Is it future or is it past?
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Twin Peaks: The Return // Parts 1 and 2 // Original Air Date May 21, 2017 // Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch // Directed by David Lynch
When the 30th and (at the time) final episode of Twin Peaks concluded its original broadcast on June 10, 1991, many devotees of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s revolutionary series were left feeling perplexed and betrayed. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had apparently emerged from the otherworldly realm of evil known as the Black Lodge, but something had gone terrifyingly wrong within that world’s red-curtained confines. The Cooper that had returned was not the squeaky-clean federal lawman that viewers had grown to love, but a malevolent doppelgänger, a creature controlled by the bloodthirsty entity dubbed BOB (Frank Silva). To the horror of those Twin Peaks enthusiasts who had stuck with the series during its uneven and ratings-starved second season, the final shot of “Beyond Life and Death” was that of a bloodied Dale Cooper mockingly repeating the query, “How’s Annie?,” and cackling maniacally. That this was to be the last glimpse of the series’ staunchly upright hero—yet alone the final image of Twin Peaks itself—was almost too much to bear.
Even if Frost and Lynch had no inkling of the series’ looming cancellation at the time of the episode’s production, concluding the second season with a laughing, cracked-mirror "Dark Cooper" was a masterstroke of mutinous storytelling. This was not merely a cliffhanger, but a plunge into an abyss where evil is seemingly victorious and chaos reigns. It was as though the laws of the Black Lodge—the “hidden land of unmuffled screams and broken hearts,” in the vivid words of Cooper’s deranged ex-partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh)—had infected the waking world of damn fine coffee and wind-whipped fir trees. This wasn’t just shocking, but wrong; primevally, nightmarishly wrong.
While this unexpectedly bleak end for Dale Cooper and Twin Peaks had an artistic audacity that remains admirable, it never truly felt like the last word. It wasn’t so much the abundance of unresolved and abandoned subplots; such narrative negligence was practically Twin Peaks’ modus operandi. Rather, the revelation that the “Cooper” that had emerged from the Black Lodge was actually BOB in disguise was presented too abruptly and provocatively, just as the closing credits began to roll. That disturbing, nasal taunt to no one in particular—“How’s Annie? How’s AN-NYEE?”—didn’t seem like a farewell gut-punch, but instead a promise that the worst was yet to come. It’s not the shattered exhale of “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.” Or Kevin McCarthy howling “You’re next!” in impotent despair. It’s Gollum's darker half coaxing Frodo and Samwise forward with a malicious leer, “Follow me...."
It’s been over 25 real-world years since Cooper’s entry into the Black Lodge. During that two and a half decades, it seemed vanishingly unlikely that viewers would ever be permitted to return to Twin Peaks and learn the final destiny of the real Dale Cooper. (Not to mention that of Annie Blackburn, Audrey Horne, Benjamin Horne, Pete Martell, and other characters whose fates remained uncertain at the conclusion of Season 2's final episode.) As the months and years passed, even the most ardent enthusiasts of Frost and Lynch’s creation were forced to acknowledge that the 30 episodes that had aired in 1990 - 1991 constituted the beginning, middle, and end of the story, however unsatisfying and disconcerting the end might be.
Now, as if by some dark and esoteric magic, Twin Peaks has returned, transforming the distorted message of Laura Palmer’s spirit (Sheryl Lee)—“I’ll see you again in 25 years”—into a prophecy fulfilled (more or less). Season 3, properly titled Twin Peaks: The Return, is an 18-part limited Showtime series, and every episode is directed by Lynch and co-written by Frost and Lynch. This stands in stark contrast to the original two seasons, which were a collaborative effort featuring a cavalcade of contributing writers and directors over the course of 30 episodes. (In fact, only six of these were helmed by Lynch.) If the first four episodes that have aired to date are a reliable indication, The Return represents a unified (if frequently batshit) artistic vision. Showtime had reportedly given Frost and Lynch complete creative control to deliver the series they wanted, and that freedom is manifest on screen.
Twin Peaks: The Return is pure David Lynch, recognizably and unequivocally a shadowy emanation from the same "wonderful and strange" mind that birthed the likes of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. In imitation of its original series namesake, The Return is unlike anything else on television, but the new season is also quite unlike the Twin Peaks that viewers might remember. This isn’t the Season 3 that Frost and Lynch might have created in 1992. It’s a fever-dream born from all of Lynch’s subsequent works, including the divisive prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the masterful Lost Highway / Mulholland Drive / Inland Empire triptych, and the director’s numerous short films, compositions, paintings, and designs. (“Premonition Following an Evil Deed,” Lynch’s unsettling 52-second contribution to the Lumière and Company anthology film, often comes to mind during the early episodes of The Return.) Most significantly, this new evolutionary form of Twin Peaks is born from 25-plus years of watching and waiting—by the show's characters, creators, and viewers.
