That Gum You Like: Scattered Thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return

I missed Twin Peaks the first time around.  Which is to say that I was aware of it--aware, even at the time, that it was considered a major event, and a shattering of the norms of what television could and should do.  But I was a little too young to watch it.  If my mother had watched the show I might have joined her, as I did with St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, but as far as I know she wasn't interested, and when I got old enough to start forming my own TV tastes, it was on shows that were influenced by Twin Peaks--The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer--but not the thing itself.

My second time around with Twin Peaks, I was around twenty, and a local channel started airing the show late at night.  I wasn't a habitual viewer--I caught some of the first season, and a few episodes from the end of the show, including the infamous "how's Annie?" ending.  The internet being a thing by that point, I went online to catch up on the parts of the show I'd missed, and took in the general consensus that Twin Peaks was a glorious mess that never really paid off its setup, and that the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me was a self-indulgent disappointment.  Being, at that point, rather burned out on works that promised major revelation without having a real idea of what it was (a condition often referred to as "being an X-Files fan") my impulse with Twin Peaks was to hold it at arm's length.  It didn't seem worth it to get invested in a work that had no proper meaning or conclusion, and so, even as I got repeatedly burned by Alias and Lost and Battlestar Galactica, I held off on any real engagement with the ur-text of so many of them.

My third try with Twin Peaks was just a few months ago, when, in preparation for the upcoming revival series, I mainlined the entire 30 episodes of the show, plus Fire Walk With Me, over a long weekend.  It was strange experiencing the show this way, simultaneously a newcomer and someone who knew quite a bit about it, including the major turns of plot.  What was even stranger was how much the existence of The Return changed the meaning and significance of the original Twin Peaks, even before a single frame of it had aired.  From a failed experiment, it became merely a chapter in a story, whose later installments might yet redeem it.  Watching Twin Peaks was suddenly no longer an exercise in nostalgia and self-flagellation, but that venerable Peak TV practice of binge-watching the previous seasons before the new episodes start.  I ended up enjoying this rewatch much more than I was expecting (Fire Walk With Me, in particular, turns out to be a great deal more rewarding than I'd been led to believe), but I wonder if I would have felt the same if I didn't know that another chapter in the saga was just around the corner.

It also made me think of how much Twin Peaks straddles, defines, and is now a product of the changes that TV has undergone in the last thirty years.  One of the things that struck me once I finally let myself experience the show properly this spring is how nimble and multifaceted its storytelling is.  The conversation surrounding Twin Peaks tends to concentrate on its mythology, but there's so much more to the show than that, and it is precisely that polyphonic quality that makes it so special.  Twin Peaks is a murder mystery, a soap opera, a melodrama, a comedy, a portrait of abuse, and a genre story about a cosmic battle between good and evil.  The different styles penetrate and influence each other in a way that shouldn't work but absolutely does, but which also proves incredibly difficult to imitate.  Just look at the precipitous drop in quality in the show's second season, after the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder was solved and David Lynch left in a huff because of network interference.  The same ingredients are there, but the stew they make quickly turns rancid.

Twin Peaks redefined what television was and what it could do, but to recreate its affect was nearly impossible (even ignoring the fact that the show was only sporadically successful at that affect itself).  It is simultaneously sui generis, and monumentally influential.  It has never been repeated (despite a few attempts here and there), and yet there is scarcely a show on TV right now that it doesn't have tendrils in, if only because it did so many things that, no matter what kind of story you ended up telling, Twin Peaks could offer you a template or an inspiration.  Shows as disparate as The X-Files, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Carnivalé, Riverdale, and Gravity Falls wear its influence on their sleeves.

