Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): TV Countdown - Twin Peaks

Thursday, September 28, 2017

TV Countdown - Twin Peaks


This essay is spoiler-free until noted within the text itself. Readers unfamiliar with Twin Peaks are encouraged to continue up to that point, marked by "***", to build interest.
Fair warning: this is also a very long discussion of a complex series, so you may want to read in installments.

"Twin Peaks is not a TV show." You've probably heard this refrain before, perhaps moderated to "Twin Peaks is not normal television," or, more generously to the medium, "Twin Peaks changed TV forever." However phrased, the essence remains the same: Twin Peaks still stands out boldly from the rest of the televisual landscape, twenty-seven years after its debut on the ABC network immediately following America's Funniest Home Videos. As if to cement this iconic status, when the series returned for an eighteen-hour limited run this summer (dubbed by Showtime's marketing department as Twin Peaks: The Return although filmmaker David Lynch, co-creator with author/TV writer Mark Frost, simply calls it the third season) this transgressive reputation persisted. Even against the tighter competition of "Prestige TV," critics were dazzled by its revolutionary nature, especially the (literal and figurative) atomic blast of Part 8, which could almost have been a program of standalone avant-garde Lynch shorts. Yet the story of Twin Peaks is - like everything else in Twin Peaks - a dual narrative, embedded at once in the world of surrealist cinema (and Lynch's own private universe) as well as TV conventions it embraced, wrestled with, and frequently overthrew.

On Sunday, April 8, 1990, an audience of 33 million viewers encountered three elements that would sustain Twin Peaks through a rocky, fourteen-month run and two decades of growing cult acclaim. The first element is the wrapped-in-plastic body of beloved local homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), washed up on a lake shore near a giant log. The second element is the quirky yet naturalistic Pacific Northwest woodland town of Twin Peaks, mostly unveiled over two hours as the impact of Laura's shocking murder hits her family, friends, and neighbors. Our first glimpses of the town, however, are provided during the opening credits through majestic establishing shots of a brown-hued lumber mill, a lonely "Welcome" sign (population - shockingly - 51,201*) set against the titular mountain peaks, and the cascading flow of a majestic waterfall, all scored to the soothing-yet-troubling strains of Angelo Badalamenti's iconic score - one of the series' most indelible and instantly evocative legacies.

The third element is withheld until we're halfway through the pilot, after thirty-six minutes (not including a couple jarring commercial breaks) of moody mystery, unsettling displays of grief, and some hints of dryly absurdist humor: a sensitive, sobbing deputy (Andy Brennan, played by Harry Goaz), a daffy over-explanatory police secretary (Lucy Moran, played by Kimmy Robertson), and a random extra boogieing through a high school hallway. Finally, like a burst of electrical current vivifying the somber air, the comforting, cheerful FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) drives into town, mixing professional vigor with childlike wonder ("Got to find out what kind of trees these are, they're really something!") as he dictates his observations to the unseen "Diane" on his black tape recorder. Cooper is both a conventional hero, pushing the narrative forward after the coldly observational, glacial pace of the first half-hour, and a completely unconventional presence, mixing moods as freely as the show itself.

At times, Cooper plays audience surrogate against the town's assembly of eccentrics, including the giggling, vaguely perverted psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) and Margaret Lanterman (Catherine Coulson), cradling a thick sample of Ponderosa pine - "Who's the lady with the log?" he eagerly asks the steadfast Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who replies, deadpan, "We call her the log lady." Yet Cooper himself is also an oddball, pivoting from the stern dressing-down of Truman ("When the Bureau gets called in, the Bureau's in charge") to a gleeful ear-to-ear as smile as he marvels at the "big, majestic" trees, softly repeating "Douglas firs," before pivoting back to "I'm gonna need a coroner's report on the dead girl," and proceeding to shock the hospital's staff by whipping out a magnifying glass and peeking under the fingernail of a second, near-catatonic victim, Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), who staggered out of the woods that morning (he'll find nothing there, but later discover a small slip of paper with the letter "R" under Laura's nail).

Uniting these disparate strands and tones into a cohesive package are Lynch's stately, meticulous direction and the brilliantly constructed teleplay he co-wrote with Frost. For those familiar with Lynch's filmography, especially up to that point (EraserheadThe Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet being better examples than the rather unwieldy yet hampered Dune), the polish of this filmmaking comes as no surprise. In particular, the pilot recalls Blue Velvet with Lynch moving serenely yet ominously into the world he has created, carefully highlighting particular objects or sounds, isolating each in turn like the painter he had trained to be in the 1960s. This is one of the most "cinematic" aspects of Twin Peaks, something largely unfamiliar to American TV at this time. That said, its classical 4:3 aspect ratio, muted colors, and lack of grand theatrical flourishes (like Sandy emerging from the darkness in Blue Velvet or the dolly into the eye of Merrick's mask in Elephant Man) mark it as a bit more "TV" than Lynch's previous body of work.

The teleplay is more ambiguously situated between TV and film conventions. Frost, the unsung hero of Twin Peaks - sometimes blamed for the aspects disliked by viewers, but more frequently ignored altogether - was as devoted to the written word as Lynch was to audiovisual expression. It's hard not to feel his hand weaving the tight tapestry of interlocking characters and events that characterizes the pilot but also the subsequent first season (a short, seven-episode run greenlit by ABC after the pilot gathered excited word-of-mouth at a Director's Guild screening in 1989, and aired immediately after the pilot
in the spring of 1990). One of the common myths about that initial season is that Lynch was a constant presence, guiding the ship before the production of his film Wild at Heart distracted him in season two (a myth that Lynch himself has occasionally perpetuated). In fact, even a cursory glance at release dates (let alone production notes or other contemporaneous context) quickly establishes that Lynch shot Wild at Heart in 1989, while Frost guided the construction of most of those seven episodes as the on-site showrunner, communicating with Lynch via phone, but contributing far more directly himself. Following the pilot, Frost is credited with four of these seven episodes; he even wrote and directed the season finale, easily the most rapid-fire, propulsive, even action-packed episode of Twin Peaks.

Other directors pitched in enthusiastically, contributing to the summer camp-like vibe described by all participants. Using the pilot as a template, they brought their own qualities to the table while highlighting the aspects of Lynch's aesthetic that they most responded to. Lesli Linka Glatter (who would go on to a storied TV career, as well as ensemble-focused feature films like Now & Then) filled the frame with colorful details and evoked an ethereal mood as the lawmen trekked into the woods. Tim Hunter, whose River's Edge bears more than a passing resemblance to the premise of Twin Peaks (a nude, dead woman is found by kooky teenagers on the river bank of a small town) experimented with lens and compositions, drawing on greats like Orson Welles and Otto Preminger for his visual texture. Tina Rathborne, having directed Lynch as an actor in her film Zelly & Me, leaned heavily on the offbeat flavor of the character interactions surrounding Laura's funeral. Cinematographer-turned-director Caleb Deschanel relished the creamy surfaces and classic Hollywood energy of his Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)-heavy entry while editor-turned-director Duwayne Dunham maintained a clipped, moment-to-moment approach in the first regular episode of the series (filled to the brim with unforgettable Lynch/Frost dialogue like "This is - excuse me - a damn fine cup of coffee," "It's like I'm having the most beautiful dream and the most terrifying nightmare all at once!" - the perfect evocation of Twin Peaks - and of course, who could forget "Fellas, don't drink that coffee! There's a fish...in the percolator!"). The witty, verbose Harley Peyton and droll, laid-back Robert Engels joined the writing staff in this season, contributing to Twin Peaks' growing reputation as a verbal and not just visual extravaganza.

