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Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch

Airdate: 21 May, 2017

Author's Note: This and all subsequent reviews of Twin Peaks: The Return episodes will freely give away details from the episode at hand, and all those preceding it. The spoiler-averse should back away slowly.

Prior to the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, or Twin Peaks, Season 3, or whatever you want to call the damn thing, there had been somewhat more than 28 hours of Twin Peaks, between the 30 episodes that aired on ABC between 1990 and 1991, the theatrical feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and the 2014 assembly of Fire Walk with Me's deleted scenes into the feature-length Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces. And none of that footage genuinely prepares us for what happens when David Lynch gets to make a TV series without any constraints to speak of other than the ones imposed by the medium. Little one-hour David Lynch filmlets, all in a row; we're getting a purer incarnation of his artistic vision than came through in Twin Peaks, but without the expansive heaviness that his features carry with. Late-period Lynch delivered in digestible chunks; there's simply no template for that, and before watching a single episode of The Return (and as I write these words, I'm further ahead than just this episode, but not very), it was the promise of doses of undiluted Lynch somewhere between his wonderful & exhausted feature films and the concentrated dreamscapes of his shorts that excited me, even more than returning to the world of what remains, after everything, my favorite television show of all time.

All of this is, of course, a different way of saying that I stand here at the cusp of writing about Part 1 of The Return, and I'm not confident I know how do to it. Hell, it took me a while to be sure that writing about The Return as though it was made up of 18 one-hour units and not one 18-hour narrative broken into chunks for convenience was the right way to do it (in fact, I'm still not sure, and I might yet write that other version of the review when all is said and done at the end).

Anyway, that's enough meta-reviewing for the time being. Whatever it is we're meant to do with Part 1 of The Return, here is what I do certainly know about it: it's one hell of an experience. Lynch's first long-form narrative since INLAND EMPIRE, eleven years prior, feels rather conspicuously like a summing-up of everything he's learned during the incredibly fertile period of artistic experimentation that began with Episode 29 of Twin Peaks Mk. 1, and if it's of course wildly premature to declare The Return to be Ultimate Lynch as a result of that, I think we can still get away with suggesting that if you've like anything he's been associated with in the last 25 years, you can find it somewhere in here, though you might have to squint a bit if you're looking for The Straight Story.

Though I don't know, that scene where we amble into the Pacific Northwest woods to watch an unhurried, amiable Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) accept a truckload of shovels is more The Straight Story than it is anything else...

Anyway, the episode taken as a whole is a right marvel of serial writing: absolutely everything that happens is self-evidently designed to set up plotlines that will play out later on, and yet if the hard drives holding the rest of the show had fallen into the sea before I'd ever had a chance to see Part 2 - to say nothing of Parts 3-18 - I'd not consider it to be an incomplete artistic experience (contrast with the original Twin Peaks pilot, which for all the times I've watched it as a standalone, would be horribly unsatisfying if I didn't know that there was more of it). This owes a lot to Lynch's now-characteristic way of moving through a story, introduced in Lost Highway and honed to a razor-thin edge with INLAND EMPIRE, in which his plots don't have forward momentum to speak of, but feel instead like an endless collection of in-the-now moments, cut off at more-or-less arbitrary lengths (a vibe commemorated in the title of INLAND EMPIRE's own set of deleted scenes edited into a feature-length object,  More Things That Happened). In the old Twin Peaks, episodes where several unconnected plot lines were blobbed together all in one hour tended to feel conspicuously weak, to me; the fact that hardly any consecutive pair of scenes in Part 1 share any meaningful connection is a mere shrug, because why would they? The fact that rather less than one-fifth of an episode of a show called Twin Peaks takes place in Twin Peaks, or even references characters and events we know to be associated with Twin Peaks doesn't even feel inappropriate or out of place. We're watching a collection of present-tense incidents, and my own experience of this phase of Lynch, at least, is that I tend to forget that anything exists other than the specific scene I am looking at.

In a nifty bit of self-commentary, this exact phenomenon is represented in what I'm comfortable calling Part 1's signature location, the Large Glass Box That Slightly Resembles A TV Studio But Also Somewhat The Body Of A Camera, What With The Very Lens-Like Window Over New York. Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost aren't hiding anything: it's described, in dialogue, as a big glass box that the characters look at without expecting to see anything worthwhile there, and it only lacks for the pair of them to turn and stare right into the camera lens and wave at us for it to be clear that they're describing television itself. Certainly, more time is spent in the Large Glass Box Room than anywhere else in Part 1, including all of the most glacially-paced moments in what is surely not anybody's idea of fast-paced audio-visual entertainment. And much of it is spent watching the box, or watching the unnamed character (identified in the credits as Sam Colby) played by Benjamin Rosenfield as he watches the box, not even actually waiting for anything to happen; we watch, as he watches, because the image is absorbing, and because the soundscape - Lynch is himself credited as the sound designer - has a lulling, hypnotic effect.

