The stunning return of ‘Twin Peaks’
Matthew Munhall | Monday, September 4, 2017
In 1990, director/writer pair David Lynch and Mark Frost introduced network television viewers to Twin Peaks, an idyllic logging town (population: 51,201) in Washington state. The pilot of the ABC series begins with gauzy images: plumes of smoke rising from the lumber mill, fog obscuring the titular mountains and a waterfall cascading into a river below. That placid scene is quickly ruptured, however, when the body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic, is discovered on the riverbank.
As FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigates Laura’s murder, he discovers that things in Twin Peaks are not what they seem. The wholesome facades — like the Double R Diner, where waitresses clad in ’50s uniforms serve cherry pie — belie the horror lurking just beneath the surface. With “Twin Peaks,” Lynch and Frost fused soap opera, police procedural, supernatural mystery and art house film; while it aired for just two seasons, the series pushed the boundaries of televisual storytelling.
Twenty five years later, Lynch and Frost have revisited that mysterious town in the Pacific Northwest with “Twin Peaks: The Return,” an 18-part series which concluded its run on Sunday night. “The Return” is nothing short of a masterpiece. The series is not content merely replicating the most beloved aspects of the original; instead, it is formally inventive and utterly surprising episode to episode. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in an essay for Vulture, “The new ‘Peaks’ exists, like other Lynch films, somewhere between narrative storytelling and pure abstraction, between classical and jazz, between the real world and the dream world.”
The original series hinged on the question of a murder mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? This time around, the questions are thornier. What does it mean to return home? How do you reckon with the passing of time? How do you break a vicious cycle of violence? “The Return” provides no easy answers, and that seems like it would be beside the point anyways. When asked in a 1987 interview whether everything in art has a meaning, Lynch replied, “I don’t know what a lot of things mean. … My work is full of abstract ideas but they are ideas I know about. My first inspiration is life, therefore everything makes sense because it is linked to life.”
As in life, many of the residents of Twin Peaks have been weathered by the intervening twenty-five years. Our hero, Agent Cooper, has been trapped in the extra-dimensional Black Lodge, while his evil doppelganger wrecks havoc in the real world. Coquettish ingenue Audrey Horne has become bitter and angry, stuck in an unhappy marriage. The psychologist Dr. Jacoby, one of the few people who truly understood Laura, has turned into an unhinged conspiracy theorist. Laura’s mother Sarah spends her nights alone with a bottle of vodka, still overwhelmed with grief.
Visually, “The Return” is just as striking. Lynch, who directed all 18 episodes, is unparalleled in creating surreal, indelible images. So many moments from the series have been seared into my mind — from Sarah Palmer removing her face to Audrey Horne recreating her iconic dance. Perhaps the most impressive is Episode 8, which is perhaps the most genuinely experimental hour to ever air on American television. Lynch offers an origin story for postwar America, in which the inception of nuclear weapons introduces an evil spirit into the world. The camera zooms inside the Trinity test at White Sands, New Mexico, in 1945, with a flurry of lights and color that left me awestruck.
It is this ability to experiment with form, subvert expectations and wrestle with existential questions that makes “Twin Peaks: The Return” one of the most impressive works of art in recent memory. That it even exists at all feels — like so many of the series’ best moments — like a dream.