Theme and Variation

Sarah Nicole Prickett on Episodes 6 & 7 of Twin Peaks: The Return

Conrad Tao's mashup of Britney Spear's 2003 song “Everytime” with Angelo Badalamenti's theme for Twin Peaks.

THE SECOND-BEST USE of “Falling” outside the original Twin Peaks is on the fourth hour of Twin Peaks: The Return. Those vespertine keyboard notes, which used to go off with the regularity of an egg timer at an all-day diner, are saved until the moment you stop listening for them, and then: Officer Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) sees the portrait of Laura Palmer at the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department and cries like he’s never cried in his life. He cries like he’s never seen the very first episode of Twin Peaks, the one where everybody—hilariously—cries, or like he’s on a Twin Peaks–themed Saturday Night Live skit. Only Bobby, the former football star and de facto ex-boyfriend to the homecoming queen, also the first and most innocent suspect in her murder, would get in on the joke twenty-seven years late.

The first-best use of “Falling” is in a demented mashup with the sad Britney Spears song “Everytime” (2003), made for fun by the composer Conrad Tao. Mashups are not often taste-affirming, but this one stays on your tongue: a razor blade in an apple baked into a tart, served with vanilla ice cream as cold as love (colder than death). I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of Britney being Laura, had only thought of her being Lolita, but duh. A Pitchfork writer did think of it: Tom Ewing, in a post about how her 2007 album Blackout sounds straight from the Black Lodge, wrote that “Palmer’s story is cliché—sour secrets of the suburban everygirl, virginal beauty off the rails—but it’s a cliché we have an endless appetite for: Witness the fascination with Britney Spears, and her messy life.” The exploding star’s “surrender of identity from track to track… to make individual songs more disorientating and thrilling” expresses what made Twin Peaks great, and “it wasn’t the central good-girl-gone-bad story, it was the strangeness liberated by the story.”

Britney co-wrote “Everytime” to get her boyfriend back. “Cry Me a River,” a massive hit for the single Justin Timberlake, turned rumors of her infidelity into widespread knowledge, and where another starlet (Mariah Carey then, Selena Gomez now) would have one-upped the allegations in a good-riddance banger, Britney, a heartbreakingly literal reader, responded in tears. Her concept for the music video, directed by David LaChapelle, involved an overdose, a drowning, and a reincarnation as a baby, but the record label wouldn’t let her die. (They should have hired our David.) The baby appeared as a more ambiguous symbol of rebirth, but seemed rather a harbinger: Within a year she was Mrs. Federline, and within three she was a barefoot, soon-to-be-single mom of two boys. She sold her Hollywood Hills mansion to Brittany Murphy, who lived there until she died in 2010. She bought and sold places in Malibu and New York City, then bought but could never resell a place on the edge of Mulholland Drive, a locale like “the lip of a pit, a vertiginous fall into destruction,” a Rolling Stone writer said. Though she did everything to stop being desirable, gaining weight, shaving her head, she was no less wanted (dead or alive). The Associated Press had twenty-two staffers on the Britney beat, and had her obituary prewritten. Dark nights she drove like Princess Di’s driver on Mulholland, daring paparazzi to finish the job. “I don’t know who you think I am, bitch,” Britney snapped at some fan at the mall, “but I’m not that person.” Paris Hilton nicknamed her “The Animal.”

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3.

Lynch likes to dance around the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, a famous thought experiment wherein a cat occupies a box, concealed from the viewer, containing death-triggers arranged to give it a fifty-fifty chance of survival, so that Kitty is both dead or alive, or either, until we look inside. Martha P. Nochimson, in her 2013 survey of quantum physics in his later films, David Lynch Swerves, suggests that while Schrödinger didn’t think the cat could be both, Lynch does. While making Eraserhead (1977), Lynch obtained a cat’s corpse from a veterinarian on the condition that the cat not appear, or be recognizable, in the film; we have never been told how he honored this condition, but it’s easy to think that the cat, preserved in formaldehyde, then dissected, helped form the inhuman baby birthed at the end. In The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), the bestselling tie-in written by a twenty-two-year-old Jennifer Lynch, we read that the day Laura’s cat got run over (“I can’t believe someone could hit a cat like that, right in the middle of the day, and not tell someone”) turned into the night she first had sex, and felt black and hot and nowhere near good inside, sure as a teen can be that no one knew who she really was. Lynch, after Twin Peaks, has brought heroines from Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) to Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) ever closer to “superposition”—that is, being at once dark and light, particle and antiparticle, unknowing which form is her particular, original one.

