'Twin Peaks' Season Premiere Recap: Into the Black

The cult TV classic makes its long-awaited return, in a slower, sadder and far scarier form

'Twin Peaks' makes its long-awaited return – and it's sadder, scarier and way weirder than we could have possibly imagined. Our season premiere recap. Credit: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

It's happening again.

It's the first time we've see the Twin Peaks logo and heard the opening notes of Angelo Badalamenti's unforgettable theme song in 25 years. When it happens, we're looking right at the face of Laura Palmer. Director David Lynch and his co-creator and co-writer Mark Frost could have chosen pretty much any image to pair with the kick-off of the show's almost manically anticipated return. But after a cold-open flashback that recycled footage from the original series – the sequence from the series finale in which she informs Agent Dale Cooper that she'll see him again "in 25 years" – it's the high-school girl whose horrific murder set the whole story in motion to whom they give the honor.

Whether in its two seasons on TV in the early 1990s or in the 1992 prequel film Fire Walk With Me, Twin Peaks has always placed Laura front and center, treating her not as a fetish object or an excuse for male characters to sleuth and mourn, but as a person deserving of our empathy and respect. All these years later, that has not changed.

Much else about the show, however, has changed. The rest of the opening credit sequence traces the progress of roaring water as it cascades down the falls, and then shows the black-and-white zig-zag floor and billowing red curtains of the Black Lodge, the nightmarish source of the story's supernatural evil. That's the other half of the equation for Showtime's new Twin Peaks season, which bears the subtitle "The Return":  a plunge into magic and madness.

Far more so than the bulk of the original series, tonight's two-episode premiere really lives in the Lodge, visually and emotionally. On a plot level, we learn that Cooper, the FBI agent of almost Arthurian nobility played by Kyle McLachlan, has been trapped in this nightmare realm ever since the series finale. Laura is there too, her spirit somehow aging despite her death as a teenager. "I am dead," she explains in the show's still disturbing backwards-speak, "and yet I live." He'll have to save her as well as himself.

That will be no easy task, because his evil doppelganger has been roaming around in the real world over the last quarter-century. With long hair that evokes the series resident shrieking demon Bob, the false Cooper is shown murdering his way through several patsies and associates, mostly women. He's attempting to avoid returning to that spiffed-up otherworldly prison, and the plot apparently involves a high school principal named Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), who also seems to be possessed by a Black Lodge spirit a la Laura's father Leland.

For fans of Cooper – and if you watched Twin Peaks at all, you're likely half in love with the guy – this is a brutally sad revelation. And it's hardly the only one: This show is just haunted by death. The late Catherine Coulson, her hair all but gone and an oxygen tube in her nose, appears as the prophetic Log Lady in scenes recorded right before she passed away last year. Evil Coop has an wireless conversation with a man he believes to be Philip Jeffries, a similarly bewitched FBI agent played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me; the Starman, of course, is also no longer with us. Jeffries, or whoever he is, accuses the doppelganger of meeting with Major Garland Briggs, a pure-hearted military researcher of the Lodge's mysteries played by the late Don S. Davis. Albert Rosenfield, the pugnacious pacifist FBI medical examiner portrayed by Miguel Ferrer, has yet to appear – but his scenes too will come freighted with our knowledge that the actor behind them is gone. The facts of the death of so many actors, as well as the visible aging of the others (cf. the shock white hair on Michael Horse, aka Deputy Chief Hawk), adds incalculable weight to the fiction.

It's all drawn out for maximum morose impact, too. So far, the new show's pace is confrontationally slow. Many techniques that Lynch honed in his entire post-Peaks body of work – Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire and several video and web projects – have been trotted out for the revival, from seizure-like camera-shaking to weird faceless entities. But this ineffable slowness is the most striking one. The director frequently seems to just let the camera roll and wait for something to happen, like the cinematic equivalent of a Quaker meeting. He counts on the audience's willingness to wait with him, and to let the creaking and humming of the sound design, or the empty menace of the sets, sink into our bones and brains. The effect is frequently terrifying: Think of the excruciatingly long time we're asked to look at that … thing in the jail cell next to Hastings,

But pulling that kind of trick off requires patience, and it's certainly a far cry from the whirlwind soap-operatic structure of the original seasons. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as the task laid before the character played by handsome young actor Ben Rosenfield, who must sit and stare at an empty box for hours on end until something, anything, happens inside. As was the case for him and his ill-fated girlfriend Tracy (Madeline Zima), it often happens when you least expect it, and it will fuck you up – their death scene ranks among the most brutal things Lynch has ever filmed.

But there's light in the darkness, believe it or not. Lynch and Frost save that "they're gettin' the band back together, man!" feeling for the second episode's final minutes. While we've gotten a look at several old friends before then, the actions of most of them – Hawk, the Log Lady, the spirits of Laura and Leland Palmer, the one-armed man named Mike, a haggard and haunted Sarah Palmer, and of course Cooper himself – are so tied to the impenetrable darkness of the Black Lodge that little warmth or light escapes. There's some comic business between local magnate Ben Horne and his stoner brother Jerry, and with daffy Deputy Andy and his delightful wife Lucy, but that's about it.

Then comes that final scene at the Bang Bang Bar, a roadhouse whose blinking neon sign is one of the series' signature visuals. While Chromatics play their wistful brand of dream-pop on stage, former teenage dreams Shelly Johnson and James Hurley (Mädchen Amick and James Marshall) grab drinks with friends. Shelly gossips about his romantic interest in a younger pal and frets about her daughter; James stands around smiling sheepishly.

"James is still cool," Shelly assures her friends, who all seem to think he's weird. "He's always been cool." It's a heart-meltingly sweet thing to about one of the show's most mocked characters – a former motorcycle-riding would-be heartthrob at the center of a noir-pastiche love triangle during Season Two that's frequently cited as the series' worst storylines. Now he's greeted with joy, the way you feel when you go to your 25-year high-school reunion and see pretty much anyone who managed to show up.

In this last scene, Lynch and Frost finally roll out not the red curtains but the red carpet, welcoming us back to the world and the characters we'd thought we'd lost. To steal the name of the show within the show from the original series, it's an invitation to love – a sign that despite all the horror we've witnessed and the 25-plus years of misery they imply, there are still good-hearted people out there, and in this show, waiting down at the roadhouse for us to show up and get to know them once more. It is happening again.

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