“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.
Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.
During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.
Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?
Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.
Twin Peaks was really the confluence of two distinctive creative forces in the artistic, avant garde auteur (Lynch) and the skilled television writer (Frost) who came out of the celebrated Hill Street Blues stable in the 1980s.
It’s quite remarkable that two such different visionaries managed to pool together their resources and make a product like Twin Peaks, which in many respects is built on the tension between Lynch’s refusal to discuss art and allow eccentric visuals and ideas speak for themselves and Frost’s more grounded instinct to give audiences a sense of understanding. That’s clear across what we now must reference as the original run of Twin Peaks, from 1989 across two seasons and the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me in 1992, where the shorter first season—primarily developed by Frost as Lynch went off to make Wild at Heart—is narratively more coherent than the longer but often listless second year.
It is an experience really of two halves, Twin Peaks, and one suspects what you take from it depends on what interests you from the concoction. Is it the mystery of what happened to Laura Palmer, the beautiful homecoming queen slaughtered by persons unknown, and Dale Cooper’s investigation? Is it the haunting weirdness of the so-called ‘Black Lodge’, with the backwards talking effigy of The Man From Another Place and the terrifying, demonic BOB? Or is the comic escapades of the locals in the town, those connected to Laura’s tragic end (which it turns out most of them aren’t), and those who simply orbit the town and Twin Peaks observes in various melodramatic and intentionally soap opera derived dramas?
For me, it was the mythology and mystery where Twin Peaks compelled, which is perhaps why The Return—the 25 years later revival of the series—became my favourite of the run, simply because it chooses to foreground such internal myth and legend, putting the oddball character drama and comedy in the background as it worked to both tie up and expand the world-building of the many strange questions the original two seasons posed. If those series, constrained by network edicts and television realities of the time, who arguably restrained some of Lynch’s inherent weirdness, often had untapped potential, then The Return across eighteen episodes doubles down entirely on the Lynchian oddness that has characterised much of his cinematic work.
This piece is now going to largely focus on The Return, aka Season 3, simply because that was the piece of event television that really drew me into finally watching Twin Peaks in the first place. There is no doubt that not seeing Twin Peaks leaves any viewer with a blind spot in how they appreciate modern American prestige television—simply because it influenced, if not directly inspired, so much over the last thirty years. But The Return and how enormous a deal it was five years ago when it arrived was something, especially in retrospect, I am sad to have missed the weekly experience of in the manner I enjoyed Lost, or Game of Thrones, and going forward I suspect I am going to enjoy future seasons of Yellowjackets and Severance. Shows with such rich mythological underpinnings don’t come along every day.
There is arguably something different about Twin Peaks, though, even compared to every other television series around it.
There are better series, in my opinion, but nothing quite compares when it comes to surrealist imagery and open-ended plotting, not to mention narrative structure. Many at the time, and since, characterise The Return as a bridge between television and film, and perhaps even categorise it as both simultaneously. Daniel Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter said as much:
I generally bristle at the showrunners who claim their series is a 13- or 22-hour movie, but it’s obvious this Twin Peaks is going to be an 18-hour unit. There was no discernible separation between hours and if credits hadn’t rolled, the second hour could probably just as easily have flowed into the third. This isn’t episodic TV. It’s another thing.
It was written as one large continuous screenplay and broken into episodic chunks, listed originally as Parts before they were later gifted episode titles (and evocative ones at that), and this explains why The Return doesn’t end every episode in a conventional way. Lynch always cuts away to a different famous band performing as the credits roll in almost every part, which surely must be a cheeky nod to infamous corporate network requests over the years for drama series to find a means of incorporating famous bands of the time. That or maybe Lynch just really loves music.
Point being that the lines blurred with The Return as to precisely what it actually was. Sight and Sound ranked it second in their top 10 films of the year, for example. Cahiers du Cinema gave it the top spot. That doesn’t just happen, even if you consider Lynch to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation (and he is certainly unlike anyone else). Fire Walk With Me, which tells the backstory leading up to Laura’s death, swaps out the perky haze of the Washington state’s town’s oddball inhabitants, set to Angelo Badalamenti’s quirky score, for a deeply nihilistic exploration of sexual & domestic abuse and the descent of the ‘girl next door’ into an abyss of vulnerability and exploitation. It was lambasted on release and in recent years has experienced such a cultural reappraisal it even made a Criterion release. People perhaps weren’t ready for the sadness and Garmonbozia of Laura’s last week on earth in a way they are now.
The Return, as a result, faced an enormous challenge. It needed to satisfy decades old Twin Peaks fans, who had dared hope they might learn what happened to Cooper when he was trapped in the Black Lodge as an evil version of him inhabited by BOB, not to mention wonder what became of numerous characters from the town the first two seasons had followed, but it also needed to appeal to new audiences who might wish to jump on board. Lynch, however, showed no real sign he was worried about appeasing newcomers. From the opening part, The Return fully immerses you into the lore and texture of this world once more while expanding it. A remarkable amount of The Return doesn’t actually take place in Twin Peaks at all, which wasn’t the case with the original two seasons. It is unafraid to broaden the canvas.
