Sunday 26 April 2020

Twin Peaks: The Return

The original two series of Twin Peaks were good fun. Yes, at the start of the 1990s a series about a dead woman who'd experienced child abuse, rape, forced prostitution and was finally murdered was the stuff of light hearted entertainment. And I suppose this was one of the many layers of commentary on Americana David Lynch wanted to get out there. Subsequently having acquired a formidable, critically acclaimed reputation and widely known for being completely weird, the two seasons of Twin Peaks - broadcast in 1990 and 1991 - every trope of American film, television, literature, and Forteana can be found. The police procedural. Homecoming queens. Leather studded, um, studs. Corrupt business on the make. The diner. Jazz. Civil war re-enactment. Aliens. Social outcasts and jocks. Sawmills. Superpowers. Therapy. The great outdoors. Coffee and cherry pie. Damsels in distress, military secrets, organised crime. You watch Twin Peaks and all of America is there. Or, to be more accurate, all of white middle America.

Then, following the prequel film, 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me it went away for 25 years. After all, upon entering the infamous Black Lodge, Agent Dale Cooper was told by the deceased Laura Palmer that he wouldn't see her for another quarter of a century. By fortuitous happenstance, 2017 was when the long-awaited season three finally appeared, giving the impression this was a plan long in gestation. Reflective of the darker tone taken in culture and politics since, Twin Peaks: The Return is violent, coarse, and disturbing. It thinks nothing of blowing people's heads off, running over a six-year-old child, crushing skulls, and littering the place with mutilated bodies. Swearing is in, sex scenes are in, psychological torture is in. Yet while moving with the times by accepting what is accepted in contemporaneous "serious" television, like its predecessor series Lynch employs tropes and devices that increase the weird quotient, making the whole thing more absurd, contrived, and compulsorily watchable. Its weird is a weird entirely appropriate to the interregnum between the economic crash and the global pandemic.

I'm not particularly interested in providing a plot overview. There are plenty available if a summary is what you require. Instead, I want to tease out a few themes (easily, The Return has enough goodies to fill several learned tomes). The first is its most jarring aspect: the male centeredness of the narrative. In a decade where virtually all the acclaimed TV serials have prominently featured female characters, as brilliant as this is it seems somewhat out of place. Agent Cooper (Coop), his doppelgänger (evil Coop),and secondary characters Gordon, Hawk, Sheriff Truman, Andy, Bobby, even the Fireman (AKA The Giant) and MIKE (stuck in the Black Lodge) are the ones who force the pace, make things happen, move on the plot. Women are so often accessories, showing no more agency than Mandie, Sandie, and Candie, the cocktail waitress attendants to the Mitchum brothers. Audrey Horne is foil for her husband's gaslighting, Tammy is on hand to accompany Gordon and Albert on their investigation, Nadine listens to Dr Jacoby's conspiranoid rantings and is convinced to let Ed pursue his much-frustrated relationship with Norma, and even Judy - the big negative responsible for BOB, evil Coop, and everything bad in the show, seldom features. Her host, Sarah Palmer, spends her life smoking, drinking, watching old TV, and having meltdowns. The only two points of decision she makes is killing a random in a bar seemingly determined to assault Sarah following a diatribe of misogynistic abuse, and spiriting Laura Palmer away when Coop travels back in time (yes) to save her from her murder. This is only partially contradicted by side characters. Janey-E has to care for a semi-comatose Coop/Dougie (of which more shortly), and is able to buy off a bunch of thugs looking to kill him over gambling debts. Lucy shoots evil Coop as he pulls a gun on Sheriff Truman. Even the addition of Diane as a supposedly heavy-weight (and canon-critical) character doesn't break the pattern. Going from the recipient of Coop's daily recordings in the first two seasons, we learn she was raped by evil Coop, turns out to be a Black Lodge construct designed to assassinate Gordon, and when the real Diane is retrieved her identity is erased by her and Coop's passage into the alternate reality (Linda to his Richard), and then altogether from the story as she flees his hotel room following the series' most unsettling sex scene. Only her absence makes Coop's mission to find this reality's Laura Palmer possible.

