If the first four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return were a mainline injection of all the most surreal Red Room madness of Fire Walk With Me, the fifth marks a modest return to vaguely conventional storytelling. It’s still full of outlandish non sequiturs and supernatural events, but it’s markedly easier to articulate the actual events that take place in this hour of television, which comes as a bit of a relief — and not solely because I’m recapping it.
Perhaps it’s changed because Coop himself has finally come down to earth. Sadly, the curative power of coffee did not restore him to his former self as we had all hoped, and he’s still sleepwalking through Dougie’s life like a Coop-shaped tabula rasa. Dougie’s wife, Janey-E, packs him off to work in a piercing lime green suit, where he proceeds to steal people’s coffee, make elevators uncomfortable, and call people liars. As much as part of me would like to see him become the Lying Cat of Twin Peaks, mostly I just want Coop back.
The Mystery of the Librarian’s Head and Some Random Guy’s Body continues, though the guy may be less random than we believed. The fingerprints of the male murder victim previously came back to the Buckhorn police department as classified by the military. The character with the strongest ties to the military is of course Major Garland Briggs, who supposedly died long ago in a mysterious fire only a day after meeting with Evil Coop. Via Army Colonel Ernie Hudson, we learn that there’s been a database hit on prints from Major Garland Briggs — the 16th hit in the 25 years since his death, so perhaps he didn’t die in that fire after all. Either way, it looks like Evil Coop caught up to him in the end.
Elsewhere, more fingerprint drama ensues when Agent Tammy Preston does some careful examination of Agent Cooper’s fingerprints and finds that something isn’t quite right. Evil Coop also finally gets his phone call at the prison, and after ominous comments about “Mr. Strawberry” and some sort of demonic phone phreaking makes the lights and alarms go haywire, he says something about the cow jumping over the moon and a small black device in Buenos Aires implodes into a tiny kernel of metal. There are a lot of theories about what the “Hey Diddle Diddle” nursery rhyme might secretly be about — astronomy, Biblical reference, relationships between various world leaders — but according to Wikipedia: “Most scholarly commentators consider these to be unproven and state that the verse is probably meant to be simply nonsense.” It’s always a fine line, with Lynch.
We also meet a new malignant asshole, who shows up at the Bang Bang Bar to smoke under a No Smoking sign, like a real rebel does. He makes a payoff to the bouncer and then violently assaults a young woman in a pretty disturbing and gratuitous way; he goes from “hello” to wrapping his hands around her throat and sneering, “I’m gonna laugh when I fuck you, bitch” in the course of a few seconds. We get it: He’s a bad man. Although abuse, and particularly the sexualized abuse of women, have always been a central theme in Twin Peaks, it’s a little tiring to see the show constantly go back to this well seemingly as a matter of reflex. Throwing a rapey guy at a damsel in distress is a rote, cookie-cutter way to establish a rote-cookie cutter Bad Guy, and for a show that loves to play with subverting soapy clichés, it’s disappointing to see how hard it leans on this trope without subverting it at all.
Lynch has gotten flak for the male gaze in his work, but the problems go a lot deeper than lingering shots on female anatomy. Women, by and large, have things done to them by men in the world of Twin Peaks, and do things for men; rarely do they feel like the centers of their own universes. They are drug addicts, sex workers, girls being abused by their boyfriends, girls being exploited by their boyfriends for money (and mothers being exploited by proxy), grown women who revert psychologically to teenagers, women who can barely remember where they live, women who are so ignorant of technology that cell phones terrify them, and attractive female agents who are told to leave important conversations and get leering ass shots as they walk away.
Wives tend not to fare well either: Phyllis Hastings is not only unfaithful to her husband but cruelly abandons him in prison, poor Naomi Watts has to power nag Coop/Dougie into every action he takes, and the sheriff’s wife shows up at the station this episode for the express purposes of shrieking at him about leaking pipes before storming off. Don’t even get me started on Sylvia Horne.
And again, when women aren’t being depicted as objects, children, or shrews, they are frequent targets of violence: girls who get assaulted in bars by strange men, women who get brutally murdered while having sex, women who get brutally murdered by their boyfriends, women who get brutally murdered by their uncles, women who get sexually assaulted AND murdered by their fathers, and so on. One of the most arresting images of this episode is a shot of three young women in suggestive pink costumes, standing silently along the wall while a casino manager brutally beats an employee. It’s emblematic of the way Twin Peaks looks at women, far too often: beautiful to look at, lacking in agency, and hovering uncomfortably on the cusp of male violence.
Although Laura ultimately transcended her iconic victimhood in Fire Walk With Me, the most powerful, confident female character in The Return thus far is Denise Bryson — and I suspect we’re not getting her for much more than a cameo. Shelly Johnson, who also found a way to fight back against her abuser, now has a daughter named Becky who’s got bad boy problems of her own. Like Laura before her, Becky has a taste for shitty guys and cocaine, and after they do a bump in his car, there’s a long shot where the camera lingers on her face, beaming with the sort of wide angelic smile that Laura used to have in her better moments. Here’s hoping Becky fares better.
Becky’s dirtbag boyfriend Steven goes to a job interview where the man behind the desk has called him in expressly to tell him how little he wants to give him a job. Guess who it is? Mike Nelson, the drug-dealing jock who used to date Donna Heyward. Yes, once upon a time he too was a red-headed asshole with substance abuse issues and an outsize sense of entitlement. It’s nice to see that this former juvenile delinquent has gone on to become a productive member of society who’s telling at a whole new generation of bad boys to get off his lawns, and there’s a lot here about cycles. The people in this town and the forces impinging on it just keep going around and around and around.
Back in Vegas, Coop/Dougie is perhaps unintentionally a brilliant illustration of both male privilege and the way that women fill in the gaps of men with endless domestic and psychological labor. Despite being completely useless and unable to form original sentences, he managed to meander through a casino winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he’s been guided through every subsequent action by women who step in with a sigh to quite literally lead him by the hand. From the moment he woke up in that empty model house, unable to put on his own shoes, he has been chauffeured and guided and nursemaided by one woman after another: Jade, Dougie’s wife, and several random women at work, one who actually has to lead him to a toilet when she finds him doing a pee-pee dance in the hallway. In the last episode, Dougie’s wife said she didn’t know how to tie his tie correctly; the next morning, she does it flawlessly because — surprise! — she realized that if she didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to get done.
There’s an infantilized quality to Coop/Dougie, from the urgency as he suckles on a cup of coffee to the way that he needs help to handle his most basic bodily functions. It’s unsettling, not just because it reduces the brilliant, philosophical Agent Cooper to a hapless man-baby, but because Coop was always the pie-loving sage in a suit and tie that anchored all the weirdness. Without him, it feels more untethered than ever.