Going in, everyone who recommended the series, who kept telling me year on year to watch it, would only talk about one episode from The Return: Part 8 aka Gotta Light? That was the one, they said, that stood apart and fried the brain. So often such claims are hyperbole but in this case, they were well-founded. Gotta Light? is the extraordinary standout in a season that ebbs and flows, as Twin Peaks always did, between offbeat character comedy and the deepest of esoteric mythology. Though much of it evades detailed descriptive analysis for certain, as Lynch is unlikely to ever explain anything he does precisely—and may not always understand it himself—what can be drawn from what Lynch has described as an attempt at an ‘origin’ for Twin Peaks is a direct connective between the creation of the atomic bomb and the pervasive release of pure evil which manifests in the killer of Laura Palmer.
Matt Zoller Seitz, who considered the episode one of the finest examples of television in decades, said of the sequence:
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.
It is a dizzying array of imagery, symbolism and just plain unfathomable possibility that poses a great deal more questions than it answers. Frost released, a year before The Return, a book called The Secret History of Twin Peaks which forensically examines the legend of the town alongside American myth-making from the groundbreaking expeditions of Lewis & Clark in the early 19th century through to the modern day, encompassing UFOlogy & plenty of other American arcanum along the way, and none of that tracks with the visual surrealist spectacle that Lynch considers part of the foundation text of, if not the origin of Twin Peaks the town, then some kind of myth-making for the evil that punctuates and shatters it. Gotta Light? blows that wide open while leaving masses available for interpretation.
Ultimately, there is little point in expressly attempting to make sense of Twin Peaks at its most avant-garde (say, the ‘arm’ in the Black Lodge for example), but there are themes, ideas and concepts that can be read from it. As a composite of both the detective drama and the melodramatic soap opera, Peyton Place being an inspiration, Twin Peaks is possibly best seen as an attempt to depict through the town the echoes of a quaint, post-war Americana that the savage murder of Laura rips apart. Everyone in the town becomes a suspect, even though many of them operate only tangentially on the fringes of Laura’s life, but Cooper & the FBI end up following all kinds of leads and dead ends which dig into the personal histories and enmities of the residents rather than find Laura’s killer. Perhaps this is why in Gotta Light?, Lynch goes back to the 1950s as part of the origin for both BOB and the other demonic force Jowday (or Judy). He understands that’s where the core of the show lies.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Twin Peaks debuted in the wake of Reaganite America in the 1980s which had tried to reinstate wholesome family values to American life that recalled the decades before Watergate, or Vietnam, or JFK that had poisoned American belief in government and truth. Yet conversely, crime rates in major cities had spiralled, the media were caught up in the ‘satanic panic’ mass hysteria and some of the most exotic serial killers appeared on the map—such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Richard ‘the Night Stalker’ Ramirez’—to ensure Americans kept their doors locked. BOB is the supernatural construct of that, the terrifying amoral killer creeping into people’s houses, but the gut punch of Twin Peaks was that Laura’s killer came from inside, not outside, of the home. If The X-Files picked up the show’s baton in going out and exposing the dark side of mythical, arcane America, Twin Peaks found it by travelling inward. Laura Palmer wasn’t just killed by her father but by the neglect of everyone around her. It’s a tragic and potent message.
It could be said that The Return seeks to undo that in the final few episodes, such as The Past Dictates the Future, where Cooper is shunted back to 1989 to rescue Laura from her fate and bring her ‘home’, only to find himself inside an alternate timeline of sorts where the events of Twin Peaks didn’t (or maybe did) happen, but while it feels like a plot device designed to give Cooper as a character a sense of heroic closure—that he manages to save Laura—the season, and probably the entire series, ends on a punctuation mark of pure horror. Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother, is probably inhabited by Judy. There is still evil in the Palmer home. The nightmare is likely to begin again. It is both a titanic tcliffhanger and a perfect, abstract ending. “Is it future? Or is it past?” asks Mike, one of the denizens of the Black Lodge, to Cooper and that is perhaps the point. Twin Peaks has no past or future. It is perpetually unchanging. It is America.
“We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream” Monica Bellucci, the famed Italian actress, tells Lynch’s partially deaf FBI director Gordon Cole during the recollection of a dream, and that to me feels the perfect encapsulation of watching Twin Peaks. It is like a dream, one you understand on a functional level, maybe even feel inside as profound, but the pieces never quite neatly fit together. Therein lies its power and its beauty. We’re not meant to know. We are simply meant to experience and that makes it as much art as it does narrative. It should be cherished as storytelling where we are both left to theorise but also imagine and create our own end to the dream. The original run allowed us to do that and so did The Return.
I can only quote Dale Cooper when thinking about my relationship with Twin Peaks, both past and future. “I hope I see all of you again. Each and every one of you”. I’m sure I will. To sleep, perchance to dream.