The subtle yet sharp politics of “Twin Peaks: The Return”

CAITLYN SAMPLEY / AGGIE

The gum you like is NOT coming back in style (the gum is America)

It’s been a year since the revolutionary third season of “Twin Peaks” began its stunning 18-episode run, about 25 years after the conclusion of the original show. Seemingly an apolitical escapist mystery, “The Return” actually provides sharp commentary on modern American life and politics, especially when viewed in the context of the original seasons.

The first two seasons of “Twin Peaks” oozed a deep love, warmth and tenderness that seduced viewers. The show was filled with delightfully quirky characters who helped the show become a cult classic. There was the earnest Sheriff Harry S. Truman, the eye-patch-clad and silent-drape-runner-obsessed Nadine Hurley, the eccentric red-and-blue-glasses-wearing Dr. Jacoby, the charming but blissfully naive Lucy and Andy and of course The Log Lady, who receives messages on a log that she carries around (as one does).

It had a stereotypical daytime TV aesthetic, fusing murder mystery with cop drama, soap opera tropes, and added Lynchian flavor that is just straight-up bizarre. This genre-fluidity created a very distinct tone and brilliantly used the McGuffin of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” as a way to explore traditional idealized small-town American life, sometimes in a celebratory way and other times in a more satirical or critical manner, akin to Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet.” The show is made all the more remarkable for how it demonstrates the importance of enjoying the little things in life, like damn good coffee and cherry pie, when we live in a world filled with evil and injustice.

In “The Return,” however, David Lynch and Mark Frost use audience expectations about the show as a way to communicate ideas about America as a whole. They employ two techniques that work in tandem to achieve a unique style of social and political commentary.

First, they manipulate the sense of nostalgia for the elements that characterized the original episodes. In distorting the traditional ingredients of Twin Peaks into a totally different product, it makes audiences yearn for what they initially fell in love with and showing how sad and futile it is to try to revisit or replicate them. This message can relate to non-political ideas, as it often does within the show itself, but the idea acquires great political significance as Americans are in the midst of a political movement predicated on the idea that we need to return to something lost in order to make something great again.

Second, Lynch and Frost deconstruct many elements of American mythology, like the steadfast heroic male figure, the glory of the West and the power (both political and destructive) of the nuclear bomb, making viewers question why they were so transfixed by glorified American lore in the first place. On a more meta level, the former technique serves as a simulation of the latter, with idealized elements of the show filling the place of idealized elements of America as a whole.

In “The Return,” Lynch harnesses all of the nostalgia for this universe that viewers came to love in order to show us why we can never go home again — and why it is dangerous to think that we can. Fans are given virtually nothing they want, from tone and narrative down to the music. Many critics noted how Angelo Badalamenti’s music that played multiple times in every episode of the original show was used sparingly in “The Return” with “weaponized” precision to maximize the emotional impact on the viewer. The aesthetic was quite different as well, with more realistic lighting, no variability of lens focus and a much colder feel in general, excluding the more abstract scenes. “The Return” is really the perfect name for a season that is indeed a return to this beloved world, just like we wanted. But this world has changed and has not been preserved as we remember it or want it to be, just like with many people’s view of America.

Lynch’s drastic changes to the style and characters make viewers desperately miss what couldn’t be replicated or preserved when he presents not the lovely, enchanting town of Twin Peaks fixed in the viewer’s mind, but a decaying America. A hapless man who lives in a trailer park discusses how a friend is struggling to pay medical bills, how he has been selling his own blood to get money and has been getting ripped off for work he is doing. We witness the Twin Peaks chapter of the opioid epidemic from the perspective of a drug-dealing crime ring and see how it has claimed the futures of Shelly’s daughter and son-in-law. As the narrative expands out of Twin Peaks to depict more of America, we are shown decrepit empty neighborhoods of large houses in Las Vegas, one of which is tragically occupied by a young child and his drugged-out mother. In almost every episode, Lynch presents in a booth at The Roadhouse seemingly random stories from random people struggling through their lives in modern America, working multiple jobs in the service industry and dealing with difficult employers.

Many fan-favorite characters now have an air of sadness. Despite having had a (now drug-addicted) child together, Shelly and Bobby Briggs are divorced. Big Ed Hurley and Norma Jennings are still trying to ignore their overwhelming love for each other. Sheriff Truman (whose actor Michael Ontkean retired from acting) never appears and is said to be quite ill, presumably with cancer. His brother Frank has taken his place as sheriff, a character whose own son was a combat veteran who committed suicide. Audrey Horne is trapped in a weird Lodge-like purgatory, arguing in exasperation with her husband in what can only be described as Lynch’s version of “Waiting for Godot.”