Parts 1 and 2, released simultaneously as an unofficial two-hour opening chapter, signal that Twin Peaks: The Return is proximally concerned with the fate of Dale Cooper. They do this in part by giving everything outside the FBI agent’s situation only short spurts of focused attention. Although these episodes check in on several of the surviving denizens of Twin Peaks, Washington—among them psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), a promoted Deputy Chief Tommy 'Hawk' Hill (Michael Horse), sheriff’s receptionist Lucy Brennan (née Moran) (Kimmy Robertson), withdrawn widow Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), and an ailing Log Lady (the late Catherine Coulson, visibly weakened just prior to her 2015 death)—Lynch generally refrains from lingering too long on one character. Nor does he fill in the 25-year gap with the kind of soapy exposition that was at times a feature of the original series. The first pair of episodes offer some tantalizing hints, of course. Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), for example, kvetches about her daughter’s boyfriend to her friends over tequila shots at the old roadhouse, and later observes that the still-cool James Hurley (James Marshall) hasn’t been the same since his motorcycle accident. Such clues are sporadic, however, and just as often a quizzical opacity prevails. Pre-eminent among such sequences is Dr. Jacoby’s receipt of a delivery of... shovels? Lots of shovels. It's impossible to say what exactly the good doctor—still sporting those natty blue- and red-lensed glasses—is up to in his distinctly non-Hawaiian-themed mountain refuge. If the original Twin Peaks taught viewers anything, it’s that explanations are not guaranteed, a lesson that’s only been reinforced by Lynch’s subsequent and increasingly unconventional feature films.
These vignettes featuring familiar Twin Peaks characters serve to anchor The Return to the original seasons, verifying that the viewer is indeed immersed in the same universe that contains the Great Northern Hotel and the Bang Bang Bar. However, while some of these sequences feature wry humor—Lucy and her hubby Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) are less sitcom-screwy, but an even deeper well of deadpan absurdity—there’s little that is cozy or comforting about them. Lynch cunningly employs the viewer’s lengthy absence from this world to create both shock and a sense of the uncanny. The former stems in large part from the simple sight of familiar faces that have been creased and withered by the passage of two and half decades. Horse’s silver hair and weather-beaten countenance, for example, or Coulson’s pained and whispery frailty, are stark reminders of time’s cruelty, bestowing The Return with a wallop of melancholy. In this light, the welcome return of so many of the series’ original performers isn’t merely an effort of fanboy-pleasing completism. Recasting characters would have been poisonous to The Return’s potent, fleshy sense of inexorable diminishment.
Relatedly, Lynch evokes a sense that something is “off” about the Twin Peaks glimpsed in the first two episodes. The sheriff’s station, the Palmer home, the roadhouse—they are recognizable but somehow not as the viewer remembers. Like a high school hallway traversed during a decades-later reunion, the memories of the past don’t line up precisely with contemporary reality. Lynch underlines this with production design gestures both offhanded (Lucy is no longer behind a sliding glass window at the reception desk) and elephantine (Sara Palmer’s living room wall is now dominated by an enormous flat-screen television). Twin Peaks always seemed like a place out of time—a sister settlement to Blue Velvet’s superficially Rockwell-quaint community of Lumberton, North Carolina—but The Return is a reminder that even a town “where a yellow light still means ‘slow down,’ not speed up” inevitably experiences change. Paradoxically, given the subtitle The Return, a fitting alternate tagline for the new series could very well be You Can’t Go Home Again.
Although Parts 1 and 2 provide some vital bridges to the past, the bulk of the series’ first two hours are spent far beyond the town of Twin Peaks, a contravention of expectations that is consistent with Lynch’s penchant for subversion and audience nose-tweaking. At times, The Return flirts with the form of a cut-up film, splicing together seemingly impenetrable (for the moment) scenes that reveal strange events unfolding in New York City, Las Vegas, and Buckhorn, South Dakota. These might be strands in the same sprawling plot, or they might not. With only a few episodes available at this point, it seems advisable to simply savor the droll humor, discombobulating weirdness, and skin-crawling horror of each segment, allowing them to collide and cohere in the imagination. (This, arguably, is the lesson of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire: Not everything will be clarified, but everything has aesthetic, emotional, and thematic weight.)
