Five essential episodes of Twin Peaks

Don’t have time to catch up? Here’s a shortcut to falling in love with Lynch’s woozy world

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Season 1, Episode 8
Season 1, Episode 8

After 26 years of rumours and crossed fingers, it’s finally happening: David Lynch is bringing back Twin Peaks. That means any newcomers to the series better do their homework before Sunday. Sceptical? So far, the nostalgic teasers for season three – all 18 chapters are directed by Lynch – have emphasised returning characters and callbacks, meaning full appreciation of Lynch’s genius requires understanding who these people actually are. (Here’s a handy spreadsheet.)

Let’s put it this way: for the rest of summer, everyone you know will be recalibrating their schedules to factor in spoiler-free viewings on Sunday night (or to somehow avoid social media on Monday). With Showtime describing new footage as “pure heroin” David Lynch, audiences are guaranteed to be hooked and swapping theories within earshot. Plus, with TV gradually kowtowing to binge-watchers, it’s unlikely we’ll get weekly appointment viewing like this again.

Besides, Twin Peaks is a cultural obsession for a reason. A typical instalment can be funny, terrifying, heartbreaking, sexy, brutal, transcendental and downright baffling in ways that have you arguing with friends over what any of it means. This is, after all, a show that will be scrutinised to death, and to join in the cultural conversation you’ve got just days to catch up on 30 episodes and movie prequel Fire Walk With Me.

Then again, life is short, much of season two is subpar (Lynch recently told TVLine, “The second season sucked.”), and though diehards may disagree, the essence of the show can be distilled to a few classic examples. Whether you’re a Twin Peaks virgin or a fan with a foggy memory, here’s a shortcut to falling in love with Lynch’s woozy world.

PILOT (Season one, episode one)

Why it’s essential: We meet Agent Cooper and mourn Laura Palmer.

Pop culture moment: A blink-and-you-miss-it sighting of Killer Bob.

Here’s some Twin Peaks 101: start with S1E01! Straight away, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost nail the show’s textures and establish the template. There’s the doom-and-gloom music, the interweaving of horror with soap opera, and the ensemble of characters still around for season three.

What’s more, the discovery of Laura Palmer’s corpse sparks the murder mystery storyline that dominates the series. And with Agent Cooper’s interrogations introducing us to the quirky locals and spine-chilling suspects, there’s so much to take in. Like Blue Velvet, also starring Kyle MacLachlan, it’s about presenting an idyllic community and unearthing the rotting evil underneath. Memorise the clues and red herrings – they’ll come in handy later.

ZEN, OR THE SKILL TO CATCH A KILLER (Season one, episode three)

Why it’s essential: The show turns ultra-weird and unveils the Black Lodge.

Pop culture moment: Audrey’s Lana Del Rey-esque swaying.

With the groundwork laid out, Twin Peaks starts its transformation into avant-garde television. It begins with slapstick sandwich-eating, introduces mysticism to the plot, and culminates with the series’ most iconic image: the Red Room. Is it Cooper’s dream? Or perhaps, with Laura’s presence, the afterlife?

Located inside the Black Lodge, the Red Room is where The Man From Another Place snaps his fingers and the undead speak backwards. (You’ve probably seen it parodied on The Simpsons.) More than anything, it exemplifies why Lynch’s episodes tend to be superior: we’re glimpsing the zigzagged architecture of his subconscious, and walking away with an expanded mystery.

MAY THE GIANT BE WITH YOU (Season one, episode eight)

Why it’s essential: Season one climaxes with an array of explosive cliffhangers.

Pop culture moment: Who shot Agent Cooper?

Written and directed by Frost, the tantalising season finale delivers just about everything in terms of plot – except for a Scooby Doo exposé of Laura’s killer. Cooper goes undercover (puts on glasses) at One Eyed Jacks; Benjamin unknowingly risks an oedipal rendezvous with Audrey; several characters are gunned down; and Packard Sawmill goes up in flames.

Remember, Frost is the co-creator, and this story-driven episode elucidates his underappreciated contributions. With these sprawling arcs grounding the show, Frost also proves to be a master of corny dialogue. From Laura’s sex confession cassette: “He wouldn’t be such a mystery man anymore, but you might be history, man.”

LONELY SOULS (Season two, episode seven)

Why it’s essential: The shocking identity of Laura’s killer gets revealed.

Pop culture moment: Julee Cruise headlines The Roadhouse.

If you’ve lasted 27 years without learning the identity of Killer Bob, then well done for living under a rock, and secondly, brace yourself for a major revelation. Though Bob, the demonic being who murdered Laura, appears as early as the pilot, only now do we witness which Twin Peaks resident he possessed – and Lynch, returning to direct, opts for less whimsy and more nail-biting, “how-can-this-be-on-TV?” terror.

With Lynch and Frost tying up the murder mystery arc under network pressure, it acts as an informal, yet satisfying, series finale. Lynch departed and subsequent episodes felt more Lynch-y than truly Lynchian.

BEYOND LIFE AND DEATH (Season two, episode twenty-two)

Why it’s essential: The original run wraps up with an epic nightmare.

Pop culture moment: Agent Cooper vs Evil Cooper.

For season two’s finale, Lynch returned, rewrote the script and – despite contributing a few acting cameos – snatched control back from the stand-ins. With cancellation around the corner anyway, Lynch pulls no punches with a bleak, extended faceoff in the Red Room. Lasting half the episode, it pits Cooper against his demons – each truly terrifying – and spits him out as a broken, soulless man.

The bank explosion, the “how’s Annie?” mantra, and other cliffhangers form last-ditch attempts to save the show. But in retrospect, the hiatus feels, in Twin Peaks fashion, all part of a mystic plan, with Laura uttering these words: “I’ll see you in 25 years.” Let’s hope it’s worth the wait.

Twin Peaks returns May 21 on Sky Atlantic

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