“I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star,” says aspiring thespian Betty Elms early in Mulholland Drive. “But you know, sometimes people end up being both.” If you’ve seen David Lynch’s 2001 Hollywood Babylon psychodrama, you know that things don’t work out that way for Betty (and if you haven’t seen the consensus best film of the 21st century, what’s your excuse?), but the woman playing her has fulfilled the prophecy. Sixteen years after her breakthrough role — which, according to legend, was cast solely on the basis of a glossy headshot — Naomi Watts has proved that she has the range and then some.
This past weekend should have been the best of both worlds for Watts, who got top billing in Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow’s new thriller, The Book of Henry, where she plays the mother of a child prodigy. Given the film’s disastrous reception — a critical carpet bombing so complete that some have openly wondered if it could cost Trevorrow his gig helming the next Star Wars movie — the star turn feels a bit like being the headliner at the Fyre Festival. In a cast-iron pan for The New York Times published Friday, Manohla Dargis extended her condolences to the film’s star: “Hope that the next time you see Naomi Watts it’s in a movie that plays to her strengths and doesn’t treat her or the audience so contemptuously.”
As it turns out, the precise amount of time that disappointed and/or psychologically scarred viewers had to wait for redemption was 48 hours. Approximately 35 minutes into Episode 7 of Twin Peaks: The Return, Watts continued her stealth bid for a series MVP crown. Yes, the case is right there for Kyle MacLachlan for his dual tour de force as Evil Coop and Dougie Jones — currently the scariest and sweetest characters on television, respectively. The platinum-coiffed Laura Dern, whose interrogation-room showdown with Evil Coop may have been the show’s emotional high point so far, is also a perennial contender. But my vote goes to Watts, who has taken the epitome of a thankless part and turned it into the stuff of great, desperate, unfathomable comedy.
Bizarrely, Lynch and Mark Frost decided that Dougie’s wife should be named Janey-E Jones, in apparent homage to the lead track on the Clash’s debut album. But fair play: It’s no stranger, pop-culture-reference-wise, than Michael Cera’s Marlon Brando drag act or the revelation that the owners of the Bang Bang Bar were able to book the Chromatics on a weeknight. When Janey-E first showed up in Episode 4 in the aftermath of Dougie’s Las Vegas casino adventure — a.k.a. The One With Mr. Jackpots — I figured that her role was simply to act in flustered counterpoint to the husband who’s returned home a brain-damaged shell of his former self; in a series where the treatment and depiction of female characters has come under scrutiny, her tetchy impatience and scolding tone initially made her seem like a drag.
I could not have been more wrong: If a narrative as oblique and outright experimental as The Return has an emotional center, Janey-E is it. On one level, her confusion with Dougie’s grueling, love-child-of–David Byrne–and-E.T. act is perfectly reasonable; after years of marriage it’s not wrong to assume that your partner is toilet-trained. But the fact that Janey-E isn’t more alarmed by Dougie’s behavior is where things start to get interesting. Watts isn’t just excelling in her task playing straight woman to a candy-colored clown. Her performance creates an entire context for what the Joneses’ marriage was like before Dale Cooper was reborn in Dougie’s body, and the mix of irritation, heartbreak, indifference, and devotion she’s shown in the face of her husband’s bizarre condition feels a lot like the texture of real, everyday monogamy. And the way that Janey-E has made a weary peace with the situation while trying to focus on practical matters — like the money-with-interest their household still owes a group of loan sharks — serves as a mirror of sorts for The Return’s audience. At this point you’re either used to Dougie or still hoping he’ll change — but either way, it’s out of your hands.
On Sunday’s episode Janey-E shows up at Dougie’s office to rescue him from a grilling from a group of detectives (all of whom have the same last name, because Twin Peaks) about his recently exploded car. The way that Dougie perks up in the presence of a man carrying a badge bears out theories that somewhere in the back of his mind, Dale still clings to vestiges of his previous law-and-order identity, but he’s helpless against the questioning of the “Detectives Fusco” until Janey-E storms in and proceeds to simultaneously stand by her man and take out weeks’ worth of seething, pent-up frustration on the cops. “Dougie’s been under a lot of stress lately, and to tell you the truth, so have I,” she growls at one point, and the little of gleam of madness in her eye is hilarious and unsettling: As she steadies herself by grabbing her husband’s arm, she looks and sounds like a woman holding on by a thread. She did this same sort of thing with her once-in-a-lifetime lead in Mulholland Drive, but this small, silly supporting role is, in its way, as impressive a display of actorly intuition; her grasp on anxious, Lynchian anguish remains as firm as ever.
She’s in full hectoring, protective mode, and yet when Dougie goes full Jason Bourne on the diminutive hitman Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), who comes at the couple brandishing a gun, her bossiness dissolves into pure terror and then gratitude that her husband — such as he is — is unscathed. And then it’s back to all-out comedy as she breathlessly mimics MacLachlan’s karate-chop heroism. Watts’s completely elastic acting is a thing of wonder. Hopefully The Return will keep letting her stretch it out.