Twin Peaks: The Return Is Riveting, Horrifying, and Patience-Taxing

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David Lynch as Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks: The Return. Photo: Showtime

The return of Twin Peaks went more or less as I anticipated, given how series co-creator David Lynch has developed as a filmmaker since the original series aired. Sunday night’s premiere was two hours of what a friend called “pure, uncut, post–Mulholland Drive, mind-fucking, T.S. Eliot-‘I-will-show-you-fear-in-a-handful-of-dust’ David Lynch.”

By which I mean, this is the Lynch who made his debut 40 years ago with Eraserhead, a black-and-white nightmare set in a hellish industrial landscape about a man caring for an infant who looks like a reptilian spermatozoa. This is also the David Lynch who directed Lost Highway, in which a man convicted of murdering his wife is transformed without explanation into an auto mechanic who has a torrid affair with a gangster’s mistress; the identity swap is never explained, nor is the fact that the murdered wife and the gangster’s mistress are played by the same actress. This is the same Lynch who has never not been an experimental filmmaker, even when making the gentle drama The Straight Story, about an old man driving a tractor to visit his dying brother — a film that only feels “accessible” in relation to the rest of Lynch, and that would have been considered radically austere had almost anyone else directed it.

This is Lynch the experimental filmmaker — the filmmaker Lynch has always been.

We were reminded of this Sunday night via two hours of sumptuously photographed, obtuse, patience-taxing, and sometimes demonically horrifying imagery that I’ll bet single-handedly destroyed the nostalgic goodwill that had accrued since the show was announced. Some may have tuned into this thing expecting coffee and donuts and pie and sexy young people dancing in front of jukeboxes and riding motorcycles through the woods and eccentric character actors bantering, plus the occasional dream or nightmare or a bit of nonsensical plotting. Instead, they got two hours of Lynch’s 2002 short film series Rabbits. “Running swollen blue feet. Tearing. Scraping. Black. Old. Blood. Yellow. Saliva,” proclaims the humanoid rabbit patriarch, reciting poetry in a sitcom living room.

The first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return were less a direct continuation of the Twin Peaks narrative (a show that was never interested in narrative in the first place, except as a means to play around with images and situations) than a series of experimental short films on Twin Peaks themes. I’m sure they’ll cohere somewhat, eventually, over 18 hours; Lynch is once again partnered with writer-producer Mark Frost, who gave a semblance of shape to Lynch’s aesthetic.

But fans of accessible, charming linear narratives should not get their hopes up. Right after the premiere ended, I drank a couple of caffeinated beverages and watched the next two episodes, which are available through the Showtime app and on Amazon and Hulu via a Showtime add-on. I was riveted — I highly recommend watching this show on the largest screen possible, in dark room, with no interruptions. But I didn’t see much evidence that the new Twin Peaks is going to pivot anytime soon and turn into the show that people remember, or think they remember. The first 15 minutes of the third episode — a confrontation in the Black Lodge between Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and a series of women, one of whom has sealed-over eyes — ranks with the purest, strangest filmmaking of Lynch’s career. (It’s also intriguingly similar to the opening of Eraserhead — at once knowingly chintzy and grandiose, endearing and unsettling.)

It was alienating and frustrating to see Lynch and Frost be so miserly with returning original characters (including Michael Horse’s Deputy Hawk, who now sports a magnificent Gandalf-like mane of white hair, and the Log Lady, played by Catherine Coulson, whose scenes were shot prior to her death from cancer in 2015) and so generous with new characters we have no reason to care about yet (including a group of unfortunate folks overseeing a “glass box” dimensional portal in New York City, a BOB-esque murder in South Dakota, and a lot of repetitive scenes starring MacLachlan as Cooper’s doppelgänger, a long-haired, leather-jacketed Frank Booth type).

There’s an implied story line buried in there — something to do with Cooper, whose spirit was imprisoned in the Black Lodge at the end of the original series, trying to get out, presumably to stop his doppelgänger from wreaking more havoc. The glimpse of a sooty black creature in a cell adjacent to the South Dakota murderer (Matthew Lillard) suggests that there are more demons on the other side of the dimensional portal than just BOB. But then again, perhaps that creature is also BOB? Maybe every murderous demon is a manifestation of the same dark force, something akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s over-soul, only evil? (The OverBOB?) I don’t know; your guess is as good as mine.

