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Twin Peaks episode 11: why this show is like nothing else on TV right now

This hour is an almost perfect blend of the series’ many different tones.

Twin Peaks
If there’s a pie in that box, everything’s coming up roses.
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.

I was having lunch with a fellow TV critic the other day, and our conversation turned (as it inevitably does) to Twin Peaks.

Neither of us would count ourselves in the camp that believes Showtime’s miniseries is literally perfect. It’s been a little herky-jerky and sometimes feels like a TV series stuck on shuffle. But we both could agree that it’s one of just a handful of shows we’ve anticipated so eagerly. Every week, Twin Peaks starts, I sink into its mindset, and I barely notice time passing. In that sense — the sense that it’s trying to get viewers to let go of everything but the show while they watch it — maybe it is perfect.

I think the best way to summarize this feeling is that there are lots and lots of TV shows out there, but what Twin Peaks offers me is singular. You can’t easily find its blend of existential terror, weird humor, and melodrama anywhere else, even though so much of modern television is heavily influenced by the series’ original two seasons. Something like Game of Thrones is so influential that there are lots and lots of shows visibly playing around with its particular DNA. But only Twin Peaks is Twin Peaks.

“Part 11” neatly synthesizes that quality, with each and every scene hitting some sort of bizarre high point. It jets wildly from Gordon staring at a swirling sky vortex to Bobby being confronted by some strange zombie child to Cooper finally mumbling the words “damn good” in reference to a piece of cherry pie, and it somehow makes them all feel like parts of the whole.

In short, Twin Peaks feels new, even though it’s a revival of an old show. How David Lynch and Mark Frost managed that, I’ll never know. But “Part 11” is a beautiful summary of why this miniseries is working so well.

No scene in “Part 11” goes exactly where you expect it to — even if you’ve watched a lot of David Lynch

Bradley Mitchum (the Jim Belushi kingpin character) has a problem. He despises Dougie Jones, and he wants to kill him. But he’s also had a potentially prophetic dream that indicates Dougie (who is really Cooper, I know, but is referred to by everyone as Dougie, so I’m going to keep in that spirit) isn’t his enemy but, rather, his friend, and he has the situation all wrong.

When Dougie arrives to a meeting with Bradley and his brother, he’s carrying a giant box — and, Bradley says, if there’s a cherry pie in that box, then his dream was true and Dougie is their pal.

Lynch fans will recognize much of this basic setup from the director’s 2001 film Mulholland Dr., where one character has a terrifying nightmare, then discovers that the creature he dreamed up (who looks rather like the ashen ghosts who haunt Twin Peaks) is hiding behind a nearby dumpster — just like in his nightmare! But in Twin Peaks, the scenario is twisted to be broadly comical, even as Dougie’s life is at stake. Bradley dreamed about a cherry pie? And it’s a symbol of Dougie’s good intentions? It’s just a little ridiculous.

Twin Peaks
A lot of creepy stuff happens in this episode.

But Lynch also knows it’s ridiculous, so he keeps piling on the absurdity. The box does, indeed, contain a pie, and after a few moments, Dougie and the Mitchum brothers are hanging out in a casino’s restaurant, listening to tinkling piano music and pledging their friendship. (The Mitchums keep trying to toast, then have to show Dougie — who keeps reaching for their extended glasses — how to toast himself.) This is the scene where Dougie also parrots the Mitchums in calling his pie “damn good,” and the reveal of that famous phrase was built to so skillfully I almost clapped for it.

These scenes with Dougie and the Mitchums disrupt an episode that, up until that point, had been largely tense and horrific, one where Bill Hastings (the Matthew Lillard character) had his head implode and Bobby Briggs saw a strange zombie-like figure crawling out of the passenger seat of a stopped car, both toward him and the driver. There were moments of humor, sure, but they were often subverted by terror. (One exception: Gordon seeing Bill without the top half of his head and proclaiming: “Well, he’s dead!”)

Properly balancing horror and absurdity is a big part of Twin Peaks’ core, but what’s fun about “Part 11” is how wildly scenes will swing from one to the other (sometimes stopping along the way into melodrama). These sorts of tonal shifts are common in all of Lynch’s films, but it also feels as if the more time the miniseries spends in Twin Peaks proper — and nearly half of this episode was set in the little town — the more the show starts to gain the qualities of the original two seasons.

It’s an interesting way to structure the show. The closer it skirts to Twin Peaks, the more it feels like a TV show and less like a collection of scenes from a bunch of other stories, stitched together through vague thematic connections. But the longer we spend in Twin Peaks, the more we realize that things there have gone very, very wrong for almost everybody from the original series.

“Black fire” is coming for everyone on Twin Peaks

Critic Willow Maclay had a fascinating recap of the season’s 10th episode, in which she discusses how the performance by Rebekah del Rio at the end of that episode suggests that very, very bad things are coming. (Del Rio’s performance in Mulholland Dr. signals that film’s descent into darkness.)

And if we’re solely looking at the residents of Twin Peaks itself, to say nothing of Buckhorn, SD, then it’s not hard to see Maclay’s argument as more or less correct. At this point, only Dougie seems to be heading toward something other than doom — and even he will likely be drawn back to Twin Peaks and the darkness swirling around it once he fully realizes the truth of his situation.

Twin Peaks
Sheriff Truman and Hawk look over an “ancient” map.

Take, for instance, Hawk and Sheriff Truman’s perusal of the ancient map the former produces, which promises a time of “black fire,” or an energy surrounded by death. (I thought it was interesting that Hawk described the fire on the map as something like electricity, considering how Cooper re-entered our reality, to say nothing of much of “Part 8.”)

Now, the map as a whole is filled with Easter eggs for those who’ve watched the series — doesn’t that bug creature look a bit like the one that crawled into the girl’s mouth in “Part 8”? — but its foremost suggestion is that something horrible is coming, perhaps tied to those ashen-faced ghosts Gordon and Albert kept seeing lurking around the Buckhorn crime scene. (The map is also a great example of how Lynch blends absurdity and horror. It’s clearly a prop, even though it’s supposedly an ancient map, and he makes great use of that artifice, but still manages to undercut anything goofy about it with a kind of dark foreboding.)

That blend of tones tilts more and more toward horror as the show begins heading toward its end. No matter how many scenes we get of Dougie trying pie again, there’s still something that’s gone seriously off-course in the world, and that means there are bloodied women crawling through the weeds, or ghost children lurching toward police officers, or even the more mundane tragedies of a man longing for his former love even though she’s with somebody else.

Something’s coming on Twin Peaks, but the more that it shows its face, the more time I want to spend inside the series’ tiny moments of kindness, of new friends sharing a damn good cherry pie. But even in this weird spin on reality, there comes a time when you have to stop hiding and face the darkness.