clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Twin Peaks premiere: the first 2 episodes, explained in 7 shots

The series returns triumphant after 26 years, as primal and terrifying and wacky as ever.

Twin Peaks
Welcome back to the Red Room, everybody.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After 26 years, Twin Peaks is back on television. (It’s technically been 25 years since its prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, debuted, but let’s not quibble too much.)

In that time, the series’ DNA has spread to just about every corner of the broadcast landscape. But its co-creator David Lynch struggled to find funding to make more movies after 2006’s Inland Empire. And its stars have had wildly varying levels of success.

Thus, expectations for the series’ third season, which debuted Sunday, May 21 on Showtime, were all over the place. Would it be the mostly accessible and approachable Lynch of the original series and 1986’s Blue Velvet? Would it be the more esoteric Lynch of 2001’s Mulholland Dr.? Or would it be the “only for obsessives” Lynch of Inland Empire?

That’s why it’s such a relief that season three’s two-hour premiere — though weird and bizarre and largely without a cohesive plot — feels like the start of a TV show. Questions set up early on are answered toward the episode’s end. Though Twin Peaks continues to play by dream logic, it’s playing by some sort of logic. And there are just enough glimpses of some of our Twin Peaks favorites (amid a seemingly separate murder mystery unspooling in South Dakota) to assure fans that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost haven’t abandoned the goofy idiosyncrasies of their series entirely. (A long scene where hotel owner Ben Horne argued with his brother, Jerry, had me giggling.)

Above all, though, it’s gorgeous, and in its visuals, it expresses what makes Twin Peaks such an alluring and terrifying show. Let’s look at how the premiere returns you to the world of Twin Peaks, in just seven shots.

1) An empty glass box — that soon won’t be empty

Twin Peaks
What’s in the box? C’mon, what’s in the box?!

David Lynch excels at using everything you know about how movies are “supposed” to work against you.

Take this shot of an empty glass box in a lonely tower in Manhattan. A young man is hired to sit and watch the box every night. Sometimes, a camera takes a picture of the box, and he has to go and retrieve the data card where the picture is stored and place it in a vault. He tells a date he sneaks up to the room that it’s some sort of science experiment.

Except we, the audience, know it isn’t. Even before he explains that his job is to watch the glass box and wait for something to appear in it (which seems unlikely, since the box is completely sealed and very high up off the ground), Lynch holds on shots of the box for ages and ages.

Because you know how movies and TV shows work, you know your eye can’t stand a vacuum — like a big, empty box. You’re going to start looking for something to look at, and then your brain will start trying to figure out what could be in that box that would be more interesting than air. Why not a human form? Something like that?

Except wouldn’t that be more terrifying? If something suddenly appeared in that box, it would be completely inexplicable and probably horrifying. But we can’t stop looking at the damn box. So something is going to happen, right?

This is how Lynch creates a never-ending feedback loop between what your brain expects and what it fears, so the two feed into each other. And by the time some sort of shadowy demonic form appears in the box, breaks free, and tears apart the young man and his date, Lynch has guided you toward some more elemental type of nightmare logic.

This feedback loop might also cause you to think, “Hey, could the box be connected to the Red Room or the Black Lodge or any other number of mystical Twin Peaks portals to other dimensions?” And when the long-missing Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) leaves the Red Room, only to surface in the glass box (shortly before the two kids are torn to shreds), it’s a nice little case of question asked, question answered. Lynch might have a reputation for being inscrutable, but in this case, he’s playing fair.

2) Driving down a long, dark road at night

Twin Peaks
Not woods you want to get lost in.

As someone who grew up in rural America, I have always felt there’s no TV show or movie that quite captures the weirdly ominous sense of stepping out into the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, like Twin Peaks.

This jarring shot of a car gliding down a long, dirt road in the middle of nowhere, seemingly shot from the point-of-view of the car’s headlight, is a great example. The episode’s earlier sequences in New York were filled with gliding, aerial shots, presumably filmed with a helicopter or a drone. This is rougher, closer to the earth, with a more foreboding quality to it, only enhanced by the brooding rock on the soundtrack.

There’s good reason for that sense of foreboding: This particular car carries Dale Cooper’s doppelgänger (also played by MacLachlan), who is apparently possessed by the evil spirit BOB and has been carrying out horrific murders in the 25 years the actual Cooper has been trapped in the Red Room.

3) Sarah Palmer watches a nature documentary on television

Twin Peaks
I won’t lie. I felt for that water buffalo.

And now I’m going to skip ahead to the very end of the premiere, because I think this shot nicely lays out a lot of what Twin Peaks is about.

Sarah Palmer (played by the great Grace Zabriskie) is the last remaining member of the Palmer family. Her daughter Laura’s death kicked off the whole series, and when her husband, Leland, was revealed as the killer (though he was possessed by BOB), he killed himself. That left Sarah all alone in a big, empty house, with 25 years of silence to fill.

She’s filled it, like lots of us do, by watching TV. (She’s also apparently filled it with drinking, which is a very Sarah Palmer thing to do.) In the season three premiere, she’s watching a nature documentary, in which a pride of lions take down a water buffalo. It’s a gruesome image, made only more ghostly by the fact that it’s filmed in night vision. But Lynch pivots the camera around, so we’re looking into Sarah’s eyes as she watches, implacable. Meanwhile, the reflection of the program she’s watching plays out in the mirrors behind her.

It’s a gorgeous shot, my favorite of the episode. It also gets at something about Twin Peaks that I think is fundamental. No matter our creature comforts, our technology, our “human nature,” there is something primal and animalistic at the core of every single person on Earth, something that could drive us to kill someone or worse. (In Sarah’s case, it was her love for her daughter, which is why she seems so at sea.) We might not acknowledge it, but the dim reflections of our evolution haunt our DNA, always just behind us, over our shoulder.

