It’s a goddamn bad story, isn’t it?
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Twin Peaks: The Return // Part 12 // Original Air Date July 30, 2017 // Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch // Directed by David Lynch
As this site has previously observed, Twin Peaks: The Return has repeatedly indulged in mischievous meta-commentary about the experience of watching it. As series director, David Lynch has habitually drawn out scenes to absurd lengths, in contravention of the customary rules of television narrative. Sometimes this has a deeper purpose with respect to theme, mood, or characterization—e.g., the hypnotically slow zoom into the Trinity atomic explosion in Part 8. However, just as often Lynch seems to be sadistically tweaking the viewer’s patience. It’s all too easy to read sour amusement in the way that Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost have continually pushed some key story milestones, like the re-emergence of the old Dale Cooper, further and further down the road. Relatedly, they often allow the show’s characters to function as viewer surrogates who give voice to the longing, confusion, and annoyance that the creators imagine the audience must be feeling.
This impulse on the part of Frost and Lynch reaches a kind of audacious, alienating crescendo in Part 12, in which the denial of audience gratification becomes a palpable ambition. Most of the action in this episode proceeds at a comically languid pace, from the elliptical conversations to the simple action of a character leaving a room. The centerpiece of this inclination is the much-anticipated appearance of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn). Of all the fates that viewers might have imagined for Twin Peaks’ adolescent brunette firecracker, a loveless marriage of convenience to a tweedy, dyspeptic accountant likely did not rank high on the list of possible futures. Moreover, Lynch and Frost strand Audrey’s scene in a kind of narrative purgatory, isolated from the rest of the episode’s events. She and her husband Charlie (Clark Middleton) argue about situations and characters that are completely unknown to the viewer, in particular the apparent disappearance of Audrey’s lover, Billy.
The exasperating nature of their conversation, and Charlie’s generally tepid, unhurried demeanor—down to the way he dials a rotary phone—make this scene maddening, but it’s Audrey’s reactions that paradoxically turn it into a marvelous bit of self-commentary on The Return. As though she were a viewer standing outside the show, watching her own scene unfold at a molasses-slow pace, Audrey fidgets through a succession of frustrated sighs, squints, eye rolls, appeals, and profanity-studded invective. She’s obliged to listen impotently as Charlie consults over the phone with Tina, who may or may not know Billy’s whereabouts, only for her husband to reveal nothing of his conversation. This provokes her already frayed patience to snap in disbelief: “YOU'RE NOT GOING TO TELL ME WHAT SHE SAID??”
This scene might be the harshest manifestation of Part 12’s penchant for withholding and prolonging, but it’s far from the only candidate. The agonizingly leisurely way that Gordon Cole’s (David Lynch) Francophone “friend” (Bérénice Marlohe) removes herself from the FBI director’s hotel room is perhaps the most conspicuous such sequence, due to the minimal dialogue and Albert Rosenfield’s (Miguel Ferrer) unamused passivity. Significantly, both Gordon and his lady friend take unabashed pleasure in the seductive production she makes of her leave-taking. Lynch’s beaming reaction is perhaps the clearest indication that, yes, he really does derive enjoyment out of fucking with his audience.
There’s also the nearly word-for-word repetition of Dr. Jacoby’s (Russ Tamblyn) Internet rant from several episodes prior, complete with pre-recorded shit shovel sales pitch. Or the abundant awkward pauses in the conversation between Gordon, Albert, Tammy (Chrysta Bell), and (eventually) Diane (Laura Dern), culminating in the latter’s silent preparation of a vodka on the rocks. Or the teasing way that the Room 315 key rests on the desk during an extended back-and-forth between Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) and Sheriff Truman (Robert Forster), as though mocking the viewer with the possibility that Ben will fail to mention it. Or the inclusion of yet another ambiguous exchange at the Roadhouse where unfamiliar characters discuss other unfamiliar characters.
It would hardly be surprising if some viewers regarded these passages as frustrating, since they most certainly are. That frustration, however, is not an artifact of sub-standard screenwriting, but a deliberate and essential aspect of The Return. Perhaps more than any other show in memory, this new iteration of Twin Peaks does not give a fuck about the viewer’s expectations. Its aim is to provoke rather than to entertain, and specifically to provoke in a way that pushes against the conventions and limitations of the medium. The Return is a hand grenade lobbed at the fundamental assumptions about episodic narrative television and how it is “supposed” to work. Yet what's striking about Part 12 is how mellow the show seems to be about its heresies, as if it's urging the viewer to just relax and enjoy the moment rather than wringing their hands about the when, why, and how.
Despite itself, the show often entertains as a side effect of its provocations. Its dominant mode is not disdainful deconstruction but disarming unpredictability. Indeed, Part 12 is often astonishingly funny in its most absurd, patience-straining moments. The French woman’s exit from Gordon’s room, for example, veers back and forth between amusing and annoying multiple times in the space of minutes. Ultimately, the underlying point of this extended gesture seems to be the "live in the present" sentiment mentioned above. Notably, Albert's stony reaction to Gordon's excitement over a bottle of good Bordeaux prompts the older man to express concern about his fellow agent's well-being. If you can't appreciate fine wine and a beautiful woman when they're right in front of you, what's the point of it all?
