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The nightmare logic of Twin Peaks

Discussed in this essay:

Twin Peaks: The Return. Showtime. Sundays, 8 p.m. May 21 September 3, 2017.

First, let’s stipulate that the timing here — the airing of terrifying and absurd new episodes of Twin Peaks in one of the most terrifying and absurd periods of American history — was, largely, an accident.

It is true that in the final episode of the original show, which aired on June 10, 1991, the ghost of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the prom queen whose murder set the whole series in motion, tells FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) that she’ll see him again in twenty-five years. It is also true that David Lynch, the show’s director and primary creative voice, and Mark Frost, his frequently overshadowed collaborator, somehow managed to air the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return just three weeks shy of twenty-six years later. There is a testament to artistic perseverance in this fact, as well as to a light sort of madness. But mostly, the arrival of these new episodes on our screens was the product of luck. Lynch and Frost could not have known in 1991 what television would look like in 2017, or that it would be a place uniquely hospitable to reviving the story.

Ray Wise and Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks: The Return. Photograph © Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

They could not have known, for example, about the rise of so-called prestige television, which would make the small screen the most popular narrative art form of the twenty-first century. They could not have known that it would kick the novel and the feature film into the gutter, where they would be left to fight over pulpy young-adult dystopias and comic-book superheroes. They could not have known how streaming video on something called the internet would turn television viewing from an appointment affair into a twenty-four-hour buffet.

Only in this present landscape, when seemingly every week brings a new “must-watch” television show of “ambition,” does an idea like resurrecting Twin Peaks become attractive to your average television executive. In the frenzy to capture people’s attention, cable television networks have become gaping maws of need. They need not just to produce “content” but to produce the sort of content that makes people happily hand over ten dollars a month for a subscription. And to do that, the networks need to produce and air the sort of television that will, as people tend to put it, “dominate the conversation.”

For that purpose, Twin Peaks arrives with heavy freight. A broadcast-network unicorn when it first aired in 1990, the show was that rare item of popular culture that inspired a cult almost before it arrived. The ostensible hook was a murder mystery, the question of who killed Laura Palmer. But that was pretty much the only convention the show made use of. After Palmer’s body is found washed up on a riverbank, wrapped in plastic, things get Lynchian very quickly. The townspeople’s displays of grief are elaborate, disturbing in their extremity. The investigation proceeds not by rational induction — Agent Cooper is no Sherlock Holmes — but mostly by a kind of nightmare logic. Most of the series was subservient to the visual in a way that’s seldom seen on television. And if it was impossible to know what the show meant when it placed Agent Cooper in a black leather armchair in a room with red velvet curtains next to a phonograph and a dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) dancing awkwardly to soft jazz, it was also impossible to wipe the image from your mind.

As I write this, only twelve hours of the new season have aired. As is typical for a Lynch production, it’s not clear what, if anything, has happened in them, at least insofar as traditional plot development is concerned. But the new episodes have served their intended purpose. Showtime has seen a record rise in online subscribers. And though there haven’t really been formal reviews of the show so much as a plague of bewildered recaps, the general consensus seems to be that it has more than delivered. While the pace is slow — the initial promise of nine episodes ballooned to eighteen when Lynch refused to curtail his ambitions — the audience has decided it has the time for it.

The nature of that time is inflected, of course, by our political moment. I could mount a grand argument about the way in which a work that contends with fractured narratives, overblown villains, and relentless spectacle suits the emotional experience of this year. I could say something about nostalgia and its anxiety-soothing properties. But the comfort Twin Peaks has been providing feels more concrete than that. On several occasions this summer, a Twin Peaks–watching friend told me, “This is the only thing keeping me going.” I have felt the same. And it is only with difficulty that I can articulate what it is about this strange, awkward, and self-contradictory series that felt quite so much like grace.

The simplest way to describe Twin Peaks is as a show about the dark underbelly of an idyllic small town in rural Washington State. But that town is actually a flash point in a cosmic battle between good and evil. The Red Room, where we left Agent Cooper at the end of the original series, is best understood as limbo, a transition point between dimensions. One of these dimensions is known as the White Lodge, the other as the Black Lodge, which serve, respectively, as the dwelling places of good and evil. During the first two seasons, the bad guys seemed to be having it all their own way. It is a Black Lodge spirit (he goes by BOB) who possesses Laura Palmer’s killer. In the final episode, a Black Lodge spirit who happens to look exactly like Agent Cooper escapes into the real world. As The Return opens, we learn that he has spent the past twenty-five years on the loose while the “real” Agent Cooper has remained trapped in the Red Room.

Cullen Douglas in a still from Twin Peaks: The Return. Photograph © Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

This cosmology is left rather opaque in the show itself, possibly because when you set it down directly it can sound a little simpleminded. The same is true of the explanation that we finally get for the source of all these strange goings-on in Part 8 of the revival. (Each new hour of the show has been styled a part rather than an episode.) With uncharacteristic straightforwardness, Lynch gives us the precise date on which the Twin Peaks story began: July 16, 1945, when humanity detonated its first nuclear weapon in the desert outside White Sands, New Mexico. Lynch shows us the mushroom cloud from above, his gaze slightly detached from the proceedings, the frame a little clinical. Some critics compared the approach to Kubrick’s at the end of Dr. Strangelove; for me, it was more like watching one of those old, flickering film reels from a grade school science class.

