Showrunners: David Lynch and Mark Frost
Twin Peaks: The Return has come and gone. I for one have many questions. And over a month after the finale has aired, I’m only just starting to accept that David Lynch and Mark Frost are not going to answer these questions anytime soon. There is no secret code, no hidden meaning, that can make sense of everything that played out before the audience.
If you’ve seen Lynch films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, you’ll have some idea of the suffering that Lynch can inflict on the viewer who likes to make sense of things. Lynch’s expressionist tendencies are in full force this season, much more so than in the original series. The show’s narrative is staunchly anti-television, refusing to offer any timely gratification of expectations or audience theorizing; no matter how deep you go, there is no good way to predict what is going to happen in The Return, even on a scene-by-scene basis—and the pacing is nearly impossible to get a handle on. At one point, I found myself watching with curiosity (and more than a little impatience) as an extra swept the floor for minutes on end; on other occasions, I had to go back and watch scenes frame-by-frame to fully unpack their content.
Like anything waking from a quarter-century slumber, the season starts out slow and hazy. The intensity and mystery that you would expect are still there, but the overall flow of the first few episodes is downright glacial. It’s a show suspended in slow-motion, which is fascinating and, by the same token, kind of infuriating. Mercifully, the pace and tone shift often enough that the entertainment-to-art ratio never falls too far out of whack. By episode seven, the overall pace picks up tremendously and many key aspects of the original series began to creep their way back into the show. After the weightless nature of the season’s beginning, episode seven sky-rocketed my expectations for a complete return of the series I knew and loved.
But then episode eight happened, which blew all of my expectations out of the water in the most artistically aggressive way possible. ‘Artistically aggressive’ is the only way I can think to describe it. Maybe ‘television from another dimension’. One particular sequence, stemming from bomb testing in New Mexico in 1945, unexpectedly blossoms into an abstract audio-visual journey that seizes its own space in the narrative solely by its confronting, contorting hypnotic effect. There is very little plot progression—Nine Inch Nails play a live song at one point, then an Abraham Lincoln impersonator playing the spirit of a woodsman goes on a gory skull-crushing rampage. I’m aware that this sounds like a fever dream, but it makes for surprisingly compelling television. As a standalone episode of television—even though it makes zero sense without context, welcome to Twin Peaks—this episode is something worth watching at least once. I don’t think there’s anything else like it on television, purely because I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have funded it without David Lynch and the legacy of Twin Peaks attached to it. It’s not the episode of Twin Peaks that I wanted at the time, but it’s an episode of television that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
Episode eight was also the point that I realised the old show wasn’t coming back—not really, anyway. The Return occupies a strange space between catering to the nostalgia of the original series and doing something completely new. While familiar faces and places are constantly brought back into the fold, more often than not it’s done in a distanced, uncomfortable way. It seems that Lynch and Frost understand the impossibility of bridging a 26-year gap in production in any artistically-cohesive way, so the season feels more like a treatise about the uncanniness of returning from a long absence. Considering how the cast, Lynch’s style, and the television landscape in general, have changed since the early ‘90s, this is an understandable change of direction. Some of The Return’s best scenes are those that come heartbreakingly close to rekindling the youthful vigor of the original show but don’t quite step past that threshold.
From a visual and audio perspective, Lynch does what only he can do. The way that he feeds off various cues from his film work while creating something new and exciting in a television format is remarkable and his ability to make absolutely anything feel gut-wrenching or otherworldly is on stunning display. But for me, the stand-out is the sound design—it’s arguably the most groundbreaking part of the series. The role that sound plays in dictating the atmosphere and regulating the flow of the story suggests that this season is a love letter to sound design above all else; even the episodic structure relies on show-closing musical performances, where various acts—both fictional and non-fictional—close out the episode with Lynch’s utmost directorial reverence dedicated to their music. Au Revoir Simone and Chromatics are among the musical highlights of the season, both of whom encapsulate the atmosphere of the season in their own ways.
But despite the depth and quality of The Return’s artistic pursuits, it was the silly little things that delighted me most: the amazing adventures of the catatonic Dougie Jones; an elderly Jerry Horne having a momentous drug trip in the woods; an amazing Michael Cera cameo that never ends; the inspired casting of Jim Belushi who is, if you can believe it, one of the comedic highlights of the season; and James Hurley singing that insane song from the original series again. Twin Peaks is nothing if not charming, and in this way, the new series pays clear homage to the old. These moments are the sparks of life that save the season from suffocating on its own artistic fumes.
I had to wrestle with The Return at times due to my expectations, but I was won over by its overwhelming force of personality and its willingness to die by its own hubris. That won’t be everyone’s experience; you’re either going to buy into it or you’re not, and there are several clear stepping off points throughout the season. That’s the trade-off with most of David Lynch’s work, but it’s particularly relevant here with the original series’ unique tone and decades of memory to contend with. But even though my expectations in this regard were essentially nuked from orbit, Twin Peaks: The Return thoroughly entertained me, vexed me, drove me to the brink of insanity, and then lovingly jumped off the edge with me. If that’s not vintage Twin Peaks, then I don’t know what it is.