The idea of recapping Twin Peaks is, on some level, absurd. David Lynch’s cult-classic TV series about duality and darkness in a small Northwestern town has always resisted literal interpretation; offering a synopsis of any particular episode is a bit like trying to explain a dream upon waking, a flattening of the primal and symbolic into the comprehensible and superficial.
Although the original series initially captured viewers with what seemed like a relatively linear murder mystery, Twin Peaks: The Return suffuses itself almost entirely in the mind-bending supernatural symbolism that later defined it. The stuff of dream logic has always been a hallmark of Lynch’s work: people who are both themselves and someone else; moments that bend the past and future into a circle; and incidents that seem mundane but are somehow imbued with an inexplicable sense of dread.
As with dreams, simply narrating the events of Twin Peaks misses the point entirely. But knowing how to interpret either one is a tricky and inexact business at best, dependent upon a complex and specific repertoire of associations and images. A better way of understanding them, perhaps, is not just to look at what happens in them, but at how they make you feel, and how those feelings connect to one another — like an image that emerges from static, not when you stare at it directly, but when you observe it out of the corner of your eye.
The opening scene of The Return finds us back in the Red Room — filmed initially in black and white, because duality — where Agent Cooper and the Giant are listening to the inscrutable scratches and crackles of a gramophone. The Giant launches into a series of coded messages so cryptic that they could easily double as a Twin Peaks parody: “Remember 4-3-0. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone.”
He also offers a clue to understanding those clues, a bit of code that serves as something of a codebreaker: “It all cannot be said aloud now.”
There’s a frustration you often hear from people who don’t “get” Twin Peaks: Why is it so deliberately esoteric, mystifying even to the point of alienation? Why can’t it ever just say what it means? It can’t, not really. Sure, maybe the death of Laura Palmer could have been an interesting story if depicted as a straightforward murder mystery. But then it wouldn’t have have been Twin Peaks, a show that left an indelible mark on the landscape of television specifically because it was so maddeningly idiosyncratic and surreal. That was part of what made its explorations of grief and abuse so emotionally affecting, what allowed it to penetrate the psychological defenses even of viewers who didn’t fully understand it. The literal is more easily ignored, but it is hard to know how to refute an emotion, a dream, a thing that you can barely articulate.
Lynch himself describes the key to understanding the series in the opening minutes of Fire Walk With Me, in a scene that is all about symbolism and interpretation. After the death of another young woman in another small town, two federal agents meet up with FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) for further instruction on the case. Rather than debriefing them in the traditional manner, Gordon introduces them to a strange woman named “Lil” who wears a bright red dress and does a strange dance involving facial expressions and hand gestures. Back in the the car, one of the agents is baffled by what he has just seen — a feeling familiar to many Twin Peaks fans — while the veteran agent explains that every gesture, every color, every odd word spoken by Gordon was embedded with information: everything from potential obstacles with local law enforcement to the familial situation of the victim.
“Why couldn’t he have just told you all these things?” the first agent asks, baffled. We’re told that Gordon has poor hearing, that he can rarely understand the words people are saying, and prefers to communicate largely through code. As in dreams, everything he says is one layer removed from the literal — not because he manipulatively chooses to obscure it, but because he is most comfortable speaking a different language entirely. He’s telling the agents everything they need to know, if they can understand how to decipher it.
Throughout both the new series and the old we encounter people over and over who know things on some level — and yet don’t. They realize something important, and then forget. Laura seems to understand, in some moments, that her father is the otherworldly abuser who has been sexually assaulting her since the age of 12, and yet she reacts to evidence of this link with shock and horror, sublimating and denying. Agent Cooper spends most of the series both knowing and not knowing the answer to the very mystery he is tasked with investigating. After a trip to the Red Room during which Laura Palmer whispers a secret in his ear, he awakens and calls the sheriff, announcing that he knows who killed her. Who was it, then? “I don’t remember,” Cooper says slowly, the semiotic epiphany of the dream receding at the touch of consciousness.
In The Return, the mutilated corpses of a high-school librarian and a John Doe — or rather, her head and his body — are discovered by a neighbor who calls the police, only to forget her own address. When they arrive, she forgets who has the key to unlock the apartment, only to remember that she has had it all along. The prime suspect in the crime, local principal Bill Hastings, seems equally dissociative when confronted with evidence of his guilt. Although his fingerprints are all over the crime scene — and he was having an affair with the librarian — he insists that he was only in her apartment that night in a dream, that none of it was real. Perhaps, like Leland, he was there, but also wasn’t. None of us think we are monsters; when we are, it must mean that it wasn’t us.