Since the breakthrough of Blue Velvet, Lynch has been hailed as the archetypal postmodern film-maker. Pastiche, unreliable narrative, the subverting of cinematic convention, over-the-top auteurship, The Return amps up the pomo long after becoming passé itself and yet deploys it so it becomes something postmodernism should never really be: fresh. Albeit a freshness that simultaneously, and paradoxically, invokes nostalgia for the original series and its multiple disruptions. With Twin Peaks you know you're getting a helping of American weird, but here we also get a lot of the mundane. Awkward pauses and silences are in. Sequences where very little happens without any dialogue. Eating, making breakfast, swatting a fly. And scenes that are deliberately uncomfortable and don't go anywhere. Audrey's arguments with her husband are overlong to the point of cruelty, as if to mark off the naive, lively teenaged Audrey of 25 years previously from a fatal outcome of middle-aged disappointment and neurosis. While incidental to the story, Lynch does place Audrey in the Road House to reprise her famous dance. Other stories that don't go anywhere are a persistent feature of most episodes too. The bar is usually the scene for conversations between characters who appear just for a chat, and then are never seen again. Their concerns and gossip are left hanging - a glimpse then into the lives of extras? However, this is Twin Peaks and the background, the unthought and tacit doxa of the everyday is as much part of the characters as it is for the fleshiness and sociality of real life. For example, whereas Shelly was plot critical in the original series here she's still working at Norma's diner and is regularly fleeced by her daughter to support her and her husband's drug habit. As we explore their troubled relationship, which apparently ends after he seemingly shoots himself under a tree, there is nothing outside of it. Their rows and implied domestic abuse is a foil for nothing. It simply is. The same can be said for the benign and hokey back and forth between Lucy and Andy, Nadine's appreciation of Dr Jacoby, and Ben's relationship with his new Great Northern's secretary, Beverley.

Small, unfinished stories hang from the Twin Peaks tree, but Lynch is no stranger to indulging a love for artifice either. Characters come and go whose existence is very obviously just to move the plot along. Freddie fits this device to a tee, and revels in his mysterious destiny. A new face, he's introduced in episode 14 as a security guard at the Great Northern Hotel. He also happens to wear a rubber glove. According to the story he relates to James, he was instructed (by the Fireman) to go to a store and purchase an opened pack and buy the sole glove therein. He does so, puts it on but finds he cannot take it off. It's also conferred him super strength, which he later uses to put two guys in intensive care and bust open his cell door. Freddie is also on hand after Lucy shoots evil Coop and the spirit of BOB emerges. They get into a fight and the glove lets Freddie smash him to pieces. Presumably, Frost and Lynch were wondering how they could kill off the town's nemesis. Why not via a very simple and very obviously grafted-on character?

Perhaps Lynch's most audacious move is what he does with Cooper. Having resided in the Black Lodge for 25 years, Coop falls back to earth and replaces another doppelgänger - the washed up Dougie Jones, an insurance agent in Las Vegas who was created for the express purpose of providing a place holder for Coop's return. The problem is Coop not only loses his memory in the process, as Dougie he is little more than an automaton. The irony, agent Cooper loses all agency. One of the key aspects of poststructuralist thinking is the decentering of the subject, of a stress on how personhood and individuality is an effect of the structures and discourses that flow in certain directions, discipline bodies, contain and channel potentialities and impose an arbitrary order as if it was the order of things. What then happens if you lay bare these minute determinations and put conceptual personae on screen as dramatis personae? The life of Coop for the majority of the season. Made incapable of most things save for repeating people's words and random scribbles, through a series of prat falls and slapstick Coop, now as Dougie, is able to be a better husband to Janey-E and a better father to Sonny Jim. By following prompts from MIKE he wins over $400,000 in the Mitchum Brothers' casino, mindless scrawls on his case files uncovers an embezzlement sting by a colleague and inadvertently ends up reversing a decision on a $30m policy originally denied to the Mitchums, which then see these mobsters shower gifts on Dougie and his family. At every turn, Dougie/Coop has to be prodded and pushed into doing something which, by pure happenstance, leads to positive outcomes but nevertheless sees him reap the credit despite his being a pure vehicle of other people's actions.

