The following contains spoilers for Twin Peaks: The Return and much of David Lynch’s work

The series is called Twin Peaks: The Return but, as a number of fans have complained, it hasn’t returned to the Washington town of Twin Peaks very often. The original series was set almost entirely in what one character called “this godforsaken burg”, population 51, 201, with occasional diversions to the Black Lodge, a nightmarish place occupied by malign spirits who travel by electricity, talk backwards and feed on something called garmonbozia. That’s a substance made up of human pain and suffering, but which looks an awful lot like creamed corn.

In contrast, the new series, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch and directed by the latter, has a continent-wide sprawl — from New York City, where a young couple are murdered by a creature from both a mysterious glass box and your worst nightmare, to Las Vegas, where the somnambulist hero Dale Cooper inhabits the body and life of a doppelganger called Dougie, to South Dakota, Philadelphia, the Pentagon and even Argentina. So far we’ve only spent a relatively small period in the eponymous town, to get reacquainted with some old characters and meet some new ones, all reassuring us that the place is still as fucked up as ever.

Not that there isn’t plenty of what TV types refer to as “fan service” from Frost and Lynch. There are plenty of calls out to the old series, and to have much of a clue about what’s going on depends on having watched Lynch’s very little seen, but criminally underappreciated, Twin Peaks film Fire Walk With Me — in particular the weird bit (OK, one of the weirder bits) where “the long lost Phillip Jeffries”, played by David Bowie, appears and disappears at the FBI; Jeffries plays a significant, but so far unseen, role in the new season.

But Twin Peaks was only ever partly about the physical location; like much of Lynch’s work, its real location is an emotional place, not the one dictated by plot. It’s now routine to note that David Lynch operates on the plane of emotional logic — often intensely so; in most of his films there are moments that not so much don’t make sense as are anti-sense: the trip to the night club in Mulholland Drive, the murder of the porn actor in Lost Highway, a monkey — which may or may not be a Lodge inhabitant — muttering “Judy” at the end of Fire Walk With Me, the entire ending of Eraserhead. These are moments that make a strange kind of emotional, and often cathartic, sense, but to think about them is to miss the point; they are beyond, even inimical to, rational thought.

The emotional topography of the original series of Twin Peaks was always the words composer Angelo Badalamenti used to describe his work for the show: “tragically beautiful” — best summed up by the doomed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. It’s also, clearly, a place of mystery — surrounded by sinister woods, menaced by supernatural forces, in a kind of jurisdictional null zone right near the border with Canada, source of the drugs that flow into the town like the majestic waterfall in the credits. Those particular emotional foundations of the show are part of the larger feeling of melancholy and loss that pervades much of Lynch’s work — loss of innocence, loss of love and loss of youth (a particular theme of the accessible, “feelgood” The Straight Story). It’s a feeling made all the more piquant in the new season because of the number of series actors who have died — including some since completing their most recent contributions.

But tonally, Twin Peaks, like the rest of Lynch’s best work, also occupies a location between fantasy and reality, that mental state one briefly occupies upon waking from a dream, in which dream and reality remained jumbled, and one must think hard to determine whether something that was “true” in the dream is true in reality, whether the desires or fears that played out in the dream have occurred in life. The town isn’t just right near the border with Canada, it’s in the DMZ between the conscious and the unconscious, and there’s plenty of traffic both ways.

This incoherent state of hope, despair and possibility — which Proust also explored in detail in In Search of Lost Time – is where both Lynch’s characters and the viewer are located once the credits have ushered us into Lynch’s world. Two of Lynch’s films — Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – entirely inhabit this space. They are essentially the same story: a jealous lover constructs a fantasy in which they can maintain control over the objects of their desire, only for reality, or their subconsciouses, to break through and reveal that, as Patricia Arquette tells Bill Pullman, “you’ll never have me”. Both protagonists, significantly, kill the women they love; Pullman retreats into a constant cycle of fantasies at the end of Lost Highway; Naomi Watts — we think — takes her own life at the end of Mulholland Drive when she learns the murderer she has hired to kill “Rita” has been successful.

In episode three of the new season, Kyle MacLachlan’s Cooper, having been expelled from the Black Lodge, find himself in a room with a woman with her eyes sewn shut; both are only capable of moving in an unsettling, stop-start, back-and-forth manner, until the woman leads him up a ladder to what appears to be a giant nipple in space, where she pulls a lever and falls to … well … it’s unclear what. Returning below, Cooper finds time flowing normally and he is drawn through some sort of socket, to emerge from a power point in Nevada. The meaning is unclear — one explanation is that it involves a switch from AC to DC power so Cooper can leave (except the US uses AC; still, nice try). But the entire sequence is possibly the most accurate rendering of a dream state ever committed to film.

What saves Lynch’s work from being mere dream fetish and fantastical images conjured — via Transcendental Meditation — from his subconscious are the performances. For a director often criticised as sexist (and it’s an issue worth debating), Lynch is able to obtain extraordinary performances from female actors. Sheryl Lee’s alternately demonic and distraught performance in Fire Walk With Me is astonishing (she has a further, possibly major, role to play in the new season); Naomi Watts is remarkable in Mulholland Drive, and she is currently giving a note-perfect performance as Dougie’s wife; Laura Dern, a sexually supercharged Dorothy on a yellow brick road paved with puke, is the best thing about the wildly overrated Wild At Heart, and superb in Inland Empire; her first Lynch film was opposite MacLachlan in Blue Velvet.

