I’m sorry, but I’ve just had so many thoughts about Twin Peaks: The Return bubbling up inside of me. It’s probably going to take a while before I get them all out of my system.
“We live inside a dream” is a phrase that gets repeated in Twin Peaks: The Return. The show itself, and Lynch’s aesthetic in general, has a very dreamlike quality, and has dreaming as a significant motif. But these works aren’t interested in the typical Cartesian epistemological questions that you’d find in something that typically deals with dreams, like Inception or in Phillip K. Dick novels (i.e. How do you know that what you’re experiencing is real?) Rather, the movies themselves try to formally embody the experience of dreaming. Stuff like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Inland Empire and even The Return itself are conducive to interpretations that see significant parts of the narrative as the dream of one of its characters, but even those interpretations feel very surface-level and literal. They’re also working under the assumption that these stories are just conventional narratives told in a very scrambled fashion, and that the process of interpretation is just one of decoding the narrative. While this does make for a fun parlour game, it’s ultimately unsatisfying and reductive.
Rather, these works formally embody a dream narrative, not in the sense that they provide an actual simulation of the subconscious mind (which would likely be unwatchable), but in the sense that they often function more like a piece of music or a picture in that their appeal is mainly in form and not in content. Beethoven’s 7th symphony doesn’t need to be about anything to profoundly move you – it’s greatness comes entirely from its formal structure. When you take this kind of formalism and apply it to the heightened realism of cinema, the effect is unusually dreamlike and illusory, or rather calls attention to the medium’s dreamlike nature.
No medium tries as hard as movies do to convince the audience that the literal level of what they’re experiencing can be taken at face value as real. In a more stylized form or art such as opera, for instance, the literal level of people singing their way through drama is manifestly artificial, and in the case of something like a book, there isn’t even really a “surface” so to speak. Lynch’s M.O. since Mulholland Drive has at least included a playful subversion of this.
So what does it mean when, in the penultimate episode of The Return, an ethereal Agent Cooper stares directly at the audience and announces that, “we live inside a dream”? It’s immediately followed by a literal retcon of the entire TV show and a subtle reshuffling of the world to create a scenario that feels vaguely off. It’s perhaps the most literally dreamlike thing Lynch has done, in that it feels like the experience of a dream that segues into a different dream, and you still have some dim sense that you’ve lost something and are trying to find your way back to the original, but are unable to.
Which also captures the feeling of nostalgia, where we try to travel back to some meaningful time or moment, only to find that it remains elusive, and that we can at best produce a facsimile that will always feel “off”.
I said not too long ago that Eraserhead could be read as a sort of “modernity as body horror” story. The Return surprisingly reinforced this for me.
The world of Eraserhead is an industrial nightmare. It looks like a scorched world where nothing living can grow. The protagonist, Henry, even has a picture of a mushroom cloud in his room. It’s not much of a leap to see anxieties of how technology can become destructive and dehumanizing.
The Return Part 8 contains an extended flashback that begins with Trinity, the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. This sequence is the most stylistically aggressive in the entire show (and possibly in all of television). The terror of the explosion is held for an extremely long time, as the image melts away into a purely abstract depiction of total chaos. The sequence goes on to eventually detail, in elliptical fashion, that this detonation is the spiritual event that invited the evil spirits which have afflicted Twin Peaks (while also hinting that the forces of good have also quietly begun a counter). All this eventually segues into a pretty terrifying horror scenario where we watch these entities called the woodsmen descend upon a small, innocent New Mexico town. Which climaxes in an exceedingly grim moment where one of them crushes the skull of a radio DJ while reciting nonsense verse while an evil frog/insect thing crawls inside an unconscious girl. (Roll credits!)
So in the Twin Peaks universe, nuclear weaponry isn’t just frightening, but is downright demonic. It’s a perversion of the act of creation, an act of total chaos. What makes the ensuing woodsmen scenario so unsettling is in large part the bizarre wantonness of it – they aren’t mindlessly animalistic like zombies, but rather just pure, irrational evil which destroys and corrupts because that’s what evil does. The void is staring back at you. This isn’t a Lovecraftian cry of despair over the apparent meaninglessness of existence, but a recognition that the void is here because we have welcomed it into our own homes.