Of course, I might be reading too much into this. This scene could just be about watching TV. Twin Peaks characters are always watching TV, and it always seems to put them in a vague stupor. So maybe this is just that!

4) Cooper’s double commits a horrific crime

Twin Peaks
“Are you still nowhere?”

I won’t make a screencap of the actual shots I’m talking about here, because they’re pretty terrifying. And I expect that if any controversy arises over this episode, it will concern this sequence, in which Cooper’s doppelganger threatens to kill Darya, his apparent lover who’s clad only in her underwear — then punches her twice in the face and (eventually) shoots her in the head.

The scene would be hard enough to watch without the fact that the actor doing all of these upsetting things is Kyle MacLachlan, whose other character — the actual Dale Cooper — is one of the most open-hearted, good-natured men in the history of television. That it’s him doing all of this somehow makes it slightly worse, so I’ll hardly be surprised if the sequence spins up the thinkpiece industrial complex.

But Twin Peaks has always been a show where goofy comedy, unexpected warmth, and horrible darkness rub up against each other. We learn, in this sequence, that Cooper’s double is trying as best he can to avoid being drawn back into the Black Lodge, and he’s apparently working with Major Garland Briggs (a character from the original series) on whatever it is he’s up to. (Does Major Briggs know about the string of murders in South Dakota? Too soon to say.) Darya and her friend Ray were apparently plotting to kill the double, which has inconvenienced said double on the eve of his being drawn back into the Lodge.

Anyway, explaining all of that robs the sequence of some of its power, which is to say that, yes, it’s horrifying, but it has to be horrifying. The original series always posited a kind of dividing line between the destruction of hatred and the beauty of kindness. Cooper always represented the latter — so it makes sense that his double would represent the former, no matter how hard it can be to watch.

My feeling on BOB has always been that he represents any time we are ruthless or unkind for reasons we don’t fully understand. This doesn’t mean we commit murder; sometimes, it just means we’re cruel or cutting without really thinking about how others are feeling. BOB is that impulse writ large. Our primal, animal selves can be overcome — but we have to work to best them. It looks like Cooper will be fighting that battle quite literally in season three.

5) Here’s a talking tree that apparently represents the “evolution of the arm”

Twin Peaks
“Time... and... time... again.”

Look, I am not 100 percent sure what’s up with this talking tree, but I loved it.

6) All the shots of long, long hallways and open doors

One of Lynch’s hallmarks is shots of long, mostly empty hallways, often with open doors at the end of them that may or may not lead to something. I particularly loved his use of them in the premiere’s sequence set in Buckhorn, South Dakota.

Here, for instance, is a character we’ve just met, returning to her apartment with her dog, wondering what that smell is that’s coming from her neighbor’s apartment.

Twin Peaks
“What is it, Armstrong?!”

And here are the cops investigating said apartment. You know they’re going to find something horrible, and once you finally see it, it’s appropriately gruesome. But you’ve also been perfectly primed to be wary of whatever might be lurking in the dark.

Twin Peaks
“Uh oh.”

These images encapsulate much of what makes Twin Peaks work — the quiet solitude of small towns, and the strange visitation of death in them, which throws everything off-kilter. Laura Palmer’s death wasn’t just notable because she was the homecoming queen. It was notable because it happened, and it made everything else spiral.

The real enemy of Twin Peaks (the show and the town) isn’t just BOB — it’s finality, and anyone who would deal out that finality before its expected time.

7) The Log Lady and Hawk have a talk

Twin Peaks
“It’s the line with the light that’s blinking.”

I could point to any number of original Twin Peaks characters popping up in this premiere as enthralling or intriguing. I watched the episode in a crowded theater full of the show’s fans, and every time Laura Palmer or Leland Palmer or even Dr. Jacoby popped up onscreen, a little thrill would ripple through the audience, as we all realized just which beloved character it was.

This was especially true in the episode’s final visit to the Bang Bang Bar, where the band The Chromatics played over images of several of the high school-aged characters from the original series, now adults with kids of their own. Life moves forward, whether we like it or not, even if it plays out against the backdrop of supreme supernatural weirdness, as it does in the town of Twin Peaks. The series is still mostly a story of very small, very human concerns — love and death and hoping for something better for your kids.

But the cameo I want to point to from the premiere is that of the Log Lady, played by Catherine E. Coulson, who died in 2015. Coulson died of complications related to cancer, which makes me think her very gaunt appearance in this episode was just the physical state she was in when Lynch filmed a handful of scenes with her.

This infuses her phone conversations with Hawk — the deputy police chief who’s trying to find Cooper — with a poignant quality. Each time the two say goodnight to each other, it’s not hard to fear it will be the last time.

But that feeling also underlines the series’ larger concerns. The Log Lady was one of the original series’ oddest creations — a woman who received spiritual guidance from a log. Her appearance in the season three premiere only emphasizes that she, too, is human, as is everyone in Twin Peaks. She, like all of us, will die, but the struggle of life, to move forward and find meaning and create something of real permanence, will outlive us all.

Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks are perched on the edge of something vast and unending and unknowable, but the people who live there have the same mundane concerns as you or me. It is a show about everything, but also very tiny, very specific things, like a good cup of coffee, or losing a child, or getting to talk on the phone with a good friend, one last time.

Twin Peaks
“Goodnight, Hawk.” “Goodnight, Margaret.”

Twin Peaks season three airs Sundays at 9 pm on Showtime. The first four episodes are now available on its streaming service.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.