Twin Peaks: The Return – “Around the dinner table, the conversation is lively”

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This summer, in an abbreviated but still smoldering Slow Burn, Len Gutkin, Benjamin Parker, and Michaela Bronstein discuss David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return.

Twin Peaks first aired on ABC in 1990, the same season The Simpsons debuted on Fox. Since that time, The Simpsons juggernaut has issued twenty-seven further seasons and a movie; Twin Peaks, only now eking out a third season, after a post-cancellation movie, has lagged considerably. By 1997, The Simpsons could even parody Twin Peaks, once its contemporary, as an eccentricity from a bygone era, in a flashback episode ("Lisa's Sax") set in 1990. Twin Peaks is here remembered as a pretentious jumble of signifiers and non sequitur quirkiness: the jazz score, damn good coffee and cherry pie, the Giant slow-dancing with a white horse under a single stoplight. Homer Simpson, in rapt incomprehension, pronounces it "Brilliant," but quickly admits, "I have absolutely no idea what's going on." Conspicuously, in an episode about Homer's relationship with his daughter Lisa, the cartoon parody of Twin Peaks is carefully scrubbed of the disturbing centrality of the father-daughter relationship to the actual show. Homer Simpson is not, we are to understand, a bad dad. But the old Twin Peaks was, in its very premise, about a father raping and killing his daughter. (Let all parodies start there.)

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Twin Peaks: The Return will be trivial or beside the point if it does not take up that crime, famously "solved" half-way through the second season. But having now watched the first thirteen episodes, it is impossible to foresee how Cooper's return from the Black Lodge (the motivating event for the whole season) will respond to the still-unresolved Laura Palmer story, or what would even count as a response. What follows is a survey of what I think is at stake in the show's "return" to that story.

Whatever is "Lynchian" in Twin Peaksand really, in all ­his workis unthinkable without the fucked up families from which it is secreted like so much viscous pus. The signature gross-out in his first feature, Eraserhead, when the diminutive chicken begins to gyrate and spew blood, imagines the banality of the American dinner table as a scene of queasily fecund animation, not unlike the hideous generational cannibal ritual in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Leland Palmer is never more frightening than the scene in the dining room when he asks Laura, "You didn't wash your hands before you sat down to dinner, did you?" and then looks under her fingernails for dirt. But Lynch also plays the disastrous family meal for laughs, as when (in season one of Twin Peaks) Jerry Horne, just arrived from Paris, interrupts his brother's family at dinner with a bag of brie-and-butter baguette sandwiches. In his essay, Len describes the mismatched intensities that seem to swell in all the wrong generic placesLynch's crediting as the show's sound designer encourages one to think of these emotions as poorly dubbed, out of syncand these scenes carom off recognized genre boundaries (the patriarchal melodrama of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life, the sitcom hijinks of Full House). The viewer, unable to play along with the irony, merely wishes to drop through the floor in mortified discomfort.

In a famously negative ("thumbs down") review of Lynch's Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert mocked the supposed subversive insights of Lynch's social vision: "What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses." The same point could be made about the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, but I don't think Ebert is right about Lynch's point. What are we being told? Sure, there is the empirical observation that the American family is a horror show, a well of uncanny violence and loathsome comedy. But Lynch constructs his worlds as though all the coping mechanisms, the denials, the props of psychic life, and the "lose-lose" compromise of symptomatic formations were all de-psychologized realities. In other words, the puzzling or hallucinatory images in Lynch shouldn't be taken as rich symbols, but as structures. I once read that The Wizard of Oz (a key text for Lynch, by the way) is an allegory for narcissism, but in a totally different way than The Wizard of Oz is an allegory for, say, the folly of the Gold Standard. The Wizard of Oz is what it's like to be in narcissism, incessantly tasked and sent from post to pillar. What one interprets in this allegory, then, is not a rich superstructure of meaning but only the topography of a nihilistic self-reference. Lynch's "meaning" is like this, too.

What we witness in a Lynch movie is of course not an ironic exposé, as Ebert thought, but rather the magical thinking and warped causality by which we are reconciled to (or swallowed up, disappeared in) the hideous real. For the most part, this hideous real is the gaping rupture of family life. The conspiracies, the mythology, the absurdist tropes, the noir elements of hit men and crime bosses, are so much dream logic sprung to life and walking in daylight as characters and vivid incidents. Lynch's films are dreamlike, sure, but it would be more accurate to say they are like Freud's "dreamwork," the mechanisms of distortion and transformation, not the raw material but its rough handling. Lynch is not exposing the real but our tortured accommodation to it. Whether this releases us from its hold over us or only binds us closer is perhaps something we could discuss further.

