“Don’t bend. Don’t water it down. Don’t try to make it logical. Don’t edit your own soul to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” – Frank Kafka
Created in 1990 for ABC by auteur-in-bloom Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and pedigreed TV producer Frost (Hill Street Blues), Twin Peaks was a chemical binding of talents and a combustible collision of mediums. It blew minds, then bombed. It was a miniseries first, a disruptive lightning strike with invigorating zap. Then it had to organize itself into an ongoing TV franchise and do what ongoing TV franchises do: live forever. It couldn’t. Nothing can. Few things should. The phenom went from blinding flare, unstable reaction, billowing cloud, and deafening quiet in a year. Like Laura Palmer, the brutally murdered homecoming queen with secrets, the series died haunted by unfulfilled potential and ragged with unresolved story. Cancelation embellished the show’s meanings. Twin Peaks was a weird and woozy tragedy about unanswerable questions and the agony of irreparable loss, a cautionary tale about audacious labors and pop mortality.
For Lynch, a fallout of “negativity” and a “dark period” followed the passing of Twin Peaks. You could feel it Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a stuck-in-the-past prequel that began with an axe being driven though a TV set, and Lost Highway, an infidelity horror-noir about a cuckolded, impotent artist who goes to psychotic lengths to escape himself. Yet Twin Peaks itself had a vital legacy, setting a precedent for adventurous TV and inspiring an array of storytellers responsible for new-century gems, from The Sopranos to Atlanta. This legacy re-minted and gilded the Twin Peaks meta-narrative. The show wasn’t a fleeting flash, but the big bang of a revolutionary spunk.
A generational marker, Twin Peaks welted the collective psyche enough for people to have nostalgia for it and to justify one of today’s most popular things, a franchise revival. How fitting. The show that rebooted television, rewarded with a reboot. Lynch treated the opportunity as a chance to address “unfinished business,” he told me earlier this year. What we saw and felt in Twin Peaks: The Return, especially at the end, was exorcism. It was Lynch and his collaborators taking a magical green cleaning glove and rubbing out the greasy spirit staining the property, applying a magical retcon and converting tragedy into triumph, chasing away the shadows once and for all with a vengeful scream. The Return was a reboot about rebooting as reparation, do-over remake, triggering recollection, degrading repetition, as evolutionary reinvention.
What we expected from The Return, if we dared to expect anything, was a story that released Cooper from purgatory to survey and repair the damage caused by a black-eyed, BOB-possessed doppelganger entity that had hijacked his life. You pictured a new mystery that allowed for catch-ups with everyone, beginning with Cooper’s pals at the sheriff’s department: Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean), deputies Hawk (Michael Horse) and Andy (Harry Goaz), and receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Additionally: Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), owner of the long-lived Double R Diner, home of the best cherry pies anywhere; her pining beau, Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), stuck in a marriage to cracked Nadine (Wendy Robie); troubled lovers Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook); broody, romantic biker James Hurley (James Marshall); Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), a precocious neo-Nancy Drew, daughter to a perverse patriarch, Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), proprietor of the Great Northern Hotel; Margaret Lanterman (Catherine Coulson), a.k.a. the Log lady, quirky owlish sentinel sensitive to the invisible spiritual movements blowing through Ghostwood Forest; and any number of otherworldly, backwards-speaking amoral ambiguities that resided within a red curtained, chevron-floored dimension of the Black Lodge.
What Twin Peaks fan wouldn’t want to watch a reunion turn that played all the hits? And depending upon your sensibilities, you might think and feel that Lynch and Frost delivered on that expectation. But The Return was bigger and broader and wilder and weirder than we could have ever imagined. Fitting for a show where the worst thing one could be is a crass doppelganger, a parasitic demon, or a weak clone (or “Tulpa”) driven to survive at any cost, Lynch and Frost opted against repeating themselves and eschewed the strategies of most revivals. It wasn’t next-gen repackaging like Fuller House or on-brand restatement like The X-Files. Unlike the upcoming Will & Grace reboot, the story was beholden to its history — everything was contingent on the cliffhanger finale of the original series and the mythology of the show’s prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — but it wasn’t simple saga continuance like Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Lynch and Frost leveraged their franchise — and trusted in our interest and faith — to blow up the familiar to make something new at the risk of frustrating reboot pleasures. Not many people watched The Return, and that’s a shame. Folks, this thing was a moving, head-spinning, and frequently hilarious gas, and I pray it’ll be discovered in the streaming afterlife, where everything is available always. And yet, the narrowness and smallness of the endeavor contributed to its extraordinary achievement. A quarter century after failing as mainstream TV, Twin Peaks returned to own its identity as a cult classic, and the result was an electrifying and uncompromising work of art.
Instead of resettling in Twin Peaks and exploring established characters, Lynch and Frost spun a web of intrigues involving scores of new characters in scattered cities — mostly in the American West — presented with little context and that only revealed their connections over time. Much of it pertained to Mr. C’s desire to cheat the term limit of his terrestrial existence and transcend himself by stealing some unspecified fire from the gods. Or maybe he just wanted to meet his maker and go: What up with the black eyes? Why am I so miserable? And must I rape so much? You know, the tough questions. The Return derailed his dubious spiritual journey, as it did all antihero quests this season. After 17 hours of storytelling that encouraged us to believe that Mr. C would at least succeed in reaching “The Place,” a climactic twist revealed that he had been suckered into a trap set by The Fireman and various allies. Instead of fleecing a holy mountain temple like some raider of the lost ark, Mr. C was immediately re-routed back to the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station for judgment. “What is this?!” fumed Mr. C, seething from the betrayal. In the end, Mr. C hitched his meaning to finding God — or becoming one — and got cast down.
Before his defeat (which echoed Cooper’s own dispiriting final-scene gut punch in Part 18, the final synchronicity of their parallel doppelganger journeys), Mr. C made a mess of America with his manifest destiny campaign. He and Killer BOB turned all of their stomping grounds into Black Lodges of despair. A gruesome murder mystery in Buckhorn, South Dakota, involved unhappy marriages, adulterous affairs, and Matthew Lillard as a sci-fi nerd seeking a divorce from dull realities by trying to access higher planes of reality. He turned Rancho Rosa, a bankrupt, derelict housing development in the desert, into a Red Room death trap. Lynch and Frost turned the city into a dark comedy about new-century America as a land of transactional morality and high-functioning nihilism. In the end, Cooper’s chief allies were…the super-decent head of an insurance agency and a pair of mobsters attended by a trio of candy perfume girl Stepford Wives? Yes, that happened. The Vegas cast was exceptional, with Naomi Watts as Janey-E, dummy Dougie’s long-suffering wife, terrific in a part that shouldn’t have worked at all.
NEXT: The Passing of Time.