A young man sits, watching an empty glass box. He has not been told what to watch for, but he knows that he must not turn his eyes away. A rank of video cameras surround the box, filming everything; occasionally, the man stands, changes a battery, and settles again.

This sequence, from the first episode of the long-awaited revival of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved Twin Peaks, serves as perhaps the most striking metaphor for the show itself. In time, it transpires that what seems at first a bewildering example of Lynch’s gift for abstraction has a far more sinister purpose: it is a trap, a prison for a certain beloved hero, and the watcher is to be his unwitting custodian.

Its eventual failure, brought about by a typically Twin Peaks-like hybrid of vivid horror and cinematic cliché, both sets in motion the lengthy, unpredictable arc of the revival’s narrative, and gives the sequence its potency as a symbol. Like its central character, the show itself slips briefly into the box, and is for moment rendered fixed, contained, and readily tangible for its audience; then it slips out again, away from our expectations, to become something else entirely.

The vast majority of the audience who would have watched the feature-length première would have been fans, drawn back to the show by a quarter of a century’s worth of growing nostalgia, and the chance to settle at last the most abiding of its mysteries. They tuned in for the promise of something recognisable, something that would fit neatly into a seam of continuity stretching back to the early nineties. The show’s promotion did little to dispel such hopes: old, familiar places, accompanied by now aged, familiar faces, beckoned fans back to the Twin Peaks they knew and loved. It was meant to be a homecoming for all of us, the titular return ours as well as that of Special Agent Dale Cooper from his long exile in the Red Room.

How wrong we were.

Instead of the familiarity and comfort of a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, the show again and again renders us numb. The characters are for the most part the same, though their ranks are now swollen by a multitude of new faces in new locations. Now, however, we see them in brief, unconnected flashes, which openly defy our attempts to build them into narrative, and alienate us from those we had grown to love.

The sense of dislocation that is created through this constant process of hopeful recognition and unnerving difference is central to the series as a whole, and to how we are meant to respond to it; the experience is much like that of being on one of those many dark highways that play so full a role in this revival, new and strange, and yet somehow endlessly unchanging, recognisable, almost as if we’d been there before.

It is in this gulf, then, between expectation and reality, that the real power of this new season is revealed. Every moment of recognition actually only serves to show the distance between the past of the original series and the present unfolding before our eyes.

Our very first venture back to the town of Twin Peaks demonstrates the breadth of this void. A phone rings, and Lucy, one of the most beloved of the original characters, pure and good and everything that is right with this little world, picks up. It’s for Sheriff Truman. Here, finally, is the Twin Peaks we know. With her next words, however, that firm ground quietly collapses beneath us: “Which one?”. In this world of doubles and doppelgängers, Sheriff Harry S. Truman has been one of the few constants, a point of stasis and fix; a singular man in the truest sense of the word. Now, the world spins, and we find ourselves unsteady on our feet, ready to doubt the things we thought we knew.

The more such moments occur, the more the true tone of this return is revealed. This is no happy homecoming, but instead an elegy for all that has passed so teasingly beyond our grasp. At every instance that the past beckons to us, the more keenly we feel its absence: representation, imitation, can never quite lay hold of reality. We confront the faces of our friends, and we mourn for what has been lost.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Dale Cooper-as-Dougie Jones, the FBI agent trapped inside the skin of a dormant, benumbed husband. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of the true Cooper, whether in a fevered reaction to a cup of coffee or an unstoppable urge for cherry pie, momentary flashes that force us to confront our new and unsettling reality, that show us just how much has been lost. One particular moment sticks in the mind, as Dale-Dougie stands in the plaza outside his workplace, the night falling long and slow about him. He is utterly alone, a man out of time and place, and yet drawn still, inevitably, to his past life, remembered in the cheap, bronze cowboy statue which holds his gaze. The score swells, and the heart breaks.

Cooper’s return at least has its moment of triumph, its fairytale ending, if only briefly.

