[The following contains spoilers.]
Well, this is what we signed up for, isn’t it? There can be no backing out now, eight episodes in. The newest episode of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return unexpectedly adjourns the established storyline for a prolonged flashback. This interlude proves to be gorgeous and exhilarating but it equally left my patience throbbing like a motorcycle that is held up at traffic lights. I found my eye repeatedly falling to check how much time was left on the gauge. Oh we’ve now passed half an hour… now we’ve reached forty minutes… there’s probably not going to be much time left for the normal Twin Peaks this week… now it’s forty-five minutes…
I felt all of this very keenly because I had wanted to know what has happened to this little hitman Ike “the Spike.” In the last episode, he’d hurt one of his wee paws. There comes a heart-breaking moment around midway through this episode when you realise that Twin Peaks has been basically cancelled for the week.
In more innocent times, when Twin Peaks went over the border it meant a trip to Canada. Episode eight begins with a scene on the road out of South Dakota. Next we are at the Bang Bang Bar, where the Nine Inch Nails are the only residents of Twin Peaks to be exhibited this week and they are presumably visitors. Next it is 1945 and we are present at the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb at White Sands, New Mexico. We see sped-up footage of spectral people pacing outside a dummy convenience store. We dip into another dimension, a tower or a lighthouse across a dark ocean, before returning to New Mexico in 1956.
I don’t want to add to the internet’s stock of stiffly jubilant reviews, with examples of available headlines including “Episode Eight: What the F**k Just Happened?” (Film School Rejects) or “Part 8: What the Hell Was That and Why?” (E! Online). The Guardian is no doubt correct to term this “the darkest, most bewildering episode in the show’s history,” as is the New York Times when it asserts that “there’s nothing to point to in the history of television that helps describe exactly what this episode attempts.” A survey of the microblogging reaction finds it to be witty if irritatingly conformist – a problem, perhaps, of the medium’s brevity. Twitter’s minions describe episode eight as “so David Lynch that I think even David Lynch thinks is too David Lynch” and “a cold sandwich of mystery nightmare meat for ’ya.” Number eight also “broke the universe” and it is “the craziest shit you’ve ever seen.”
Narratively, however, episode eight is not incoherent or even difficult to follow. Looking around at the mainstream today, there are far more surreal things in South Park (remember that episode from 2006 when Oprah Winfrey’s vagina and anus could talk to each other?) or the annoyingly whimsical new Amazon series American Gods. Episode eight also wears various televisual or cinematic clichés on its sleeve. The flashbacks are filmed in black and white, one of the rustiest devices from the soap opera toolbox. Whether or not Lynch’s charcoal-tinted woodsmen are zombies, the incomparable bores of popular culture, they walk like zombies and stare ahead with the fixity of zombies. And crucial to the plot is a creature that has genetically mutated due to nuclear radiation, an idea that is currently as original as Godzilla and his twenty-nine consecutive movies.
The atmosphere of this episode is not even original to Twin Peaks – it has been trialled extensively in the first three episodes – but what is new is the spaciousness of the surrealism. Everything proceeds with a dragging underwater weightlessness.
To get a handle on this episode you need to see that its power lies not necessarily in the weird content of the story, but in Lynch’s loving rendering of it. Take the creature that hatches out in the nuclear hinterland, an alternative miniature centaur that combines half a bug and half a squirming toad. Once in flight, it looks unexpectedly reminiscent of a fairy. When it pours itself into the mouth of the Girl (Tikaeni Faircrest), it is hard to repress thoughts of oral sex, but then it is tucking itself daintily in and this moment has passed. The imagery is weird and beautiful and nightmarish, like some discordantly-shaped box that you don’t know quite how to hold.
The alienation of Twin Peaks: The Return from its own nostalgia is asserted every week during the title sequence. A camera flies directly over Snoqualmie Falls using a drone; the consequent footage, with its abnormal angle, could never have been an option for the original series. A more radical weirdness is achieved at White Sands when we seem to be flying into the mushroom cloud using some 1940s drone equivalent. This imagery of the burnt impossibly surviving is reflected in the charcoal tints of the zombie named the Woodsman (Robert Broski). His curse is that the only part of his anatomy not to be burnt is the cigarette that dangles perpetually from his lips. He can crunch skulls and brains with his free hand; or soothe them to sleep with a hypnotic rhyme.
Where this episode chooses to be parodic of traditional television, there is actually quite a funny joke. In the noir flashback, we learn about the pasts of the characters, not just earlier in life but prior to conception. We encounter Laura Palmer and BOB in a previous spiritual realm that also corresponds with the 1950s. If the original Twin Peaks was nostalgic for 1950s small-town Americana, episode eight not only reminds us of the atomic bomb that had underpinned this security but it plunges headlong into the mushroom cloud. There are two archetypal American teenagers (Xolo Mariduena and Tikaeni Faircrest) with the future of the country ahead of them and they are already contaminated by the underlying nuclear evil.
The moral here is cursory and there is far more of a thrill to the overarching showmanship of Lynch’s totalitarianism. He is finally at the height of his power, after the long years when he couldn’t get funding for his films and when network television executives were unreceptive. If Lynch wants you to sit patiently and watch Carel Struycken hobble slowly up a flight of stairs, well he has spent a whole career waiting and being patient himself. How can you really complain about your own inconvenience?
Episode eight of Twin Peaks: The Return is so vital because it almost certainly offers a preview of the future of television. Last year, Mike Mariani wrote for the Atlantic that, “it would be tough to look at the roster of television shows any given season without finding several that owe a creative debt to Twin Peaks.” Tomorrow’s television-makers are inevitably watching Twin Peaks at the moment. The next twenty years will schedule their attempts to outdo it.