‘Twin Peaks’ Season 3 Part 11 Recap: Master Classes in Lynchian Overacting

Last night’s episode of Twin Peaks started — and continued — explosively through its first half. The explosions weren’t exactly of the Episode 8 nuclear order, but rather contained to mere human voices and bodies. Though you could identify moments of this kind of acting anywhere in Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 11 was perhaps the most unfettered showcase of classic Lynchian overacting we’ve seen thus far in the Return. (Even despite the lack of Naomi Watt’s hilariously exaggerated Janey-E.)

Not dissimilar to the way John Waters captures performances, people in Lynch’s work often sound like children reading adult’s lines in a school play: there’s an effortful, distanced deliberateness to it that makes it one step removed from naturalism. And when that B-movie stylization commingles with visions of absolute terror, that’s when the trademark Lynchian nightmare becomes fully realized. The nightmare’s recipe always has been a combination of comic performative disjunction and unadulterated fear, and so this episode is nothing unfamiliar. But it is a wonderfully heightened example of an already heightened familiar.

The episode begins with a frightening image that draws on tension between comic over-the-top-ness and gore, with three kids playing as Miriam (who’s apparently alive), crawls, slow, bloodied and grunting, out of the bushes. The groans, coupled with Angelo Badalamenti’s sudden foreboding synth moans, create a vision too overwrought to be purely scary. The goofiness of the soundscape rather provokes that Lynch-specific eeriness that radiates from the dizzying liminality between the real and the pretend. You sense that you’re not watching a real person in pain, but rather an actor instructed to go so over the top as to play-act pain. So you’re not horrified by a gut reaction to suffering, so much as further immersed in the nauseated ghost world between fake violence and the real violence it reflects. Even the moments of Twin Peaks that do take place in “our reality” often still take place in a dream.

Immediately after this, we leap into another impressive feat of intentional overacting — here, from Amanda Seyfried, in a one-way-phone-call from her trailer that culminates with her tightening her grip on her smartphone and letting out a trailer-park-awakening shriek. Becky calls her mother — Shelly, of original Twin Peaks fame, played by Mädchen Amick — who’s all too familiar with cycles of abuse. Becky summons her over to get her car keys, but little does Shelly know that Becky has a gun — and seems dead-set on shooting her abusive husband, who she’s now found out is having an affair with Donna Hayward’s sister, Gersten. When Shelly tries to calm her down, Becky instead begins driving off — with her mother clinging to her windshield in another scene that’s so rambunctious that it’s funny, layered though it is with yet more disorienting music from Badalamenti, all of which, again, creates a bridge to the odd middle ground between tragedy and horror and humor. Becky’s husband is hiding, but she manages to shoot a number of holes into the front door of his affair-apartment, prompting a number of phone calls to a very overwhelmed sheriff’s station.

We then cut away to the trio investigating the goings on (decapitations) in Buckhorn, South Dakota — Tammy, Albert, and Gordon, and of course their maybe-evil-anthropomorphized-tape-recorder, Diane (Laura Dern.) Gordon Cole — played by Lynch himself — is another quintessential, and unwavering, example of the dissonant tone actors themselves create in Lynch’s work. The character’s hearing impairment actually seems like an excuse for Lynch to just be loud and staccato, to use his own voice as atmosphere. (And in many ways, the other actors in this series, and in much of his work, seem to be imitating the remove that Lynch demonstrates between speech and emotion, usually by heightening one and flattening the other.)

So Cole & co. approach a shed where William Hastings claims to have met the now-very-decapitated Major Briggs. As Cole nears it (and Albert and Tammy — played by an often wordless Chrysta Bell, overacting solely with her body that Cole and Albert have been seen creepily marveling over — stay behind), we see another Woodsman-type dude wandering around the premises and disappearing. Then, a sort of black hole opens in the sky, everything around Cole blurs, and he sees into another realm, to a congregation of the Woodsmen (who you’ll surely remember as the smoking demons from Episode 8). This is yet another case where Lynch, instead of doing something straightforwardly “good” or “convincing” looking — i.e. using CGI to make us forget we’re watching something fake — goes for direction that basks in the seams between realism and shoddy horror, eking disquietude from a collage of styles that could otherwise seem funnily bad.

Once Cole is pulled out of his Woodsman-vision, he and Albert spot a naked, headless body — that of Ruth Davenport, who thus far has only shown up as a head. While they’re noting the coordinates tattooed on the arm of the body (the same coordinates that recently appeared to Bobby, Truman and Hawk), back in their car, a Woodsman sneaks up and performs the standard Woodsman move (they’re kind of like Pokemon) of crushing a head: this head belongs to William Hastings, who is killed suddenly when said head explodes. The takeaway: Cole declaring, “He’s dead,” and Diane looking way too calm about it.