At the same time, it has also been superseded.  Lost took that sense of portent that Twin Peaks specialized in, the conviction that just around the corner there is a missing piece that will make every bit of weirdness that has come before fall into place, and figured out how to commodify and mass-produce it.  In so doing, it also degraded it.  Looking forward to The Return, I worried that nothing it could do would seem very special in a TV landscape where mystery, overarching storylines, and complex mythologies are par for the course.  To a certain, minor extent, I was right (while being wrong in a much bigger way, as we'll discuss shortly).  Twin Peaks: The Return is both a product of the era of Peak TV, and a victim of it.  It would never have existed if we didn't live in a world in which dozens of channels are producing hundreds of hours of scripted television, each vying for attention and desperately searching for something to set them apart.  It is the product of a fashion for nostalgia (and a streaming TV model looking to hook new viewers) that has brought us new seasons of The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Full House, and Gilmore Girls.  If in 1991 Lynch could be browbeaten into revealing Laura Palmer's murderer and then chased off his own show, in 2016 he could put his foot down and demand exactly the amount of money, and the number of episodes, he wanted.  Literally the only thing standing in Lynch's path to making The Return exactly as he wanted was the availability of the actors (and even then, at least three members of The Return's cast--Catherine E. Coulson, Miguel Ferrer, and Warren Frost--shot their scenes as they were struggling with their final illness).

None of this could have happened at any point before the last few years, but the same fragmented market that made The Return possible has also made it a niche product.  From a water-cooler show, Twin Peaks has become prestige TV, the kind of show that gets lauded by critics and wins Emmys, but which hardly anyone watches.  That's a profound shame, because The Return is easily the most exhilarating, exciting TV series I've watched in some time, and it deserves a wider audience.  But at the same time, its weirdness, its determination to be exactly what it wants to be, necessarily limit its appeal.  I'm thrilled beyond words to have gotten this version of Twin Peaks, which so thoroughly changes what came before it as to make it into a different (and to my mind even better) show.  But I can't help but notice that in order to achieve this, Twin Peaks also had to destroy itself, that edifice of what the show came to mean in the popular consciousness.  I suspect that's not lost on Lynch either--might, in fact, be part of the appeal.


Twin Peaks: The Return picks up 25 years after the end of the original Twin Peaks, which closed on a brutal cliffhanger in which the stalwart FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is possessed by the evil spirit known as BOB.  In the years since, the possessed Cooper, now known as "Mr. C", has amassed a vast criminal empire whose actual purpose is to enable him to understand and control the forces of the White and Black Lodges, where the good and evil supernatural beings who are behind most of the show's events dwell, and from which they exert their influence on our world.  Realizing that he is about to be pulled back into the Black Lodge and replaced by Cooper, Mr. C tricks Cooper and his allies by constructing a duplicate of himself, a boozehound insurance agent named Dougie Jones.  When Cooper emerges from the Lodge, it is Dougie that he replaces, while Mr. C continues in his quest to find the Lodge.  Meanwhile, Cooper's former colleagues at the FBI, Gordon Cole (Lynch) and Albert Rosenfield (Ferrer), aided by new agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) and Cooper's former assistant Diane Evans (Laura Dern), alerted to Mr. C's actions, begin pursuing him, believing him to be Cooper.  Back in Twin Peaks, Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster, playing the brother of original player Michael Ontkean's character) and his deputies Tommy "Hawk" Hill (Michael Horse) and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) come across new information in the Laura Palmer case, including messages from Bobby's long-deceased father informing them that a cataclysmic event connected to the Lodge is due to occur.

To be clear, this description bears about as much resemblance to the reality of Twin Peaks: The Return as a crudely drawn map does to the actual territory.  I mean that literally: it is missing depth, breadth, height, color, and sound.  Twin Peaks has always been about more than its story, but this is doubly and triply true of The Return, which assembles, above the bare scaffolding of this tale of Manichean struggle, an edifice that is funny, strange, tedious, perplexing, horrifying, enlightening, and completely shapeless.  

One need only look at the fact that nearly every one of the season's 18 episodes ends with a minutes-long, usually dialogue-free musical performance at a Twin Peaks hangout called The Road House (a small-town bar that somehow manages to book acts like Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder) to understand just how little Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost care about the conventions of storytelling and the audience's comfort.  The Return is full of cul-de-sacs and tangents.  Long, absurdist scenes seem to exist for no reason except that Lynch and Frost thought it might be neat to, for example, have Andy Brennan and Lucy Moran's son Wally (Michael Cera) be a Marlon Brando impersonator who zooms into town on his motorcycle for a long, pause-heavy monologue in which he waxes about following in the footsteps of "Lewis, and his friend Clark".  In conversation, characters frequently drop names we've never heard before nor will again, randomly pausing to discuss the relationships and hardships of people who mean nothing to us (sometimes the people speaking are themselves also strangers, who never recur after their single scene).  A large part of the show is taken up with Cooper's struggles as Dougie Jones, which are exacerbated by the fact that something about the botched transference has rendered him addled and uncomprehending.  He wanders through Dougie's life like a holy fool, guided by some supernatural intuition to fix Dougie's marriage to the exasperated Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and uncover corruption at his place of work.  It's a plotline that is an exercise in finely-honed frustration, first because no one in Dougie's vicinity seems to notice that he is clearly brain-damaged, and second because this domestic farce is not what any of us tuned in for--we want Cooper, who doesn't turn up until very near the show's end.