Now MacLachlan, Lynch’s on-screen avatar since Dune, the Mifune to Lynch’s Kurosawa, is turning in a brilliant performance. He plays two characters (briefly, three, actually) — the chilling, possessed Cooper from the original series, a fallen angel who has been murdering, fucking and running drugs for 25 years following the end of the original series, and Dougie, the drunken, cheating Las Vegas lowlife now inhabited by the good Dale, who is only slowly starting to recall who he really is.

Not so difficult, of course — Ewan McGregor, after all, played brothers in the most recent season of Fargo. But MacLachlan must remind us that both of the men he plays are still also, in some small way, the original Dale. And while much of the Dougie story is played for laughs — MacLachlan proves a gifted physical comedian, something he never got to do in the original series — he also finds the pathos of this good man, our moral compass in this nightmarish world, lost in his own head, barely able to function as a human let alone be the hero we desperately want him to be. “Wake up!” a Lodge inhabitant yells at Cooper/Dougie, fruitlessly. There are plenty of complaints about how long it’s taking for Dougie to become the Coop we know and love, but personally I could happily spend many more hours watching this remarkable performance, especially played against Naomi Watts — and it wouldn’t be inapt if the series ends with Dougie, Janey-E and Sonny Jim together again.

The result is Lynch indeed taking us away from Twin Peaks. This isn’t a retread or a nostalgia exercise, but something quite new, not merely in terms of the plot Lynch and Frost have constructed — who would have thought the inhabitants of the Lodge would be helping Coop against the renegade BOB because he stiffed them on their garmonbozia — but in terms of the whole series.

That we’re watching a television show is never far from Lynch’s mind; his work has always been what the cool kids call meta. Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are both set in Hollywood; the latter is actually about the making of a movie. Lynch’s own character in Twin Peaks is named after a movie studio figure in Sunset Boulevard. Lost Highway partly revolves around a video camera and mysterious video tapes; the original Twin Peaks famously featured its own in-universe soap, Invitation to Love. And Fire Walk With Me begins with a clear expression of Lynch’s feelings about the television industry — a prolonged shot of static on a TV screen, followed by an axe destroying it.

The new season is no less meta: the couple in New York are murdered by a thing emerging from a glass box that the male has been hired to watch, in case anything “appears” (he has a couch, set up just like a lounge room; they are making out on the couch when they’re attacked); CCTV images play a role in most episodes; the first time we meet Sarah Palmer for an extended introduction, she’s watching a gory nature documentary on TV; Dr Jacoby does an online broadcast of his conspiracy theory show, complete with ad break to sell spray-painted shovels. And as with Lynch films as early as Blue Velvet, much of our time is spent watching people perform, and watching people watch people perform. Every episode features a band performing a song at Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse, usually for the closing credits — for a tiny town in remote Washington, the place certainly seems to attract some top-notch musicians. The constant reminders that we are watching a performance serve to reinforce the sense that we remain between reality and the dream, always prompting the question about what the meaning of the performance is.

Twin Peaks is also — far more than Lynch’s other work — preoccupied with communication, or, more accurately, non-communication, and not merely because of the reverse-talking of the Lodge inhabitants. Fire Walk With Me details Laura’s torment at the hands of her father (and pretty much every other man in her life), but she can’t tell anyone, merely write about her life in not one but two diaries. Part of the preface of that film — in which pseudo-Coop FBI agent Chris Isaak visits a bizarro Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of an earlier victim of BOB — involves an elaborate code furnished by Lynch himself. As in the series, people respond to questions with non-sequiturs, or inexplicably repeat themselves, and no one seems to think this is odd. Crucial information to what passes for the plot of the film is exchanged during a night club scene in which the music is mixed so loud it’s literally impossible to hear the dialogue; some prints of the film have subtitles for it, others do not; Lynch was apparently undecided about whether they should.

The theme recurs in the new season, most obviously with Dougie being almost incapable of saying anything except the end of others’ phrases. Gordon Cole is deafer than ever. Lucy the receptionist freaks out over mobile phones. In the second episode, Evil Cooper’s plans start to go awry when, attempting to contact Jeffries, he gets a wrong number, or perhaps the right number with the wrong person — one who knows a lot more about him than he’s comfortable with. “I missed you in New York,” the mystery interlocutor tells him, suggesting it might be the nightmarish thing from the glass box — especially given the good Dale had briefly materialised in the box, before continuing his journey to the Space Nipple.

It all feels less like a return to a 1990s series than a summation of Lynch’s film work to date, from the earliest days of Eraserhead to Inland Empire — even Lynch’s still art and photography. Laura Dern has finally shown up in the new season, as the legendary Diane, giving Cooper’s EA from the original series corporeal form at last. If there’s one nostalgic indulgence I hope Lynch provides, it’s to reunite the Blue Velvet lovers on screen after nearly 30 years. Who knows, Coop might even do a chicken walk for her. But don’t count on it. We’re not in Twin Peaks anymore, Dorothy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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