Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Darkness, Future, Past: The Final Mysteries of TWIN PEAKS-THE RETURN


Don Draper: Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” (MAD MEN-Episode 13-“The Wheel”)

Don: Utopia.
 Rachel: Maybe. They taught us at Barnard about that word, 'utopia'. The Greeks had two meaning for it: 'eu-topos', meaning the good place, and 'u-topos' meaning the place that cannot be.” (MAD MEN-Episode 6-“Babylon”)

“A wise man once told me that mystery is the most essential ingredient of life, for the following reason: mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are…providing meaning in the face of a remorseless, indifferent universe.” (Mark Frost/THE SECRET HISTORY OF TWIN PEAKS)

“Diane, it struck me again earlier this morning, there are two things that continue to trouble me. And I'm speaking now not only as an agent of the Bureau but also as a human being. What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?” (FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper-TWIN PEAKS-Episode 1)

In retrospect, Lucas never had a chance.

When I was ten years old, in 1987, the concept of on demand viewing generally meant wheedling my way into seeing a certain show at a certain time on the main tv in our living room (not the small, black and white one in the kitchen.) Sure, there was the occasional VHS tape we rented from Curtis Mathis (along with the VCR that we rented…permanent home residence of such an advanced piece of technology wouldn’t be achieved for another year). But past that, I watched what was on when it was on. Yes, dear younger readers, I had to conform my schedule to the whims of the programmers from on high in the palaces of the great cathode ray empire.

And then there was Viewer’s Choice. Back then, we had the option of two, count ‘em TWO, pay per view channels from which to choose the occasional film or professional wrestling event. The system was antiquated and loopy even by 1987 standards: viewers were allowed a two minute preview of the content before being charged the amount of a full rental. This allowed for all sorts of gaming the system if you could time things just right (especially for some of the racier, late night adult fare).

Perhaps my favorite part of these channels was the free previews they ran in between each showtime. In the spring of 1987, I became quite enamored of the preview for the Corey Haim teen nerd drama LUCAS. If you’ve never seen this little slice of Americana, it’s a fairly entertaining tale of Haim’s titular hyper-intelligent mega-geek, who, one bucolic summer, falls hard for Kerrie Green’s gorgeous redhead tennis player, only to discover (one high school begins in the fall) that the rigid class structures of the teen biosphere dictate that she hook up with rugged football star Cappie (a pre-PLATOON Charlie Sheen.) There’s angst aplenty, culminating in Lucas’s ill-fated time on the football team, but everything turns out okay in the end. As a hyper-intelligent geek kid with a thing for redheads myself, this sort of schmaltzy fare was like catnip.

But there was another preview on Viewer’s Choice that tantalized me even more, one for another slice of Americana that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch for quite some time. A tale of another young man, an outsider in his own way, who becomes drawn into a dark, alluring world just beyond the edge of the night. He too falls hard for the gorgeous girl down the street, but he also falls hard for the profoundly damaged girl from quite a few streets over, the one who’s seeming paramour is a man who manically huffs from an oxygen mask.

The dreamer I was supposed to be might have loved the reaffirming charms of LUCAS. But the dreamer who I was, and who I would become, knew that within BLUE VELVET lay the dark romance that I truly longed to pursue. Maybe those covert viewings of late night erotic fare were more of a tip off than I knew.

However, as supportive and nurturing of my artistic interests my parents were, there was no chance that I would be allowed to watch BLUE VELVET anytime soon. Or even bring up the possibility (I had yet to connect David Lynch as also being the director of THE ELEPHANT MAN, a film which absolutely petrified me as a child.) And so my maiden voyage into the edges of transgressive dreamscape wouldn’t come until the spring of 1990, when TWIN PEAKS debuted as the ABC Movie of the week.

I still vividly remember coming home from school one April afternoon and reading the newest issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (then in its infancy, still striving to bridge the gap between highbrow and middlebrow), its cover adorned with an image of David Lynch, the headline proclaiming PEAKS as “The Year’s Best Show!” The feature article painted a portrait of a wild televisual experiment, an unprecedented leap into the cinematic that no other creators had achieved, let alone attempted. Such siren songs only come around a few times in the life of a young person, and when I sat down to absorb the two hour pilot a week later, I was stunned, enchanted, romanced. Being the youngest child of parents who were some forty years older than me had bestowed upon me formative years equally split between the charms of the modern and the melancholic pull of culture from many decades hence, so the world that Lynch and Mark Frost presented in this show, one seemingly co-existing in the past and present, really struck a nerve.

That retro-modernism was also a huge part of the massive popularity of the show’s first season. Using the archetypical structure of a whodunit as a skeleton (right down to the dead prom queen), Lynch and Frost somehow pulled off the trick of expanding BLUE VELVET’s darkness on the edge of town motif into a more restrictive format, while also trafficking in an erotically charged sense of fetishism that had never been touched on in mainstream television, a fetishism of the everyday. Saddle shoes, donuts and coffee, linoleum floors, diner culture, wood: they all carried the same enticement and allure. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s axiom about giving yourself a gift each day served as mission statement for such powerful appreciation of the mundane, a split diopter statement both zen and perverse. But after all, who is Cooper but BLUE VELVET’s Jeffrey Beaumont all polished and grown up. Laura Dern’s Sandy famously tells Jeffrey “I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert”, and while his moral fiber is the strongest in the PEAKS universe, much of Coop’s strength (and appeal to the viewer) derives from his balancing between fascination and perversion.

