There’s a common theory about being able to spot great artists on a roll. Each film or work that they make feels like a summation of their past work and, finally, an act of transcendence from old ways of doing things. The vast, wild world of The Grand Budapest Hotel required knowledge and comfortability with physical animation and shooting in closeted spaces, lessons that Wes Anderson learned from Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited. The all-consuming sense of a distinctly American and thrillingly modern media machine at work powered the betrayal in Gone Girl, a feeling that first was born in the kinetic, hyper-connected technological world of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the not-so-true-to-life chronicling of real events in The Social Network. Such is the feeling of watching the first 111 minutes of David Lynch‘s third season of Twin Peaks – also known as Twin Peaks: The Return – the master filmmaker’s return to television after some 25 years and first major work since his 2006 behemoth, Inland Empire.
The overall spare aesthetic found in much of the opening diptych of episodes recalls the haunted spaces of Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Mulholland Drive, but it opens with a nod toward its past seasons and the grainy black-and-white realm of Eraserhead, his astonishing debut. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), as we remember him, is sitting with Carel Struycken‘s helpful giant who tells him to listen to the sounds of a phonograph. This is followed by some cryptic allusions that will require some research: “Remember 430,” mentions of Richard and Linda, “two birds, one stone,” and something like “you are far away.” Considering that we will soon be introduced to a different kind of Cooper, one might surmise that the Cooper that we know and love is trapped away in the haunted red-draped room. What’s immediately clear is that the other Cooper (McLachlan with shoulder-length hair), decked out in a leather jacket and a snakeskin shirt, is a menacing beast out in the most lawless and feral parts of Lynch’s American landscape.
Before we meet this new Dale Cooper, there’s a flash to Russ Tamblyn‘s Dr. Jacoby receiving supplies and the look is steady but amateurish, like surveillance video. One might surmise that the use of surveillance equipment in the next sequence, the first of many exhilaratingly puzzling narrative passages, would suggest a direct connection, but it also feels fluid in Lynch’s stream-of-consciousness unraveling. The sequence with the glass box in New York most directly resembles the rotted rooms and corridors of Inland Empire, lit by dim, stylish lampshades and littered with computers and cardboard. David (Ben Rosenfield), the young man looking after the glass box, starts up a romance with Tracy (Madeline Zima) outside his top-secret workspace, where she drops off coffee for him. The glass box is one of those images where Lynch seems to be inviting theoretical readings, but is also being a big straightforward. When David talks about his work and the project, his main mode is uninformed and indifferent to the meaning of his work, which also involves placing what looks like microchips into strange, locked-away slots. There could be meaning here ultimately, but for right now, Lynch seems to want nothing more than to secure one’s curiosity and a certain feeling of displacement.
Lynch then sends us back to Twin Peaks, where Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) is dictating orders to his new assistant (Ashley Judd) – something about a skunk being in an important customer’s room – and having a quick conversation with his pothead brother, Jerry (David Patrick Kelly). The overall mood here is change, a recalibration after the two and a half decades since we last saw these people and the sense of an impending shake-up seems implicit both Horne’s office and in the glass box room in New York. When David and Tracy try to sneak a quickie in the room, the clear glass box turns black and a shaking, disturbing monster appears before breaking out and, well, shredding the lovers.
The unkempt way in which Lynch conveys the terrifying attack is worth noting, as he summons a bestial nature from utilizing more seemingly stilted images and frantic editing. Its as if a gallery of monstrous images were being shoved and shaken in your face, and the bloody attack has a similar deconstructionist vibe to it, despite the gushes of syrupy blood. There’s immediacy in these techniques that makes the more steady-handed and composed images of horror look fanciful and timid. Though I’m horrified to even type the descriptor due to its overuse, there is unmistakably a raw feeling to what Lynch does in this sequence.
