I feel like what I’m about to share might not be a terribly popular opinion, so I want to get a couple of disclaimers in up top:
1. I’m a huge fan of David Lynch. I love his work. All of it. What follows below is not a criticism of his
methods, merely some observations and conjecture.
2. I am loving every minute of The Return. It has blown me away week after week. I can’t stop thinking, writing or tweeting about the show.
Okay. That’s done. NOW LETS CALM DOWN AND GET ALL OF THIS INTERESTING STORY ON PAPER.
Over the past couple of months, hardcore Twin Peaks fans on forums, podcasts and social media have reveled in picking apart every detail of each scene in The Return, looking for clues. A few theories have emerged about time-slips and skips, parallel realities, forthcoming plot twists and other unusual goings-on. This has been happening since early episodes and I’ll give a couple of prominent examples below. Before that though, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think a lot of the apparent evidence for these theories stems from Lynch’s unique working methods and a cavalier attitude to continuity rather than conscious timeline manipulation or intentional twists. I might be wrong, but that’s how it feels to me at this moment.
Remember how exciting it was, way back in May, when Deputy Hawk was walking through the dark woods by flashlight, speaking to Margaret Lanterman on his cell phone? He entered a clearing, his torch swept across the sycamores and we were treated to a glimpse of those familiar, magical Red Room curtains looming in the darkness. But then something odd happened. The apparently important sequence ended before anything more could take place and subsequent scenes have made no reference to the event at all. The next time we saw Hawk, he was back at the police station
pondering bunnies with Lucy and Andy. In all his subsequent conversations with Sheriff Truman, Deputy Briggs and the Log Lady, he has failed to mention what he saw. I’ve heard and read theories that this sequence takes place in the future – that the action of the show will catch up to this moment in the final episodes. It’s an appealing idea. But in my heart of hearts, I believe that this sequence was filmed in isolation, because it represented an image and a feeling that Lynch wanted to share, rather than a plot beat that needed to be hit.
Later in the season, we started to see text messages back and forth between Diane and Mr. C. Much of the intrigue in the FBI plot line is based on this communication and the mystery surrounding Diane’s motivations. Which side is she on? Is she double-crossing the feds or Mr. C? Or maybe both? Keen-eyed fans immediately spotted that the message about ‘conversation around the dinner table’ appeared in lower case on Mr C’s phone but ALL CAPS on Diane’s. The theories were flying thick and fast. Are the messages going via an intermediary? Is Mr. C sending messages to Phillip Jeffries, who is
then passing them on verbatim to Diane? I’ll be honest – I think this is simply a continuity error. I don’t think there’s any intrigue around transcription of the text. It doesn’t feel right to me. Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake.
Let’s consider one more example before moving on. After Part 12, many viewers were discussing Diane’s strangely-timed outfit change. In an early scene, as she was deputized into the Blue Rose Task Force, Diane was seen wearing a red sleeveless shirt, but later, while sending furtive texts at the bar, she wore a completely different green top. Again, fans, with their modern ability to instantly zip back and compare, were quick to point out she wore this same green top during sequences aired several episodes prior. I’ve heard podcast discussion and read forum posts suggesting this may be evidence of parallel timelines at work, but that just doesn’t ring true to me. I think it’s a minor slip, more the result of a cheerful recklessness towards continuity than a conscious desire to play with timelines.
Now, before you grab your pitchfork, let me explain. I’m not suggesting for one second that these mistakes are born out of laziness or a lack of care on David Lynch’s part. I think a range of factors have contributed, but the biggest is probably Lynch’s unique working methods. He is an artist. A true visionary. HE HAS HIS OWN MO – MODUS OPERANDI. He doesn’t like to pin things down too hard before he begins shooting and he intentionally leaves the door open for happy accidents. He is comfortable to improvise during the shoot – famously creating the character of BOB for set dresser Frank Silva on the fly, simply because it felt right in the moment.
Taking all of this into account, if you give David Lynch the chance to make an 18-hour film, he is not going to follow the rules of episodic prestige TV plotting and pacing. He just won’t. I believe, when Lynch set out to make The Return, he started with a number of images, ideas and unconnected threads rather than a solidly plotted storyline. He trusted that time and intuition would bring these elements together into a whole – as they have with his other works. But this ‘big picture’ approach meant he and Mark Frost were not sitting down and weaving the various arcs into coherent hour long episodes. I believe each storyline (Vegas, FBI, New York etc.) was crafted in isolation. I would suggest that consideration of which sequences would be included in each episode came much later, at the editing stage.
I’m not just plucking this idea out of the air, Lynch has past form for this method of working. Look at Inland Empire. To me, it’s one of his most mind-blowing works. It’s a bewildering, disorienting and intricate patchwork, a richly-layered collage. Lynch overlaps episodes from disparate narratives – stories with different characters, plots and settings but similar resonances, themes and textures. Bizarre footage from his Rabbits series is spliced with new material, shot specifically for the film, to devastating effect. Events from different times and places are linked in unusual ways that explore the similarities and contrasts between the stories he is telling.
