Twin Peaks: The Return may very well be my new favourite David Lynch movie. I support this paradoxical statement by noting that Lynch, who directed every episode (an unusual feat even by prestige TV standards), supposedly thinks of the entire season as just one long movie; and indeed watching it feels a lot more like experiencing an 18 hour pop surrealist epic broken up into digestible pieces than it does like watching a normal TV show. But more to the point: The Return is, for all its flaws, Lynch’s magnum opus, the one project that sums up the man’s entire career.
(This wound up being a somewhat confused and rambling post! Scroll down at your own discretion)
It’s also another item in the nostalgia boom of recent years, which was at first a slight disappointment for me. I was more interested in it as a new entry in Lynch’s filmography than as a continuation of the original Twin Peaks, per se, and would rather have had it been something completely new. Part of this simply came from me not having seen any of Twin Peaks until quite recently, but I’m also getting a bit weary of how hamstrung we are by old franchises.
Of course it turns out that I’m completely wrong. The Return is one of the best sequels ever made, precisely because it understands all the impossible expectations that that sort of categorization places upon it, and so devotes itself almost entirely to subverting those expectations. So perhaps it’s best described as the best anti-sequel ever made, exploding the self-referentiality of modern pop culture.
I mean, it’s also an incredible work of filmmaking in its own right, but it gains a greater degree of richness by hijacking a familiar piece of hipster nostalgia.
And, about that: Twin Peaks, created by David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost, began with the murder of highschooler Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the small American town of Twin Peaks, and followed the ensuing investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Over the course of his investigations, it becomes clear that behind the human evil lurking within Twin Peaks is a cosmic, supernatural evil. The series ends with him bravely (or perhaps foolishly) pitting himself against that evil and failing, resulting in him becoming trapped in a metaphysical realm called the Black Lodge, while an evil doppleganger is set loose in the real world.
There were plans to continue the story from that point, but the show was cancelled. Twin Peaks was doomed to burn out by dint of it being one of those situations where the studio and the creators just didn’t see eye-to-eye on what the heart of the show was. Lynch also is someone who, while loving, and having a very strong aptitude for serialized storytelling, also wants to have complete artistic control of what he’s doing, something which the realities of early 90s TV wasn’t particularly conducive to.
Anyway, a year later was the movie prequel, Fire Walk With Me, which became the final nail in the coffin when it bombed. And with it’s return in, uh, The Return, the series has assumed a very peculiar shape: it’s like a version of Star Wars where the original trilogy ends prematurely with The Empire Strikes Back, gets Revenge of the Sith as a followup, and then 25 years later we finally get Return of the Jedi.
Which is a double-edged knife, since, on the one hand, there’s room to finish the damn story. But on the other hand, messing it up would be even more tragically cheapening.
Which then gets to the heart of what the heart of Twin Peaks is. The thing’s been primarily influential as an eccentric procedural with a complicated mystery plot – from whence flows all the X-Files and the Losts. But Twin Peaks is really about how this seemingly absurd world, where comedy and tragedy frequently intermingle in bizarre and unpredictable ways, is also the stage for the dramatic conflict between good and evil that cuts through our hearts. Its Americana presented in mythic format: the FBI agents in the X-Files are just government employees with weird jobs, while the ones in Twin Peaks are more like knights who keep the forces of darkness at bay. It’s paradoxical in how it both takes a rather unironically rosy, nostalgic view of traditional American institutions while also exposing the darkness tucked away in a seemingly innocent small town – but that darkness is a cosmic evil that people have invited in.
I’m talking in circles, but the point is that the mundane and the uncanny are one and the same in Twin Peaks, and that the plot is really just an excuse to plunge the audience deeper into that world.
The Return understands this, to the point of adopting a pace that can best be described as “glacial”, while featuring scenes and entire story arcs that seem designed to try the audience’s patience (if you liked 2001: A Space Odyssey…)
It’s honestly hard to describe The Return as a whole; at least with the original, standards and practices and studio meddling enforced an intuitively graspable rhythm on the show. The Return never really establishes what a “normal” episode of the Return feels like, instead just opting to constantly be throwing curveballs at the audience.
To pull this off, Lynch draws upon almost everything in his aesthetic toolkit, everything from abstract expressionsitic surrealism to film noir to 50s nostalgia finds its way into the mix, which makes the experience even more unpredictable than his movies can be – like, Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are weird, but in different ways, such that it would be even weirder if one form of weirdness started merging with the other. Then there’s the weirdness of seeing all this formal tomfoolery on a TV show, which, in spite of being the visual medium that’s drawing a lot of talented writers, is still rather imaginatively limited (you know things are dire when the only major fantasy show is Game of Thrones).
In addition to bringing back much of the original cast (some of whom had one foot in the grave during filming), almost every actor who has ever worked with Lynch seems to pop up at one point or another, which further underlines the feeling of it being a swan song.
(Then there’s the sound design, which, true to Lynch form, is masterful. Equally as important as the cinematography (also great), though I lack the necessary vocabulary to sum it up easily (aside from: really unsettling).)
Giving Lynch a carte-blanche doesn’t always turn up positives: sometimes The Return is more raunchy than in really needed to be, sometimes it leans a bit too hard towards hipsterish irony, and there are some moments that are just too self-indulgent and even smugly self-satisfied. Especially in a TV show you’re going to find stuff that doesn’t land or is just ill-advised, but it’s more painful when the batting average is as high as The Return’s is.
