I have been meaning to put down some thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return, but events have conspired to keep me from doing much writing at all outside of my main project. So I’m going to throw together some thoughts here, hopefully leading toward some sort of coherent take on this new season.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Twin Peaks: The Return is not Twin Peaks: The Return. Everything after the colon was added by Showtime. For Lynch and Frost, Twin Peaks: The Return is simply Twin Peaks. Which is funny, right? Because very little of Twin Peaks: The Return actually takes place in Twin Peaks; the season ranges all over the United States, devoting long stretches of narrative to Las Vegas and Buckhorn. This opening-up could have been predicted. Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks similarly works to tie the events of the original series to a deeper occult history of the United States. Twin Peaks—both the show and the town—is an example or an instance of something bigger.
So, to the hammer everything looks like a nail. My research involves the ways in which small towns are used in American literature to express or analyze national anxieties. And Twin Peaks is very much part of this tradition. At the beginning of Main Street, Sherwood Anderson says “this is America”—meaning not simply that the town of Gopher Prairie is located in America, but that it is in some way an expression of America itself. For Anderson, this observation means that America is close-minded and provincial, hostile to change or cultural exploration. The fact that Lynch and Frost are carefully establishing that Twin Peaks is rooted in this broader occult history suggests that they, too, consider the town to be a mirror or model of the larger nation.
Lynch has a number of consistent obsessions. You can set your watch by them. And one of the most notable is this idea of the “woman in trouble.” Twin Peaks, the original series, is obviously an example of this. Laura Palmer, though dead before the series begins, haunts the narrative, and after her murder is solved the series falls apart. Fire Walk With Me makes it clear that Laura is the core of Twin Peaks—the show could not exist without her. And so we come to The Return (a title I persist in using even though I realize it isn’t the proper one), where Laura haunts the opening titles and periodically reappears, even though her murder is long in the past and not a focus for the majority of the season.
There are other women in trouble, though. Indeed, this series is packed with them—Diane, Shelly, Audrey…. Even Janey-E is a woman in trouble, saddled initially with her unfaithful Cooper-tulpa Dougie and then with Cooper himself, his mind evacuated, incapable of speech beyond parroting what people around him say. And this pairing is typical; throughout the season, we are presented with women under duress confronting passive men. Janey-E and Dougie, Audrey and Charlie, Doris Truman and Frank…. These pairings do not exist on a single level of interpretation, and anyway I doubt Lynch is interested in delivering a Definitive Word on the Patriarchy. But it’s important to acknowledge that in each case the viewer’s sympathy is directed toward the woman, not the man. These are not harpies who hector their long-suffering male counterparts. These are women in impossible situations (in Audrey’s case, perhaps even unreal) who find their male counterparts insufficient to meeting their needs. And so they suffer or else they solve their own problems (Hi, Janey-E!).
This concern with women in trouble isn’t unique to Lynch, of course, even within the canon of small-town narratives. Laura Palmer exists in a tradition stretching back to Henry Bellamann’s Kings Row, a novel in which we meet Cassandra Tower, a victim of incest and (ultimately) murder at the hands of her father. Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, also centers an incest-victim in the figure of Selena Cross (Metalious was persuaded by her publishers to change Lucas Cross, the rapist, to Selena’s stepfather, a move she regretted). In Selena’s case, the story doesn’t end in her death but in her killing Lucas and burying him in a sheep pen. Laura exists somewhere between these two figures: she is murdered by her father, to be sure, but ultimately in Fire Walk With Me is able to achieve some sort of victory.
What does it mean that incest forms the core of so much small-town literature? And what does it mean in the context discussed above—that is, in light of the fact that the small town is America? Lynch’s broader focus in The Return and his insistence that Laura haunt the narrative even though her story isn’t the primary focus, certainly suggests that he sees the violence visited on Laura as a general malaise.
So this brings us to that ending—which, full confession, I have only been able to watch once. Cooper finds Laura (possibly! Anyway, it’s Sheryl Lee) and brings her back to Twin Peaks, back to the Palmer house, to discover that the Palmers are gone, that the world has changed (somehow) in his attempt to rescue Laura from her fate.
(As a side point, as I write this I am listening to the most recent Lodgers podcast and they have an excellent discussion of the ways in which that last episode deconstructs the hero myth)
But there’s a complicating factor here, and one I want to think more about, though I’m not sure where it will go. The evil in the original series of Twin Peaks is explicitly paternal. Leland Palmer, the father, rapes and murders his daughter. The idea of male violence against women is at the center of the Twin Peaks narrative. But in The Return evil is maternal. The Experiment—which may or may not be Judy—is a vaguely female figure who gives birth to BOB in part 8. And Sarah Palmer seems to be carrying darkness within her just as her dead-alive daughter now carries light.
Sarah Palmer herself is an interesting study in guilt. Fire Walk With Me heavily implies that Sarah knew what Leland was doing to Laura. Sarah is a victim just as much as her daughter is, but she is also (on one level, and certainly in her own mind) complicit. What we see of her now in The Return—drinking and smoking in a dark room, biting the faces off truckers in bars—is a shell of the woman she once was, wracked with guilt for her daughter’s fate. Doomed to darkness by her own demons.
So I need to wrap this up and try to Say Something—we do have to Say Things, right? But the truth is, I’m not sure what to say. Lynch presents a world permeated with violence, birthed in violence (see the nuclear blast in part 8), a violence particularly seen as directed against women (though not exclusively so). At the same time, The Return moves the focus from paternal demons to maternal ones (castrating mothers, too—The Experiment shows up in a sex scene, and the frog-moth crawls into the mouth of a girl who has just kissed a boy in part 8). What shall we do with this? Certainly a Gnostic reading would fit here: the mother births the world, and so can be thought of as a demiurge. The association of female-ness with fertility and creation may be unfortunate from a political point of view, but it still carries a powerful artistic punch. So it’s possible that The Return is a narrative about being trapped in the world of illusion, a world created by the demiurge.
All of this seems unrelentingly dark, and I think that’s not really fair to The Return. This show isn’t only about darkness and degradation. It’s also about Dougie—simple kindness and love. It’s about Janey-E Jones, who is one of the shining lights of the series. It’s about Carl Rodd (rest in peace, Harry Dean Stanton). It’s about the redemption of Bobby Briggs. It’s about the Log Lady and her log of gold (rest also in peace, Catherine Coulson). There is hope here. Perhaps next time I should do a few thoughts on that.