In the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, there are two births: of good, and of evil. Viewers experience the horrible implications of human cruelty and are swept into a nightmarish succession of kinetic painterly images, fused together with the logic of a fever dream. I felt crushed by its descent into the grotesqueries of existence. I felt challenged to endure something so terrifying, so relentlessly destabilizing. I felt fear. It’s an overwhelming hour of filmmaking, already uncontroversially heralded as the most experimental episode of television in history. Which it may be. Chances are, it’ll stay that way.
Much has been said about how the revival of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s legendary soap opera-mystery is “disrupting” Peak TV, using Silicon Valley language to describe a TV show as it exists in the current, chaotic, over-saturated televisual landscape.
David Lynch has always been an anomaly. I don’t mean to mythologize an already over-mythologized figure, but he has undeniably operated in a singular mode throughout his 40-year career.
History will repeat itself. Twin Peaks was truly a flash in the pan, an unrepeatable expression that inspired more by abstraction than in actuality. Twin Peaks: The Return exists in the same way, and reflects Lynch’s creative myopia. It is certainly quite different from the original run, and it surely had to be, coming more than 25 years later. But it feels similarly unrepeatable, even if it does inspire more TV creators to take bigger risks in the future. It exists under specific circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. Lynch (and Frost) have only been afforded this luxury of money and freedom precisely because of a brand recognition that no one else has, at a time when networks are willing to try anything to see what works. Lynch almost certainly could not find similar funding for a film, and would’ve been forced to work under much tighter resources.
Will this low-rated, highly unconventional series have a truly lasting effect on the TV industry? Who knows.
I do know that Lynch returns again and again to the same themes (and, often, the same collaborators, actors, musicians, etc.). He seems preoccupied with something in particular, almost always asking the same questions about good, evil, violence, sex and what it means to experience life.
Lynch scratches this itch over and over to see if anything else is revealed under the scab. How does this question get answered by these characters, in this setting? It may be an endless pursuit (especially if Twin Peaks: The Return turns out to be his final audiovisual work), but he does it anyway. It is a great benefit to ourselves that we allow filmmakers to explore their core concerns repeatedly, because we need them to challenge themselves by finding new ways of making the same things interesting, and we need them to get ever closer to answering these questions for us.
This myopia is often criticized. Sofia Coppola, for example, has spent her entire career picking apart the lives of various rich white girls and their ennui. Her most recent film, The Beguiled, faced some understandable backlash for erasing black and mixed-race characters from the story’s source material, and slaves in general from her Civil War-set hothouse drama. This reaction made sense, but Coppola is extremely adept at depicting and challenging this preoccupation of hers, this thematic tendency that (consciously or not) she returns to in every project to the point of excluding anything that doesn’t fit.
Hong Sang-soo, likewise, is extremely prolific and most of his films feature men wrestling with their masculinity, to the occasional detriment of his female characters. His films feature filmmakers who drink too much, love affairs and love triangles, and subtle narrative tricks. Right Now, Wrong Then (2016) treads much of this ground, and yet the spell still holds, stronger than ever. His obsession with these themes and how his characters reckon with truth results in one of the best films of his career, as this hyper-focus allows him to experiment formally with deeper shots and gestural nuances.
Filmmakers, like viewers, can’t learn to let go. Part of the reason why Twin Peaks and its return are fundamentally unrepeatable is because Lynch’s obsessions are his own. No one has the same itches that he does. Your mileage may vary when a filmmaker seems to walk the same path, but we too often misunderstand this as a lack of growth. Growth as an artist should be simply established as how much variety there is in their themes, characters and stories. The mark of a strong artist is one that can get closer to an answer.
Twin Peaks: The Return is a careful balance of nostalgia and anti-nostalgia, as Lynch and Frost give brief hints at the characters viewers know and love from the original series, but focus the majority of the story on entirely new people. It is an unstable position, presumably by design. It’s unclear to what extent Lynch actually loved the original series and wanted to return to that world, and how much he wanted to use it as an excuse to fuck around for 18 hours unsupervised. Regardless, it functions as an example of a filmmaker literally returning in his career’s twilight to one of his largest successes, and attempting to make sense of the questions he was asking then and whether he’s still interested in finding those answers now.
“A text’s unity lies not in its origin but its destination,” Roland Barthes wrote. In other words, a text has many meanings, as many meanings as it does contexts, and it doesn’t lie anywhere in particular. However abstract an artist’s vision may be, it can be translated and understood any which way. Artists can only hope that audiences will construct in their own minds some approximation of what they intended. To that end, we can only speculate about what Lynch’s mind looks like, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Twin Peaks: The Return satisfies our collective want for more of the same, and yet we simultaneously demand our artists to visit new places with new answers. Lynch and Frost have never been interested in answers, at least when it comes to plot (they famously gave in to network pressure to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer). The answers they seek have more to do with underlying obsessions and cosmic uncertainty. “Part 8” practically functions as an aggressive thesis statement for Lynch’s career, revealing the evil underneath the surface and asking, Now what?
It is frankly unfair to ask artists at once to go back to the creations we liked, and change them just enough, but not too much. Twin Peaks: The Return is unafraid of change. In some sense, David Lynch is grappling with his own legacy and his own compulsions.
What’s that old, overused adage? That the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Artists are insane, just like everybody else. They can’t help themselves. Maybe this time an answer will be found under that wound, if only we dig deep enough.
Jake Pitre (@jake_pitre) is a writer based in Ottawa and a graduate student in Film Studies at Carleton University. He has been published at Dazed & Confused, Polygon, Hazlitt, Paste Magazine, and Real Life.