I want to be clear that I can easily understand people for whom any or all of these choices were complete turn-offs that made them write off the show--I enjoyed The Return immensely, but even so there are stretches of it that I find tedious or self-indulgent.  What kept me engaged even through those stretches, and made them seem ultimately worthwhile, was the sense that everything that happens in The Return is deliberate, a choice on Lynch and Frost's part.  I don't mean by this that everything in the show has some secret meaning--there's obviously a lot of fun to be had in that sort of approach, and there are already some minutely thought-out and entertaining fan theories out there about The Return's ultimate meaning, but I've never enjoyed watching TV that way, as if it were a code to be deciphered.  What I mean, rather, is that there is no part of The Return that feels conventional, no aspect of its storytelling that has happened because that's the shorthand for conveying this particular turn of plot.  Lynch seems to be rebuilding the toolbox of TV storytelling from the ground up, and what he comes up with is remarkably coherent.  You never quite get used to The Return's rhythms--to the way that scenes seem to last just that little bit longer than they should, or how pauses in conversations stretch to the point of discomfort--but it also never feels like anything less than completely itself, and to me that's incredibly exciting to witness.

It's interesting, too, how little showboating there is in The Return.  That seems almost impossible to credit when you consider that the show includes long stretches of surrealist storytelling--including an entire episode that is almost completely dialogue-free and made up of sequences of fantastical, sometimes almost abstract images.  When I compare The Return to other recent "experimental" shows like Legion or American Gods (and even more than the latter, to Gods creator Bryan Fuller's previous show, Hannibal), it's remarkable how completely Lynch seems to avoid the impulse to nudge the audience, to ask, "can you believe we did that?  Well, can ya'?"  

Some of this has to do with how low-rent The Return's imagery is.  In the original show, Lynch famously created an entire shadow world with some red curtains and a few armchairs, but even with a bigger, cable budget, there's something decidedly chintzy about the effects he chooses for his fantasy world and creatures (though he's also capable of delivering eye-popping CGI when the occasion calls for it).  When we finally get a glimpse into the White Lodge, it has the shabby-genteel look of an old horror movie, and its strangeness is conveyed by placing giant electrical components throughout its space (electricity is one of the series's most important motifs, and how the beings in the Lodge travel).  It's left to Lynch's assured direction, as well as his expert work with sound, to convey the feeling of otherworldliness, or of horror, that other creators might have hung on their special effects.

Equally bracing is the way Lynch depicts the real world, never shying away from the barrenness of the half-built subdivision where Dougie meets with his mistress, or the sameness of the houses on his street, the aspirationally-named Lancelot Court, or the shabbiness of a Twin Peaks trailer park.  Modern TV is so allergic to honest depictions of these sorts of spaces (American Gods, for example, erases them entirely, choosing to prettify the American landscape in a way that completely neuters the show's alleged mission) that there's something almost fantastical about Lynch's willingness to incorporate them into his world.  But again, the fact that The Return is willing to be ordinary means that its extraordinariness, however deliberate, never reads as showing off.

Another reason is that, underneath its weirdness, The Return is an incredibly earnest show.  Twin Peaks is sometimes discomforting in its willingness to look directly at ugly, outsized emotion.  Fire Walk With Me, for example, is among other things a character study of a young woman crumbling under the psychological weight of years of sexual abuse and the denial that she hides behind.  It completely rejects the convention that such serious topics should be depicted with restraint and understatement, and instead allows star Sheryl Lee to rant, scream, weep, and have hysterics (there are a lot of reasons one can imagine for Fire Walk With Me's incredibly unfair reception and reputation as a failure, but it's hard not to assume that it was an unwillingness to see Lee's performance as the fearless tour de force that it is that is the culprit).  The belief that melodrama is as serious and fruitful a source for meaningful emotion as a more naturalistic style underpins Twin Peaks, and--especially when buttressed by sensitive writing and searing performances like Lee's--it makes it impossible to develop a protective skin of irony.  No matter how silly the events of Twin Peaks get, the pain that lies beneath them is too real to ignore.

