For better or worse, “Twin Peaks: The Return” is pure Lynch
When the original “Twin Peaks” aired over 25 years ago, it was a TV show about a mystery. With its revival this year in the form of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” the show itself has become a mystery.
Fulfilling a cryptic promise made years ago by murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer, “The Return” picks up 25 years after the conclusion of the original. While the show attempts to juggle approximately three million storylines, the plot revolves around two central narrative threads. The first chronicles FBI agent Dale Cooper’s escape from the demonic netherworld known as the Black Lodge and his subsequent journey back to the town of Twin Peaks. The other thread follows Cooper’s evil doppelganger as he does everything in his power to avoid returning to the Lodge, from whence he escaped in the Season Two finale.
However, to reduce “The Return” to a mere plot synopsis is to rob it of every quality that makes it so unique. As is typical for co-creator David Lynch, this show could care less about the narrative it is ostensibly trying to tell. Episodes frequently unravel into sequences of pure surrealism, focus excessively on utterly banal moments or feature random scenes that don’t ever connect to the bigger picture. But if you possess even a passing knowledge of Lynch’s oeuvre, then this should come as no surprise. He is not so much a filmmaker as a magician who transports his audience into his dreams, and that is exactly why it can be almost impossible to critique his work. The man has made art that I love and art that I hate, but I find it extremely difficult to explain why, for instance, I love the original “Twin Peaks” in spite of its flaws, but “Lost Highway” leaves me feeling utterly cold. As a viewer, you either connect with any given project of his or you don’t; some people have labeled “The Return” revolutionary while others have expressed utter disdain. Frankly, I understand both reactions. I found myself somewhere in the middle while watching, perpetually fascinated yet deeply frustrated.
The greatest source of my frustration was the show’s overall lack of humanity. In the original series, and especially in the prequel film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” the surreal and supernatural elements in the story are used as metaphors. The demon BOB, for example, is a manifestation of mankind’s capacity for evil. This character is used to great effect to explore themes of grief, rape, incest, self-loathing and hatred. To some extent, “The Return” reinforces this idea when it depicts BOB’s birth from the atomic bomb. But the show never goes any further than that; it never explores what precisely makes the atomic bomb mankind’s greatest evil or how that evil has real-world implications. Instead, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost often appear to be interested in the surrealism of their supernatural mythology purely for the sake of surrealism. Thus, the entire show feels largely stripped of humanity, barring a few nostalgic callbacks and tributes to deceased actors.
And this might not be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Cooper is practically catatonic and mistaken for an insurance agent named Dougie Jones during the majority of the runtime. I understand that Lynch and Frost are trying to subvert fan expectations, but in the process, they have removed an essential element that made the original series work. Cooper once famously said, “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.” He was always excited by the mysterious and unknown, and as a result, encouraged the audience to embrace the show’s unusual vision rather than shy away from it. Without Cooper’s presence, “The Return” lacks that necessary anchor.
All of this is not to say that I didn’t appreciate anything about “The Return.” As frustrating as I found the aforementioned “Dougie” subplot, I also admired it. It’s designed to make die-hard fans scream in frustration, and I respect Lynch and Frost for that. There is some irony here because “The Return” may be mostly devoid of humanity and emotions, but it is extremely effective at manipulating the viewer’s emotional state. It refuses to be experienced passively, forcing you to run the gamut from frustration to boredom to glee to fear to nostalgia to anger to bewilderment. No show in recent memory has made me yell and laugh and cry and gasp at my computer screen as often as “The Return.” I mean that as a compliment.
Moreover, the show certainly has plenty of superb individual elements, even if they don’t always add up to a satisfying whole. Kyle MacLachlan deserves an Emmy for three incredibly nuanced performances as Cooper, “Dougie” and the doppelganger. Lynch’s direction is undeniably captivating, and what little we hear of Angelo Badalamenti’s music is stunning. Moreover, some of the additions to the Twin Peaks mythology are genuinely intriguing, and I love the way the ending reinforces the show’s central theme: The forces of evil may be destined to win, but that’s only more reason for the forces of good to fight back.
Undoubtedly some Lynch fans will accuse me of being too “mainstream” and “not getting” the director’s genius. But, in the case of Lynch, I don’t think you ever necessarily “get it.” Sometimes his hallucinatory visions connect with you on a subconscious level, and sometimes they don’t. I may not have connected with “Twin Peaks: The Return,” but does that mean I wish it were any different? Of course not! Because then I’d also have to wish that Lynch himself was somehow different. Yes, occasionally his work makes me want to slam my head against a wall, but I forgive him because I respect his refusal to play by any rules other than his own. His stubbornness as an artist has led to projects like “Eraserhead” and “Mulholland Drive;” they’re weird and indescribable, and that’s precisely why I love them. If not loving a project like “The Return” is the price I have to pay, then so be it.
With all that in mind, this review will go without a traditional numerical rating. In the case of Lynch, such an evaluation feels useless and nonsensical. Never change, you beautiful lunatic. The world would be a lesser place for it.