So that gum I like has come back in style.
That’s right! Twin Peaks has returned on Showtime, under the full creative control of series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. That control, and that collaboration, is key to the new series. Because the original made its first missteps when they lost control, and fell apart almost completely after Lynch left the production, leaving the rest of the run to trudge along as one-half quirkily compelling genre fiction and one-half unwatchable crap.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. If you’re not familiar with it, the original Twin Peaks concerned itself with the murder of small-town homecoming queen Laura Palmer, whose death was announced in the first episode with one of the most iconic lines of dialogue in television history.
From there, the story dove deep into Jungian consciousness, Native American mythology, and metaphors for the cycle of abuse. It dealt with the dual nature of the human spirit, as represented by BOB, a demonic force living inside Laura’s father. BOB, we learned, was a creature of a place called the Black Lodge, whose resident spirits burrow into the souls of those who have, wittingly or not, invited them in. There was also a White Lodge, a flip-side to the Black, but its spirits worked in more mysterious ways. At the end, Agent Cooper went into the Lodge to save the woman he loved, and failed to come out again. Instead, he was replaced by his own doppelganger, all his worst qualities made flesh and allowed to run free. The last time we saw him, he’d just run his own head into a mirror, with BOB showing as his reflection.
That was 26 years ago, and I’ve been waiting to see that particular cliffhanger resolved ever since. But more than that, I’ve simply been waiting for more Twin Peaks. This show is one of my fictional touchstones, a work that very much shaped my adult tastes for the weird, the mysterious, and the darkly comic. If you ever wanted to see the inside of my head, played out in full color, you could just watch Twin Peaks, and it would give you a pretty good idea of what goes on in there.
So how does the new show measure up? Based on the first two hours… Pretty damn well.
I didn’t really know what to expect from it going in. David Lynch’s work, post-Twin Peaks, has become increasingly complex and impenetrable, based more and more in dream logic and visual symbolism. His last film, Inland Empire, was a complete objet d’art, a deep meditation on the connection between art and life, filmed mostly without a script. For Twin Peaks, however, Lynch teams with Mark Frost, a veteran screenwriter and novelist with rock-solid basics in things like plot and character. Frost is less fascinating than Lynch, but he’s responsible for much of the show’s mythology (the part that speaks most strongly to my inner dork), and he grounds Lynch’s artistic impulses in recognizable story. Lynch, meanwhile, makes Frost’s more down-to-Earth instincts sing in ways Frost doesn’t quite seem capable of by himself. It’s an ideal partnership, in other words, and Twin Peaks has always been at its best when Lynch and Frost have worked on it hand-in-hand.
Luckily for us, then, they co-wrote every episode of the new season, and Lynch directed them all. The result is something more direct and less cryptic than I was braced for. I found myself almost disappointed at first that it was so direct. That it addressed the original series’ cliffhanger ending so immediately. That it actually MADE SENSE, more or less.
Well, okay. It’s still plenty weird. The Man From Another Place (aka The Arm) is now a near relative to the brain on a stick from Eraserhead. And we do spend a lot of time in the Red Room (a sort of purgatory/waiting room attached to the Lodges), with Our Hero wandering around in a spiritual fugue state while a host of familiar faces from the original series say cryptic things to him. But the Red Room of 2017 is less terrifying and confusing than the one of 1991. It feels almost… comfortable. Less dangerous. So even if it’s weirder in terms of talking brains on sticks, it also makes more sense. It has rules that we can mostly understand.
The result is something that feels a bit like a straightforward genre narrative, a supernatural crime story filtered through the surrealist sensibilities of David Lynch. And this is not a bad thing. The plot (which I will now attempt to summarize with as few SPOILERS as possible) is dense. Cooper’s 25-year sentence for failing to confront and defeat his doppelganger has run its course. He’ll return to the world, and the doppelganger will return to the Lodge. But Doppelcooper doesn’t want to go back, and is plotting (no pun intended) a double-cross that sends Cooper on a metaphysical journey through some weird state of non-existence, while something that is most definitely NOT Cooper escapes out into the world.
Meanwhile, Doppelcooper’s been a busy man this past quarter-century. He’s developed what appears to be a vast network of operatives, allies and enemies, and has his hands in a great many pies. He may have ties to nefarious goings-on in Las Vegas, and to a bizarre experiment going on in New York City. A very powerful (or at least very rich) person has placed a price on his head for reasons unknown. He’s recently played some part in a gruesome double murder in South Dakota, and seems to command criminal minions across the country.