The Return doesn't reach the same heights of melodrama as its predecessors, but it shares with them the belief that trauma can express itself in ways that are weird or even funny.  A recurring theme in the show is the idea that damaged people are all around us, whether it's the hard-of-hearing Gordon Cole, who shouts at the top of his lungs and frequently mishears what people say to him; or the original Dougie Jones, who was apparently prone to disappearing on days-long benders; or Sheriff Truman's wife Doris, who hectors him relentlessly over completely trivial matters, only for a deputy to reveal that she suffers from crippling anxiety since the death of her son by suicide.  Amazingly for a show that traffics in such gruesome subject matter as incest and murder, Twin Peaks insists on the possibility of kindness and accommodation for such people.  Sheriff Truman is endlessly patient with his wife; Dougie's colleagues are bemused but tolerant of his occasional disappearances.  As Dougie, Cooper tangles with the underworld figures the Mitchum Brothers (Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper) who are always accompanied by a trio of beautiful blonde women in pink satin dresses.  It's a ridiculous image, but when one of the girls, Candie (Amy Shiels), starts exhibiting obvious signs of emotional problems, the brothers, though exasperated, take her behavior in stride, because "[if] we fire her, she's got no place to go".

If there's a mission statement for The Return, it's expressed by Janey-E Jones, when she arrives to pay off some loan sharks who have been hounding her for Dougie's unpaid gambling debts.  After browbeating the men into accepting a much smaller interest payment than they wanted, Janey-E breaks into a rant that is simultaneously deeply principled and deeply deluded (and really, not enough can be said for Watts's ability to imbue this scene with just the right amount of both self-importance and incandescent rage):
What kind of world are we living in where people can behave like this, treat other people this way, without any compassion, or feeling for their suffering!  We are living in a dark, dark age and you are part of the problem.  Now I suggest you take a good long look at yourselves because I never want to see either of you again!
It's a ridiculous, almost comical scene, and Janey-E is a deliberately comical character (as evidenced by her very name).  But the sentiment is played entirely straight--the idea that there is something wrong with a world where people take such total advantage of one another.  It's such a desperately uncool thing to believe, much less say, much less say in a story that also includes a cosmic battle between good and evil that somehow also encompasses a young girl being raped and murdered by her father.  But of course, Twin Peaks does not, for one minute, care about being cool.  Even at the heights of its weirdness, it is a fundamentally kind, caring story, one that genuinely believes that the outrage of an irate housewife matters just as much as a Manichean struggle between forces older and grander than we can comprehend.  That belief shines through every moment of the show, and it is that, I think, that saves it from coming off as weirdness for weirdness's sake.


Or at least, it does until you get to the end.  We talk a lot about endings in the Golden Age of Television, expecting them to imbue meaning into stories that have relied for their effect on ambiguity.  Just a few years ago we were furiously debating what the "right" ending for Breaking Bad would be, but that's nothing compared to the veritable ending wars that engulfed and consumed shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica.  Weirdness and surrealism are fine on TV so long as you're in the middle of your story, but when you get to the end, you're expected to have a solution that can be deemed "satisfying", or it'll be assumed that you were just making it up as you went along, had no idea what you were on about, and were in general conning the audience.

Twin Peaks: The Return does not have a "satisfying" ending.  Its ending is so unsatisfying, in fact, that it can only be taken as deliberate--if not quite a "fuck you" to the audience, then a refusal to be pinned down or understood.  But before we talk about that, let's cycle back to the famous--perhaps infamous--episode 8, the climax of the show's weirdness that is also, paradoxically, exactly what some people are looking for when they talk about "satisfying" endings.  As previously noted, episode 8 is the high-octane version of The Return's frequent forays into surrealism.  There are only a few lines of dialogue in the entire hour, and only two of the show's main characters appear.  The action moves in time and between our realm and the Lodge, and includes long stretches that are nothing but pure imagery, supplemented by an insistent, disorienting soundtrack.

