Twin Peaks: The Return – The Anxiety of Spectatorship

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I never loved Twin Peaks. I still don't, really; there are powerful scenes here, haunting moments there, but, for my taste, too much tiresome eccentricity in amongst the pieces that stick with me, from the humorous to the beautiful and the horror-filled. I offer this not in the spirit of confession but because part of what makes Twin Peaks so elusive is the variety of relationships it invites its viewers to have with it. Does it delight in that subset of its audience which painstakingly combs for clues and puts the pieces together, or mock their efforts? Are we supposed to passively let its moods and dreams move us, or analytically interpret them?

To an unusual degree, it's difficult to hold fast to one kind of relationship to this show: in order, for instance, to write and talk about it in any way I found myself wandering through a Twin Peaks wiki, because otherwise I wouldn't have any terms to refer to many of the characters. And once you have the ability to look indexically at the show, it's hard not to think that doing so must point to a coherent underlying logic. Pretty soon, you (by which I mean I) end up looking at massively over-complicated theories whose very consistency feels entirely at odds with the experience of watching the show.1 My kneejerk reaction is to see a kind of naïveté in any theory that pretends to explain the logic of the plot here, as though there were some kind of underlying realist premise just waiting to be excavated.

Many narratives reward rereading by obligingly presenting numerous details that suddenly make sense in light of the whole: all those Dickens characters whose secret identities were, in retrospect, foreshadowed so clearly! Clearly Lynch plays for some of this. "Two birds, one stone" and "Richard and Linda" were both mentioned many episodes ago and came back near the end; there's supposed to be some audience out there who puts that together. But it's not at all clarifying: the fact that the Fireman mentioned those names doesn't help me to figure out the nature of the post-crossing world of the show.

Which is to say, in the end, that I tend to like The Return more when my viewership is passivewhen I'm merely enjoying the innocent/creepy vibe of Sonny Jim playing on his ridiculous playset to the ominous tune of Swan Lake, or delighting in Dougie/Cooper's gambling victories, or watching Jerry Horn's foot declare to him, "I am not your foot," in a subtitled voice that doesn't sound too different from speech in the Red Room. But it's very difficult to dwell as a viewer of The Return in that space for longto resist reading some kind of (possibly disappointing) meaning into the beautiful images of Part 8, to avoid wondering what the Woodsman's recitation means ("This is the water, and this is the well..."). One consequence of that speech's repetition, of course, is that, unlike "Richard and Linda," we can't help but remember it; it doesn't need indexing. But, also unlike Richard and Linda, it never comes back. I still can't tell you what those key repeated phrases meaneven "fire walk with me"but I wouldn't give up their evocative resonances for any understanding.

After watching the finale, I am now convinced that in its 2017 incarnation the show wants us to live in this frustrating ambiguityto seek to make sense where none is to be had. I think of the sex scene between Diane and Cooper, where her emotional response is pressed into our consciousness, with several closeups on her facebut we have no ability to interpret it. Is she reliving trauma? Having some reaction unrelated to Diane-before, now that they're in a different reality? Sobbing because she knows that everything will be different in the morning? As Len points out, emotional intensity without an objective correlative is a recurring feature of the show. Usually we can trust the emotion: the paradigmatic example is the climax of Season 2's "Lonely Souls," when Donna at the Roadhouse breaks down sobbing as, in an intercut scene, Maddy is killed. She doesn't know the source of her own emotion, but we do. Similarly, in The Return, we read Audrey's emotional intensity in her scenes, rather than trying to piece together the actual subject matter of the argument. "Audrey is bringing the soap opera, but she doesn't know where to put it," wrote Len; and if in the past we might have merely assumed we would find out to what world the emotions belonged eventually, now there's no more time. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the affective intensity remains unmoored. We are, as Ben says, without a map. We want to look at Laura Dern as Diane, her hands covering Cooper's face and her eyes filling with tears, and trust the emotions, following their cues, but we no longer have any idea where they point.


On some level, Diane and Cooper are no longer really characters at all: we don't know why they "cross" at mile 430, why Cooper seems to want to have sex with her or she agrees to have sex with him. We know Cooper has memories of the past, and wants to bring Laura/Carrie back to Twin Peaks, but we don't know why, or even if he knows why. It's almost embarrassing to ask such questionsisn't the bleak blandness of Odessa, or the image of the dark road to Twin Peaks unfurling before the carthe important thing? And yet there's just enough of a semblance of depth to make us seek a human reality underpinning the characters' actions and dialogue. After all, we're told in Part 17 by Cole that there is some kind of "plan" at work that may or may not be playing out as expected.

Of course, wondering whether or not there is a "plan" at work is also the experience of watching this showboth Len and Ben, for instance, point out that one of the clearest gestures the finale makes is on some level mocking our desire for a plot-based resolution by dispatching the apparent problem (evil Cooper, BOB) in half an hour in comic, anticlimactic fashion. You think there's not a plan? the show asks. Here, have all the characters gathered in one room where Chekhov's glove will go off and victory will be ours. What, I thought that was what you wanted?

Yet I'm not sure how knowing this is all supposed to be; embedded in the scenes surrounding TV's most bizarre punching competition seem to be intense and real moments of emotional catharsisthe return of Diane, the apparently sincere, "I hope I see you all again. Every one of you," which we too might feel (and we, too, will be disappointed). In part, the bleak challenge of the final hour gains its power from the willingness to give us some kind of emotional stake in the moments leading up to it, even while the mechanisms of plot resolution are mocked.


