Twin Peaks has returned after 25 years – and it’s Lynch’s way or the lost highway.
By Nick Milligan
Many pundits, within and outside the film industry, have been trumpeting the notion that film is dead. Television is now the safe space for narrative innovation. Few have been more vocal purveyors of this idea than David Lynch.
TV, once seen as the stepping stone to Hollywood, is now a port in a storm, a welcoming get-together where David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Jane Campion are not afraid to be seen.
Lynch, always two steps ahead, made the potentially frightful leap back in the late ’80s, having already proved himself something of a cinematic master. He had Eraserhead, Dune, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet under his belt before he teamed with Mark Frost to develop a TV series about a small fictional town in the Pacific Northwest.
But outside pressures (TV executives) soon tainted the purity of Lynch and Frost’s vision, forcing them to solve the murder at the heart of the series – “Who killed Laura Palmer?” – well before the show’s creators had planned. Despondent, Lynch made the film Wild at Heart and only returned to the series to appear on-screen as near-deaf FBI agent Gordon Cole and to direct three crucial episodes in the second season. The narrative became convoluted, ratings dropped and the axe swung. The rest is history. Twin Peaks was relegated to the annals of cult fanaticism. In the ensuing years the series would prove to be the most influential TV drama ever made (it’s been said “Twin Peaks” is now more an adjective then it is a noun) and garner a large fanbase.
Lynch’s big send off was the 1992 prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, made a year after the axing of the series. It was a mostly unnecessary film that proved the director’s elegy to Laura Palmer. Lynch admitted to being in love with the character, much in the same manner as practically every man in Twin Peaks.
Fire Walk With Me examines Laura’s mental state and dangerous lifestyle in the last seven days of her life, the sordid details of which had already been mostly revealed in the original series. But this was Lynch’s R-rated version of the show, an opportunity to calibrate the tone and atmosphere as he wanted it. Subsequently, the movie featured more sex and violence than the series, as well as hefty doses of Lynch’s now trademark impressionism. It was made without Frost’s input, as his and Lynch’s relationship had become strained.
Despite this addendum, a burning question remained: what if Lynch and Frost had had complete creative freedom all those years ago? What would the show have looked like? That answer has finally arrived. A third season of Twin Peaks, 25 years in the making, with a pleasingly large portion of its original cast, has premiered on Showtime (and Stan in Australia).
Twenty five years is a long time for any story teller, but it’s especially lengthy for a mind that functions like Lynch’s. After Twin Peaks, the Montana native became a deconstructionist. Two of his following major films, 1997’s Lost Highway and 2001’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive, take a fairly simple premise and imbue it with abstractions, nuance, visual poeticism, mystery, absurdist humour, creeping dread and enviable artistic flair. Lynch dismantled traditional linear narratives and rebuilt them into something puzzling, engrossing and arcane.
It’s really no surprise then that Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks, alongside longtime collaborator Frost is, at least structurally, a very different beast to seasons one and two. This is Lynch let loose, back in the director’s chair with a big television budget at his disposal. It’s his way or the lost highway. This new 18 episode season, Twin Peaks: The Return, is ostensibly an 18-hour Lynch movie.
The most jarring moment is not when our coffee-loving protagonist FBI agent Dale Cooper appears on screen, now with a quarter century mapped on his once perfect face, sitting opposite the riddle-loving giant (Carel Struycken). No, it comes when we’re suddenly floating over an arresting night-time shot of New York City. This is the first time in the TV series (excluding Fire Walk With Me) that we’ve been outside the titular town. At once we know that the scope has widened. Lynch then finds a way to make an empty glass box feel as menacing as a coiled cobra.
What we’re then presented with over the first four episodes is a series of disparate storylines that may or may not eventually weave together. What we essentially learn is that Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has been as we left him, trapped in the infamous Black Lodge – a sort of inter-dimensional limbo from Native American mythology where pure spirits are tested by unthinkable evil. It appears, famously, as a red curtained room furnished with antiques. Everyone talks backwards.