And with the retro-modernism that so enraptured many of TWIN PEAKS’s fans came a profound sense of melancholia. The characters in this town felt emotions, expressed emotions like few others had before. Sarah Palmer’s grief after Laura’s death is a primal, animalistic wail. Leland Palmer becomes a barely functioning shell as he tries to come to terms with his daughter’s death (an emotional state that becomes even more painful in retrospect when he’s revealed as her killer, possessed by the seemingly ancient evil in the woods known only as Killer Bob.) Even beyond the Laura Palmer murder, the town of Twin Peaks is one that has maintained a more deliberate pace of life, refusing to believe that the corruption of the modern world could infiltrate its borders, ultimately suffering from the code of silence it has subconsciously imposed, one that has allowed for drug dealers, a brothel-owning millionaire hotelier, a scheming widow, and murderous, molesting father to thrive. As the tagline for 1992’s TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME states “In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent.” But they were all pining after a life and a past that they hoped to reclaim.

That melancholia extended to the fans of the show after the second season proved to be its last. For twenty-five years, PEAKS devotees pined after a continuation of the story, some sort of resolution for the cliffhanger ending that saw Agent Cooper trapped in the mythical Black Lodge, his evil doppleganger left to roam free in the material world. Despite some serious mis-steps in Season 2 (many derived from the extended absence of Lynch and Frost from the day to day showrunning), enough of the series’ original pull remained to keep fans hooked, and the expansion of the overarching themes into the metaphysical opened up endless possibilities for where the narrative was really going. All those dreams of showdowns between Good Cooper and Evil Cooper, of what really was in the Black and White Lodges, made for some powerful fantasy scenarios in the ensuing years.

This is partly why I’ve been so hesitant to write about TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN. In many ways, I subscribe to the Simonian theory of television analysis, that judging many modern shows on an episodic level ignores the grand intentions of their main narrative arcs, setting up a false standard in which each house must be pure enthrallment. When Lynch and Frost stated that the new PEAKS would essentially be an eighteen hour film broken down into parts, it reaffirmed that theory in my viewing of the show. But I also wanted to studiously avoid the fan fiction tendencies that tend to overwhelm the followers of such enterprises in our current media environment. After a few episodes, I realized that I would probably have very little idea of what would happen the next week, so my best bet was to surrender to the hypnotic cadence of each hour, to heed Hunter S. Thompson’s eternal advice to buy the ticket, take the ride.

Now that the full eighteen hour saga is complete, it’s become readily apparent that Lynch and Frost were also thinking of the deep sense of melancholia and nostalgia that so pervaded such an ambitious project. For TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN now appears as a sprawling, deeply moving rumination on the very nature of aging, of time, of the inevitable compulsion to gaze back into the abyss of the past with a yearning to reclaim that which is lost. Of course, you know what they say about gazing into the abyss…

Several critics have pointed out how the nature of aging is embedded in the very presence of so many of the original cast, most of whom are shot without any diffusion or makeup that would conceal the toll of the intervening years. Having these people play characters who have seldom shifted from their 1990 lives adds yet another layer to the time’s inexorable power. Big Ed is still running the gas farm, still pining after Norma. Shelly is still working behind the counter at the RR Diner, still getting mixed up with sleazy bad boys. Hawk, Andy, and Lucy are still manning the station at the Sheriff’s Department. And for every Bobby Briggs, who reforms his delinquent ways and fulfills the promise of his father, there’s a James Hurley, stuck in a dead end job as a security guard at the Great Northern Hotel.

It’s also not just a matter of character stasis that drives the narrative; there’s a deep sense of complete annihilation of fan expectations throughout. And so Dale Cooper must be reborn as the childlike Dougie Jones, wandering through the bulk of the series in a collection of comic misadventures tinged with melancholic emotion (that wonderful extended scene of him staring at the statue at night outside of his insurance company comes to mind.) New characters are introduced (Shelly’s daughter Becky and her wastoid husband Steven, the enigmatic drug kingpin Red) but only briefly touched upon, often in manners most frustrating. Audrey Horne, the sex bomb sensation of the show’s original run, only shows up late in the proceedings, figuratively trapped in a frustrating sequence of confrontations with a mysterious man, ultimately literally trapped in…an asylum? A netherworld? Her own mind? That answer has yet to be given…and might never be.        

