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Twin Peaks episode 5: Showtime’s miniseries is the ultimate defeat of recap culture

Nothing happens in this episode. Or maybe everything does. Either way, it’s a pleasure.

Twin Peaks
Good old Dougie Jones.
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.

On the surface, nothing happens in the fifth episode of the Twin Peaks miniseries.

We get introduced to a few new characters, and reintroduced to a few old ones. The gigantic, multi-faceted conspiracy that Evil Cooper is apparently part of gets a few new facets. And Dougie Jones (our “original” Cooper) learns a few more things about how to be a human being — including the word “agent,” which sets off strange pangs in him.

Or, here’s the alternate version of what happens in this episode: Everything happens in the fifth episode of the Twin Peaks miniseries.

The tendrils drawing the various storylines together draw ever tighter. Dougie Jones seems to be drawing closer to his Cooper persona. Evil Cooper unleashes a horrifying plot (that involves apparently using a simple touchtone phone to set off all the alarms in the prison he’s being held in — the episode’s creepiest grace note). And it feels as if the curtain is being drawn back, slowly but surely, on just what all of this has to do with Twin Peaks, Washington.

So nothing happens, and everything happens. Welcome to Twin Peaks: The Return — or, as I like to call it, the ultimate defeat of TV recap culture.

Twin Peaks resists simple explanations or even theorizing. That’s what makes it so wonderful.

Normally, the job of the TV recapper (in this review, played by me) is to dive into the nitty gritty of the episode the viewer just watched, to connect the various plot threads to previous episodes, to theorize about what’s to come, and to hopefully nod toward the world at large lurking just off-camera.

Think, for instance, of the cottage industry that sprung up around trying to explain what was up with Lost every week after an episode of that show, or the way that every site on the internet has to have a post on how Game of Thrones matches up with the books it’s based on — even though the TV series is well past those books by now.

I could probably do a version of all of that with Twin Peaks. But every time you think you have this show figured out, it slips away from you. Just when you think a scene will be horrifying, it veers into farcical comedy — and the reverse. Just when you think a scene will feature a guy castigating Dougie for drinking his coffee, he instead tries a green tea latte and decides he really likes that instead. On lots of other shows, a recapper would dismiss these moments as “tangents,” but on Twin Peaks so much of the pleasure lies in the tangents.

Twin Peaks
The fucks, said Dr. Jacoby, are at it again.

Here’s an example: Never in a million years would I have guessed that Dr. Jacoby was buying up all of those shovels and coating them in gold paint to sell them to those who watch his offbeat conspiracy-mongering show. (It seems to simultaneously be broadcast online and via HAM radio, which is one way to distribute an underground program.) In some ways, it’s a finger wag from David Lynch and Mark Frost: don’t try to second guess where we’re going with this stuff. We’ll tell you when we’re good and ready. In another way, it’s just really unexpected and funny.

Indeed, Jacoby’s broadcast (carried out under the name of “Dr. Amp”) is one of my favorite scenes in the episode, because it seems to have nothing to do with anything beyond checking in on some old Twin Peaks pals who are listening to the show and letting Russ Tamblyn (who plays Jacoby) rant at length about the government and corporations. “The fucks are at it again!” he howls, and I know what I’ll be saying the next time the universe thwarts my plans.

You could tie this in to, say, Alex Jones and the rise of Infowars. You could also attempt to figure out why Jacoby’s broadcast plays such a pivotal role in this episode, or theorize as to how it will play into the show going forward. But it seems to me that every Twin Peaks storyline save a few is sort of a Schrodinger’s cat kind of thing — both incredibly important and not important at all simultaneously, and we’ll know which it is once we’ve opened the entire box to see the whole miniseries before us.

The reason Twin Peaks resists easy theorizing, and did even back in 1990 when it debuted, is because the series flits so easily from its master plot about some sort of strange supernatural struggle between forces humans can barely comprehend and the sort of small-town soap/picaresque that defines a lot of the supporting plots. Jacoby’s broadcast could become the key to everything, and you always have to keep that in mind. But it’s more likely it will just be a one-off gag that reveals one of the original series’ goofier characters has gotten even goofier.

This tonal variation makes Twin Peaks both impossible to predict and as much fun as it can be

I was wondering, as I watched the fifth episode, why I’m so content to just let Twin Peaks wash over me and not try too hard to pull it apart to figure out what’s going on, or how all of the various Coopers will come together, or just how all of these plots will converge on Twin Peaks. (Was this the episode with the most time spent in the little town? I think it might have been.)

And then the episode dropped Amanda Seyfried — an actress whose ethereal qualities make her feel like a perfect fit for Lynch — into the middle of the action as Becky, who seems to be the daughter of original series character Shelly, and I realized why I’m just fine letting Twin Peaks do its thing.

Becky, having gotten some money from Shelly ($72, to be exact), heads back out to a car driven by her drug-using boyfriend. After the two argue for a bit, he wins her over with some awful jokes, then drives off, putting some romantic music on the car radio. Becky tilts her head back to look up at the sky, and Lynch holds on her face for what feels like five minutes (it’s closer to just one). It’s just an overhead shot of a girl in a car, looking up at the sky, possibly high. But it feels like it’s the most beautiful, most significant thing you’ve ever seen.

Twin Peaks
Love songs.

This is Lynch’s greatest strength. He’ll imbue an otherwise mundane scene of, say, police officers trudging through evidence with a weird, cool menace. Or he’ll introduce crazy comedic beats into the middle of a supernatural horror story. Or he’ll take a simple moment like this — two young lovers drive away in a car — and make it feel like one of the most significant things that has ever happened to either. The world might as well stop to let Becky have her moment. That’s how meaningful this scene feels.

A lot of TV — even really good TV — is predicated on a sort of emotional hand-holding, on making sure that you know how you’re supposed to feel about the scene you’ve just watched, even if it’s filled with enormously complicated emotions that must be processed. For an example of how this can be done terrifically, think of the final stretch of episodes of Breaking Bad, which constantly made sure you knew Walter White had lost his soul, but there were just enough shreds of it left for him to make a stand. Whatever questions the show raised were strictly binary: has Walter lost his soul?

On Twin Peaks, every emotion seems to be happening all at once, which is closer to the way most of us experience life. If you have a fight with your partner, then get a big promotion at work you’ve been hoping for, the latter doesn’t wipe out the former, and vice versa. You’re constantly living in the muddle, every day of your life, and that’s something TV struggles to depict, because TV likes clean, sharp edges to keep you coming back to it.

Clean, sharp edges are the antithesis of what Twin Peaks is about, though, which means it can get away with some truly unusual stuff. I suspect that, say, the beeping machine that shrinks down into a tiny version of itself (or compresses into a crumpled up version of itself) will have something to do with something. But maybe it won’t.

You don’t always know which moments of your life will be the important ones, and even if you did, you might struggle to really give them their full weight. So it is on Twin Peaks, and even if the show goes about it in an odd fashion, it captures the way it feels to live in the midst of vast oceans of uncertainty.

Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sundays on Showtime at 9 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on Showtime Anytime.