Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: “Twin Peaks: The Return” caps David Lynch’s masterpiece with a beautiful, thoughtful coda

Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s extraordinary 18-hour Showtime miniseries, took its final bow tonight with a two-hour finale. We have been discussing the show on a weekly basis on The Weekly Stuff Podcast, and will dive into the finale at length on this week’s episode, but now that the final hours have aired, I could not help but try to coalesce my thoughts into a little essay. This is my reaction to the series’ ending – primarily Part 18, though Part 17 is also addressed – and an attempt to contextualize its emotional and thematic meaning within the series as a whole.

Spoilers for the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return coming up after the jump…

First and foremost, the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return strikes me – like The Leftovers finale, which I wrote about here – not as strict narrative wrap up, but as a meditative coda on the major themes and ideas of the series. Some of those ideas include: What does it mean to return? What if the world is emptier and quieter and stranger than you once found it? What if its existence does not make sense? This is Cooper’s return to the world – or, at least, to a world – after his time as Dougie Jones, after the confrontation in Twin Peaks, after years in the Red Room and traversals in other dimensions. After all of this, here he is, with a fairly simple task – to find Laura Palmer and reunite her with her mother – and neither he nor the world seem completely stable. His personality and presence seems to vacillate between the good Cooper we know and love and the dark Cooper we know and fear. The world is mostly empty, punctuated by violence and coldness. Laura is not the shining beacon of hope and purity he (or we) might have expected. And the picture-book ending he (and we) might have envisioned, where he shepherds Laura to her door and reunites her with her mother, so they can be together again, not only does not happen, but seems so distant in the end as to never be possible. Cooper’s last line – “what year is it?” – is a question, a cliffhanger, but also (and perhaps most importantly), a statement, one of displacement, of being adrift in time, in space, in life.  

His journey, his goal, to bring Laura Palmer back to life and, in so doing, restore a semblance of goodness to the world, is, I think you could argue, a fool’s errand. For as the previous 17 hours of The Return have taught us, and as many hours of the original Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me instructed, the world is dark and messy and broken no matter what. A Laura who gets to grow up and be subjected to the ups and downs of adult life in this broken world is not the same Laura who we saw in High School; and the Laura we knew back then was, of course, never the picture-perfect figure painted in her saintly reputation. Even across time and space and multiple dimensions of existence, those scars still linger – they cannot be erased. And this Laura, this woman removed from all context of herself, still feels those wounds reopen, in those final moments, at her old house, hearing her rapist father assault her in her memory. There is, ultimately, only the scream – piercing, primal, existential. Perhaps Cooper meant to fashion a world in which that scream need never be vocalized. One of the lessons of Twin Peaks, I think, is that such a world can never exist.

To return – perhaps to ‘starting position,’ as Dark Cooper once said during a bizarre arm-wrestling contest – to put the world right again and repair it all, is impossible. Laura cannot overcome her horror. Cooper cannot find the way back. While alongside him, Diane cannot forget the face of the man who raped her, the same face as the man who loves her – one of the most important sequences not only of Part 18, not only of The Return, but of Lynch’s entire career, I think.

The sex scene – in which Cooper appears to revert to the visage of Dark Cooper, cold and unfeeling, and Diane rides him with tears in her eyes and anguish on her face – is a statement, more damning than can be put into words, about the duality of masculinity. A statement that masculinity can encompass the perfection of Special Agent Dale Cooper, a man of pure goodness and upstanding character, and the sheer darkness of Evil Cooper, a being of pure evil and ceaseless violence, in itself at once. And it is a statement about the women who must be subjected to navigate a world where those two polarities, these opposite ends of the spectrum of masculinity, can indeed be represented on the same human face. It is no accident that Diane (and, in turn, the audience) has this revelation during sexual intercourse – a site of masculinity’s dark id, and one Lynch has explored time and again from Blue Velvet to Fire Walk With Me to all across Twin Peaks: The Return. Diane cannot ultimately return to being with Cooper, can never return to being in the world as she once was. The scars are still there. They are forever fresh. Even ‘vanquished,’ the dark Dale Cooper who assaulted her is still reflected on the face of the good Dale Cooper she loves. What choice can she have but to leave?  

