Agent Cooper, You Are Far Away

by Arthur B

Season 3 of Twin Peaks blows up the rules of television that season 1 rewrote.
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The news of a third season of Twin Peaks, coming 25 years or so after we last visited it via the weird hybrid prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, felt both like a glorious opportunity and an enormous creative risk. Not only had plot elements from the original’s ending suggested that a comeback in 25 years might be possible, but also the spectre of network interference that was widely held to have scuppered the original was banished. Written solely by creative leads Mark Frost and David Lynch, and directed from start to end by David Lynch, the whole prospect gave the series creators far more control than they ever had (or could have dreamed of receiving) during the show’s original run. Early on in the production process there was a risk that Lynch would walk away due to not being given the budget to tell the story he wanted; Showtime buckled, gave him a free hand, and later took pride in promising viewers the “pure heroin David Lynch”. That in itself is testimony of how the original Twin Peaks changed the television landscape. The major question was whether the magic of the original could be recaptured.

I’m not going to get into a spoilerful analysis in this review (and will thank commenters for using spoiler tags liberally in the comments), but in short: no, to a large extent they didn’t recapture the old formula. They did not try to, and in retrospect they would have been fools to attempt it; in the past quarter of a century what was fresh and different about so much of Twin Peaks has become part of the standard toolkit of serial television. That “pure heroin David Lynch” line is apt, because more or less the only aspect of Twin Peaks that hasn’t been successfully imitated is the distinctive aesthetic vision and apt for utter weirdness that Lynch brings to the table. (Wild Palms largely sabotaged itself trying to go faux-Lynchian, and it generally hasn’t been a recipe for success since then either.)

It becomes apparent very early on in this third season (sometimes dubbed Twin Peaks: the Return) that Frost and Lynch know full well that their unique selling point lies in letting David be David; the big question was whether you could do that over 18 episodes of a TV series and not allow it to become frustrating and stale. Incredibly, they more or less manage it, and they do it by once again refusing to be bound by the accepted wisdom of how television works.

If you’ve followed Lynch’s work at all you know that he has a knack for taking slow scenes where really not very much is happening and somehow making them absolutely fascinating, creating the perception of meaningfulness without offering a clear or easy explanation. He’s also got this tendency - it’s especially pronounced in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire - to not go out of his way to be overly-tidy: some stuff he shows you is of great import to the central plot of whatever story he’s telling, but other matters fade into focus and then fade out again, the threads left dangling to leave behind a mystery for you to contemplate long after everything is done. These characteristics are used to the maximum extent: the season demands patience of the viewer, and whilst in the most important ways that patience is rewarded, you’re better off if you don’t expect or wait for a clear explanation of everything.

There are some undeniable issues with the show. For one thing, the universe of Twin Peaks seems to have remained remarkably white over the years; the mostly monochromatic cast was par for the course back in 1989, of course, but with substantial numbers of new characters added this season it’s a real shame that this isn’t addressed. It’s also remained a fairly heteronormative universe, and though there is one scene early on which seems to offer an apology for the original series’ handling of a transgender character as a comedic story element, the character in question doesn’t actually get very much to do. David Lynch’s male gaze also remains in full effect, as does his tendency to present women who are defined largely by their place in a man’s narrative.

One new character in particular, an eerily beautiful FBI agent, seems to exist mostly to provide someone to ask the questions the viewer wants to ask of FBI director Gordon Cole, played as always by Lynch himself. At points it feels like Lynch is, through Cole, giving a critical look at this own tendency of his, and there are some quite substantial roles for women who aren’t achingly perfect models of beauty (and perfectly attractive women who the story happens to catch when they aren’t at their best), but it’s still a factor.

In short, if you know your Lynch, you know what you are getting into here, both the good and the bad. The season is miles away from the tightly plotted eccentric detective soap opera of season 1 or the better portion of season 2, and in fact in its own way it indulges in some of the mythology-building that late season 2 indulged itself in - but I think that mythologising works better here due to Frost and Lynch’s knack for keeping such things mysterious. In particular, rather than it being the case that you are being told “this specific thing is definitely this specific feature appropriate from this specific culture’s myths”, it feels much more like there is something weird and not fully understood by anyone going on - the FBI and others applying terms from world mythology to these things by way of analogy, rather than insisting that these things are specifically linked to those particular bits of myth and religion.

Most of all, though, the new season feels like an elaboration on and vindication of Fire Walk With Me and the cut scenes from that which got lashed together into The Missing Pieces on the recent blu-ray boxed set. Frost and Lynch famously fell out over the making of that movie, but The Return is tonally closer to it than it is to anything else in the original Twin Peaks canon. Motifs introduced in the movie - the mysterious ring that allows the Red Room to project its influence in our world, the connection of the Lodge spirits to electricity, and so on - come back here and are expanded on nicely.

It’s not just Fire Walk With Me 2: Fire Walk With Me A Bit Further, though; the whole thing feels like a grab-bag of images from Lynch projects across his entire career (as well as sounds - Lynch carefully supervised the sound design here, one of the first lines in the series is “Listen to the sounds”, and there’s all sorts of sonic easter eggs sprinkled across the season). The muddled identities that Lynch has been particularly fascinated with across the loose LA trilogy of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are a particular feature, and really come to the fore in the final episode.

(A particularly Inland Empire touch here is the use of special effects; as well as using some ingenious model work, there’s also some use of CGI and digital effects here, but rather than going coldly clinical with them Lynch presents them in an curiously haphazard way, their obvious artificiality in and of itself helping drag us into the uncanny valley that lies between the twin peaks. Oh, and there's a swirly-shape-in-the-sky effect that gets used from time to time which I am convinced is a tip of the hat to certain moments in season 1 of True Detective.)

Though, as I said, I am not going to go into spoilers here, if you want a denouement of the various plot strands developed in the series, the best you are going to get is the grand confrontation in episode 17 and its aftermath; having offered there what few answers they intend to offer, Frost and Lynch then spend the remaining episode and a bit revealing a whole deeper layer of mystery and then leaving us in the darkness. Whilst some are holding out for a new season, the conclusion once again leaves us in a similarly bleak spot as the original ending to season 2; the distinction is that there’s a certain weariness to this new stopping-off point, a sense of one’s powers fading with the passage of time.

The calm certainty that Cooper displays throughout the concluding act finally comes unstuck as he is confronted by the underlying powers of the universe playing a shell game with him, thwarting an effort which both he and we have, up to that point, been sure will close the loop for good. Despite David Bowie insisting otherwise in Fire Walk With Me, we are going to talk about Judy, but the warning in this season’s opening seen that “It cannot all be said now” proves prophetic.
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