Seven episodes into the return of Twin Peaks, even a devoted viewer might be forgiven for not knowing exactly what David Lynch’s 18-hour Showtime revival of his most beloved property is about. He’s unfurled dozens of story threads—including a murder investigation, various bits of small-town surrealism, and a magical glass box in New York—that all seem like possible red herrings. The most recent episode, which aired Sunday night, featured an unbroken three-minute shot of someone sweeping up at The Bang Bang Bar while “Green Onions” played on the jukebox. In another scene, Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) and his secretary Beverly (Ashley Judd) tried and failed to detect the origin of a mysterious humming noise in the Great Northern Hotel.
One can forgive the slight air of frustration that’s bubbled up in some of the critical coverage of the show, particularly around the character of Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan), a dazed version of the show’s protagonist Agent Dale Cooper struggling to re-acclimatize to the world after being trapped for 25 years in the bizarre Black Lodge dimension. But the seventh episode confirmed that Dougie’s antics are not a sideshow, but rather the heart of the story Lynch is trying to tell, a sign that the show is building to some kind of grand reckoning between good and evil.
It’s perfectly possible that I’ll be proven wrong—Twin Peaks has been confounding enough so far that I wouldn’t be stunned if Dougie Jones got side-swiped by a car next week and never mentioned again. But Lynch, for all his inscrutable imagery and disinterest in traditional storytelling mechanisms, usually has fairly elemental themes at the root of his projects, be it “a woman in trouble” or our inherent, shared humanity. On one side of Twin Peaks: The Return is Dougie, a long-dormant simulacrum of Dale Cooper who is slowly regaining his personality. On the other is “Evil Coop” (also MacLachlan), who’s living in Dale’s actual body, which has long been possessed by the demonic spirit Bob.
In interviews, Lynch has referred to Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18-hour movie; if that’s true, we’re now at the end of its first act, and the seventh episode contained a surprising amount of information and backstory after weeks of meandering. The Twin Peaks police discovered Laura Palmer’s diary, a crucial part of the 1992 film Fire Walk With Me, which contains details on Dale’s possession. Dale finally came close to snapping out of his reverie as Dougie when an assassin tried to kill him, karate-chopping his assailant with all the practiced skill of an FBI agent. And Diane (Laura Dern), Dale’s longtime assistant, came face-to-face with his doppelganger and was horrified by what she saw.
That scene, so expertly played by Dern (one of Lynch’s greatest collaborators), felt like the emotional crux of a show that has traded on a lot of nostalgia up until now. I have been more delighted by Twin Peaks: The Return than most, far more ready to forgive its meandering moments than I would be with other prestige TV shows that take too long to get to their ultimate point. Lynch is such a singular artist that I still take pleasure in his strange digressions, be it Dougie scribbling ladders and staircases all over his important case files, or the addled Doctor Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) recording a highly political YouTube show in which he hawks golden shovels to viewers.
Lynch wants us to connect to this man’s innocence, just as he wants us to soak up his rival’s monstrousness.
The reveal of Diane, which happened in the previous week’s episode, initially felt like a similar piece of digressive nostalgia mining. Throughout Twin Peaks’ initial run, Dale would monologue into a tape recorder, addressing an unseen assistant called Diane; casting Dern in that role all these years later was like a cute wink to the audience, bonding one Lynch favorite to another. But in Sunday’s episode, she met Dale’s evil twin, the ink-eyed nightmare person being held in prison, and Dern’s reaction felt like a definitive TV moment of the year.
Suddenly, all the time Lynch has invested in evil Dale’s horrendous crimes (including the particularly wrenching murder of a woman in the second episode) felt crucial to the stakes of the show. The same goes for Dougie’s slapstick antics, in which he parrots back every word that’s said to him, stumbles from work to home and back again with the help of confused onlookers, and struggles to understand the simplest tasks, like getting in an elevator or going to the bathroom. Lynch wants us to connect to this man’s innocence, just as he wants us to soak up his rival’s monstrousness.
Beyond some kind of confrontation between the two Dales, it’s hard to know what’s in store for the next 11 hours of Twin Peaks. There’ll be more detail on the small town’s still-thriving criminal underworld, to be sure, further explanation of that grisly murder in North Dakota (which somehow involves the recurring character Major Briggs), and eventually Ben and Beverly will get to the bottom of that odd humming. Perhaps we’ll even see that glass box again, or meet the creature that emerged from it in the show’s premiere. But as a face-off between Agent Cooper’s two sides looms, it does feel like Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost have finally arrived at Twin Peaks: The Return’s organizing principle. It’s much like how Laura Palmer’s murder served as the anchoring force of the original show—not every plotline was centered on it, and some were only dimly related, but it kept viewers tuning in as Lynch plumbed the depths of his wild imagination.