To preface this review, allow me first to indulge in a trip down memory lane to the Television landscape of 1989. It is easy to forget, these days, in the golden age of Television – where the likes of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have elevated the medium to a position where it is now considered on par, if not better, than Hollywood – that Television was once considered no more than mindless entertainment devoid of artistic merit. Production values have sky-rocketed, the quality of both writing and acting has hit incredible heights, and A-Listers now actively seek out Television roles to consciously expand their careers. We live in what has been dubbed ‘The Golden of Age of Television’.
It wasn’t always this way. Once, Television was a dumping ground for C-List stars, dominated by Soap Operas, Episodic dramas, and Game Shows. Twin Peaks, during the original run, from 1989 to 1991, was considered a revelation for the medium. Until Twin Peaks, serious dramas had mostly been told in an episodic manner, as in the days before catch-up and on-demand, if you missed the original viewing, short of catching a re-run, you had no way of following the story. Consequently, they made sure that, while shows like Star Trek and Dallas had an over-arching storyline, most situations were resolved within the episode’s run time, so that if you missed this week’s you would not be confused and perplexed when you next tuned in. The only shows, at the time, that told a continuous serial narrative were Soap Operas, considered by most then, as now, to be poorly written and not worthy of engagement by fans of serious drama. Twin Peaks changed everything. This is not hyperbole: it was the first major network show to tell a continuous serial narrative; it absolutely shattered the formulaic nature of Television and revolutionised the industry, becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process. To say that it was ahead of its time would be an understatement; it is, quite frankly, timeless, and, if you are a fan of this current era of serialised dramas, Twin Peaks deserves, if not your fandom, at the very least your respect.
Unfortunately, it fell victim to its own success. Forced into revealing narratives earlier than they envisioned, Frost and Lynch’s vision got lost somewhere along the way, though it was certainly saved again towards the end – Episode 29 was, until The Return, the most artistically ambitious episode in the history of Television – it was too late, and the network cancelled. So, when The Return was announced, it was with huge anticipation and a cult-like fury of expectation, especially when it was revealed Frost and Lynch had full creative control, and were to write every episode together; while Lynch undertook the momentous task – a first in the history of the medium – of directing every single episode himself. We had no idea what to expect, and frankly, I doubt a single soul expected what we got, but Lynch and Frost managed to do it again. Again they have revolutionised the medium of Television, creating, in my opinion, Television’s first ever attempt at a true art house experience. And, once again, we’ve all been left confused, baffled, emotionally disturbed, and with a thousand questions.
One could even take the scene in episode two where the mysterious Experiment (Judy/The Mother,) shatters the glass box and tears off the faces of the two coitally-distracted teens, as Lynch himself saying: ‘I like what you’ve done with the place, but Daddy’s back. Forget your Netflix and chill. The master is home.’
The Return is the pure-heroin version of David Lynch, unfiltered, uncensored and uncut, straight from the roots, and allowed to bloom wildly. It is also potentially the greatest work of his career – his Magnum-opus. And, should it turn out to be his swansong, there could be no more fitting goodbye from one of the greatest minds in cinema history. It is hard, truthfully, to break down an 18 episode series into a review – one often asks whether they should review the work as a whole, or each individual episode by its own merits. With most Television shows, perhaps, such as Game of Thrones, the latter approach would make sense. While it is a continuing serial, it does fall into a somewhat formulaic pattern with most episodes serving as complete entities on their own. Peaks, in this aspect, doesn’t quite work. Lynch has stated in numerous interviews that he and Frost effectively wrote the series as an 18 hour film, later broken into episodes during the editing process. Consequently, I will be approaching this review as though I were reviewing the longest film in the history of cinema. So, dear readers, I suggest you get yourself some damn good hot coffee, a fine slice of cherry pie, and settle down, because this could be a long journey.
It has often been said that it takes a few episodes before you can truly begin to gauge a Television show. That, as it is a marathon, not a sprint, one mustn’t be too hasty to write a show off based on a single episode. The Return, however, is a completely different animal altogether. From the opening shot – of Cooper and The Fireman – and the surreal, ambient bizarreness of the situation, it is instantly recognisable; and, frankly, if you can’t handle the first two episodes, finding yourself squeezed by tension and lost amidst a sea of abstract imagery, you may as well get off the ride there and then, as the insanity simply grows. It is, unquestionably (for better or worse, depending on your tastes) the most artistically expressive work the medium of Television has ever produced. Narrative coherence is, at times, thrown straight out of the window, and rarely do you receive answers to the questions that burn in your mind. Rather, Lynch and Frost appear to delight in taunting and teasing the audience, to force them into the role of detective, grasping for even the smallest revelation. Yet, we do get them. We get just enough breadcrumbs, just enough information, to keep us invested – yet, with every reveal, we’re given a plethora of brand new questions. This style of writing, this sheer enjoyment of mystery, is a massively needed breath of fresh air in a stagnating scene built on instant gratification. The Return takes its time, Lynch and Frost playing the cat to our mouse; pawing at us for their own amusement, keeping us in the dark while they remain the only two people on the planet who know what is truly happening. The Return is, like most great works of art, a puzzle to be solved, forcing us to stop being passive observers and participate with the film. Towards the end, Monica Belluci asks Gordon Cole (David Lynch) ‘Who is the dreamer?’. The answer is: we are. We are the ones who kept the dream alive for 25 years. We are the ones who fuel the narrative with speculation. We are the dreamer, living inside Lynch and Frost’s dreamworld.