The same cannot be said for Audrey, another of the most beloved figures from the original, the schoolgirl ingénue who used to dance, quite literally, to her own beat. Her fate has now become a deeply disturbing parallel to that of Cooper: she too appears first in a new and alien setting, surrounded by figures who seem equal parts captor and friend. Her treatment is perhaps the most upsetting of that of any character in this return: after several episodes of utterly bewildering, cyclical conversation, seemingly divorced from everything else that we have seen in the show, the moment for which we have all waited arrives. The lights drop, and at last begins that famous little leitmotif, a slinking, sensual jazz that only she can hear.

And she starts to dance, just as she did all those years ago, years that now fall away as she moves, leaving the woman a girl again. But, as we have seen, nothing in this world can last, and Lynch, with a cruelty that borders on the exquisite, refuses to allow us the comfort of this simulacrum for any time: he destroys it before our eyes, plunging us back into the darkness of this new and lonely world again.

In the sarcophagus-tombs of ancient Rome, the faces of the deceased were often left uncarved, or else made to match the divine ideal of beauty. If one looks at these sculptures, the paradox is immediately apparent: one at once sees a representation of the deceased, but is also pointed to the fact that this image is ultimately just that, an image.

Art, it is revealed, cannot overcome absence, so instead it makes a virtue of it, placing this void at the very centre of its schemata: the gulf is its very essence, and to bridge it we must acknowledge what has been lost, and so mourn. Twin Peaks embraces the same paradox, and bears the same void at its heart. It recognises that we can never really return, that any attempt to do so must end with our acceptance that what is past is lost, and that the only comfort left is that which each of us holds within, in our memory and our thought.

And so to Laura Palmer, the girl with whom it all started, and without whom it can never end. Hers is the show’s original absence, the discovery of her death in the opening scenes of the original pilot the moment in which Twin Peaks takes leave of its past for good. She is a symbol of this lost Twin Peaks, the homecoming queen, the girl-next-door of smalltown American fantasy.

But that, as we quickly discover, was always just that, a fantasy, an empty promise, and the real Laura Palmer, the damaged girl at once too pure for this world and her own dark doppelgänger, is the true image of our little town in Washington State. Her death shows us the truth. But for one brief moment, in the finale of this new series, it seems that even this moment can be undone. Cooper, transported back to the night where it all began, finds her in the wood, and he leads her home to safety. She knows who he is, somehow; she has met him in her dreams.

Their walk, away from that evil night, is reminiscent of that of Orpheus and Eurydice out of the underworld: he takes her hand, and draws her back towards the light. But suddenly, just like her ancient counterpart, she slips from view, and as Cooper looks back, we find ourselves at the start all over again, but now, more than ever, we feel its loss again.

All this leads to the final half hour of the show, a piece of television so utterly singular, so compelling, that it puts to shame everything that has gone before. Just as soon as he has made his return and fulfilled everything that we had ever hoped for, Cooper leaves again; our joy is shortlived as he crosses over into another world, one that looks and feels like the one we know, but that we sense by instinct to be different.

And Cooper too appears to change somehow, to become duller, less distinct, not so white a knight. His quest has nearly reached an end; he has waited his twenty-five year vigil, and has at last found the girl he has been looking for all this time, the girl wrapped in plastic, now a woman living a different life by a different name in some indistinct town. The long- expected triumph slowly begins to slip away as Cooper reels backwards, desperate, fooled by the same trap into which his audience has fallen, and it’s almost as if we can feel the pity in Lynch’s eyes as his camera asks: Why haven’t you learnt yet?

We cannot go back, not really; this is the message that Twin Peaks: The Return relays to us, over and again. Any return that we make can only ever be realised in terms of its difference from the past, no matter how similar things may appear to be.

Lynch refuses to shield us from this truth: instead, he forces us to confront it, and to recognise it; therein lies the force in this most remarkable of pieces of television. It is the cruellest of mercies, but a mercy nonetheless, and to do it any differently would be to mislead us. The show is an elegy in the fullest sense; it does not dissimulate or pretend, or offer the false comfort of nostalgia, but instead it forces us to mourn, certain at last in our understanding of what we have left behind. As we come to the end, we find ourselves where we have always been, out on that lost highway, heading somewhere we don’t yet know, and all we can do is drive onwards into the night.

This article was originally published on The Alexandria Review