To this day, the bulk of Twin Peaks' widespread cultural legacy is centered around the iconography and spirit of that first season. Characters introduced in the pilot are fleshed out into singular yet nuanced individuals. Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), the surly, sensitive jock who dated Laura, is also sleeping with the already-world-weary diner waitress Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), who is married to the brutish, murderous truck driver Leo (Eric Da Re). The purposeful, clean-cut yet colorful sheriff's department staff (Truman, Andy, and Lucy, but also the soulful Deputy Hawk, played by Michael Horse) doggedly follow Cooper's lead even when it leads to a rock-tossing, bottle-breaking, Tibet-inspired sojourn in the woods (one of the show's most delightful flourishes). A melodramatic romantic rectangle (a triangle would be too easy for Twin Peaks) unfolds between long-suffering gasman Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), married to the manic one-eyed would-be inventor Nadine (Wendy Robie) but pining for diner owner Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), herself married to recently paroled ex-con (but still con man) Hank (Chris Mulkey).

The sweet, tender romance of Laura's closest friends, James Hurley (James Marshall) and Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), good kids in a bad world, is both interrupted and encouraged by their determination to find Laura's killer, even if it ends up tainting their own goodness or endangers Laura's gentle, innocent cousin Madeleine Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee, in a piece of brilliant stunt casting that recalls both Vertigo and The Patty Duke Show). Soapy, Dynasty-in-the-woods intrigue is the province of the town's wealthy elite, Great Northern hotel magnate (Richard Beymer), sawmill owner's widow Josie Packard (Joan Chen), and Josie's calculating sister-in-law Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie), with Catherine's cuckolded husband Pete (Jack Nance) a salt-of-the-earth tag-a-long. And, of course, Laura's parents Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) together express Peaks' ability to mix horror and humor with their over-the-top outbursts of grief (Sarah experiences terrifying visions while moping on the couch and Leland smashes Laura's portrait while trying to dance with it before leaping on top of her casket at the funeral the next morning).

No character, except maybe Cooper or the unseen Laura, made as big (or accidental) a splash as Audrey, the mischievous, sultry, naive but clever daughter of Benjamin. She flirts with Cooper, manipulates the men around her, and pursues Laura's own path out of a mixture of dark curiosity and a desire to impress her FBI crush. And just as much a character as these flesh-and-blood folks were the various locations, tentatively established in real Seattle-area locations during the pilot, but reconstructed in a Disneyland-like fashion in L.A. The Hollywood production of the subsequent episodes was designed by Richard Hoover and lit and photographed by Frank Byers (after Ron Garcia shot the pilot). The warm fifties vibe of the RR Diner, the outside/inside grandeur of the Great Northern Hotel, the cozy functionality of the sheriff's station, and the vague, lingering sadness found in the suburban-style homes of middle-class families like the Palmers or Haywards all created a world you felt that you could live inside. Likewise, throwaway gags or offhand references in the pilot or the first few episodes - coffee, cherry pie, donuts, owls, logs, Coop's tape recorder, antlers on a wall - became familiar touchstones, even to the point where fans encountering these elements in real life were instantly pulled back into the world of Twin Peaks.

Numerous subplots (touching on genres as diverse as small-town comedy, cop-show procedural, noirish detective drama, primetime soap melodrama, even flashes of a surrealist art film) spun around one particular hub: Laura Palmer, gradually revealed as a very Lynchian paradox. Cheerleader, tutor, Meals on Wheels volunteer by day, she was a prostitute and drug addict by night. The show's catchy tagline, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" leant itself to playful parlor games and water cooler chat; an easy go-to that made this otherwise difficult show, for a time, a genuine cultural phenomenon (in one TV interview, Vice President Dan Quayle revealed that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called President George Bush, whose aides then contacted Lynch - in vain - to find out the answer). However, as those who became more engrossed in the series eventually realized, Twin Peaks was actually lodging a more profound query: "Who was Laura Palmer?"

The former question kept getting dragged out week after week, with false leads, wacky investigative techniques, and even open, gleeful affronts to viewer anticipation ("I know who killed Laura Palmer!" Cooper declares at the end of one episode, adding, "No, it can wait till morning!" at which point he has already forgotten what he was thinking). The latter question, on the other hand, was slowly answered episode by episode, scene by scene as we learn about the various facets of Laura's experience and personality. Granted, each answer only opens more questions - a mystery that is by nature ever-expansive and inconclusive - but for viewers enraptured by what Lynch and Frost had created, this was enough.

For many, perhaps most, people familiar with Twin Peaks the story ends there. Despite the two-hour premiere's gangbuster ratings and rapturous acclaim, the viewership declined during season one, even as the conversation among those who were watching (including the majority of the cultural pundit class) grew more feverish. In the first of a long, long string of frustrations, disappointments, and angry backlashes (the most recent occurring just three and a half weeks ago, when the third season concluded), season one ended without an answer to its central mystery, adding on a Cooper-periling cliffhanger for good measure. Having been renewed for a second season (Frost announced the news on a taping of Donahue in which all-American normies regale the collected cast with questions, observation, and speculation, some surprisingly accurate), the phenomenon of Twin Peaks continued over the summer of 1990, arguably peaking in the fall just before season two premiered.

Lynch was on the cover of Time Magazine; Fenn, Amick, and Boyle tensely embraced for Rolling Stone; the Log Lady made a cameo before an Emmy commercial break (the show was nominated in fourteen categories, but won only two); and Lee - in character as Laura, complete with a barely concealing plastic wrapper - headlined "Women We Love" in Esquire (the fetishization of her corpse inspired some of the earliest of long-running critiques of the show's "dead girl" gambit). More seriously, in a fashion that caught many reviewers by surprise (having appreciated the playful, postmodern discourse around the series), a spin-off -book, written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer, purported to be Laura's "secret" diary, detailing years of sexual abuse that had pushed her into the risk-taking and self-loathing behavior presented by season one. The Secret Diary of Twin Peaks also introduced a shady supernatural (or psychological?) character named "BOB" who had been glimpsed only briefly in visions during the first season (in fact, Frank Silva was a  set dresser caught on camera, whom Lynch kept sneaking into the story because he was so struck by his presence).

It's hard to discuss the history of Twin Peaks without delving into spin-off media like this book and the later feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The novel was a New York Times bestseller - maybe the last part of Twin Peaks to achieve certifiable, unambiguous "success"; nonetheless most of the people who tuned in to the ballyhooed season two premiere on Sunday, September 30, 1990, had not waded into the depths of Laura's trauma. Truth be told, many of them didn't wade very far into this actual episode either - in contrast to the pilot, which picked up viewers as it progressed, this premiere showed a marked dropoff as Lynch confronted the audience with an eight-minute sequence of an elderly waiter (Hank Worden) fumbling around the wounded Cooper's hotel room, followed by another long sequence of a mystical giant (Carel Struycken) materializing over his head to issue enigmatic clues. From this point to the present, as a widespread public phenomenon, the show never really recovered.

