It’s slippery in here

Christopher Tayler

  • Twin Peaks: The Return created by Mark Frost and David Lynch
    Showtime/Sky Atlantic, 18 episodes, 21 May-3 September

James Joyce resented the Second World War for distracting readers from the newly published Finnegans Wake, and what with one thing and another I’ve sometimes felt the same way, on behalf of Mark Frost and David Lynch, about the news environment that accompanied the broadcast of Twin Peaks: The Return. I say ‘on behalf of’ because I imagine that Lynch couldn’t care less. ‘It’s good to kind of go along with your life,’ he told Entertainment Weekly in May as the first episodes went out, adding that he had spent the première ‘in my woodshop’, working on a table to have at his side while eating Parmesan crackers or practising transcendental meditation. At first glance the new series was just as disconnected from public concerns. James Comey and Robert Mueller might be on people’s minds, but on Twin Peaks the salient FBI boss is still Gordon Cole, a hearing-impaired, gee-whizzily cryptic character played by Lynch himself. We first caught up with him in a conference room, where a subordinate showed him a sequence of bizarre and scary images, and Lynch squawked, a bit ingenuously: ‘What the hell?’

The first Twin Peaks – the 1990-91 series, which was cancelled by the ABC network after 30 episodes on account of collapsing ratings, and followed by a reviled prequel movie, Fire Walk with Me (1992) – wasn’t what you’d call topical either. But for a while it made itself so, first by using a murder mystery to reel in a huge audience, then by subjecting primetime viewers to increased doses of Lynch’s characteristic tone. That tone, which combines an openness to extremes of feeling with stylised visual compositions and other distancing effects, is easy to read as cold irony, especially because Lynch likes dry and/or goofy jokes. So what seemed to some a miraculous conjoining of romantic yearning, terror, offbeat situational humour and a magic-realist study of bereavement and sexual abuse, seemed to others a smirking send-up of police procedurals and soap operas, reliant on mechanically outré gestures to make up for difficulties in advancing the plot. After Lynch drifted away from the series, having resolved the central mystery under pressure from ABC, the writing team floundered. Lynch came back to direct a bravura closing episode, and then the show was stripped for parts by the creators of The X-Files, Picket Fences, Wild Palms, The Sopranos, Lost, and so on. (And not just them: the Catholic hierarchy in Father Ted, for instance, was conceived by the writers as ‘a secret society … like the FBI in Twin Peaks’.)

Most of them scavenged this or that element of the set-up, in which an FBI agent, Dale Cooper, came to an isolated town in the Pacific Northwest to investigate the murder of Laura Palmer, a beautiful high-school student whose death had unsettled the eccentrics, grotesques and many attractive people who made up the population of Twin Peaks. Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan as a chipper yet authoritative grown-up version of the character he played in Blue Velvet (1986), relied on divination as well as legwork, and an enigmatic dreamworld soon came into view, suggestive on the one hand of Laura’s – and the town’s – disturbed inner life, and on the other of a half-glimpsed mythology involving secret FBI units, owls, evil spirits and Native American lore, which the writers elaborated without restraint as the show ran out of steam. At its best, though, all this, plus Angelo Badalamenti’s music, was of a seamless piece, and for anyone who fell under the spell back then, it had a poetic force of a kind that no one has quite managed to replicate.

Twin Peaks had its share of drug dealers and wife-beaters, and was a place where people’s darkest selves could take shape through the mediation of the supernatural forces lurking in the woods. But it was also a kind of idyll, remote from the world and subject to stylish, fetishistic 1950s-retro art direction. The timelessness now feels a little of its time (apart from a Native American cop/tracker and a Chinese femme fatale, the town was wholly white), and Laura’s and the killer’s multiple identities clearly had some imaginative traffic with the 1980s recovered-memory movement. Still, almost from the moment of its cancellation the show sidestepped datedness by becoming an object of nostalgia, thanks in part to existing largely in memory: for a long time it wasn’t easily available on home media. Lynch, however, had no time for nostalgia, and repelled fans of the show’s lighter side by putting Laura at the centre of an incest-themed horror film in the shape of Fire Walk with Me. The idea was to give the doomed dream-girl more agency, but it made extreme demands of Sheryl Lee, who played Laura, and who had first been hired only to play a corpse. David Foster Wallace remarked that Lee deserved an Oscar nomination just for showing up and trying.

The ‘limited event series’ that has just finished its run, 25 years after Twin Peaks ended, has a trickier relationship with nostalgia. As a viewing experience it got its long-range narrative tension – as opposed to the scenic and the thrumming, ambient types of tension that Lynch has always done better than anyone – from offering and then deferring, over and over again, a possibility that the old show’s world might be fully reanimated, with its pleasures as well as its sadness still intact. (New viewers weren’t catered for, though casual fans not up to speed on the fluid mythology were provided with some nuggets of exposition.) Fondly remembered characters, and less fondly remembered ones, made strategically placed appearances, and we spent time in familiar locations. But a strange malaise seemed to be gripping the town, and much of the action and inaction took place elsewhere, in big cities as well as in other lonely settlements. Very slowly, the storylines led back to Twin Peaks, but for 15 hours and 25 minutes there was a grimly teasing question mark over whether or not Agent Cooper would be joining them there.

