Today, February 24, is Twin Peaks Day, the day Special Agent Dale Cooper came to the titular town to investigate the murder of Laura Palmer. Apropos that, we’re reposting Matthew Schwager’s brilliant exegesis of Twin Peaks: The Return, first posted July 30, 2019.
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The final episode of The Return (and, indeed, Lynch’s entire canon) has nothing to do with the literal things, the tracing of narratives and the understanding of who does what. Those are just the literal signs we cling to as fans or are trained, mechanically, to pick out as readers. They are the beloved, classic details of Twin Peaks, and here I’m thinking of the doughnuts, the coffee, the gentle wackiness set against apprehension, the jokey soap-opera-ness, who killed Laura Palmer, and I think they are a distraction, a concession, icing meant to sell something deeper and more flammable to the masses.
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David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return recalls the Odyssey in that both stories track one man returning home. Like the Odyssey, Lynch’s story stretches on despite its forward trajectory, and, also like Homer’s tales, it is full of sensuous visuals. Homer filled the Odyssey and the Iliad with detail; one might think of the countless snapshots of slaughter in the Iliad, all those intestines removed, or maybe how the dawn is constantly busy being rosily fingertipped, etc. These details don’t do much to help one grasp what’s going on in a large sense, but they do fill out a cosmology of place, and on a more practical level they are a techne that helps you remember what comes next. If you’re ever stuck having to recite the Odyssey from memory at a lodge or something, it’s good to have dawn’s fingertips buried in your mind. When a break occurs and all the characters have gone to sleep, it might be the only thing that jump-starts your memory for the morning of the next scene.
Like the Iliad, The Return pushes the viewer’s memory into recording by the sheer scalding weight of its viscera. Lynch has a special talent for inserting fireworks when they’ll best burn your retinas while still leaving narrative flow undisturbed. A good example is in The Return’s final stretch, where a young character, hapless and loathsome, is electrocuted by spectral lightning. He shakes and his body vaporizes, but for a split second his head is left flapping in the night air, a punctuation mark that closes the action. In another scene, a doppelgänger is summoned to the Black Lodge, a nether other-place, to be consolidated into the pure matter it once was. During the process, the character is digitally frozen, twitching in the exact way you think it will, which is also the exact way you wish it wouldn’t. And in the very first episode of the season, a banshee-like figure swoops upon a surprised couple, shredding their faces. The sticky moment here isn’t the gore that comes from their new facial cavities. It’s that the camera lingers on the jostling corpses for a few beats too many, not quite self-parody, just long enough to make you feel helpless. These minute production details do literally nothing to motivate the plot, but they stick and sizzle, in some cases defining the entire surrounding scene in their brief ghastliness. They’re bardic little bits, stunning so much and vaporizing so quickly they structure the whole season in an underhanded way, providing a mnemonic for recalling what is basically a massless experience, because The Return is so large and so sprawling in its passages that it could be called without narrative. I can barely remember any characters’ names, and yet I could probably talk to you for hours about what little gory details came first, second, third, and last.
The Return might look like Odysseus’ sailing story, as Dale Cooper trudges through the foreign kingdoms of Las Vegas, the requisite pit boss monsters and slot-machine labyrinths accounted for. His path is as sprawling as Odysseus’ was. Cooper spends how many episodes working for an insurance firm, for god’s sake, a version of Circe’s island, just without the pigs (though he’s surrounded by insurance agents, who might be good analogs). But The Return is really a Penelope story, she who waited in her palace unlooping the shroud she was weaving, keeping suitors at bay. Tonally, The Return meanders. We see tensions mount, mysteries deepen, intrigue interweave with intrigue, conferences get held in which disturbing secrets and confessions of actions from long ago are shared. But these developments amount to nothing. They are held in the stationary settings of bureaucratic offices, unbothered small-town morgues, and bucolic trailer parks, these sedentary places overriding any motion that might otherwise have occurred. Nothing happens. The Return constantly unloops itself, waiting for something. Like Homer’s works, there’s demigods, too; and Cooper himself, who does indeed complete his return, is godlike in a way, a bit larger-than-life like Odysseus, but the thing that effects true action is still missing at the end. No matter what happens along the way, no matter the magnitude of the series’ actions, the crux of the series, Laura Palmer’s redemption, is simply not gotten to. Something else needs to intervene.