The most critical revelation offered in the opening episodes is the one that Twin Peaks aficionados likely suspected and dreaded: Special Agent Dale Cooper is still trapped in the Black Lodge, and his evil doppelgänger (“Mr. C”) has been roaming the world like an unchained dragon, spreading remorseless evil and horrific violence. Mr. C’s various criminal plots remain somewhat obscure, but there is no doubt about his diabolical nature from the moment he enters the show. Greasy-haired, spray-tanned, and clad in a snakeskin-patterned shirt and leather jacket, he comes roaring out of the night in his Mercedes to the jarring, slowed-down thuds and wails of Muddy Magnolia’s “American Woman” cover. (Is there a clearer emblem of psycho-sexual ickiness than a snakeskin shirt?) He exudes menace, but unlike BOB, who giggled and shrieked like a frenzied demon, Mr. C chooses his words carefully. Every utterance that passes his lips is thick with gristle and threat. As he tersely explains to his lackey Ray (George Griffith), “I don’t need anything, Ray. If there’s one thing you should know about me, Ray, It’s that I don’t need anything – I want.” In just a few words, Mr. C conveys what distinguishes him from humankind: He’s a creature devoid of obligations (biological or otherwise), but brimming with unrestrained appetites.
Meanwhile the real Dale Cooper waits in the trans-dimensional purgatory of the Black Lodge, sometimes sitting impassively, sometimes roaming between the innumerable (and nearly identical) rooms and hallways. While the Lodge seems to exist outside of time, things have changed. Laura Palmer's shade, the Giant (Carel Struycken), and former BOB confrere MIKE (Al Strobel) have aged in appearance. Naturally, this is partly because the actors have aged, but it's also because the Lodge’s chronology seems to be simultaneously elastic and divisible into phases. “It all cannot be said out loud now,” the Giant remarks to Cooper in the first episode’s prologue, and that “now” implies that at some point it could be said out loud. (Whatever “it” is.) The “arm” that MIKE chopped off to purify himself of BOB’s corruption, formerly embodied as a dancing dwarf, has evolved into a bizarre entity straight out of Eraserhead: a bare-branched electrified tree, topped by a grotesque, fleshy knob that wheezes enigmatic advice to Cooper. The trapped FBI agent does eventually find an exit from the Lodge’s Red Room, but only by falling through its chevron-patterned floor, passing through a curious container (more on that below), and eventually plummeting into a turbulent, starry void.
The sequences in the opening episodes that leave the strongest impression from a dramatic standpoint are ironically those that have little apparent connection (at first) to Twin Peaks or Dale Cooper. In one narrative passage, a decapitated head and a headless body (from two different individuals) are discovered in an apartment in Buckhorn, South Dakota. All the physical and circumstantial evidence points to local high school principal Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), who seems genuinely baffled and frightened when he is arrested. Memories of Laura Palmer’s murder at the hands of her BOB-possessed father might prompt suspicions about What’s Really Going On, but the show pulls a fake-out: Bill is evidently being framed by his wife Phyllis (Cornelia Guest), who is not only sleeping with Bill’s attorney, but has also been cajoled into this scheme by Mr. C for as-of-yet unknown reasons. This South Dakota subplot is built on well-worn crime procedural clichés, but with just enough added oddness, viciousness, and frank pathos to feel fresh and appropriately peculiar. (Lillard is pitch-perfect as an ordinary man who is suddenly aware that he is in deep, deep shit.)
Of all the strange passages in the first two episodes, however, one is instantaneously iconic in that inimitable David Lynch way: superficially opaque and unconnected to the plot; visually galvanic and guaranteed to be imitated; and ultimately completely terrifying in the fashion of the darkest nightmares. In a secured, windowless room, a young man named Sam (Ben Rosenfield) sits on a couch, watching an enormous, empty glass box. An array of video cameras is pointed at the contraption, recording every angle and second on memory cards, which Sam dutifully removes and replaces at regular intervals. His friend Tracey (Madeline Zima) stops by the building, proffering a gift of lattes and asking if she can come inside and see what all the secrecy is about. On her first visit, Sam demurs, but on the next occasion the security guard outside the room is mysterious absent from his post. Accordingly, Sam ushers Tracey inside and shows her the glass enclosure, offering the non-explanation: “I'm supposed to watch the box and see if anything appears inside." They sit on the couch, sip their lattes, and after a few moments of awkward silence, get down to fucking. Naturally, this moment of distraction is precisely when a shadowy, ephemeral shape materializes within the box. It breaks through the container's glass walls and proceeds to rip into Sam and Tracey’s heads like a cheese grater shaving down a particularly soft fromage.