And yet, episode 8 is also the most coherent, easy to parse hour in The Return's entire season.  I think that's even part of the reason why it was lauded as such an outrageous departure, and a high point of the season.  Lynch had taken an extremely common building block of the modern genre story--the villain origin flashback episode--and told it in a completely idiosyncratic way that was nevertheless fairly easy to understand, once you got into the swing of things and stopped expecting a conventional TV episode to reemerge.  Without taking away anything from episode 8's artistry, this is a lower difficulty setting than what most of The Return delivers, and therefore probably makes for a more straightforwardly satisfying viewing experience.  You can be blown away by the imagery while still following along with the story, and also complimenting yourself for being able to do so.

This might also be the reason why episode 8, despite looming so significantly over The Return's reception, isn't nearly as crucial to its story as some reviewers have made it out to be.  There are three important things that we learn in episode 8: that BOB, though dangerous, is only a secondary villain to a much more powerful malevolent force (unnamed in the episode itself, but identified as "The Experiment" in the credits, and as "Judy" later in the season); that Laura was sent to Earth by the beings of the White Lodge to fight this force; and that in 1956, a young girl was possessed by a creature protected by the beings of the Black Lodge.  (Fans have speculated that this girl is Sarah Palmer, Laura's mother, and that the creature is Judy, and there's a lot of evidence in the season to suggest that this is true.)  None of this ends up being crucial to the rest of the season, which continues to focus on Cooper's restoration and on the battle between him and Mr. C.  It's perhaps for this reason that the episodes immediately following episode 8 feel a little flat and schematic, as the story we'd come to expect fails to materialize.  It's as if Lynch were taunting us, suggesting a key that could tie his story's entire mythology together into an easily understood (if artfully presented) genre template, and then regressing right back to the aimless weirdness where Twin Peaks really lives.

A similar feeling of being taunted accompanies the end of the season, which comes in two episodes that seem to function as mirror images to one another.  In the first, Cooper, who has finally been restored to full awareness, defeats Mr. C, through a Rube Goldberg-esque combination of coincidences and right-place-right-time happenstance that have been carefully arranged by a representative of the White Lodge known as The Fireman (Carel Struycken, who also appeared in the original Twin Peaks as "The Man From Another Place").  There's a neatness to this resolution that feels completely out of place in Twin Peaks, and Lynch even pokes fun at it--and at shows, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, that rely on this kind of mechanistic resolution to their surrealist storytelling--by making the linchpin of the plan to defeat Mr. C a character whom we barely even know.  This character, Freddie (Jake Wardle), is an Englishman (almost the only foreigner in this show's entire mythology, which is deeply rooted in Americanness) who was ordered by the Fireman in a vision to track down a particular gardening glove which, once donned, would make his hand superhumanly strong, and thus able to punch BOB out of existence.

The presence of Cooper, finally restored to his old self, his determination to destroy BOB, his joy at being reunited with his friends, and the sheer force of his personality, mean that this episode isn't nearly as ridiculous as the above might make it seem.  There's genuine tension when Mr. C, who has been murdering his way across the American landscape, arrives at the Twin Peaks Sheriff's station and is greeted as a friend by the unsuspecting deputies; and genuine triumph when the person who finally gets the drop on him is the department's spacey receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson).  But at the same time, Lynch is making it clear that this is not the point, nor the purpose, of his story.  No sooner has he defeated BOB than Cooper sets his sights on far more ambitious targets.  Returning to the Lodge, and now seemingly able to control it, he travels back in time to remove Laura from Twin Peaks just moments before she meets with her murderers.  He then travels with Diane to an alternate universe where a middle-aged Laura exists, but calls herself Carrie Page and doesn't remember her old life.  Convinced that restoring Laura's memory is the key to defeating Judy, Cooper takes Carrie back to Twin Peaks, but once there the confrontation he'd envisioned failed to materialize.  The series's final images are of Carrie's face as she stares at the Palmer house, first in incomprehension, then in horror.  She screams, terrifyingly, and the lights in the house spark and go out as the screen smashes to black.