The evil spirit Bob has resided in Agent Cooper’s body in the real world for the past 25 years and it’ll come as no surprise that he’s still a pretty nasty piece of work. He kills and runs drugs and generally indulges in his existence in a manner that would make Beelzebub most proud. We follow Bob/Agent Cooper through North Dakota as real Agent Cooper is left to find his way from the Black Lodge.
While the show does drop in and out of the town of Twin Peaks, revealing some very familiar faces, and some new ones, the nostalgia fest is very short lived. Because Lynch and Frost are not here to pander to their fans. They’re back to tell a story and make art. The darkness that permeated the original series was largely kept in the background, hidden in shadow, toned down for a mainstream audience, but in this new season it has definitely stepped into the light.
Gone, too, are the soap opera elements. The fuzzy filmic look of the original series is now registered in stark digital (Lynch renounced film stock and embraced digital technology for 2006’s Inland Empire). The “kitschness” has also departed. The pacing of the show, from the length of the shots to the cadences of the dialogue, are now designed to keep the viewer off balance – almost disorientated. On edge.
A very simple conversation is suddenly laden with suspense when the actors leave an unnatural pause between their lines, and the sustained, ominous notes of the soundtrack emerge from the ether. Take, for example, a scene seven-minutes into episode two, in Las Vegas, where a boss, Mr Todd, hands two wads of cash to his employee, Roger, and tells him to inform an unseen woman that she “has the job”. This simple exchange is loaded with palpable dread. Roger then asks Mr Todd, “Why do you let him make you do these things?” We are yet to know to whom Roger is referring (perhaps we will never know), but what comes next is a heavily pregnant pause, before Mr Todd replies to his employee. “Roger, you better hope that you never get involved with someone like him. Never have someone like him in your life.”
“It might feel like in Twin Peaks: The Return Lynch has built a Rubik’s cube and handed it to a colourblind world, but the filmmaker is never obtuse for the sake of it.”
Another such Lynchian scene takes place in Buckhorn, South Dakota, in which a nutty woman smells something outside her neighbour’s apartment and dials 911 for fear that something’s happened to the woman that lives there. The police arrive and rather than cut to the officers already in the apartment, as might happen in an episode of Law & Order, Lynch takes us through a five-minute exchange in which the police try to get the key. This is probably something that cops go through on a regular basis, but Lynch and Frost find great humour (however frustrating) in the minutiae of this simple situation. Once the cops make it into the apartment to investigate the smell, the pay off proves spectacularly gruesome.
Another scene worthy of dissection (and study in film school), due to its rather incredible mix of sound, performance and execution, is an exchange at the end of Episode 4 between FBI agents Cole (reprised by Lynch) and FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (the late Miguel Ferrer). The scene, seemingly shot in the late afternoon or early morning, has been colour graded into an azure wash and made to look like it was filmed under the midnight sun. Cole, always at the mercy of his hearing aid, turns the volume to the max so that he can speak quietly with Rosenfield (he normally has to yell). This exaggerates every little sound. Rosenfield’s shoe across the cement is a deafening screech. Rosenfield confesses something big to Cole, who in turn says Albert’s name three times then pauses – as if time stops or he’s had a stroke-like episode. The two then agree that the situation they have found themselves in is a “blue rose”, a code name Cole uses for cases that cannot be rationally explained – possibly supernatural in nature. Hence the blue wash of the scene?
It might feel like in Twin Peaks: The Return Lynch has built a Rubik’s cube and handed it to a colourblind world, but the filmmaker is never obtuse for the sake of it. The show is indeed a puzzle – there will be some answers, while others will have to be vivisected by the ravenous fandom wikis of the internet. Lynch inherently knows that it’s never fun or interesting to spell everything out for the audience, and it is unsolved mysteries that ultimately have the most lasting and chilling impact.
Strap yourselves in, kids.
Oh, and don’t forget the giant’s riddle to Cooper in Episode 1. “Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds one stone.”
That giant’s usually on the money.
Episode 5 of Twin Peaks: The Return will air on Stan on June 5.