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Twin Peaks episode 13: the most fascinating part of this revival is what it says about TV itself

Kyle MacLachlan finally gets his cherry pie on Twin Peaks Showtime
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The most terrifying moment in the original run of Twin Peaks comes about halfway through its second season. What happens is very simple: The demon BOB glides through the Palmer house, coming to the living room. Suddenly he stops. He turns his head.

Unmistakably, he has seen the camera. Which means that he has seen us. He knows we’re watching.

And then he climbs over the sofa, over the coffee table. He crouches right in front of the lens, grinning evilly as he peers through it, directly into the audience’s souls.

Twin Peaks has always been a show that is obsessed with the act of watching television. That was true both in its original run and in the new season, and the show has never been subtle about. This revival began with a lengthy sequence of a guy sitting passively on a couch and staring at a glass box, for god’s sake.

But part of what made the original series so immediate — comforting in some places and horrifying in others — was that the characters were fully capable of watching us back. That made the wacky hijinks of the town feel that much closer and more intimate, and it made BOB feel that much more threatening.

Thus, part of what has made this revival feel so much chillier than the original run is that it is no longer about us, the audience, watching television and being watched right back. No one is about to lunge demonically at the camera as if he might emerge through your TV set and destroy your soul. Instead, we’re watching these characters watch each other, alone, in isolation. And the act of watching just makes them more and more alone.

The community that made the original run of Twin Peaks so warm and welcoming — and simultaneously so very terrifying — has been shattered. All of the people that clearly should have gotten together remain apart, like Norma and Big Ed; all the people that you remember as being vibrant and smart and ballsy have become broken shells of their former selves, like Audrey, who is afraid to go outside and asks for stories like a child. And we the audience, who used to be part of that community too, have been excluded.

None of the characters are as close to us as they used to be. None of them feel quite as charming, and none of them are quite as scary.

Now we can only watch, the way the characters watch each other. We’re just as isolated as they are.

Dark Cooper’s been doing glorified arm wrestling this entire season. Here’s where we see how stupid it is.

Derek Mears and Kyle MacLachlan arm wrestle in Twin Peaks Showtime

After last week’s Cooper-light episode, we get to see both Coopers in action this week. Dark Coop has tracked Ray to Western Montana, where he gets into an arm wrestling match with Ray’s boss. It’s a hilariously dumb way of keeping order among this mob of assorted heavies — whoever can beat the boss at arm wrestling gets to be the new boss, which is maybe one step up from a literal pissing contest in terms of inherent dignity. But the idea also serves as an absurd echo of all the brutal violence this season has been doling out.

Dark Cooper — like Richard Horne, who appears briefly with the rest of the Montana crowd — is devoted to a world order in which he gets to be in charge because he is the scariest, the strongest, and the most brutal. Dark Cooper can kill people with his bare hands without a care. Richard Horne can beat a defenseless woman to death. Both men think that makes them important, but what the Montana sequence suggests is that really, deep down, they’re just jerks who are good at arm wrestling.

They’re also jerks who love to watch surveillance footage. One of the ways this season of Peaks has been thinking about the act of watching television is by returning again and again to surveillance tapes: the Mitchum brothers watching Candy in the casino, or Dark Cooper messing with the security cameras when he makes his phone call from jail. In Montana, all of Cooper’s actions are projected onto a giant high-def screen that the gang watches at first with amusement and then with horror, and that fills Richard — who might be watching his father — with fascination.

Most of the characters who watch actual TV on this season of Peaks watch it alone. We first saw Sarah Palmer watching a vicious nature show by herself, and this week, she’s sitting alone in her living room, surrounded by cigarette butts and empty bottles of vodka, watching the same brief clip of a boxing match on an endless loop. Dr. Jacoby’s viewers — most significantly Nadine, who gets the chance to fangirl briefly to her hero this week — watch him on their laptops, alone in dark rooms.

But watching surveillance tapes is nearly always a group activity. It’s social, where the rest of television is isolating. And it alone offers viewers the opportunity to intervene, because it alone depicts real life in the moments that it happens, just at a slight remove.

Other television, like Dr. Jacoby’s show, can be reduced to fetishized nonsense catchphrases and junk — “I’m shoveling myself out!” Nadine crows, in front of her specially-ordered gold-spray-painted shovel — but surveillance gives its viewers a real glimpse, however distorted, of what’s happening in the world.

On Twin Peaks, TV used to be a way of connecting. Now, it’s isolating.

Pierce Gagnon as Sonny Jim on Twin Peaks Showtime

Our good guys, however, are still passively floating through their lives, nowhere near any kind of camera or TV show.

Good Cooper continues to have good fortune rain down on him, by sheer dint of mechanically repeating the last thing anyone says to him and longing deeply for coffee. The Mitchum brothers send him a new car and a sweet new playset for Sonny Jim, which looks poignantly like an abandoned fairground with only Sonny Jim on it. (Poor kid needs some friends, stat, but everyone’s isolated in this world.) Sinclair tries to poison Good Cooper, but instead breaks down into tears and confesses everything.

And most significantly, Cooper finally gets his iconic cherry pie and coffee. (“Damn, that sounds so good,” Becky says when Shelly offers her the same, and she ain’t wrong.) But he still hasn’t gotten Norma’s pie — and as we were reminded this week, no one else’s pies are as good as Norma’s. Hers are made with love.

Until Cooper gets himself to Norma’s damn fine cherry pie and damn good coffee, he will undoubtedly continue to be Dougie Jones, unable to truly connect with anyone.

And Audrey is in a similar boat, unable to connect with her old, vital self, or with anyone else either. She tries to continue last week’s argument with Charlie, but she begins to break down. “I’m not sure who I am, but I’m not me!” she cries. She doesn’t know how to get to the Roadhouse. She’s afraid to go out. She wants Charlie to tell her a story. It’s a miniature tragedy of a scene that adds ballast to the popular fan theory that Charlie isn’t really Audrey’s husband, but her therapist: Something is not right with Audrey, and Charlie’s detached, clinical response is much closer to that of a doctor than that of a husband.

If there’s a single moment that encapsulates the chilly isolation of this season, though, it’s the final shot. Most of this season has closed out over a band in the Roadhouse playing trance-inducing, meditative music as the credits rolled, but this episode gave us the traditional Roadhouse sequence and then cut to Ed’s gas station. Ed’s sitting at his table, staring blankly out at the road, and the road is framed by gas station doors so that it is exactly the size and shape of the screen that monitored Dark Cooper in Montana. Ed sits by himself, watching the road, and we sit by ourselves at home, watching him, and none of us connect, and none of us come any closer to each other. We’re alone, and isolated, and that’s what this season of Twin Peaks cares about.