Way back in season one, the show had already alienated many viewers - while enchanting many others - by dipping into a dream sequence set inside a Red Room where a little man danced and a reanimated Laura whispered in an aged Cooper's ear. This baffling, instantly legendary moment was originally designed as a "closed ending" for the pilot (Lynch and Frost were contractually obligated to shoot extra material in case ABC declined the show and it had to be sold to the European market as a feature). Even if the first season - desperate to make use of this ingenious setpiece - retrofitted this event as a dream, it was initially designed as a poetic non sequitur; the dialogue was even recorded phonetically backwards and then run back so that the words were spoken forwards but distorted. Perhaps this gesture is best read as a cheeky send-up of the whole notion of detective narratives: Cooper is perplexed, the location is otherworldly, the little man's "clues" are befuddling rather than helpful, and whatever Laura whispers in the detective's ear is unheard by the viewer. The normally genial Lynch was known to turn sour in early interviews promoting the show if the word "closure" came up. He loved mysteries and secrets, but was not fond of answers or endings. As he's often stated in the years since Twin Peaks went off the air, he did not want to reveal Laura's killer and still views it as a mistake.

ABC did not share his antipathy, nor, as time wore on, did Frost. It's unclear when, how, or exactly why the decision was made to expose Laura's killer - this is the foggy ground zero of Twin Peaks' behind-the-scene drama - but it must have occurred sometime in 1990 between late May (when Twin Peaks was renewed and Lynch celebrated Wild at Heart's Palme d'Or victory at Cannes) and mid-summer (when season two, already broadly outlined with its early arc more tightly plotted, went into production). Even the secretive designation of a killer is rather mysterious, with Frost stating that it happened early in the show's creation, long before the first season aired but after the pilot had been written (and possibly shot). At that time, however, the identity was kept a closely guarded secret; as noted, even Gorbachev couldn't crack that wall of silence. Now, with network execs and Lynch's co-creator applying the pressure, the lover of mystery compromised for one of the few times in his career. In the process, he found his own way to the undesired result, and the killer's reveal episode (which aired on November 10, 1990, producing one of the season's only, albeit modest, spikes in ratings) is one of the strongest entries not just in Twin Peaks but in Lynch's entire filmography. Inevitably, spoilers follow from here - not just for this episode but the rest of Twin Peaks.

***


Just before the climactic episode was to be shot in mid-September 1990 (a few weeks before the season two premiere, and the day after Twin Peaks' disappointing route at the Emmys) Lynch and Frost invited three actors into their office: Sheryl Lee, who played both Laura and cousin Maddy; Richard Beymer, whose Ben Horne character was slowly being built up as the prime suspect in Laura's death; and Ray Wise, whose Leland grew into an even more memorable character, with his white hair and show tune crooning, in season two. Lee was given a somber task: her new character was going to die, in a prolonged, violent manner (the actress has later described that shooting day as a professional, but still grueling, affair, both physically and emotionally). Beymer was granted a reprieve: Ben was not the killer, although the crew was going to shoot a scene of him murdering Maddy as insurance against any leaks. And Wise received some of the worst news of his life: the character he loved was a homicidal maniac who had raped and killed his own daughter, and was about to brutalize his niece, and the show that brought him acclaim and a steady paycheck was going to be dispensing with him imminently.

One might expect the latter fact to be more sobering for a working actor, but when recounting this story in later years, Wise has always focused on the former aspect. Frost has also observed that Wise appeared deeply shaken by this revelation - as a new father in real life, he was repelled by the dark heart of this story and of the character he had embraced. There was some consolation: for one, Wise was going to become the star of a three-episode arc in which Leland is revealed as the killer, dispenses of Maddy's body, and is finally captured and dies in captivity (while Cooper recites from the Tibetan Book of the Dead over Leland's dying body, both soaked by the overhead sprinklers in the jail cell). He gave a tour de force performance which he's rightfully proud of to this day, and delivers some of the most memorable acting in all of Twin Peaks. Another consolation prize was embedded in the text itself: Lynch, tasked with explaining what was in store, told Wise that his character was possessed by an evil spirit, the Bob of Laura's diary, and that he would be redeemed in Cooper's arms as the spirit escapes him.

Actually, we don't know Lynch's exact words (Wise has merely relayed the broad strokes of what we already see in the show), but this was certainly the impression Wise took from this encounter. In that final episode of the arc, when he's playing up the "Bob" side, Wise exhibits a snarling, animalistic presence, whereas while he's dying he whimpers in grief and confusion. Leland, as director Tim Hunter presents him (his desire to "advocate" for the character dovetailed with many of Wise's decisions), is a good man caught by forces beyond his control. Frost has spoken elsewhere of Leland's responsibility and the ambiguity of Bob's presence, but this episode very strongly plays up the supernatural culpability, dragging what had begun as an offbeat but realistically textured work into something more overtly drenched in gothic fantasy. The episode was written by Frost, but also by the show's most prolific creative forces, Harley Peyton (now a producer too) and Robert Engels (promoted to story supervisor). Lynch neither wrote nor directed it, and avoided being on set when it was shot (Hunter assumed he was preparing another episode, but in fact Lynch would not direct again for five months).

Lynch's role in the expansion of Twin Peaks' supernatural mythos is ambiguous. Many credit him entirely with this development; after all, his later works have explored multiple realities and spiritual visitations (albeit in more abstract, less genre-encoded ways than Twin Peaks). Furthermore, most of the big "spirit world" moments in the first seven episodes of season two were directed by Lynch: the giant's visit (Frost says Lynch called him one night and said, simply, "Mark, there's a giant in Cooper's room"); the eerie grandmother and grandson (scripted by Peyton, but the disappearing creamed corn added by Lynch after he spotted the dish in the studio commissary); Bob crawling over the couch to terrorize Maddy (again scripted by Peyton, but intended to present Bob standing eerily still instead of pressing his face right into the camera); Major Briggs' delivery of a message for Cooper, seemingly from outer space; another surreal dream montage (with an owl superimposed over Bob's face); the giant's reappearance in the Road House to pronounce "It is happening again"; the white horse in the spotlight before Sarah passes out; and, of course, Leland sighting Bob's face in the mirror before stretching rubber gloves over his hands in anticipation of the kill.

Yet, as in season one, Frost continued to provide the guiding hand when shaping the narrative's threads. By most accounts, Lynch was a sporadic presence in the various production offices located above the set (there was no one "writer's rooms"), sometimes playing a role in casting or offering an idea ("Josie's stuck in a drawer pull!") but only stepping in to guide the show closely and directly when he was, well, directing. A filmmaker to his core, used to controlling every aspect of his auteur productions, he simply wasn't suited to the grabbag back-and-forth of TV showrunning, and left those duties to Frost (that said, Frost too was often absent during the middle of season two, prepping a feature film.) Frost had cut his teeth on several seasons of Hill Street Blues in the mid-eighties, but had also written the supernatural horror film The Believers. As later novels would make clear, he had a deep fascination with mysticism and esoterica. Indeed, many of the ideas broached later in season two (reserved, for the most part, until after Laura's mystery had ended) are pulled directly from Theosophy, the nineteenth-century spiritual movement and avowed interest of Frost.

