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The criticism of Twin Peaks Season 3 reminds me of many criticisms of The X-Files. 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 17 and 18, 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 doppelgänger) 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 of 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 situations. 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 1 and 2 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 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 figure 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 Steven is amazing, thoughtful, and well designed, and you can tell every single one of those characters has a rich back story 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 2 in the Roadhouse to her friends. Becky later on shoots up a door when she’s fed up with Steven. We get a scene when Steven is beating her, and a scene where Becky’s worried about Steven 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 Steven. 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 Steven’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 back story 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. Steven 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 sh*t-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 back stories (even the woman with the Chihuahua who lived next door 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 Steven 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 back story). 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.
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One of the biggest question marks for me, besides the things you’ve mentioned was Hawk’s map and the messages from the Log Lady about the man under the moon on Blue Pine mountain. Or maybe I missed where that went?
I still loved the Return, I was gutted by the ending but I understand that we got what we needed and not what we (some of us) wanted. I’m just thankful that we got Twin Peaks at all. At some point I didn’t even know we would even see Cooper again. Wouldn’t have surprised me but that would have been a real bummer.
Personally I think that Gersten, Becky and those kind of characters took away precious screen time to flesh out other characters. (Like Red, or even Shelly, Big Ed, Hawk or the Bookhouse Boys).
I agree w you on pretty much everything…especially Hawk’s map and the conversation about the man under the moon. Completely forgot about that somehow.
But I doubt that time would’ve been given to other characters instead…I bet the return’d just have been 17 Parts instead of 18. The conclusions are aparently desired as-is.
Well now. I would say that the observation that character development is awry is certainly correct, but not that it was sacrificed to plot, because the plot is all but incomprehensible. Which leaves us with … good sound? great acting?
? I know what you mean. Let’s call it the story structure then? Because it’s definitely some kind of structure. And it does have dots to connect…if I think of the right word I’ll let you know.
Another great post!
Thanks sir, glad to hear you’ve read it. I’ll be interested to hear how you and Mork are processing everything.
Yes! We hit on a similar point in Mr. Podcast (Part 18 to be released soon). I think it’s not that different from Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, but I’m not sure that mode works for a long-form TV show, and certainly not one connected to a well-established conventional show like Twin Peaks.
Glad you’ll be talking about it, and yes I will listen. (My pods column still has me backed up)
I’m beginning to feel TP’s been in a cocoon this whole time and it just hatched into its new form. Not a caterpillar (or frog/bug) anymore is it?
Leaving story threads up in the air and never coming back to them was sort of a major theme of The Return. Hell the main evil “Judy” is just a corruption of “Jiao Dai”, “To Explain”. We’re supposed to be filling in these threads, debating on characters motives, wants and needs, and their current situations based on what little we’re shown, but this is all constructed in a way where it all doesn’t quite fit perfectly together. We never have resolution or proper development, and that fuels the theories, and keeps the mystery alive and leaves the story open for more if they decide to continue the series.
I agree with you on this point, but the POV of this article is for the people who watched Twin Peaks before this, now know that is something conpletely different, and couldn’t verify one way or the other if this would become something else or try to resolve some character b-plots like its foundational series. I understand the effect was SUPPOSED to keep us off balance and it’s okay that this is the case, but we’re still off balance regardless.
I think you’ll enjoy my follow-up article…this was me covering my fears of what it isn’t (because no one’s really adressed it here, and I think calling notice to the change respects where the show’s been) and my next column’s going to cover my excitement of what it IS. It’s more in line with what you’re saying.
even the story was abandoned, really. major details were withheld until the very end and Cooper’s entire motivation got exchanged for some far-over-the-cliff cosmic quest and then to top it off even that might have just been a dream. Hell, maybe he’s actually just some guy named Richard. the dream gambit puts everything preceding it into question and you can’t even point to any characters or story remaining unfinished at all. Richard woke up. the end.
Although he does identify himself as Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI to Alice Tremond, so I think the Richard thing is still a mystery.
true. we also hear what seems like Sarah’s voice calling ‘Laura!’ as though it’s echoing from the other reality that Cooper was expecting. So there are ways to tie in to the original plot. i just find the dream gambit really hackneyed and i think you’re stuck with waiting for much more solid evidence that anything in the dream world exists in the waking one. maybe he only thinks he’s Dale Cooper of the FBI.
another sudden plot device we got that doesn’t fit is the time travel. up to now, the lodge world only interacted with the regular world in a temporally-out-of-sequence way through dreams. if physical time travel from the lodge has been possible all long, what’s the point of the 25 year cycle of being stuck there while your doppelganger takes your place? why not just return on the same day you left? why does Cooper even think it’s possible to lead Laura away from the meeting with Jacques and Ronette? why would he even think that’s a good idea?
I know! That bugs me too. It’s kind of universally know (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) that trying to change history is a very dangerous thing. I had Cooper on a higher pedestal than that. How would he even think that’s a good idea indeed?
The idea that this is Richard all along and he dreamed up Dale Cooper is to bleak and depressing for me. I am clinging to the more positive ideas that have been thrown around the internet. 🙂
I didn’t need credits to know that was Gersten Hayward. Alicia Witt creepily playing piano over the end credits of season 2 episode 1 is burned into my brain for some reason ?
At first I was going to disagree, both about the importance of plot vs. character (I enjoy plot more than character development) and about which mattered more to Chris Carter (I would have said he was all about the character development and it was writers Glen Morgan and James Wong who really loved the conspiracy stuff—their influence was what made up my favourite part of “Millennium,” too).
However, on further reading, I think agree with you. I just misinterpreted the terminology. It *is* frustrating the way that the characters are only sporadically used and then abandoned in “The Return,” and how we get so much untapped potential for interesting characters (I totally agree about Red for example), and how characters seem to be trying to do something or mean something to us, but then…don’t. I would have called these plot problems, but after reading this article I can see how they’re character problems too.
It’s just that when I see the phrase “character development” I think of all the endless padding and character navel-gazing that holds up the plot, which is what I really want more of. The attraction between Mulder and Scully is sweet and enjoyable but if it gets in the way of learning what’s really going on with the Syndicate, it’s got to go! Tell me more about the Owls and the Roosters, not Frank Black’s relationship with his ex-wife!
You’re right, though, that it’s more satisfying when characters want something and are trying to do something, and we’re not given that with “The Return.” Maybe that’s why Mr. C is so enjoyable. We don’t know what the coordinates are for, but we know that he wants to stay out of the Lodge and take down his enemies, and we see him doing that. He’s a scary guy, but in a perverse way, we root for him—because we want to see where he’s going with this.