I was beyond excited about the news that Twin Peaks would be coming back for a third season this year. For those of you who have never seen it, you missed a hell of a ride back when television just wasn’t doing that kind of thing. David Lynch and Mark Frost told a winding, frustrating, weird story over thirty episodes that drew from small-town mystery, soap opera, supernatural horror and surrealist tropes to create a TV show unlike anything else on the air at the time or since. Thinking back on the sheer bizarreness of the arcs, I have to say it’s a minor miracle that it made it to air — or that it was a cultural phenomenon for two glorious seasons.
Twin Peaks is the town where FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called to investigate the murder of hometown sweetheart Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). His search for Laura’s killer draws him (and us) deeper into the town’s mysteries and the truly strange residents who inhabit this sleepy, Pacific Northwest town. Through dreams, visions, and odd connections Agent Cooper learns the horrible truth of Laura Palmer’s life as well as the terrible secrets that dwell deep within the forests surrounding her hometown.
The end of Twin Peaks was the first really frustrating TV finale I ever encountered; I hated the whole series for about a year after I finished watching it. But after that initial shock, I came to appreciate the show for what it was — and its influence has guided my storytelling sensibilities for over a decade since. Seeing Frost and Lynch return to the setting that turned the course of American serialized drama on its ear is a rare treat, especially knowing they’ve been given such creative freedom from Showtime, the cable network that aired season 3, otherwise known as “The Return”.
So, after 25 years, how was it coming back to this singular piece of television history?
Well, last time we saw Agent Cooper he was stuck in the supernatural realm of the Black Lodge and BOB — the demon that raped and killed Laura Palmer while it was inhabiting her father Leland — was running around as Cooper’s doppleganger. We pick up in the Black Lodge with Agent Cooper, who is being prepared by the Giant — or maybe some other dude? — with the usual cryptic clues laden with meaning. While Agent Cooper is going through his own odyssey, we get to catch up with folks in Twin Peaks and a bunch of new folks in different locations.
Dr. Jacoby gets a bunch of shovels from Joe; Ben still owns the Great Northern Hotel, though he has a new assistant in Beverly Paige; his brother Jerry now grows pot, which I’m pretty sure he was doing before for free; dear Lucy Brenneman is still the receptionist at the Sheriff’s Department, as spacy and adorably unhelpful as ever. Deputy Hawk is still on the force, and receiving a couple of cryptic phone calls from a visibly ill Log Lady spins him onto a new investigation. Shelly, the waitress at the Double R Diner, flirts with someone while James Hurley stares at her across the floor within the Bang Bang Club.
I have to take a minute to tell you how much I hate James Hurley. Dude was meant to be a sensitive biker-type, calling the spirit of James Dean and all that. But man, that guy was a doofus. I’m sure to most people he looks like a little lost puppy, but to me he just looked aggravatingly confused all the time. Remember in the original series where they had him sing? It was the worst. Now that he’s back in Twin Peaks and all grown up, he’s even worse. Just seeing him standing there, I wished that someone would just punch him. It’s nice to know some things never change, even after 25 years.
Meanwhile, Cooper’s doppleganger starts to make moves so he can avoid being pulled back into the Black Lodge; he employs a few people to obtain information for him, and brutally kills a librarian in Buckhorn, South Dakota. Another man is framed for the crime and placed in a cell next to a truly terrifying apparition of a shoddily-dressed man with his eyes rolled back and mouth agape. As the man, a local school principal, cries, the man slowly fades from view.
In the Black Lodge, Cooper meets the One-Armed Man (the man inhabited by MIKE, BOB’s nemesis) as well as Laura Palmer and “The Arm”, the decapitated limb of MIKE’s body that had been the backwards-talking dwarf in the original series. How do I know this? WIKIPEDIA, SON! Cooper is attacked by the Arm’s doppleganger and thrown out of the Black Lodge into a void between dimensions, which is straight-up grade-A nightmare fuel.
Finally, in New York a man sits staring at a transparent box locked in a room and guarded by an armed security officer. The man is supposed to alert someone if something ever appears in the box, but that never happens. A woman arrives and they strike up a relationship. Slowly, surely, the woman coaxes the man into sharing coffee with her while he stares at the box. Of course, they start to make out. The box turns black; something comes out of that void and viciously slaughters both of them.
In a lot of ways, the first two episodes of The Return make a statement about what to expect. This version of Twin Peaks is less a weird, dadaist poke at night-time soaps and more the unfiltered dreaming id of David Lynch. You’re dropped into the world 25 years later, disoriented after all this time, and subjected to visions both disturbing and incoherent. The box room in New York is a terrifying location, and Lynch draws you in with his characteristic slow, detailed direction. The man removes an SD card from one of the cameras trained on the box and places it in storage, then takes a replacement and puts it in the camera. That’s all that happens, but the scene takes four minutes; the whole time, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Lynch and Frost intersperse the new strangeness with the more familiar weird — Cooper’s doppleganger channels the actor (and handyman!) who was the previous host of BOB surprisingly well, and MacLachlan’s portrayal is subtle but notably different from the dream-shocked behavior of the ‘real’ Agent Cooper. The accepting confusion of Twin Peak’s residents is contrasted wonderfully against the more active bafflement of the folks in South Dakota and New York; slow and languid scenes are occasionally punctuated by shocking images and disturbing violence. It’s not an easy reintroduction into this world, but the scenes unfold so exactly you know it’s on purpose. This isn’t the same old Twin Peaks brought back for nostalgia’s sake — this is something new, something darker and stranger, more intense.
What’s most impressive is how the scenes back in Twin Peaks are a welcome reprieve that allows us to digest the unfamiliar a bit more easily. It was genuinely great seeing the Black Lodge again — and Agent Cooper, Ben and Jerry, Deputy Hawk, the Log Lady, Deputy Andy and his wife Lucy, and yes — even dumb, punchable James Hurley. That little touch of home gives us the chance to appreciate just how ambitious and audacious the pilot is. It’s everything I remember about Twin Peaks — the frustrating pacing, bewildering strangeness, hilarious character humor — but sharper and more dangerous. Already, it’s a hell of an update.
Then again, if the Arm can evolve it makes sense that Twin Peaks does too. The quaintness of the backwards-talking dwarf will be missed, but the horrifying brain-and-nerve-bundles version is hypnotic and fascinating in a completely new way, even if it is difficult to look at. This condensed shot of Lynchian weirdness is a good way to plant that flag early; if you’re looking for the gentle embrace of a long-absent relative, you’re going to be disappointed. And I was, but by the end of part 2, I was really curious to see where this rough stretch of new road would take us.