“Whoa! What is that thing?” asks the illicit visitor (Madeline Zima) to a super-secret room.
“A glass box,” answers her host (Ben Rosenfield).
“Yeah, but what’s it for?”
That’s the obvious question, and it’s one many people are asking after tonight’s Twin Peaks’ premiere. But there might not be an obvious answer—or any answer at all.
It is happening again, but perhaps not the way you remembered… or thought you did.
In the decades since it bowled over an adoring, obsessed, and often bewildered audience, Twin Peaks has lived on in the public imagination, but often reduced to a curio. Despite the multi-faceted, genre-embracing, genre-defying mélange the show was was, Twin Peaks nostalgia can too easily cut down the series to its tics, sentimentalizing it as a quirky buffet of cherry pie, doughnuts, and damn fine coffee, a campy mix of soap opera and police procedural laced with metaphysics. Twin Peaks was all those things, but it was more.
In a show full of death and otherworldly dread, champions like Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), and Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse) stood as a bulwark against the evil that seeks to consume us. There’s comfort in that idea, and comfort in the cozy, small-town trappings of Twin Peaks—both the town and the series. That comfort is what audiences often latched onto. But it’s a mistake to get too comfortable in the world of Twin Peaks, where even the floor under your feet can give way without warning.
In the uncompromising two-episode premiere of Twin Peaks’ revival, that comfort is almost entirely eschewed. Sure, there are glimpses of comfortable old faces and hints at comfortable old stories. Hawk, now Deputy Chief, is as stalwart as ever. His steady, patient calm is even more affecting when he’s engaged in conversation with Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson, who shot her sequences before she died in 2015). Heartbreakingly frail but still determined, Margaret relays messages from her log more gently than ever before. Watching their intercut (and likely entirely separately staged) phone calls, it seems clear everyone involved knew that Hawk and Margaret’s “goodnight”s were really goodbyes. (The premiere is dedicated to the memory of Coulson and Frank Silva, who played Bob.)
Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and his now-wife Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) are just as chattery and distractible as ever. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) has moved from his Hawaii-themed home to a trailer in the woods, where he’s shown receiving a delivery of shovels—lots of shovels. Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) still presides over The Great Northern, while Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly) has moved into the newly legal and highly lucrative field of marijuana cultivation. When her friends poke fun at James Hurley (James Marshall) at the Bang Bang Bar, Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) defends him: “James is still cool. He’s always been cool.” Even Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) makes an appearance, pleading with Cooper to save his daughter Laura (Sheryl Lee), who—in her own words—is dead, “yet I live.”
But much of “The Return, Parts 1 & 2” is unfiltered Lynchian vision, unfettered from the structures of soap operas, police procedurals, or thrillers that gave shape to the first few original outings into Twin Peaks. It’s brazen in its patience, in its long, uncomfortable takes and unexplained mysteries. It’s unsparing in showing how cruel and calculating people—friends! husbands! wives!—can be to each other. It’s punctuated with pure nightmare imagery (and sound, holy hell, the sound of this show!) reminiscent of Mulholland Drive’s eerie second half or the sustained surreality and howling anguish of Inland Empire.
These two episodes are stripped of the bucolic charm that leavens Twin Peaks’ earliest chapters. Instead of Coop inhaling greedily and exclaiming over the Douglas firs, we see Hawk walking through the forest to an unknown destination, his flashlight picking out only a few trees at a time while the woods loom up around him. The closest we get to damn fine coffee and the best cherry pie in the tri-counties is Margaret inviting Hawk over after he’s finished his trek… and he never does make that stop for pie and coffee.
Instead of staying in Twin Peaks, the action cuts between far-flung locations—and I do mean far. (“You are far away,” The Giant [Carel Struycken] tells Dale Cooper in the series-opening black-and-white sequence.) In The Red Room, where words get garbled and time is out of joint, Cooper waits. There he’s visited by Mike (Al Strobel), who asks “Is it future or is it past?” and revisited by Laura Palmer more than 25 years after he—and we—last saw her, just as she promised.
In Buckhorn, South Dakota, high school principal Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard) is arrested for an especially grotesque murder. “Don’t worry,” he assures his wife, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” But as he’s questioned by the police detective who’s also his life-long friend, Hastings’ composure disintegrates along with his alibi. Lillard gives a great reading, foreboding dropping over him like a blanket, as he mumbles an excuse about time unaccounted for: “There was something wrong with her… car. Something wrong.”
Meanwhile, Coop’s doppelgänger, possessed by Bob, strides through a seedy underworld, unflinchingly enforcing his will. Dale Cooper was always deeper (and darker) than the cheerful square with a ready smile and an unexpected strain of occult intuition he sometimes seems, but it’s jarring to see Dark Coop, with his lizard-skin shirt and his weather-beaten skin and his cold, assessing eyes. Cooper’s unyielding acumen and unfailing vigor were backed up by virtue and compassion even for the most debased criminals. To see that perception and power without the warmth that animates Coop’s eyes, without the humanity that deepens but never softens his dedication, is chilling. This version of Dale Cooper is single-minded, deliberate, and entirely without mercy.