Lynch might be an expert in bardic technique, but he’s also an expert about trauma, apparently. Unlike heroic narratives, which see our Odysseuses returning home and setting things right, The Return insists that Laura Palmer’s traumas cannot be removed or relieved by any such narrative development. They can only be expressed, and Lynch’s oeuvre is one long instance of trauma getting expressed. No matter how strong Dale Cooper’s coffee or eventual moxie is, when he does come to the rescue, Laura remains as she is, even though she’s reincarnated as a different woman entirely. Here, the idea of a hero coming back to put ends together, or the idea of things ending at all, is artifice. Instead, the landscape moves forward in constant motion, with or without its characters.
A near-final shot in The Return tells of this. It’s not a gutty little special effect but instead a long poetic. Dale Cooper has returned from his journey and his doppelgänger is slain. He goes back in time to the forest in which Laura Palmer was murdered in order to finally fulfill his purpose as saver. As she stumbles toward her fate in the night of the woods, Cooper stands there and calls out. It is dark, we do not see Laura’s face well, and she is confused by the man in the suit. But he takes her hand and leads her through the underbrush.
They make it a way, then Laura blinks, glitches, simmers out of existence. She underpins this timeline, or the very idea of a timeline, and cannot just be plucked from it. Cooper is left unwieldy. This idea alone could resolve the series, but it doesn’t. Instead, we continue following Cooper, who turns around, disbelieving, and here is the shot. Looking for Laura, he sees the branches of the forest moving gracefully in the darkness, shifting in the wind. It is silent save for Laura’s scream, already dissolving into the past. As the trees and plants sway, they don’t stand as separates any longer, but they mesh into one wall of being, and this being returns Cooper’s gaze. That a forest could return a gaze is cosmic horror at play. In the woods, or of the woods, within the woods, is something that knows, something older than Cooper or Laura or the series itself, an actor that, like Cooper, is outside time but is older than old time. And as Cooper gazes and the woods sway darkly, gazing back, the scene fades slowly into the next, a setting at the Bang Bang Bar with its red curtain, but Lynch knows how to use this, too, and the curtain paints a faint red wash under the trees as it comes in. In this redness, the trees appear to molder and transform and collapse upon themselves, the enormous and moldering plant matter enfolding itself as a universe roiling. It moves in horror. So subtle you could miss it, so vacuous you could be lost in it. Then the scene turns and the trees fade as you contemplate with scorched soul or not what you just saw.
Lynch’s cosmic horror doesn’t clamp down upon itself in worrying about the ineffability of things. It instead elects to keep moving. In his work there’s never a concrete sense of anything so much as there’s a shifting sense of everything, a certain potential that never reaches summation, or a continued and constant entry into new places. The places themselves can be pitch black, but alongside them there’s something like a blackened hope, a wish for things to be as they should be, an ending that requires more than what we have to be put right. This is a sense of longing. The work I know that most measures up to Lynch’s multivalence of horror is that of the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. They, too, love their cosmic horrors, their catalogue seemingly endless and filled with works that color in eschatology and the impossible grotesque. They have a cheeky sensibility that skips tenderness and goes straight for twisting up Lovecraft-y scientific materialism and romanticism, the twin poles of Western epistemic error. Sometimes the title of one of their works is a Lovecraft reference or an inverted gothic trope, or they’ll just take a full paragraph from Lovecraft and use it unedited as the title of a single print. They aren’t above using children’s sing-along lyrics or a Henrich Heine excerpt to title a print of someone being disemboweled.