And then back in Twin Peaks the over-the-top humor and bizarrerie seems to be halting for a scene of pathos — it’s the first scene, perhaps because it’s back in Twin Peaks, to allow us to emotionally connect in this episode. Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), who we find out is Becky’s father, meets with Shelly and Becky at the Double R diner, and they discuss her trying to escape her relationship (and paying for the damage to the apartment she just shot up.) But when actually confronted with leaving her abusive husband, she scrambles to make excuses for his behavior. And right outside, Red — Shelly’s own drug dealer boyfriend — is waiting for her; she runs out and kisses him, leaving Bobby vulnerable to the camera, and showing that after all of these years, he’s still in love with Shelly, and is now enduring watching her continue her pattern of dating men who’ll likely only do her harm.

The nostalgic nod to quaint Old Twin Peaks (and the not at all quaint traumas therein) is broken by gunshots in the diner, and then the more honest emotionalism is cut by the episode’s greatest moment of overacting: when Bobby leaves to chase down the shooter, he finds it was a little boy driving by in now-stopped a van with his parents. The boy stares him down, making it seem like the whole thing was intended. And then things reach the queasy zenith of the relationship between the ridiculous and the horrific: the van is blocking traffic, and suddenly Twin Peaks starts to sound like Times Square, the cacophony of honking and screaming becoming almost unbearable. Bobby moves towards another car to tell the driver to calm down; in it, a woman (Laura Kenny) screams in a ceaseless, booming monotone about being late to a family dinner. “WE’RE TRYING TO GET HOME. WE’RE LATE. WE’RE LATE FOR DINNER. IT’S ALREADY PAST 6:30. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING. HER UNCLE IS JOINING US. SHE HASN’T SEEN HIM IN A VERY LONG WHILE.” But then her complaints become a little less hilariously banal, and she screams, “SHE’S SICK,” about a yet unseen girl, who suddenly pops up from the passenger seat looking like an accidental cameo from The Walking Dead, and begins drooling green zombie goo as the woman continues to scream, and Bobby looks on, puzzled and a little revolted.

From these heights, unfortunately the rest of the episode moves towards tamer territory. (Which isn’t to say less tense — in fact, it involves another planned DougieCooper-assassination — but there’s just less screaming and head-squashing, which I at least would’ve gladly endured for a whole episode.) Because of this, the episode is kind of an anticlimax, front-loaded as it is with these three tensely ridiculous and upsetting scenes… and bringing us back into the slow, sad life of Dougie Jones, which bears a similar pace even when he’s in the gravest of danger. (It’s a slow, sad life I’ve adored thus far, but following those acts, it’s hard to re-engage with the nonverbal shell of Dale Cooper so quickly in this episode.)

Here, DougieCooper has been summoned in a limousine out to the desert to…likely be killed by the Mitchum Brothers. Except, the Mitchum that is Jim Belushi happened to have a dream about DougieCooper the night prior, in which the man of few words and mysterious ways seemed to be their friend. If, as in the dream, DougieCooper carries a box containing a cherry pie, Belushi-Mitchum says they shouldn’t kill him. And lo and behold, the one-armed man has bestowed DougieCooper with a cherry pie, and so Dale Cooper’s favorite damndest goodest snack (accompanied by an insurance check for $30,000,000) is the thing that saves the Cooper inside the Dougie from being killed. Finally, in a moment seemingly meant to both please and dishearten fans, DougieCooper says “Damned good” later as he eats cherry pie with the Mitchums. However, he’s just repeating their own words, and once again, this is not the “aha” moment where Cooper suddenly blinks back to life and starts investigating supernatural crimes. Instead, the DougieCooper who’s just uttered the almost-revitalizing, fan-favorite line, continues chewing the pie, with that same buried joy and intellect reaching towards the surface of his being — but remaining just out of reach. Instead, the Mitchums try to teach him how to raise a glass to toast. A depressingly upbeat piano tune plays.

The episode also offers one other scene where we get to see Lynch deliver his own master class in Lynchian flat-acting. Midway through the episode, we’re brought back to South Dakota, with the detectives and Diane sitting around and discussing the head-squashing of the day. Diane seems to desperately want to smoke a cigarette. It’s a habit that, given her simultaneous calm around the Woodsman — who, by the way, are partially marked by their chain-smoking — again feels like it’s hinting that there’s a bit more Black Lodge in Diane than meets the eye. Delivering his own line about seeing the Woodsmen, David Lynch speaks with that heightened, halting nasality as Cole. “Now I remember. I saw them. In a room. I saw the bearded men. The same type Albert and I saw. Dirty, bearded men. In a room.”

As Lynch expert Dennis Lim wrote in 2015:

So much about Lynch’s fraught relationship with language is summed up in that voice, in its unnervingly high volume and halting cadences…In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature.

Here, in this line, David Lynch gets to deliver something that sums up what makes the show so great — these words themselves are fundamentally dull and vague. But the rigid attention with which they’re pronounced, the slight inhumanness to the emotional and spoken means of expression herein, made me laugh endlessly, alone in my room while watching — as I found myself getting the chills and suddenly fearing sleep and dreams, tormented by the idea of slipping into a world of alternate logic that’s familiar to all of us, portended as it was on my screen.