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Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch

Airdate: 28 May, 2017
Online streaming premiere: 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.

I won't say that it's inevitable, because I'm not sure that's precisely true, but it was at the very least quite probable that at some point, Twin Peaks: The Return was going to set a foot wrong. And here we are, at Part 4, and that's just exactly what it did. After three straight hours that, despite my absolutely blind ignorance, I'm comfortable in calling the best American TV of 2017, Part 4 feels distressingly non-transformative, and far too concerned with nuts-and-bolts storytelling of a sort that, in Part 1, for example, was subsumed into the frenzy of overwhelming atmosphere and tone.

Admittedly, some of that nuts-and-bolts storytelling is still really damn good. The episode's closing sequence, a bluntly expository scene between Gordon Cole (David Lynch) and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) is substantially more interesting than its intrinsic merits as a piece of screenwriting would suggest, for a few different reasons. The most obvious of these is that the whole scene has been drenched in a watery teal that is, I suppose, meant to represent day-for-night cinematography, but it's all wonky and wrong. It feels like the characters have set foot on some alien world where the distant sun burns blue. It's deeply strange enough to more or less completely overwrite whatever is going on in the actual dialogue proper (some chatter about the nature of the Cooper situation, and how this is a "Blue Rose case", which ties us firmly back into Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me - this is, by a substantial margin, the episode that relies most extensively on Fire Walk with Me of The Return thus far - and both men generally agree that Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has gone awry in some deep and abiding way). And so, for that matter, does the performance style trotted out for this scene: Gordon, a character who has till now has been defined entirely as "wacky deaf guy who shouts", being given a chance to whisper conspiratorially is already disorienting, and the moment when Albert's shoes on the gravel cause a sharp auditory pain to him and to us makes it even more so. It's a splendid experience, overall, in fucking with our perception in marginal ways that significantly heighten the significant feeling of the conversation without actually explaining the significance.

So, I mean, that's great. So is the interview with Evil Cooper, smiling like an alien lizard being who heard that smiling is what humans to be friendly, and who speaks in dialogue augmented to take out all of the high notes, leaving something that's low and guttural in a tinny way. And best of all is pretty much every single thing with Dougie-Cooper, though the opening montage of slot machines spitting out quarters is a banal cliché far beneath the standards of Lynch-directed Twin Peaks. But no matter, the important thing is that this is the episode where we get to meet the dissembled Dougie Jones's family: wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and child Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon). And first and foremost, what an excellent pleasure it is to see Watts step back into Lynchiana, 16 years after her career breakout as the star of Mulholland Dr. By the end of Part 4, she hasn't had much of a chance to do anything, but she does it with great aplomb. Her first scene is a particular triumph of deliberate overacting, all soaring, desperately dramatic line readings, with intense, probing facial expressions; nothing in The Return till now has called back to Twin Peaks's history as a homage to and parody of overcook TV melodrama, and it's not entirely doing it even now, but that's something of the vibe that Watts exudes, and I find it wholly delectable.

Anyway, the Jones family scenes are, to me, the unmistakable highlight of Part 4, for any number of reasons, and the three terrific performances are but a part of it (aye, three: Gagnon's slightly mistrusting reactions to his "dad's" inhuman, stuttering behavior, transitioning invisibly into the giddy delight of a little kid responding joyfully to the peculiar grown-up being goofy). There's also the look of the thing: the sunny Jones kitchen, with citrusy color design in not just the sets but the costumes as well, presents a surprisingly unironic domestic space that is a little stiff and overly formal, but mostly warm and alive (pity about the enormously trite choice of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" on the soundtrack). There's the good kind of fan pandering when it takes a cup of strong hot coffee to give Dougie-Cooper his first flash of actual-Cooper insight, for however brief - MacLachlan's performance in this moment is characteristically excellent. And the better kind when Cooper enters the bathroom and approaches it in a set-up that perfectly echoes the horrifying final scene of Episode 29, the finale of the original series; in addition to the lovely frisson where it seems like he's definitely, obviously going to have Bob's reflection (which of course he won't and can't - Bob-Cooper is in a South Dakota prison), there's an air of melancholy, or something akin to it, as Cooper touches his reflection with the probing curiosity of a particularly bright monkey.

Beyond the individual moments, the Dougie-Cooper material is the show's best strength in this moment for its overall sense of human disinterest and ignorance; one of the strangest things in Part 4 is the way that absolutely nobody other than a woman who's never met him before (and a prostitute from Part 3) is confused by how "Dougie Jones" is behaving as profoundly inhuman. His wife doesn't notice, his son notices but doesn't care; whether this tells us something about Dougie's own behavior (the bits and pieces we learn - he has racked up serious debts with dangerous people, frequents prostitutes, and was already missing for two days before Cooper took his place - do not suggest a very nice man) is beyond what we can say, but there's something ineffably sad about it anyway.

The other reason that the Dougie scenes are such a highlight of Part 4 is that almost everything else is at least slightly bad. Four episodes in, it's clear that callbacks to the original Twin Peaks are not The Return's strong suit, but there's still nothing that prepares us for the hypnotic awfulness of the scene between FBI Director Denise Bryson (David Duchovny) - who was, yes, a DEA agent back in 1989, and there's a tortured line of dialogue to explain why that didn't count - and Gordon Cole, a scene that I'd be fairly comfortable in calling the worst thing David Lynch has directed since Dune (I haven't seen hardly any of his post-1990 short films). The dialogue is flat-footed and self-aggrandising: Lynch all but turns directly to the camera to remind us that he was making trans-friendly pop culture all the way back in 1990, and for that we should not care that he likes to put beautiful women in his movies. Duchovny's performance is hitting some very flat notes, even by the standards of latter-day "I have stopped caring about everything" David Duchovny.

It's all so miserable that I kind of think it's on purpose. For if there's a meta-theme to the scenes without MacLachlan, it's all about nostalgia: Denise showing up to remind us how great she was in the original show, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) doing the same thing in a scene that's explicitly about how he's broken up in thinking about the past (I cannot tell, to save my soul, if his breakdown is meant to be funny or not: the plugged-in appearance of the Laura Palmer theme tells me it might be the former, but it's otherwise played entirely straight). And of course Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) are thrilled to welcome back their son, Wally Brando (Michael Cera), dressed as an exact parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and speaking with an Apocalypse Now-era Brando lisp about the kind of foggy philosophy that Brando babbled about in the same movie. Honestly, the Wally scene is so acutely terrible that I think I slightly love it: Lynch slamming on the brakes to linger in a moment that's going nowhere so hard that Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) plainly realises that he's stuck in a scene assembled by an indulgent director who loves stretched-out, aimless moments and humor that starts out weird and goes around to adorable by virtue of how much it's not working. Speaking of Frank Truman, I'm firmly in favor of him: Forster's performance is perfect, and he comes across as a character who immediately feels as familiar as old shoes from the instant we meet him.

Wally, in particular, is a ridiculous portrayal of nostalgia run amok: nostalgia for '50s biker films, nostalgia for Lynch's earlier work which was nostalgic for '50s biker films (Wally is basically the much-abused James, filtered through absurdism). So ridiculous that it feels like it has to be telling us something, right? That nostalgia is dumb and wrong, and to prove it, look how badly it goes when we indulge our nostalgia for the Twin Peaks-that-was, when we should be appreciating the Twin Peaks-that-is. Or maybe, possibly, I'm just reaching for something that will make me feel better about how much I don't like huge portions of this episode. Either way, deliberately bad for thematic reasons isn't necessarily that much better than bad by mistake, and there's quite a lot going on in this episode that I simply cannot force myself to believe is actually good.

Grade: B+