The sixth and seventh hours of The Return bring us a long-missing piece of Laura’s diary, found by Hawk as the Lady’s Log predicted: in a funny, flimsy string of coincidences (a coin rolls under a bathroom stall door, a crack appears in the door) that signal his heritage. Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) holds a page to the camera and reads aloud a dream in which Annie Blackburn, played by Heather Graham on Twin Peaks, and Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) are in the Black Lodge. Annie says that the real (good) Cooper can’t get out. This dream belongs to a future long gone and is the closest we’ve gotten to finding out how Annie’s doing. Laura wrote out her death before it happened. Maybe she also wrote her reincarnation. Reading along, we see that Truman skips one word, after the name Annie, in brackets: me??!!! Laura had never been seen in the same room as Annie, who spent five years in a convent after trying suicide, and Cooper only came to Twin Peaks after Laura was killed.

Graham was introduced to the show’s second season because Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Laura’s best friend Donna, was dating MacLachlan, and was annoyed by his on-screen romance with Sherilyn Fenn, who was already the fan favorite, as Audrey Horne. The show gave in, and Cooper got a girlfriend his own age. But Lynch as usual is getting his way in the end. Neither Boyle nor Graham is present or accounted for in The Return, while Sheryl Lee’s Laura appears in one form or another every hour, and Fenn’s reappearance has been promised at least a dozen times. As I’m given to wonder whether Laura is alive, whether she was Annie all along, or Annie her, I can hear Donna screaming in the cemetery: “You’re gone, Laura, but your problems keep hanging around! It’s almost like they didn’t bury you deep enough!”

Maybe the absence of Graham and Boyle isn’t so deep. Both actresses are a little too available, and would be dated and outclassed next to two arrivals: Watts, who has never looked stronger, and Dern. Both stars ascended via Lynch, and both do credible impressions of the boy scout from Missoula, with Dern emphasizing his backwards charm and vivifying, in-your-face ebullience, Watts his obstinate, encouraging screech.

Watts retains a trace sour-sweetness of that impression in her turn as Janey-E Jones, the long-suffering wife of Dougie, or Cooper, fending off anyone who’d make him suffer, too. There are the men to whom he owes a major gambling debt. Then there are the men, presumably hired by the vile Mr. C, also Cooper, who think his debt is eternal. When three indistinguishable policemen arrive at the offices of Lucky 777 Insurance with some questions about Dougie’s missing car, Janey-E is there to answer for him. Policeman number two asks if there’s a reason Dougie didn’t report it stolen. “Reason? Yeah, I’ll tell you a reason,” she snaps. “There’s more to life than cars.” Watts has a face so fine-formed as to convey a barely suppressed laughter at how mad she is, while getting still madder. “What were you going to do, break his legs?” she says when the bookies tell her how much Dougie owes. “Fifty thousand dollars is more than anyone can make, let alone with a broken leg.” They will take the twenty-eight grand Janey-E gives them, and they will be grateful. “Tough dame,” says one to the other.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).