What we have then, is a curious push-and-pull between the two creators, who were already beginning to drift from their close collaborative relationship in the late eighties (they wrote several unproduced scripts, including a film about Marilyn Monroe, before landing on Twin Peaks). Lynch would often come up with a striking but ambiguous iconographic idea, Frost would build upon this and embed it in a larger narrative structure and mythos, and then Lynch would return to put his own stylistic stamp on material that may have drifted from what he first had in mind. The last episode of the series to be written solely by Frost and directed solely by Lynch is the big reveal, placed at the exact halfway point of the series, two episodes before Lynch was MIA for Leland's death. Like the pilot, it builds the story meticulously, in this case building toward a shattering moment rather than out from one.

The final fifteen minutes also represented Lynch's first collaboration with Mary Sweeney as his editor (she would go on to cut all of his features through Mulholland Drive, producing many of these and writing The Straight Story, as well as having a child and eventually marrying and divorcing him). According to Sweeney, they bonded while developing the tempo between the revelation of the killer and the mournful Road House "reaction" - where Cooper and several townspeople sense that "something is happening" while "The World Spins" is crooned by Julee Cruise (making her first appearance on that stage since the pilot). While Lynch elevated some of the second season's shaggier subplots in early scenes (Shelly, Bobby, and Leo are rooted in a more real-world sense of malaise, while Nadine's high school/superwoman delusions are rendered more poignant and frightening) and Frost crafted a deft bait-and-switch with Ben, the heart of the episode - indeed of the series - was in these final moments. They remind us that, beneath all the intoxicating charm and mystery, Twin Peaks is a narrative of unimaginable trauma (specifically incest) - perhaps on some fundamental level, this is why Lynch didn't want to reveal the killer. There's no going back from this point and yet the second season wasn't even a third over. As a result, Lynch stepped away while Twin Peaks continued.

Long before Leland Palmer - crosscut with the jean-jacketed, long-haired spirit "Killer Bob" in his place - murdered his niece Maddy in the living room of the Palmer house, season two of Twin Peaks had a different feel. At times darker than season one, at times much goofier, its storytelling hewed more closely to standard network prime-time drama while still trying to establish a more challenging template. A twenty-two-episode order forced Twin Peaks to consider itself as a regular TV series for the first time, no longer an open-ended "TV movie" pilot or a contained, fast-paced miniseries-style event. As a result, subplots became more fragmented, with stakes lowered and the pacing slowed down, the writers forced to stretch these storylines out over a longer period. Some have argued this is actually a bolder experiment than the first season, attempting to apply Twin Peaks' serialized format across a long season at a time when episodic storytelling still dominated. In this way, the show reinforced its nature as an ongoing soap opera, a genre it both represented and parodied (especially in season one's goofy Invitation to Love TV show, watched by all the characters in Twin Peaks and often mirroring events going on in the town). Whatever the nature of its ambition, Twin Peaks undoubtedly faltered in this season.

In addition to the fragmentation of what had been a remarkably interwoven narrative, the cast kept expanding with guest stars and new recurring characters bumping out old favorites. In a few cases, usually with characters who had already been introduced but not very well-established in season one, this was a success. DEA Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny) was a notable exception, a likable and funny addition for a few episodes, sometimes played just for laughs but often a surprisingly thoughtful early representation of a transgender character. Perhaps the most successful expansion was USAF Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis), Bobby's father, who became an essential focal point of season two's emerging mythos, disappearing into the woods in a flash of light before guiding Cooper and the local cops through a bewildering universe of Black and White Lodges and Project Blue Book references (for a time, Twin Peaks appeared to dabble in UFO lore, a clear inspiration for The X-Files a few years later).

Less successful, to many, were two characters intended to build up Cooper's protagonist bona fides. In the first and early second season, he was our guide into a mystery outside of himself; once that mystery ended, the writers were determined to make Cooper himself the subject of the narrative, complete with a backstory and newly revealed vulnerability. The latter quality is exhibited right away, when he tries to leave town after Leland's funeral and is prevented by an internal investigation (he's been framed as a drug smuggler by local hooligans) that temporarily strips him of his badge, gun, and - most infamously - his suit, trapping him in flannel shirts for a long stretch. The backstory unraveled more slowly, brought to the fore by the show's new supervillain Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), a rogue FBI agent whose wife Cooper had an affair with, before Windom himself killed her. Contained in a secluded cabin with a computer connection and what must be a large closet full of costumes (Windom is fond of very cheesy disguises, behind which he threatens various townspeople), Cooper's nemesis feels like he's popped in from another series, perhaps the late sixties Batman. The second character, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), is a waitress whom Cooper falls in love with. She was a last-minute replacement for a Cooper/Audrey romance, scuttled by behind-the scenes drama, and to many viewers their relationship felt forced and rushed, although Annie has her admirers and does provide the impetus for the second season's unforgettable closing lines: "How's Annie? How's Annie? How's Annie?"

Though he never received a writing credit past for the first few episodes, those lines were Lynch's addition. In fact, he threw out most of the teleplay for the season two finale, which featured wordy, stylized encounters between Cooper and Windom in a rapidly shifting netherworld called "The Black Lodge," and replaced it with something that was both boldly new and deeply rooted in the series' origin. Bringing back long-forgotten characters like Laura's mother, Ronette, the Little Man, and even the room service waiter, Lynch's revised finale identifies the much-hyped Black Lodge as the Red Room from Cooper's dream, lending the former more gravitas (while arguably robbing the latter of some of its magical, unidentifiable allure). Laura, who was scripted to appear in a silent cameo at episode's end as a "good" spiritual force battling Bob (in a dentist's outfit, believe it or not!) is reinvented by Lynch as a split presence, a serene, enigmatic figure prophesying, "I'll see you again in twenty-five years," and a scowling, screeching doppelganger, a banshee seemingly determined to remind Cooper how little he actually understands about her.

And, of course, Cooper himself is split, although that wasn't the original intention either. The teleplay implied, in its final image, that Cooper was possessed by Bob; Lynch went ahead and shot this mirror reflection (adding the last line and Cooper smashing his head into the glass), but he also added a final moment in the Lodge when Cooper's double chases him through the zigzag, red-curtained corridors before catching up with him and struggling before one of them is released. The implication (fleshed out further in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which operates as both a prequel and a sequel) is that, if an evil Cooper is out in the world, a good Cooper remains inside this netherworld. And so he will...for twenty-five years.