So what are we being told in season three of Twin Peaks? To start, Lynch's latest picture of evil (the malevolent incarnation of Dale Cooper) is the same monotonous cartoon as in past characters like Frank in Blue Velvet or Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. Evil does not wash its hair; it is drawn to black leather and loud prints. And once again, the scary bad guy is a rapist: if speculation about the show is to be believed, Cooper raped the comatose Audrey Horne and sired the coked-out child murderer and grandma robber Richard Horne. (Dark Cooper, however, lacks the manic, lipstick-smearing sentimentality of those Dennis Hopper and Willem Dafoe performances.) This representation is as tedious as it is false. Nietzsche long ago, commenting on Goethe's Faust, derided the invocation of vast supernatural conspiracies to embellish and attenuate a tawdry and common tragedy: "A little seamstress is seduced and made wretched. A great scholar of all four disciplines is the culprit. Surely this could not have happened under ordinary circumstances? No, certainly not! Without the assistance of the devil incarnate the great scholar would never have pulled this off." Twin Peaks projects rape as a sort of metaphysical catastrophe, summoning Black Lodges and possessing spirits to account for it. The "scary" parts of Twin Peaks are in fact there to make it less frightening; they are the dreamwork by which the even scarier reality of incest and rape is disguised. The stupidest part of the new season, then, is the implication that the nuclear bomb somehow preordained the rape of Laura Palmer.

Against the mobilized, greasy forces of evil, Lynch pits the dimensionally-unavailable good father: the strange cosmic odyssey of Major Briggs, the checked-out avatar Dougie Jones, and the thread leading back to Deputy Chief Hawk's Native American "heritage." They are like Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee, offering "parental guidance") in Wild at Heart, benevolent figures somehow removed to another plane of being. That is the best we can hope for, since the decent flesh-and-blood fathers are all adoptive or surrogate fathers: Big Ed (for his nephew James); Doc Hayward (Donna's real father is Ben Horne); and Andy (Wally Brando is probably Dick Tremayne's son). The mothers in the show are useless but at least they are present: the drugged out mother in the Rancho Rosa development, Shelly Briggs (formerly Johnson), Sarah Palmer, Sylvia Horne (unable to protect her disabled son Johnny), and Eileen Hayward (in seasons 1 and 2, confined to a wheelchair and unable to shed light on Donna's origins). The obvious exception is the ferociously competent Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts). Is it idiotic, then, to imagine that all of this ends with the Good Dale coming to full consciousness in Dougie's body, and a happy ending married to Janey-E and raising Sonny Jim?

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In the meanwhile, though, it is impossible to see how the good dad can enter the picture, other than in a fleeting photographic capture in the glass cube, or the coded messages from the past, or the mystical maps of indigenous tradition. To put it more strongly: we can see how evil shuttles between unfathomable mythology (the Black Lodge, doppelgängers, etc.) and the everyday seediness and low-level criminality of Flesh World, One-Eyed Jacks, Jacques Renault and Leo Johnson, and now Richard Horne and Steven Burnett (Becky Briggs's husband). The mythology is there to separate out the unbearablethe father-rapefrom the other stuff. But the same holds true for the impossible presence of the good father in this universe: the gentleness of Cooper is locked away in some fugue state within Dougie Jones; the compassionate Major Briggs can manifest only as fingerprints on various corpses, a face projected on the stars, or in hidden time-capsules. Everything weird, Lynchian, is meant to keep the good dad out of Being. But even Homer Simpson was somehow able to pass through a black hole and into our three-dimensional world (in "Treehouse of Horror VI"), grotesquely proportioned but retaining his fondness for edible underwear. Cooper, stuck in the Homer-like Dougie, is having a much harder time getting here.

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The first two seasons of Twin Peaks worked up an elaborate transcendental, oneiric alibi for the empirical collapse of the traditional family (with overtones of Reagan-era defenses of same). The second season ended with Cooper, like Myshkin at the end of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, irretrievably lost to the dark world in which he had arrived an innocent. How will Lynch now imagine the forces of good taking shape in the actual world? For the White Lodge, the Giant, the one-armed man, etc., are not so powerless as to be stranded without effect on the other side alwayshowever long the detour into existence. Georg Lukács memorably called this problem of "the refusal of the immanence of being to enter into empirical life," and Lynch heretofore has allowed such immanence only in the mode of cynical pastiche or floods of untethered sublimity. His irony, in other words, has been wholly negative. Of course one does not expect from Lynch an ending like The Wizard of Oz, where there is a primary, undisturbed world to return to, where the unsettling resemblances to familial life would return to their recognizable contours ("And you were there, and you were there..."). But the problems of irony and immanence, suggest a comparison, a yardstick by which the Twin Peaks world would fall short either of our own, or of some possible dispensation. Lynch, after all, knows better than most that "it was all a dream" is hardly consolation.

 

ALSO IN THIS SERIES:

Len Gutkin, “Genre Mistuned” (8.10.17)

Michaela Bronstein, “Allegory as Alibi?” (8.25.17)

Len Gutkin, “Allegory and Dislocation” (9.16.17)

Ben Parker is assistant professor of English at Brown University, where he teaches Victorian literature. He has written about music, film, and fiction for Film Quarterly, n + 1, Los Angeles Review of Books, New Literary History, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction.