THE SHOW “Twin Peaks: The Return”
WHEN | WHERE Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime
THE GRADE: A for the series (so far)
So, how is this “Twin Peaks” thing turning out for you?
If “you” are a member of much of the viewing nation, the most widely anticipated reboot of 2017 is hardly turning out at all. By the TV calculus that determines success — ratings — “Twin Peaks: The Return” almost qualifies as a disaster. With Sunday numbers so low (well under a million viewers) Showtime has been forced into playing a defensive game. (The video-on-demand numbers seem promising. People seem to be writing about it.) Showtime doesn’t have a lot of moves here. Excuses drift off into silence. A bleak truth materializes within the void: In conventional TV terms, “Twin Peaks: The Return” has not been a success.
The 18-episode season will take a hiatus July 2 before hitting the midseason point on July 9. Fans and the network are now left with the immediate memory of the June 25 episode “Gotta Light?,” a phantasmagoria of Lynchian symbols and imagery that defy analysis, while leaving open the possibility that this series can, and no doubt will, get weirder.
No ratings, no buzz, no hope of resolution or clarity, almost certainly no hope of a second season. What then does “Twin Peaks” have? Certainly this: It’s an artistic triumph which, at the halfway mark, has accomplished exactly what co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost set out to do. “Gotta Light?” was a creative high-water mark for the series and for television this year, and if submitted for an Emmy, a nomination should follow.
Eight episodes in, Lynch, Frost and their nervous Medici have further reminded the faithful why “Twin Peaks” was so exciting 25 years ago, and why the passage of time has done nothing to settle the mysteries it set out to explore. As Sunday’s episode established, those remain well below the surface: Unsolvable, unfathomable, untouchable, uncatchable.
That’s perfectly OK. “Twin Peaks” never was about seeking “meaning” or “solving the mystery” anyway. It was all about the mystery, and defiantly against “meaning.” In a dreamscape of symbols — as “Twin Peaks” is — meaning becomes irrelevant. These swim in the darkness of Lynch’s subconscious, occasionally drifting into light where they then assume a different meaning or emotional response for us, the observers. They barely correspond to anything in the real world, or in our world, and have no analogs to serve as guideposts. “Gotta Light?” was a lucid nightmare that stretched time and traduced space. It birthed monsters, and “woodmen,” and a half-frog/half-moth, which emerged from the rubble of the Trinity site’s Ground Zero into the mouth of . . .someone. “Evil,” as some sort of cosmic reality, seemed to take shape, or spawn. BOB — its “Peaks” human personification — seemed to slouch out of the desert, like something out of Yeats. Many observers called this episode an “origin story,” getting directly at why Laura Palmer was killed all those years ago. Maybe. Maybe not. Your call. Lynch will never tell us anyway.
Here’s a recap of (some) of the season so far: A “good” Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has emerged from the Black Lodge (“Peak’s” mystery realm of evil) to coexist in the same world as his doppelganger, the “bad” Coop, who got out of a jail in South Dakota this past Sunday. The good Coop — we know him only as Dougie Jones — exists in sort of a fugue state, where he remembers nothing, notably his past, and robotically goes about his business with his wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and his son, who goes by the Lynchian appellation of Sonny Jim.
On “Gotta Light?” Lynch invokes his inner Kubrick during a sequence where an atomic blast in New Mexican high desert is played out over long, intricate minutes to the track of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” all reminiscent of the famed “Star Gate” sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Cut to a mysterious theater of some sort, where one “Señorita Dido” sways rhythmically to an ancient phonograph playing ancient jazz, while the Giant — Carel Struycken — appears, then levitates, as a long stream of fairy dust effluent pours from his mouth.
Then cut to an unidentifiable figure adrift in an unidentifiable realm, while an ectoplasm pours from its mouth, and amidst this visual bricolage emerges a bubble holding the image of . . . Laura Palmer, who started this whole thing in the first place, back on ABC.
There’s a bubble BOB, too, in this episode. Good . . . evil . . . both heading to Earth.
