The return of Twin Peaks is perhaps the most exciting cultural event this year, and now that five whole hours have aired, I feel I have had enough time to get the feel of the new series and the promise it holds. David Lynch is indeed back, and more himself than ever. Everything that made the 90s series great has returned, and with perhaps the addition of darker and deeper elements in its absurd surrealist mix.
We are in the middle of a television renaissance, with many shows owing a debt to the stylistic revolution created by Twin Peaks. The market is more crowded and more ambitious than it was in the 90s, with original concepts for the first time winning out over tried-and-tested formulas and genres, especially with streaming services like Netflix. If the original Twin Peaks were broadcast today, it would not create the shockwave that it did when it first aired. So how has Lynch competed? The simple answer is he has given us the most Lynchian possible version of himself and his sensibilities, completely raw and free from constraints. There are eerie silences, surreal images, idiosyncratic exchanges, multiple unexplained plot strands and adult content on the level of Blue Velvet. This is not simply a cursory gesture to fans of the old series that Lynch has created, but is perhaps a bold re-affirmation of all of the themes and motifs that have pervaded his films, an eighteen hour film to rival his best work.
The opening to the first episode is perfect. It’s black-and-white and starts with deathly silence. We are with Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLauchlan) and a dream figure, ‘The Giant’ (Carel Struycken), sitting with blank expressions in the Black Lodge, a spirit realm of red velvet curtains, dusty armchairs and disorientating zebra-patterned flooring. It seems they have been sitting there for the whole twenty-five years since we left them. Then, in that uncanny Lynchian reversed speech, the Giant asks Cooper to “Listen to the sounds.” A soft scratching whispers out from a gramophone, as if its a cry for help from a far-away place, lost in translation. The Giant gives us three things that we should remember, without anything connecting them: ‘430’, ‘Richard and Linda’ and ‘two birds with one stone.’ As if in a subtle taunt to the audience, who cannot yet make sense of what is happening, Cooper replies, “I understand.”
The game is set. Social media will be lighting up for weeks to come, pouring over tiny details, wondering whether the chocolate bunny is a vital piece of evidence, scouring the credits for character clues, quoting lines (like Coopers ‘Hello-oo-oo’, three syllables, already a meme), and having long discussions about what the hell everything means, and how the absurd and sometimes mundane pieces fit together.
So far, the basic story is that there is another murder. The decapitated head of Ruth Davenport is found with someone else’s body, with the fingerprints of a local principal Bill Hastings all over it. Yet we suspect the evil spirit BOB (as a doppelganger of Cooper) is behind it somehow. From the Black Lodge the real Cooper goes through a portal and swaps places with a second Cooper Doppelganger, Dougie Jones. ‘Dougie Cooper,’ as I call him, is essentially a blank slate who can only interact with people by basic imitation of phrases he’s heard such as ‘call for help’ and ‘home.’ The absurdist drama of Dougie’s interactions is where the main bulk of the humour lies in the series so far. Apart from that there are many extra loose threads and digressions. There is a glass box that an anonymous billionaire is paying someone to watch, and Dr Jacoby is broadcasting an Alex Jones-like conspiracy show from a remote shed in the woods. He advertises his gold shovels which will “dig you out of the shit and into the truth,” only $29.99.
Perhaps this is another ironic nod to the audience. What makes people love the show also makes other people hate it. The details we are given have an obscure meaning, and perhaps they will never mean anything. The act of digging only draws us further down into the ‘shit’, into the darkness behind the veneer of cheerful Americana. David Lynch is good at leading us astray, and having real meaning pop up in the most unexpected places, or not at all. If we want an easy path to the truth, then we will have little chance of finding it. In fact, even in the original series Lynch never intended the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer to be found. He intended the truth to keep receding over the horizon the deeper we dig. It was ABC that pressured Lynch to reveal the killer, thinking that audiences would be frustrated otherwise.
Its wrong to simply say that Twin Peaks doesn’t make sense, or its just weirdness for its own sake. It does make sense. It has its own internal sense which is consistently ‘Twin Peaks’, and anyone with the time can become absorbed in its world, where the strange becomes familiar, and the familiar becomes strange. Lynch always tries to achieve a sense of realism within his own dreamlike world. Our rules no longer apply. We have to seek out the rules by which this new world operates, and so become aware again of the rules we have come to take for granted and the absurdity behind the things which we think are real. In seeking the rules of Twin Peaks, we begin to take notice of any and every little detail; is this, we wonder, significant?
For all its obscurity, Lynch still has a coherent voice and worldview. His films have always been pre-occupied with the nature and formation of identity, and the superficial form these identities can take. From what can be gathered from the episodes so far, this is perhaps the key artistic frame with which to view Twin Peaks: the Return. It is also a major theme in Mulholland Drive. Doppelganger’s abound in this new series, and Kyle MacLauchlan skilfully navigates acting the three separate identities within the bodily shell of Dale Cooper. Identity is shown to be malleable and fragile. The idea of the doppelganger shifts us away from the notion that there is any central self, and says that we are merely split into many performances of the self.
There is an uneasy feeling that many of the characters in Twin Peaks are not in full possession of themselves, as if they are simulating human behaviour, but not quite pulling it off. We sense it with Lucy and Andy, and see it clearly with Evil Cooper and Dougie Cooper. The latter, in our eyes, is hopeless at appearing human. In fact, he is the tiniest possible approximation of a human being. Yet there is an absurdist humour in how nobody around him thinks twice about his odd behaviour. Despite being a kind of adult idiot who can only repeat a few phrases, he blends in to Dougie’s previous life without a problem. Even his wife (played by Naomi Watts) doesn’t catch on. And this is because human society as depicted in Twin Peaks is like a surreal simulation in itself, that satirizes the real thing. It reminds me of American Psycho, where Patrick Bateman’s crimes as a serial killer are overlooked, because the characters, who all act and look the same, constantly mistake each others identities in a world that is only concerned with material gain and superficial appearances. Twin Peaks, as well as American Psycho, are set in a postmodern world in which the surface reigns supreme.
The people that surround Dougie are a menagerie of media and Hollyood clichés. Naomi Watts is the typical suburban housewife, making pancakes and coffee for her husband while ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck plays in the background, a tune that Lynch surely knows is over-played. Their son is called Sonny-Jim, which is not a name, but a colloquial way of saying ‘young boy.’ Michael Cera, playing Lucy and Andy’s son Wally, even turns up dressed like Marlon Brando in one particularly strange and funny scene. All this play-acting asks the question: Are we ourselves, or a collection of outside influences that we trick ourselves into thinking is a coherent person? David Lynch never provides answers, but I’ve decided I don’t want answers. The mystery, that which happens inside our own heads when we watch, is much more fun.