Which leads us around to the final two hours of the narrative, and that final scene. The much-lauded eighth episode of the season (which surely ranks as one of the great surrealistic leaps in the history of the medium) aside, much of this TWIN PEAKS took great pleasure in the meandering, the absurdist, the hint of darkness and of plot forces about to cohere. The return of Dale Cooper to what seems to be his old self locks some of that meandering narrative into an acceleration toward resolution. And so when confronted with the presence of the mortally wounded Mr. C in the sheriff’s station, the good Cooper is able to muster the disparate forces which have been gathering for several episodes to (possibly) defeat the concentrated evil of Killer Bob that has been gestating within his doppleganger.

And in the traditional narrative sense, this is where matters would come to a close. Cooper and the gang would sit down for a cup of coffee and catch up on what’s been going on in his absence. Yet this is a different Cooper, a man who wandered for 25 of our years in the ether of another trans-dimensional plane, acquiring knowledge that we only see hints of in the final few hours. When he turns to the assembled supporting characters after Bob has been defeated, the determination in his demeanor is both reassuring and eerily reminiscent of that which he assumed before entering the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2. Dale Cooper has always been in possession of a questing intellect and spirit, the living embodiment of the love of mysteries that Lynch so treasures. It’s no mistake that his first scene of TWIN PEAKS’s original regular, post-pilot run (quoted at the beginning of this essay) established Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy brothers, the greatest boomer nostalgia mysteries, as his deepest preoccupations, cultural riddles that might never fully be solved, but which can be longed for in a Gatsby-like reverie. 

The Cooper of THE RETURN has carried this searching impulse beyond this vale, and something has changed within him as a result. When in a beguiling, enigmatic moment, his face is superimposed over the action, stating “We live inside a dream” in slow motion before he bids his friends and associates a farewell, it begs the obvious question: who is the dreamer? And what is the dream? The answer to his overriding intent is similarly stunning: a voyage into the past to correct prevent the death of Laura Palmer. Even though his old nemesis Windom Earle is never mentioned in this season, this is still the Cooper who lived with the sometimes crippling regret over his role in the death of Earle’s wife Caroline, a regret that possibly led to his entrapment within the Black Lodge all those years ago. To see him attempt to rewrite Laura Palmer’s history is a moving set of circumstances, yet also one tinged with the cataclysmic.

How much of this is to be taken literally, as Cooper repeating his own history of trying to atone for the past, and how much as Lynch and Frost commenting on the dangers of traversing our memories in search of resolution that does not and cannot exist? And what of the eerie love scene between Cooper and Diane, a passage that recalls similar sequences in LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, in which characters reach climaxes of ecstatic connection only to be driven apart by forces beyond their control (and in which characters are, intentionally or not, playing roles)? In the show’s haunting final scene, Cooper finds Laura alive, in a different guise, and yet his attempt to reunite her with her mother Sarah (who is apparently possessed by….what?) is met with someone else residing in casa de Palmer. The ensuing references to the names Tremond and Chalfont are a sharp callback to the ill-fated investigation of Chester Desmond in FIRE WALK WITH ME. The role of Alice Tremond being played by the real life owner of the Palmer house almost turns Cooper and Laura into yet more Twin Peaks tourists.

It’s the final line of the series (Cooper’s blank “What year is this?”) that lends the scene its primal power, his slightly stooped gait and the attendant electrical buzzing (which has always indicated a connection to the netherworld of the Lodges) indicating that his intent is to give this just one…more…try. Laura’s shriek upon hearing her Sarah’s ghostly voice from the morning after he death, a scream that douses the lights on the house and the show itself seems to offer a definitive statement about the possibility of making this all right again. Notice also the scene that plays under the credits, a replay of the replay of Laura whispering in Cooper's ear. In Episode 2 of the original series, Cooper's aging face was graced by a sense of delight and curiosity as she told him the secret that would eventually unlock the case. But in this version, his face carries with it a look of concern, almost of terror. What are those words that cause him such consternation?

This ending also refuses to resolve the show in a way that, to use a popular modern parlance, sticks the landing. But TWIN PEAKS has never really been about symmetric plot resolution. For decades, fans clamored for the possibilities inherent in a PEAKS on cable tv, unfettered by the strictures of network television. They might have forgotten that some of their most cherished aspects of the show were derived from those network strictures. And they might have ignored the progression of David Lynch’s artistic muse in the ensuing years. 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE (which might end up being his final theatrical feature) looks more and more like a proper template for this new series, a twisting narrative and mood pieces about Hollywood, artifice, doom, and transformation.

Lynch has always been very forthright about his love for creating a mood over that of a perfectly formed narrative, a sensibility deeply rooted in his background as an expressionist painter. In TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, he explored this sense of mood to its fullest, even to the end. Some mysteries were solved, but there will always be new mysteries to take their place. Living vicariously through Dale Cooper requires one to be open to the outer reaches of existence, even if that territory is one laden with an infinite night. Taking the ride with David Lynch requires a similar sense of true adventure, with all the risk that comes with it.

Ultimately, I struggle to come to terms with TWIN PEAKS in the confines of a single essay. My immediate reaction after Episode 18 was “But…but there has to be more!” And maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t. But the mysteries remain. And the mysteries are what drive us forward. Because in the end, there’s no going back.   


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