It's difficult to explain.
As an unabashed fan of Twin Peaks, I never seriously believed the series would return. It had been too long, and it was a show too weird, to imagine it could come back, even amidst a flurry of remakes and reboots. That never stopped me from imagining a third season, but those daydreams never came with any belief that I would be proven right or wrong. I was floored to learn the series would indeed make a comeback after about 25 years--appropriately enough, given the prophetic, "I'll see you again in 25 years," line of Laura Palmer's from the original series. Twin Peaks: The Return has ended up being radically different from anything I imagined. And yet, despite subverting my every expectation, it's turned out to be one of the best seasons of television I've ever seen, providing surprises at what feels like every turn. [Spoilers ahead.]
When The Return's massive cast list was announced, it was unclear how the show could support it. We'd be getting 18 full hours, sure, but the town of Twin Peaks is only so big. One of the many ways in which The Return has surprised is how much time has been spent outside of Twin Peaks. Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have expertly expanded on the show's mythology, broadening a show that had been about nothing but a small town in Washington to primarily focus on storylines in New York, North Dakota, and Las Vegas.
Vegas proved to be especially notable. The Return didn't feature the proper reappearance of protagonist Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) until Part 16, a bold move in light of expectations that this season would give us the long (long!)-awaited return of a fan-favorite character. Instead, we had Dougie Jones, the tulpa within which Cooper found himself trapped for much of the season. Dougie and the entire Vegas storyline by all rights should have been a source of frustration for viewers. It not only went on much longer than most anticipated, but it also stood in the way of Cooper's return--though Dougie certainly did his best to make up for Cooper's absence with his passion for coffee and cherry pie.
It's a testament to Lynch and Frost's writing--and persistence--that the Vegas storyline was among the season's many highlights. Nowhere else did The Return as effectively nail that distinctive Twin Peaks mix of mystery, drama, and comedy. A common theme in Lynch's work is an exploration of the dark side of what otherwise appears to be a normal, wholesome town (think Blue Velvet or the original Twin Peaks). Like so much else this season, Vegas defied expectations. While it does indeed feature the inevitable dark underbelly of a place associated with greed and debauchery, what's surprising is how we also see the inverse of that. Loan sharks are after Dougie and his family, yet they are not the villainous figures you'd think, as Janey-E (Naomi Watts) is able to intimidate them easily enough. Insurance salesman Anthony Sinclair (Tom Sizemore) is involved in shady dealings, conspiring to commit fraud and murder but is reduced to tears by Dougie when it comes to poisoning him. The Mitchum brothers show themselves to be violent, murderous individuals, and yet, as Cooper says, they turn out to have hearts of gold--best summed up when Bradley (Jim Belushi) adorably says of Candie to his brother, "We fire her, she has no place to go." (That Lynch made me not only like the scenes starring Jim Belushi, but actively look forward to them, is perhaps his greatest feat this season.)
MacLachlan puts on not one but three terrific performances. His doppelganger version of Cooper, Mr. C, was menacing and disturbing, believably portraying him as someone hell-bent on achieving his goal while also being willing to screw around with a gang leader in an arm-wrestling match. When the good Cooper reappears, there's no sign that it's been 25 years since MacLachlan last played him. He's able to instantly recapture the character's quirky speech cadence with his request for sandwiches before hitting us with his triumphant, "I am the FBI."
But it was MacLachlan's work as Dougie Jones that was most impressive. Despite being unable to speak beyond repeating the occasional word spoken to him, MacLachlan is able to carry scenes that often comprise nothing more than his blank stares. Naomi Watts as his wife, Janey-E, also deserves a great deal of credit, essentially having to act with what amounts to a mannequin. She goes on quite the emotional rollercoaster over the season, having to deal with her husband's infidelity, gambling problem, gambling winnings, attempted murder, coma, and indefinite departure (just as things were looking up). After such an exhausting journey, it was pleasant to see Lynch provide us with the closure of the Jones family being reunited.
Being a work of Lynch, there was no shortage of his trademark quirky (and often inexplicable) tangential scenes in The Return. After the gun goes off outside of the Double R Diner, there's the screaming woman with a seemingly possessed child who vomits all over the car (a sequence that is somehow simultaneously disturbing, confounding, and hilarious). Candie is always out of it. Everything involving Dr. Amp. Shelly's boyfriend, the drug dealer Red, is seemingly an amateur magician in his spare time. We get a scene where a man literally sweeps up at a bar for roughly 150 seconds. Best of all was Michael Cera's cameo as Wally Brando, the son of Andy and Lucy, whose sole appearance was perfection. None of this, or the many other examples littered through these 18 hours, serve any real plot function. And yet, little by little, these Lynchian moments contribute to the mood that help to distinguish Lynch's episodes of Twin Peaks from those in Season 2 that he was not involved with. (The weirdness was not by any means relegated to side stories: Part 17 featured a showdown between a floating orb representing the main antagonist and a man whose glove turns him into a superhero of sorts. Yeah.)
