"Twin Peaks" Was The Ultimate Argument Against Nostalgia
Call it frustrating, call it maddening — just don't call the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return anything other than consistent with what has always been the show's vision.
For its big finish on Sunday night, Twin Peaks wrote itself out of existence.
As endings go, it was an even bolder fuck-you to anyone in search of closure than when The Sopranos devoted its precious last minutes to a botched parallel parking job before cutting, mid-Journey chorus, forever to black. The Sopranos finale merely cut the viewers off from characters whose lives, it suggested, would go on without them around to observe and enjoy. The Twin Peaks finale went further: It didn't just refuse to put a bow on the show's return — it tugged at the threads of its entire premise until the whole thing unraveled.
During the last two installments of Showtime's alternately frustrating and fantastic 18-episode revival, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) managed, by way of the series' eternally dreamy logic, to blip back in time. With the help of his former colleague Phillip Jeffries, once played by the late, great David Bowie, and since replaced by a giant talking kettle, Cooper found and seemingly saved Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) from the murder that first set Twin Peaks into motion. It was the ultimate savior's act from someone who'd spent the original series trying to find the culprit behind the killing: He prevented it from ever happening in the first place. Laura's tarp-wrapped corpse vanished from the beach on which it was found at the start of the original series, Laura herself vanished into some alternate life, and if things had ended there, with Julee Cruise singing over the credits, you'd have a hurried but practically straightforward happy ending, at least by Twin Peaks standards.
But the show kept going, into a coda in which the results of Cooper's feat were depicted as gloriously unsatisfying and unsettling, not restoring the fictional universe to some happier whole but appearing to erase it entirely, leaving the doughty FBI agent adrift with no home to return to, in a colder, harder reality in which his certainty and his ever-important mission were replaced with confusion. Or was that delusion? "What year it is?" Coop muttered while standing on a familiar Twin Peaks street that now looked like foreign territory, after strangers answered the door of the old Palmer house. And Lee, now playing a hard-times waitress Cooper had picked up in Odessa, let out one last blood-curdling scream — a very Laura-like action, but in this context, maybe the cry of someone realizing she'd just let an unstable person drive her halfway across the country on a hallucinatory quest. In the context of current TV and our intense expectations of continuity and completeness, the end felt tantamount to an act of trolling.
It is 2017, to answer Coop, though "What year is it?" has always been a fair Twin Peaks question. The original series took place in a syrupy present day that evoked the ’50s, all the better to emphasize the contrast between the idyllic surface of its community and its dark underbelly. But the contradiction of Twin Peaks has always been how uncannily alluring its title setting felt anyway — a place where the air is crisp and the cherry pie perfection, and domestic and sexual violence lurked behind every closed door. In some ways, Twin Peaks played like a warped, manufactured memory of Americana. It changed in fascinating ways during its 26-year absence from the screen, but audiences changed just as much.
The fact that Twin Peaks: The Return felt so alien and indifferent to convention, closer to co-creator Lynch's Inland Empire than the original series, led some cinephiles to claim it for film — the dreaded "18-hour movie." But Twin Peaks: The Return was TV, and its combative approach to what's become of our relationship with the small screen was one of the most interesting aspects of watching it. Twin Peaks: The Return could only be the product of the age of peak TV, Showtime giving Lynch and Mark Frost free rein to realize their every weird, beautiful, or capricious impulse. And yet everything about it ran counter to the way we watch in the peak TV era. It was a handy contrast that the series aired against and alongside Game of Thrones, a show fueled entirely by its story and its elaborate mythology.
Twin Peaks, on the other hand, was basically unspoilable, must-watch TV with no urgency to it. You could be told exactly what happened in an episode — say, Dougie (MacLachlan) wins multiple jackpots at a casino and is reunited with his curiously unquestioning wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts), and then Michael Cera turns up to do a Wild One impression — and it would make no difference to the experience of watching it. It was a terrible fit for our moment of fan theories and exhaustive day-after recaps, but was reflexively processed that way anyway, despite being much more of a poem than a puzzle to be solved.
This was, after all, a show that you could tease all kinds of readings from its rich, murky content, and none of them seemed more rooted than the other. Writers heatedly debated the meaning of the utterly terrifying early sequence in which the couple canoodling in front of that plexiglass box get their faces eaten off by some malevolent force. It was a metaphor for digital filmmaking! Or a metaphor for Netflix and chill! Or a metaphor for how to watch the series! And all of these interpretations were undeniably obvious to everyone but Lynch, who when asked if the scene was an allegory for watching, replied blithely, "No. But that’s an interesting way to think about it."
The opaqueness of Twin Peaks was built in from the start. When Frost and Lynch first pitched it to ABC in 1988 as a murder mystery without a killer, the co-creators hadn’t yet decided who the culprit would be. BOB, the demonic spirit who was finally battled in blob (BLOB) form in the 17th episode of the revival, was famously born from a happy accident. A glimpse of set dresser Frank Silva, who died in 1995, was caught in a mirror in a shot, and Lynch ended up casting him as one of television's most memorable monsters. Frost and Lynch made their mythology up as they went along, which didn't stop viewers from trying to parse it like it was sacred text when the series first aired, and didn't stop them from doing the same this time around, no matter how much resistance that text presented.
And goddamn, did it put up a lot of resistance this season. It transformed the incisive Cooper into the holy fool Dougie for most of the run, and turned the flirtatious teenager Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) into an unhappy harridan of a grown-up who may or may not have actually been in an institution the whole time. It spent long non sequitur stretches away from familiar characters and in the company of new ones, all those kids at the Roadhouse who were introduced in the midst of various personal dramas and then, often, never seen again — like fragments from some CW show grafted onto the ends of episodes.
Unlike every other revival in this revival happy time in which no intellectual property is ever dead and buried, Twin Peaks: The Return was fiercely disinterested in fan service, to the point of obstinance, withholding well-known touches like the Angelo Badalamenti theme song until late in the game. It paraded familiar, now time-worn faces back in front of the camera, but sparingly, spending more time in Buckhorn, South Dakota, and Las Vegas than in the small Washington town of its title. It owed its existence to nostalgia, but nostalgia was something the new season felt deeply skeptical of. Which is why the ending, which ripped the coziness of the original series to shreds, felt so bracing and so warranted.
Twin Peaks chipped away at the cherished bit of American iconography that is the wholesome small town, exposing a rotten core — but it indulged in it, too, with eccentric characters, fits of soaring emotion, and unshakable strangeness so entrancing they in some ways obscured the degree to which this was a story about trauma. In giving Coop a chance to not just help banish evil but to rewrite history, Twin Peaks: The Return recentered the series once again around its primal act of brutality — the rape and murder of a teenage girl — then cashed its beloved world in, in exchange for her life.
The universe we were spat out in exchange was sadder and colder — a place where the cosmic romance of Coop and Diane (Laura Dern) got transmuted into the tawdry reality of a couple named Richard and Linda fucking in a roadside motel, and where time stretched out over long, lonely highway lines. It was a universe with considerably less magic, but it was one that wasn't all hazy over a romanticized act of violence. The ending may not have offered a sense of closure, but there wasn't any backward glancing either.