Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Has Twin Peaks’ James always been cool? The A.V. Club investigates

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime

As always, there’s plenty to unpack in ”Part 13” of Twin Peaks: The Return, an episode that leaned more on the absurd humor side of the show’s aesthetic and less on surreal terror. We’ve got the offscreen drama unfolding exclusively through the use of Looney Toons sound effects at Las Vegas police HQ; the Tarantino-esque banter between Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh (both Tarantino veterans, it should be noted) driving around discussing Mormons between hits and trips to Wendy’s; Nadine’s ongoing obsession with silent drapes and Dougie-Coop’s rediscovery of cherry pie; and, of course, David Lynch’s version of Over The Top as Evil Cooper defeats the boss of a greasy gang of ne’er-do-well white men in an arm-wrestling contest.

That last scene built to one of my favorite bit characters to emerge so far in this new season: The gang accountant in Revenge Of The Nerds-style glasses and sweater vest who asks his new boss Evil Coop, “Do you need any money?”, before fleeing with the rest of his cronies.


Sadly for me, though, the episode also featured one of my least favorite characters from any season: James Hurley, performing that same stupid ”You And I” song he’s apparently been performing for the past 25 years, with two new brunettes singing backup now that Maddy and Donna are out of the picture. I know I’m not alone in my extreme annoyance every time James comes on screen, and accept that the character is designed that way to some extent. But if he was a James Dean wannabe in high school, now he’s a middle-aged James Dean wannabe stuck in high school. And I’m sorry, but that has never been, nor will it ever will be, cool. This is hardly an original take on the character, though. Are you as big of a James hater as I am, Alex? And what about last night’s episode did you like?

[Katie Rife]

The contradiction of how the show views James Hurley, versus how he comes across to the audience, has been built into Twin Peaks since the very beginning. If you go back to those very first episodes, the series has always fancied James as a motorcycle-riding bad boy with the soul of a poet, a rugged tough guy with a smolder supposedly capable of making all the ladies swoon. Conversely, basically everyone I’ve ever met who has watched the series disputes that impression of him, finding the character instead an eye-rolling bore, dopey and uninspired rather than soulful and mysterious. The chasm between these two perspectives has never seemed like something the show acknowledged, or was even all that aware of, given how it doubled down on the sexy-James philosophy in season two, sending him on a road-trip sexcapade largely viewed as one of the nadirs of the series, story-wise. But when actor James Marshall reappeared in the closing moments of part two of the new season, just long for Shelly to give him a warm look and say, “James was always cool,” it seemed like a brief acknowledgment that Lynch and company now know exactly what you think about James, and they don’t give a shit. This is Lynch’s world of retro-’50s cool, and if he likes his motorcycle-riding softie, than damn it, that’s what’s cool. That the character then disappeared for most of the season was beside the point, especially once he turned up last night, breathily crooning his sappy song.

Photo: Showtime

But despite my lack of interest in James, his terrible song, or whatever might have happened in the character’s life during the intervening years, the scene worked for me, though not for reasons having to do with the musical performance. No, it worked largely thanks to Jessica Szohr, the woman watching James from her booth. She’s credited as “Renee,” though we don’t hear her name spoken out loud. She was also in that scene from “Part 2” where Shelly dubbed James perpetually cool, though we don’t know the relationship between these characters. It was a perfect Lynch reaction scene. Like Club Silencio from Mulholland Drive, it works because of the potency of the onscreen reaction to the music. It’s a slow-burn heartbreak: Renee watches the song, and as it progresses tears begin to well up in the corners of her eyes, until by the end they’re streaming down her face, an honest and raw response to James’ song. Who knows if it had to do with some unspoken connection between the two, James’ performance, or the music. (I have a hard time believing it was because of the music, eesh.) What we lock in on is not the stage, but the people watching the stage.


Clayton, you’ve made some strange and muffled noises in the office while Katie and I spoke ill of James Hurley, which makes me think you have a slightly different take on all this. Are you a James superfan? Do you listen to his music of your own volition?

[Alex McLevy]

Reading your two responses, I realize that I have been quietly harboring a “galactic brain” take on James Hurley all these years. Part of this is that I really like “Just You And I.” Sure it’s sappy, but it’s also a Badalamenti/Lynch composition, written while they were creating similarly uncanny pop music for Julee Cruise. Its chord structure is loaded with melancholy, its pace narcotically slow, and there’s a hint of menace to its existence-devouring image of young love. It’d fit right in on Cruise’s Floating Into The Night, not to mention a latter-day Deerhunter or Chromatics record.

But! You don’t have to like the song to like the scene itself, and not just (as you mention, Alex) as another entry in Lynch’s great catalog of “people experiencing unfathomable sadness while watching a performance” scenes. Some of my favorite moments of the season thus far have been when actors are forced to peer into the depths of their character’s—and so their own—pasts. Lynch has been particularly careful in reintroducing the original series’ music. I was similarly affected by the scene in which they reintroduced “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” which rose in all its over-wrought sadness as Bobby walked into a room to see her old case opened back up. You could see a flood of emotion rising in him, a quarter-century crossed in a single second, for the character, and, at least to my eyes, for the actor, too.

There’s something similar in the scene last night of James, haggard and gaunt, his voice breaking and betraying him, hanging onto his long-lost moment singing “Just You And I” with two new dark-haired placeholders. There’s also the fact that in his reintroduction way back on ”Part 2” they didn’t just say he was “always cool,” but that he’d suffered some sort of motorcycle accident. I don’t have much fondness for James’ character, but I found his reintroduction here to be quietly devastating in this light. The guy can’t act, and he definitely can’t sing, but Lynch has always found success by setting actors of wildly varying talent levels up against each other. Here, Hurley’s vacancy is contrasted by Renee’s powerful reaction, and the quietly mournful song they shared spoke volumes.


[Clayton Purdom]

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