Five Ideas Regarding Twin Peaks: The Return (Parts 7-9)
1. The Return of the Dead: Everybody is understandably enjoying the new Twin Peaks’ end credit sequences. In an utterly unexpected twist, David Lynch has decided to take us once a week to either The Road House or the Bang Bang Club to play us out with a musical guest. This is a strange enough maneuver all on its own. How many non-variety shows feature a different musical act each week, enfolding them however lightly into the story-world? (Honestly, The Young Ones is the last comparison I can think of. Any others?) And Lynch and partner Mark Frost have proven to have rather catholic tastes, ranging from relatively well-known entities like Sharon Van Etten and Chromatics to much smaller acts such as country-rock duo The Cactus Blossoms.
Leave it to Lynch, then, to spend seven episodes meticulously establishing a pattern only to break it. In the now-infamous Part 8, Twin Peaks’ Road House features its biggest act ever, “The” Nine Inch Nails, smack dab in the middle of the hour. Trent Reznor’s blistering rendition of “She’s Gone Away” not only serves as a kind of tether against which the rest of the episode tugs and rips like a busted tent in the wind. Like so much else in The Return, its pivotal place in such a pivotal episode retroactively speaks back to the entire series and its mythology. That’s to say, it’s next to impossible not to think of “She’s Gone Away” as a shout into the hole in the universe that Laura Palmer left.
The introduction of these musical acts – “the interference of outside influences,” as The Shining’s Delbert Grady might put it – are only part of the weekly ritual that helps us exit from the physical mindspace of Twin Peaks. One of the inevitabilities of resuming this project 25 years after its original conclusion is the ravages of time, and Lynch has been very frank about the bittersweet poignancy with which The Return in many cases marks the final screen appearances of performers he had grown to love. Some, like Catherine Coulson, were already gravely ill when production began, while others, like Miguel Ferrer, became sick during the course of making these episodes. The start of each episode’s end credits feature a loving dedication to the actors who have passed – Coulson, Ferrer, Warren Frost, Frank Silva.
2. “Change their hearts or die.” Together with the musical appearances, these memorials lead us out of the realm of confusion and horror and back to a place of gentle acceptance. (This may be a courtesy Lynch and Frost feel obliged to offer the home-bound viewers of a television show. In the theatrical realm, Lynch gives no quarter.) There is something cathartic about the weekly plunge into Twin Peaks: The Return, even more so than with the original show 25 years ago. It is as if we are being invited to stare death in the face on Sunday nights, and then afterwards we fold the laundry or set the timer on the coffee pot, setting aside the existential dread of Bob.
But this only makes sense. One of the dominant themes throughout Twin Peaks, and much of Lynch’s work, has been the eruption of titanic, mythological evil within the quotidian, the shattering of the everyday with the knowledge of a fate worse than death. Some have claimed that Lynch’s work has a conservative undercurrent, since work like Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway or Inland Empire is about vanquishing the evil and reestablishing normalcy. But this is only half the story. The thing about a mythological, existential evil like Bob is, it never changes. Like God Himself, Bob is the big “I Am.” (Or as the one-armed man said of Bob in the original series, “He is Bob, out for fun. When he comes, everybody RUN.”) Even Laura, who is now beginning to take on vague trappings of the angelic in the series, is but a memory, a myth. Those too can never change.
As absurd as Cooper’s journey as Dougie Jones may be, it has been clearly orchestrated as a movement through human time, a development. That is, Cooper is not Bob. He can change, grow and learn. Admittedly, Dougie’s learning curve is pretty steep. But what we are seeing in Dougie is both “the return” of Dale Cooper and the steady growth of a new man. Time, after all, is not moving backwards. And Cooper will be a different version of himself for having been Dougie, having had Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon) as a family, for having arrived at the same destination by a radically different route.
Everyday life, the normal existence of humans, is what can ultimately beat Bob. Human beings can change, learn, and adapt. When Gordon Cole (Lynch) is meeting with FBI Supervisor Denise Bryson (David Duchovny), he speaks with her about how certain members of the Bureau were less than encouraging regarding then-Dennis’ desire to transition. But Cole stood up for Denise, telling his colleagues they had to “change their hearts or die.” This isn’t just Cole’s (and Lynch’s) statement of support for trans folks. It’s a recognition (no doubt related to his experiences with Transcendental Meditation) that the acceptance and even the welcoming of change in daily life is the condition for human happiness.
3. Meet Diane: But not all changes are positive! What’s the difference, from a purely experiential perspective, between Dougie Jones and Evil Cooper? How one answers this depends of where one locates the basis of personality. Dougie exhibits Cooper’s goofy joie de vivre. In him, we can see traces of the man who would talk to giants and dwarves and enthuse about the cherry pie at a roadside diner. But right now, Dougie can’t tie his own shoes. Evil Cooper has all of the know-how and intelligence that made the old Cooper a paragon of law enforcement. But as controlled by Bob, this Cooper is less than soulless. He is a calculating monster. Where the Bob we once knew “only” raped and murdered, this one, combined with Cooper’s intelligence, is able to become a criminal kingpin, blackmail the prison warden and remind himself not to talk backwards.
This isn’t a new development in Cooper’s personality. It’s a colonization, and although Gordon and Albert (Ferrer) recognize that something is very, very off, it takes someone with even more intimate knowledge of the man to pinpoint the problem. Enter Diane (Laura Dern), a character we knew from the previous series as only a handheld tape recorder. (Although we suspected that Cooper was sending his tapes to another agent, I think more than a few of us wondering whether “Diane” was just his name for the device.) So shaken by the rupture of her relationship with Cooper that she seems to have left the FBI for good, Diane is found holed up in a tiny apartment, seething with constant rage.
Virtually every question Albert and Gordon ask Diane results in a “fuck you!” We are kept largely in the dark over the details of her bond with Cooper, but it has left her a mess. After being cajoled into going to the prison to confront Evil Cooper, she is mortified. Now speaking with Gordon not as an adversary but like a distraught daughter to a trusted father, Diane is resolute. Whatever that thing inside the prison may be, she states, it is not Dale Cooper. And of course, she is right. Up until this episode, Diane was merely an abstraction – a tape recorder in Cooper’s hands. As far as we were concerned, her role was to be a passive receiver, to simply take Cooper’s dictation, to take Cooper in. But in the midst of Cooper’s infection with Bob, we find Diane steely, impenetrable. Especially as embodied by hard, fearsome Dern, we are dealing with a woman who has removed herself from Bob’s phallic economy.
4. The “Nasty Women” of Twin Peaks: Oops, I reverted to some Freudian lingo there. But there’s no denying that, apart from perhaps David Cronenberg, Lynch is the most Freudian director currently working. It’s not just that the “deep state” of Twin Peaks is built on the worst of all taboos, Leland Palmer’s incestuous desire for his daughter. It is a universe of mysteries pertaining to male threat and aggression, usually tying back in some way to Good vs. Bad Fathers. (Audrey Horne’s choice of Cooper over Ben; the tough-love honor of Maj. Briggs; Dr. Hayward as Donna’s true father vs. Ben [again] as her biological father; James as the wayward orphan; the Sheriff’s Department as the town’s benevolent paterfamilias…)
But what about mothers? Recently, some film critics and other folks in the nebulous armpit we call Film Twitter started discussing gender relations in Twin Peaks: The Return, and a few folks claimed that all the women were shrill harpies and harridans. In particular, they cited Janey-E, Diane, and Doris Truman (Candy Clark), wife of Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster). Now, of course one could just as easily offer counter-examples: coroner Constance Talbot (Jane Adams), Denise Bryson, and the ladies of the RR Diner – Norma (Peggy Lipton), Shelly (Mädchen Amick), and Heidi (Andrea Hays) – would be the most obvious.
