The Road to Twin Peaks: Thoughts on The Return So Far

We’re now almost exactly half-way through Twin Peaks: The Return. The absence of a new episode last week has allowed for unhurried reflection on what we’ve experienced so far, so I thought it would be a shame not to at least try to articulate some of my thoughts. But where to begin? How about with that all-important connective tissue between the original series and The Return, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… One of the most memorable pieces of dialogue from the film is between Laura Palmer and her best friend, Donna Hayward:

Donna: Do you think that if you were falling in space… that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
Laura: Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever… And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.

At that point in the film it seems like a welcome reprieve – a momentary glimpse into the mundane everyday – and nothing more than hollow adolescent philosophizing, though the truthful emotional undercurrents are clear. By the film’s end, however, Laura’s line has a lot more significance. Laura is murdered, she ends up in the Black Lodge, and she weeps at being visited by an angel. Just seen on its own out of context, the scene is incredibly powerful.

When Lynch was asked about all this, he gave a typically Lynchian non-answer (and I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory): “It means that the angels came back. Something can go away… and come back.”

After what we’ve experienced so far in Twin Peaks: The Return, this quote of Laura’s seems evermore prophetic. On a macro level, it makes Laura seem legitimately wiser than her years, maybe even omniscient in comparison to the rest of humanity. More on that later.

On the micro level, on the other hand, it gives us a lot to think about with regards to that wonderful scene that opens episode 3 of The Return. Yes, the one with the woman with no eyes who has to switch off a bell-shaped piece of electric equipment atop a box that’s floating through space. She falls. Presumably, what we didn’t see next, is that she goes faster and faster, eventually bursting into eternal flame. What does that mean? Maybe she becomes a demon or a monster of some kind? Maybe that’s her now, banging outside the door? Her replacement does refer to the scary sound as “my mother,” after all. It’s the circle of life, Lynch-style. (Incidentally, her “replacement” is played by Phoebe Augustine, the same actress who played Ronette Pulaski – who survived the attack that killed Laura – in Fire Walk With Me.)

But let’s go back to the angels for a moment. Lynch deals with the idea to a degree throughout his work, though the most explicit portrayal is in the aforementioned encounter in Fire Walk With Me. However, he does tread a very similar line across many of his films – John Merrick’s vision of his mother as he dies at the end of The Elephant Man, for example, the eventual arrival of the Good Witch (played by Sheryl Lee a.k.a. Laura Palmer) in Wild At Heart, and even, one might argue, the Lady In The Radiator in Eraserhead. What’s that song she sings, again?

The point of this is that Lynch is often thought of as purveyor of nightmares, but throughout his work he has been obsessed not just with the darkness, but lightness too. And how can you have one without the other?

This is what I wrote after just seeing the first two episodes: “I’ve fallen in love with David Lynch all over again after just the first two episodes. It wasn’t at all what I expected/hoped for/dreaded. But it’s better than I could imagine. It’s perfection. Beautiful. Hypnotic. Meditation. This is pure Lynch. This is his epic. There are nods to Eraserhead, Wild At Heart, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, his early shorts, and even Mulholland Drive – but it never feels reductive or cynical.”

Years ago, I wrote a (not very good) essay about duality in the work of Lynch. It was titled Apple Pies and A-Bombs, a tribute to the fact that what inspired much of the art he is known for today is that he grew up in the post-atomic era. A time when conflicting aspects of 20th century Americana were wrote larger than life in the collective consciousness. This idea of mirroring and opposites has been present throughout his work, from the cult (it’s the very basis of Blue Velvet, the genesis according to Lynch was that though small town America seems idyllic, you never know what horrors are going on behind closed doors) to the unfairly maligned blockbuster (the internal struggle between masculinity and femininity of Paul Atreides in Lynch’s Dune).

But duality has always been a central theme in Twin Peaks. For starters, it’s right there in the title. And the original’s title sequence too – there’s that glorious shot of the Great Northern Hotel perched atop a waterfall where two distinct cascades of water merge into one. Digging deeper, there’s the contrast between Laura’s two personas, her bad boy boyfriend Bobby and goodie-two shoes best friend Donna, and the simultaneous grief and rage of Leyland Palmer, her father, possessed by Bob. The theme is compounded in The Return too, most noticeably with the two Coopers (Dale/Dougie and Mr. C).

All this to say, it gave me a certain fanboy glee, having studied Lynch’s work all these years, to see him in character as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole sitting in his office in front of a large canvas print of a mushroom cloud. That glee, of course, became electric once we had an actual shot of said explosion in the most recently-aired episode, Gotta light?

So let’s tie all this together lest we continue down endless rabbit holes (something I rather think Lynch would encourage). How does the angel fit into all of this? For better or worse, it’s an accessible symbol of Good. And Twin Peaks: The Return is set in a world where there’s a battle between Good and Evil.

(That’s not all it’s about, of course – there’s a reason Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost are adamant this series isn’t referred to as Season Three or even Twin Peaks: The Revival – it’s because it is about The Return of Special Agent Dale Cooper who has been lost to the Black Lodge for the past 25 years. The short shrift the series has thus far given the townsfolk of the original series should be viewed similarly – just as Cooper is on a journey back to Twin Peaks, so are we. We must endure these disorienting horrors in order to earn the Good Life we seek.)

