I don’t envy the job of a TV critic. In a way, and particularly as serialized television has become the norm, it seems strikingly illogical to have to condemn or recommend a TV show based on its first few episodes, as reviewers often have to do to get a “hot take” online by the premiere.
Then again, maybe it’s not so illogical at all, because the promise of TV has always been the immediacy of constant engagement—and if you’re not engaged after four episodes, why would you care after five? But immediacy is something that Twin Peaks: The Return hasn’t shown much interest in. Slyly, the series has offered several metaphors for itself: a mysterious box in which something may or may not appear; scribbles on paper that inexplicably make sense to a man who looks at them in the right way; and a low beeping tone in a room that moves whenever you try to find its source.
So I have to admit that at least 50% of what’s kept me going during this 18-hour miniseries—the finale of which airs tomorrow—has been pure morbid curiosity at what Showtime would let David Lynch get away with. I don’t just mean his trademark grisly surrealism, though there’s certainly been plenty of that, but that the very foundation of TV narrative seemed askew. This bizarre approach filters down to how the show has been released. The official episode summaries, currently live on Hulu.com, are quotes that read like terse, gnomic fortune cookies from another dimension, telling you almost nothing about the content of the episode. (They include such gems as “We are like the dreamer”, “This is the chair”, and a helpful one that just says “Don’t die.”) And while it may be easy for non-fans to write this off as performance art/trolling/clever marketing, they do make an odd kind of sense once you’ve actually clicked Play. Because clicking Play is the only way you’re meant to find any answers.
When Episode 7 aired back in June, I thought that for the first time, Twin Peaks: The Return had landed roughly within the margin of error for normal TV drama. That is, it moved like clockwork, pushed the plot along, and answered earlier questions while raising more.
Then Episode 8 blew up the internet.
Episode 8 has already become legendary, and if you’ve been following the series and reading about it online, there’s not much more I can add to the discussion. The episode, which includes an avant-garde sensory trip through an atomic blast, followed by a wordless origin story for evil on Earth, followed by Lynch’s most grotesque and visceral horrors since Eraserhead (1977), has already been treated as its own discrete work of cinema. It’s been written up in film journals, and has inspired a program at one of my favorite New York theaters, the Metrograph. It’s easy to see why—for a moment, it seemed like Stan Brakhage had taken over the airwaves, or that any rule could be broken. It was as radical for TV as the stargate sequence in 2001 must have been on movie screens in 1968. The irony is that right when Twin Peaks seemed like it might be becoming more concrete, it suddenly became scarier and wilder than ever. After Episode 8, I’ve been noticeably more afraid to click Play each Sunday night.
This level of unpredictability has been perhaps the new series’ most definitive asset: any new episode could be (and has been) either a glacial non-event, an invigorating slice of TV drama, or a terrifying house of horrors. That is, it breaks so many rules that you can’t even rely on it to not follow the rules. There have been plenty of times it gives the fans what they want, and even more times when it’s given fans plenty of good reasons to kvetch in frustration on social media. It has been problematic in its use of sexual violence. Most of the comic relief isn’t very funny. Some subplots turn out to matter, some don’t, and there’s no way to tell them apart. The main plotline feels like a tangent, while tangents take center stage. And the method has, in the most immediate sense, been difficult to discern.
I mean, how else to describe a series that brings back an iconic TV hero, then spends 13 out of 18 hours having him wandering around comatose without a firm identity or purpose? How else to explain that a circular argument between Sherilyn Fenn and her husband over whether or not to leave the house together is not given simply a single scene (the way most TV storytellers would do it, if they did it at all), but a multiple episode arc? How else to account for a seemingly aimless sequence of shovels being spray-painted gold, except to note that if you follow the thread for another 10 weeks, you’ll get a satisfying payoff? The series has an approach to duration that could be described as “Rivette-esque”, but that most people would just describe as “boring”. And like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), another serialized funhouse of wicked conspiracy and cagey arthouse flotsam, its most daring aspect is its use of time.