The first thing I did after I watched this ending was to get up and walk around the house a few times, trying to work off a bit of nervous energy.  The second thing I did was to start bargaining.  This was clearly not an ending but a cliffhanger, a set up for yet another season--what the Lost writers used to call "leveling up", with one villain, BOB, having been defeated, and Cooper and Laura only at the beginning of a fight against the more important villain, Judy.  The third thing I did was to go online and read some other people's reactions to the finale, in the hopes that they'd help me make sense of what I just watched.  It was only at this point that I started to come to terms with The Return's ending.  I'm still not entirely reconciled to it--and I suspect that I'm not supposed to be--but I think I see what Lynch's argument with it is.  I think he's saying that the kind of ending fans envisioned when they heard that Twin Peaks was going to be revived, the resolution they'd been craving during the 26 years since "how's Annie?", would have turned the show into something that is not Twin Peaks anymore.  That to reach an ending to the show's central struggle, to allow our heroes to win, or even lose, would change it irreparably.

It's for this reason that I no longer think there's going to be another season, even though Lynch has teased the possibility.  We already know what the trick is, and we'll be expecting it next time, which would rob it of most of its power.  I could be wrong, of course--there could be another season, whose existence will alter the meaning of The Return and its ending as definitively as The Return did for the original show and "how's Annie?"  But for the time being, the ending we have feels, not satisfying, but right.


A lot of critics, when discussing The Return and its ending, have focused on the theme of abuse and the way it--and particularly the abuse experienced by Laura--underpins the entire series.  By trying to save Laura, these critics argue, Cooper oversteps himself, applying his white knight impulses to an evil so much more complicated and insidious than the Black Lodge.  The fact that the world he finds himself in after making this heroic gesture seems to leave no space for his heroism (and that Cooper himself seems subdued and diminished in this world), is a sort of cosmic rebuke, a reminder that it isn't possible for anyone to fix what has been done to Laura, that the trauma and damage of abuse linger and can't simply be erased.  The Return's refusal to offer us a triumphant resolution is reminder that its "real" story is one that can't be resolved.

My reaction to this reading is that if it's correct, then Lynch is, not for the first time, wagging his finger at a problem that he has created, and which he relentlessly and repeatedly exacerbates.  The thing that makes Twin Peaks remarkable is also the thing that makes it problematic, and perhaps the reason that it is ultimately so unresolvable.  Twin Peaks is a story about a teenage girl who is raped and murdered by her father.  Twin Peaks is also a story about a small town beset by cosmic horrors, one of whom possesses a local man and compels him to rape and murder his teenage daughter.  Try as Lynch and Frost might, it's not actually possible to reconcile these two different kinds of horror, the fantastical and the mundane.  As Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and the other deputies muse once they've exposed Laura's father as her murderer and exorcised the being possessing him:
Harry Truman: He was completely insane.
Albert: You think so?  People saw BOB.  People saw him in visions.  Laura, Maddie, Sarah Palmer.
Major Briggs: Gentlemen, there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.
Cooper: Amen.
Harry: I've lived in these old woods most of my life.  Seen some strange things, but this is way off the map.  I'm having a hard time believing.
Cooper: Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?  Any more comforting?
Harry: No.
Briggs: An evil that great in this beautiful world.  Finally, does it matter what the cause?
Cooper: Yes, because it's our job to stop it.
But of course--and I can only assume that Lynch realizes this--it is easier to believe that a man would rape and murder his own daughter, because that sort of thing happens with terrifying regularity, whereas aliens and evil spirits don't actually exist.  In its early episodes, at least, Twin Peaks seemed cognizant of this, even if its approach to the topic left much to be desired.  Nearly all the women on the show were subject to abuse of one form or another, and hardly any of them could blame supernatural causes for it.  That's not something the show handled very well--it often felt as if the purpose of its female characters was to suffer beautifully, and to react with frustrating passivity and even a sort of wry detachment to the violence they met at the hands of husbands, fathers, and lovers.  Fire Walk With Me does a better job on one level, by prioritizing the psychological toll that abuse takes on its heroine, and placing her, rather than her abuser, at the center of its story.  But it also reinforces the argument of the original series, that there was something unusual and supernatural about Laura's experiences, that the evil she was subjected to was cosmic, not commonplace (it also, implicitly, absolves Laura's father of guilt for abusing her, and in his later appearances in the Lodge he is a tragic, perhaps even positive, figure).