The most mystifying action takes place in New York City. There, in a single dark building along the glittering skyline, that young worker (in the credits, and only in the credits, he’s named as Sam Colby) spends long shifts watching a massive glass box and filing away the footage from the many cameras pointed at it. The ostentatious presence of the cameras in this desolate room, and the young couple’s (initially) patient, vacant stares at them are obviously a remark upon the creation and the consumption of television and film. Not a celebration, not necessarily an indictment. Just a representation.
Bill Hastings’ interrogation is a less showy but equally smart play on that image. In the cell, a camera blinks its red light ceaselessly in the corner. Not even the presence of his fishing buddy, Det. Dave Mackley (Brent Briscoe), could realistically lull Bill Hastings into forgetting his every word—and just as important, every hesitation–is being recorded. But outside the interrogation room, a cluster of cops stand, watching him agonize and speculating over whether he’s been sweating long enough. When one of them interrupts his questioning by speaking over the intercom, Hastings jumps, realizing he’s been observed unawares the whole time.
And then there’s the one lonely glimpse of Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), still living in that big house, surrounded by bottles and dirty dishes, still filling ashtray after ashtray, a nature program playing on her television. Far from recoiling from its violence, Sarah’s riveted, her eyes avidly seeking the screen even as she feels around for her drink. As the camera pans away from the screen, we still see the bloody attack reflected in the mirrors behind her. Whatever else it is about, the return of Twin Peaks promises to be about television and film as surely as Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are. That glass box itself is shaped like a rudimentary camera, with its aperture pointing out over the city, into the night.
I never talk about the grade. I choose not to talk about the grade. I refuse to talk about the grade. There’s an unspoken pressure not to talk about the grade, because to talk about the grade is to seem to justify the grade, and to justify the grade suggests uncertainty. The grade is the grade and the review is the review and that’s that.
I’m going to talk about the grade.
I gave “The Return, Parts 1 & 2” As—no minus, no quibbling, no nothin’. This two-part premiere is going to be wildly difficult for any two people to agree upon, in part because a viewer’s assessment of the revival will depend upon what they hoped for. If you were looking forward to a return of the sometimes campy, sometimes cozy humor of the original two seasons of Twin Peaks, this premiere could come as a shock. If you were anticipating that once jolting, now familiar blend of genres, this is… not that.
But as the follow-up film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me shows, along with its humor and character studies, co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost’s peek under the surface of small-town life is one of the darkest stories ever told on network TV. That darkness, as much as the illuminating light of its charm and humor, is what defines Twin Peaks, and sustains it so intensely that it can rouse a frenzy of interest—and not just from die-hard fans—26 years later.
If you, like me, had heard whispers that this revival was going to be Lynch’s vision almost entirely unconstrained by network notes–if you, like me, were buckled in for two hours of uncompromising surrealism and horror, this premiere delivered. Like that young, horny dummy hired to watch a giant contraption of glass and steel without asking what it’s for, I am content to watch that glass box and see what appears. Unlike him, I get to stay safe on the other side of the glass… but Lynch is one of the few directors who can make me feel like I’m not. Not safe, and not on the other side of the glass.
There’s a popular enthusiasm for “solving” Lynch’s narratives, treating the outré and the obscure as puzzle pieces to fit together, and I admit I enjoy creeping down the rabbit holes of those possibilities. But I think at his best, David Lynch creates work that both tempts and defies clear-cut interpretation.
So. We’re supposed to watch this glass box and see if anything appears inside.
Something has; something will. Odds are, we won’t be told why these things appear, not in a clear, explicit explanation. Instead, we might get a series of nightmares, or a series of dreams. We might get a narrative divided, like Mulholland Drive, that dances tantalizingly close to being explicable but dissolves again when you look at the details up close. We might get a series of interconnected vignettes, like the hauntingly arcane Inland Empire. We might get more of the Eraserhead-style visions of featured in this episode, as Cooper confronts “the evolution of the arm” in the guise of a wavering branch with a fleshy lump of sentience atop it. Whatever we get, however lucid or cryptic it is, I am eager to watch it, nightmares and all. As Tracy says—and it’s the smartest thing she says in her brief life onscreen—“Let’s not overthink this opportunity.”
- Brent Briscoe, who plays Dave, is also Det. Domgaard, the second-banana cop investigating the car crash in Mulholland Drive. “Could be someone’s missing, maybe.”
- “Bill, is there anything else that you would like to tell me before we get the lawyer involved?” The answer to that is always, always no, folks.
- “We’re not supposed to say anything about this place or that glass box.” You’re doing a bang-up job, kid.
- David Lynch loves a time loop, and so do I: I laughed out loud when the episode looped back to Tracy and her nameless crush wondering where the security guard went.