Chris Carter never quite seems to understand what kind of show the X-Files is: he wanted it to be about Aliens and UFOs and Black Oil and Clones. What the audience wanted the show to be was a story of Friendship and Respect and Hopefully Romantic Love between Mulder and Scully as they fought for something they believed in despite the odds (this is where most of the audiences couched the conspiracy theories and aliens: as the conflict/villain of the piece). Carter knew he had captured the interest of an audience with Mulder and Scully, but he REFUSED to cater to it. It was always in the background, mostly planted there by the way David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson played off of each other rather than the words in the script, but it was never explicitly part of the show’s journey.
Through its nine original seasons, I believe the only kiss we see from them is near the end when it’s revealed that Mulder was the father of Scully’s baby. This pairing was, of course, done off camera. Any wooing, any romance, kissing, was done off screen in between seasons because Chris Carter thought it’d be better instead to imply that Scully’s baby had something to do with the alien conspiracy and was an alien hybrid of some kind that was important to extraterrestrials and national security alike. This moved Scully and her baby away from Mulder and instead focused on Mulder’s work. And not once does Scully tell anyone on camera that the baby is actually hers with her missing-from-the-screen ex-partner who she actually DOES love like that. I think that would have made for a more compelling story; it could’ve been about Scully trying to convince people that her baby really WASN’T part of the alien conspiracy. It could’ve been her keeping her and Mulder’s child safe from the conspiracy theories, a rather meta embodiment of how the audience had been keeping Mulder and Scully alive romantically together no matter what the plot did to them. Scully’s baby could’ve been billed as Cary Grant in North By Northwest, caught up in something only that baby and his mother know has nothing to do with him, but Chris Carter didn’t want Scully and Mulder to be Real like the audience did. He wanted the aliens and conspiracy to be Real. He kyboshed characters over the plot like that constantly, much to the repeated frustration of the audience.
And here we are looking at Twin Peaks: The Return, and I’m not quite sure it’s an entirely dissimilar situation we’ve just experienced. Outside of Cooper’s story (and even sometimes inside his story if we’re honest), there were a number of rich well-designed characters that we never got to understand properly. These characters never got to show us what they Want from their lives, and therefore were never given a chance to be properly rooted for by the audience. From the look of the “plan” that seemed to be underway in Parts Seventeen and Eighteen, we barely even got to see Cooper’s own true motivations, wants, and needs. We THOUGHT it was one thing the whole show (getting out of the lodge and taking his life back from his doppelganger) but it’s very possible that becoming himself again wasn’t even Cooper’s MAIN goal like we thought, just a step on the way to his main goal of working a job for the Fireman involving the saving of Laura Palmer (which of course is all only implied). In other words, Cooper’s character-driven story was moved into a metaphysical plot that, while it was a rescue mission, disregarded the importance of Cooper’s own character. This is a move away from being character-driven to being plot-driven. This is Scully’s baby being made from aliens all over again, from a certain point of view. This is a Mood and Theme trying to be made more Real by its creators than the characters that deliver the mood and theme to us. And this is why a number of audience members don’t care about anything in The Return.
I do understand there’s more to it than this, that Cooper’s character in particular WOULD sacrifice his own character to save someone else. I understand The Return honestly does have many brilliant moments, and that Twin Peaks is and always will be many different things at once, but this is an exploration of my deepest fears about The Return, and on at least a couple levels this is a genuine and accurate problem that I think deserves to be addressed.