The Return takes this even further when it reveals that Laura was sent to Earth by the Fireman in order to defeat Judy.  From a young woman who had the misfortune to be born to a man possessed by evil, this revelation turns Laura into a warrior in the battle against that evil, whose suffering might be necessary and even foreordained.  If Janey-E Jones gets to express the outrage of ordinary people caught up in an unfeeling, predatory world, Laura is denied any access to that outrage.  Even her scream of horror at the series's end is a stepping stone in the battle against evil.  When you think about it, an integral component of Cooper's plan to defeat Judy is retraumatizing Laura.  Having shed her memory of her abuse and murder, Cooper convinces Laura to come back to Twin Peaks with him, with the express purpose of reminding her of it--without which memory, it is implied, she can't help him fight Judy.

Then there's Cooper's heroic announcement that "it's our job to stop it".  Despite the ambiguity of the preceding conversation, it's clear that the "it" in question is not the horrifying prevalence of incest and domestic violence, but the more heroic challenge of defeating BOB and the Black Lodge.  If there's one place where I feel The Return add something new to Twin Peaks's handling of abuse, it is in subtly castigating these priorities.  The idea that it is incumbent upon men--and particularly men in positions of authority--to combat the more mundane evil of abuse is present in The Return precisely in its absence, in the failure of even the good, heroic men on the show to live up to it.

You see this in particular in the two "redeemed" men of The Return, Bobby Briggs and Ben Horne (Richard Beymer).  Both played villainous turns in the original Twin Peaks, and underwent a moral awakening which finds them, 25 years later, acting as pillars of the community.  But both are also incapable of paying that enlightenment forward, of teaching other men to grow as they did.  Bobby, who was guided away from his selfishness and violent temper by his father, Major Briggs, has no sons of his own, and the young deputies at the Sheriff's department are too corrupt or disinterested to learn from him.  He's unable to prevent either his ex-wife or his daughter from taking up with the same kind of abusive man he used to be, and in his most important scene in The Return, is confronted with the knowledge that that violence is propagating, when he witnesses an abusive man being imitated by his young son.  Ben, who spent most of Twin Peaks indulging in his worst impulses (including, but not limited to, sleeping with underage prostitutes, one of whom was Laura), has been punished by being forced to play the role of the responsible adult in a family that isn't willing to follow his moral example.  In particular, his grandson Richard (Eamon Farren) is a vicious, violent man, the embodiment of toxic masculinity.  When he learns that Richard killed a young boy in a hit and run, Ben laments that "Richard never had a father", but never explains why he couldn't step in as Richard's father, teaching him to be a better person.

And then there's Cooper himself.  In the original Twin Peaks, Cooper embodied a kind of new masculine ideal, half the stalwart self-assurance of his namesake Gary Cooper, half New Age sensitivity.  He was staunch in the pursuit of justice and righteous in the application of violence, but also kind, and possessed of a childlike curiosity and openness.  He was a sensualist--all that orgasmic cooing over coffee and cherry pie--but not a hedonist.  And when he loved people--both romantically and platonically--he loved completely and joyfully.  There has never been another male hero like Dale Cooper on TV, and it is perhaps for this reason that in The Return, Lynch felt it necessary to destroy him.

You see this most obviously in the fact that The Return spends so much time with a character who is a corruption of everything Cooper represented, Mr. C.  "I don't need things, I want them", Mr. C explains to a henchman in one of his earliest appearances, in a statement that defines both the character's evil--that gaping maw of desire that can never be satisfied and is incapable of considering the humanity of others--and the way that he corrupts Cooper's virtues.  But as The Return subtly but insistently reminds us, Mr. C is not a duplicate of Cooper.  He is Cooper, who allowed himself to be taken over by BOB in exchange for the life of his lover, Annie Blackburn.  In so doing, Cooper allowed himself to become the very thing he stood against (it's never stated outright, but by surrendering to BOB, Cooper, who came to Twin Peaks to pursue justice for Laura, essentially became her rapist and murderer).  Mr. C's evil is expressed most blatantly in his violence against women.  In one of his earliest appearances, he murders his lover, who was planning to betray him, in a scene that is horrible precisely because of his indifference to her struggles and cries for mercy.  It's eventually revealed that he raped both Diane and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), two women for whom the original Cooper had romantic feelings.