Lynch has demonstrated time and time again that the tales he tells defy conventional linear plotting. He isn’t driven by a desire to communicate a narrative so much as to convey images and feelings. This is what makes his work so powerful, unsettling and unique. It also makes his approach too wild and haphazard to fit comfortably in the post-Sopranos television landscape, where we are so used to watching tight, intricately plotted stories. In a regular TV series, nobody would allow three weeks to pass on one storyline while only three hours elapse in another. Neither would it be acceptable for
three consecutive episodes to be aired without progressing one of the major plot arcs. And every episode would end with a cliff hanger, hook or twist. In The Return, it feels like Lynch is paying scant regard to these conventions of modern television drama, which means we shouldn’t try to read or analyze the show in the same way we would with Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
Despite the obvious tensions between his methods and the medium, I believe Lynch has applied his Inland Empire collage techniques directly to Twin Peaks: The Return. He shot hours and hours of diverse footage without a concrete vision of how all the pieces of the puzzle would ultimately fit together. It is an approach that could, in part, be seen as a sensible reaction to the scale and type of project he had taken on. This was a sprawling shoot, spread over several far-flung locations and featuring a cast of more than 200 actors. When you start to consider the cast availability and scheduling challenges that entails as well as the fact that several performers were elderly or in poor
health, shooting disparate and apparently unrelated sequences in isolation almost becomes a necessity. I’m thinking especially of Catherine Coulson’s phone calls and Warren Frost’s Skype conversation. By definition, these performers could not be called to sets or locations and so their scenes were filmed in isolation – inhabiting a space outside the wider plot.
Other threads within The Return also stand out to me as “isolated sequences”, shot in such a way that they could be dropped in as and when they were required, without impacting on the main storylines. Jerry Horne’s drug-addled woodland misadventures spring immediately to mind, as do Dr. Jacoby’s anti-capitalist web broadcasts and the reaction shots of his loyal viewer Nadine. The Roadhouse scenes too – both the bands performing and the vignettes that take place in the red leather booth – seem to be created as texture to sprinkle rather than being written with a specific episode in mind.
Again, I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy these asides. They are fantastic for adding color and lending The Return a beautiful, unusual rhythm. But I do think they were created to fit a working method rather than to drive plot. There are exceptions – Richard Horne’s Roadhouse booth sequence established his nasty credentials in a terrifying and efficient manner. But I think we’d be crazy to expect the “zebra” banter between two strung out ‘Sparkle’ chicks or the soapy nonsense of Abbie, Natalie, Angela, Clark, Mary and Trick to pay off in any real plot progression. These are decorative rather than structural elements.
None of this detracts from the show. Every episode leaves my head spinning, crammed full of exciting imagery and strange ideas. Every week I am stunned at the incredible, powerful performances Lynch elicits from his cast. But I’m not convinced that every moment and every element can be analyzed as a key plot point. In Lynch-land, details are symbols placed to convey ideas and feelings, rather than signposts to progress the narrative. This is a show coming from the same man who gave us Eraserhead, after all.
I could be wrong. In some ways I’d love to find that we were seeing a glimpse of the finale when Hawk explored Glastonberry Grove in the opening double-bill. And it would be mind-blowing to discover that the Fat Trout telegraph pole’s magical relocation to a busy crossing in Twin Peaks means the whole series takes place in the mind of missing agent Chet Desmond. But I don’t think these inconsistencies will pay off like that. I think they’re just that – inconsistencies. Glitches in the story-telling matrix.
So, if I’m right about this stuff, what does it mean? Does it make the show any less wonderful? Not for me, it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. But it might mean we should cool our jets about picking every tiny detail apart (fun though that is). And it almost certainly means that we should acknowledge that continuity simply isn’t always an important consideration for Lynch when he’s telling a story. Irregularities that may seem to suggest alternate realities or asynchronous timelines, might simply be symptomatic of a freeform, idiosyncratic approach to storytelling. Rather than bracing ourselves for Shayamanlan-esque revelations to come, we should maybe just “savor the Bordeaux”. Some of this is artistic choice on Lynch’s part, for sure. But some of it is born out of necessity in such a sprawling, challenging project and yet more is (let’s be honest) probably down to simple, human mistakes. Should we tie ourselves in knots, agonizing over screenshots, trying to pin everything down to a single “unified theory”? Probably not. Will we stop? No way! Not me anyway.
One final thought. What if, during the production process, Lynch realized that some of his creative choices were going to be jarring to a mainstream TV audience when he tried to cut his story into bitesize weekly chunks? What if he saw that coming and built in a beautiful catch-all disclaimer, right there in the introduction to the entire series? What if these discrepancies could all be explained away by a single sentence? What if that was the inspiration for the Giant to ask “Is it future or is it past?” Wouldn’t that be beautiful?
Mat Cult works in marketing in the UK. He has an amazing wife and a wonderful four-year- old daughter. When not doing his job or being a husband/dad, he makes techno music and thinks about Twin Peaks. You can reach him on Twitter here: @MatGost or by email here: firstname.lastname@example.org