CORRECTION: I SAID “WE CAN GUESS” that Miriam’s letter, bearing witness to Richard Horne’s (Eamon Farren) manslaughter of a boy, would make its way to the sheriff and would be believed. But she is not dead—yet. Emerging on all fours from the woods, she is found and taken to the emergency room, where she, uninsured, requires a life-saving operation. Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) delivers the update to Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), who says he will pay for it. A bad thought arrives: He could pull a Leland Palmer and suffocate the witness at her bedside. But from now on, “we” will refrain from guessing.
Coma and exposition are two of the several tricks that David Lynch (and Mark Frost, inspired by the ’60s show Peyton Place) borrows from soap operas, where comas provide suspense without camerawork, and sending a messenger to advance the plot is cheap. The borrowing is purposeful, but unnecessary: Twin Peaks: The Return has a budget to dwarf that of the 1990–91 Twin Peaks, and it has shelved the soap we saw there, a show within a show, Invitation to Love. Replacing its communal pulse is Dr. Jacoby’s alt-reality webcast, which keeps time for us: Two or three of its hours equals one day on Twin Peaks. “It’s seven o’clock,” the show begins. “Do you know where your freedom is?” This week’s monologue gets repetitious:
And the fucks are at it again! These giant multinational corporations are filled with monstrous vermin, poisonous, vile murderers, and they eat, drink, and shit money. They buy our politicians for a song. Then these fucking politicians sing as we gag and cough, sold down the river to die. Fuck you who betray the people you were elected to help, elected to work to help to make life better for.
Once a Reaganite, Lynch is changing the tune, in keeping—uncharacteristically—with the current-affairs beat. Tricky to say where his heart lies, but his hearing aid is tuned to the outcry at a new, buzzy pitch. He’s never been this attentive to the miserabilist vagaries of dead-end life, like at the Fat Trout Trailer Park where Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) is not only the manager but also the show’s moral compass. He hands cash to a resident who, troubled with rent, has been selling his blood plasma to the hospital. (Being Canadian, I did not know this was something you could do.) “I don’t like people selling their blood to eat,” Rodd says in the show’s most affecting and tweetable line since Agent Gordon Cole (Lynch) told “those clown comics” to “fix their hearts or die.” The handsome doctor, a melodramaturgical fixture whose role is partly to cure boredom, is no more present than the handsome Agent Cooper, or maybe he too is replaced by Dr. Jacoby. “He’s beautiful,” sighs Nadine with the eyepatch, watching on her desktop from Run Silent, Run Drapes, her too-silent drape store.
Irna Phillips, the “single mother” of American soap operas, began as a daytime dramatist on the radio, with Today’s Children (1933–50), and her resounding success came because she read listeners’ letters. Robert LaGuardia wrote in Soap World (1983) of Phillips’s belief in “time and character, rather than story,” her sense that “people want to become involved with the lives of other people; that viewers follow soaps not just to see what happens next, but to experience—drink in, as it were—the characters, almost as if they lived in the viewers’ homes.” Characters on the shows she wrote for television, including As the World Turns, lived by “moment-to-moment emotions, expressed to each other in quiet scenes.”
Drink in, drink full. Time and character, in their enormous codependency, drive The Return. At last, at the start of the twelfth episode, it’s stated clearly—clearly for Lynch; I assume Frost wrote the scene—that the roads we are traveling bend back, like Laura Palmer’s arms. Limning the origin of the Blue Rose Task Force, Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) says it’s possible that “these answers” (unpreceded, often, by actual questions) “could not be reached except by an alternate path we’ve been traveling ever since.” He seems to mean “alternative,” but what he says is “alternate.” Another soap-opera trick is having a single actor play a good and an evil twin, but here the splitting occurs in a single character, too: Cooper, obviously. Laura, less so.
