From the beginning, Twin Peaks seemed like an impossible international hit, and there’s no way the third season, The Return, could live up to every expectation. The cliffhanger ending of the second season and the seeming disregard to the characters led to rumors that the last episode was David Lynch’s middle finger extended at the executives for messing with the show and pushing it toward cancellation. Many fans took it as Lynch was giving them the finger, too. Originally a maligned film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) didn’t help maintain interest in the mythology, though every year the film seems to gain in reputation. I always liked it, especially for the intensity of the horror and strangeness that Lynch was able to bring to that world on film at a time when network television could be restrictive.
[From here on in there may be minor spoilers, though with so much material and Lynch’s approach, I don’t always know what’s really a spoiler.]
Even though fans and conventions kept Twin Peaks alive, the end of the second season was still difficult to choke down. Years ago, I came across an interview where Lynch answered the question about the second season. He said he had written the third season and the evil Cooper would be in Twin Peaks and the good Coop would have to escape the Black Lodge (or Red Room as it seems to be called now). Much of what he said checks out in the third season.
I’m going to offer some thoughts on it as a long-time fan of the show and Lynch’s work. The third season felt like a 16 to 18 hour post-Inland Empire film, or short film anthology, and with so much content in a single viewing, I broke down my initial thoughts into a few categories: comedy, gore, surrealism, and horror.
The Return doubles down on the humorous side of Twin Peaks. It’s possibly Lynch’s only long form work with as large a percentage of intentional humor in it. I prefer it when it’s quirky, surreal, or dark, but much of the humor of The Return felt more traditional, largely due to Dougie. I wanted to like some of it more, but I just didn’t. Lynch is a Jaques Tati fan, and I also always want to enjoy Tati’s films more than I do. (I will say that I love the production design in his films, and recently saw “Watch Your Left” and I quite liked it more than the features he’s better known for like Mon Oncle.)
I much prefer characters standing outside wearing oven mitts, fishes in percolators, and Nadine’s silent drapes than a lot of the Dougie humor. Most people I’ve talked to enjoyed it. Different strokes. I just wrote about Masters of the Universe and I enjoy Ed Wood films unironically, so I’m not arguing for good taste here.
As much as the “traditional” comedy didn’t work for me, oh wow, Lynch has KNB doing the effects and they crank the splatter up to 11. Growing up, I wanted to be a special effects artist. It was the zenith of practical effects, and it’s been a joy to see them making more and more of a comeback every year. But when I was a kid, Tom Savini would be on David Letterman doing “gags.” My response to gore–obviously not in all contexts–but in most–is to laugh, especially when it’s so over-the-top like it is in The Return—Garbage Pail Kids over-the-top.
I used to tell my students that I liked drama in what I read and watched, not in my life. Same with violence and gore (and horror as mentioned below). Though I did work with a body donation program for a while, but more about that another time.
The Return integrates elements from Lynch’s career not only as a filmmaker, but also as an artist. His embrace of digital animation reads sometimes like his early films Six Men Getting Sick and The Grandmother. Many elements, particularly The Fireman’s Theater and the new incarnations of The Arm and Phillip Jeffries (God, I missed having more Bowie in Twin Peaks), come straight out of Lynch’s artwork, which tends to be more abstract and surreal than his film narratives. I wasn’t happy with all the animation–more on that below.
I did like several moments when Lynch was using digital techniques, including much of “Episode 8” (I think it’s also titled “Gotta Light?”–the music and sound design are great in this one–Penderecki? I was excited when I heard that music start). When Cooper is “travelling,” the extreme shaky camera and some of his movement felt dreamlike, but also felt like Lynch was still experimenting with the form. Even though I didn’t always like the results, I appreciated these moments.
I unapologetically love horror films and have since before I was in school thanks to monster films like King Kong, Godzilla and Jaws. I remember watching Clash of the Titans with family soon after it came out and loving Hitchcock at a young age because my grandma loved his movies and loved Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. I was soon losing sleep and watching whatever creature feature or supernatural film I could, and even sneaking in a slasher when possible. It’s in my blood. It’s there like the recipes I learned from standing beside family members. I remember those more than the hundreds I’ve made up or cooked out of books since then. And the kids even like most of them. (I get the most requests for Meemaw’s gravy, by the way.)
When Twin Peaks first aired I had already seen most classic horror and suspense films. Many horror fans go through a spell where they get terrified watching this stuff but keep going back to it. I know I did, but I loved it–and I started seeing something else in my love of horror. Reading it differently. Noticing elements of difficult family lives being the real life horror in King’s novels or putting Hiroshima and Godzilla together and being startled with the notion of that connection.
Well, I hadn’t been scared in a long time. But Twin Peaks actually scared the hell out of me sometimes and I loved the show for it.
The trees blowing in the wind kind of creeped me out. The sound design–that low hum that seemed to infect everyday activities in Twin Peaks made me uncomfortable (I have probably listened to Eraserhead more than any record I own). The Black Lodge made me squirmy, but fascinated–until it was batshit in Fire Walk with Me–which was terrifying and mesmerizing. The slow motion ceiling fans at the Palmer residence made my stomach hurt, but one thing scared me so much I would look away from the screen, and that’s after seeing Faces of Death, Cannibal Holocaust, and everything available from Argento.
It was BOB.
When he crawled over a couch in one of the episodes, I couldn’t look at the screen. I probably watched the show six or seven times before I watched all the material with BOB (or Leland, for that matter–he, or at least his image, had become infected). I actually had nightmares about him. But I appreciated it. I hadn’t been scared by movies in so long. (Real life does plenty of the scaring these days–but I still appreciate chills from entertainment.)
This was what most disappointed me. I could have done with less comedy, but it’s interesting that The Return goes full throttle on surrealism and gore, but just isn’t scary (and to be fair, there is a lot of plot and narrative in this thing–it’s not Lynch being “wacky”). There were moments that I think were supposed to capture that strange terror–I’m thinking of the transformation scenes–but they frequently shifted into jerky digital art that just wasn’t scary. Or the BOB bouncy balloon. Oh jeez. Bummer.
However [most spoilery things I’ll say are in this paragraph and below] I loved the ending because it actually shifted back into this realm of terror. The scream. Lights out. Perfect. It felt right. Where the end of the original series felt questionably despairing, this one is positively despairing. It’s one of the most satisfying unsatisfying endings I’ve ever seen.
Overall, there’s way too much for me to really process on a single viewing, but I will say there was more than a few memorable performances. The last appearances of Catherine Coulson in Lynch material and especially as The Log Lady were really hard to get through knowing she died before the premiere. Seeing Jack Nance on screen again in a slightly different context was a highlight. Norma. Albert. Nadine with the golden shovel at the beginning of one episode. Big Ed! Jerry Horne is out of control! I know Lynch gets criticism for his writing of Deputy Hawk, but Michael Horse is fantastic and I would love to see him more. Some of the new characters played by Robert Forster, Tom Sizemore, Harry Dean Stanton (it felt like a lot of the cast is no longer with us), Laura Dern (!) and Don Murray are fantastic.
There’s a lot I’m leaving out. Like I said, it’s too much to process, but I’ll say when Cooper, the real Cooper, finally shows up, I teared up a bit. Silly, but there it is. I’m not sure how Annie’s doing, but I waited thirty years for that thumbs up, so I guess that’s something.