Twin Peaks is primarily associated with two people, one real and one fictional: co-creator David Lynch and FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the series’ noble, eccentric protagonist. Though almost nothing was known about Twin Peaks: The Return prior to its premiere in May, it seemed fair to assume that the revival would follow Cooper as he returned to the town of Twin Peaks. After all, it wouldn’t be Twin Peaks if Agent Cooper weren’t strutting around town, monologuing to Diane via tape recorder, and prophesizing about Tibet or his strange dreams.
Perhaps not, but Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t the old Twin Peaks, and Agent Cooper isn’t the beloved character that fans remember, at least so far. Instead, he’s become something else entirely: a catatonic savant trapped in the body of Dougie Jones, a hard-luck insurance agent with a penchant for prostitutes and gambling. Ever since Cooper escaped the Black Lodge and embodied Dougie, who is actually a doppelgänger manufactured by the original Cooper doppelgänger, he has stumbled slowly around Las Vegas while mumbling stray phrases and mimicking the actions of his peers. All the while, nobody reacts with much urgency or concern, including Dougie’s wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts), his co-workers, or the police. For whatever reason, everyone assumes it’s just Dougie being Dougie.
Lynch and series co-creator Mark Frost are teasing Cooper’s eventual return by taunting the audience’s desire for something familiar, turning the most recognizable avatar of Twin Peaks into a childlike figure who has yet to fully awaken to reality. In the hands of anyone else, this would just be a clever form of narrative padding, a way to spread out a thin story across a season’s worth of episodes. But Lynch and Frost have created the single most compelling character of The Return by refusing to provide the audience with what they ostensibly crave. Dougie-Coop represents Twin Peaks at its best — an unpredictable vision that challenges and provokes its audience rather than appeases them.
The superficial pleasures of Dougie-Coop begin with Kyle MacLachlan’s performance, some of the best work he’s done in his career. Channeling characters like Peter Sellers’ Chance in Being There, Spielberg’s E.T., and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, MacLachlan mines the full range of human emotion with his blank expression and clumsy movements. He approaches Dougie-Coop like walking Play-Doh, something to be molded by his environment, even as Agent Cooper lies dormant inside. By solely reacting to the actions of others, MacLachlan trades in his characteristic poise for stubborn passivity, in turn negating the traits that defined Agent Cooper. This minimalist technique succeeds on its own merits, but it also makes the smallest gestures — an imitated thumbs-up, a gracious smile, or a tearful face — feel remarkably significant. Every episode featuring Dougie-Coop adds new weight to MacLachlan’s performance, providing him with more avenues for subtle emotional engagement.
The Dougie-Coop scenes are also the funniest, most accessible elements of The Return, despite their measured pace and repetitive nature. MacLachlan is responsible for the vast majority of the comedy, as simply watching Dougie-Coop navigate a world he doesn’t understand is funny enough, while Lynch and Frost raise the comedic stakes by placing the character in situations he’s seemingly ill-equipped to handle that nonetheless work out in his favor, not unlike the bare-bones formula of a sitcom. After Dougie-Coop staggers into a casino, he proceeds to clean out $425,000 from the slot machines, much to the surprise and fear of the casino management. Similarly, he wanders into an office building, chugging coffee like a fiend, only to make an accusation of corruption against his co-worker Anthony (played by Tom Sizemore). Later, as he childishly doodles on insurance files he’s supposed to summarize, he all but proves Anthony’s misdeeds, much to the surprise and gratitude of his boss. Dougie-Coop’s upward flailing is top-notch absurd situation comedy, but the humor comes through even better in the smaller moments — his ritualistic “Helloooo-ooo-ooo” every time he hits a jackpot, his rediscovery of pancakes and coffee, his inability to control his bladder and subsequent relief when it’s emptied, and his befuddlement at his son’s clapper lamp.
Occasionally, Dougie-Coop’s behavior also signals that the real Agent Cooper exists somewhere beneath his exterior. He perks up at the words “agent” and “case files,” he lusts after coffee, and he relearns his distinctive thumbs-up sign. These are the closest things to concessions we’ve received from Twin Peaks: The Return so far, and they indicate that Cooper will reemerge in full at some point in the future. However, it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if Lynch and Frost decide to keep Cooper trapped in the body of a lowly insurance agent for the remainder of the series. Though Dougie-Coop has visions of Mike from the Black Lodge encouraging him to “wake up,” there’s no other explicit indication that he will. This is still a David Lynch project after all.
So with all that in mind, is there a point to Dougie-Coop beyond a long-term tease? It’s easy to read a corporate satire into his story line, since Dougie-Coop’s drone-like behavior neatly fits into the tenor of a soulless office environment. The underlying joke that no one seems too concerned about Dougie’s change in behavior suggests a commentary on modern life: Are people so isolated from each other that they simply wouldn’t notice if a friend, relative, or colleague suddenly entered a borderline lobotomized state? It’s also possible that Dougie-Coop functions as an antidote to today’s “dark, dark age,” to quote Janey-E’s rant against Dougie’s criminal creditors: His naïve, wholly innocent behavior stands in sharp contrast to the violence and depravity that pervades all walks of life in Twin Peaks.
While all those readings are valid in their own ways, they feel too static for The Return, which has adopted a slippery, purposefully unstable tone. It’s tempting to attempt a one-to-one connection between image and meaning, but that’s simply insufficient when it comes to Twin Peaks, let alone David Lynch’s entire surrealist oeuvre. The Peak TV era has trained audiences to constantly suss out meaning from narrative mysteries, but The Return is literally like nothing else on television, so that’s a futile approach. Images shouldn’t always have to rely on concrete meaning to provide them with weight; they should be able to exist on their own terms. With The Return, Lynch actively tries to destabilize audience security, so it makes sense that he would also try to break down the traditional relationship between symbol and explicit meaning. Dougie-Coop isn’t a difficult character to understand, but his place in the world of Twin Peaks still remains unknown. Lynch clearly wants people to embrace that.
In other words, maybe Dougie-Coop is just Dougie-Coop for now. There’s no need to call for help.