In all these ways, Part 18 does not conclude Twin Peaks in literal fashion, or even in a particularly narrative fashion, but on a purely emotional and thematic wavelength. It is an hour of atmospheres and free-floating ideas: The emptiness of an altered world. The anguish of Diane and the mystery of Cooper’s identity. The tortured visage of an older, grown-up, perpetually troubled Laura Palmer. The scream that echoes through time and space. The long, dark, endless roads, a journey to nowhere that ends in disappointment and horror. The sense of displacement, of a world that has moved on, and of people left behind to navigate its empty strangeness. All of these are microcosms of themes explored throughout the prior 17 episodes, and in different configurations throughout David Lynch’s career. In these ways, Part 18 is the right conclusion to Twin Peaks, even if it is not the immediately satisfying or desired one. It is emotionally true to itself, and to its themes, and that is all one can ultimately ask. It is Lynch-ian to the extreme, to the greatest and most profound degree, right until the bitter end.

That said, I was struck that, although they aired together, Parts 17 and 18 are indeed separate episodes, very much so in many ways; stylistically, narratively, structurally, and especially tonally, they stand apart as individual artistic expressions. But they are also complementary in their many differences, and belong together not only as an ending to this series, but as a sort of Lynch-ian treatise on the very notion of endings. Part 17 is the ending we want; Part 18 is the ending we get. Part 17 is the climax; Part 18 is the coda. Part 17 is flashy, packed to the gills with stylistic flourishes, big reveals, and major moments of climax and confrontation. It features breathtaking visuals, such as a series of superimpositions, and puts characters together in configurations we have waited 16 hours to see. It is as satisfying as it is stunning, an ending that operates powerfully on the viewer on a practically chemical level.

But then Part 18 twists and challenges a lot of that – in the extreme, one might even say it reveals Part 17 as something of a narrative Trojan horse.. The Cooper who seemed so assertive and triumphant in Part 17 is confused and, in many ways, lost in Part 18. The narrative structure that all seemed to culminate so cleanly in Part 17 splinters and fragments itself in Part 18. And it does all of this with the utmost sense of intention. One of the great surprises of The Return was just how structured it actually was; experimental and baffling and consistently unique, yes, but also narratively rigorous in terms of setting up, following, and knocking down plot points in densely novelistic fashion. The series sets us up so that when it leaves much of this structure behind for Part 18, an hour that abandons much narrative continuity while maintaining all emotional and thematic continuity, we are made to ask some fundamental questions not only about the story we just saw, but about the basic nature and fabric of storytelling.

Surely, we think, Cooper and Laura must find what they are looking for. Surely, Cooper’s plan will come together. Surely, Sarah and Laura will have this reunion, and something good will be put back together in this dark world. But none of that happens – none of that can happen. The Return was not without its levity and Lynch-ian humor – the back half of Part 3, for instance, in the Casino, is a straight-up comic masterpiece, and most of the material involving Dougie, Janey-E, and Sonny Jim simply radiated warmth and humanity – but it was also a far bleaker vision of humanity than Lynch has ever given us, a story consciously consumed with considering the distance and harshness of time. There might be warmth and even joy throughout individual episodes – see Big Ed and Norma’s big romantic moment last week – but it was no accident that Lynch frequently punctuated those hours with dark vignettes at the Roadhouse, or painted Twin Peaks the town as a much harsher and more violent place than it was 25 years ago. Returning to anything is hard – nostalgia and expectation do not lead us down storybook paths.

Or take tone out of the equation entirely, and consider that a great chunk of The Return was devoted to our lead character stuck in something of a vegetative state, living out someone else’s life while we all waited for him to wake up. The Dougie Jones material was the heart of this series in more ways than one – it was, I think, teaching us all along how to approach the eventual ending. For while it could be easy to grow frustrated with Dougie’s baroque antics in Las Vegas, tuning in each week for a character revival that never seemed to come, those who loved The Return the most (like myself) learned to quickly let go of such expectations. Perhaps Cooper would return. Perhaps he wouldn’t. In this moment, we had Dougie, and we had the humor and cinematic creativity he brought with him, and we had Naomi Watts giving her greatest performance since Mulholland Drive, and we had a whole cast of characters – Bushnell Mullins, the Mitchum Brothers, etc. – animated by the presence of this strange vegetative man in their lives.