Maybe I am just a forgiving viewer. But as I sat there, looking at the beautifully composed deep-focus shots of the glass box that Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming put together, even as I had the very clear thought "something is going to show up in that box, and it will be scary, but it will not show up until that young man is distracted (by sex, I should imagine?), and it will anyway very definitely not show up in this scene",* and nonetheless, I would never have willingly stopped looking at that box until the cutting told me I could.

Not all of these individual protracted moments are created equal, and if Part 1 reveals a considerable weakness, it's that the old material hasn't quite gelled with the new material. Like the best of the show's first season, there's a blend of all kinds of different tones at play here, but also like the first season, those tones are mostly lined up in the same direction: towards the sense of a brewing storm, those first drops of rain that give you the sudden certain that you have only minutes, if not only seconds, to find shelter. The glass box is entirely that, of course; just to look at it, certainly to listen to it, it's clear that there is something menacing here. Even the acting of the humans involved in this setting contributes to that: by any objective measure, Rosenfield and Madeline Zima are one-of-a-kind bad, speaking lines more stiffly than if they learned them phonetically, like the first day's table read of a pornographic film made in a foreign language. But in the context of that yellow-glazed, inhuman space, both in the room with the glass box and in the anteroom where Tracey brings coffee (the episode's darkest joke is to turn coffee, that touchstone of Twin Peaks, into something vaguely ominous), the sense that the humanity has been leeched out of the characters is exactly right, somehow.

Most of the best moments in Part 1 - and there are plenty of them, God knows! - do very much the same thing. The Giant (Carel Struycken), now renamed ??????, talking to the aspect of Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) still in the... Black Lodge? It's definitely not clear where we are at this point, but that seems like the parsimonious assumption. Anyway, the opening scene of them in fashion-magazine black-and-white, an obvious and overt prologue that functions like a hot bath, loosening up the tight muscles and re-teaching us how to watch Twin Peaks and David Lynch, and attend to how everything in the image and on the soundtrack (including what sounds like somebody trying to pull-start a phonograph) can work on a virtually pre-intellectual level. Or the absurd comic routine in a character I desperately adore, Marjorie Green (Melissa Bailey), leads the cops on a deadpan goofy tour of what I think a Coen brothers film would look like if Lynch was directing it, broad and silly to start and then continuously telescoping into increasingly more tense confrontations before we get to see inside the apartment where we're pretty damn sure we'll find a rotting body. And then comes the startling image of a woman's ruined head set atop a man's bloated, pale corpse, a bit of queasy transgression that feels like a brief interlude in a '70s grind house film. It's such a perfectly paced descent from comedy to thriller to horror that I think it even manages to be my favorite sequence in an episode that also includes the extraordinary scene of a violent attack on the young couple by an entity that seems to distort the video recording medium itself, like it exists on a plane in-between we the audience and the show itself.

Anyway, all of these things that serve in different ways to imbue the episode with a sense of vicious, fetid evil that has only just started to poke its way around (mine is of course not even slightly an exhaustive list) make Part 1 an excellent welcome to Twin Peaks: The Return. The weak links tend to be when the episode looks back to the series past. The new scenes with the now-married Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) are tonally off-putting, with Goaz in particular channeling his idiotic, mid-season 2 version of the character. The scene of Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) dealing with brother Jerry's (David Patrick Kelly) new marijuna business is delightful in that I'm ecstatic to catch up with my old buddies Ben and Jerry, but that's more or less all it is. If it's not pure fan service, it definitely feels fan service-adjacent, not to its credit. At least the scene with Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse) and a shockingly frail and ill Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson, to whose memory the episode is dedicated) has a powerful emotional appeal, and it serves as a warm, elegiac contrast to the gathering gloominess of the rest of the show.

By no conceivable stretch of the imagination do these moments detract from the strength of the whole episode (only the Andy/Lucy scene strikes me as a real flaw, and it's barely even there before it's gone). They simply don't contribute very much other than the patronisingly reassure us that yes, this is Twin Peaks, back from the dead. And I simply don't see how it needs that. The Return's strengths are those of full strength late-period Lynch: the way that scenes fade into oblivion and the way locations are shot both strongly recall Mulholland Dr., while the tendency for scenes to move at an exaggerated slow speed (just look at the scene with Cooper's doppelgänger, talking in a dRn-out, plodding way, and it is the freakiest shit. Even the music that introduces him is a heavily slowed-down rock song) is mostly an intensification of that film and Lost Highway. And, as I think about it, The Straight Story.

That is to say, The Return, already in its first hour, is clearly establishing itself as a new thing, breaking away from the melodramatic horror-farce of the series and the flabbergasting emotional rawness of Fire Walk with Me, and its earnest attempts to connect back to those things don't quite work. Yet. Let's definitely slap that "yet" in there. In the meantime, the pleasures of what does work absolutely cannot be denied, and the brooding, then horrifyingly violent, then darkly comic moods that the show keeps switching between would be fantastic no matter what the title or backstory of the show containing them. It's odd to leave the first episode of a Twin Peaks revival least interested in the Twin Peaks aspects of it, but David Lynch has always been one for giving us what we need instead of what we ask for.

Grade: A

*In fact, I was expecting the show to be even more withholding: it would never have crossed my mind that we'd see something appear in that box in the very first episode.