What matters here is the atmosphere of pure, shattered perceptions as David struggles to piece himself back together. The set design and cinematography take on a feverish, hallucinatory edge to go with David’s current state of mind. Even when you can’t follow for certain what is happening, the design choices are unforgettable. When David awakens in Division 3 he is taken to eat waffles at a strange cafeteria where a waterway flows between tables, with meals floating by on plates like small ships. How plausible is this? Because “Legion” tries to re-create the very tone of a comic book’s imagination we shouldn’t really ask, the point is to bask in the creativity of the endeavor. A main official at Division 3 wears a large basket over his head, while attendants have computerized voices with an odd melody to their tone. When David attempts to piece together the memory of seeing Farouk at a night spot characters suddenly break into a dance off. One section even begins with an animated segment recounting the Chinese tale of Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream. At one point David and team member/love interest Syd (Rachel Keller) have a sex scene that combines music video with European arthouse.  Flowing in and out during the episode is a strange narration by Jon Hamm about psychological mazes and other cryptic ideas. It is a season premiere literally throwing idea after idea by the hand full on the screen.

Amid this swirling cocktail of interesting bombast are some necessary character updates for devotees of the show. Syd and Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) have joined the strategic board of Division 3 and have apparently succeeded in convincing the organization that mutants are not a threat. But Melanie is now spiraling into trouble as she has become to addicted to David’s vapor drug. This story angle leads to one of the episode’s best shots, one where Melanie inhales vapor from a golden elephant designed in Indian textures. The Shadow King gets little airtime, in this episode he is more of a specter haunting everything. The key focus here is David’s bizarre journey through the corridors of lost memories and the way psychological states alter perceptions of reality.

A major part of the charm of “Legion” is that it thoroughly wants to enter a comic book universe. This is captured in the lush exaggeration of the visuals, from the exquisitely-designed architecture to the use of compositions which seem to re-create the kinds of images you get in comic panels. By deciding to go for a truly surrealist air in this episode, the show pushes the boundaries of TV comic book adaptations. The episode embodies that line from “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles, “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

Readers may be wondering if the story advances one iota in this episode. It does in small steps. This is just the beginning after all. The Shadow King remains on the loose. The first season combined romance with horror and superheroes. Season two begins by exploring the ability of visual mediums to create dreamscapes. When watching this episode turn down the lights, tune in and tune out.

Legion” Season 2 premiered April 3 and airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.