The following is a guest post by Lee Stepien, an American freelance writer currently based in Paris. He has a Master’s degree from the Sorbonne, where he specialized in gender studies in American cinema. Please leave a comment and let Lee know what you think!
In both Twin Peaks: The Return and daily life in 2018, it can feel like the zig-zag backwards realm of “The Red Room” has leaked out into the real world and slathered everything in nonsense and madness. The show’s timing was perfect because of director David Lynch’s signature technique: being able to represent abstract emotions in a surprisingly relevant way.
“Is it the story of the little girl who lived down the lane?” is a question posed twice in the third season. The show suggests that the story might be about something else. Maybe it’s not about the little girl, but about the men who kill her and the men who try to save her.
The twin part of the title was always so on point because the show is about dualities. The depiction of wholesome small-town life is haunted by a seedy underbelly that’s always just below the surface. Most of Lynch’s work taps into the black and white vision that has been infused into American culture since Reagan’s division of the world into good and evil empires.
Twin Peaks has always been about the ambiguity between those two moral extremes. The new season makes this absurdly explicit with the fragments of our FBI hero’s doppelganger personalities. Besides the white knight Dale Cooper, there’s the tyrannical “Mr. C,” the sheep-like Dougie Jones, the unsettling Richard, and (of course) the killer BOB is still with us. None of these characters allow for just one simple binary reading, which is more in line with the complexities of our time.
Mr. C and the Bomb Fantasy
The Return exposes the traumas that are imposed on the masculine psyche by capitalism, and the atomic bomb is a key part of the story.
Part 8 features the very first nuclear explosion that took place on the trinity test site in New Mexico in 1945. An abstraction of special effects would seem to suggest that Bob was born in the blast.
In the second season (from 1990), special agent Albert Rosenfield says, “Maybe that’s all Bob is. The evil that men do.” This connection could easily lead one to think the show is trying to suggest that the bomb was the birth of evil in man. But there were obviously plenty of evil men before that.
The use of the atomic bomb historically signals a shift in global power. The United States ascended to the role of world leader and expanded a massive network of imperialism to manage that power, which still exists to this day.
For men, the post-war American Dream of limitless opportunity and success translated into the ideal that men were to become the masters of the universe. It was an impossible standard that became a tool for the reconsolidation of neoliberal economic power. The work force was kept in line with an unspoken promise of earned supremacy due to American exceptionalism.
The fantasy that endures today is that every man can become rich and all-powerful, and it lurks behind fragile masculinities and angry white men. But there is a divide between what capitalist ideology promises and how it works in practice. The Return taps into this disparity through the main twins of special agent Dale Cooper, who we’ll call “Mr. C” and “Dougie.”
The long-haired evil Cooper, or “Mr. C,” is the embodiment of the all-powerful American man and the ultimate capitalist product. He’s a master of industry, becoming a billionaire over the last 25 years. He’s a master of the body, as an action hero who can disarm a shotgun with a wave of his hand. He’s a master of technology, doing impossible things with voice recorders and computers. And he’s a master of men, dominating a band of ruffians through the manliest competition, arm wrestling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, our hero Dale Cooper takes on the role of “Dougie.” At first, he seems like a completely empty vessel, devoid of emotion. He becomes the symbol of a more realistic product of our globalized society. He is a corporate drone who has no interests or longterm goals and no passion for his wife or his home life. He shuffles through his existence having absolutely no control over anything that happens to him.
Mr. C is who men think they are in their heads and Dougie is more like who men are in real life in a globalized capitalist society. The division in the new season becomes fantasy vs. reality instead of good vs. evil. This idea is crystalized by the question: “Who is the dreamer?”
From Fiction to Tyranny
In The Return, the phrase that is constantly repeated is, “we live inside a dream.” It is symbolic of the phantasmic support coating our lives like an augmented reality video game. Lynch has explored similar themes in his films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
There’s one great example in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, a book published just before The Return aired and written by co-creator and screenwriter Mark Frost. He details the story of one of the first UFO sightings in 1947, known as the Maury Island incident. Harold Dahl was out boating when he saw a group of flying saucers and some mysterious debris rained down on him. The story helped spark the UFO gazing phenomenon of the following decades.
In reality, the US military was illegally dumping radioactive waste in the Puget Sound. When the UFO stories kicked up, they were willfully encouraged and sometimes even provoked by the government. A fiction that has inspired the imagination of millions (including plenty of filmmakers) was used to hide a much more sinister reality.
Another way to take the “dreamer” line is that all of the characters in Twin Peaks live inside of a dream that we call a television show. It’s a commentary on the power of the world that we envision with our fictions.
In 1947, German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote a book called From Caligari to Hitler in which he analyzed German cinema before Hitler’s rise and the psychological disposition of the masses. The films depicted different kinds of all-powerful men, which Kracauer said revealed a collective consciousness that was begging for tyranny because they were petrified of the alternative, being chaos and national shame. The subtle suggestion is that the content was reinforcing the desire for tyranny by validating fears and psychologically priming the masses for its inevitable rise.
Modern American movies are also obsessed with scheming authoritative villains, from Darth Vader to Scarface to Bane and Ultron and too many other comic book bad guys. Comparisons have already been made between the political climate in the United States and fascist Germany. That’s not to say that films create demagogues, but only that there’s some kind of link between fantasy and reality that has something to do with how we envision both of them.