The violence is hideous and disturbing, as is Lynch’s wont. That thing that came out of the glass box and seemed to shred or eat the couple making out on the couch seemed like a metaphor for what this series was going to do, psychically, to anyone who mistakenly assumed it was a bit of light background entertainment. (This same couple showed up intact later on, in a scene where Cooper apparently tries and fails to escape the Black Lodge — was that second appearance a time loop, an alternate timeline, a flashback, or what?) As has always been the case with Lynch, there’s a pervasive sense of patriarchal entitlement run amok. His work is filled with toxic middle-aged father figures who hold younger women as sexual hostages (though sometimes the dynamic is reversed). The central atrocity of the original Twin Peaks is the best-known example, but there are examples in Blue Velvet and Lost Highway as well. In Lynch land, the same relationships that we’re told constitute the infrastructure of a functioning society are presented as poisonous black vines strangling nearly everyone. Abuse of the sacred trust between parent and child often gets folded into taboo sexual relationships of other kinds. Incest, sexual exploitation, rape, and domestic violence are commonplace and share screen time with innocence and wonder.

It’s often impossible to tell how seriously Lynch is taking this sort of stuff — if he’s deploying it mainly for shock effect (as seems to be the case with the prolonged hotel room murder in the show’s second hour, a sub–Stephen King bit of sadism) or if he’s sincerely working through his own demons, or someone else’s, in the only way he knows how. It’s also unclear which of the prolonged, sound-and-light driven set pieces in the premiere were meant to push the narrative in a certain direction or which were meant as daringly self-contained spectacles that exist mainly so that we can argue about what they meant and whether they were brilliant, indulgent or something else. (More likely the latter, and there are plenty more where they came from.)

Regardless, it became clear early in the first hour that this wasn’t going to be the sort of show you can half-watch while doing other things, nor was it the sort of show that rewards certified public accountant–style fanboy viewing, where you add up all the clues and then announce on Reddit that you’ve “figured it out.” It still seems a dark miracle that Lynch was ever popular, but it’s worth acknowledging that for artists like Lynch, “popularity” is relative. His brief window as a phenomenon lasted from approximately 1986, when Blue Velvet came out, through 1991, when the original Twin Peaks was canceled. His most popular feature films, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, made, respectively, $26 million, $8.6 million, and $20 million at the box office. Those are impressive numbers for surrealist/expressionist movies driven by images and sounds (often dreamlike or aggressively unpleasant ones) and that seem uninterested in being liked, but they aren’t totals that made studios write blank checks (a scenario that has happened only twice in Lynch’s career, on Dune and Twin Peaks: The Return). There’s a reason why Lynch has been nominated three times for a Best Director Oscar, but only once for Best Picture (36 years ago for The Elephant Man): His colleagues can’t help being impressed, maybe awed, at the extremes to which he pushes the medium, but it’s less a case of Lynch’s peers clapping him on the back and saying “attaboy” than something more akin to them periodically dropping a gold statue into the maw of a volcano as tribute to a dark sorcerer whose powers and motives they can’t comprehend.

All in all, the new Twin Peaks reminded me of the experience of watching Stan Brakhage’s experimental films projected in a small Brooklyn cinema a few years ago as they were meant to be seen: in silent 16mm, with two projectors going at once and no music, unless you counted the rhythmic, faintly Lynchian industrial noise created by the projectors running in tandem. Brakhage was a filmmaker who did in-camera superimpositions, scratched and drew on the film, and did all sorts of other things to create ribbons of abstraction that told implied stories (sometimes about his own life, sometimes about the life of the species) through mythological and hallucinatory imagery. The turnout was quite good: 50, maybe 60 people. Half the audience walked out at the first intermission, and by the end there were maybe a dozen of us left. It was one of the most profound moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, though whether I would’ve been able to sit through all four hours of it without assistance from pot brownies is an open question. I bet Stan Brakhage would have liked the new Twin Peaks. I also bet that the majority of people tuning into the new Twin Peaks don’t want the 2017 equivalent of a Stan Brakhage film for TV. The joke’s on them, or on me, or maybe it’s on Lynch; I don’t know. The owls are not what they seem.

Twin Peaks Is Riveting, Horrifying, and Patience-Taxing