Beginning with Leland Palmer, the network seasons of “Twin Peaks” found any number of ways to personify this duality. The show was hardly the first time that Lynch used the veneer of suburban domesticity as a costume for the violence lurking behind closed doors, but never before had he cut it so well to his characters — this bespoke nightmare had one name and two faces. By splitting Agent Cooper into different bodies (and even different genres), it seemed as if “The Return” might break that seal, causing the series’ new season to lose some of its sinister power as a result.
That, uh, hasn’t happened. If anything, “Twin Peaks” is scarier than ever. A lot of that has to do with how Lynch has reoriented his focus from the shape of evil to its source, supplanting nuclear families with nuclear weapons and tracing cycles of abuse back to their roots in masculinity and impotence (it’s no accident that evil Cooper is a hyper-virile ladykiller, while Dougie is arguably incapable of even consenting to sex). But a lot of that also has to do with how Lynch has found a way to keep the show as emotionally grounded as it is creatively unmoored.
“The Return,” for which Lynch was afforded complete control, is hands down the most bonkers thing that has ever aired on premium cable. And while they may be loath to admit it, some people — even some of the filmmaker’s most devoted zealots — were understandably concerned that liberating “Twin Peaks” from the limitations of a network television show or the parameters of a prequel might distract Lynch from the dialectical storytelling that made his magnum opus so unnerving in the first place. Between the sterility of his sound design and the casualness of his horror imagery, Lynch could turn the most boring of locations into an unholy nightmare at a moment’s notice (a gift he likes to share with us as often as possible). But the first few episodes of “The Return” were so scattershot that the contradictory tonalities contained therein weren’t given the chance to impact each other. There was no dissonance, only confusion and ominous portent and beautiful kids having their bodies mutilated into ratatouille.
Enter FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole. Dropping in towards the end of episode three, David Lynch’s hearing-impaired G-Man shows up at just the right time, his first scene ending with a line that immediately reinvents his character as a proxy for the audience: “I hate to admit this,” he barks at the other agents in the briefing room, “but I don’t understand this situation at all.” Since then, Cole has continued to serve as a compass for a show that feels like it’s moving in every direction at once. In order to hold the story together, to keep it from spinning hopelessly away from its center, Lynch has had to spend almost as much time in front of the camera as he has behind it.
Once just a bit of comic relief who helped to introduce some order into a mixed up mythology, Cole has become nothing less than the glue that holds “Twin Peaks” together. Of all the things that differentiate “The Return” from the series’ original run, none may be more important than Lynch’s decision to promote his own character into a leading role. And of all the actors who are giving career-best performances in this new season (shout out to Jim Belushi!), none of the actors, save for Kyle MacLachlan, has been more crucial to the season’s brilliance than David Lynch, himself.
Sure, Lynch has a bit of an unfair advantage — he’s one of the only cast members who has any idea what the hell might be going on beyond the moment at hand — but in a show that is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible of long-form visual storytelling, it’s essential to forefront a character who ties things back to Laura Palmer, orients viewers in the physical realm, and also encourages them to accept the mystery. He’s an old-school guy in a brave new world. From the moment Cole shows up, we’re reminded that he’s one of the only people who cares about Dale Cooper more than we do. He’s positively giddy to hear (or at least to learn) that Cooper has resurfaced, and Lynch’s eyes bulge with childlike excitement when Cole gets the good news.
On the flip side, Lynch’s crestfallen response to meeting evil Cooper is so delicately heartbreaking that — after several episodes of talking twigs and floating orbs of gold — our dominant response to the show’s new villain becomes an emotional one.
Cole is driven by his sense of duty, and he flatly calls everything as he sees it no matter how insane some things might be (“well, he’s dead!”), but he can be eminently sensitive as well. Look at the way he squeezes Diane’s shoulder as he speaks to her on the FBI plane in episode nine, gently trying to soften the blow of some very bizarre news. Or maybe he just likes touching her — there’s wiggle room to think of him as a horny old man, even though he swears to be on the up and up at all times (the extent to which the Tamara Preston character is always fondling Cole is a bit disconcerting). He’s also funnier than ever (“Cooper flew the coop!”), which Cole needs to be in order to bear his screen time.
And, when the show is at its best, Cole is all of these things at once. You can see it during the wordless scene on the hospital steps when he looms over Diane for a very long while, and you see it even more clearly during the one standout shot of episode 11 that defines how “The Return” has captured the essence of “Twin Peaks” while injecting the series with incredible new life.
Cole and his crew are in Buckhorn, South Dakota in search of what happened to Major Briggs. They approach an abandoned house, and Cole takes a few steps forward. He sees a vortex form in the sky above him, and it starts to seem as though the swirling hole might suck him straight into another dimension. Albert is partially aware that something funky is going on, while Diane and the rest are completely oblivious; only Cole can see the phenomenon outright. He’s bellowing at the air, his arms waving above his body like a marionette as his colleagues look on.
It’s harrowing, especially because we’ve never seen Cole so out of his depth before.
That’s when Lynch cuts to an extreme wide shot, reducing his character to a tiny figure in the distance. Suddenly it’s hilarious — harrowing and hilarious. In the foreground, things are as placid as can be. In the background, Cole is shaking his fists at the clouds like they’re on fire. The contrast is comic gold, and it’s made that much funnier by the fact that nobody on screen seems to notice. No single image in “Twin Peaks” history has so completely illustrated what Albert refers to as “the absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence.” It’s funnier because it’s scary, it’s scarier because it’s funny, and it’s able to be both because this moment of supreme confusion is happening to the series’ most reliably confident character. It’s a symphony of contradictions that come together and crystallize in just one shot, and it’s only possible because Lynch recognized that he’s the only person who could turn the show’s unprecedented “randomness” into a way of clarifying the story’s emotional focus.
Like all of episode 11, and “The Return” on the whole, this one shot layers beauty and pain on top of each. It’s a thrilling reminder of why the show largely ignores the White Lodge and the Black Lodge in favor of the uncertain space between them. Love is one thing, Garmonbozia is another, but it’s the reaction these two forces inspire together that makes it possible for us to see each of them for what they are.
The revival season of “Twin Peaks” gave David Lynch permission to put all of himself into the show, body and soul, and the show has never been better because that’s exactly what he did.