Earlier in the episode, Nine Inch Nails performed “She’s Gone Away” — released just last year — with lyrics like “You dig in places till your fingers bleed,” which, of course, foreshadowed the episode’s climax, when one of the menacing “woodmen” — who arrived earlier in the episode to raise a “Bad” Coop from the dead — appeared in a high desert community in New Mexico asking various people to light his cigarette. He wandered into a radio station where he punctured the skulls of a secretary and DJ, then recited into a mic, the following: “This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.”
And you wonder why the ratings of “Twin Peaks” don’t rival those of “The Big Bang Theory?”
What was so great about this episode is that it did what Lynch does so well — the visually abstract, and sonically abstract, absent moorings or context. (It’s always helpful to remember that Lynch began his creative life as a painter, and that he believes his films are half visual, half aural).
In pursuit of meaning where there is no absolute meaning, Lynch fans have long resorted to a sort of “apophenia,” by assembling clues, parallels and tangents that may or may not have a bearing on what he intended in the first place. It’s a mad scramble played out in messages boards and on the Web, and has been for years: Ah! That picture of Kafka that hangs inside the office of FBI boss Gordon Cole (Lynch himself), which hangs next to the one of atomic bomb blast, clearly indicates the moth-frog thing in “Gotta Light?” is borrowed from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis!”
Well maybe. Or maybe not. There’s a famous fallacy called the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy: Some guy shoots randomly at a barn, then goes and draws a circle around all the bullet holes, and declares that he has hit the bullseye. Pursuing meaning in Lynch is exactly like that. He offers just enough clues, parallels and tangents — really throughout the body of his work going back to the ’70s — to allow you to draw a circle around all the Easter eggs you have discovered, thus creating the illusion that your pursuit of meaning has been fulfilled.
But it’s all an illusion. In fact, what’s most important in Lynch’s movies and “Peaks” is what lies outside that Texas sharpshooter circle. You can never find it because HE can never find it, and has no intention of finding it. With Lynch as with all serious artists, it’s helpful to remember that their role isn’t to catalog ideas in an effort to “capture” reality or truth. The mystery is what matters, while the symbols that evoke the mystery are only the portals. Similar to a door, these can easily be opened. That doesn’t mean an answer lies on the other side.
Lynch, who despises words that seek to reduce a symbol to something on a page, has spoken about all this. Explaining his creative process to an interviewer years ago, he said “a multitude of conceptual thoughts emerge from the subconscious. They all appear fragmented. They reveal their own meaning in context to one another. So there are no absolutes. When things get abstract, it does me no good to say (what they mean.)”
Lynch has a mystic’s regard for the creative process, and sees ideas — and symbols — as existing outside of him. “Where do they (the ideas) come from? If ideas come from outside you, how can you say they are yours? They are more like gifts — strange twisted little gifts.”
These strange, twisted little gifts have driven generations of fans in pursuit of meaning, from “Eraserhead” though “Lost Highway” and of course “Peaks.” They begin to see patterns and symbols — red curtains, horses, smoke, fire, “dualities” — and draw that Texas sharpshooter circle.
But on closer inspection, or after additional layering of symbols, the circle disappears. Like a mirage, it melts away.
Why does Lynch torment his fans so? Why did he torment them so Sunday night?
Because that’s Lynch. In another interview from the mid-’90s he said: “Films must be mysterious, but not confusing . . . you have to fill it with intuition rather than so much intellectual understanding. You FEEL certain things that you understand. . . . There are a lot of things like that, where we sense but we can’t prove. . . . There are explanations for a billion things in life that aren’t understandable and yet inside — somewhere — they ARE understandable.”
And so we await the second half of the series to see what’s understandable, if anything. As you watch, know that Lynch’s “Peaks” demolished the set of rules that lead to shows as diverse as “The Sopranos” and “The Leftovers,” or “Mad Men” to “Legion.”
And remember, this isn’t about finding the answers. There are none. Or to quote the last line of Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” which works as an invocation to viewers of “Twin Peaks:” Silencio.