Of course, The Return gives us an out from the full horror of acknowledging what Cooper has become, in the form of another, "good" Cooper (it's actually lucky that Mr. C tricks Cooper into taking over Dougie's body, because it means he never has to come in contact with the corrupted thing that his original body has become).  But it's probably not a coincidence that we end up spending so little time with Cooper in his canonical form, as a confident leader who knows exactly how to save the world.  Or that the final form that Cooper takes, in the alternate world to which he pursues Laura, is a midpoint between his two extremes, still dedicated to good, but nowhere near as joyful or as confident as the man Cooper once was.  This is a version of Cooper who has seen inside himself, seen how insufficient he is to battle the actual evil that women like Laura have to live with.  A lot of fans wanted The Return to be about Cooper's triumphant return, which would involve defeating BOB and possibly riding off into the sunset with Audrey.  Instead, the closest he can come up with is to unmake the entire series, to prevent Laura's death--and thus his own coming to Twin Peaks, and Mr. C's creation.  The most heroic thing Dale Cooper can do to combat the evil of abuse, it seems, is not just to rescue Laura, but to take himself out of her story.


There's so much more to say, really.  I haven't touched on the series's (extremely iffy) approach to race, or its repositioning of Sarah Palmer as a villain, or the strange and terrible fate it gives Audrey, or the alternately interesting and frustrating turns of the FBI storyline, or what I think the Road House actually is, or the absence of queerness, or or or.  We'll probably be talking about The Return for years to come, for the simple reason that it's one of the richest and most expertly made works of television for years, if not ever.  And one of the things we'll have to talk about is how, in an age of revivals and reboots and appeals to nostalgia, David Lynch created one of the remarkable works in the medium by refusing all those impulses, by unmaking his most famous creation and making something completely new out of it.  It's hard to imagine that the new Twin Peaks will have the kind of influence that the original series did, if only because Lynch has upped his game so much that it will take an entirely new generation of TV creators to follow in his footsteps.  But for the time being, we have The Return--messy, meandering, frustrating, problematic, but so completely its own thing that one can only be grateful for its existence.


nostalgebraist said…
Great review. IMO, a useful perspective on the tension/confusion between fantastical and mundane horror is that it's a result of the dialectic between Lynch (mundane) and Frost (fantastical).

I was startled to learn, halfway through watching The Return, that earlier in 2017 Mark Frost had published a sort of tie-in novel ("The Secret History of Twin Peaks") which elaborated on the Twin Peaks mythology. I haven't read it, but Laura Miller's scathing review makes it sound like Frost wants Twin Peaks to be just another Lost/BSG: a complicated but ultimately unmysterious tapestry of SFnal "mythology," full of cosmic forces, conspiracies, and magical artifacts.

In the TV incarnations of Twin Peaks, then, we get this vision filtered through Lynch's sensibilities -- which means the mysteries aren't all nicely resolved, of course, but also means we get a story about non-fantastical abuse, because there is such a story in nearly everything Lynch works on. In Lynch's solo work, non-fantastical abuse is depicted surrealistically, but this is very different from depicting it through cosmic SF. (You can't coherently talk about the "mythology" of Mullholland Drive or Inland Empire, although both contain seemingly fantastical elements.)

Twin Peaks has all of that but then, also, has the Frost mythology, and the two coexist uncomfortably -- perhaps less a coherent artistic vision that the result of compromise between two different visions. (I like to imagine Episode 8 was the result of Lynch saying, "okay, Mark, I'll include your UFO/parasite stuff, but only if I get to do it like one of my art films, and only if we never bring any of it up again.")
Frost actually published two companion volumes in 2017, The Secret History and, more recently, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier. The latter reveals what happened to various characters from the original show in the intervening 25 years. I've been mulling over picking it up - it appeals to me more than The Secret History - but as Miller writes, I worry that its only effect will be to collapse the mystery that is the show's essence. I think the ultimate result of Lynch and Frost's collaboration has been a fruitful one - after all, we have no idea what pure-Lynch Twin Peaks would look like. But I'm fairly certain that the impulse to explain the show is the wrong one.
Veenhond said…
Just stumbled on this. What an amazing write-up, couldn't agree more!

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