[The following contains spoilers.]
There have been only four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return and we are already enjoying one of the most classic elements of the original series: worrying about the puny ratings. It has been widely reported that just half a million people watched the “cult” filmmaker David Lynch’s first television venture in twenty-five years. The Independent has declared these ratings to be “shockingly low”; the online magazine Vulture noted that, “the upcoming new season premiere of Ray Donovan will get three times the same-day audience as Peaks did this weekend.” So should letter-writing citizens be once again opposed to the offing of Peaks?
There have been numerous chasers and clarifications. For most viewers, the nostalgia for the 1990s did not extend to literally watching Twin Peaks on a television. More people streamed Twin Peaks than viewed it on a live channel. Once this input is factored in, the premiere’s audience is hiked up to an irreproachable 1.7 million.
Over the last few months I have spoken with several people who fondly recall encountering Twin Peaks as teenagers. Yet none of them could in the end remember watching all of the episodes. They also think it something of a chore to commit to so many hours of preparation. Twin Peaks may be instantly available but there is presumably a large share of potential viewers who do not yet believe themselves qualified to watch it. The show may be notoriously confusing, but you still need to do your homework before you are in a position to truly appreciate just how confused you are.
The fifth episode (“Case Files”) continues to pursue the same self-referential game-playing that is characteristic of this whole season. Twin Peaks is not or no longer a soap opera but it is constantly trying to unhook itself from this shadow. In keeping with the founding image of the glass box from the premiere, the characters in episode five are frequently placed in scenarios in which they unthinkingly behave as if they are watching television.
Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) sits watching bemused and impassive as his wife Doris (Candy Clark) rants about some household multi-disaster that involves leaking pipes and a broken-down car. She could be recounting the entire synopsis of one of those hayseed Twin Peaks episodes from season two. Later, Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) watches from across the Double R Diner as Becky Burnett (Amanda Seyfried) begs her mother Shelley (a pleasantly unaged Mädchen Amick) for money. The conversation is inaudible – it is, in fact, just like trying to watch a TV programme in a bar. The normal soap-opera content is now distant and inaccessible.
There is a more horrific take on these televisuals when a tiny urchin (Sawyer Shipman) scampers out of his mother’s house to inspect a car bomb. He has seen it being affixed to the underside of a vehicle across the street. Fortunately for him some thieves also have their eye on this car and they arrive in the nick of time to shoo the boy away. The boy consequently watches the car go up in flames and the thieves being burned alive. He watches impassively. He has surely seen the same thing countless times before. He is probably left unattended with the television a lot – his mother is slumped awol in a chair, zonked out on drugs.
When the casino supervisor (Brett Gelman) is beaten up by mobsters, there is similarly a row of bored female onlookers, who are watching and not watching. After more than two decades of estrangement from network television, Twin Peaks has returned in a spirit of vengeance. Its incessant message is that television is deadening us and, during episode five, our enchanted tranquillity towards violence comes to be reflected in the screen.
In the original Twin Peaks, there was always a soap-opera-within-a-soap-opera on in the background, in the characters’ homes and workplaces. Entitled “Invitation to Love,” it was a satin melodrama that showcased hilariously stilted acting. Mark Frost had actually taken four actors to Ennis House in Los Angeles to film a whole sixteen minutes of this baloney. 2017, within the world of Twin Peaks, appears to promise no corresponding, nostalgic reboot of “Invitation to Love.” Instead, the town’s residents are currently engrossed in a new TV show, a webcast from the erstwhile psychoanalyst Dr Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn).
Jacoby is now a conspiracy theorist and his outpourings slip-slide with layers of twinkling significance. Tychy had previously wondered how the quaint atmosphere of Twin Peaks could ever manage to be realistic today. If the town was a real place, it would be poor and mean and it would have voted for Trump. Yet Twin Peaks finds a secure footing in digital democracy with this affectionate portrayal of Jacoby, who has progressed from being a shrink into an interpreter of geopolitical neuroses. In his analysis, “…the fucks are at it again, the same vast global corporate conspiracy!”