Moreover, the episode often wryly acknowledges its methods through dialog. Gordon’s appeal to Albert and Tammy at the beginning of the episode (“Please speak succinctly!”) comes off as ironic in retrospect. In light of a brief check-in with “Dougie Jones” (Kyle MacLachlan), Charlie’s observation to Audrey regarding Billy plays as a notification to the viewer that no, the old Dale Cooper will not be appearing just yet: “He’s out there somewhere, but you’re not going to find him tonight.” As though speaking on the behalf of the impatient audience, Chantel (Jennifer Jason Leigh) maintains to Hutch (Tim Roth) that there’s just no time to torture the warden before they murder him on Mr. C’s behalf. (Providing the most uncomplimentary product placement in television history, she declares that she is hungry for Wendy’s.)
Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) delivers Part 12’s most caustic line directed at the show itself, when she rhetorically snaps at Hawk (Michael Horse), “It’s a goddamn bad story, isn’t it?” The Return is kind of a bad story, in the sense that a “good” story in the realm of narrative television has narrow constraints that this show can’t be bothered to obey. Ironically, it’s Sarah’s breakdown and her tense conversation with Hawk that most resemble vintage Twin Peaks, with its distinct evocation of menace in mundane, daytime spaces. Sarah’s rambling meltdown at the store counter seems to touch on her memories of Laura, and the scene is backed with a menacing, distorted musical cue taken from Fire Walk with Me. (As is Diane’s mimicry of the series' vaguely threatening line, “Let’s rock!”) While Part 12 doesn’t provide any explicit scenes of Black Lodge forces, a suggestion of their power can be discerned in the puzzling sound from Sarah’s kitchen, and in that ominously humming ceiling fan, still spinning away. Something lurks within the Palmer house yet, and Sarah is alone with it.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- Fathers are a major motif in this episode. Ben Horne observes that his grandson Richard “never had a father,” suggesting that this has contributed to the young man’s violent, anti-social behavior. Later Ben reminisces about a bicycle he owned as a boy, which he valued less for its features than because his father had given it to him. Sonny-Jim (Pierce Gagnon) attempts to coerce his father into an archetypal backyard game of catch, but Cooper-as-Dougie just stands there unresponsively as a baseball bounces off his head. The warden’s young son (Luke Judy) discovers his father sprawled dead in front of their house, the victim of two bullets from Hutch’s sniper rifle.
- The notion that the FBI has been following Tammy’s academic and professional life since she was in high school speaks well of her abilities, but it’s nonetheless kind of creepy.
- Diane’s peculiar, out-loud enunciation of the word “co-or-din-nates” may be a mnemonic device, allowing her to call up the numbers she saw in Part 11 from the depths of her apparently eidetic memory.
- It’s unclear why the turkey jerky display at the grocery store triggers Sarah Palmer’s meltdown, but it’s worth noting that individuals with PTSD are often unable to articulate why certain stimuli can provoke an acute emotional response. It may be salient that the package’s logo bears some resemblance to the owl glyph associated with the Black Lodge, while the brand name, Albatross, evokes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and bird's association with a psychological burden. Furthermore, Sarah’s question about the jerky—“It it smoked?”—suggests the sooty Woodsmen and the smoldering, extra-dimensional convenience store where they dwell.
- Much has been made of the apparent discrepancies in the show’s timeline, and the possibility that Frost and Lynch are cross-cutting between storylines that are occurring over different, non-overlapping periods. Such theories received a bit of a boost in this episode by a conspicuous contradiction: After Albert observes that it’s 11:05 p.m., Lynch cuts to the opening of Dr. Jacoby’s show, which, as he announces, begins at 7:00 p.m. Even accounting for time zone differences, these adjacent scenes cannot be unfolding concurrently.
- Charlie’s reference to some “fishy” papers that Audrey wants him to sign—and his reluctance to do so without his attorney’s guidance—calls back to the original series. At one point Catherine Martell discovers that Josie Packard had taken out a lucrative life insurance policy on her, declining to sign when an agent brings the irregularities of the policy to her attention. Audrey also threatens to renege on an unspecified contract out of frustration with Charlie’s tepid ineffectualness, prompting disbelief on his part. This mirrors the tension that Frost and Lynch are deliberately eliciting in the relationship between Twin Peaks and its audience, placing the implied artist / viewer “contract” in jeopardy.
- Audrey and Charlie’s conversation about the mysterious Billy, Tina, Chuck, and Paul (and a stolen truck) tracks somewhat with the saga of Richard Horne’s hit-and-run. Part 7 included a scene with a man (identified in the credits only as “Farmer”) who had an anxious confrontation with Andy about his truck, and then subsequently failed to show up for an arranged meeting with the deputy. It’s conceivable (if a bit unlikely) that this is Audrey’s missing lover Billy. Notably, Part 7 concluded with a man bursting into the Double RR and asking urgently, “Anybody seen Billy?”
- Gordon’s trembling hand from his brush with the Black Lodge in Part 10 is echoed when Trick (Scott Coffey) holds up his hand to Natalie (Ana de la Reguera) and Abbie (Elizabeth Anweis), illustrating how shaken he still is about his accident on the way to the roadhouse. Intriguingly, Trick claims he was pulled from his car by a “farmer.”
- Sightings: Clark Middleton, who portrays Audrey’s husband Charlie, is best known for his appearances on the paranormal thriller series Fringe and in films including Sin City, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Birdman. (Middleton’s stature and physical disabilities are a product of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.) The role of Gordon’s lady friend is performed by French actress Bérénice Marlohe, known in America primarily as the Bond girl Severine from Skyfall. Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera, who plays roadhouse patron Natalie, is most familiar to English-speaking audiences from the Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre and numerous television series, including Eastbound & Down, Narcos, Jane the Virgin, and From Dusk Till Dawn. In the role of accident victim Trick is Scott Coffey, who previously appeared in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, and Rabbits shorts.