And then there is Dr. Jacoby. In his older age, the oddball psychiatrist has amazingly transformed into Dr. Amp, an anti-government, borderline-conspiracy theorist in the mold of Alex Jones (a fan of Lost Highway). Despite his bravado and showmanship, most of what he says sounds relatively reasonable, reflecting some of the fears, anxieties and skepticism that are felt on both ends of the political spectrum. He discusses “microbial toxins, bacterial toxins, environmental toxins, our air, our water, our earth, the very soil itself, our food, our bodies poisoned, poisoned,” as well as the “vast global corporate conspiracy.” In a show largely about the passage of time, this showcases how some people can get a bit nutty and politically extreme as they age, something very relatable for most Americans.

The intersection between the show’s manipulation of nostalgia and its ruthless dissolution of American lore occurs when looking at the iconic protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper. Audiences love Dale Cooper because he is idiosyncratic and unconventional but also the embodiment of the straightlaced, virtuous lawman who’s ready to take on the world. After all, he works for the FBI, which is supposed to be seen as an overwhelming force for good, an institution that represents American values and American justice (this has taken on additional political relevance with today’s attacks on the FBI).

The subtitle “The Return” also applies to the long-awaited return of Cooper, who has been trapped for 25 years in the purgatory of the Black Lodge, or the Red Room. But Lynch withholds the satisfaction of seeing Cooper for almost the entire season. After Cooper exits the Black Lodge, he’s an a catatonic state of shock at reentering the world and forced to live in the role of Dougie Jones.

This is not the Cooper the audience wanted. He is unresponsive and his only words are repetitions of what is said to him, and his portion of the plot seems to go nowhere. This apparent narrative paralysis initially confounds and frustrates the viewer. Lynch joyfully teases the audience with hints of the old Cooper, like his extreme positive reactions to coffee and cherry pie and his fixation on a police badge and a statue of a cowboy, a classic symbol of American heroism — suggesting that this is a role that Cooper, trapped inside Dougie, is anxious to fill himself.

As the possibility that Cooper may never awaken becomes more and more real, it becomes easier to really start enjoying the weird experiment in performance art that is Dougie Jones. Dougie is actually extraordinarily entertaining and fascinating in his own Chauncey Gardiner-like way. This is one of Lynch’s most interesting exercises in nostalgia. After letting go of Cooper, we start to love Dougie-Coop and realize that the positive impacts that Dougie-Coop unwittingly brings to everyone around him make him fulfill the same function as the original Cooper. Thus, Lynch succeeds in defying nostalgia by teaching us to let go of the old and fall in love with the new. He gives us someone new to love, bringing us to a new destination that we didn’t expect or know we wanted, a new home. (Home. Lancelot Court. Red Door.)

Lynch eventually stops trolling the audience and allows Cooper to wake up, but this ecstasy does not last. After what briefly appears to be a hint of a “satisfying resolution” in the penultimate episode, Lynch turns the story on its head. Even though we now have our idealized version of Cooper back, Lynch forces us to confront our expectations and preconceived notions about the confident ready-for-anything American hero by destroying Cooper’s morale and sense of purpose one step at a time.

In the finale, Cooper finds himself on a cowboy-like interdimensional odyssey as the lone hero intent on saving the girl. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody likens this to John Wayne’s character in “The Searchers.” He is out to achieve what he thinks will restore order, but unlike in “The Searchers,” the hero is not successful and we learn that he is naive to think that he knows what he is doing. As Hawk says to Cooper in the original series, “Cooper, you may be fearless in this world, but there are other worlds.”

Cooper travels through time and space in an obsessive attempt to save Laura and thinks he has been successful, but Laura is then plucked away by Judy (the extreme negative force and mother of all evil) and inserted into another horrible situation in some parallel reality. Cooper’s heroic odyssey to save her leads him to Laura’s new location, Odessa, fittingly, where he actually has an altercation with three cowboys.

After Cooper finds Laura, he’s confident he’s following a smart plan by taking her home, even though she thinks she’s somebody else now. When arriving at the original Palmer house, they find that it’s occupied by residents with no knowledge of Laura’s mother, which unsettles and perplexes Cooper, making him realize he doesn’t even know what year it is. The audience then realizes that he’s in over his head against forces that he doesn’t understand.