This Young British Artist cheekiness flavors their entire output. The Chapmans’ constant touchstone is their own conceptual bankruptcy as artists, them being the eternal clown idiots of the art world. One exhibition had their framed prints not hung in a neat, properly spaced line along the gallery walls but instead arranged to form a giant cartoon dog, like a Keith Haring puppy, with a few single prints falling out of its behind as cute little shits. That they’re enshrined in the Tate is kind of like the White House hiring a cook from The 120 Days of Sodom as executive chef, which is a bit their primary objective. Their talent is detecting an institution’s most tender conceptual weak spot so they can immediately jam a spear into it, wriggling it around and seeing what base exclamations come out. The classic institution to do this to is the art world itself, but that’s an easy target. Often, it’s the airy, uninvolved humanism of Western civilization, especially all its implicit assumptions, most especially the assumptions of its own primacy and goodness.
Biology was an early marker for the Chapmans. They started out making waves of mannequin sculptures, a good amount of them children with erect penises for noses and swollen vagina caverns for mouths. These features were always cushioned in classically soft cherubic faces. Or there would be a multiplicity of teenage girl heads stitched together around a central vagina, a great and carnivorous flower, the girls’ hair at once precious and adolescent and also shaggy, draping, monstrous. The sense when looking at these works is that these creatures get around with a lot of heaving and lurching, this implied movement sickening to a deep level. But every mannequin also feels innocent, somehow, in the midst of its own development. In aggregate they have a colony feel, a bunch of skittish little ponies, like you caught them in a clearing gathering acorns or something. These penises and vaginas and other things—there’s one that looks like a two-year-old with a machine gun—aren’t the signifiers we are so used to reacting to but are simply their own thing, appendages that just happened to develop like that out of their own primordial beginnings. The Chapmans themselves vouch for this interpretation (the Chapmans write many interpretations of their own work). Following this, just like you discovered a host of weird and unintentionally provocative and innocent ponies in a forest, you can either poke at the mannequins in invasive disgust or just leave them alone, and the Chapman brothers’ reputation as provocateurs indicates just how good we are as humans at doing the first one. The point of the mannequins is to reveal our constant assumption that we must correct, especially that which needs correction the least.
The Chapmans love identifying the corruptive effects of human sense-making. Their sculpture series Hell, named after the place, are nasty vitrines, canyons writhing with scores of Nazi-uniformed corpses busy doing hell. They’re pulling each other apart, they’re raping each other, there’s heads on pikes, there’s all the Christian inferno torments but also modern touches like locomotives and war helmets, etc. Sometimes there’s a McDonald’s for good measure. These sculptures cause overwhelmed silence or revulsion in the gallery, but they’re made of, the Chapmans limitlessly enjoy reminding us, two-inch plastic models. Toys! The distortion of reality isn’t in the work on display. The sickness is provided handily by its visitors. The members of healthier cultures would laugh their asses off at the vitrines. If you look closely at a Hell sculpture, you’ll usually find a crucified Ronald McDonald, an individual or group of cloned Hitlers plein air painting a posing lady, or a skeleton fishing in a tainted river, angled like he’s huffing and puffing in a “Steamboat Willie” cartoon. This stuff isn’t despairing, it’s funny. The divine mystery: who’s stupider, the clowns or the court they revulse?
On the printmaking spectrum, the Chapmans love stealing pages from children’s coloring books and keeping that content but filling in around it a whole tableaux of cosmic disgust. Here is a cartoon boy with his backpack and shoes, there is a girl looking pleased with her umbrella, and over here is a bear painting on an easel, all of them smiling goofily. Around them are pure darkness and black woods and corpses dangling from trees, and there’s a gibbering mouth arranged in wet spectacle in the sky and clusters of egg sacs with pustules for cores dangling venomously. The work is silly but drawn straight, and its visual depth and care is just as well-textured as Lynch’s, inspiring a similar frisson. The woods, the woods. But the Chapmans’ work is also charged with critique, something Lynch tries to avoid. Their arguably most famous works take the hanging trees and mutilated corpses of Goya’s war prints and duplicate them mercilessly, up and down and larger and smaller, sculptures and prints alike. Their versions of his hanging trees might be on paper and cartoony, or they might be physical and tiny and made of silver, or they might be life-sized, the dismembered subjects bearing pointy vampire ears, fake centipedes, and big old honking clown noses.