And Audrey? Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), so singular as a precocious teenager, makes her hotly awaited return not in the eleventh hour, where I expected her, but three-quarters through the twelfth, after a sudden jump cut. She just stands there, and presents as another of the show’s shrill, dispossessed wives: Janey-E (Naomi Watts), wife of Dougie (Kyle MacLachlan); Doris Truman (Candy Clark), who has been in a petty rage since losing her son to suicide; and Sylvia Horne (Jan D’Arcy), ex-wife of Ben and mother, or babysitter, to the disabled Johnny (Erik Rondell). Audrey’s damage is unclear, but we found out in part seven that, after an explosion at the Twin Peaks Savings and Loan, she—like Ronnette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) before her—landed in a coma for some unspecified time, and was visited by Cooper in one or the other of his forms.
Audrey tongue-thrashes her tiny husband (Clark Middleton) for not helping her find her lover, a sober farmer named Billy; and her husband calls a woman she despises, maybe his own lover. This bathetic scene goes on for like forty-five minutes (actually ten), and if Fenn is reprising any character, it’s that of Anna Nardini, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and a sort of evil twin to Lorelai, on Gilmore Girls (2003–2007), in which she also played a totally separate character. The eyebrows and the maraschino lips are there, but something is glazed and doughy in her face, like she’s just been unwrapped from plastic; and some expressiveness has been lost, maybe to the needle. Ditto in the face of MacLachlan. Maybe they’re both frozen in time, and will awake if they kiss. But he does seem evil, and mostly she seems disappointed. Her new characterization spits in the face of her old image—her teenage, dreamy, indefatigable manner and perfervid will to seduce—and of the men (on both sides of the screen) who bought into it. That or more simply: Precocity doesn’t age well.
It’s sad, in any case, but Fenn’s out-of-place performance makes you appreciate the other ones. Even Ashley Judd, playing Ben’s desired assistant, Beverly, seems to have a new, sly ripple in her flattish affect. Likewise with the amateur Chrysta Bell, who plays the FBI’s Tammy Preston with an advanced robotism, but who also displays a surprising range of expression—her facial muscles make the battle to control emotion into a cubist dilemma, or as Don DeLillo would say, her face is avant-garde—when she reacts to a dangerous promotion: She will work with Albert on the Blue Rose Task Force, a latter-day replacement for the disappeared Cooper. The former members of the force, and its forerunner, Project Blue Book, are mostly dead or missing; and William Hastings, the layman who got physically closest to the metaphysical origins of the mystery, finds his head exploded (crushed by a Woodsman, invisible to the others) when he takes the agents and Diane to the dilapidated tract at 2240 Sycamore, where he first found the portal. Any scene can be stolen by Diane, who has the advantage of being played by Laura Dern: casually, brilliantly. “There’s no backup for this,” she whispers, peering through the windshield into the car at Hastings’s mutilated body while the agents recoil.
Lynch exacts in every episode, more noticeably in the recent, quieter ones, these little ariosos that balloon, change shape, and deflate. At the Double R Diner, we watch with Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) as drama unfolds among Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), her daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried), and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), who turns out to be Becky’s dad. Norma’s expressions shift dramatically but none are scrutable. She watches what is happening as if she were remembering it a decade from now. When Shelly’s new crime-boss boyfriend (Balthazar Getty) shows up outside the diner, appearing with his own neo-noirish lighting in his greasy leather, she seems to disappear in a flash, and, on the other side of the glass, rematerialize as her old teen self. Shelly’s glittering transition dissolves into the old Bobby’s feeling crushed as he sees her in love, and Becky instantly wises up to see him not as her father, for a second, but as a fellow broken romantic. Ashbrook and Seyfried could play those dogs with eyes the size of teacups and water wheels in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and their companionship too is doglike, hushed.
Back in the Dakotas, Jennifer Jason Leigh thrills as the gum-smacking, laconic Chantal, henchwoman to Evil Coop, opposite the equally white-trash henchman, Tim Roth’s Hutch. Near the end of episode twelve, Hutch shoots to kill a man—Warden Dwight Murphy (James Morrison)—and Chantal, driving the getaway van while watching Murphy die in front of his child (Luke Judy), licks Cheeto dust from her index finger, seeming to enjoy the orangey tang more than the sight of blood, which makes it sicker. “Next stop: Wendy’s,” says Hutch. Sky Ferreira, the very modern bombshell with an ash-in-ice-cream voice, appears at the Roadhouse at the end of episode nine as one of the locals who, with their unrecurring, relatively heterogenous appearances, make a jangling chorus. She’s a chick on methamphetamine, scratching horribly for too long at a rash in her armpit. She got fired from a burger joint, but it’s okay because she has a new job. Where? asks her friend, and she grins with the reply, At another burger joint. Ferreira has never looked worse, making the before-seen single mom on heroin (Hailey Benton Gates) look like a heroin addict in a Calvin Klein ad.