Luckily, Jacoby inhabits a universe in which fake news is rather truer than it is in our own. There really are sinister networks undermining America. His website has its own merch – golden shovels to “shovel your way out of the shit.” This sounds faintly like mockery of the Twin Peaks fan community, as if there is a humorous private bet between Frost and Lynch as to whether such shovels will be soon obtainable alongside the Agent Cooper action dolls and the “donut disturb” door signs. The ultimate metaphorical interpretive aid.
You will notice that Jacoby’s webcast has been the only moment in the new season when Twin Peaks has looked like a community again. The characters Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) and Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly) are shown tuning in across the town. But this is an online community rather than, or as well as, a small town one. The disconnectedness of the townspeople is best conveyed in Becky Johnson’s beautiful, eerie, post-cocaine rapture. In her husband’s car, her head is rolled back and her face bathed in heavenly light. She is engrossed in the sky rather than in any screen, joyous and completely self-absorbed. It is not, I would suggest, a wholly positive alternative to watching television. Rather than sharing in her chemical transcendentalism, we are anxious about whether her equally coked-up husband (Caleb Landry Jones) will crash the car.
Twin Peaks continues to sweep vastly forward like the Russian army, with the same have-patience format that is used in, say, Game of Thrones. There are thousands of recruits and most of them have only a spurious connection to the plot and a growing number of them are being left behind. They are characters who would be normally just extras but Lynch’s camera has dwelt on them for slightly too long. In the first episode, for example, we met Benjamin Horne’s new secretary (Ashley Judd) and we encountered a weird family in the woods led by a witchy matriarch (Kathleen Deming) and we went on a dreamlike search around the environs of a locked apartment in South Dakota, where we were regaled with the comical neighbours. These characters are all apparently forgotten by episode five and yet they could naturally reappear at any time. They might still hold some stray clue to the mystery.
So Twin Peaks: The Return is even more insincere as a soap opera. It is really a monumental, ever-moving card game, shuffling individual, isolated characters with unguessable values. There are three Dale Coopers in the pack, but they are so far valueless or decoys. Cooper unbalances the show with his disproportionate screen time, but this starring role is played by a shadow, a blankness. Significantly, episode five ends not with Mr Jackpot watching a screen, but captivated by the statue of a cowboy that could be a still from a movie or a TV show (there is some fan discussion over whether it is a representation of David Bowie). The blank Mr Jackpot is thus stuck like a frozen screen. If Cooper had left his shoes behind in the hereafter, he has paused to study those of the statue, as though he wishes to step into them.
The ongoing odyssey of Mr Jackpot is perhaps the unhappiest aspect of the new Twin Peaks. These Las Vegas scenes teeter almost upon magic realism, with an airy, over-allegorical liberation from realism that is familiar from terrible Latin American paperbacks. There is certainly suspense – and we will have to wait yet another week for the punchline – but the symbolism in play is rather too glib. Mr Jackpot is a corporate man who can spend an entire working day out of his skull without his wife, employer, boardroom chums, or flirtatious co-worker querying his behaviour. Yes, it is an obvious joke about these people being all on cocaine or about the mindlessness of the middle-class dream. Moreover, we should remember that this is not the UK. If an American without updated Trumpcare health insurance has a stroke, the least expensive option is probably to ignore it.
Is Special Agent Dale Cooper effectively dead? Is he forever stuck in 1991 and, if he could extract himself, what possible life remains for him? The town of Twin Peaks is now as much of a shell or a ghost as the body of Dougie Jones. Cooper’s last surviving connection with the town – a room key from the Great Northern Hotel – is unceremoniously dumped in a roadside bin. His old buddy Sherriff Harry Truman is an absent invalid. It is a comfortless world and Cooper does not merely need to reclaim his life but to find a place and a role for it in 2017.