Twin Peaks Returns to Terrify, Delight, and Confound
David Lynch’s long-awaited television comeback is as strange as you’d imagine—and as beguiling.
“I am dead, and yet I live,” Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) intones in her melancholic backward-speak, proving she’s still the soul of her show after all these years. Who could have put it better? Sunday’s return of Twin Peaks was everything fans might have expected: as confounding, horrifying, and furtive as its co-creator David Lynch’s (relatively) recent work, but not entirely lacking in the homespun charm of the original network-TV series. This new Twin Peaks might have a vicious box monster, an eyeless corpse, and a much nastier Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) on board now. But Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost haven’t let go of the show’s sense of humor, its soapy grandiosity, and their strange affection for the tormented souls that make up its ensemble.
When the duo brought the original Twin Peaks to ABC in 1990, they seemed largely uninterested in distinguishing between episodes, unfolding their serialized horror-soap in increasingly inscrutable fashion until the ratings plummeted too low. Though original programming on premium-TV networks barely existed then, it’s now the default home for the kind of weird, auteur-driven television Twin Peaks helped pioneer. And today, Lynch and Frost seem even less concerned about keeping audiences on board with a propulsive or linear narrative.
As such, it’s a challenge to summarize the actual plot of “Parts 1 & 2,” which aired Sunday night, the first two in an 18-hour series. These episodes scattered a lot of fascinating imagery, disconnected story ideas, and inter-dimensional nightmare antics in front of its audience; it’s up to viewers to try and put the pieces together, or (my preferred method) simply soak in every bizarre tableau with glee. It’s been more than 10 years since Lynch has come out with a major work (2006’s Inland Empire), and judging from what has aired so far, Twin Peaks (subtitled The Return) is a worthy new entry in his canon.
To recap: Some 25 years ago (within the timeline of the show), FBI Agent Dale Cooper journeyed to Twin Peaks, Washington, to investigate the murder of local prom queen Laura Palmer. In doing so, he both fell in love with the town and began digging into its nefarious, drug- and sex-fueled underbelly. He also encountered a mystical netherworld, the red-curtained Black Lodge, that lay at the core of Twin Peaks’ pain and suffering. In the series finale, he was trapped there while the demonic spirit “Bob” (Laura’s true murderer) took charge of his body.
In Twin Peaks: The Return, this possessed version of Dale, referred to as “Mr. C,” is tooling around the country with a lush mane of hair and inky-black eyes. He appears, in some way, to be responsible for a new gruesome murder, this time occurring in South Dakota ostensibly at the hands of a very confused, distraught school principal, Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard). Though Frank Silva, the actor who memorably played Bob on Twin Peaks, sadly died many years ago, McLachlan does a wonderful job summoning his terrifying affect; his Mr. C, who coldly dispatches more than one victim in the first two episodes, is a tour de force.
The real Dale remains trapped in the Black Lodge, speaking (at various times) to the dearly departed Laura, the helpful spirits Mike (Al Strobel) and the Giant (Carel Struycken), and the “Man From Another Place,” once played by Michael J. Anderson, who has been recast as a massive talking tree topped with a gelatin brain. That image, along with another of the first episode’s mysterious monsters (a murderous humanoid figure), seemed right out of Lynch’s earliest pieces of filmmaking—his frightening short films and his debut feature Eraserhead.
But Twin Peaks: The Return often reminded me of Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s later effort at TV storytelling (which, once it was rejected by ABC, was retooled into a 2001 feature). The early portions of that film, much of which were intended to set up a larger television narrative, were hilariously byzantine. As the protagonist Betty (Naomi Watts) tried to make her entry to Hollywood, Mulholland Dr. delved into meetings between various unknown players, be they cowboys or taciturn studio executives. Each played out in circular, stilted dialogue that seemed to amount to very little on the surface, but were still rife with unease, suggesting a dark, bureaucratic underpinning to all of the world’s nightmares.
Twin Peaks: The Return was filled with similarly portentous moments. What exactly is the enigmatic glass box being filmed in New York City by several cameras and attended to by a nonplussed grad student (Ben Rosenfeld)? Who is Mr. Todd (Patrick Fischler), the Las Vegas mogul who ominously warns his assistant Roger against doing business with his unseen benefactor? Why did the murder committed by Bill Hastings (Lillard’s character) involve two dead bodies and multiple extra-marital affairs? And just what did the Log Lady (a powerful cameo from the now-deceased Catherine Coulson) want to communicate to Twin Peaks’ deputy chief of police, the ever-reliable Hawk (Michael Horse)?
Plenty of things will come to light over the next 16 hours; likely, plenty more won’t. But while Twin Peaks’ return was, in general, more given to the open brutality and daring surrealism of Lynch’s film efforts, it did often recall its more straightforwardly melodramatic forebear. That long, dragged-out revelation of the crime scene in South Dakota was delightful, from the dog-owning, busybody neighbor bugging the cops to the flat confession of forbidden love from Bill’s wife Phyllis (played by Cornelia Guest, a New York socialite) to her lawyer. Lynch’s fondness for the random bystanders in his work can sometimes feel like a twisted take on a Far Side cartoon, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch.
Twin Peaks remains the nightmare fuel it always has been. The sight of an oily-black ghost in the prison cell next to Bill’s was truly alarming; the same goes for Dale’s return to the real world, again via the glass box (after a space-time rupture in the Black Lodge’s iconic floor). In the intervening decades, Lynch, and thus Twin Peaks, has only gotten more abrasive. But that closing scene at the Bang Bang Bar, where an older (and just as stunning) Shelly (Mädchen Amick) and James (James Marshall) locked eyes across the room, still had me swooning over memories of old. Laura Palmer may be dead, and yet—as she told us—she lives.