That’s a lot to chew on, but it’s introduced skillfully, in what I thought was a fairly straightforward manner. Mind you, it doesn’t spoon-feed. It doesn’t lay everything out in a neat package so that you know where it’s all going from minute one. Instead, it lets the audience work a bit, introducing all the bits and pieces across a variety of scenes so that none of it bogs down with tedious exposition.
Granted, it takes a while to get there. Because, in David Lynch’s usual fashion, all those scenes are allowed ample room to breathe. So two young lovers are given time to awkwardly chat, each waiting for the other to make the first move, before the horrible plot-advancing thing happens. A comedy of manners plays out between two cops and the amazingly obtuse lady who calls them, before they find the dead body. Lucy (because, yes, we do see a bit of Twin Peaks itself here) has a typically complicated Lucy conversation with an insurance salesman before the really important phone call comes in. Ben and Jerry Horne, meanwhile, have a seemingly pointless conversation about a skunk getting into the room of an important hotel guest, and Jerry’s new business venture in legalized marijuana.
But this is all to the good. We need pointless side conversations and Jerry Horne being weird and Lucy being Lucy. We need horny college students awkwardly navigating their way into sex. It’s the human touch, the thing that makes Twin Peaks Twin Peaks. I wish all my entertainment was this well-written.
That said, many have complained that the new season doesn’t match the comedic tone and endearing strangeness of the original series. And I can’t entirely disagree. The quirkiness is still there, as I’ve said, but it’s muted. Hell. Sometimes, it’s even hiding in plain sight.
Because Doppelcooper is hilariously bad-ass. He walks tall and commands respect, beating asses with impossible ease and associating with an astounding array of freakish underworld types. But he’s also sporting an off-putting spray tan job that makes him look kinda dirty, without him actually being covered in filth. He’s got BOB’s signature hair style, the snake-skin shirt Nicholas Cage wore in Wild at Heart, and the comical nomme de crime of “Mister C.” He’s anachronistic and slightly ridiculous, in other words, his sense of bad-ass fashion having evidently frozen in 1990. I laughed a good bit at his supreme seediness, even as I became increasingly terrified of him. That’s good stealth comedy. A joke wrapped around something that’s not remotely funny.
It’s not exactly new territory for Twin Peaks (Michael Parks’ character Jean Renault, for example, had a similar aesthetic), but it’s not the sort of thing anyone was looking for, either. Especially not in relation to Dale Cooper. I don’t have a problem with that, though. I like the tone, even though it’s different.
I also think that difference is very much intentional. We’re viewing the world through a different lens here. The world of Cooper’s doppelganger is harsh, cold, and violent. His human side is trapped, sleep-walking through the world of the Lodges…
…and until he can free himself… until he can make his way back to Twin Peaks… we’re not going to get that quirky dreamy weirdness everyone is clamoring for.
A key scene in establishing that journey’s theme, I think, is our one glimpse of Sarah Palmer.
Sarah (Laura’s mother) was the original series’ primal screamer. She expressed her anguish over Laura’s death in endless, almost comical, scenes of wailing, crying, and screaming. She expressed the pain of loss in a way that’s often felt on the inside, but seldom expressed on the outside (at least, not in modern white America). Her raw expression of grief was unnerving, but now it seems that she poured all that out and left nothing behind. She’s empty, living in a haze of booze and cigarettes, staring blankly at a nature documentary about a pride of lions killing a water buffalo with painful slowness.
She’s watching an animal snuff film, essentially, and I think her choice of entertainment is significant. It reflects the nature of the evil represented by the Black Lodge, which wears people down over time in much the same way that the lions take down their prey. The buffalo is bigger than them, and stronger. But there are more of the lions, and their claws are sharp.
Which, yes, is pretty bleak. But it’s something that’s always been at the heart of Twin Peaks. Small evils weigh down the soul, pulling it farther and farther away from the light. But the light’s still there, if you can fight your way back to it. And that’s what I think we’ll be seeing as the new season wears on: Dale Cooper fighting his way back to the light.
So that’s the new Twin Peaks. Surrealist. Funny. Terrifying. Bleak.
And maybe, if I’m right, strangely hopeful.