The legacy of ‘Twin Peaks’ after season three blew our minds

Of the images from the original run of Twin Peaks that David Lynch and Mark Frost incorporated into the just-concluded third season, the most telling wasn’t Laura Palmer correctly predicting that she and Agent Cooper would meet again in a quarter-century, or David Bowie’s Agent Jeffries warning about “Judy.” It was a brief shot, seen from the perspective of one of the few major characters who didn’t return this season.

A teenage girl, her face unseen, running across a schoolyard in obvious distress. Glimpsed out a classroom window in the show’s original pilot episode, that was how Donna Hayward first grasped that her friend Laura Palmer had been murdered. It was an example of Lynch’s mastery of storytelling through mood and image, and for Lynch to bring the image back this season, in the absence of its context, was an indication that for all this season’s defiance of narrative conventions, Lynch hadn’t forgotten where the heart of his story lies.

Warning: the rest of this post contains spoilers for season three of Twin Peaks.

And there we were, at the end of the journey, back at Laura’s house with the girl herself — now a middle-aged woman — and Dale Cooper, the FBI agent who solved her murder but couldn’t bring her back from the dead. Until the final minutes of this season’s concluding episode, it seemed Cooper might have finally succeeded in doing exactly that.

The last episode of season three was a perfectly apt conclusion to Lynch’s return, which has thrilled dedicated viewers with its fascinating frustrations. Laura (or, in this alternate universe, “Carrie”) and Cooper just sit in a car together, driving back to Twin Peaks in almost complete silence. Lynch brought the show’s two most iconic characters together, but denied us any conventional sense of closure or epiphany.

The quiet car ride was far from the biggest tease that Lynch and co-writer Frost subjected us to this season, of course. That would be the fact that they filled the new season almost wall-to-wall with Kyle MacLachlan but denied us his classic character in recognizable form until the season’s last few episodes. Instead of playing the Agent Cooper we knew, MacLachlan alternately played the evil doppelgänger “Mr. C,” the hapless “Dougie Jones” (another Black Lodge facsimile), and a version of Agent Cooper who was only partially awake: a Cooper reduction who loved coffee and enjoyed sex but could hardly force any words out of his mouth.

That was the kind of move Lynch and Frost could only have made with complete creative control, and it’s one of the reasons that longtime fans responded so well to this season despite its challenges. The original series was deeply compromised by concessions the creators had to make to network executives — most notably, solving the mystery of Laura’s death before they were ready to. Lynch was largely disengaged from the show by the end of its second season, and that shows in the weak series of episodes that followed Cooper’s seeming triumph over the villainous Bob.

This time, Lynch wasn’t compromising. He had to quit the project once to prove it, but once Showtime agreed to fully support his vision, the legendary director — who hasn’t released a feature film for over a decade — was in it to win it. From the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, it was clear that Lynch and Frost were relishing in the ability to build a cohesive 18-episode arc rather than proceed with no certainty that the show would be renewed from one episode to the next.

If the new Twin Peaks didn’t exactly become the kind of water-cooler conversation fodder that the original series did, Lynch’s loyal audience was enraptured, and so were critics. The wild episode eight, in which the dawn of the atomic era seems to open a portal between our world and another, was hailed in some quarters as the greatest TV episode of all time. Now that the season is over, publications like Rolling Stone are calling it “the most groundbreaking TV series ever.”

That’s a pretty bold claim, but there’s no question that Lynch and Frost have created a landmark in the new golden age of “peak TV.” The new Twin Peaks is a clear illustration that in the streaming era, TV can be the vehicle for extended flights of creativity that, in some ways, push even beyond what filmmakers have been able to accomplish on movie screens. The season evoked Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, both literally (in the case of episode eight’s avant-garde fantasia) and in its combination of conventional narrative with unexplained — maybe inexplicable — departures into eerie alternate realities.

Even viewers who couldn’t handle 16 episodes of MacLachlan drooling java will have to acknowledge that Lynch and Frost have reinvented the reboot. The new run was a true third season insofar as it advanced the characters and events of the show’s original run (as well as those of the 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, inspiring viewers to dust off a lot of DVDs) — but there was no attempt to tell the same kind of story. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik observed, if the original series was about solving the mystery of Laura Palmer, the new season was about solving the mystery of Twin Peaks.

It was also rich with superb, sometimes poignant showcases for a cast full of actors both old and new. While a bevy of freshly introduced characters enlivened the proceedings, we couldn’t take our eyes off returning performers like Sherilyn Fenn, dancing “Audrey’s Dance” yet again, or James Marshall, still looking cool yet haunted as James Hurley. MacLachlan seemed to be having the time of his life as the reimagined Cooper, while Lynch himself was a regular presence as Director Cole. Catherine E. Coulson, visibly dying, returned for a moving series of scenes as “Log Lady” Margaret Lanterman.

Certainly the most welcomed new addition to the cast was an actor playing one of the show’s most storied, though previously unseen characters: Laura Dern became Diane, the assistant Cooper formerly dictated all his notes to. Cooper and Diane finally made an intimate connection that could have come straight out of fan fiction, except that what fan could have come up with the circumstances under which it actually took place?

Twin Peaks is still sui generis, and its triumphant return allowed its creators to return to their strange little town entirely on their own terms. They brought some rock stars along for the ride, but fittingly, the final musical guest was Julee Cruise: the original musical voice of Twin Peaks. Back at the Roadhouse, we were falling into beautiful darkness yet again.

Catch up with Twin Peaks: The Return

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Twin Peaks episode five recap: The cow jumps over the moon

Twin Peaks episode six recap: Diane! and Sharon Van Etten

Twin Peaks episode seven recap: The dark side of the river

Twin Peaks episode eight recap: Nine Inch Nails drop the bomb

Twin Peaks episode nine recap: Ground control to Major Briggs

Twin Peaks episode 10 recap: Intimate violence

Twin Peaks episode 11 recap: There’s no backup for this

Twin Peaks update: David Bowie’s back (and so’s Audrey)

Twin Peaks episode 15 recap: Is that you, David?

Episode 16 recap: Eddie Vedder welcomes Agent Cooper back to Twin Peaks