In Episode 5 of Twin Peaks‘ revival season, Dark Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) stares into the small, only semi-functional mirror that hangs above his prison cell sink. David Lynch holds on the shot, flashing back to footage from the original series: the chilling penultimate moment in which Cooper maniacally reveals his possession by way of BOB. Cooper stares unmoving at his reflection until Lynch finally cuts away, not to Dougie in Rancho Rosa or even back to a corpse in Buckhorn, South Dakota – but to another new character entirely – before the episode sets out on its course.
The Return (as it is being styled) has been a series, so far, filled with tempting clues about the ultimate scope of Lynch’s vision: even as the auteur builds out mystery upon mystery without any apparent concern to untangle one before it, we begin with another. But it’s also been a series so free-wheeling and bravely confounding that even in its trips back to the town of Twin Peaks, it refuses to give the audience what we want. (Or at least, what we think we want.)
Some of that confusion isn’t our fault — it’s been ingrained. Shows like Lost, Mr. Robot and Westworld subsisted on creating convoluted mysteries that simultaneously served to spellbind and to compel dissection, tempting us to theorize wildly on Reddit, analyzing screen grabs, and taking a highlighter to chunks of dialogue in search of a running trick or tease. But for Lynch, who brought “weird” to television long before Damon Lindelof got to it (though to be fair, Lindelof is a massive Twin Peaks fan himself), the issue of Puzzle Box TV is one he has always been unwilling to tangle with.
Lynch as a filmmaker has inspired a cult of uber-weird personality, and hasn’t been shy over the years about his refusal to shed light on the more abstract aspects of his filmography, nor has he hidden his opinion of the second season of his series, which he says absolutely “sucked”. The reason? The answer to the question is another question that shrouded Twin Peaks from its infancy: Who Killed Laura Palmer? “That was the goose that laid these golden eggs,” Lynch said. “At a certain point, we were told to wrap that up, and it never really got back going after that.”
That is, until now; over a quarter of a century later Lynch is back in the director’s chair for another 18 episodes (or “Parts”). And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that Lynch is not interested in giving viewers what they want. That’s not to say that the show hasn’t been enjoyable: the series’ first five episodes have swung from the horrific to the breathlessly weird, and from slapstick to the exuberant, but for fans expecting a return to the donut and coffee-filled world of Twin Peaks, things might not quite look the way some expected.
Take the first episode of The Return, as Lynch revisits the iconic “I’ll see you again in 25 years” scene with Laura and Dale in the Red Room, and entering the now ghostly halls of Twin Peaks High, before that ever-iconic credits sequence. It’s a pointed attempt to trace the outline of what fans might expect a return to the world of the show might look like. But just as audiences get their bearings, Lynch pivots, and jettisons us into a ghostly New York City, making no bones about the different kind of story he’s about to tell. We spend time in Buckhorn, South Dakota, another small-town analogue, as Lynch takes his time assembling the pieces of disrupted idyll into a clever, likely unanswerable whodunnit.
We get to know Dark Cooper — bedraggled hair, incompetent flunkies and all — spending far more time in the first few episodes alongside his pitch black soul than the Lodge-bound Cooper, forcing die-hard fans to reconcile their conception of a pie-loving Agent with the man willing to choke out the life of his female sidekick with little more than a shrug. By dangling the nostalgic carrot yet giving us the gorgeous and curious stick, even when Lynch allows Cooper out into the real world, he’s but a shell of the man we have grown to love, whose Lodge-dulled brain steam recognizes only the most base of Coop’s predilections: helllllooooo! It’s the kind of flicker of a memory, or even the fetishization of which, that Lynch seems interested in: his Return isn’t so much a new crack at the mystery of Twin Peaks as it is an exploration of what might have been left on the fringe in the wake of our obsessive nostalgia.
The auteur even seems to have purposely bungled one the most classic vestiges of revival culture: the guest star. Whether it’s the quiet, fanfare-free arrival of Naomi Watts in Part Four, or the puzzling, clunky reveal of Michael Cera as Wally Brando, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Lynch is enjoying dancing around fan theories and expectations. He’s got a history of flagrantly recasting key roles, dating all the way back to his replacement Donna in Fire Walk With Me and surfacing in his choice to mock non-returner Michael J. Anderson by swapping him with a CG tree, proving once again that Lynch is here to tell his story, not satisfy your nostalgic hunger pains.
It’s tempting, especially with the plethora of dream imagery and flashbacks to the original series that Lynch uses to attempt to find the method in the cinematic madness. But I can’t help but feel as though in doing so, we’re being drawn back again to that brown couch in that dank room, to stare into his empty glass box, tempted only by the promise of catching a glimpse of something we saw years ago. But as the show’s return would have it, that which we’re waiting for may no longer exist: the charming idyll of Twin Peaks has nearly been enveloped by encroaching metropolises and more curious murders in even more curious towns.
Like dreams, Lynch’s work is experiential, an of-the-moment feast of the senses that dates back to early cinematic traditions of attraction. It’s those moments of pure feeling, like Amanda Seyfried‘s rapturous convertible ride, that the filmmaker seems most interested chasing, not the long game of the twists and turns of a greater reveal. In the age of the metered tease from creators like Sam Esmail or the Duffer Brothers, Lynch is selling us a very different kind of spectacle: a slow, enigmatic and relatively non-dissectible journey that favors five-minute gold shovel pitches over easy fan service and mysteries with quick payoffs.
Still, at the close of each episode, Lynch can’t help but bring us back to the Bang Bang Bar, into the redwood curtain, and closer than ever to our idealized dream of a series that might never have existed in the first place. It’s hard to know where exactly we’re headed, but it also likely isn’t worth all this theorizing and hand-wringing. For Lynch, the key to enjoying Twin Peaks lies in releasing your expectations of the show that came prior to it. As for the key to unlocking the mystery? It might just be to stop trying to solve it altogether. Perhaps Agent Dale Cooper said it best of all: “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
Twin Peaks airs Sunday nights on Showtime.