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Twin Peaks: The Return episodes 3 and 4: in this new miniseries, identity is everything

And we pick up bits and pieces of our identity from everywhere — including TV shows like Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks
Dale Cooper — now Dougie Jones — is relearning how to be Dale Cooper.
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.

It feels a little obvious, perhaps, to call Twin Peaks’ third season a meditation on identity. The central conflict seems to be between Dale Cooper and his evil doppelgänger, among the many, many fairly blatant examinations of what it means to be the person you are.

But in the third and fourth hours of this miniseries, something I first took note of in the first two episodes begins to bear more fruit, and that’s altogether more fascinating than a simple dive into the nature of the self. Twin Peaks season three, I think, is about the formation of identity. Are we ourselves? Or are we a collection of outside influences that we trick ourselves into thinking is a coherent person?

What’s even more fascinating is that the miniseries is arguing that sometimes, the most important influences on our conception of the self aren’t our parents or our peers — they’re the media we consume, especially TV and movies. Twin Peaks has already tackled this idea in ways both broadly comical (Michael Cera as “Wally Brando”) and oddly terrifying (the deaths of Sam and Tracey, staring at that empty glass box, looking to all the world like television viewers). But it’s been present in all four hours so far, and it’s only growing more prominent.

Let’s look at the most obvious example of this: Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks
Cooper’s certainly had better days.

Cooper escapes the Black Lodge midway through the season’s third episode, floating out through an electrical outlet into an empty house in Nevada, where a third “version” of Cooper — a lunkhead family man named Dougie Jones — has just finished up an assignation with a prostitute.

(More fuel for the “TV helps us form our identities” fire: The various “doors” in the Lodge’s dreamspace that allow Cooper to escape have direct resemblances to both electrical switchboard blueprints and old TV station test patterns — and just when I thought I was reading too much into this, the resemblance to an electrical outlet of each door’s central hub was made explicit.)

Dougie gets sucked into the Black Lodge, thanks to the plotting of Evil Cooper (who ostensibly would have returned to the Lodge had he not, as the show puts it, “manufactured” Dougie). But when Cooper takes Dougie’s place inside the house in Nevada, he, back on this plane for the first time in a quarter-century, doesn’t know how to be human anymore. He doesn’t even know how to pour syrup on his pancakes or use the bathroom. He has to be taught — but because everybody thinks he’s Dougie with a haircut, no one’s going to take him by the hand and show him how utensils work.

So Cooper becomes a kind of sponge, picking up the behavior of others around him and parroting it in order to function and better fit into the world around him. Instead, it just makes him seem all the stranger, especially in instances like the one where he tells everybody he encounters that he needs to “call for help” without knowing whom or why he should call for said help.

Yet because he has a connection to whatever supernatural dimension he was in, he’s also got weird, mystical powers, like being able to tell which slot machine is going to pay out in a Vegas casino (and/or being able to cause more slot machines to pay out in said casino — it’s a little of both, seemingly). In their own way, Twin Peaks creators David Lynch and Mark Frost are playing off a very old sci-fi trope, where a seemingly adult human (usually a woman) has the innocent, naive mind of a child and must be carefully taught. Yet Lynch and Frost go one further than the trope usually goes, and make Cooper a literal blank slate. He doesn’t know how to do anything, and the filmmakers lean into that to maximize its potential for both comedy and horror.

But the idea of creating identity is similarly intrinsic to the other two Coopers. If Dougie really was “manufactured” — like a golem or a robot or something — then his identity as a normal guy and family man is similarly manufactured, presumably so that he could escape notice (and also, hopefully, so that he could be married to a woman played by Naomi Watts, whose presence in a Lynch project is always welcome). In that case, is Dougie’s identity “real”? Does it even matter?

Similarly, Evil Cooper’s machinations could easily be written off as happening because he’s possessed by Bob. But Twin Peaks has always toyed with the idea that Bob is less an evil entity unto himself and more an entity that unlocks evil potential within all of us. He doesn’t make you do evil things. He just makes it seem like a better idea to do evil things, because you’ll have Bob to blame. Yet the question remains: How much of Evil Cooper is him, and how much is Bob? And, again, does it even matter?

So much of season three so far is obsessed with the lines between fiction and reality

Twin Peaks
Andy and Lucy are just so proud of their son.

If, as Twin Peaks argues, we construct our identities based on collections of influences in our vague proximity, then some of those influences are going to be pop culture-related. Anybody who’s modeled their hairstyle off a famous celebrity or worked hard at seeming as sexy and cool as a movie star will know this to be true. We’ve always looked to the most prominent members of our given societies to figure out what we should be like — and in modern America, our most prominent citizens are often the famous ones.

Thus, Twin Peaks contains lots and lots of scenes in which the characters seem to have trouble distinguishing between what’s fiction and what’s “real.” (Obviously it’s all fiction, but bear with me.)

The Twin Peaks Police Department seems like a TV version of a small-town police department because it is — there’s a more modern and high-tech operation elsewhere, and apparently it allows Andy, Lucy, Hawk, and the rest go about their weird, comic bumbling for reasons it has yet to share. Andy and Lucy’s son, Wally, models his persona on Marlon Brando. And just the sight of Laura Palmer’s photograph seems to wrest her former lover Bobby Briggs, now a police deputy, out of his real life and back into the TV show he used to star in.

Yet this Bobby moment, when he can’t stop crying after he sees Laura’s photo after all this time, strikes me as key to another part of Twin Peaks ideas about identity: We might be a collection of tics and affectations on some level, but there are also very primal emotions that will knock us right back to some more elemental self. Grief, certainly, but also the raw terror that everybody who’s watching Twin Peaks must have felt at the start of episode three, when Cooper races through other dimensions, being pursued by a dark entity who hammers at the door whenever it’s ready to ... we don’t know what, exactly, but it can’t be good.

Or take David Duchovny’s return as FBI Agent Denise Bryson. When she appeared in the original series, Denise was one of TV’s first portrayals of a trans woman, period — and the show even treated her transness as no big deal, which was pretty notable for 1991. (Granted, this was Twin Peaks, so the “no big deal” of it all was tied to the show’s overall aesthetic, but still.)

When she returns to Twin Peaks in 2017, she discusses with Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) how Cole’s insistence that the rest of the bureau give Denise no guff about her transition was deeply meaningful to her. On some level, then, identity is inherent — you know who you are at your core, just as Denise did, and the behaviors you copy from elsewhere, whether peers, parents, or pop culture, are just masks you put on to get through the day.

In some sense, this is the story of Twin Peaks writ large: Yes, there are a bunch of fun bits and terrifying moments and funny asides, and yes, there’s a willingness to engage with pop culture of all stripes. But there’s also something deeply humane and empathetic at the series’ core. Poke fun at its affectations all you want, Twin Peaks seems to say, so long as you’re able to see past them to what’s human at its center.

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