The Twin Peaks Podcast (that’s their actual name, the one started in 2011) said every descriptor from the original run of Twin Peaks can apply to The Return except for one: the word Endearing. Without the character work (that involves chronological scenes that give characters beginnings and ends to go along with the middle points we’ve been deigned to see), there’s no real way to root for the characters we meet. And when I use the word middle it’s not about me having a problem with old characters in “suddenly” new situatiations. I’m a foot taller than I was last time I watched the show; I was hoping the characters would also have drastic changes. I absolutely loved seeing Jacoby as a podcasting personality and Nadine as a business owner. And Bobby as an officer is a happiness I didn’t know I wanted. When I write that we’re presented with a bunch of middle points, I say it because we don’t get much context about how the characters got where they are nor do they get enough forward progress to show they’ve changed much by the end of The Return, so therefore they’re stuck at fixed at a stuck point somewhere in the middle of their lives. We also rarely know their wants, and we barely see anything of them that could imply being on a journey to achieve their wants. It’s simple storytelling. Instead of learning about the characters we meet and following them through their own stories like we did in the original Twin Peaks, we may as well have met chess pieces that are only there to illustrate one way to look at a theme that Lynch has decided to hammer home in the particular Part we’re watching.
There ARE rich characters in Twin Peaks: The Return, I’m not saying there aren’t, but how many of them do you feel like you know? Ed & Norma have the most complete story arc in the return outside of Agent Cooper, but how deeply would you be involved in their story if you hadn’t watched seasons one and two of Twin Peaks? If you’d somehow only seen the Return, you’d still feel great about them getting together, but you’d maybe think these two people are just now allowed to be together because another woman said it could happen. It takes further material to to understand their actual level of star-crossed, though the Otis Redding might make you wonder about it. And this was a fleshed-out, concluded story arc with genuine characters. One of the few.
Let’s look elsewhere branching off from Norma: she’s a mom to Shelly and grandma figure to Becky. Shelly was once married to Bobby, and they have an awkward but supportive relationship when it comes to their daughter. THIS is good stuff. The scene in the diner when they’re trying to convince Becky she needs to leave Stephen is amazing, thoughtful, and well designed, and you can tell every single one of those characters has a rich backstory and history with each other. You know it’s there somewhere. But we don’t get to SEE it anywhere. And it’s never gone back to again. We barely know Becky works at a bakery. We’ve never seen her work there, don’t know any coworkers. But we get this amazing shot of her as she gets high in a convertible that you would think signifies importance. Why show that if she’s going to be mostly ignored? Shelly mentions Becky at the end of Part Two in the Roadhouse to her friends. Becky later on shoots up a door when she’s fed up with Stephen. We get a scene when Stephen is beating her, and a scene where Becky’s worried about Stephen going missing and she calls Shelly about it. And that’s it. Other than that one scene with her parents in the diner booth she gets one scene each of intense bliss, intense fear, intense anger, and intense worry. A lot of middle scenes, and basically zero character arc unless you yourself connect dots between them however haphazardly. In the solid diner scene Becky doesn’t even settle on what she wants, how are we supposed to?
And then branching from Becky there’s Stephen. He’s dressed down by Mike Nelson for not being prepared, gets his wife (who we only ever know is his wife because they have the same last name in the credits) high as a kite, acts so high out of his mind he’s a hair away from being the snotty this-season’s-Leo, is waiting at the bottom of the stairs with (who the credits tell us is) Gersten Hayward, and then presumably shoots himself after being high out of his mind in an intense scene with Gersten that may or may not imply something terrible that’s happened to a “she” that may or may not be Becky. We never see the fate of “she”, never go back to Becky, never even verify if Stephen’s shot himself, which is just fine to us because he’s only an underprepared junkie who acts like an abuser. Which we know he’s more than because that scene by the tree has a whole bunch of intensity and gravity and they even add to it by jeopardizing Mark Frost and an adorable boston terrier. Why give that kind of scene to two characters just to drop it without giving us more?
And I’m not even touching Richard Horne’s impulsive half-baked violent outbursts and then later he’s simply killed by a DoppelCooper trap before major character development gives him a chance to question himself. That’s almost a character arc but it’s more like a bad guy gets what he deserves for the actions we see him do. The fact we get almost half of his backstory is a major stroke of luck.
