Twin Peaks is back. And it's great.
Toward the tail end of Twin Peaks' two-part revival season premiere, the one-armed spirit, Mike, sits across from Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Red Room; it is nearly 25 years to the day that our intrepid G-man was lured into this neon hellscape, and his cackling doppelganger walked out. Every second of those 25 years is etched on Agent Cooper's face; he holds himself with an immaculate stillness that has, most likely, been honed through the years of steeling himself against yet another fresh terror. "Is it future?" Mike asks. "Or is it past?" Those of us who have loved Twin Peaks have held this question uppermost in our minds as we've prepared for the revival season — would it be a half-warmed slice of the same cherry pie (only gone stale in a bid to capitalize on '90s nostalgia, like The X-Files reboot) or a wholly new, fully Lynchian beast (and if so, would the lack of the soap opera trope and narrative framework, which anchored the original, strip out some of the humor and pathos from the original?).
The answer, at least based on this premiere, is that it is future and it is past — the wild inventiveness and unabashed weirdness that drew us to the original series (particularly the first season) is evident in ways that can still shock and titillate — even in age where weekday prime-time fare like American Horror Story can deliver sequences where a worm-faced demon can rape a man to death before the first commercial break. Lynch, in his own wry, sick way, acknowledges how far Peak TV has come, since his own foray into the genre; one of the core subplots includes two dismembered corpses — a woman's comely face and a broader, stouter body — pieced together under a blue bedsheet. The female victim is a local librarian, a beloved member of her small South Dakota town (sound familiar?)
For a while, it seems as if this murder may become the axis upon which the season may spin; but unlike the Laura Palmer case that put the whole spooky story into motion, there's an arrest made, and quickly. The killer seems to be a quiet family man, a high school principal of upstanding character; he sobs to his wife that he didn't kill the librarian, though he did have a dream that he was in her apartment. This subplot seems to be abandoned as soon as it's introduced — which, on any other show, might be frustrating, but this incarnation of Twin Peaks operates in a more cinematic Lynchian mode, comprised of narrative vignettes and non-sequiturs strung around, if not a cohesive narrative, then at least a core series of emotions. In this vignette, clearly, the emotion is the fear of being imprisoned — whether that prison is literal, or made of one's own guilt, or a Red Room on an astral plane.
The thematic underpinning to these episodes is, of course, Agent Cooper's quest for liberation, even if that quest receives little narrative real estate (at least until the back half of season two): Lynch opens his new footage with Cooper and the Giant in a room so coal-dark and artfully blurred that the two men seem to be inside a charcoal drawing; the Giant says something cryptic about the "sound" approaching their house, and Cooper gives a clipped response that barely contains his exasperation. In just two small words, "It is?" Kyle MacLachlan conveys a world of carefully suppressed rage, panic, and boredom. This is not the same Cooper who can opine guilelessly about the virtues of "damn fine" diner coffee; this is a tortured soul who wants to go home. When the new incarnation of The Arm (now portrayed as a kind of tree made up as human nerves) tells Cooper that he can't return to the living world until (or, more likely, unless) his doppelganger comes back, MacLachlan conveys the sorrow of a man who thought that the universe couldn't punish him further — only to be proven wrong.
The stillness in MacLachlan's acting lets him shade great menace into Evil Cooper (aka the doppelganger); Good Cooper's eyes are naked with emotion, but Evil Cooper's eyes are shark-like and dull. And Evil Cooper moves through the world with a shark-like malevolence, gnashing his teeth at the chum of two-bit crimes and easy-killings; as MacLachlan portrays him, there's no gleeful zeal in his kills — he seems to keep swimming simply to stay alive, or avoid being sucked back into the Black Lodge. There is none of the delirious, mad-cap wickedness of the demon who first presented himself in the season two finale, smashing his face into a mirror simply so he could see what would happen. When one victim, sniveling and weeping, asks if he is going to kill her, he responds with a simple, almost-bored, "Yes." Could it be, then, that the real world, with its laws and limitations, has become a kind of prison in and of itself? Lynch doesn't fetishize Evil Coop's violence, or give him a snake-skin kind of swagger, or any veneer of bad-ass cool; he's a miserable asshole. All we really know of DoppelCoop is that some shadowy entity is trying to kill him, and, given the carnage he's wrought in the past 25 years, this death warrant might not be related to the fact that the Black Lodge wants him back.
Although the mystery of who wants Evil Coop dead, and why (or even if bullets could kill him) is bound to inspire reams upon reams of game theory on Twitter, and the question of what causes the Red Room to crack in half and spit Good Coop out into the fathomless void will hold dominion over Reddit, part of what makes watching Twin Peaks so enjoyable is that, like all Lynchian endeavors, it operates on its own internal logic. This logic mimics the ineffable structure of a dream, where symbols and patterns reveal the truths we know, but don't want to admit to ourselves, or, perhaps, foreshadow triumphs and terrors to come. This episode's two primary subplots have that dream-like function: If the subplot about the accused killer in South Dakota illuminates the themes of terror and imprisonment, then the second subplot is far more meta — it symbolizes nothing less than the nature of our current TV-watching culture.
A young man sits alone in a room in New York City; his billionaire employer has tasked him with watching, and recording, a giant glass box. The man sits, night after night, waiting for something, anything, to appear to him; night after night, he is disappointed. His comely, latte-bearing girlfriend (a sly wink to the series' kitschy love of "damn fine coffee") begs him to let her sit and watch with him — despite the presence of an armed guard with a cauliflower ear curtail and a boxer's scowl to match it. The kind of worshipful expectation with which the young man, his girlfriend, and the unseen employer, regard this glass box is Lynch's jab at our cultural consumerism — our constant outpouring of tweets and threads and, yes, recaps; our desire to dissect and assess everything that comes into the glass boxes in our living rooms, to reduce art into hot takes for the water cooler. Ironically enough, a frightened Agent Cooper appears in the box only once the young man has his back turned; the strange and the wonderful only happens when the viewer is not paying attention.
Eventually, the young man and his girlfriend do get to see something in the box; a spectral form comes whirring out at them, ripping them to ribbons like a saw-blade. This perfectly encapsulates what Lynch has done in these premiere episodes. He has burst out of the glass box of kitschy remembrance — the Log Lady Halloween costumes and the Laura Palmer Funko Dolls, the cherry pie enamel pins and the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department Mugs — that may have drawn new generations of fans to the show and giving us the brilliant, the slick, the sick; the weird, of course, but the deeply human that made Twin Peaks so special all those years ago. So, Twin Peaks aficionados can take heart. It is happening again.