Henry James, about as far from Lynch an artist as one could find, except maybe with respect to instantly-identifiable individual style, wrote that

From the moment the critic finds himself sighing, to save trouble in a difficult case, that the cluster of appearances can have no sense, from that moment he begins, and quite consciously, to go to pieces; it being the prime business and the high honour of the painter of life always to make a senseand to make it most in proportion as the immediate aspects are loose or confused.2

It may not need stating, but I'm pretty sure David Lynch doesn't think his job is to "make a sense"; if he's a "painter of life," the closest he gets to realism is early Kandinsky. But he does make sure we can never quite relax into believing that there is no sense to be made. After an entire season of random scenes of Jerry Horne's bad trip (most of them, alas, less engaging to this viewer than his fight with his own foot), we suddenly get a plot intersection: he witnesses the death of Richard Horne, not knowing what he's seeing. We can never quite write off the purposiveness of any scene while we're watching. But even when there's a payoff, it's unclear what it means.

Twin Peaks wants us reflexively to try to decode, whether we're decoding a supernatural plot or an allegory of realist human behavior. Len pointed out that when BOB inhabits Cooper, the supernatural springs into independent existence, free from its role as a signifier of realist trauma. That seems entirely right to me, but Len's discussion of contagion and infection opened up something else as well. Contagion wasn't absent in BOB before: it's strongly implied, for instance, that BOB travels via the trauma of sexual assault (Leland being a victim of assault when he was a child). Indeed, one could say that, in Twin Peaks at its best, the demonic possession model of allegory is precisely where the form's ability to represent deeply serious moral outrages is strongest.

But the kind of contagion at work does shift: Cooper is not assaulted or traumatized in the Season 2 finale. In fact, on some level, what happens in The Return seems to suggest that the contagion model disappears, absorbed into the obsessive doubling. The infection only gets an alternate version of the self; "Good Cooper" remains in the Red Room, untouched by evil. With that in mind we might think of Diane's doubling: it seems evocative that the narration of her rape comes from the doppelganger version of her, not the "true" self that appears in the final two episodes, as though so long as her copy existed the trauma could only touch the copy and not the original. Real Diane, Naido the eyeless woman, apparently is purely helpful (and mostly helpless).3

When, however, the evil version of yourself dies, evil doesn't disappear; a little finds its way back to you. Even before Cooper and Diane "cross" the mysterious boundary, he has some of that same dead-eyed imperiousness that his evil self did. (Maybe he gives up his smiley cheer in the process of re-creating Dougie.) Similarly, Diane's "real" form, post-tulpa, is actually the one in which her false self appeared, while her good self took another body entirely. (The fact that we're supposed to be happy to have a voiceless, eyeless Japanese woman replaced by Laura Dern's Diane is unsettlingthe actress Nae Yuuki becomes, like the victims in Get Out, a placeholder body for a white character. The racial insensibility raises to a particularly grating pitch the broader question in the show of the way individual humans become allegorical symbols.)


If doubles existed in the first run of Twin Peaks, their use was entirely differentwhen Maddy dies, it's brutal and physical; she is real, has an emotional arc of her own, leaves a body whose disposal is inconvenient for her murderer. The tulpas/doubles in The Return dissolve in smoke, or are whisked away like tissue paper in a strong wind. They are physically there, but impossibly fragile.

And this show respects resilience, insists on it for its world-crossing characters and valorizes it in the various minor Twin Peaks denizens who come through at the end, surviving it all. Conversely, I felt for Sarah Palmer as she tried desperately to eradicate the familiar image of Laura, the frozen smile we know to hide all that suffering. After all, that's what I felt when I critiqued the use of the same image in Part 8 as an emanation of the other world. Sarah's effort coincides with Laura's disappearance from Cooper's hand in the woods in 1989. As Ben says, Laura seems lost in this moment, like Eurydice snatched back to the underworld. But then we see events play out as though instead she had been saved: the body is no longer by the river. The emotional feel of the scene seems utterly at odds with any ability we might have to make sense of the "plot." And to get any distance towards harmonizing these feelings places me in the territory of obsessive theorizingmaybe for some plan-based reason we're supposed to see the absence of the body as melancholy, consigning us to Odessa's bleakness? Maybe that's correct, but it involves assuming a kind of realist reading practice whereby there is some underlying plan (how many deaths had Laura Palmer?), whichfranklyseems at odds with the narrative rhythms of Twin Peaks in every incarnation. We're left torn between contradictory evocations. Is the persistence of Laura's picture in the face of Sarah's efforts, as the glass and frame around it shatter, a sign of Laura's survival or of her death and reduction to an image? The photograph has all the substance the tulpas lack; flat though it is, it can't be eradicated. Laura herself, on the other hand, perpetually dissolves and perpetually reappears.

Twin Peaks: The Return, in the end, seems to want us to remain uncertain of our own position and role as spectators, trying to figure out in what way we're supposed to relate to the fabric of its world and the texture of its narrative experience. The emotional cues point in every direction and lead nowhere. Like Jerry Horne watching Evil Cooper send Richard to his death, we look at inexplicable events through the wrong end of binoculars, feeling strangely complicit, yet unable to tell if the right lens would make a difference.


Len Gutkin, “Genre Mistuned” (8.10.17)

Ben Parker, “Around the dinner table, the conversation is lively” (8.17.17)

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

Len Gutkin, “Allegory and Dislocation” (9.16.17)

Ben Parker, “Going off the Grid” (10.4.17)

Michaela Bronstein is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford University. Her first book, Out of Context: The Uses of Modernist Fiction, will appear from Oxford University Press in Spring 2018.

  1. See, e.g., David Auerbach's "A Theory of Cooper, Laura, Diane, and Judy". []
  2. Henry James, Travel Writings, Library of America, p. 579. []
  3. This kind of doubling also has a lengthy history in allegory: think of the "true" and "false" Florimells in Spenser. Allegory, which works by externalizing and making evil visible, is always looking for contrasting ways to represent the deceptive intimacy of evil. []