So far, I’ve described an extremely inventive show, but not the sort that I’d binge watch over the course of a single week – which I did indeed do, an extreme rarity for me. To explain that is to wade into spoilers and stuff.
So first off is Agent Cooper, who in the original show was the moral anchor of the show, played with boyish enthusiasm by MacLachlan. Given how shifty and duplicitous all the other characters are, Cooper’s unalloyed and unironic goodness really stands out. Now we have two of them: Bad Coop is a genuinely unsettling villain even before you get to his digitally modified Darth Vader voice, simply because he’s a total inversion of that: all of Cooper’s skills with no shred of morality.
And we don’t have a Good Coop to balance it out, since the real Cooper, in a botched attempt to re-enter the real world, comes back as a man called “Dougie”, in a mental state which seems on par with a toddler. In most shows, this would be a weird joke where we watch Cooper bumbling around for an episode before he comes to his senses; here it takes until the third last episode.
One of the ostensible nostalgic reasons for another Twin Peaks was the Return of Agent Cooper, and the manner in which Lynch and Frost toy with this expectation is so precious: you go through this whole process where, after much denial, it gradually dawns on you that Cooper is gone and Dougie is here to stay; you begin to genuinely care for Dougie and the strange, tragicomic story that develops around him…then all of a sudden at the last possible minute Cooper returns just in time for the climax!
It’s a neat little synecdoche of The Return’s dramatic M.O., which is to be as unsatisfying as possible in the most satisfying way, where you give up on your own expectations to find what you didn’t know you needed. For instance, all the stuff relating to the FBI and police characters is really frustrating from a plot perspective, since they spend most of the show piecing together information the audience already knows, and then near the end, actual new revelations are almost indifferently handed out in clumsy exposition dumps. But then all this was really about hanging out with the characters, about Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse) spending a few last tender moments with the dying Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), about FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole’s (David Lynch) cryptically philosophical dreams featuring Monica Belluci.
So the characters are all trapped in a narrative cul-de-sac while the protagonist is absent, like if it took until 2017 for Return of the Jedi to get released and we’re 90 minutes in and Luke still hasn’t shown up at Jabba’s palace. But for all that the show is self-consciously trolling the audience (I think it’s no mistake that Dougie is just Cooper’s most recognizable ticks: he likes coffee and cherry pie!), it never feels like it’s just treading water. Even the worst episodes at least feel like atmospheric procedurals, while the best are full of poignant, disturbing and hilarious incident when they’re not formally ripping apart the narrative structure of TV and movies. It’s a story made up of various indirections and diversions that wind up creating a rich narrative tapestry, not too different, now that I think of it, from what Gene Wolfe did with his Solar Cycle novels.
But anyway, Cooper does finally Return to Twin Peaks for an almost hilariously action-packed climax that swiftly races to tie up all the loose ends while also providing a final boss fight against the evil spirit possessing Bad Coop which involves a minor character using a rubber glove that grants him super powers (no, really). The good characters mostly get good endings and the bad characters mostly bad.
But, of course, this being Twin Peaks, it turns out that there’s a super ultimate evil behind everything, and defeating it somehow involves Cooper going back in time to prevent Laura Palmer from ever getting murdered in the first place, which leads him to a bizarro alternate world where he finds Bizarro Laura and realizes that he is lost in time and space.
This last bit isn’t just a twist in the final ten minutes; most of the final episode is just Cooper driving around Bizarro America looking increasingly confused and glum while everything just feels vaguely wrong. He eventually takes Laura back to her old house where you expect some sort of reckoning to take place, except that it isn’t her house any more, and nothing happens except an existential scream of terror from Laura. Roll credits!
Of all the David Lynch anti-endings I’ve seen, this is by far the most anti-ending of them, doubly so for being the ending to a story that started in 1990. On paper it sounds almost like any major Hollywood franchise entry ending: A definitive final battle! Except not really – cliffhanger ending! Deliberate retconning of the predecessor! But all the proportions are out of whack, and there’s a deeply melancholy, tragic sensibility to it. Laura has a sad monologue about how you can keep shoving things off to the future when you’re old enough/ready for them to the point that your entire life winds up passing by, while Cooper himself is seemingly chained to the past, unable to get over this one incident from 1990.
I’m still processing it all, but I think there’s a possible Kierkegaardian reading of Cooper.
Kierkegaard described three “phases” of human life: the aesthetic, ethical and religious. Someone in the aesthetic phase lives for pleasure, but winds up in despair because the pursuit of pleasure can’t fulfil one’s deepest longings. Someone in the ethical phase seeks to do the good, but is also driven to despair by how limited her good is against the brokenness and evil of the world. Only someone in the religious phase can have the faith necessary to escape despair.
Cooper is in the ethical phase, and so is driven into these increasingly elaborate metaphysical plots where he contends with supernatural forces in order to fix the world. And he finds himself over his head and fails. Laura, at least briefly at the end of Fire Walk With Me is in the religious phase, where the angel that appears gives her the faith necessary to resist demonic possession in her final moments, turning her death into a sort of martyrdom. Maybe. There’s a lot going on there. And was that undone by Cooper now? Jeez this show.
This post has gone on for too long. The Return affected me very deeply – more than any other pop culture item of 2017 – and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around why that is. Definitely not for everyone (especially the squeamish), but it struck a chord with me.