***


Twin Peaks' second season ended in ignominy. The last two episodes couldn't feel more different from one another in tone or texture - one gathers the cast for a tedious Miss Twin Peaks contest while the other launches Cooper on his existential odyssey - but they were packaged together by ABC and aired as a Monday Movie of the Week in June, after sweeps months had safely passed and the show had been officially cancelled. Earlier in the spring, an advocacy group called COOP (Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks) had gathered force among high-powered lobbyists who happened to be fans and the alt.tv.twin-peaks Usenet community where the first-ever online discussions of Twin Peaks took place. They were able to get the remaining episodes back on the air, but ultimately they couldn't save the show. Despite the fervor of its fanbase, Twin Peaks' wide appeal had entirely vanished in the space of a year. The two-part finale lost out in ratings to a rerun of Northern Exposure, and few critics - who had devoted hundreds of columns and magazines pages to the pilot as the signature event in TV history - bothered to even write about the finale, and if they did they were entirely scornful.

The fallout was brutal. Frost and Lynch tried again with a sitcom one year later (On the Air, a very wacky look at live TV in the fifties) but it was cancelled after only two episodes and their partnership finally dissolved on paper, having dissolved long ago in spirit. Despite co-creating one of the most talked-about TV shows of the nineties, Frost's television career tanked - he penned a couple acclaimed but short-lived series (including the private eye spoof Buddy Faro), offered some bitter (and accurate) remarks about the nineties TV landscape, and found success as a fantasy book and sports nonfiction author instead. The temporarily hot cast mostly did not go on to stardom (though most kept working, achieving success as character actors in TV and film), with the exceptions of Graham and Boyle; even MacLachlan, already famous when the show began, struggled to find hits and later settled into a routine as a supporting character in popular TV dramas like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, often much more mild-mannered than the buoyant Cooper.

Few experienced such a long, hard fall as Lynch. Because there was a gap between the U.S. and foreign releases of Twin Peaks, the show was still a hot international property when ABC cancelled it, and Lynch was able to capitalize on this interest to secure French funding for a Twin Peaks feature. Created without Frost's input (he was working on his own directorial debut and was opposed to the idea of a prequel), Lynch rushed the film into production, losing much of the cast (even MacLachlan was hesitant to appear), overshooting by about a 2.5:1 ratio (in terms of actual scenes, not raw footage), and proudly unveiling the finished project less than a year after the series had ended, with a colorful, splashy premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Julee Cruise sang, there were fireworks, and Michael J. Anderson (the little man) even rapped at an onstage afterparty!

The spirit was festive if forced - Twin Peaks is back! - but Lynch wildly miscalculated not just the lingering appeal of this property (not to mention his own reputation), but the nature of Twin Peaks' latest entry. He did concede at a press conference that the film was a cherry pie for fans, but one wrapped in barbed wire. Twin Peaks' deft ability to mix the dark and light, the disturbing and the appealing, was not in Fire Walk With Me's DNA: it was a deep dive into one girl's - not a dead girl, objectified, but a "living, breathing" young woman - experience of sexual abuse, presented in a sonically and visually abrasive manner, Lynch's most overtly subversive work since Eraserhead. The film was booed by the press, notoriously flopped at the box office (making only $4 million on a $10 million budget), and the New York Times wrote, "It's not the worst film of all time - it just seems to be." The Twin Peaks dream had turned into a nightmare before finally ending, and Lynch would not be able to make another feature for five years.

And yet, here we are.

The third season of Twin Peaks, which aired Sunday nights on Showtime between May 21 and September 3, 2017, did not have stellar ratings. In fact, even its strongest episodes registered about 1/10 of the original series' very worst numbers, a sign of changing TV-watching habits as much as anything else (supposedly when streaming is accounted for, the show is on much more solid ground). The new Twin Peaks also, continuing a long-standing tradition, alienated many former fans who had stuck with it through the previous material but found this one to be a line too far. On the other hand, the critical establishment finally came back around to Twin Peaks. Ever since the one-two hit of the inviting Straight Story in 1999 and the stunning Mulholland Drive in 2001, Lynch's restored reputation never really dimmed again. Mulholland Drive in particular has become not just a benchmark in Lynch's own career but in the history of cinema; fifteen years later, the title routinely pops up in the #1 spot on "best of the twenty-first century" film lists. In fact, that film may be a much more overt antecedent for (and presence within) the new Twin Peaks than the original series.

This is immediately evident in the two-hour premiere (and the next two episodes, which quickly dropped on Showtime's streaming service) in several ways - cast members like Naomi Watts, Robert Forster, Patrick Fischler, and Brent Briscoe are folded into the Twin Peaks universe (Watts even dresses and talks like her Mulholland character Betty); there are numerous suggestions that we might be experiencing a sort of "dream reality" (arguably fulfilled, albeit in more oblique fashion, by the very Mulholland-esque final act twist in the season finale); and, just as Mulholland Drive viewed Hollywood through a Lynchian lens, the new Twin Peaks captures the show-biz playground of Las Vegas in a similarly fantastical yet frequently ominous view. Most important, and to the surprise of those who expected Frost's returning presence to anchor the series in a more linear narrative than Fire Walk With Me, this third season immediately felt much more like Lynch's late films than any previous chapter of Twin Peaks, spanning multiple locations and unrelated characters, even at times seeming to dip into separate side films, while hinting that these many worlds may be connected.

The biggest shock for anyone expecting nostalgia was the "many worlds." Twin Peaks, for two seasons, had been strenuously defined by the Aristotlean unities of time and place (for its first season, and even some of its second, the sprawling story was arguably even characterized by a unity of action: everything seemed connected to the central question of "Who killed Laura Palmer?"). Virtually every episode of the original series had been set inside a single day, with the next episode picking up where the previous one had left off (writers even joked about Lucy still being pregnant in the ninth season). And, most importantly, the action never left the immediate area of Twin Peaks. There were occasional forays across the border into Canada, just a few miles away, and in one much-decried subplot, James bikes out of town to take up with an older woman elsewhere in Washington state. But everything remained woodsy and rural, even when Fire Walk With Me introduced us to Twin Peaks' doppelganger reflection in the first part of the film (the crummy Deer Meadow). There's only one exception; the oddest passage of the movie, featuring an as-of-then unexplained David Bowie cameo, takes place in Philadelphia (a deleted scene, also featuring Bowie, takes place in Buenos Aires).

We see Philadelphia again in the third part of season three, and - for that matter - Buenos Aires a couple episodes later, but by that point neither is shocking because we've already been so many places: the candy-colored yet antiseptic abandoned homes and casinos of Vegas; the lost highways and run-down diners as Coop's evil doppelganger "Mr. C" traverses the Great Plains; and - for our first crime scene of the series (one far from Laura's body on the lake), the vaguely desolate, dusty small city of Buckhorn, South Dakota (Lynch had originally wanted to set Twin Peaks in South Dakota, before Frost advised him that Washington would be a much more lush location). Even the otherworldly geography is expanded. The Red Room itself has new powers, borrowing the one-armed man (Al Strobel) who mostly appeared in the real world in the older material (as a shoe salesman possessed by a spirit who was fighting Bob) and replacing the little man (revealed in Fire Walk With Me to be the one-armed man's other arm) with an electrical tree/nervous system topped with a lump of talking flesh. More to the point, the Red Room expands its look with curtains that billow violently, blowing away or opening out to multiple locations while the floor fluctuates and breaks apart into jagged pieces. Everything seems more unstable than even the fluid psychic landscape of the season two finale.