Ironically, the lack of narrative clarity and meticulous slow pace could perhaps be the show’s biggest weakness, though not artistically. What I mean is that, to a casual audience, conditioned to expect closure and having everything explained in nauseating detail, it will be an almost impossible watch. An exercise in frustration and tedium. The one thing the original run perhaps held over The Return was the ability to cross-over and appeal to both cinephiles and the casual crowd. The Return does not; it is the pure, unfiltered vision of David Lynch, and it will take the most hardened cinephile, particularly one with a love for the art house, to appreciate and stick with it. Yet, if one sticks with it, if one is patient, the show will reward you.
Perhaps not with answers, but with moments of pure emotion, raw power, ambient tension and surprisingly hysterical comedy. If you revel in the ambiguity, and shower in the absurdity of it all, understanding that life is full of absurdities and contradictions – if you don’t question why Phillip Jeffries now appears to be a sentient teapot – you will have an experience the likes of which you will never see again. What one has to understand is that, as with magician, the beauty does not lie in the method of the trick. It lies within the trick itself. Once the curtain is pulled back, and we know everything, what is there left for us to care about? Technically speaking, everything is perfect. Every scene is saturated with overwhelming beauty, every shot immaculately framed. It is, quite simply, a master-class in both editing and cinematography. The Lodge sequences, in particular, could not have been done better.
Perhaps no director in history has had a more unique and singular artistic vision than Lynch. There are elements, visually, of all his work, especially his incredible debut Eraserhead. As with the finest photography, you could put it on your wall and every shot would stand toe to toe with great works of art. In terms of the narrative itself, there is absolutely no way I’m spoiling it. This story is best, without doubt, if you head in completely blind, not knowing what to expect, and allow yourself to be swept up and taken on a journey. Perhaps the most beautiful thing is I couldn’t entirely spoil it. Even after mulling over it for the last three weeks, I’m still not 100% what happened. I don’t want to taint your interpretation with my own. Let the show speak to you as it will, and you will no doubt form your own theories and opinions. If the central theme of season one was ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ the theme of season three is ‘Who is Dale Cooper?’.
While The Return covers a plethora of themes – betrayal, the futility of changing the past, the tendency of history to repeat itself, hope, the nature of Good Vs Evil – the exploration of Cooper’s character is the driving force for the season. We get to know this character in three guises: Vintage-Coop, Bad-Coop, and Dougie-Coop. They are mostly treated as separate characters, but it is pretty apparent that they are merely three faces of the same entity, hunting for the same thing. Both Good and Bad Cooper are relentless, unable to think of anything beyond their goals. They also seem to be unable to live in the present; Bad Coop obsessed with the future, Good Coop with the past. Neither take anytime to appreciate the now, lost in their tenacious desire for change. The only character who appears to live in the now, to appreciate the present, and life itself, is Dougie-Coop.
Perhaps this was a message both Lynch and Frost wished to convey. The past cannot be changed, the future is not here yet, we only ever have the now, and if we cannot live within it, we waste our existence. It is, if intended, an extremely powerful and sobering message. For me, Dougie’s storyline, controversial to some, frustrating to others, and utter, utter joy to myself, was the crowning achievement of The Return. It was a genius move on behalf of the writers to make us wait, anxiously, for the return of our beloved Dale Cooper. We hung on every move, every whiff of recognition, with baited breath. It was, without a doubt, one of the ballsiest moves in Television history – who else would dare not give us our central protagonist for roughly 14 hours? Yet, it yielded the most beautiful, heart-warming narrative I’ve seen in a long time. I lived vicariously through Dougie; moved by every tear, laughing hysterically at every misunderstanding. He is a timeless character, who, like most great characters, can teach us a valuable lesson about life itself, and how we experience it. This is helped by the supporting cast who were absolutely incredible. The beauty of Peaks is every character, however minor, is fleshed out and loveable; from Bushnell, to Janey-E, Sonny-Jim, The Mitchums, Candie – all are fantastic, all are loved. Naomi Watts in particular is fantastic, but the entire cast, through all the duelling narratives, bring in incredible performances. Even Cole, an extension of Lynch himself, could be viewed as narcissistic casting, but Lynch’s performance is so hysterical that you quickly stop caring about such trivial matters. He is Cole, and he provides some of The Return’s highlights. Laura Dern, as Diane, is perhaps the MVP of the series, putting in one hell of a complex performance that really can’t be explained without spoiling it, but her ‘fuck you’s are destined to become iconic.
