Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Warning: Spoilers for Twin Peaks: The Return below.
The eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the greatest hours of television I’ve ever seen: horrifying, horrifyingly beautiful, thought-provoking and thought-annihilating; a work that owes as much to expressionistic and surreal painting, musical performance, and installation art as it does to narrative and experimental cinema. Though it initially appears to be uncoupled from the show’s main story line, on second viewing, it plays more like an extended parenthetical or interlude, almost like a live storyteller’s fourth-wall-breaking aside to the audience. Among other things, “Part 8” allows the series to present an elaborate, visually and sonically dazzling origin story, not so much for the demon BOB (represented by stylized images of the face of Frank Silva, the late actor who played him in the original series) but for the postwar United States of America. That’s not all it’s doing — I would not be surprised if entire books were written about this one hour — but it’s what I’m going to touch on here, as a prelude to revisiting the episode again later this week.
Before I go any further, I should offer the standard caveat. When I’m writing about Twin Peaks: The Return, I’m not trying to “explain” anything. I’m just transcribing my train of thought after watching the show. I don’t know (or care) if anything that David Lynch and Mark Frost & Co. are doing is intentional, and I doubt either of them mean for the work to be decoded or “solved” by recappers or Redditors like algebra equations. That’s not to say there’s no internal logic to the show, or that Lynch and Frost are just futzing around and burning through Showtime’s money; I do think the series is unquestionably more radical than the original, as well it had to be, given that 25 years have elapsed, producing dozens of notable series that were partly inspired by Twin Peaks, including The Sopranos, Carnivale, The X-Files, Lost, The Leftovers, Hannibal, Riverdale, and American Gods, to name just a few. As the show has unfurled — at a daringly measured pace, paying scant attention to cast members from the original series, save Kyle MacLachlan and a handful of regulars in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department — it has gradually coalesced into something that “makes sense” and “tells a story,” though not in a way that we’ve been conditioned to expect. All that being said, a big part of what makes the new Twin Peaks so exhilarating is the way it forces us to watch television differently, process story and images differently, and look inward (toward our own thoughts and experiences) to figure out what happened and what it means, rather than looking outward toward the hive mind of social media. As I wrote after the show debuted, Lynch and Frost are rewiring our brains.
I’m going to concentrate on the meaning of the atomic bomb here, mainly because I’m so dazzled by it that I can’t mount a coherent response to the rest of the episode, a largely black-and-white trip into painterly horror that feels, even more so than in the show’s first few episodes, that Lynch has come full circle to his roots as a primarily experimental filmmaker.
Throughout the late 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, the United States was presented in popular culture and by much of the mainstream press as a placid, even plasticized surface, even though its depths roiled with discontent, discrimination, institutionalized violence, and an insidiously bland sort of greed. Lynch is not normally thought of as a political filmmaker, and he might yawn in the face of any interviewer who dared suggest such a thing, but his entire career has been filled with signature images that feel like distilled, iconic statements about modern life in general, American life specifically. His very first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead (which was visually referenced in the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return and was referenced again in “Part 8”), had more to say about American sexual shame, emasculation, and the withering of the mid-20th-century, industry-driven city as any number of earnest essays in The New York Review of Books, but because such commentary seemed incidental (that is, embedded in the images and situations), the film was treated more as an exercise in pure dream logic — which it absolutely was, of course. Lynch revisited those same ideas in 1986’s Blue Velvet, which opens by craning down beneath a small town suburban lawn with a white picket fence and roses to reveal hordes of beetles writhing underneath. We might want to look at “Part 8” as a daringly extended cousin of that Blue Velvet opening, connecting the cycles of history and public life with the lives of individual characters. After all, much of Lynch’s work is driven by secrets that are held tight because the secret-keeper can’t bear to confront their horrible reality.
The most startling flashback in the history of American television is the one that takes us from a black screen to the first successful test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. (Lynch and Frost make sure to note the time as well.) It might or might not be significant that the first detonation was code named Trinity, and this series is built around a trinity of Dale Cooper figures: the BOB-possessed Coop, the “good” Coop who’s been trapped in the Black Lodge for 25 years, and Dougie Jones, an outwardly ordinary executive at a Las Vegas insurance firm who, in the Lynch tradition of beetles beneath green lawns, secretly has a mistress and a prodigious gambling problem. The mushroom cloud (CGI, not stock footage) is observed from a high, moving angle. This vantage point takes a godlike view of humanity assuming the power of a god, initiating a military-industrial complex Frankenstein narrative. The music, significantly, is Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” an “unorthodox, largely symbol-based score” that “sometimes directs the musicians to play at various unspecific points in their range or to concentrate on certain textural effects.” (Rather like Twin Peaks itself.) Bits of Penderecki’s piece have been used in other genre works with a strong horror component, notably Children of Men, The People Under the Stairs, and The Shining.
