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Twin Peaks: The Return created a new kind of escapist TV

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In a time of Trump-obsessed media analysis, David Lynch took his series finale to places politics couldn’t follow

Image: Showtime

The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’s everywhere. It’s impossible to turn on the news or access the internet without encountering headlines about him, along with the endless raging dissection of those headlines. Conversations unintentionally drift in his direction. He’s also infected pop culture, coloring the criticism of every new release. Any movie about the immigrant experience, sexuality, medical access, women, young people, politics, or the general resistance of prejudice or oppression becomes a bold and necessary stand “in the age of Trump.” When Green Room premiered at Cannes in May 2015, it felt like a dark fantasy adventure. But by the time it arrived in US theaters a year later, critics saw it as a timely parable about Nazism and cult mentality… “in the age of Trump.” He’s been inescapable for the past few years.

That is, except for one blessed hour on Sunday nights over the past few months, as David Lynch and Mark Frost reached down from the heavens to seize his audience by the lapels and thrust them into a hostile, unfamiliar new plane.

The merits of Twin Peaks: The Return have been plentiful and varied over the course of 2017’s summer, but the series finale confirmed a new virtue: the whole series has been refreshingly Trump-proof. Great evil lurks in the misty thickets of Twin Peaks, and it’s a blessing that it comes in amorphous, deliberately unrecognizable forms. Lynch and Frost make their story impervious to the horrors of the moment by dwarfing them. Twin Peaks is the new, true escapist television.

Image: Showtime

Escapism has been TV’s bread and butter since the medium’s inception — not just through overt fantasy or science fiction, but through stories revolving around the idealized lifestyles of the rich and famous. The shocking, aggravating, awe-inspiring run of Twin Peaks: The Return has rejiggered the notion of escapist TV into something darker and more complicated. It’s no longer about getting lost in a fantasy of success or conspicuous consumption. It’s about putting so much distance between fiction and reality that the two can’t be linked.

Every creative choice Lynch makes seems geared to send viewers to a terrifying, oblique dimension, where vast eternal powers fight via incomprehensible methods, and a baffled humanity is caught up in the struggle without realizing it. The series appears to take place outside of time, in a stubbornly nonspecific era. Lucy and Andy’s computers at the Twin Peaks police department clearly access an older iteration of the internet, or a old-timer’s half-formed guess at what the modern internet is like. The passage of time is central to The Return, but even though the scripts clearly established that 25 years have passed since the events of Lynch’s 1992 movie Fire Walk With Me, there’s a marked lack of any element firmly rooting the series to its era. At times, Lynch launches into full experimental abstraction, tearing the story away from anything tethering it to Earth.

That doesn’t make The Return untimely, but the show engages its relevant themes in an apolitical, eternal way. From the earliest episodes, Lynch and Frost demonstrated a persistent interest in the shady processes through which the corporate sausage gets made. Plenty of fans saw The Return’s casino-owning Mitchum brothers, Rodney (Robert Knepper) and Bradley (Jim Belushi), as the natural get-rich-however-possible scheming continuation of the Horne brothers in the original 1990s run of Twin Peaks. The Return has ventured out beyond the Pacific Northwest lumber village of Twin Peaks, exploring impoverished pockets of white America, and the toll exacted by recent hard times.

But the storylines rooted in poverty and isolation aren’t in service of a pointed polemic. Specific, timely political messages are antithetical to Lynch’s methods, which involve communicating through the primal languages of images and emotions. Besides, Lynch’s worldview isn’t that simple. Bradley is the closest thing the show had to a Trumpian figure, and he ends up as a mildly lovable galoot by the series’s end.

Strangely, it’s almost a relief to encounter a show so steeped in darkness that it renders the fears of our common present more manageable. The presence of evil in The Return has been high-concept, manifesting through avant-garde formal assaults and inscrutable symbolism. The most literal personification of malevolence, the fearsome Bad Coop, functions more like an elemental force than a proper character. Even Lynch might find the world of Twin Peaks bleaker than reality. In the show’s original run, the quiet romantic Major Briggs (Don S. Davis) fretted that the thing he most feared in the world was “the possibility that love is not enough.” His anxiety is affirmed in the finale’s haunting final moments. After plumbing the abyss of bone-deep near-mystical terror, it’s almost a relief to resurface in a time where the world’s forces of negativity have names and faces.

Image: Showtime

Twin Peaks is hardly the first show to captivate an audience by setting up mysteries for them to endlessly puzzle over, but it’s unique in that the questions are the destination, not the path. The finale’s concluding note of ambiguity and non-closure confirmed that the unknowable, unanswerable, and unthinkable will always be Lynch’s most natural province. The penultimate episode was a tease, with overtures toward a straightforward resolution, as long-absent series protagonist Agent Cooper finally reappeared, and nearly succeeded in undoing Laura Palmer’s murder. But Lynch pulled a bait-and-switch in the final hour, antagonizing the audience with an endless, wordless drive before undoing it all with one last boldfaced question mark. The series is absorptive by design. Determined dissectors could very well pore over The Return’s 18 dense, brutal hours indefinitely. It’s TV worth getting lost in.

There’s a twisted irony inherent in composing a “Twin Peaks in the age of Trump” essay that explicitly celebrates the impossibility of a “Twin Peaks in the age of Trump” essay. But what is Twin Peaks about, if it isn’t about fully embracing the paradoxical? Like zen koans, each hour of The Return contains profound truths nested within contradictions, and the dogged pursuit of those truths nurtures the soul. Lynch and Frost spent this season fixated on portals, from vortexes materializing in wooded thickets to wormholes abruptly spitting matter out into parallel planes of being. Their great gift to their viewers was a portal of another sort, out of the contentious present and into the Other Place.