FLAMMABLE AND INFLAMMABLE both mean “easy to burn,” though many people have tested their luck by reading inflammable as “fire-proof.” Flammable is, in one sense, how Lynch pronounces human. On the eighth and finest hour of Twin Peaks: The Return, his elegant pyrotechnics commemorate the birth of today’s America, and a near-wordless script shows that whether you describe a monstrous act as human or inhuman, you are right. But you are not trying to be right, you’re trying to be sincere, an effort so helpless as to defer meaning. Igor Stravinsky, a man so depraved he once asked the Nazis—nicely—to unban his works, felt sincerity in art to be “a sine qua non that at the same time guarantees nothing.”
That there are no more guarantees in Lynch’s late direction is obvious. Ditto that this eighteen-part limited series, a presumptive sinecure for Lynch that he took as a gamble instead, has proved auteurs are so necessary. I knew as soon as the “retired” filmmaker signed on with Showtime, having shrugged off the network’s first offer, and demanded, in addition to full control, a bigger budget, that The Return would be great. Why else would I recap a television show, a task for which the term “armchair critic” was designed, and which is, accordingly, thankless and useless!? Prepared to be wowed, I still wasn’t ready for the unplugged rage and beauty of this episode, titled—I forgot the episodes have titles, but this one is very good—“The Last Evening.” Stravinsky would find it pleasurable. I did not. I recommend watching it twice.
The first thing that happens has happened before. On the eighth episode of the original Twin Peaks (1990–91), Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) opens the door to his room at the Great Northern only to be greeted by Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the shenanigans-loving owner of the Packard Sawmill, with a gun and three bullets to his chest. Now, five minutes into part eight of The Return, a friend named Ray (some friend) turns around on Mr. C, Cooper’s apparent doppelganger, and shoots him thrice. He dies, which is a shame because he just got out of prison. Ray (George Griffith) feels fine about it. But lo, from the woods emerge phantasms in sackcloth and ashes, or regular clothes they haven’t washed in decades. The Woodsmen, as they’re called in the credits, swarm around the body, making a performance out of exorcism or resuscitation, until the face of BOB appears in an amniotic bubble drawn from Mr. C’s chest. Ray drives off.
Interlude: Nine Inch Nails, live at the old roadhouse, play their 2016 song “She’s Gone Away.” Trent Reznor excellently impersonates a screaming BOB. The track sounds like it features a large elephant, but no elephant is to be seen. Mysterious.
Cooper sits up in a jolt.
Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes’s Paris season at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913, a year and two months before Germany declared war on France. There were riots, and (mocking?) calls for a doctor. There were objections to the story, about a young woman who voluntarily dances herself to death in a needed sacrifice to the renewing world; to the frustrating score, which one critic exclaimed “always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” and the concussive or even seizure-like rhythms; and to the dancing, by Nijinsky, so inconcinnus, visceral. Twenty-five years later, the Manhattan Project began with the discovery of nuclear fission, and a year after that World War II began. Then The Rite of Spring made perfect sense.
Imagine having been a child in the jaundiced dawn of the Atomic Age, anticipating the death of all you’d known, the reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki transposed on your Manhattan, or your Missoula, Montana. Imagine seeing one photograph in particular, depicting the instant shared death of a hundred thousand people and thinking, “I have an idea.” Seeing a perfect image in . . . a mushroom cloud, and making it your own. Who is so outrageous? Sylvia Plath? Bruce Conner? I would kill someone to have that kind of brain, which is why God didn’t give it to me. He gave it to Lynch, who reappears on The Return as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, now with a fancier office, and behind his wide desk, as we saw in the third hour, a wider black-and-white photograph of a nuclear blast. Five hours later, this completely inappropriate decorating choice is explained.
We go to the first detonation of an atomic bomb, in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:45 AM (MWT). The date and time, with its stressed specificity, is like an evangelical’s save-the-date for this year’s doomsday. The Trinity Test we are about to see did in fact take place, but a shimmer of unlikelihood, like this is unbelievable, remains. The cloud mushrooms and swallows the camera, so it feels like we’re shrinking, like Alice in . . . Hell. The colors are too much for words: imperial purple, incarnadine orange, gold. (Lynch, in his wonderfully inadequate explanation for dissecting a stranger’s recently deceased cat in his basement, said that “when I opened up the inside, it was unbelievable—the organs inside the cat were brilliant colors, and as soon as the air got to them, all the color started draining out, right before your eyes.”) The rest of the episode is in lambent black-and-white, as in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are quivering shots, almost stills, displaying staticky, patterned abstractions that look like Ross Bleckner’s paintings after AIDS. Bleckner has said that the disease, with its radioactive threat, was “a total paradigm shift in consciousness, a rupture.”
The vertiginous cinematography, the sensation of falling through a long telescope, and the upheaving sound track—Penderecki’s 1960 “Threnody to the Victims at Hiroshima”—could make anyone remember Stanley Kubrick, particularly his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Remember, too, the strange love is mutual: Kubrick screened Eraserhead for the cast and crew of The Shining (1980), to set the mood.) The way certain images vibrate and rattle like in a skull, lighting up the brain like a pinball machine, makes me think about the similar cracked landscapes (deserts, casinos, labyrinthian motels) of Nina Menkes, the under-known auteur who shares with Lynch a devotion to Buñuel and Maya Deren, and to Jungian views on the underworld. Menkes once told an interviewer that she takes cues from a Gertrude Stein lecture, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?,” which she paraphrased, saying, “If you re-create something, it doesn’t have the organic precision of the spontaneous moment of creation.” (This is one reason that remakes of most films, reboots of most television shows, are unwise no matter how welcome.)