We discover brand new spaces in the spirit world. There's a materializing and dematerializing convenience store, populated by soot-covered woodsmen who guide entrants into an improbable motel courtyard. Lynch also introduces a pink-lit tower overlooking a purple sea where Cooper encounters an eyeless woman (Nae Yuuki) who leads him through a hatch onto the roof of a tiny metal cube floating in space - we've come a long way from the opening of the pilot in a contained little Northwest community. And we encounter the giant - renamed the Fireman - in a tower which is likely the same place, shot mostly in black-and-white and presented as the very first new scene of the premiere, where the Fireman offers Cooper a series of cryptic statements, perhaps clues, perhaps not (unity of time is busted here too; many fans have struggled to determine when this scene even takes place). After this sequence (and an extended credits montage that roots the show in the trauma of Laura's death in the first episode - we even see that screaming girl racing across the schoolyard in slow motion), Lynch offers a quick glimpse of the Twin Peaks forest (where Jacoby receives a shipment of shovels that he will later hawk on his podcast). But the premiere really gets going in New York City (!), the first time Lynch has visited that locale aside from a terrifying PSA he shot in the early nineties. This sequence is no less terrifying in its own way, with marvelous establishing shots of the nighttime skyline and a journey into an unmarked building, where a young man (Ben Rosenfield) stares at an empty glass box, he as silently impenetrable as it.

After a creature - dubbed the Experiment (Erica Eynon), with a female body and a distorted head - leaps through the glass to slaughter two young people making love in front of her, the glass box is never returned to. Yet that box has already become an unshakeable icon of the new season, as instantly evocative in its way as the red curtains or plastic-wrapped corpse in season one. Many critics immediately observed that the scene was an uncanny echo of the viewer's position, staring quietly at an empty box and waiting for something to appear. It's also a perfect introduction to 2017 Twin Peaks' aesthetic, humorously highlighted in this tweet. The third season is Lynch's first sustained work in HD (Inland Empire, his first digital movie, was shot on an SD camcorder), relying on his longtime director of photography Peter Deming. Occasionally, particularly in the diner and sheriff's station (but also to a lesser degree in Vegas) we view hyper-saturated, golden images reminding us of the show's old look but with a sharper, more stylized sheen (as opposed to the rich, grainy celluloid texture of seasons one and two).

More often, however, season three adopts a cold, clinical palette, striking in its icy way but quite far from the softness of the Twin Peaks we once knew. Spare, pale, with lots of clean, sharp lines, the aesthetic of the third season marks a new break in Lynch's work, although in some ways a throwback - with very new tools - to his early features. Likewise reminiscent of early Lynch is the season's frequent use of black-and-white, especially notable in the most gorgeous episode of the season, Part 8 (dubbed "Gotta light?" by Showtime; they chose random lines as episode titles). There Lynch and Frost pull us back in time to the first A-bomb test in the last days of World War II. We slowly push inside the fireball, where Lynch embarks on a tour de force through his moving paintings, at once an overwhelming sensory experience and a meditation on the power unleashed by man's tampering with nature. This manmade event is presented as a kind of birth/rebirth/unveiling of the show's dark cosmology, keeping with the ambiguous spirituality of the show (and especially the film); for all Twin Peaks' flirtations with possession and its dread of uncanny forces, it frequently suggests that the spirits are called forth by the psychic traumas of the human characters.

That passage mixes luminous black-and-white with vivid color but the following sequence, after a journey across that purple sea, sticks mostly to black-and-white with a few golden flourishes. We glide gracefully and glacially through the Fireman's tower, a kind of cosmic movie palace, as the Fireman views a Bob bubble emerging from the Experiment and then floats up to the ceiling. There he births a orb-like vision of Laura, blessed with a kiss by his companion Senorita Dido (Joy Nash) and released into the world by a giant trumpet. Then the most memorable - and extensive - monochrome sequence in Lynch's work since The Elephant Man begins in the New Mexico desert. Crafting what is practically a short film of its own, Lynch introduces us (as he did in Fire Walk With Me and as he will again in Part 18) to a kind of parallel Twin Peaks - replete with diner, auto-body shop, and radio studio, but located specifically in the 1950s rather than Twin Peaks' timeless mixture of eras. There a young girl, swooning after her first kiss, is lulled to sleep by an eerie poem crackling on the local station:
"This is the water
And this is the well!
Drink full and descend.
The horse is the white of the eyes
And dark within."


As she sleeps (and as the Woodsman speaking this poem mercilessly crushes the DJ's skull), a "frog-moth" leaps in through her window and crawls inside her mouth. She swallows the monster and the Woodsman wanders into the blackness of the desert night, he too swallowed up by the inky non-existence as a horse whinnies in the distance.

This part emphasizes a disunity in the show that will grow just as prominent as the disunity of place over the course of the subsequent episodes: the disunity of time. Here, at least, we know we are witnessing July 16, 1945, and August 5, 1956, leaping back further than Twin Peaks has ever taken us before (the series itself contains only the most fleeting of flashbacks - showing us James and Laura a few weeks before she died, the first season's earliest attempt to revivify her, and later reproducing the night of her death in the most terrifying sequence of the season two premiere). The disunity becomes even more jarring when we notice, out of the corner of our eye so to speak, that scenes are unfolding many days after we know they must take place (based on the interval of days and nights, a sturdy barometer on the old series); sometimes scenes are even presented subtly out of order. Then, of course, the two-part finale takes not only us but the characters themselves out of a straightforward timeline. Cooper travels back to 1989, literally into the world of Fire Walk With Me, as Lynch replays a scene from that movie in black-and-white, stripped of its music (a microcosm of season three's overarching audiovisual landscape, not only more monochrome but quieter, with detailed sound design largely replacing the Badalementi music cues that defined the earlier seasons). Cooper proceeds to take Laura's hand when she's alone in the woods and tells her he's taking her home. Does he mean to a spiritual "home," the Lodge via the mystical portal of Jack Rabbit's Place, a golden pool matching the black pool of Glastonbury Grove, or is he literally returning her to an abusive household as if her death that night was the fault of her own wayward wanderings and not the malicious intent of her terrorizing father? The gesture doesn't work, or it does work (we are shown the first scenes of the pilot without Laura's body present on the shore - Pete even gets to cast a line!) but also backfires with unexpected results. Laura is whisked away.

Placing us within Fire Walk With Me is an imaginative and confrontational gesture on Lynch's part (though the film's reputation has grown in time, the memory of its rejection haunts him and this is another way of jamming it into the canon). It also opens many questions - does this version of events "replace" the other? is it emphasizing that in fact you can't undo the past? is it rejecting any notion of linear time and "in-world" logistics altogether? - that most viewers aren't anywhere close to answering. The final episode of Twin Peaks' third season, possibly the last Twin Peaks we'll ever get, even closes on a question of time: "What year is it?" a distraught Cooper asks, pointing aimlessly at the street in front of the Palmer house, as Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee), a - pardon the pun - dead ringer for Laura, unleashes a shattering scream that blows out the lights of this dreaded family home. As the one-armed man frequently asks, "Is it future - or is it past?" Unlike the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, the third season wants us to remain resolutely uncertain.