That last film is notable because of the Stanley Kubrick connection. The section following the bomb blast is structured as an homage to the “Stargate” sequence that ends Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. That work and this one are both so clearly concerned with ideas of evolution (and the role of weapons in furthering evolution) that it’s safe to say that Lynch is leaning into the comparison. Confidently, too.
It is the highest praise to say that, of all the filmmakers who’ve referenced the final section of 2001, Lynch seems to me the only one to have created something that equals it even as it humbly bows to its example. The post-bomb sequence takes us through what appears to be a series of tunnels, some comprised of nuclear hellfire but others of a more tantalizingly organic texture (as if to literalize the idea, expressed in Kubrick’s tunnels of light, that humanity was “reborn” after 1945). The use of the bomb claimed hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, and was justified retroactively as necessary to make Japan surrender, but even in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, historians, tacticians, philosophers, and pundits questioned whether any strategic objective could justify unleashing a genocidal monstrosity of science, the likes of which not even the prophet Mary Shelley could have imagined.
The episode is filled with figures and creatures that seemed to have slithered out of primordial ooze even as their appearance is accompanied by electronic or electrical distortion noises (notably, David Lynch serves as his own sound designer on this series). The post-bomb sequences feel like a nightmare of Eisenhower/Kennedy–era American hypocrisy, with the proverbial chickens of the atomic age coming home to roost via a series of invasive and brutal acts, perpetrated against oblivious Americans in small town or suburban settings. (Speaking of chickens: See Eraserhead’s chicken baby.) They’re just going about their business, working in soda shops and enjoying innocent dates and broadcasting songs at a Podunk radio station, while unbeknownst to them a hideous evil unleashed by the bomb is secretly creeping up on them, preparing to squeeze the blood and brains from their heads, crawl inside their sleeping mouths, or (in the case of the coffee-shop waitress) knock them unconscious with Lynchian record-skip noises and incantations broadcast over the same airwaves that previously offered golden oldies.
The mind-bending climax of the episode intertwines images of the “got a light?” guy invading the radio station and crushing employees’ skulls with shots of a hideous frog-cockroach hybrid, seemingly hatched from an egg on the nuked salt flats of New Mexico. Both narratives of creeping violence have the feel of a curse being visited upon a society that tacitly condoned one of history’s greatest sins, nodding to a rich tradition of post–World War II science-fiction cinema in which monsters birthed by atom bomb tests (and other scientific or military experiments that were essentially stand-ins for atom bomb tests) menaced teenagers and their adult guardians in Norman Rockwellian small towns and suburbs. The final section is also redolent of William Butler Yeats’s much-quoted poem “The Second Coming,” which ends with:
“The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Yeats wrote that poem in 1919 as a response to the then-unprecedented horrors of World War I. This episode feels at times like a cousin to Yeats’s poem, its arrival delayed by nearly a century, conceived and directed by a couple of influential baby-boomer artists who’ve spent much of their adult lives in a land of plenty, enjoying its fruits while remaining aware, consciously and unconsciously, of the monsters that have always lurked beneath the nation’s cheery surface. A friend once grimly joked that the history of the United States is the plot of many of its ghost stories: The place was built atop an old Native-American burial ground, and they moved the grave markers but not the bodies. No specific American outrage is name-checked in “Part 8” besides the invention and use of the atom bomb, but the karmically inflicted bloodbath that coats the screen in the episode’s final 15 minutes feels like payback for any manner of sins, from Native-American genocide to slavery to Jim Crow — a collective uprising against the adorable white folks for whom Lynch has demonstrated both instinctive affection and deep distrust throughout his career. (That the killers in Lynch’s films are always played by white men cements the feeling of karmic payback. As Walt Kelly memorably said in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”) The final season of David Chase’s Lynch-obsessed The Sopranos also quoted Yeats and was likewise a reckoning with boomer indulgence and American moral and imperial decline, but Lynch and Frost have dug into that notion in much purer, more mysterious and terrifying way, drilling into the collective subconscious and drawing up a series of images that scar the mind. The dream monsters have escaped the dreaming mind, and their prayer is to linger with you.