We’ve got gold-spewing giants. We’ve got evil-birthing atomic explosions. We’ve got lighter-seeking, skull-crushing woodsmen. We’ve got interdimensional portals in large glass boxes. And the hyper-intuitive hero who can understand it all is trapped in a childlike stupor. Still. Feels a bit overwhelming, no? Good thing we’ve also got Janey-E, the laser-focused Mama Grizzly at the heart of Twin Peaks: The Return. As played by Naomi Watts, she’s not only the best new character of the series revival, she’s also one of the very best things about the series at large. Janey-E is the heroine we need right now, a woman who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this corrupt, incompetent, and interdimensional world’s crud anymore.
Watts is the most talented and underrated A-list actor of her generation. She rose to stardom, of course, in 2001 with her stunning turn(s) as Betty/Diane Selwyn in Lynch’s Tinseltown nightmare, Mulholland Drive. By the time of that film’s release, however, Watts had already labored in the trenches of show business for some 16 years, working her way through supporting film and television roles until her Mulholland Drive performance wowed filmgoers around the world. Since then, Watts has shouldered white-knuckle horror pictures (The Ring, The Ring 2, and Shut-In), summer tentpole blockbusters (King Kong), charming comedies (The Divorce, I Heart Huckabees, and Ellie Parker), and hard-hitting dramas (The Painted Veil, Funny Games, and Diana). She has garnered two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (the first for in 2003 for 21 Grams and the second in 2012 for The Impossible) and, in all truth, should have received at least a third (as well as the Oscar itself) for her timely performance as outed-CIA agent Valerie Plame in 2007’s Fair Game. While the prized golden statuette has eluded her, Watts continues to prove, across a wide variety of media, that she remains among our most powerful performers, capable of creating a great range of deep and introspective characters.
That Watts moves back to television for Twin Peaks: The Return should come as no surprise. She follows in the footsteps of colleagues searching for more diverse and compelling material (best friend Nicole Kidman jumped on this bandwagon relatively early with 2012’s Hemingway & Gellhorn for HBO), and her work in Showtime’s Twin Peaks airs simultaneously with her Netflix series debut, Gypsy, in which she plays the lead role. But perhaps the greatest lure back to the small screen is the fact that Watts shares a history with Lynch that moves beyond Mulholland Drive and into work on a 2002 short, Rabbits—parts of which also resurfaced in 2007’s Inland Empire. Fiercely loyal to his actors (and they to him), Lynch has stacked Twin Peaks: The Return with a veritable smorgasbord of his stock players, one of whom (Charlotte Stewart) can trace a collaboration with the surrealist filmmaker all the way back to 1977’s Eraserhead. Given that Watts starred in Mulholland Drive, the film many regard as the director’s masterpiece and, at least according to a 2016 aggregate critics poll commissioned by the BBC, the greatest film of the 21st century (so far), her casting in the new Twin Peaks was always a no-brainer.
Even so, Watts’s appearance in Twin Peaks: The Return is something special. More than just nostalgia casting, her role as Janey-E—the longsuffering wife of tacky insurance man Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan)—seems tailor-made for Watts, her acute talent for portraying dormant strength, and her underutilized comedic gifts. Interestingly, Janey-E’s exasperated mixture of pragmatism, anxiety, and “I’m-just-sick-of-all-this-crap” hutzpah is an aspect of Watts never before explored by Lynch. Far from the wide-eyed Betty or the doomed Diane Selwyn of Mulholland Drive, Janey-E is an Everywoman faced with the all-too-familiar 21st-century problem of caring for an American manchild in her marriage. The incapacitated Cooper incarnation of Dougie Jones seems to merely stoke the already blazing fire started by the irresponsible “original” Dougie, that dim, wayward, and taste-challenged donner of green felt blazers. Meanwhile, Janey-E becomes so frazzled by the enormity of her manchild’s challenges (in both versions of Dougie), we see her in a constant whirlwind display of task-at-hand focus that makes her somehow oblivious to the oddities and horrors of her Lynchian circumstances. In this way, Janey-E acts as an audience surrogate—a kind of interface between the normalcy of our everyday world and the often-disturbing dreamscape of the Lynch-Frost imagination. With all its absurdity, with all its televisual non-sequiturs, with all its just plain crazy (Part 8, anyone?), Twin Peaks: The Return needs a grounded, “let’s-get-to-it” character like Janey-E.
Watts wisely plays her character straight—no exaggeration or embellishment. We can imagine her emoting the exact same way in a James Ivory or Doug Limon picture. Watts knows Janey-E expects (and deserves) better for all the work and hassle she puts into a growing son and a failing marriage. Janey-E’s frustration with a lack of returns on investments of time, affection, and energy provide her with unexpected strength and power in the would-be threatening presence of mobsters and plain-clothes cops alike. She’s the “bark” to Cooper-Dougie’s uncomprehending dog, note the Fusco brothers detectives, afraid that Janey-E’s bark might turn into a bite. And we’ve seen that bite. One of the great moments of television, not to mention Twin Peaks (old or new), has to be watching a woman-scorned Janey-E dress down loan sharks Tommy (Ronnie Gene Blevins) and Jimmy (Jeremy Davies) in a public playground, all the while railing against her bank’s low interest rates and the “dark times” that widen the gaps between the idle rich and honest working stiffs. “Tough dame,” Jimmy marvels as Janey-E storms back to her 1989 Grand Cherokee with its simulated wood-grain side panels. And he’s right.
But then, we all know strong, no-nonsense moms like Janey-E. Their experiences in raising would-be unruly kids—and in laying down the law to such—have prepared them well for handling the growing madness of a world filled with childish grown-ups. In a time where the once unthinkable has brazenly evolved into standard operating procedure, where previously cherished democratic values and ethical behaviors have given way to corruption, egotism, and apathy, women like Janey-E know that gross wrongs can often be righted by treating the arrogant, the entitled, the chauvinistic, and the dictatorial like the over-demanding and overgrown five-year-olds they are.
In short, Janey-E is a heroine for our troubled and surreal times. And who better to bring her to us than Naomi Watts, whose talents, intelligence, and keen understanding of both human nature and society’s patriarchal failures enable her to create a character who, in many ways, speaks for all of us?
Doug Cunningham is a film historian. He has edited two books on Alfred Hitchcock, and his essays have appeared in publications such as Screen, Cineaction, Critical Inquiry, and The Moving Image. Some of his essays are available to read at this link.