It’s sacrilege, to be clear, but also tribute. Goya is an emblem of the art world’s love for hushed tones, his Disasters of War series immortalized as intervention in the sins of Enlightenment militarism. The etches depict the executed soldiers and civilians of the Dos de Mayo Uprising of 1808 and the resulting Peninsular War, victims forgotten about in the war-crawl of geopolitical change and modernity’s impulse for utopian rhetoric. The etches are stark, small, vacant the swirling colors and monumental scale of war paintings, their deadpan titles and full-gore coverage positioning Goya as sole witness for humanity. Goya as a consciousness struggled to unveil that classic term messy truths, truths that, seen in the gallery, might help us become better people in our assumptions of history’s trajectory and our understanding of self.
The Chapmans see something different. They doodle over Goya’s work, literally in the case of their series Insult to Injury, in which they purchased a genuine set of prints from Goya’s original plates and painted clown and puppy faces over the victims’ heads. Goya himself, they say, was part of the deluded sweep that powers the modern state in its procession of disasters. In his etchings, Goya cross-hatched the dark holes of chopped-up groins and arm sockets with a degree of precision, a kind of obsessiveness and compulsion, libidinal at its core no matter its justification. It’s satisfying to run a pencil or crayon down to a nub in frenzied scratching. Goya enjoyed it. In his condemnation of war, Goya delighted in it, and so he goes from gravely plotting reporter to perverse cartoon artist. Aligning with their recurring themes of tragedy and play, the Chapmans say Goya was at play in his drawings, not performing real humanism, or perhaps that humanism itself is a cheap play. That the modern world venerates him is part of the grand delusion, and there is a notion here even darker still, that grief is in some way still a form of participation. The Chapmans’ putting villain ears on flesh-purloined skulls might be bad taste, but it isn’t nearly as bad as what the rest of art has done.
What the Chapman brothers do is hard to sustain. But the harder the world gets, the harder we need our artists, and there’s nothing harder in the art world than one of their Hell sculptures, the toyishness of it be damned. The figures deposed into terrible arcs of bones or crucified en masse might be an indicator of the slaughter of modernity and the wreckage of history, sure, but it’s a costumey look at civics and its tragedies, a joke fit for a god of annihilation laughing at carnage. What’s the lesson, if there is one? Peel back the depravity and maybe there’s something beneath. I don’t believe the Chapman brothers to truly be misanthropes. If I might throw a dart stupidly, perhaps the thing that waits under their hells is something like safety and salvation, the salvation of divine play, the very thing materialism has yet to create for itself. Salvation, after all, lurks where it appears to be least, a difficult lesson to bear and an even more inconvenient one to live by. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is literally one extended play upon this idea, that even in the most abandoned landscapes there can still be something alive, and I’m not talking about the humans. The father-son team that struggles through the novel’s ashes always find something that miraculously saves them in one way or another. Even they notice this. Perhaps under the corpsed decrepitude are spirits not nihilistic but joyful, at play.
I think it’s worth noting that when you’re under on psychedelics, you can see the most abominable, horrendous things and still wake up feeling more refreshed than you have in years. Maybe it’s because all the awful unresolved stuff in your brain gets squeezed out during the trip and you just see it tap-dance its way out. Or perhaps not. Maybe it’s not neural garbage but something more essential. Consider the premise that unspeakable or cosmic horror, the empty vacuum of non-meaning, is, well, a joke, a kind of affection, maybe even love. On a bad trip you might see an endless field of browned corpses—hell, or an extension of that classic routine, the joke that goes on too long, that comedic principle of repetition? Clawed and fanged faces coming at you, an old god in the sky, your body drying out into dust, perhaps not agony but the cosmic version of someone playfully gnawing at a baby’s soft little feet. The gnawing and cooing parent is not really a wolf after a child, though it may appear that way in flashes, especially to the child. So, like, chill out. To paraphrase the ghost in 2666, reality and life and what we love best might let us down, but if you cheer up there’s fun at the end.