For as funny as The Return could be--and it could be downright hilarious while also telling you everything you needed to know about a character--it was also capable of emotional devastation. Diane (Laura Dern) recollecting her rape at the hands of who she thought was her friend was chilling. In numerous other moments, Lynch and Frost were frequently exploring mortality, from Harry Truman's struggles with illness (used as a cover for actor Michael Ontkean not coming back) to Frank Truman's patience with his wife's outbursts (revealed later to be due to the suicide of their son). On a meta level, they also played with our real-world knowledge that actress Catherine Coulson, who plays Margaret Lanterman (the Log Lady), had passed away from cancer in 2015, further amplifying scenes that showed her as a sickly old woman.
The Return's structure was a curious thing. Lynch warned us that he viewed this as an 18-hour movie, but that's a notion that Hollywood often likes to throw out with little meaning. In this case, it does feel accurate. While almost always feeling like Twin Peaks, there was often little consistency from one part to the next in terms of story or structure. Not that it stopped anyone from speculating, but there was legitimately no telling what the next part would hold--you couldn't even count on seeing any single character in a given week. (Never was that more apparent than in Part 8, easily the most bizarre hour in Twin Peaks history.) The inconsistency also served to incite the sense of dread that the show so adeptly summons in viewers; you can never count on a reprieve from the frightening, tense scenes, as Lynch is unafraid to give a scene the time it needs to truly invoke the emotion it aspires to.
That all brings us to Sunday's two-part finale. Oh, that finale. If you found yourself shocked, as I was at first, it's really our own fault--we should have seen this coming. Lynch and Frost were famously pressured into revealing Laura Palmer's killer back in Season 2 by ABC; had they not been, the mystery might have lingered for longer (if not forever). Season 2's cliffhanger ending may not have been their intended conclusion to the series--ABC canceled the show at that point--but Lynch didn't go out of his way to neatly tie things up when given the chance with the subsequent movie, Fire Walk With Me. It should be no surprise that The Return leaves many things unresolved.
More shocking was the sight of Laura Palmer, apparently alive, and now stuck with Cooper in Twin Peaks--or some version of it, perhaps having sacrificed their lives to alter the events of the series to this point. The characters' fates, much like the secret Laura whispers to Cooper in the Red Room, is unknowable but sure to be the source of speculation for another 25 years.
(Throughout these two episodes, it was hard not to smirk as the characters' reactions reflected those of the audience, acknowledging both our excitement and our befuddlement. Andy and Lucy look positively giddy to see Cooper, just as we are. Following a crazy scene, Bobby asks, "What's going on around here?" And Cooper fittingly tells a confused Laura, "It's difficult to explain.")
The Return leaves us with so many unanswered questions even beyond those involving Cooper and Laura: Is Audrey in a mental institution, or some part of the Black Lodge? What was with that bug/frog thing that crawled into the girl's mouth all the way back in Part 8? Why has Phillip Jeffries become a giant teapot? Who is Judy? Did the Detectives Fusco go to Sunday dinner with their mother? And seriously, what's with the possessed girl vomiting in that car? Some questions could be addressed in co-writer Mark Frost's next book, coming out in October, or in some future Blu-ray special feature. But lingering questions are par for the course with Twin Peaks; anything else just wouldn't feel right.
I don't expect to see Twin Peaks on television again. Despite being a boon for Showtime's streaming service, broadcast ratings were poor, and the show remains too niche to imagine another network providing David Lynch with the type of resources he'd likely require if he felt compelled to continue (please prove me wrong, Netflix!).
Before it aired, I imagined this season would provide us with 18 more hours with one of my all-time favorite fictional characters in Dale Cooper--it is, after all, called The Return. To think we got less than three would seem like a guaranteed recipe for disappointment. But much in the same way that the original Twin Peaks--a bizarre, supernatural, soap opera-inspired mystery show about a high school girl's murder--delivered something I never could have thought to ask for, The Return filled a void that I did not know existed. Just as with the conclusion of the original series (and Fire Walk With Me), there will be days, weeks, months, and likely years of speculating, interpreting, and theorizing in the wake of The Return. And in that way, we are the ones who have truly returned to Twin Peaks.
Full disclosure: Twin Peaks: The Return aired on Showtime, a subsidiary of GameSpot parent company CBS.