These “glass box” passages are so terrifically designed, and executed with such darkling precision, that they would work perfectly well as a standalone horror short. Their slanting connection to Cooper’s story is only revealed late in Part 2, when Dale slips out of the Black Lodge, fleetingly appears floating within the glass box, and then vanishes again, evidently just prior to the appearance of the deadly entity of shadow. The origin and nature of the box remains unclear: Purportedly owned by “an anonymous billionaire,” it seems to resemble a trap, like a polar bear waiting patiently for a seal pup to poke its head through a hole in the arctic sea ice. Plot significance aside, these sequences resonate so strongly in part due to their metaphorical richness. What have Twin Peaks devotees been doing for the past 26 years, if not watching a box (television) and waiting for something as bizarre and seductive as the original series to appear? Sam and Tracey’s dialog even suggests the inherent futility in conveying the tectonic impact of the first two seasons to a younger generation:
T: Do things appear?
S: I haven't seen anything since I started. But the guy I replaced, he saw something once.
S: He wouldn't tell me. Or couldn't tell me.
Boxes of all sorts are a recurring motif in Lynch’s work, most conspicuously exemplified by Mulholland Drive’s cobalt-blue mystery cube, the symbolism of which (if any) remains stubbornly contentious. (Television set? Movie screen? Vagina? Womb? The secret place where people hide away their worst fears and ugliest sins?) The Return’s glass box is a similarly fecund object, but as with all things Lynch, it’s worth recalling the tow-headed assassin’s dismissive, sinister chuckle in MD when he is asked what the blue key opens. There is power in mystery.
Just two episodes into its run, The Return is already brimming with names, numbers, and poetic imagery. There is an undeniable temptation to fetishize such minutiae, as though a profound secret could be deduced from their collection and analysis. Lynch practically seems to invite as much when he drizzles the show with riddles such as the one intoned by the Giant in the show’s opening minutes, “Remember 4-3-0. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone.” One could, in theory, jot down every cryptic scrap proffered by the show, draw every possible connection on an elaborate flow chart, and parse every line of dialog for hidden meaning. Such detective work is fun, and admittedly consistent with Cooper’s rallying cry from the Season 1, Episode 3: Break the code, solve the crime. However, such endeavors neglect that even Cooper’s more intuitive processes (e.g., the mystical Tibetan rock-throwing experiment in Season 1, Episode 2) consistently led him down fruitless paths, as well as the fact that he often arrived at the truth belatedly. Pointedly, Cooper did not deduce that Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) was Laura's killer until after the man had also slain his niece (and Laura lookalike) Maddy Ferguson. Even then, the FBI agent only put it all together when Leland practically spelled out his guilt in his own words. Ultimately, decoding clues was always a distraction in Twin Peaks: glorified stamp collecting and Hardy Boys tomfoolery that invited characters to neglect matters of the self and the soul. It was virtually blasphemy in 1991, but it now seems self-evident: Cooper’s pride in his own righteous intellect and white knight idealism made him ill-prepared for the Black Lodge's trials.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- Lynch draws out the discovery of the mutilated murder victim(s) in the Buckhorn apartment by staging a protracted, digressive, and delectably ludicrous interaction between the investigating police officers and a guileless, distracted neighbor (Melissa Jo Bailey). There’s also a baffling tangent about an agitated maintenance man and a doctor’s satchel containing… something. It’s both agonizing and delightful, and illustrates that the comedy-minded Lynch who crafted the farcical "World's Worst Hitman" set piece in Mulholland Drive is still alive and kicking.
- Lucy’s awkward exchange with an insurance salesman gestures towards the current whereabouts of Sheriff Harry Truman, but it also muddies the waters by revealing the presence of another Sheriff Truman. It’s ultimately an utterly pointless conversation: If one Sheriff Truman is out sick and the other is out fishing, then it doesn’t make a difference which one the salesman is looking for, because neither of them are at the station. Oh, Lucy. You’ve been missed.