Finally, there's the question of "unity of action." Writing about Greek drama over two thousand years ago, Aristotle's idea of following a single action over the course of a play may not seem applicable to a twenty-first century television show. Certainly, even the original Twin Peaks crafted a sprawling narrative web and especially in the second season its purpose seemed to wander. Yet it was also distinguished, in an episodic landscape, by its desire (if not always its ability) to build around a central narrative engine. Indeed, when returning to the series in 2014, Frost commented, "It's fine to have tributaries and streams, and little byways. But ultimately, that path through the woods has to be very dark, clear and dangerous. That’s the path we’re going to keep to. There’ll be, I hope, a healthy percentage of delightful sidelines or paths off to the side, but there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve gotta follow that main path." And yet, after watching the two-hour premiere, and even after watching eighteen hours, many viewers found themselves asking, "What's it all about?"

As in the second season, many storylines - or scenes - within the town don't link up to anything else (nor do they resolve). We meet Bobby's and Shelly's daughter Becky Burnett (Amanda Seyfried), a classic Lynchian "woman in trouble" lost in her own feverish, possibly fatal corner of Twin Peaks; Lucy's and Andy's son Wally Brando (a hilarious cameo by Michael Cera) shows up on a motorcycle to deliver a one-off gag of a monologue; Red (Balthazar Getty), a drug dealer and possibly a dark magician, makes a sharp impression and looms ominously over Shelly's life but turns out to have been more of a flourish than a character. Most notoriously, many episodes end with characters in a Road House booth as a famous band plays, knowingly exchanging names, glances, and expressions (my favorite is "Whooo-pee!") which clearly mean a lot to them, but absolutely nothing to us. We never see them again, and never learn who or what they were talking about. No, strike that, most notorious is Audrey - the unexpected star of season one, whom fans waited eagerly to see again - trapped in some kind of pocket dimension, perpetually bickering with her husband Charlie (Clark Middleton) in a Beckettesque scenario that eventually lands her at the Road House. There she screams "Get me out of here!" before Charlie - or Lynch, whom Charlie may well be a surrogate for - zaps her into a white room, staring at her own reflection in horror. And that's it.

Whatever else is going on here, these scenes feel like a troubled, touching tribute to Audrey and to Sherilyn Fenn, to whom this character obviously means a great deal. Twin Peaks was always the story of Cooper and Laura, and Audrey was not supposed to shine so brightly. But shine she did, even as season two failed to deliver on her initial promise. And so now, a quarter-century later, Audrey is preserved as if in amber, having aged without losing her vigor (or her confusion). To be closed off in this corner of the narrative may be suffocating, but it's also honorary. If she can't be a star, Audrey at least is not a supporting character; there's something queerly dignified about this decision. Twin Peaks has moved past Audrey but by force of will she still creates her own place inside of it, however tragic.

Indeed, the whole title town feels redundant yet poignantly resonant throughout much of the season. Our visits to Twin Peaks, where we are reminded of what has changed and perpetually held at an inscrutable distance from what's really going on, are suffused with longing. If Laura was the embodiment of unattainable mystery in season one, the town itself has become this presence in season three, a "return" that can never quite be fulfilled, yet exists in fleeting wisps we can grasp for a moment or two, or at least believe that we could. Anchoring this feeling of melancholy tug-of war between tumult and peace is Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), a character introduced as a grouchy trailer park owner in Fire Walk With Me but now presented as the conscience of Twin Peaks. He offers money to a struggling tenant, assists Shelly as the panicked mother pursues her gun-toting daughter, and most memorably comforts a woman grieving the shocking loss of her son (run down by Richard Horne, the most ruthless, despicable character in Twin Peaks - and the product of its most celebrated pairing). Before kneeling down in the street alongside her, Carl gazes at a yellow shape ascending from her child into the sky and dispersing near the power lines that cross overhead. Three months later, Stanton himself would pass away, joining many Twin Peaks alumni in the past few years, including Catherine Coulson, who recorded her final scenes as the Log Lady (after forty-five years of collaboration with Lynch) just two days before succumbing to the cancer so evident in her own onscreen appearance and voice.

Lynch's affection for this world is palpable, and its inclusion is self-justifying on this basis alone (though there may be others). But if the original seasons were defined by the intertwining of the town, Laura, and Cooper, that is clearly not the case here. The town is gently distanced from great importance in the narrative (the action that continues episode to episode mostly occurs in Buckhorn, Vegas, and Mr. C's road trip). Lynch and Frost do take pains not to abandon Laura as they did in the second season, when the end of the mystery brushed her off like a dispensed MacGuffin. In a sense she's treated as the town's opposite - seldom seen but, it's hinted, crucial to the main action of the story in a hidden way. The show opens with a montage centered around her, her face appears before every episode in a translucent orb, she is presented in almost godlike fashion in Part 8, and the Log Lady goes so far as to tell us, "Laura is the one." The new Sheriff Truman, Harry's brother Frank (Robert Forster) leafs through diary pages found by Hawk, which remind us of Laura's central role in revealing "two Coopers" (a concept introduced in Fire Walk With Me).

Lynch, whose brief, lightly comical portrayal of the hearing-impaired FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole is expanded into one of the two or three leads of the new season, even superimposes Laura's face over his own, when Gordon opens a hotel door and is confronted by a blown-up close-up from Fire Walk With Me, Laura weeping sorrowfully in her creator's field of vision. And of course, Laura's presence - or absence - is crucial to the two-part finale - which follows through on Leland's only appearance in the whole series (a scene presented twice from different angles, bookending the narrative). But for most of the screentime, she's not around. When she does appear, removing her face (like her mother will later) to reveal an intense white light and intone "I am dead and yet I live" before whispering to Cooper and then being sucked violently out the Lodge, it's as if we're being reminded this should be her story, and yet it isn't and perhaps paradoxically can't be.

And what of Cooper whose uncanny face engulfs the climax in the sheriff's office, as if to overpower everyone else's presence and suggest "who is the dreamer" (quoting the Upanishads and Monica Bellucci as herself in the season's most bemusing cameo)? The very premise for a "return" was the cliffhanger of the second season and MacLachlan's name appears at the end of every episode, before the rest of the alphabetical cast. He is also the only actor, aside from the opening still image of Laura, to appear onscreen in each installment, with Lynch even shoehorning some stray shots or quickie scenes into parts he'd wouldn't otherwise be present for. Yet the Cooper we do get, or rather, the Coopers (and more than just the two we might have expected), highlight his importance while also conforming to the third season's overall pattern of subversion and evasion. The chipper, proactive Coop of all thirty original episodes is now present only for about an episode and a half, at most.

