27 Nov 2017

Ten Short Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return

The third season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks completed its 18-part run on 3rd September, a full 25 years after the previous installment of the franchise: the film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Like so much of contemporary culture, it promised my generation the chance to ‘relive’ a cultural memory that, although deeply engrained, we were too young to actually experience. It was carried onto screens on a wave of pre-emptive nostalgia, with a new generation of artists and commentators attesting to the deep and lasting influence of a cultural event that they missed the first time round.

Perhaps it was a lot easier to talk about Twin Peaks Season 3 (aka Twin Peaks: The Return, but henceforth Twin Peaks 3) before it actually happened. I've been struck by the comparative paucity of public discussion—especially now, in the wake of its cataclysmic final episode. I understand that this is partly a symptom of a strict taboo on spoilers (one of our culture's newest and most fearsome taboos), combined with the asynchronous nature of today’s streamed television ‘event’. Nevertheless, is there actually a consensus on whether Twin Peaks 3 was good or not? Was it as good as the original? Was it even better? From the few critical perspectives that have risen to the surface of public consciousness, it remains pretty hard to tell.

Still, this is hardly surprising. Twin Peaks was hard enough to talk about already, requiring 25 years of cultural digestion and canonisation to provide the meat for the think-piece previews. What's more, Twin Peaks 3 is nothing like Twin Peaks; in fact, taken in its 18-hour entirety, it is nothing like anything else. Showing an indifference to its own cult that borders on the sadistic, it seemed dead set on wrecking every planned fancy dress, coffee-and-cherry-pie viewing party. Of course, in denying the critics another shallow reboot that would cement the franchise’s existing reputation with triumphant reviews that read like eulogies, the new season has hopefully furnished us with decades of actual conversation, once the dust settles. This series of blogposts is my attempt to get in (relatively) early on the action.

A note on interpretation and paranoia

The obligatory numerology

At this point, I should acknowledge that Twin Peaks (and Lynch’s work more generally) does lend itself particularly well to one particular form of discourse. Popular on blogs and online forums, Youtube explainers and comment sections, this discourse tends to approach the text as a ‘puzzle to be solved’. It involves the presentation of theories and counter-theories, based on picking out details as ‘clues’ or ‘symbols’, and it relies on statements such as ‘this means that, ‘this represents that’, or ‘this is that’. In comment sections especially, it is usually accompanied by emphatic aesthetic statements about the value of such interpretations, or lack thereof.

I would describe this obsessive digging for clues and drawing of connections in terms of a ‘paranoiac’ style of engagement, which cannot help but assume some total, conspiratorial logic beneath the edifice of the text, which finds some expression in every surface detail. I would never suggest that this style of engagement is inappropriate or irrelevant to Lynch’s work; on the contrary, the cultivation of paranoia in the protagonist and viewer is clearly a fundamental feature of his recent films. Still, while this paranoiac engagement may be the ‘proper’ mode through which to engage with Lynch’s work, I am far more interested in the implications of this engagement as an element of the text, rather than its use as an external tool to ‘reveal’ ‘the text itself’ (i.e., the ‘real’ meaning).

This is not only an aesthetic preference. For me, the most progressive readings of Lynch involve an (implicit or explicit) critique of this mode of interpretation, implicating it in the spectacle of horror and violence which it always accompanies. According to such a reading, Lynchian horror can’t be relieved via an unveiling of the text’s ‘true’ logic; it is, instead, the result of this unrelenting search for a logic whose existence is presumed a priori. I made this argument about Twin Peaks in an earlier essay, but I will return to it in a later blogpost, with particular reference to the new series.

As I see it, the paranoiac exegesis that flourishes like fungus around Twin Peaks is just another symptom of how difficult it is to talk about the text in a way that feels appropriate. As a kind of parallel fan fiction—a collaborative fantasy constructed to meticulously index every disorienting disjunction in the original text—this paranoiac discourse has an autonomy of its own. In many ways, it is easier to talk about fan theories than to talk about what’s happening onscreen.


Personally, I’m not really interested in speculating about meaning, beyond the meaning of ‘the search for meaning’ as a theme in itself. Instead, in these ten short essays, I will focus on some of the lines of thought that I myself found rewarding when approaching Twin Peaks 3: ten little sketches of possible routes into Twin Peaks, like maps doodled on the backs of napkins. While not necessarily ways to ‘make sense’ of the proceedings, they may help turn any potential frustration into exhilaration.

I will look at the series through three distinct lenses, based on levels of familiarity with Lynch’s previous work:
  • The first two blogposts will consider the relocation of Twin Peaks to the ‘sublime’ universe of Lynch’s ‘late period’ (post-Lost Highway), and the way this might relate to a contemporary crisis of White America.
  • The next three blogposts focus on the relation between Twin Peaks 3 and the original series. By desecrating the franchise, its iconic setting and its beloved characters, Lynch and Frost turn the audience’s nostalgia against them, while leaving the resulting show free from all genre and narrative conventions.
  • The second half of my series attempts to assess Twin Peaks 3 ‘in itself’. In Nos. 6–8, I present it as ‘post-narrative’ television, as TV-as-performance-art, and as music theatre.
  • I draw my argument to a close with an attempt to tie all three strands together, presenting the series as a meta-text that inverts the original series in order to reflect (if not ameliorate) a ‘crisis’ of narrativity in communal life (No. 9). Finally, I use this reading to critique the series itself—in particular, its casual misogyny and sensationalized sexual violence (No. 10).
These mini-essays can be read on their own or as a 10-part sequence, since they flow thematically between each other and develop a few core ideas in different directions. I've tried to avoid any overt spoilers, but it should go without saying that my argument won't make much sense if you're not familiar with the new series.

[I'll link the blogposts here as I publish them over the next few weeks...]