One problem for anyone trying to write about Twin Peaks: The Return, of which four episodes have already aired on Showtime, is that it’s impossible to predict where it will go next. This predicament was also somewhat true of Twin Peaks, the ABC TV show produced by Mark Frost and David Lynch that debuted in 1990, ran for two seasons (one consisting of eight episodes, the other an oddly weakened 22), and led to the feature-film prequel, written and directed by Lynch, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed Twin Peaks for the Reader in 1990, after only two episodes had been broadcast, and while he correctly foretold some creative developments of the series—that the episodes not helmed by Lynch would resemble conventional network television, for one—he couldn’t have known that the murder-mystery premise of the first season would transform into a New Age spirit quest involving owls and alternate dimensions, which would in turn precede a deeply unsettling art-house movie about incest, prostitution, and patriarchal malevolence. In The Return, the only certainty is that no one other than Frost and Lynch could’ve made it.
In hindsight, Fire Walk With Me was a turning point in Lynch’s career. Before that, he was playing something of a hot hand as someone who could successfully bring arty, even avant-garde aesthetic practices to mainstream audiences, first with Blue Velvet, then with the Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart, and finally with Twin Peaks, whose first episode attracted nearly 35 million viewers. Fire Walk With Me was savaged by critics and was a box-office bomb seemingly everywhere but Japan, but the film initiated certain attributes that would distinguish the next quarter century of Lynch’s work: split narratives (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.), an emphasis on mood over plot, slight incorporations of horror, more female leads, tangential scenes that obliquely address or supplement the material, and an increasingly caustic and bitter tone.
The Return adopts many of these features, though it doesn’t completely abandon the story line of Twin Peaks. That show began with FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the murder of teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the title town; during the course of his inquiry he (and the audience) discover the various behaviors, backstories, and secrets of the townspeople. By the time of the finale, Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge—an alternate reality also inhabited by the spirit Killer Bob (Frank Silva), who took control of the body of Palmer’s killer—and his evil doppelganger has escaped into the real world. While in the Black Lodge, Palmer tells Cooper, “I’ll see you in 25 years”; The Return picks up approximately 25 years after the final episode of Twin Peaks.
In The Return Cooper’s double is running amok in the real world, committing heinous crimes and trying to evade his return to the Black Lodge. Cooper, still trapped in that mystical realm, is tasked by a mutated tree (once the Man From Another Place, previously played by Michael J. Anderson) to find his doppelganger and return him to the Black Lodge. Concurrently, the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson in her last role) alerts Twin Peaks deputy sheriff Hawk (Michael Horse) that something from Cooper’s file is missing, prompting the sheriff’s department to revisit the Laura Palmer investigation.
If all that sounds confusing, well, it’s also about as much as I can “reveal” without “spoiling” anything. Most of The Return is so strange that it’s hard to imagine how plot points could be construed as spoilers. But it’s still best to go in knowing as little as possible, because part of what makes the show so captivating is its unexpected and imaginative nature. This is why the horror elements of The Return are so horrific, the science-fiction aspects so unusual, and the comedic scenes so humorous.
Lynch directed all 18 episodes of The Return, but any fidelity or resolution to the various plotlines and characters of Twin Peaks is likely due to Frost, whose influence on the show is often underreported or totally unaddressed. While Lynch helmed the director’s chair for seven episodes of Twin Peaks, and those installments feel like isolated shorter features, the other 23 hours of the ABC series seem as if they’re Frost’s work more than Lynch’s. Frost is a seasoned TV writer who cut his teeth on Hill Street Blues, and he brings an extensive knowledge of television and its history. (On Twitter he revealed that the inclusion of one character in The Return was a reference to The Patty Duke Show.)
Most importantly, Frost contributes order and boundaries that’s absent in a lot of Lynch’s work. That grounding is fortified by Frost’s most esoteric contribution: The Secret History of Twin Peaks, a novel constructed as a dossier that provides all the details surrounding the mystery that Cooper investigated in Twin Peaks. I haven’t read it, but fans have told me that many of the apparently nonsensical scenes in The Return are addressed in some form in the book. And such world building is key to what helps Frost and Lynch retain a diehard cult audience (the Twin Peaks Reddit page provides extensive and intriguing commentary on The Return).
Lynch’s presence is most prevalent in the show’s direction. There are long, drawn-out scenes where dramatic action takes place right before the stalled momentum becomes interminable. There are B-movie special effects, adventurous sound design, and human beings transported through electrical sockets. And just as the Lynch-directed episodes of Twin Peaks felt like half-size feature films, each installment of The Return seems to be a different exploration of Lynch’s filmography. The pilot episode has some of the episodic randomness, thematic unity, and unusual tension of Mulholland Dr. and parts of Inland Empire. The third episode (the pilot consists of episodes one and two) is Lynch’s closest approximation to Eraserhead since that movie came out 40 years ago. And the fourth and most recent episode is an over-the-top comedy that might be the funniest work in Lynch’s oeuvre. At times The Return is more like a career retrospective than the follow-up to a beloved pop-culture franchise.
But if The Return is a reexamination of Frost and Lynch’s work, it’s an oblique one. And it’s possibly a farewell—Lynch confirmed in an interview with the Sydney Morning-Herald that Inland Empire is his final film. The Return is, in part, a meditation on the decisions human beings make and how those decisions affect the course of their lives. If this is the last we hear from Frost and Lynch, it’s one of the more unlikely and bizarre manifestations of creative self-reflection to arrive on any screen, big or small. v