THIS IS MOSTLY SPOILER FREE. YOU’RE WELCOME
I’ve been disturbed for two weeks by a creeping feeling that’s kept me up at night. It’s take me awhile to isolate it, to figure out what it is.
What’s not a mystery is where this feeling came from.
Prior to the recent release of its newest season on Showtime, my history with the 1990’s television phenemonon Twin Peaks was spotty at best. I was familiar with the works of David Lynch, but hadn’t seen much of Peaks. To hear the older generation talk about it, the show was “weird television” and “prestige television” before either of those things really existed. It was a program ahead of its time, a freaky, jarring murder mystery that tumbles down a paranormal rabbit hole about two years before the much longer-lived X-Files debuted.
Buzz around Twin Peaks: The Return intrigued me. I had started watching the original series on Netflix but only got halfway through the first season. Mostly I had been multiscreening a few years ago and had forgotten most of it. So I started over to watch it in earnest as preparation to watch The Return.
It’s a struggle being first, on network television and in the 1990’s, and those struggles are obvious to current-day eyes. The first season is mostly quite good, minus some nonsensical subplots that were boring/meaningless to the broader storyline. Right away we get the iconic surrealness Peaks was known for, and my interest was piqued.
Parts of season 2 are also some great television. Then behind-the-scenes drama struck1, which manifested onscreen as some of the worst episodes of anything ever broadcast until the final few episodes when Lynch returned to a canceled-the-resurrected show, ending the story on a disturbing and satisfying cliffhanger that apparently drove fans nuts for 25 years (a foretold number of years in the final episode).
After Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, I honestly ended up fast-forwarding through mostly anything that didn’t involve Dale Cooper’s storyline in season two. Lots of unwatchable stuff was wedged in between as the show meandered aimlessly.
Aside from some iconic moments, a handful of great characters like Cooper, the Log Lady, Major Briggs and Audrey, the Lodge storylines plus Lynch’s scenes of twisted dream logic, I couldn’t help but feel mostly indifferent towards half the show. For all of its great, trailblazing elements, there were clunky traits better at home on a soap opera or sitcom. What was obvious to me was the original Peaks wanted to be something else.
That something else started to emerge in the show’s cinematic prequel, 1992’s Fire Walk With Me, which is a completely different experience. It’s a Twin Peaks world far closer to what Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost wanted to create, free of the shackles of network interference and FCC censors. It’s pitch dark, baffling, disturbing, twisted and surreal – far better and more affecting than critics initially proclaimed.
I didn’t know what to expect when starting Twin Peaks: The Return, but it was like experiencing a dream while awake. The show is definitely the next logical evolution of Twin Peaks storytelling following Fire Walk. While it’s possible to just follow along with the surface-level storyline, it’s also easy to get lost in its gorgeous world-building and lengthy visual tone poems. The surreal symbolism, offbeat dialogue and bouts of random freakishness are mesmerzing.
The show also manages to craft a framework for the Peaks stories to come before it, just as Frost’s recent novel does. It somehow manages to make the whole Peaks adventure retroactively better by drawing heavily upon random storybeats from old episodes, and especially Fire Walk.
My only gripe is the real Cooper didn’t get enough screen time. I understand his character wasn’t central to the plot, nor did I need him to sweep in and save the day. It’s not that kind of story. I just like the character and missed his presence. But what we do get of Cooper is quite good and mostly satisfying, so it’s a minor complaint.
I’ve read a lot of theories and takeaways about the show’s ending. Some of them are really interesting, and even contain plausible explanations.
But ultimately, overanalyzing The Return – or any of Lynch’s work for that matter – I think is a mistake. This world is supposed to be experienced as a dream, using dreamlike logic. And like all dreams, it’s open to multiple interpretations based on the psyche of the dreamer (the audience), and may not actually inherently mean anything at all.
Twin Peaks is beautiful and disturbing for the sake of being beautiful and disturbing. Lynch and Frost no doubt have their personal intepretations, but it’s clear neither expects anyone else to share them, nor think it’s important that they do. My takeaway is that they just wanted the viewer to feel something, which I did, and it’s hung over me for weeks.
And I finally now understand how to interpret what I felt: Lynch found a way of replicating a very specific feeling. It’s that feeling when a dream turns into a nightmare and you’re scared into awakening.
Lynch’s recreation of that feeling in an audience while they’re conscious and watching television is nothing short of a masterstroke.
At least I can finally sleep again.