The credits are faintly superimposed with the one of the series’ most important recurring images: Laura whispering into Cooper’s ear inside the Red Room. I believe that she is whispering that she is doomed to suffer no matter what and that Cooper’s heroism cannot change the evils that were wrought upon her, no matter how hard he tries. Because of Cooper’s failure to understand the evil forces he is facing and even his own purpose, he effectively can’t be the heroic savior. Lynch brutally humbles Cooper and shatters our profound reverence for him. This makes us doubt why we put so much stock in seemingly infallible hero-figures, both in works of fiction and in the real world.

Deflating Cooper and likening him to a Western hero is a crucial part of Lynch’s larger indictment of the glorification of the American West. The show’s plot itself is a reenactment of America’s westward expansion, spreading from Philadelphia and New York to South Dakota, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and eventually the Pacific Northwest. This expansion is associated with the great injustices done to the Native Americans, a chapter of history that is too often ignored. While Lynch is sometimes criticized for the overwhelming whiteness of his work, there is also a view that, in his vision of America, “whiteness is the source of all evil” — that much of the terror, horror and misfortune experienced by white people in his films are manifestations of white guilt over the evils they have committed in the past.

Lynch also twists imagery associated with the West to give a sinister, not comforting, vibe. Stand-alone convenience stores and gas stations appear frequently in the show, but not as a type of weigh station where good old small town folks can cross paths with travelers and truckers along vast stretches of empty American highway. Instead, Lynch uses a convenience store as a type of portal through which evil spirits can congregate and enter and exit our world.

Long stretches of episodes also take place behind the wheel of cars. Rather than showing the beauty of the West’s expansive landscapes during the day, Lynch almost always films driving scenes at night, showing what the driver sees — only what the headlights can illuminate. The rest is pitch black. These driving scenes make the viewer “feel the road” and all the loneliness and isolation attached to it. The grainy imagery of passing power pole after power pole gives the sensation of being transferred down the wire-like highway like an electric charge, with only brief stops at the familiar, recognizable or distinguishable.

Arguably the most crucial scene of “The Return” occurs in “Part 8” in the great emptiness of the desert near White Sands, New Mexico. This is a flashback to the Trinity Test, the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon. The nuclear bomb can be seen as a symbol for American dominance, ingenuity and leadership that defined post-war America, contributing to the sense of “greatness” that so many people think we lost and feel nostalgic for today. This was a defining moment of “The American Century,” for better and for worse.

Lynch goes with “for worse.” In the midst of the hellfire that follows the detonation, Lynch depicts the birth of Bob, the villain for most of the series, who is synonymous with evil. Lynch sees this first nuclear detonation as a rip in the fabric of space time that birthed a new strain of modern evil, embodied by the violent lust of Bob, and conveyed with greater efficiency and ruthlessness than before with modern technology, represented by seemingly-benign electricity. Much of the season took place in Las Vegas, just miles from the immense power and electricity-generating capacity of Hoover Dam. Making ordinary things like chairs, lamps, phones or electricity take on a sinister character all throughout “The Return” is a common Lynchism.

Bob’s violent lust and his lust for violence tie into the show inciting action and abuse against women. Since Bob represents this violence and abuse and is a product of nuclearization, this reminds me of the misogynistic conversations at the end of “Dr. Strangelove” that are just as much about women as they are about war. Conversations of course end with the same familiar yet, in this case, non-comforting mushroom cloud imagery.

In “The Return,” Lynch and Frost don’t present what many fans thought they wanted. However, they certainly provided something that nobody expected or realized needed to be said about an America that desperately clings to the past.

It’s no coincidence that Lynch has long ardently advocated and practiced Transcendental Meditation. He often discusses the role that this plays in his creative process, which is all about “fishing for ideas” in the subconscious, letting them grow organically and following intuition. Lynch is a very sensitive and keen observer and thinker, and it’s for these reasons that modern America is reflected so accurately in his magnum opus — not because he actively set out to be political, but because he simply couldn’t have arrived at another possible way to revisit the material with honesty and authenticity after seeing three decades of change in America.

Reboots of old television shows are typically made to satiate strong cravings for nostalgia and escapism. With this understanding, Lynch works against the collective desire for what is old, familiar and accepted, instead showing the dangers of fixating and obsessing over the past and the mythologized.

 

 

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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