Why, seventy years after Stein, are there even fewer masterpieces per capita? Because generations of artists found it impossible to compete with a masterpiece, a “total paradigm shift in consciousness” like AIDS, or the A-Bomb. Lynch excels at creative recursion, starting with a simple, paradigmatic binary, the zero and one of dark and light, or Adam and Eve, that turns out to launch a Fibonacci spiral, and when he repeats himself it’s more like he never forgets. After the detonation, we see the Woodsmen at a convenience store and gas station, shuffling in stop-motion before drifting out like unstrung marionettes, a choreography recalling the sexless—automated but not easy—dancing we saw at the start of Mulholland Drive (2001), the chaste couples swinging off-time with their shadows. Nine years later, in the same area, a tumescent, hideous insect emerges from a small, mottled carapace that looks like the shit-talking wad of gum in the Black Lodge. A girl and a boy walk past the empty gas station; he asks whether she likes some song, she lets slip that she knows where he goes to school. What echoes is the meet-cute between Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) and Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) in Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), when Sandy “just knows” who he is. Reincarnation, hinted at where two people feel like they’ve known each other forever, is a funny principle, and more spontaneous in its way than creation, certainly a more unlikely and difficult principle for a creator to assume.
Meanwhile, on a two-lane road, a husband and wife stop the car so some Woodsmen can cross. One comes to the car, sticks his head in the window, and points with a cigarette. “Got a light?” he says, his voice a cello bow scraped across a rock face. “Got a light?” At a radio station the DJ is playing a song and his secretary is busy. A mechanic listens while burning the midnight oil; a waitress while cleaning up at the diner; and the girl in her flowered bedroom, dreaming about the boy she just kissed. When the twilight has gone, the song goes, and no songbirds are singing. The Woodsman enters the station, and the secretary moves toward him in an awful trance. “Got a light?” he says, but by now it is evident that nobody has a goddamn lighter.
The Woodsman begins to crush skulls, killing first the secretary, then the DJ. Lynch opened Wild at Heart (1990) with Sailor (Nicolas Cage) crushing a man’s skull in much the same way, like saying, “It’s not all in your head now, is it.” This is not the best way to communicate, but it does grant the Woodsman access to more listeners, and taking the DJ’s microphone, he prophesies:
This is the water,
and this is the well . . .
The horse is the white of the eyes,
and dark within.
Someone whose primary reaction to the surreal is to say, “Whoaaaa,” and then nothing, eliminating hassles of the mind by believing “the work speaks for itself,” will take the sequence to be mere proof that Lynch explodes brains. Someone more inclined to believe that the work speaks about itself will recognize the white horse from Sarah Palmer’s premonitions and the Red Room, a harbinger of death—like in the Book of Revelation, and more ambiguously in Godard’s King Lear (1987, another ultimate late film). I’m nervous about being spoken to, but I have some old-fashioned faith in pure symbolism: what a white horse means to a girl who cannot dream of riding one. Death is too near life to be symbolized, but a dying wish, or even a death wish, can be a symbol—if it can be nothing else.
Maybe the best thing about Lynch is his absolute refusal to leave America. When he is not on earth, he is still in America; when he is dreaming, he is still in America. Mid-episode, between 1945 and 1956 on the clock, he takes us across a livid sea to a Streamline Moderne kind of castle, where the Giant (Carel Struycken) lives with a silent woman (Leslie Berger), made up for a silent film, in sequins. A gramophone, the jacquard clamshell settee, the Tiffany lamps, all telegraph the Jazz Age, while the crepitant electricity takes me back to the night Frankenstein’s bride was born, in the mid-1930s. A spotlight follows the woman who follows the Giant across the empty floor of a theater, going right up to the screen, where the explosion, the stars, the gas station, the face of BOB on an asteroid, all we saw, replays to the Giant’s astonishment. He levitates and issues from his eyeballs a primordial gold light and dust (like we saw when the little boy dies on the street in the sixth hour), followed by a golden orb (like the one formed from the body of Dougie Jones when he trades places with Cooper in the Red Room). The orb bears Laura Palmer’s face, mirroring the asteroid as if she and BOB were obverse, but they’re also separate, equal and whole. Lynch does not have to follow Marguerite Duras to Hiroshima to get to the other side. He locates (in)humanity at the test site, where for two hundred miles around there was no human presence: a void, in other words, where a nation usurped its own God so there was no one else left to blame for evil.
“The real question this episode asks,” says the critic Sean T. Collins for Rolling Stone, “is no more or less than the one pilot Robert A. Lewis asked [somewhat apocryphally] when he dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima: My god, what have we done?” Lewis said that as long as he lived, he would never forget those few minutes. He never attended a reunion of the flight crew. He spent the rest of his life working in a candy factory, a common way to make a good living, but one that, reduced to a biographical footnote, reads like an overstatement on manufacturing innocence. Lynch and Frost could have written a man like Lewis, a sweet man, no doubt, who died of a plain old heart attack, a touch on the young side. How dare we go on, is the follow-up question, and how do we?
The Woodsman’s words make the waitress faint at the diner and the mechanic collapse while the engine runs. The girl only sleeps. The insect comes to her open window, and her mouth opens, so it crawls in. I guess she could have let him in devil-like by having succumbed to temptation with a boy, but really the sin is of the father, the scene incestuous, as ever with Lynch.
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s individual recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:
Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.