“She’s a tough cookie, always has been,” says FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch) to his right-hand man Albert (Miguel Ferrara), thinking in admiration of Cooper’s ex-secretary, played by Dern. The actress is hardly recognizable when for the first time ever we see the mythic Diane, mid-forties, in a silver-white, obvious wig, with a freshly lit cigarette; it’s the way she holds it, tall and accusatory, that gives her away. In Dern’s second film with Lynch, the horrifying romantic comedy Wild at Heart (1990), she and her costar, Nicholas Cage, smoked constantly in so pronounced a fashion that the cigarettes were like tiny signal flares spelling out messages. Then as now, Dern looked hot from spitting distance, and up close, molten. “I like a woman who talks tough and… fucks like a bunny,” says Bobby Peru, a Latino gangster type whose middle name is Problematiqué, played in Wild at Heart by a moustachio’d Willem Dafoe, before he zanily rapes her.

What we know of Diane’s relationship to Cooper is very little, but what we remember best of Cooper was given straight to Diane. “Diane, I’m looking at a small box of chocolate bunnies,” or “I’m eating a wonderful cherry pie,” or “I’ve got to find out what these trees are,” the agent would say into his tape recorder, and the secretary, who would have been college-aged, got the tapes in the mail. One night after Cooper returned as other than himself, he went to see Diane and something happened. We better pray it wasn’t rape, which unlike murder can happen to you more than once, a statistical truth that eludes male filmmakers who treat it as life-changing, a breaking point.

Whatever it was, it’s enough. Cooper is imprisoned in the Dakotas? “Good.” The FBI needs her to see whether it’s really Cooper? “Fuck you, Gordon,” she says to Gordon. “Fuck you, Albert,” she says to Albert. A youngish female agent who, with her black patent pumps and pencil skirts, is given little actual work, tries to talk to Diane, and Diane politely asks her name: Tammy (Chrysta Bell). “Fuck you,” she says. “Tammy.” (Bell reacts as usual, blinking and widening her eyes and rolling her head, like a sexbot being reprogrammed. Everyone seems to agree that Tammy should get fucked.)

Diane’s scorn for older men and the babes who go along with them is insufficient to stop her curiosity, and she goes along too to South Dakota, dressed like a wonder. Her tight-fitted top looks sewn from the faux-silk leaves of a Christmas poinsettia. Her nails are painted each a different color, to match her outfit. Earrings rhyme on her ears. False lashes look like upended garden rakes. She carries a tapestried bag, a leopard-skin jacket, and a mini-bottle of vodka, bangles clattering with each unconcealed swig. After seeing the real bad Cooper, she can only drink more.

“It isn’t time passing,” Diane says in a sob to Gordon Cole. Actually, what she says, in her breaking lines, is like the bridge and the chorus in a plangent pop song.

It isn’t time passing
Or how he’s changed
Or the way he looks

It’s something here…
It’s something that definitely isn’t here

Jennifer Lynch did her own impression of David in her debut feature film, Boxing Helena (1993), starring Fenn as what else, a beautiful woman, held captive and amputated by a plastic surgeon (Bill Paxton). Lynch’s mom had a replica of the Venus de Milo in her living room, and both son and granddaughter were fascinated. Lynch Sr., in early hours of The Return, gave us a Venus in the Red Room with one arm disappearing and reappearing, perhaps corresponding to the new inhuman strength in Cooper’s arm, one trait shared by Mr. C and Dougie. Lynch Jr., interviewed in 2012, said she grew up noticing “people didn’t see [the Venus] as broken, they saw her as beautiful.” Inspirational quotes aside, it’s not very original to put a chick in a box, and Boxing Helena unpacked its metaphors clumsily, lacked brilliance, facetiousness. Still, had this been a Lynch or Cronenberg movie in that same year, there would have been protests and feminist remonstrations and bad, angry reviews, but with the apposite consequence, the devil-advocated redemption in cult status. A daughter who wants to please men and herself at the same time tends to seem less desirous than needy, and anyone’s open needs are hard to see (e.g. in Lynch’s Blue Velvet [1986], I find it harder to watch Isabella Rossellini beg to be held than to watch her be raped).