I could go on like this breaking down every single character of The Return who is not played by Kyle MacLachlan. We see so many rich characters thrown away consistently and constantly, and they appear to be included ONLY for thematic resonance. Stephen feels pointless when he (again probably) kills himself and it feels pointless to us too. Becky seems to be all extremes and there’s a lot to be curious about but no reason to need to know for sure because she’s apparently not actually important to anyone’s story because at the end of the day Shelly is acting like she always has being boy-crazy about bad boys (who may be a magician of some sort but again we’ll never know a damn thing about Red other than he’s an incredibly under-shown rich character thrown in the trash much too early…at least with Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy he was a bounty hunter who was good at his job and that’s all we were given, therefore his lack of screen time was justified. Red on the other hand was on both the mundane and mystical sides of Twin Peaks and appeared to be a potentially big shit-disturber in both roles, but we’ll never know because his wants and needs aren’t actually relevant to the plot after all), and even Bobby never mentions Becky as he was shuffled off to the side after introducing his coworkers to Jackrabbits Palace. This also means the heroic arc Bobby was set up for just petered out, passing the hero football to Andy and became a barely-there audience member rather than a co-hero. Sounds like an incompletion to me.
Characters ARE important to Frost and Lynch in the world-building phase…everyone’s rich with great backstories (even the woman with the Chihuahua who lived nextdoor to Ruth Davenport and the janitor who thought the cops were after him), but once the world building is over, these same rich characters just seem to become tools. Ed and Norma signify something huge: Lynch and Frost can still tell stories with characters that will pull at your heart strings, but they chose not to. I know I’d love Becky if I could get a bead on who she is, and I wouldn’t miss Stephen or Gersten if they were never there. The original Twin Peaks endeared itself to us by giving us characters to care about who related to Laura Palmer and the main mystery of the show. In this series we only got that in Janey-E and Sonny Jim, Bushnell Mullins and Phil Bisby, even the Mitchums and Candie, Mandie and Sandie. What’s the difference between them and the other Return characters? Their story was told mostly in order. We got to meet characters. We saw them want things and grow as they lived their lives. Well, not the pink girls per se, but even Candie captured our imaginations in that endearing Nadine way (& I for one am fascinated by her backstory). Again I’ll say: this is Frost and Lynch showing they’re capable of telling a story that CAN involve an audience like that. But like Chris Carter, Lynch and Frost seem to have fallen in love more with the Idea, that they should tell an existential exploration of identity and mortality instead. That exploration is the Real thing in The Return. And it ended up leaving a bunch of people out in the cold, characters and audience alike, wondering if they were important at all to the process.
Lucky for me, I love the exploration and the puzzles, so I came to Twin Peaks from a completely different level this time around and was still satisfied by the experience. I mean, if it wasn’t for Audrey’s situation being implied that she’s in a time loop within the lodge, I’d have never had enough in-world data to develop my theory that Dale Cooper is still in the lodge living out Groundhog Day-style time loops. I completely agree with Jeff Jensen’s Everything Explains Everything Else theory and I’ve subscribed to the importance of that line of thinking since before he tried to put a name to it, and my next article will focus on the Good that has come from how Lynch and Frost have decided to tell the “story” in the Return, but here I reserve the space only for my trepidations. I understand why Audrey’s story relates to Cooper’s story and therefore I understand why her story actually needed to be included, but HAS Audrey broken through her loop now? Is she now awake? Does she WANT to be awake or is she robotically stuck in place still? And how about is Laura now awake? Is ANYONE awake? It seems like there could’ve been one more scene for each seemingly major character to properly set up a cliffhanger but instead they were walked away from before we even know if anyone has a plan that we need to root for. I’m still in it for the long haul, and dissecting and studying The Return will completely satisfy me, but I’m STILL not sure if I LIKED the story. I’m not talking about happy endings. I liked the story that ended in Cooper’s possession by Bob, because it focused on characters. I’m not looking for cookie cutter smiles at the end. I’m looking for people to root for in my stories, and I don’t think there were many characters that you CAN root for in Twin Peaks the Return (outside of the few in Las Vegas, Albert and Constance, and Ed and Norma. Quite the short list). I feel like Twin Peaks was telling us something that doesn’t care if characters were in the show or not. And though I love the show, this scares me. And not in the same way Bob possessing Coop ever did.