“Time”, I think, is the key to the new Twin Peaks. This is, by necessity and for a greater good, a very different series than if Twin Peaks had been revived earlier instead of after a 25 year hiatus. That length has infused the show with a melancholy; after all, what is 18 hours in comparison? No attempt is made to ignore the age of the actors. So many episodes have been dedicated to former cast members who passed away before the release, including David Bowie, who never got to film his scenes. And there is an undeniable potency to the idea that so many of the show’s conflicts—unsolved mysteries, unrequited love, unaddressed trauma—have been stuck for a quarter century, unresolved, niggling away, sitting in entropy as they wait for something to shake them loose.
There are scenes almost entirely devoted to old-timers surveying this new world, not the least of which is Lynch himself. He appears on-screen in his old role as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, and you could argue that Lynch’s characters, not Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Cooper, provides the eyes through which we see this world. As much time as Lynch/Cole spends on detective work, the camera also hangs on his weathered face as he looks at both the delights, the riddles, and the fears that have built up in him as enters his seventies.
It’s been noted before—and with Twin Peaks: The Return it deserves to be noted again—that Lynch’s cinema is a strange brew of aesthetic radicalism and a moral urge that could be easily defined as old-fashioned. What can throw off neophyte cinema hipsters about Blue Velvet (1986) or Wild At Heart (1990) is that their optimistic endings aren’t ironic at all: Lynch, with his uncommon skill at evoking pain and trauma, wants peace of mind. His films don’t delight in dredging up the sordid perversity that lies beneath wholesome Americana; they want wholesome Americana, or at least the reassuring dream-space it provided, to live up to its promise.
That promise is not sociopolitical (Lynch is too far removed) but deeply ingrained in the psyche, like Carl Jung meets Norman Rockwell. Lynch’s previous theatrical feature, and the last one we’re likely to get, was Inland Empire (2006). It is his most optimistic film, which can be easy to miss because it’s completely goddamned terrifying. But it stands as not so much a narrative as an act of therapy: a gauntlet through dark, disturbing fears to the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s no coincidence that Lynch is famous for his promotion of Transcendental Meditation, and both Inland Empire and the way The Return is shaking out so far strike me as ways of acknowledging the ugliness that can clutter the human mind, but which must be discarded to find calm, a sense of wholeness, and a way to enjoy being alive. It never fails to make me smile that Lynch’s fantasy is a world where the FBI—a seat of high government authority—doesn’t just solve crimes, but provides spiritual aid, plumbing life’s mysteries and interpreting your dreams.
There is something poetic to this search for completion, because the Twin Peaks franchise itself, much like so many of those weathered faces in The Return, has felt incomplete for so long. The original show had lost its luster by the time it was cancelled. Its “final” cliffhanger from 25 years ago was accepted as something that would never be fully resolved. The follow-up movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) raised as many questions as it answered and failed to satisfy most fans at the time. It was enough of a mess, or a compromise, that its disused footage could be compiled into a semi-canonical film of its own: Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, a 2014 DVD extra that answered a lot of questions that The Return is now building off of. But in 2017, it has been a true experience to watch those pieces come into place in slow-motion, to watch this miniature universe look for peace. Future binge-viewers may get a more cohesive look at it; after all, they’ll have a better idea of what to expect, and they won’t have to be distracted by a week’s worth of reality in between. But watching Lynch slowly tease out the picture seems the proper way to handle this particular odyssey.
Needless to say, I don’t know quite what tomorrow’s finale of The Return will bring. At this point, nothing would surprise me, though I have my suspicions and remain slightly afraid to click Play. I still can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already waist-deep in Lynch’s universe. But as someone who kept watching all summer out of morbid curiosity, I can definitively say that I am genuinely excited for tomorrow. Last week’s episode has energized most of the fans I know and set us up for something potentially magnificent and cathartic. If you haven’t watched it yet, I won’t spoil it. (For what its worth, its plot summary on Hulu is simply “No knock, no doorbell”). But my hope—and this miniseries is shaping up to be not only painful but rousingly hopeful—is that Lynch’s world of Twin Peaks, a world both wonderful and strange, will finally feel whole.
The finale of Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sunday night on Showtime.