TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 2017

TELEVISION

MEMENTO MORI

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, production still from a TV show on Showtime. Part 3. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER ONCE SAID that he sought to build a house with his films, each one a wall or floor or window—an additive process that would ultimately reveal a representative edifice. This metaphor helps illuminate the wondrous improbability of David Lynch’s eighteen-hour Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). What we have here is not an artist in his twilight years unveiling a crowning capstone, but one with the resources and the will to erect a whole new structure from the ground up: a house built in a single late burst of inspiration, big enough to hold a life’s work.

Directed in full by Lynch and cowritten with Twin Peaks cocreator Mark Frost, The Return is both culmination and summation. All of Lynch is here: the primitive movie magic of his handcrafted early shorts; the lever-cranking cosmology and slo-mo slapstick of Eraserhead (1977); the crude body horror and extreme violence of his art brut paintings; the stylized sound design and defamiliarized language; the words and numbers of obscure significance floating in pockets of white noise; the peerlessly intuitive actors (Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Grace Zabriskie) tuned in to his particular wavelength, sly and deadly serious; and of course, the parallel-world and alter ego confusion that has become his stock-in-trade.

But The Return is not content simply to replay the hits. The original 1990–91 series fulfilled Umberto Eco’s primary condition for a cult object, inviting fans into “a completely furnished world.” For Lynch, however, every return to Twin Peaks has been an opportunity to vandalize the furniture and empty out the world. The prequel Fire Walk with Me (1992) was a perverse reanimation project, predestined to end with the brutal death of its heroine. Picking up as MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper is completing his twenty-five-year purgatory in the Black Lodge, this long-delayed third season contrives—through murky doppelgänger metaphysics involving the very Lynchian combo of electricity and vomit—to trap the beloved Cooper for a dozen episodes within the serenely concussed form of insurance agent Dougie Jones, while yet another clone, the glowering Evil Coop unleashed at the end of season two, roams the criminal badlands.

Twenty-five years is a lot of negative space and time for any narrative enterprise to absorb into its diegesis, and right off the bat, The Return suggests that there may not be a Twin Peaks to return to. This is still a Lynchian world—where evil intrudes frequently and with mythological force—but the series strays far from the cozy confines of its eponymous Pacific Northwest logging town. We drift through the nowhere spaces of twenty-first-century America—lonely highways, nondescript suburbs, anonymous hotel rooms and office buildings in Vegas; New York; and Buckhorn, South Dakota—often with characters we hardly know and with only the barest traces of Angelo Badalamenti’s surging score for company. Showtime surely banked on the Proustian pleasures of a rebooted franchise, but this revival was designed to make nostalgists choke on their cherry pie.

Based on its four-hundred-page script, the project was green-lighted to span nine hours; Lynch, playing hardball, doubled the running time. As a result, the ceaseless forward motion typically mandated by narrative television all but evaporates, and the effect is mesmerizing. The Return’s various plotlines enmesh the Twin Peaks Sherriff’s Department, an assortment of inept local authorities, and the FBI—with Lynch reprising his role as the foghorn-voiced Gordon Cole—in the case of Cooper’s reemergence and a few fresh murders that no one is in any hurry to solve. Filled with scenes that outlast any expository purpose, The Return seems to dilate time itself. Duration becomes a source of absurdist comedy and a tool of creeping derangement, but it is also a reason to linger, which is fitting, given how many final farewells take place. The original Twin Peaks revolved around a single dead girl, but in The Return, populated with an abundance of lined faces and frail bodies, death is everywhere. Many of its cast members—including Miguel Ferrer, who plays Cole’s abrasive sidekick Albert; Catherine E. Coulson, who filmed her tremulous Log Lady scenes days before her death; and Harry Dean Stanton, who died less than two weeks after the finale aired—are no longer with us.

Lynch’s films can be seen as charged environments that permit multiple selves, parallel planes, and wildly conflicting moods and emotions to coexist. The enormous canvas of The Return makes for a more porous universe, one with more flexible cosmic laws, which means the central Lynchian questions—where one character or reality begins and another ends—are harder than ever to answer. That didn’t stop people from trying. The Return emerged into the maw of instant analysis—Reddit threads, overnight recaps—that the original series, with its message-board congregants, helped usher into being. Twin Peaks has always been a text that invites communal decoding, and throughout The Return, introducing more mysteries than they seem able or willing to tackle, Lynch and Frost are by turns generous and amusingly indifferent toward the show’s interpretive community.

It’s no surprise, given Lynch’s belief that narrative closure is a kind of death, that The Return doesn’t tie up its loose ends so much as let them hang suggestively as phantom limbs. The two-hour finale rushes into a knowingly preposterous good-versus-evil showdown, so unsatisfactory even to Cooper that it prompts him to travel back to 1989 to prevent Laura Palmer’s murder (and erase the very world of Twin Peaks). Grinding to a halt in front of the Palmer residence, site of original sin and unthinkable trauma, The Return ends by questioning the reliability of memory and the possibility of homecoming. The desperate desire to rewrite the past is in line with such previous Lynch works as Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), not to mention that Lynch lodestar, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But those films were all tragedies of failed reenactment. The dark genius of The Return, which has the most chilling ending in all of Lynch, is that it dares to wonder what it would mean to succeed.

Dennis Lim is Director of Programming at the film society of Lincoln Center in New York and the author of David Lynch: The Man From Another Place (New Harvest, 2015).