We get more of a sense of the glass room as a connection to the Red Room toward the end of the second episode, where the suited Dale Cooper is reunited with Al Strobel‘s one-armed Michael and the grotesque brain tree known as The Arm, formerly Michael J. Anderson‘s “man from another place.” But first, we must get acquainted with new Dale Cooper, who struts into a den of country-fried misfits and pulls out a pair of cons to help him in his misdeeds. He’ll later kill the female of the pair in one of the episode’s most distinctly terrifying sequences in beat-up motel room. He’ll also download a lifetime’s worth of information from a secret FBI laptop and send distress signals to Philip Jefferies, the undercover agent played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me. If they are in fact one and the same, there’s a sense that Cooper is doing some wildly profane undercover work. It’s also clear that he is connected to the grisly murder of Ruth Davenport, secretary to Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), a Buckhorn, South Dakota businessman. Cooper will later shoot Hastings’ bitter, similarly cheating wife dead, around the same time a charcoal demon who may or may not be Bob appears in the cell across from an imprisoned Hastings. Fingers crossed that we get to see more of Jane Adams as the lead detective on Davenport’s case.
This all sounds convoluted when you write it down on paper but that’s not the way it feels when you’re watching it. Lynch offers fragments of an America ruled by nightmare logic, one where ugly symbolic riots of imagery at once interrupt and inform what’s going on. The entire 111 minutes are punctuated by shots of a lonely road and a train crossroads lit only by headlights. There are also sweeping shots of the pines around Twin Peaks just barely lit enough to see the sway of the verdant treetops. The mood again is of a force coming to be reckoned with, but given elongated hypnotic power by Lynch’s confident, abstracted editing. He once again evinces a realm of terror that is never truly at sleep or at peace, a place where monsters can move freely and never really die.
And yet, there’s still the patented tenderness that has always been a key to dispelling naysayers to Lynch’s ruminative, brash style. The phone calls between Deputy Hawk (the great Michael Horse) and the Log Lady, played by the late Catherine E. Coulson, are some of the most sensitive, bare, and electrifying exchanges I’ve seen in TV this decade. With Coulson clearly ailing from the cancer that took her life in September of 2015, she gives Hawk his directions for the bizarre journey that will surely follow to get Agent Dale Cooper back where he’s needed. And there’s an indescribable comfort in the fact that the decades haven’t diminished the sweetheart charm of watching Kimmy Robertson‘s Lucy and Harry Goaz‘s Andy bounce off each other and run the office.
Hawk’s last call with the Log Lady leads him to a hole in the ground, which presumably offers a kind of entryway to another realm. It’s unclear if that’s where the Red Room is, but Cooper’s final panicked run through the curtains, away from the evil doppelganger of the arm tree, is a vintage Lynchian fever dream, using largely physical effects and old-school techniques to conjure up disembodiment, fear, and madness. It’s here that we once again run into Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and Ray Wise‘s Leland Palmer, who prod at Cooper to return from wherever he’s been, to break out of the grip of his dark side. Could it be that the new Cooper represents the clean-cut agent rotted away with grief and loneliness in the wake of what happened at the end of Season 2? That seems like a possible narrative springboard for Cooper’s return. Of course, one says things like this about a Lynch show with full knowledge that he’ll likely never make it explicitly clear and to read too literally is to miss the dark magic he’s casting.
It’s hard to argue with that. By the time we arrive at the Bang Bang Bar, with the Chromatics belting out the moody guitar pop while James (James Marshall) catches a glimpse of Mädchen Amick‘s Shelly, one feels as if this moment of genuine warmth and melancholy has been earned. The labyrinthian bend to Lynch’s narrative will no doubt invite think-pieces upon think-pieces. The troll legions on 4chan and Reddit will build intricate designs to understand Lynch’s dream architecture more clearly and make prediction easier when needed. Let the theories fly, honestly, but there is a danger here in the push to fully understand everything that is going on in this world and not simply enjoying the hallucinatory, imposing, and strangely beautiful visual rhythms that Lynch orchestrates.
There will be time for close analysis of Lynch’s latest, trust me – he does that to people. But what’s most striking about the opening movements of Twin Peaks‘ new season is that Lynch’s images are still, well, striking, every cut and composition blending into an anxious, rhapsodic spree of psychological torment, fury, and guilt. What comes across most potently is Lynch’s liberated artistry and style, allowed free reign and immediately making even the most bold of other TV series, from American Gods to The Americans, look timid and compromised in comparison to Lynch’s latest moondrunk flourish.