- Mr. C’s suitcase laptop is at once weirdly anachronistic and vaguely fantastical; sort of "Tandypunk," if you will. He can apparently use it to hack into the FBI’s computers, downloading schematics of federal facilities directly to his smartphone. With its cumbersome cables and chunky keys, however, the device has the look and feel of technology 20 years past its prime. There’s also the matter of the phony-looking FBI interface, unconvincingly accessed via the click-clack of keyboard strokes rather mouse taps (just as all computers are accessed on procedurals like Law & Order and NCIS.)
- The scene with Mr. C at the hillbilly cabin is so pointedly grotesque it would have seemed out of place in the original series, although perhaps not in some of Lynch’s other works. It feels almost like a lost storyline from Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series: a little slice of redneck gothic scuzziness dropped into a cross-country supernatural tale. However, with his handlebar mustache and evident affection for moonshine swigged from Ball jars, Otis (Redford Westwood) is one Arcade Fire album shy of being a typical Portland hipster. Intriguingly, Buella’s (Kathleen Deming) priceless remark regarding the poor quality of hired muscle these days (“It’s a world of truck drivers.”) could be the banal 2017 rejoinder to Jeffrey’s awestruck assessment in Blue Velvet (“It’s a strange world.”)
- Names of characters both on- and off-screen zoom by quickly in these two episodes, and most of those monikers are unfamiliar. However, “Phillip Jeffries” likely rings a bell for attentive Twin Peaks fans who are versed in the intricacies of Fire Walk with Me. Played in one memorably surreal scene in that film by the late David Bowie, Jeffries is (was?) an FBI agent who somehow became entangled with the entities in the Black Lodge, resulting in a baffling feat of teleportation and time travel. Where exactly Jeffries is in 2017, what dealings he has with Mr. C, and why he would secretly retain Ray and Darya (Nicole LaLiberte) to assassinate the doppelgänger are questions that the series is obviously in no rush to answer.
- Lynch famously cast the original Twin Peaks with an eye towards three categories of actors: recognizable performers who were not distractingly famous (Michael Ontkean, Richard Beymer, Peggy Lipton, Piper Laurie, Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie, Russ Tamblyn), collaborators from his past projects (Kyle MacLachlan, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, Catherine Colson), and young, relative unknowns (Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dana Ashbrook, Mädchen Amick, James Marshall). He has taken much the same approach for the new additions to the cast in Twin Peaks: The Return. The first two episodes feature some faintly familiar faces from film and television, such as Jane Adams (Frasier, Hung) as a police forensic scientist, Matthew Lillard (Scream, Scooby-Doo) as the accused principal, and New York socialite and occasional actress Cornelia Guest as said principal’s wife. Prior to hooking up with Sam in the glass box room, and before her more recent appearances on Heroes and Californication, Madeline Zima was once little Grace Sheffield on The Nanny. Patrick Fischler—here briefly seen as a Vegas powerbroker named Mr. Todd—previously showed up in Mulholland Drive as the nervous fellow who fears the derelict behind the Winkie’s diner. Brent Briscoe, who plays a Buckhorn detective, is also a MD veteran of sorts, having popped up in that film to deliver a couple of lines as yet another detective character (“Could be, someone’s missing.”). Occasionally, The Return strays a bit too far into the kind of disruptive stunt casting that the original series eschewed. (Was that Jennifer Jason Leigh as one of Mr. C’s henchwomen-slash-lovers? Ashley Judd in a walk-on as Ben Horne’s secretary?) In the main, however, it’s a gratifying mix of old friends, vague acquaintances, and eye-catching new faces.
- The most aesthetically significant change between the Twin Peaks of 1990 - 1991 and that of 2017 is arguably an aural one. The ambient droning and ominous wind that were hallmarks of the original series' soundscape have returned in force, but otherwise The Return is thus far a remarkably quiet show. There are exceptions in the form of odd, jarring sonic assaults like Mr. C's entrance song or Cooper's cacophonous ejection from the Black Lodge. However, the new series usually allows its stilted and often plodding dialog to play out over a background of arid silence. This contrasts with the first two seasons, which were eager to dip into Angelo Badalamenti's three or four iconic musical themes at the drop of a hat (sometimes to incongruous effect). In The Return, it's sound effects rather than music that frequently attune the viewer to the scene's mood, as in the distant train whistle that meanders into Mr. C and Ray's tense conversation at a greasy spoon. (Said whistle is also an echo of Lynch's borderline avant-garde—and yet strangely terrifying—Web series Rabbits, which was later cannibalized and sewn into the fabric of Inland Empire.)