The real agent, of course, is Lynch himself who shared the writing credits with Mark Frost but directed every episode. He was also responsible for the sound design and penning several of the songs to have featured. Additionally, Lynch plays Deputy Director Gordon Cole, an affable and somewhat avuncular comic relief character in the first two series and Fire Walk With Me. In the return his character's stature grows as a leading light in the secret Blue Rose task force, formed after encountering a Black Lodge doppelgänger. Hard of hearing and having his aid cranked up to maximum, he frequently misses what people say and misinterprets. Lynch is also excellent in affecting a permanent bewilderment. In Gordon we have a character hot on the trail of the story and dependent on how events unfold, which belies Lynch's role as actual director and master of ceremonies. This little nod literally explodes in episode eight. For many the standout of this season, this was described as "mind-melting" by the Graun, "one of the greatest hours of television ever made" according to Vulture, and for the New York Times, "There’s nothing to point to in the history of television that helps describe exactly what this episode attempts." These are fair summaries. Most of the episode is a montage of abstract images and crashing, electrical screeching. It begins with the detonation of the first atom bomb, and the camera zooms into the mushroom cloud and subjects us to everything within. Eventually, it resolves to a faceless figure who vomits out a stream of globules, including one with the grinning face of BOB. In a lengthy sequence a convenience store is pictured with blackened woodsmen milling about it in a series of staccato cuts. These events are watched by the Fireman and a 1920s-styled Senorita Dido in their fortress. In a no less abstract sequence the Fireman reposes and levitates, sprouting an orb with Laura Palmer's face which is sent to Earth. Then we shift forward in time to 1956. A woodsman invades a local radio station and kills its inhabitants. Reciting and repeating a short incantation at length, townspeople listening to the show fall unconscious. One of whom is a young woman, whose mouth falls open and a creature - a moth with frog's legs, which we saw hatch and crawl across the New Mexico desert - crawls in.

Asked about this episode, Mike Frost said this was the nearest to an origin story for Twin Peaks we could expect. The furies unleashed by nuclear explosions is a well enough visited literary location, and the suggestion here is this is what birthed the forces of evil. Indeed, it's not spelled out but the young woman was likely Sarah, implying she is responsible for carrying the corruption leading to the abuse and murder of her daughter. The episode is also a signature mark of the Lynchian, having far more in common with experimental cinema and art house than anything mainstream. The black and white presentation heightens the comparison with the surrealist film makers of the 1920s and 30s. But it's also a statement of an artist at the height of their powers. As Bourdieu notes in his conceptual construction of the artistic and literary fields, there are sections of the field adjacent with and closely bound to the structurally dominant fields of the economy and of power. Works produced in this zone of proximity are concerned less with the artistic practice and more commercial reward. The blockbuster film, like Top Gun and its coming sequel, for example. Or the trashy novel, soap operas and sitcoms, the overwhelming bulk of popular music. The further one strays from the proximity of power the more one is concerned with the autonomous stakes of the field, of the cultural capital specific to it. Therefore, the further the trajectory is from the economic the more the disposition (habitus) pursues the profits unique to the art world and subscribes to the illusio of art's for art's sake. The modernist novel and symbolist poetry is emblematic of this: objects produced for niche audiences with culturally specific capital by authors (auteurs) whose works are explicit interventions in the politics and fashions of the field. What Lynch accomplishes with part eight is an act of disembedding. Twin Peaks's reputation is founded on its limited materialisation of postmodern themes: here the limited is freed from its bonds and the indeterminacy of the unsignified and unsignifiable is allowed full reign. Lynch confronts a mass audience with the dark creativity wreaked by atomic blasts, and the commercially repressed creativity of art and image usually the preserve of self-selecting audiences of distinction. And he can do this precisely because his considerable artistic capital is buttressed by a successful career. He uses the rare instance of the confluence of artistic and economic capital to produce something utterly at odds with every TV show convention.

Ultimately, for a many layered and complex show like Twin Peaks it is an episode, a front in the interminable battle between the unambiguously good and the outright evil. This battle, so characteristic of American cinema, kids shows, and its news coverage is the only simple thing about this series. The inevitable elemental conflict ensures there is no closure to the third season, and why a fourth might be in prospect. Even if a sequel is not forthcoming, it doesn't matter. The Return is a fundamentally open work with its many story lines left unresolved and turns inviting speculation and argument. There are any number of rabbit holes for the curious to bolt into. Why not join Twin Peaks fans down one?

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Ben Granger said...

A very interesting overview. No matter how 'problematic' for me this has been the most amazing TV programme ever made. One point - it's Mark not mike Frost.

Phil said...

Thanks for the tip off. Another casualty of too many late nights!

Mark Braund said...

I really enjoyed this Phil. I've been transfixed by Lynch since seeing Eraserhead as a teenager. Nobdody asks questions like he does, or leaves them so satisfyingly unanswered. I've been thinking it's time for a second viewing of The Return, so thanks for giving me a push.