“In order to follow my films, you must concentrate on the emotion. Because if you concentrate on the buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.”—David Lynch
This was what the iconic director said to a fan during a 2007 signing for his book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity. It took place a day prior to the Chicago premiere of his three-hour epic, “Inland Empire,” a fiercely experimental triumph that was regarded at the time as the filmmaker’s magnum opus. Yet little did we know that a decade later, Lynch would bring us “Twin Peaks: The Return,” the long-awaited third season of his groundbreaking series from the early ’90s. In its cinematic grandeur and cumulative impact, it deserves to be regarded as an 18-part movie, and in many ways, it feels like the masterpiece Lynch has been building up to over the past four decades. Indeed, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of Lynch’s debut picture, “Eraserhead,” and there’s a direct line that can be drawn between that film and this one, crystallizing in the form of Dougie Jones. This is the identity taken on by FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, in his best performance(s) to date) after he is freed from the “Lodge,” a parallel dimension where he remained trapped during the quarter-century gap between episodes.
For much of the season, Dale remains Dougie, a 21st century Chauncey Gardiner who is perpetually bewildered and bemused by everything he encounters. The only dialogue he’s able to utter are fragments of whatever sentence happens to be fed to him, and the meaning that people read into his words is hilarious, unsettling and oddly touching. Twenty years ago, Lynch foreshadowed the character of Dougie in a conversation with author Chris Rodley that is published in the indispensable book, Lynch on Lynch. While discussing “Eraserhead,” Rodley compares the film’s central character, Henry (Jack Nance), with Josef K. (played in a 1993 TV movie by MacLachlan), the man accused of a crime he knows nothing about in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Rodley notes that both men are “at turns bemused and alarmed by what is happening to them,” thus prompting the following response from Lynch: “Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn’t understand it at all. He watches things very, very carefully, because he’s trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of that pie container, just because it’s in his line of sight, and he might wonder why he sat where he did to have that be there like that. Everything is new. It might not be frightening to him, but it could be a key to something. Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it.” The similarities between the two Lynch characters are amplified when Dougie replicates Henry’s exact pose while standing in an awkwardly stalled elevator.
Unlike the first two seasons of “Twin Peaks,” every single episode of the new limited series aired on Showtime was directed by Lynch and appears to be much closer to his original vision for the show, which he first put onscreen in 1992’s wrenching prequel, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Beneath all the folksy humor and surrealistic mystery, the story of “Twin Peaks” is ultimately a tragedy about a young woman, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), who is killed by her own father, Leland (Ray Wise). It is revealed that Leland was possessed by “Bob” (Frank Silva), a malicious presence spawned from the bile-spewing negative force known as “Jowday,” which bears a striking resemblance to the gape-mouthed “phantom” in “Inland Empire.” In fact, several elements of “Inland Empire” turn up in “Twin Peaks: The Return,” starting with the predicament of Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), who we see stuck in a loveless marriage while pining for an unseen character named Billy. Her situation is remarkably similar to that of Susan (Laura Dern) in “Inland Empire,” the married woman who lusts after Billy (Justin Theroux), who might as well be the same Billy that various people were searching for in “Twin Peaks” (after all, his character does wind up dead in a deleted scene). Just as Susan’s story is a fictional one, so is Audrey’s—until she snaps back into her actual surroundings while staring at her reflection in a mirror. Also among the deleted scenes on the “Inland Empire” DVD is a brief sequence set at a circus, where Susan’s husband (Peter J. Lucas) is seen performing with a white horse, the figure of biblical evil glimpsed throughout “Twin Peaks” (note the statue on Carrie’s mantle in the final episode).