When I said the web was a substitute for the dream-world, I did not add that being online feels less phantasmagoric and venturesome as we professionalize, try to grow up, and play limited versions of ourselves. Compared to the nightmarish, as they say, state of the world, online feels lighter, more banal, and, at its worst, somehow mere, like being stuck in an anxiety dream. Timelines—on Twitter, Instagram—are rearranged to show us what we already know to see. There is constant refreshing, getting nowhere. It’s like that––or like opening the fridge for the seventeenth time, only to find the same undesirable yogurts––every time Cooper as Dougie wanders on-screen. The eleventh hour threatens to be his last, as the Mitchum Brothers plot to end him, having lost to him in jackpots and again in a bid to collect, from his insurance company, a thirty-million-dollar payment for arson. I could yell through the screen: Wake up! You’re going to die a meme.
But one of the brothers, Bradley (James Belushi), has a dream and, unlike real dreams, it predicts the day. He remembers it bit by bit as the day catches up, and this for Lynch is a clever, if not new, way to build suspense. On a one-way road into the desert, in what looks like an homage to the endgame of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Dougie arrives with a box; should the box hold what it did in Bradley’s dream, the brothers will have to forgive Mr. Jackpots. Ding ding ding, the box holds a cherry pie. Table for three, at the Silver Mustang Casino: “Damn good,” says the other brother digging in, and “Damn good,” says Dougie, sounding more like Coop. He still might die a meme. ☹️
The single greatest performance of the series so far belongs to Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, unsurprising for this magnificent seventy-six-year-old actress but all the same a shake of the bones. Sarah is buying food she won’t eat and three bottles of Smirnoff at the store, when she sees, behind the cash register, a “new” kind of jerky—turkey jerky, which has existed since Natives were the only Americans—and is rushed by terror, whether of the contents or the packaging, primal symbols. “They” once “came” and are “coming” again, she warns with escalating terror. Maybe she means the Woodsmen, who are a kind of smoked meat incarnate. Or maybe the animals she disconsolately watched maul each other on the Discovery Channel, on a big flat-screen television, in the second hour. That shot has become, for me, the after-image of the show, but any frame of Zabriskie’s untouchable face may trigger the lonesome. Hours after the outburst, a fan whirs monotonously in a lamp-less room and she answers the door as old Sarah, scarier with her cold, hard brow, her low-burning eyes, and her corroded smile suggesting a mettle twisted to bitter ends.
I watched these two episodes on a television like that, huge in a small room, dark, the way Lynch intended. To watch a movie on your phone and “think you’ve seen a film” strikes him as nuts, and to defend phone-watching on the basis that we all have phones, and don’t all have televisions, disinterests me since necessity is not inspiring, nor related to the good. (Besides, the television costs less than the phone.) A character’s face in a close-up on a screen should not appear as if it were in a pocket mirror, or even in a regular mirror. The head should be significantly, alarmingly bigger than yours, and in a portrait shot, from the shoulders up, it should be the size of a clock on the wall. Alternatives, conveniences, begin to suck. On whatever websites, avatars the size of pencil erasers ease our forgetting the obvious, like that the owners of these avatars also have homes, incomprehensible habits, old haunts on certain square miles in a subdivided country, and especially that they have other faces, shaded minutely by expressions never represented in a reaction GIF. “The face is what one cannot kill,” said Emmanuel Levinas, another thinker of otherness, the year I was born. Can representation make us stronger? On The Return, it matters that the stories are disparate, that worlds diverge and are weirdly, sparsely populated, so that the faces do not appear in a crowd.
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s previous recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:
Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.