How you interpret the ensuing images — which linger in smoke and static and flashes of light before moving back into a more intelligible narrative sequence — is a personal question. Possibly it’s easier to parse if you are the sort of viewer who has pored over wikis and purchased The Secret History of Twin Peaks, the exposition-heavy book that Frost published last year. (Frost comes from a more traditional screenwriting background, cutting his teeth on Hill Street Blues and The Six Million Dollar Man, and the book was clearly an attempt to impose a more traditional narrative order on Twin Peaks.) I am not that sort of viewer. But we can all agree on some rough outlines of what the New Mexico sequence is meant to convey: The nuclear detonation opened a rift between dimensions. A very pure form of evil leaked into the world through the rift, likely from the Black Lodge. BOB was clearly a part of whatever came in, because we see his face surface in some indistinct gray matter.

But BOB was not alone. Another form we see the evil take is that of a band of small, hunched-over, lumberjacklike men whose skin appears covered in soot. In the credits, we learn that they are called the woodsmen. One of them, in the sort of corny joke that only the likes of Lynch can get away with, wanders around the desert, demanding of drivers in passing cars, “Got a light?”

The people do not have a light; they have a terror, and drive away screaming. Unfazed, this enterprising woodsman walks through the wilderness to a radio station, kills the employees, takes over the microphone, and, in a phlegmy voice, begins to repeat a mantra that seems designed to hypnotize its listeners: “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.” His scheme works, and not far away, a young girl falls insensate on her bed as a kind of winged frog flies through her bedroom window and crawls into her mouth.

Lynch is often regarded as something of a social critic, since so much of his work marries two signature American vices, sentimentality and violence. He loves red lipstick and convertibles and Roy Orbison songs, and those things cannot exist in his universe without blood and guts and enormous, operatic amounts of suffering. But he offers no conclusions, no solutions, no way around the necessary simultaneity of the two. No one in a Lynch movie ever conquers his demons, inner or outer, or comes to reject the melodrama as phony. Even if something can be explained — even if the characters eventually come to understand that the deformities of their world can be traced back to the atomic bomb — the explanation doesn’t seem half as interesting as the experience that brought us to it.

The key to Twin Peaks is patience, which is as true for the audience as it is for the characters. In the twenty-five years since the original series went off the air, Agent Cooper has been sitting in the Red Room, facing the spirits that live there, listening to their gnomic pronouncements. You’d think he’d have gotten tired of all the riddles by now, that he would have been desperate to get back.

But Cooper doesn’t seem particularly eager to get out of that chair. Even during the series’ original run, Cooper was always like that. In dreams, he accepts his situation. When things get strange, he simply absorbs the circumstances. When the laws of the universe are broken, he’s fascinated. And so, when the giant sitting across from him gives him what could at best be called cryptic advice — “Remember four-three-zero” — he is sanguine. His only response is “I understand.”

It’s not clear that Cooper actually does understand. It’s not clear that anyone — characters or audience — understands much of what goes on in Twin Peaks: The Return. Its appeal doesn’t hang on the ordinary elements of fiction-making. The plot is beside the point, the world-building maddeningly vague. What keeps you watching is your ability to tolerate your inability to understand. You have to be comfortable with narrative fracture. You are forced to become a version of Cooper in the Red Room, asked to accept strangeness and absence as the sine qua non of the entire story.

There is an analogy to be drawn between this and the way that Lynch says his ideas come to him. For more than forty years, he has been a proselytizer for transcendental meditation. The technique is supposedly derived from ancient sources but was refined and constructed into a discipline by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1970s. The instruction for practice is simple: Sit in a room and repeat a mantra to yourself. Do this twice a day, twenty minutes a session, and a sense of well-being will eventually emerge.

So, too, apparently, will the creative ideas. Lynch has likened his meditative process to fishing. You simply bait the hook, and the ideas come to you. The theory is that the meditation — the calm — will allow you to access a higher order of consciousness, and in turn a higher order of inspiration. “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water,” Lynch wrote in his book Catching the Big Fish (2006). “But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” In other words: Listen to the giant. Cooper’s entranced passivity is kissing cousins to Lynch’s — and to that of the viewer of Twin Peaks.

Naturally, the command to simply accept what’s presented means that some very odd stuff passes by without challenge. There’s plenty in Twin Peaks that can make you wish Lynch had cut bait. See, for example, the high-concept shtick of Michael Cera dolled up as a Marlon Brando obsessive in black leather and a silly hat. Or the two solid minutes of footage of a man sweeping the floor in the local roadhouse. With another show the complaint that these scenes are redundant (they are visually dull, they fail to advance the plot) would be warranted. But in Twin Peaks, because it was long ago established that nothing would ever make total sense, you feel a little bit of a rube for objecting to the longueurs. There is no point, there is no conventional reason to watch, other than for the sheer enjoyment of the lurid but beautiful mind of David Lynch. In fact, the whole transaction with Twin Peaks can start to feel rather authoritarian, with Lynch a stern if loving patriarch at the filmmaking stove. “You’ll enjoy this,” he’s always telling us, “because I made it for you.”