Of course, everything could be empty stupid nihilism, too, and I could be an idiot reading significance, intention, and graciousness into things that have none of them. I’m thinking here of Jake and Dinos’ rolled-up sleeves and weird tattoos, their tired British fight-me faces, their insistence on their own moral failures, a picture I saw of them with Kanye West at a fashion show. In American comparison, there’s Lynch’s fussy cockatoo haircut, his persnickety dress code, his Midwestern gentle-uncle affect, which I’m pretty sure is played for laughs but I’m never exactly sure when. Nihilism! But underneath both artists there is a softness present, something below the hard flat despair of nihilism. It’s not a softness that can be marketed, or easily grappled with, or even wholly explained. It’s a hope, a wish for better things, a longing, a pain, even, that requires more than what we have to set right. It is a sadness that escapes the materialist maws of cosmic horror as we know it, as it is so often known.
Critics like Noel Murray of the New York Times tried to understand Twin Peaks: The Return by mapping it out literally, materially, morphologically. Murray spent much of his column dedicated to The Return’s final episode tracking the directions of its wormholes, all the dimensional jumps Dale Cooper takes to get where he finds himself in the end, which is in the middle of Laura Palmer’s old neighborhood. Cooper, not unlike the critic, is still seeking and failing to set things right, still trying to fit the final puzzle piece into something that is not a puzzle. Murray clearly believes that knowing the material parts of this narrative, that filing and tracking them and ordering them around, helps us make ultimate sense of their landscape. That’s a shallow approach to literature, to begin a critique. The final episode of The Return (and, indeed, Lynch’s entire canon) has nothing to do with the literal things, the tracing of narratives and the understanding of who does what. Those are just the literal signs we cling to as fans or are trained, mechanically, to pick out as readers. They are the beloved, classic details of Twin Peaks, and here I’m thinking of the doughnuts, the coffee, the gentle wackiness set against apprehension, the jokey soap-opera-ness, who killed Laura Palmer, and I think they are a distraction, a concession, icing meant to sell something deeper and more flammable to the masses.
Though what really matters is just as small as those. They’re the little non-textual details that ping so well, so disturbingly, without direct meaning. What really matters in Twin Peaks is that head flapping in the night air, the single word backmasked in an otherwise front-facing conversation, the consolidated person, confused and longing and built for not much more, shaking in the moment of its destruction. It is those lovers’ shredded faces. These moments are usually accounted for as part of a uniquely Lynchian aesthetic, a can-you-believe-it surrealism, which reduces them. There those things are, existing in time, puncturing and animated, so unlike the broad and loving but shapeless motifs of doughnuts and coffee. These moments happened. They are, untouchable in time, like Dale and Laura’s story in a larger sense. Twin Peaks is not, in the end, a soap opera, a romance, a television show, a film, a friendly thing, something to be excited about or adored in any form. It exists and works as its traumas do, as a shifting moment in time, the result of things accreted but never truly unified.
At the end of The Return, Laura Palmer, now Carrie Page, sees the house in which she lived, in which an outline of her in a time far away knew madness and terror. Once she recognizes the house, she screams, and the house’s lights snap off, and the series ends. But it takes her a while to get to this. She has to build up to it. She needs time, time to be by the house, the stoop and its wood and their owner, a tired but helpful woman. She needs to sense these things, look at them, look at Cooper, and it’s all done through a distant confusion, as though she’s seeking someone she might know in the downstairs rattle of a foreign subway. But it clicks, and when it does, and it clicks with the inexorable force of a nervous system releasing tremendous shock, there is no mistaking it as neat and resolvable and plotlike, no matter what our sensibilities insist. It is instead personal, and it is violent, and it is overwhelming, a sense of being and time and lostness no amount of Odysseuses returning and doppelgängers slain or wormholes articulated and homecomings inaugurated can reassemble or rearrange into the shining material we might imagine it once was.