Grace Zerbeskie, also, gives a master-class in how to maximise limited screen-time, and her turn as Sarah Palmer is very impressive. Wounded, vulnerable, yet with more than a hint of the ultimate darkness running through her, she presents a shell of a woman; broken and twisted by a lifetime of tragedy, yet able to tear your throat out at a moment’s notice. Her line ‘Do you really want to fuck with this?’ still chills me to the bone.
The old cast shine as well – Bobby, for example, has noticeably improved, and Andy and Lucy, in the scenes we get of them, are a nostalgic joy. More controversial, perhaps, is the fate of Audrey Horne, and I myself must confess disappointment that she wasn’t given more to do, as she was always among my favourite characters. It is perhaps the one regret I have from this magnificent experience, as one can simply never get enough of Sherilyn Fenn. It is worth stating, however, that what she does with her limited time is nothing short of remarkable, perhaps adding to audience frustration. The heart and soul of the show is MacLachlan, and what he’s done this season is incredible. He has always been a ludicrously under-rated performer, but he cannot be ignored any longer. Through the three faces of Cooper he gives, arguably, one of the greatest acting performances not just in the history of Television, but in the history of acting full stop. His mannerisms, his expressions, his ability to tell an entire story with the most subtle of facial movements is borderline ridiculous. No single person should contain this much talent. He is a walking masterclass in kinetic performance, a tour-de-force of emotional complexity, and if he doesn’t receive some form of reward for this then the validity of any awards ceremony falls into serious doubt. It is a timeless performance.
I would like, at this time, to pay special tribute to Episode 8, destined to be remembered as the most artistic, expressive, expansive and mind-blowing hour of Television ever conceived. To tell you anything would ruin it, but it provides the perfect bridge mid-season between the first and second half of the story. An incredibly executed black and white nightmare, leading us through the heart of human darkness, and the genesis of the Twin Peaks story. The five minute sequence of a nuclear bomb, the birth of Laura Palmer, and the descent of The Woodsman are, frankly, beyond anything I thought television capable of. Sure to disturb and confuse you in equal measure, nothing else in The Return, for my money, came close to touching it. Until THAT damn ending.
Surely to go down as one of the most controversial, divisive and mind-blowing endings Television will ever see, Episode 18 has left a taste in the mouth that is quite difficult to fathom or entirely explain. While episode 17 gave us a hint of closure, a suggestion that maybe Lynch would buck the trend of a lifetime and give us a conclusive ending, Cooper’s superimposed face declares ‘We Live Inside a Dream’, and we descend into utter insanity. I refuse to spoil it, if I even could – I’m not entirely sure I understand it yet. ‘What year is this?’ is a line that, if we never get a season 4, will live in infamy for the rest of time, burrowing into your subconscious and refusing to leave. I do have minor criticisms of the show, but most are redundant. They tend to revolve around unresolved plot-points, which, to criticise, would be missing the point. We are supposed to create our own conclusions. To be detectives. However, to a casual audience, this is utterly frustrating and will inevitably cause them to switch off. Hell, even some Peaks die-hards were getting frustrated with it.
Some scenes could also have been shortened, and occasionally it felt like Lynch was merely indulging himself, though this did nothing to dampen my enjoyment. Plus, if this is to be his last work, I think the man has earned the right to indulge a little. Perhaps episode 18 could have done with less driving. There is a lot of driving, and when it dawns on you that approximately a third of the finale consisted of that, you do wonder if more could have been done. The motif of ending every episode with a musical performance at the Roadhouse also became a bit tiresome, as, for every fantastic performance (Lissie, Chromatics, Eddie Vedder), we get a boring, plodding effort (James fucking Hurley.) Though I imagine this was Lynch giving us a few moments to consider what we’ve seen, and perhaps discuss it with a friend. A chance to reflect. Twin Peaks: The Return is not for everybody. Like all great art it refuses to yield and submit to traditional interpretation, instead insisting on provoking and, to a certain extent, confusing you. If you ride with it, if you allow it to sweep you up and take you where it wishes to go; if you experience it, as opposed to watching it, you will be greatly rewarded. It is, for my money, the single most ambitious and artistically expressive piece of cinema ever devised. The first time, perhaps, that a Television show could stand shoulder to shoulder with the great works of human artistic expression. It’s a masterpiece, and a gift we should all cherish, and MacLachlan’s performance alone demands a viewing. Open your mind, forget what you knew, and step into a world both strange and wonderful. Don’t forget the coffee and pie.
Article by Joshua Moulinie
Twin Peaks: The Return is available to own on DVD and Blu Ray from 5th December
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