Elders who fail their children are a constant, discordant theme on Twin Peaks, cranked to eleven on The Return. Coop as Dougie bonds with Dougie’s son in a moment like the one in Paris, Texas (1984), when the man played by Harry Dean Stanton, having wandered for seven years in the desert and forgotten his name, reunites with his eight-year-old son. In The Return, Carl Rodd (also Harry Dean Stanton, now like a hundred years old) sits on a bench and sees a little kid, playing tag with his mother, get hit by a truck on the run. As the boy dies a gold mist rises upward, where a certain telephone pole, significant in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), bears the number six. Another boy is nearly blasted to bits by the car bomb planted for Dougie, while at home his drug-addicted mother (Hailey Benton Gates), chants 119 like 911 backwards.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).

Lynch uses numerological phenomena more for effect, and for a generalized sense of consequentiality, than for narrative’s sake. “In real life, there is no algebra,” said Audrey Horne twenty-seven years ago. “In evil, as in dreams, there are not multiple interpretations,” said Simone Weil before that. Lynch solves for evil, plain and simple. His relentless sensationalization of human-on-human crime serves an upbeat message, which is that violence is bad, and when violence is worse than bad, gratuitous, that too is the point. He refuses to lessen evil by making sense of it. Innocence heightens his propaganda, but whether a harmed child or woman, or less often a man, was ever that innocent doesn’t matter to his conception of harm-doing, the underlying fault. (That the man Leland Palmer killed was a lowlife suspected in his daughter’s death made no difference to Cooper: “Do you approve of murder, Doctor Hayward?” Lynch is not a doctor. He can’t stomach explanations. Nor is he a math man.)

At the end of the seventh hour of The Return, a guy sweeps the floor at a familiar roadhouse, owned by the Renaults. For two minutes and ten seconds, there’s only the sweeping. A phone rings. A Renault (Walter Olkewicz) answers, and hears that some exaggeration of fate has befallen two young prostitutes who report to him, girls who are definitely of age, definitely not a problem, he says, “two fifteen-year-old, straight-A whores.” I guess I shouldn’t be laughing. One reason Lynch gets away with his treatment of women is that the women aren’t crazy nor understood as such. Almost no one is crazy in his “strange worlds,” to quote MacLachlan and Dern in Blue Velvet, yet when specifically female characters are sane against the odds, women notice and grin. Being insane in this world is only natural, not an excuse. Britney knew, and didn’t pretend her beloved self was the real one, so that now when she’s a good mom, happy in pictures, she is also—at best—half here, half disappeared on Mulholland.

Who are we when we’re not ourselves? Who else could we possibly be? Lynch takes this possibility seriously. Who are you, screamed Laura at BOB, the killer possessing her dad, or maybe her real dad. Who are you, screams Diane at Mr. Cooper, perhaps the new BOB. Everyone wants to hear that evil is inhuman. Who wants to hear the answer: Me??!! So the answer’s withheld.

PS: It has to be said, and should have been said earlier, that I hate this show. I resent it; it takes over my mind. Walking through quondam neighborhoods of mine in New York, I notice that a mediocre French restaurant I loved, while looking exactly the same, has been renamed The Black Lodge. An ex-lover who doesn’t like the internet, doesn’t read my writing, and didn’t know there was a new Twin Peaks sent a text to say he just watched Blue Velvet and “for some reason” thought of me. (Maybe he goes on my Instagram.) A publishing house sends me a novel, The Incest Diary, anonymously penned by a woman who was raped—who seduced, she says sometimes, or let herself be screwed—by her father. Ray Wise, who plays Leland Palmer, once said of Lynch that “his take on life is weird because life is weird.” I always have looked for echoes.

A man using the name “David Lynch” starts emailing me from Washington, DC, where he runs a small bookstore and reads everything he can about Twin Peaks. At first he seems interested in discourse, accuses my reviews of having “more red herrings than the show.” When I stop responding, he sends plaintive follow-ups: “kitten?”

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10
Episodes 11 & 12
Episodes 13, 14, & 15
Episode 16
Episodes 17 & 18 (January 2018)

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.