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[The following contains spoilers.]

Throughout Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, many of the characters who were at the heart of the original series are absent, to the extent that absence is now the signature theme of this show. We have scarcely seen Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) raise an eyebrow, though MacLachlan is kept busy playing a pair of renegade Cooper doppelgängers. The heart-throb sidekick Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) is missing completely. Neither of the old monsters BOB (Frank Silva) nor the Man From Another Place (Michael J Anderson) were options because the actors are, in different ways, unavailable. From the power couple Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and James Hurley (James Marshall), the former is nowhere to be seen whilst the latter has been glimpsed only from afar.

The show’s original young stars, or what are left of them, are now overshadowed or distorted or even lampooned. Bobby and Shelley Briggs (Dana Ashbrook and Mädchen Amick) can be still picked out from the huge soup of new characters and they have been each given a scrap of storyline to follow. But their old roles have been essentially overlaid with those of a new riotous young couple Steven and Becky Burnett (Caleb Landry Jones and Amanda Seyfried). The Horne brothers have been switched for the Mitchum gangsters. James Hurley was briefly back with us in spirit during a merciless cameo parody by Michael Cera.

Lynch’s pursuit of this thematic ploy has led him to be particularly abusive in his use of the actors Michael Ontkean and James Marshall. Ontkean has not been invited back to the show even as his character’s brother, Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) traipses around mourning his absence. Frank was theoretically always somewhere in the story during the original Twin Peaks. He therefore held the same status that Dale Cooper does in the present series except that nobody had known he was missing.

The original Twin Peaks was constructed around the absence of the murdered schoolgirl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee); the new series replaces her absence with that of Agent Cooper. To stretch for a metaphor within comfortable reach, these missing characters are like the holes in two donuts.

Which brings us to Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn). Audrey’s unique charisma was always the product of her contradictions. Her nymphomania and flightiness were chaste whilst her goodness was naughty; she was both elfin and voluptuous. She was missing for the first eleven episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, until the suspense pertaining to her reappearance had become as taut as that generated by the wait for Cooper. And when she at last returned – the great event of episode twelve – viewers and reviewers were left wondering what exactly had come back.

Her return was “baffling” (Vanity Fair); “not so grand” and “untriumphant” (the Independent); “maddening” and “a scene that was awkwardly executed and lacks any sort of depth or context” (the Vulture). Moreover, she was now a “shrieking, stereotypical harpy” (the Vulture) and an “embittered shrew” (the Guardian).

There is none of the old sparkle and it is a little like hugging a zombie. This is the humour of the new Twin Peaks laughing at its loudest. Nostalgia and disappointment, as well as – if you avoid the sort of snap judgements that reviewers make in the hour after the show has finished – something else a little more mysterious. Let us try to read Audrey’s return properly.

Richard Horne (Eamon Farren), who is presumably Audrey’s son, is fleeing from arrest. He is characteristically absent from an episode that is mostly about him. From the outset, we expect Audrey to be concerned for Richard, but he remains strangely unmentioned during the resultant ten minute scene. Instead, Audrey’s dread is pinned upon the disappearance of someone called Billy. Is Billy a small, missing dog? No, it is eventually confirmed that Audrey and Billy are lovers.

Audrey is standing at the desk of a tired-looking man named Charlie (Clark Middleton) who admits to being her husband. They bicker and it is like eavesdropping outside a random household. The couple mention people who we don’t know and we listen in, inconsequentially, on a telephone call. Any worthwhile information is disclosed at the other end of the phone – the end we can’t hear.

There is a lot of the town of Twin Peaks in episode twelve and this is the first episode to often feel like it is bunking off from Las Vegas rather than Twin Peaks. Yet it might be that the Twin Peaks nostalgia is ramped up only to heighten the disappointment of Audrey’s return. With a self-referentiality that is typical of this series, Charlie is very tired (like we are, of the scene) and Audrey is impatient (like we are, with the scene). Charlie’s words could be ours and addressed to Lynch rather than Audrey: “Alright… I’ll go with you. I’m so sleepy but I’ll go… where are we going?” We thus see ourselves reflected in this couple and nothing else, since their story remains inaccessible to us.

Charlie uses a landline telephone rather than a mobile; he sits surrounded by ink bottles and stacks of paper rather than by modern office technology. He looks like he is fresh from the early 1990s and, like the characters in the original Twin Peaks, he never swears. Audrey, on the other hand, is a Twin Peaks waterfall of gratuitous language and clichés (e.g. “call a spade a spade”). She is overshadowed not just by her former self but her current husband, who now has the greater charisma.

I have seen one commentator speculating that Audrey is a rambling psychiatric patient and that Charlie is her doctor. Their scene is densely, richly dreamlike in its atmosphere and aimlessness. Maybe, in a happy joke, this will be Audrey’s only and last appearance in Twin Peaks: The Return and we will never know what was said down the other end of that telephone.

A great deal of valuable time in episode twelve is expended on the tomfoolery of Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch). There is something very likeable and humble about the persistence of the Cole storyline – it is as if Lynch is doing as much as possible to inoculate his series from the otherwise inevitable accusations of pretentiousness. There are puns so bad that only Lynch is allowed to utter them. Our cult leader fawns over a kind of French sexual clown until he distinctly resembles Woody Allen. Everybody is missing and yet here Cole still is, joking, naturally enough, about a lost farm girl who might turnip.

[Tychy’s Twin Peaks diary will resume after the Edinburgh Fringe.]