Dale Cooper and the White Knight Fantasy
The Return also takes a look at the effect of seemingly positive fictions, like the savior fantasy that was one of the defining characteristics of the original Dale Cooper. Part 17 calls into question the whole premise of the show that Laura Palmer needs to be saved.
Through some questionable sci-fi shenanigans, Cooper travels back in time to the events of the 1992 Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk with Me, and saves Laura from ever being killed. Cooper never questions for a minute whether or not he has the right to alter all of time and space, or the consequences that this might have for the people in this town.
First off, by “rescuing” Laura, Cooper is effectively depriving her of the right to choose. In the first season, Bobby Briggs reveals that Laura told him that she wanted to die. It’s an extreme example of the way that real world chivalry can often have the effect of suppressing a woman’s autonomy.
Secondly, preventing Laura’s death doesn’t erase a lifetime of trauma. She was not a troubled girl who needed a man to save her, but someone who was trying to take charge of her life in the face of the years of physical and psychological suffering. Laura’s original problem wasn’t her drug use or sexual promiscuity, it was Bob. He’s a symbol of the negative consequences of institutionalized patriarchy that is invisible or ignored, as in cases of sexual assault when the focus is shifted to the woman’s behavior.
What is so powerful about Fire Walk with Me is precisely how it captures the internal struggle of a sexual abuse victim. In The Return, Cooper experiences his struggle externally in the form of an abstract supernatural fantasy of black and white lodges and doppelgängers. Cooper’s fascination with Laura could be that she was more real and more whole than his fragmented self ever could be. It makes sense then that Cooper becomes “Richard,” someone who seems to synthesize all of his multiple personalities.
In Part 18, Cooper and Diane get into a car and drive through an electromagnetic portal. Whether or not they pass into our reality is debatable, but what’s certain is that it isn’t Twin Peaks. The motel is seedy and nothing like The Great Northern. The glowing chain gas station is not Big Ed Hurley’s Gas Farm. The diner is full of unsavory cowboys instead of charming Double R locals.
As Richard, Cooper effortlessly dominates the cowboys, with Mr. C’s ruthlessness. Yet, a general air of fatigue and blandness haunts him, reminding us of Dougie. His actions are in response to the harassment of the waitress, something we expect from Dale Cooper, but the way he waves the gun around afterwards makes it unclear just who he’s going to be shooting next. The only thing that is certain is that our upbeat, coffee-drinking, Tibet-loving, fantasy hero is nowhere to be found.
Formal Freedom as a Call to Wake Up
The longer you watch the new season in the context of the Netflix era, the more you realize to what point you are trained to expect something from a story. The Return constantly hits the viewer with seemingly pointless narrative digressions, confusing and unexplained supernatural events, and a sometimes painfully glacial pace. It challenges the conventions for both television and film and tests the limits of what can be done with the medium. This is why several year-end lists added the show as one of the best movies of the year.
Most popular television shows are now built around plot service and anything that doesn’t advance the story is usually trimmed away, leaving a nice, tight, cleanly resolved narrative. This type of trajectory mirrors the American capitalist narrative for success. A man goes from rags to riches, shooting up the ladder, with good triumphing over evil through hard work. It represents a values system based on exponential growth and accumulation of as much status and/or wealth as possible, by overcoming obstacles (for corporations: regulation).
Take, for example, Stranger Things. It owes a lot to Twin Peaks, but it strictly follows the Star Wars/Spielberg Hollywood formula that was based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth from his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Both seasons 1 and 2 are an adventure from the safety of home into the unknown (being the upside-down) to defeat the ultimate evil (the Demagorgon/Mind Flayer) and attain a new status (in this case, mostly “coming of age”).
This pattern has become so familiar that we watch it passively. Television, movies, articles, social media—all of it has turned into a system of mass production in which content is meant to be quickly consumable and disposable. The Return strikes back against this by subverting our expectations nearly every step of the way.
The absolute extreme is in Part 7 at the roadhouse. We’re forced to watch an employee sweep the floor for two and a half minutes straight. The narrative takes a backseat and we’re left with a stretch of film that is just the essence of the art form, a moving photograph. Reminiscent of the films of the Lumière brothers at the turn of the 19th century, the scene is a simple action within a fixed shot.
The slow rhythm demands to be watched actively rather than passively. The viewer has to think, question, and engage with what is being shown in order to get anything out of it. This lends itself to re-watching, with each new viewing creating an alternate pathway through the text. Above all, it teaches us new ways to read images.
The experimental structure of the show is infused with a sense of liberation that is a sort of call to action. There’s a reason why the vlogs by Dr. Amp (aka Lawrence Jacoby) have a very overtly leftwing critique against the “vast global corporate conspiracy.” Granted, he does end up being a snake oil salesman of sorts with his golden shovels, but his message hits a nerve.
Dr. Amp commands: “Stop distracting yourself with all this diverting bullshit and pay attention…dig yourself out of the shit and get educated!” His aggressive, revolutionary spirit is paralleled by Lynch’s radical formal freedom. The Return is screaming for us to wake up.
By testing our preconceptions, Twin Peaks becomes a lesson in media literacy that confronts the ideal of capitalist success and shows us the limitless possibilities of our fictions. We live in a time when we have difficulty imagining different ways of doing things, in terms of both media and politics. Lynch’s work pushes the boundaries of what we can imagine and envision for our world.