It’s possible that this is what’s making Twin Peaks such an unexpectedly soothing experience — the sense that whoever is at the wheel here is in full control of his powers. So much of modern popular culture is anxious. It wants to be liked, understood. It wants to say something. The omnipresence of the internet in our daily lives has made creators aware that everything they do will be critiqued to death on Facebook and Twitter. If some artists found all this discussion liberating at first, democratic in its fresh welter of ideas, it has now definitively curdled. You can see television shows reaching for memeable moments, presaging the short essays on whether this or that scene is feminist or racist.

Lynch, it seems, does not care about any of this. Shortly after the first few episodes aired, the internet began theorizing that a glass box in the first episode — a glass box that a young man has been hired to stare at morning, noon, and night, in spite of very little happening within it — was an allegory for modern television watching. A reporter for Entertainment Weekly asked Lynch if that was what he’d meant by it. “No. But that’s an interesting way to think about it,” he said, buoyant as ever, wary of looking like he’s trying to do anything in particular, other than create.

Some of that is plainly a pose. You don’t get to be David Lynch without a whole lot of effort. His first film, Eraserhead (1977), took an agonizing five years to put together. He lived through a disastrous gig as the director of Dune (1984), which he still castigates himself for, claiming in interviews that he knew he was “selling out.” Blue Velvet (1986), though now heralded as a classic, was critically taken down when it was released for alternating too quickly between its small-town satire and the dark sexual relationship at its core. The original run of Twin Peaks was such a brutal experience that by the end Lynch painted a note to himself on a wooden board: i will never work in television again. Wild at Heart (1990) was a huge critical failure, as was Lost Highway (1997). His two most recent films, Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), deal with Hollywood dreams that go violently awry.

In those most recent movies, it sometimes seemed that Lynch was simply dramatizing his own disillusionment with filmmaking. For a good decade, he claimed that Inland Empire would be his swan song. After its release, some kind of energy left him. He began to tell friends he was retired from film. There was nothing in the pipeline. In 2011, his muse Laura Dern told Slate that she had recently harangued him over fried chicken, trying to force him back into the game. “He has to be in the world, just doing what he’s doing,” she said. Still, for several more years, there was silence. Lynch made music and painted and bided his time, until Twin Peaks summoned him back. You might say he had gone fishing.

There are still, as I write this, six episodes left to air. So far the plot has progressed only in fits and starts. Cooper’s doppelgänger has been in and out of prison. He is being pursued, albeit half-heartedly, by the FBI chief Gordon Cole, a character played by Lynch himself in what feels like a slightly-too-on-the-nose commentary on the way an artist ends up following his characters as much as they follow him. Nonetheless, Laura Dern and the late Miguel Ferrer are along for the ride, which makes it pretty pleasant. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Agent Cooper appears to have returned to earth, but in the form of an insurance agent named Dougie Jones, and he is taking his sweet time to break out of his stupor. The show has spent less than an hour in Twin Peaks proper, though we have had glimpses of the town’s roadhouse, police department, and diner, all staples of the original version.

I have a vision of viewers and critics turning on Lynch if some more traditional plot machinery doesn’t eventually appear. He will be accused, perhaps, of self-indulgence for making such a long, meandering, frustrating piece of work. If so, he’s been through that before. When the original series went off the air he immediately made the feature-length prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), which purported to depict the last week of Laura Palmer’s life. It was as scrambled and inscrutable as anything he’d ever made, with characters disappearing at random and new elements of the mythology — a woodsman, for example, is hidden in one key scene — presented without context. At Cannes, the movie was booed. “Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree,” the New York Times complained. The movie eventually disappeared from public consciousness and was sought out mostly by diehards looking for answers about what the show meant. Which is funny, because if there’s one thing Lynch doesn’t do well, it’s provide answers.

Since the 1980s, Lynch’s work has been in a kind of narrative free fall. Compared with what followed, Blue Velvet now feels almost like a realist novel: It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, too, does the original run of Twin Peaks. From then on, Lynch’s output has addressed how very little of the world makes sense. Lost Highway switches protagonists midstream, trading Bill Pullman’s character for Balthazar Getty’s. (Or does it?) Trying to figure out, from its skein of twisted images, what’s going on in Mulholland Drive is comparable to the work of an archaeologist putting together a shattered piece of pottery. It’s not clear whether Inland Empire even has a plot: Lynch maintains that he began filming it with no clear vision of the story he was going to tell.

This is probably the reason his work feels so timely: Life is rather Lynchian just now. The world is run by thugs. Public life proceeds by a series of mawkish clichés that even in their absurdity mask a great deal of darkness and violence. On a fundamental level, none of the stories Americans like to tell about this country make sense anymore. Each day, Lynch’s deranged, fractured vision comes to seem less like surrealism and more like a sober, clear-eyed recognition of how things are.

, who won this year’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, is the author of the forthcoming book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion.

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October 2017

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