Cooper was last seen, in the shock ending to the old series, trapped in a red-curtained, zigzag-floored otherworld, the setting, before that, of the famous dream sequence in which Laura whispered her secret in his ear and the ‘Little Man from Another Place’ performed a memorable dance. In the real world Cooper had been replaced by a malevolent doppelgänger associated with Bob, the evil spirit who had possessed Laura’s killer. In the famous dream, Cooper was 25 years older, giving the new series its jumping-off point: a now authentically aged Cooper in the same room, the same chair, the same suit. Backwards-talking entities indicated that he could leave now, and after a lengthy surreal sequence that culminated in his being sucked, head-first and face-down, into a giant electrical socket, losing his shoes in the process, he materialised in a seedy Las Vegas fuck pad. It turned out that Evil Cooper, unwilling to go home, had ‘manufactured’ a schlub called Dougie Jones, also played by MacLachlan, to take his place in the otherworld on the real Cooper’s release. So the black-eyed, mahogany-tanned Evil Cooper got to carry on with his sinister activities, while the genuine item, near-catatonic, shuffled into Dougie’s place, where he stayed for the next 13 episodes.

Meanwhile an FBI taskforce, headed by Cole, looked into some odd murders in New York and South Dakota, and Sheriff Truman – Frank, not Harry: for unknown reasons the original actor wasn’t signed up, so Robert Forster filled in as his brother instead – reopened Cooper’s case files after receiving premonitory information back in Twin Peaks. The storylines chugged patiently along, as did Cooper’s sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes patience-stretching life as Dougie, whose wife was brilliantly played by Naomi Watts, and Evil Cooper’s efforts to have the real Cooper rubbed out. All the same, it was evident from early on that we weren’t even loosely inside the grammar of TV drama, however effective or haunting the individual scenes may have been. Images, strokes of casting and delayed nods to the old series often seemed to do the structural work, while plot points got delivered in either a strangely offhand or a strangely emphatic way. It was hard to say which was more important: that we were finally meeting Diane, the previously unseen addressee of Cooper’s Dictaphone monologues, or that she was played by Laura Dern. There was also a drizzle of vignettes concerning minor characters from the old series, which often played like the world’s most depressing high school reunion.

For a lot of the time none of this mattered much, especially if you chose to go along with it as an imagistic assemblage rather than a visit to a pop-surrealist version of the Marvel Comics Universe. There were astounding scenes and sequences: a Hannibal Lecter-type interview with Evil Cooper; a fantasia around the Trinity nuclear test, with a new layer of supernatural apparatus done in the style of Eraserhead (1977); and an incredibly freaky attack on a town in New Mexico. The digital compositing recreated the jerkiness and shallow depth of field that Lynch once got from analogue special effects, and it was fun to see him using it to address significant absences. Michael J. Anderson, the Little Man from Another Place, refused to appear after a quarrel about his fee, so his character was replaced by a screeching shrub. The character played by David Bowie, who died before he could shoot his scenes, now lived in a sort of kettle, of which he said: ‘It’s slippery in here.’ A powerful current of eerie feeling, acknowledged by the script and the direction, also flowed round those actors who were dying at the time, chief among them Miguel Ferrer, an abrasive forensics specialist in the original series, and Catherine Coulson, aka the Log Lady.

That wasn’t the only way in which Lynch seemed more self-referential and ruminative than before, or to be addressing the world beyond the fantasy. History had, in some ways, caught up with Twin Peaks: Jerry Horne was now in the legal weed business, Dr Jacoby was broadcasting anti-corporate rants online, Sheriff Truman had a retractable computer screen built nattily into his desk, and many more people appeared to be living in poverty. As Cole, Lynch reminded his transgender boss that he had once told her hostile colleagues to ‘fix their hearts or die’, and his ageing character often came under fire – ‘Really, Gordon?’ – because of a propensity for surrounding himself with beautiful young women. Cole had a portrait of Kafka on his office wall, a giant picture of a nuclear explosion behind his desk, and a way of stealing most of the scenes he was in. Quite a lot of this was playful – at one point the camera found him hard at work on a doodle of a pointy-nosed reindeer – but Lynch’s now rather magnificent face was frequently suffused with melancholy. The last line spoken to him was: ‘See you at the curtain call.’

I was beginning to make my peace with the idea of the new Twin Peaks as a big-budget cousin to Inland Empire (2006) when, around the time of the last North Korean missile test but one, the action started to thicken. More and more characters made it to the town, new supernatural evils were introduced, and then finally it happened: Cooper snapped out of his trance. For a brief moment in the series finale the surviving gang was reunited, evil was vanquished, and it seemed that we really were in a pop-surrealist version of the Marvel Comics Universe, or maybe in 1990. But of course you can’t go back, and pretty soon we were in a black space, barrelling down a lost highway, having moving yet deeply alienated sex, and waking up in a grimly reconfigured reality with, this time, no identifiable dreamer to pin the whole thing on. The credits rolled over an image of Laura whispering in Cooper’s ear, but we no longer knew what she was saying. I watched the finale on a plane, which made it hard to hear the soundtrack, and found myself humming a sort of grinding jazz dirge. I thought it must have been a Badalamenti tune played under the closing sequence, but when I checked after getting home it wasn’t there.