In his place we meet: a solemn, quiet Cooper who has been away from the world for twenty-five years; the original Dougie, a copy/clone (tulpa?) as amiably droopy and purposeless as Cooper is driven and active; a fresh Dougie 2.0, we glimpse for only a few seconds near the end, awe-struck ("Where am I?" vs. "This is weird..."); the coldly efficient Mr. C, ambiguously either a wicked reflection or a split self (or both, or neither, or more), cackling with vicious glee when we leave him at the end of season two but now a lumbering, brooding presence drained by years of self-indulgence while continually propelled forward in a quest for "coordinates" ("I don't need anything, Ray. I want."); the Cooper who emerges through an electrical socket in Vegas, known by his growing circle of friends as "Dougie," a Cooper reborn into the world and discovering it anew, unable yet curiously not needing to communicate with others; and finally a Cooper who seems to contain all these others Coopers, "Richard" if you will, stewing in some kind of vague, nagging discontent from the moment he emerges through red curtains and is told, for the second time (first? can't count them?), by Laura's killer, that he must "find" her.

That is the Cooper who emerges in Glastonbury Grove and is greeted by Diane Evans (Laura Dern), who was raped by Mr. C but now appears loyally - if hesitantly - at her boss' side. Diane too has many incarnations: a blonde tulpa who smokes and spits "Fuck you"s with panache while ultimately struggling against her own manipulation, the imprisoned and blinded Naido, an untroubled red-wigged vision in a bathrobe, and the more uncomfortable character of Part 18. Unlike Cooper, however, we don't have an official version to compare to these variations. Diane is all fragments, and more than anyone else in the third season she represents the spirit of what we could once call "late Lynch" (Fire Walk With Me, or perhaps his last two episodes of Twin Peaks, through Inland Empire), which looks more like a middle period at this point. These were the films that frequently featured female protagonists, told stories increasingly splintered and circular, and were edited in impressionistic, fluid fashion by Mary Sweeney. As a kind of embodiment of this spirit, displaced within the colder world of season three, Diane may be less grounded ("I'm not me!") than characters like Gordon, Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), or Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) but somehow she feels the most alive, the most in touch with the raw emotion that pulses through Fire Walk With Me and the most electric episodes of the old Twin Peaks.

Cooper, on the other hand, is searching, knowing who he is on some fundamental level but perpetually distanced from that identity, ever in pursuit of the essence just out of reach. In the world of season three, and perhaps as an extension of her original role on the show, Diane is forced into the role of planet circling around Cooper's sun. Then, following the most powerfully uncomfortable sex scenes in Lynch's work (an oeuvre filled with powerfully uncomfortable sex scenes), she eventually breaks away from this orbit, becoming a Linda who can pursue her own narrative. In the Lynchverse at least, these various social roles and relationships to consciousness are heavily gendered; with that in mind, it's interesting that Bob (displaced into a cartoonish bubble and literally punched to death with a green glove) is eclipsed by the more ambiguous feminine "negative energy" of Jowaday/Judy (whom many have conflated, not unconvincingly, with the references to the Mother and the Experiment we see in the atomic cloud and the glass box). Laura's mother also exists ominously on the periphery of the narrative (leading to speculation that she is, or is possessed by, Judy); like Audrey there is no place for her in the main storyline nor within a minor arc subservient the main story. Sarah can't be contained any more than the Experiment and in her final scene she furiously attacks Laura's portrait, smashing the glass but unable to tear the picture itself. This is right before Laura disappears. If Fire Walk With Me allowed Lynch to break free of masculine tropes embedded in the detective narrative he had chosen, his return to TV sees him close himself within this framework once again - this time with a deep, abiding awareness of what lies beyond. Like Cooper though, he can't get there from here.

The most positive portrayal of Cooper is, slyly, the one that many viewers eagerly wished their hero would leave behind. Superficially, Dougie in Vegasland places a limp, passive Cooper in a kind of Middle American hell, clad in a garish green blazer and trapped in a cookie-cutter suburban home and slick office building. Every time this Cooper sipped coffee, spotted a lawman statue, fought against a deadly hitman, or discovered "damn good pie" - essentially every week there was a new red herring - viewers would sigh with relief that finally, the real Cooper was about to return. Meanwhile, look closer and the real story was emerging: in cheerfully over-the-top but 100% committed fashion, Lynch and Frost guided their character through adventures in which the universe seemed to magically bend itself...not to his will (has any version of Cooper exhibited less willpower?) but to his spirit. The Vegas we are introduced to in Parts 3 or 4 is not an especially happy place. Nobody seems content, let alone joyful - not the sullen staff or customers at the casino, not Dougie's flustered wife Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), not the brusque Bushnell Mullens (Don Murray) or conniving Anthony Sinclair (Tom Sizemore) at the Lucky 7 Insurance office, certainly not the brutal, brooding Mitchum brothers (James Belushi and Robert Knepper). Yet by the time "the real Cooper" finally re-awakens, Las Vegas has transformed into a locus of bubbling delight: the various assassins slayed or captured, the mobsters reimagined as lovable benefactors, even the "lady slots addict" who scowled at our hero in the casino now draped in finery and accompanied by a long-estranged son.

To suggest this is merely a Capraesque fable of a simple soul redeeming the wayward folks around him would be an overly sentimental reading (although that's clearly a template Lynch and Frost are aware of and partially riffing on). For one, the situations are so abundantly absurd that we can't just take them at face value, a fact best represented by the whimsical pink vision of Candie (Amy Shiels). Yet, pitched at a suggestively allegorical angle without taking itself too seriously, the Dougie storyline does suggest a path Cooper stumbles along before "snapping out of it" and racing in the other direction: one centered on receptivity and curiosity, sensory immersion, and appreciation for the situation as it exists (which paradoxically allows for it to change). This runs so contrary to the conventions of the active protagonist, as well as many reasonable assumptions about how we should actually engage with challenging environments, that it feels almost impossible to compute. Yet, in the moment, it works - as long as we (like "Dougie") allow what we're seeing to take its course and trust in that path. Is this mostly a situational comedic lark or sincere suggestion for the life best lived? Or something more ambiguous? Perhaps numerous rewatches and reflections will clarify but for now at least the Dougie plot feels like the slender but sturdy spine of a slippery beast.

In 1990, critics frequently asked "What is Twin Peaks about?" (Variations include "Does it mean anything?" and the perennial academic favorite "Is this a postmodern text?"). I would argue that Fire Walk With Me answers that question conclusively (following up on hints from the first two seasons, especially the second), and I think - in subtle ways - the new season argues this as well. But this is a TV countdown, and we are looking at Twin Peaks as a beautifully, frustratingly messy forty-eight episodes, generously overstuffed with longeurs and jagged, mismatched puzzle pieces, self-contained moments of bliss and melancholy, breathtaking beauty and trashy fun. And if there's something to be said for ascending the mountaintop and taking in the entire landscape in a single, awe-inspiring view, there's also something to be said for getting lost in the woods like Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly, and many huzzahs to him).

In the final image of Twin Peaks, as of September 26, 2017, Laura Palmer once again leans toward a seated Agent Cooper and whispers in his ear. As before, we can't hear the secret, but this time I don't think we ever will. Would David Lynch have it any other way?

*The large population on the welcome sign was suggested by ABC, who feared that viewers would be unable to relate to a town as small as Lynch and Frost wanted. Later, in the spin-off Access Guide to Twin Peaks, the sign would be explained as a typographical error: the actual population is 5,120.1.

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