Lynch has ultimately gotten his way with his intended premise, occasionally revisiting the show to markedly shift the narrative and thematic direction of its arcs.
David Lynch infamously left “Twin Peaks,” his macabre, unclassifiable television project, in its second season over a conflict with ABC producers who refused to allow him and co-writer Mark Frost to follow their original vision to never solve the central murder of teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose death disturbed and gradually eroded the façade of placid gentility of her Washington hometown. Yet if Lynch’s departure left the original show feeling incomplete, sending it into chaotic directions that attempted to mimic the director’s surreal sensibilities to hideous effect, Lynch has ultimately gotten his way with his intended premise, occasionally revisiting the show to markedly shift the narrative and thematic direction of its arcs.
The first such return came before “Twin Peaks” left airwaves. After Lynch’s absence prompted nonsense arcs like a delusion of Civil War re-enactment or moony motorcycle sweetheart James’s (James Marshall) baffling reverie with a married woman, the director swooped back in to shape the finale into something that did not so much get the series back on track as rip up the tracks and wrap them in Sherman’s bowties around telephone poles. Diving deep into the supernatural elements hung at the periphery of the show, Lynch transgressed space-time to leap into the show’s approximation of hell, leading to a funhouse nightmare culminating in the most nihilistic cliffhanger to ever end a television program. He then returned once more in 1992 with the feature Fire Walk with Me, infuriating fans still scrambling for answers for the finale who were instead treated to a prequel that traced the final days of Laura Palmer, the teenager whose murder marked the core from which the show’s various narratives radiated. Though centered entirely on Laura, the film nonetheless lived up to Lynch’s mission statement for the show, recalibrating from the mystery of her death to the complexity and agony of her life, upping the ante of violence and despair while simultaneously revealing murder itself to be an act of cold finality, the unmaking that it is rather than the impetus for a fun story.
Then there’s the belated third season, billed on first broadcast earlier this year as “The Return,” which actually continues the story left off by the second season but does so in circuitous, enervating fashion. As in Fire Walk with Me, the series begins with numerous tangents that detour around established characters to follow new faces, thwarting fan desires and openly undermining the offbeat whimsy of the original show with more blatant undercurrents of menace. One lugubrious sideshow in the premiere involves a mysterious project to monitor a glass box surrounded by constantly recording digital cameras, the dullness of the task interrupted only when some formless, hazy shape appears and annihilates the watchers in the first of the season’s many scares. Even when the story gets properly underway, with FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) let out of the show’s purgatorial Red Room after 25 years in limbo, he does so only by slipping into the doppelgänger of insurance underwriter Dougie Jones, losing in the process his memory, higher speech function and all but basic motor control. This lurching change in character immediately reorients the season away from Cooper’s heroic quest and toward a simple attempt to fathom what is happening, a shuffle that ripples out among the season’s other storylines.
Lynch and Frost’s diversions are so extreme that, on a first viewing, much of the show can come across as filler, with scenes lasting marathon length to depict arduous asides like Michael Cera doing a cod-Brando impersonation as the biker son of Twin Peaks sheriff’s station fixtures Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), to say nothing of the mammoth aside of Part 8’s mythology-etching masterpiece, which links the show’s overarching cosmic evil to manifestations borne of the atomic bomb. It’s The Tree of Life’s photo negative, harking back to a nostalgic era and finding only the seeds of our present destruction, epitomized in the spectral, coal-blackened hobo figures that seem to emanate from ground zero, conflating nuclear and economic terror in one slurred metaphor.
These dual fears inform much of the ambient context of “The Return,” which upends the parodically quaint exterior/seamy underbelly dichotomy of the original series to present a town, indeed a world, infected with malaise. The old show depicted townspeople in positions of middle-class comfort: adults were career military officers, lawyers, business owners and doctors, and their children, for all their issues, at least enjoyed luxuries. “The Return,” however, finds the same characters situated in a post-recession world, one that warps any notions of nostalgia by showing how little some characters have progressed. Shelly (Mädchen Amick), for example, still works at the Double-R Diner, having lived out an entire life complete with a child, marriage and another divorce in the intervening quarter-century only to remain right where she worked as a teenager. Even those who have changed, like wild-boy-cum-police officer Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), have found peace but not happiness.