You can view Dougie Jones as a 16-hour-long narrative stall if you want; or you can accept that the meaning was found in the journey, and that once we stopped waiting for a return to happen and simply lived in the moment, the world of Dougie Jones – and, by extension, of Twin Peaks itself – provided some of the best, warmest, most tonally diverse and lived-in filmmaking to ever grace American television. And the people on that screen, touched by Dougie Jones’s extraordinary life, found so much happiness along that journey. The most concrete conclusion in Part 18 is reserved for Janey-E and Sonny Jim, as their father – seemingly reanimated as a more whole, happy, and aware version of the man he had become while Cooper wore his skin – does indeed return for them, their faith in him rewarded. They all lived in the moment together, and now they get to keep on doing so.

This is all a very long-winded way of arriving at the most fundamental notion I have about the conclusion of Twin Peaks, the notion which I think the show itself expresses with beautiful clarity: That the ending was never the point, and that understanding and internalizing this is the entire point of the ending, for the characters on screen and the viewers gazing upon them.

These last 13 weeks and 18 hours were, I feel quite confident saying, the greatest and most powerful season of television I have ever been fortunate enough to witness. In The Return, David Lynch, Mark Frost, Kyle MacLachlan, and the ludicrously deep roster of talent both in front of (Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Robert Forster, Miguel Ferrer, to scratch the tip of the iceberg) and behind the camera (editor Duwayne Dunham, who executed the herculean task of wrangling this epic miniseries, or cinematographer Peter Deming, who created some of TV’s most indelible images) did nothing less than to blow the mediums of film and television apart and restructure both to their own liking.

The Return was many things: Slow and steady, lyrical and lilting, lucid and dreamlike, highly structured and boldly experimental. It was, above all else, alive, alive in ways few works of visual arts, even great ones, can ever truly feel. It was an experience like none other, right up until the final moments, and it wrapped itself in a way that it will linger in our hearts and minds far past the confines of these 18 televised hours. From the first scene to the final credits roll, I felt humbled to watch Twin Peaks: The Return, in awe of the opportunity to be on the ground floor of something so artistically revolutionary, and it is an experience that will likely shape my outlook on television, film, and the increasingly grey area between them for the rest of my life.

The curtain call has come. What a privilege it was to watch all that came before it.

Postscript -

The one major thread from the series that went almost entirely unaddressed in these last two hours is Audrey, which seems extra shocking given that her cliffhanger was the punctuation note for Part 16. It is possible that Diane’s letter – which addresses ‘Richard,’ Audrey’s son, and hints at a sort of identity transference fundamental to the series’ denouement – is an oblique way to connect these disparate threads. But for the most part, Audrey’s story existed completely on an island from the other parts of this story, and it ended completely on an island. And after seeing the show through to the end, I’m surprised at how little that bothers me. I don’t know what more I wanted out of that story, other than to see confirmation that the life Audrey was living with her horrific husband Charlie couldn’t possibly be real, and we got that. What happens to her in Part 16 is an ending, even if it is an extremely dark, provocative, and ambiguous one. So much of The Return is devoted to checking in on various characters in Twin Peaks, little stories about their lives that include a few check-ins and then either a punctuation point (as with Big Ed and Norma) or an ellipsis (as with Shelley/Bobby/Becky/Steven). Audrey’s story belongs to the latter category, but it is, structurally, of a piece with those other ‘check-ins.’ We see Audrey’s life, the state of it 25 years later – and the sad, dark truth is that it’s distant and disconnected and she now lives in a different plane of existence or experience. And I don’t know if we need any more than that, especially as the thematic particulars of Part 18 – particularly the material with Diane – addresses so powerfully the notions of misogyny that were key to Audrey’s scenes. Her absence will surely be the most controversial element of the finale, and I get it, but on reflection, it bothers me much less than I would have expected.

Subscribe to The Weekly Stuff Podcast to catch our next episode, where we will dive into both halves of the Twin Peaks finale in depth.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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