There’s a Carl Jung quote about how the failure to understand the subconscious forces that motivate us can both control and destroy us: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Again and again in Twin Peaks, we see the inability to grasp or face the revelations of the subconscious as inescapable tragedies: Both Laura and Cooper knew somehow that her death is imminent, yet were unable to stop it, because they could not quite find a way to say its name.
When we last saw Cooper, our favorite coffee-drinking fed had been split in two: his soul trapped in the extra-dimensional Red Room, and his physical body possessed by Bob, the demonic being that compelled Leland to kill his daughter. Laura, too, is trapped in the Red Room — “I am dead, yet I live,” she backwards-talks — before whispering another secret in Good Dale’s ear and disappearing in a flurry of shrieks and fluttering curtains.
Good Dale can’t return to reality until Evil Dale returns to the Black Lodge, and while it’s finally “time” for that to happen — it’s been 25 years, after all — Evil Dale isn’t quite ready to go back. The long-haired, leather-jacketed doppelgänger is somehow embroiled in the death of the librarian, and has hooked up with several unsavory business partners in order to get vital information from the principal’s secretary: “geographical coordinates, numbers, letters.” As ever, there are plenty of numbers and letters peppered throughout the first two episodes — 253, 430, 1,059, 1,349 — but it’s hard to tell if they will ever be functional clues or just codes that represent codes, symbols of the things people want to know and the places they want to go, and how their path to them is obscured.
Things go awry for Evil Dale when he learns his crime friends are actually trying to kill him, so he murders one of them and sets out to track down the other. He still wants that information, as well as details on who put out a half-a-million-dollar contract on his life — perhaps the same anonymous billionaire funding the giant glass cube in New York? Yes, there is an empty glass box ensconced in a giant concrete room, where a young man sits on a couch and stares at it for hours on end like a television. It is his job to watch it and wait for something to happen; nothing has ever happened. Like Good Dale — and like us — the box has been waiting for what seems like a very long time, and the two may not be unrelated.
Although the professional box-watcher is not supposed to talk about the box or allow anyone in the supersecret box room, he eventually acquiesces to an attractive young woman named Tracy who keeps bringing him lattes, and soon they are banging on the couch and definitely not watching the box. Inevitably, this is the exact moment that the box fills with darkness and a shuddering white figure appears inside of it. As they stare in horror, it shatters the glass and tears them to shreds.
This all takes on greater resonance later — or perhaps before? — in the Red Room, where Good Dale chats with a giant electric tree who claims to be an evolution of “the Arm” (aka, the backwards-talking dwarf). As Evil Dale drives down a highway toward his next bad deed, the tree screams, “NONEXISTENT,” and the zigzag floor opens up and swallows Good Dale. He materializes again inside the glass box, just before the scene where the cube explodes. Does this mean he is somehow responsible for the murder of the two young lovers, or does it mean something completely different? Impossible to say!
The first two episodes come to a close in the Bang Bang Bar, the formerly seedy roadhouse where Laura Palmer used to make bad decisions. Thanks to some renovations and savvy rebranding, it’s now a bit more like the Bronze from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a hangout-slash-concert venue where members of the old gang — Shelly, James, et al. — hang out and drink beer and sway gently to synthpop. Lynch has a longstanding fondness for women singing in front of red curtains or bathed in blue light, but instead of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Rebekah del Rio in Mulholland Drive, or Julee Cruise (the composer of the Twin Peaks theme song) crooning on the same Bang Bang bar stage in Fire Walk With Me, we get Chromatics singer Ruth Radelet singing an ethereal song about a shadow taking someone down for the very last time.
And so it comes full circle: Shelly, who spent much of the original series fleeing her abusive husband, Leo, is telling her friends about how her daughter is dating the wrong guy — “I can see it on her face — there’s something really wrong” — before spotting James staring at her wistfully from across the room. When one of her friends asks if he’s being weird, Shelly says what I imagine a lot of fans of Twin Peaks will be saying about the revival of one of the weirdest shows to ever grace the small screen: Who cares? “James is still cool,” she says with a wide smile. “He’s always been cool.”