The concepts of time paradoxes and alternate realities were things Lynch had always intended on exploring in “Twin Peaks,” and did explore to a degree in “Inland Empire.” After Susan finds herself transformed into a prostitute in modern times, she exclaims (in a deleted scene), “I was 41 years old in 1960! I’m freaked out about it because I lost a bunch of years” (as did Cooper, of course). In Lynch on Lynch, the filmmaker opens up about how a scene involving Laura’s friend, Annie (Heather Graham), in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” illustrated his plans for a potential third season. “Although I don’t really like talking about things, I’ve got to say this one thing about that scene—where Annie suddenly appears in Laura’s bed,” said Lynch. “This is before Laura has been murdered, and before Coop has come to Twin Peaks. Annie appears, filled with blood, and wearing the exact same dress that she’s wearing when she was in the Red Room with Cooper in the series—in the future. She says to Laura, ‘The good Dale is in the Lodge. Write it in your diary.’ And I know that Laura wrote that down, in a little side space in her diary. Now, if ‘Twin Peaks,’ the series, had continued, someone may’ve found that. It’s like somebody in 1920 saying, ‘Lee Harvey Oswald,’ or something, and then later you sort of see it all. I had hopes of something coming out of that, and I liked the idea of the story going back and forth in time.” Sure enough, Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) eventually found the pages after being guided by clues from the Log Lady (the late Catherine Coulson, Lynch’s beloved longtime collaborator, whose scenes are stunning in their poignance).
In an inverse of the scene where an amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) takes on the name she sees on a movie poster in “Mulholland Dr.”, Cooper remembers his identity after hearing the name of his old boss, Gordon Cole (David Lynch), uttered in “Sunset Boulevard,” one of Lynch’s favorite films (and a clear inspiration for “Mulholland Dr.”). Finally freed to save the day, Cooper attempts to alter the past, erasing the series’ inciting incident—the death of Laura Palmer—thus creating a schism in time that reverberates throughout the entirety of “Twin Peaks: The Return.” As Cooper guides Laura out of the woods, the ominous sound we first heard emanating from the Fireman’s phonograph in the very first scene of episode one is repeated, and she vanishes. The words of the Fireman (the godlike giant played by Carel Struycken) continue to echo throughout episode eighteen, as Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern) travel 430 miles to a remote location where they enter an alternate reality. Day suddenly shifts into night, and Diane spots a doppelgänger of herself. She soon refers to herself as “Linda,” while calling Cooper “Richard,” thus reminding us of the Fireman’s warning, “Richard and Linda. Two birds, one stone.” Perhaps Cooper and Diane were lured into a trap by Jowday, which is intent on snuffing out their identities altogether. Sheryl Lee turns up not as Laura but as a troubled woman named Carrie. Cooper’s single-mindedness leads him to immediately take Carrie back to Laura’s home in Twin Peaks, in a final sequence eerily evocative of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Much like how George Bailey’s alternate reality, where he had never been born, was created especially for him, so is Laura Palmer’s alternate reality, where she had never been murdered. These parallel timelines are fueled by the characters’ need to escape certain truths of their existence, but it’s not long before the illusion collapses in on itself. After all, as Grace Zabriskie declared in “Inland Empire,” “actions do have consequences.”
Before each screening of “Inland Empire” during its premiere tour, Lynch recited a passage from the Upanishads, a collection of Sanskrit texts that form the basis of Hinduism: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” In “Twin Peaks: The Return,” it is Monica Bellucci who recites these words to Cole in a dream, thus calling into question how much of what we’re seeing is real or imagined. The disorientation brought about by these alternate realities brilliantly mirrors the confusion triggered by our modern era of “alternative facts,” as does Lynch’s trademark use of doppelgängers (the real “twin peaks,” if you will). Along with co-creator/writer Mark Frost, Lynch even manages to reflect our current paranoia of nuclear annihilation in the most visionary episode of all, “Gotta Light?” After portraying the birth of Jowday in the mushroom cloud of a 1945 nuclear test, Lynch flips to 1956, where the loss of innocence is signified (as in the director’s previous two features) by a bum, not to mention a winged creature (reminiscent of the “frog moths” Lynch describes during his quinoa cooking segment on the “Inland Empire” special features). In the midst of such bewildering days in our country, “Twin Peaks: The Return” illustrates how we’re bound to get lost if we fail to look at the details that would otherwise escape our gaze. Cooper was so focused on accomplishing his goal that he didn’t bother to ask key questions—such as what year it was—until it was too late. For all of its chaotic elements, I found this 18-part opus to be exceedingly therapeutic in how it forced me to slow down and savor the weirdness. If my mind had insisted on jumping ahead rather than remaining in the present moment, I have no doubt it would’ve wound up at the dairy.