But one can also reasonably ask, when is a woman “shrill”? We have already been told that Doris Truman’s free-floating rage is a response to her son’s PTSD-related suicide. Although one might expect such an event to draw Doris and Frank closer together, there is no clear formula for grief, and Lynch seems to recognize that Frank, in his own avuncular way, is part of the same male authority structure that sends young men off to war. Whether or not we think this micro/macro scaling of masculine prerogative is “fair” is beside the point, and Lynch has already embodied those who would scoff at Doris’s pain in the form of Deputy Chad Broxford (John Pirruccello), Twin Peaks’ designated asshole.
Diane’s unwillingness to capitulate to the Cooper narrative has already been addressed, but how do we account for the dyspeptic Janey-E? In the latest episode, Part 9, the three detectives investigating Dougie sum her up thus: “Talking to him’s like talking to a dog. But she does the barking.” (We now know that these Las Vegas PD jokers are the Fusco brothers. Alas, their names are not Lars, Rolf, and Lance, but “T.,” “D.,” and “Smiley.”) But is this a fair assessment of Janey-E? As I mentioned in my last Twin Peaks write-up, we get the impression that Dougie was never the sharpest tool in the shed. This week we learn from his boss Bushnell (Don Murray) that Dougie was in an accident years ago and still exhibits the effects of it from time to time. So whether dealing with Dougie, the police, or loan sharks, Janey-E is all business, and – need it be said? – if she were a man defending her family in this manner, no one would bat an eyelash. It’s not at all surprising that, where the original Twin Peaks was largely defined by the enigmatic Laura Palmer and a set of femme fatales (Audrey Horne and Josie Packard in particular), Lynch has given two of his strongest female roles to the actresses who played frighteningly complex women in his later work (Watts in Mulholland Dr. and Dern in Inland Empire). “Gender problem?” To borrow a title from another contemporary director, Hong Sang-soo, Lynch quite obviously believes that woman is the future of man.
5. “This is the water, and this is the well…” Of course, I have to address all that weird shit in Part 8. And although Part 9 was by no means a return to normal narrative exposition, Twin Peaks did follow up one of the most strikingly original, deeply frightening hours of television ever broadcast with some basic plot motility. We have coordinates to the passageway to the Black Lodge, or as Matthew Lillard and some hobbyist friends call it, the Zone. And, thanks to the perspicacious Major Briggs (Don Davis), the boys in the Sheriffs’ Office now know that there are two Coopers. (That puts local law enforcement several paces ahead of the FBI, and they are riding shotgun with the series auteur.)
But yes, Part 8. Theories as to its meaning have been flying fast and furious across the internet, and I have no real interest in contributing on that front. What is most notable about the episode is its look, its ambiance and the way that Lynch touches down on specific aspects of American history in order to ground his mythology, possibly for the first time in the entire series.
Certain scenes in Part 8 appear to rupture the very fabric of narrative space, which for the purposes of the enclosed world of Twin Peaks is essentially equal to a rupture in space and time. But this is occasioned by an actual historical event – the 1945 atomic tests at White Sands, New Mexico. The Trinity test was a turning point in modernity and its ability to unleash destruction on a global scale; the project’s lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer famously referred to the Bhagavad Gita when he gazed upon the mushroom cloud: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Is this the birth of Bob? It somehow seems unlikely. Bob’s mayhem is more community-centered, visited upon individual bodies. Compared with the awesome power of the bomb, Bob is highly inefficient. Does the atomic bomb open the portal to another dimension, perhaps to the Black Lodge? Again, this seems entirely too literal. If anything, Oppenheimer and company sent up a flare, indicating to the evil already inherent in the fabric of existence that it/they was safe to walk more freely among us. This, if anything, seems to explain the adjacency of the Trinity test and the appearance of the Woodsman (Robert Broski). In Twin Peaks mythology, woodsmen are emissaries from the Black Lodge, but even if this pitch-black woodsman (“Got a light?”) is making his first appearance in this dimension, Lynch is tying him to historical events. From this, we can tell that Bob and his kind have been with us for a long time, and that their presence is connected to concrete human action. As I suggested above, Part 8 actually grounds the mythology instead of confounding it. “Twin Peaks,” like Blue Velvet’s Lumberton or the Inland Empire, is anywhere and everywhere.