Episode 8 where this whole thing comes to a head thematically. Much has been said by others already how the episode is in effect an origin story of Bob. Personally, I’d argue that it’s as much an origin story of Lynch himself. We’re witnessing Lynch’s self-portrait of his own creation. There’s definitely some similarities to the opening “fertilization” of Eraserhead, and although the timing doesn’t quite work, it could be seen as lining up to baby Lynch in utero. This masterpiece is tied to his own life story and creativity.

Of course, in the world of Lynch as in reality, things are never so starkly simple as Good and Evil. There are multiple shades of grey in-between. And if the Black Lodge is meant to symbolize some sort of Heaven or Hell, it’s clear that it is both and neither. We’ve had multiple hellish visions of it, yes, but there both good and evil people dwelling within. Laura herself is both – saintful and horrific – and there’s once again the duality of the malicious Man From Another Place a.k.a. The Arm and Cooper’s “spirit guide” Mike/Phillip Michael Gerard. (Yet further duality thanks to the constant references to David Bowie’s character, Phillip Jeffries. Now wouldn’t it be great if he made a top secret appearance?)

Where am I going with this? The Orbs, of course. After the atom bomb detonates, we are witness to the birthing of two orbs containing faces we recognize: Bob and Laura Palmer. Following the genesis of the Bob orb, we eventually come to that terrifying sequence that gives the episode its name, as we follow along another clear embodiment of evil, The Woodsman. For more on this strand, I highly recommend you read this entry from Mubi’s Notebook – along with every other recap of The Return that Keith Uhlich has written. They’re incredible.

But what of the Laura orb? There has been precious little speculation on that. My crackpot theory is that she’s from the Black Lodge. When she dies, she returns there, and an angel greets her and she is happy. Crazy? Not when you consider the ascending orb we all witnessed following the fatal hit and run in Episode 6. And let’s not forget that other large picture that adorns Director Cole’s office: a portrait of Franz Kafka. Lynch’s work has often been described as Kafkaesque, most notably in regards to Lost Highway, the psychological fugue in which Bill Pullman wakes up one day as Balthazar Getty, akin to how Gregor Samsa transforms into a giant insect in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Keep that in mind when you think about the ugly bug thing that crawls into the girl’s mouth in Episode 8.

Laura, we already know, is the embodiment of conflicting natures – purity and sin – and where else have we seen that before? Very recently? And before, repeatedly? In her mother, Sarah Palmer. Watching violent nature documentaries, and simultaneously being repulsed and aroused by them. So here’s my crazy crackpot theory – get your gold shovels at the ready! The actress that plays her is Grace Zabriskie. She would have been 15 years old in 1956, which seems a fit for the Girl we see in the 1956 sequence of Episode 8. Maybe the “bug” we saw crawl into the Girl’s mouth was born of the Laura orb, and the Girl is young Sarah Palmer. It’s an ugly, evil, conflicted mess of a creature, but in using the evil acts of The Woodsman, who effectively hypnotizes an entire town in order allow this creature to find sanctuary in this chaste young woman, it’s taking its first step along a path towards transcendence – towards goodness. But it cannot get there without the aid of evil. That sounds heavy handed when you think of it in context of the evil of the atom bomb, but it brought about the end of a world war. But likewise too is the heavy-handedness of this entire concept – Good and Evil and Angels and Demons – it all reeks of the prevailing mythology of Western culture. (And people claim Lynch is inaccessible – he’s bending over backwards here!) Point is, here: Good and Evil are one and the same.

So maybe that’s what this is all about – the unyielding human pursuit of utter contentment, a quest for enlightenment. But there is always darkness and evil in the world. Even Laura could not avoid it. No-one in Twin Peaks can. But there are those who seem a lot closer to “enlightenment” than others. People who have experienced trying times, but by embracing normality, doing their best to be good neighbors, live positive lives, living fairly mundane and unspectacular existences. We’ve seen several of them already in The Return. Andy and Lucy, for sure, but I’d say it’s Bobby whom it filters through most brightly – he’s abandoned his wayward youth ways and become an upstanding citizen – a cop, no less – and even in the very limited screen time he’s had so far, the moment when he sees the photo of Laura and the familiar melody swells… You cannot deny the power of that moment. Bobby and others like him have, despite the horrors they encountered in the show’s original run, found normality and continued with their own lives, finding something fairly close to happiness, but all only too aware that darkness still lurks all around them.

Life is a journey. And Twin Peaks: The Return is right up there. The Empire review of the first two episodes deadpanned “Oh, did you think this would be a comforting nostalgia-fest? Did you think you’d get to hang out with Coop and Bobby and Audrey and feel like it was 1990 again?” As I said before, I’m not sure what I expected. But I know a lot of people did expect just that, and they’ve been roundly disappointed. But I’m confident, if they remain faithful, they’ll get what they crave. Just as the bug/Laura eventually found Happiness, so will they. But right now our fate is tied to that of Cooper/Dougie Jones. He’s on a trying journey in search of his own happiness – Twin Peaks. He’ll get there eventually, and so will we. Then he and us, together, can relish in the nostalgic charms of the idyllic small American town and pretend that there aren’t any unspeakable horrors going on behind closed doors. And finally, finally enjoy a damn good cup of coffee – and hot too.

Or, as Dougie would say, “Hot too.”

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