Poverty is everywhere, like a subdivision at the outskirts of Las Vegas that from the first glimpse of its dead neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses lets slip that it was completed and populated just in time for the market to collapse. Opiate addiction makes recurring appearances, from a mother huddled in front of pills and a bottle of booze to a patron of the show’s Bang Bang Bar (where most episodes feature a musical number) with rashes all over her skin. Solidarity in a post-union America is fleeting but vital, as in trailer-park owner Carl (Harry Dean Stanton) pulling aside a recently unemployed tenant to tell him he will count the chores he’s done around the park toward his rent, mentioning his disgust at watching people forced to sell their own blood just to buy food.
Fire Walk with Me clarified the show’s elaborate mythology and heightened melodrama as largely metaphorical bricolage for an underpinning theme of abuse and trauma enacted so powerfully and horrifically on Laura that the aftershocks of it splintered the town after her death. The diffuse narrative strains and locations of “The Return” initially hint at a breakdown of this core, if not a reaffirmation of the supernatural as literal in just how heavily it pursues the minutiae of existing mythology. Yet it is precisely in the show’s loose plotting that the season continues the true meaning of the material, combining the lingering horror of what Laura’s death dredged to the surface of Twin Peaks with external factors of personal and economic misery affecting all of present reality to create a kind of widespread catatonia. In this way, Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie)’s demonic possession is less a deepening of the show’s plethora of evil spirits than the ultimate complement to her hellish, solitary life, holed in up in her haunted house surrounded by mountains of cigarette butts and enough empty bottles of liquor to open a recycling plant.
Above all, the show’s editing, initially a slapdash series of slow elisions between disparate locations and characters, gradually reveals itself to be arguably the single greatest depiction of time’s cruel passage ever committed to television. It perfectly captures the way time moves so fast and not at all, aging people rapidly but leaving their hang-ups and desires brutally unchanged. This is matched by the sharp contrasts of the digital cinematography, which makes a distant memory of the original show’s hazy, softly lit reflection of the town’s willfully fabricated self-image and even the harsher tones of the film’s deconstruction. The aggressive detail of the image calls attention to the blemishes and wrinkles on faces and hair thinning into wispy streaks and bald spots. All of this was visible when broadcast, but on Paramount’s newly released Blu-ray these details are rendered with supreme clarity, a perfect record of imperfection, both of body and camera image. Sound design is also given added depth by the lossless audio track that emphasizes the nightmarish collection of industrial noise, warped natural sounds and electric crackle that add a constant menace to the already unsettling series.
Paramount’s Blu-ray comes with copious extras, including promo material and the borderline surreal sight of seeing the show’s cast appear on a panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, but the meatiest and most relevant bonus is the ample behind-the-scenes footage that shows how controlling and explosive Lynch could be, helping to illustrate how such a quirky, mostly pleasing sort of fellow could conjure the intense violence seen in the show. But there is also a great warmth to his interactions with cast and crew, filled with encouragement, praise and affection. To see this material is to get further evidence that “The Return” brings “Twin Peaks” full circle by so thoroughly delivering on the broad, ensemble format of its original intent. Lynch’s affections might explain why so much of the season is devoted to demystifying Dale Cooper, the stalwart hero of the old series. First locking Cooper within the hapless (yet oddly helpful) Dougie, Lynch and Frost present a character who forces the viewer to pay attention to those around him as they generate meaning from his meaninglessness. Then there’s the finale, which suggests that Cooper’s desire to be a hero is the kind of selfish attitude that prevents, not defends, the possible relief of others, leading to a haunting final scene that tops even the original cliffhanger for brutal, absolute despair.