1 Dec 2017

no.4// The Stagnation of Twin Peaks

This is one of my ten short essays about Twin Peaks Season 3. Click this link to read my introduction to the series.

Twin Peaks 3 is about the passing of time: a portrait of asynchrony, two time periods overlaid. Agent Cooper is still sitting in the Red Room—in the same chair, wearing the same clothes—but his face is 25 years older. Major Briggs’s body is found 25 years after his disappearance, but it hasn’t aged a day.

Twenty-five years later, a much-loved TV franchise returns to our screens. Twin Peaks 3 reminds us that time doesn’t pass in a uniform manner. Twenty-five years have elapsed—this fact is inescapable. We can never go back. And yet the passage of those 25 years will have proceeded in many different ways, according to many different routes with many different destinations, and all of these simultaneously, in the same world: the frayed threads of a once tightly woven rope. In this way, there can be asynchrony even in contemporaneity. Time doesn’t proceed with the linearity of TV narrative. If we lose the thread in 1992, we can’t expect to recover a unified narrative in 2017, 200 hypothetical episodes later.

Twenty-five years later, a much-loved TV franchise returns to our screens. But this isn’t The Force Awakens, or Blade Runner 2049; in Lynch and Frost’s take on the cult revival, nothing is taken for granted. Instead, the show’s creators use this opportunity to ask: how is time supposed to pass? How did we expect or wish for time to pass when we celebrated the announcement of this new season back in 2014? And what do we want our reboots, our nostalgia vehicles, to ‘say’ about the passing of time?

Laura Palmer knew what she was doing in 1992, when she promised we’d see her again in 25 years. This Twin Peaks revival was perfectly timed to articulate a critique of the current nostalgia boom, via what we might call the ‘Back to the Future axis’. The 1980s was a time in which the ’50s became a strong resource of fantasy nostalgia (Stand By Me, Happy Days, Grease (in 1978), but also things like Dirty Dancing and the Brat Pack movies, in their own ways), possibly fuelled by the climate of cultural reaction that Reaganism ushered in. For us, the same is now true of the 1980s, except that our fantasy ’80s also subsumes the fantasy ’50s that fuelled it. Of course, the first two Back to the Future movies anticipated this scheme precisely, with the first moving between 1985 and 1955, and the second between 1985 and 2015. (The recent, hugely popular Back to the Future Secret Cinema event in London provided a perfect distillation of this double nostalgia, with the chance for punters to dress up and be transported back to the ’80s version of the ’50s.)

Living the fantasy in Stratford, 2014

First airing at the dusk of the decade, the original Twin Peaks reproduced this fantasy ’50s while simultaneously demystifying it, drawing out the patriarchal violence (and, more obliquely, the racial genocide) beneath its veneer of apple-pie perfection. But what of our enduring nostalgia for the ’80s? Should we read in this a desire to return to the stability and simplicity of the ’50s, via a postmodern wink and a gloss of inclusivity? Frost and Lynch deny us this outright. There is nothing of the 1980s in Twin Peaks 3, and there is barely any 1950s. (There is, however, a little too much ’90s for my taste, but I will get to that in a later blogpost.)

Frost and Lynch’s disdain for nostalgia is searing, and their approach to their own loyal audience is essentially punitive. Not only are we refused any straightforward moments of nostalgic indulgence, but our very desire for such moments is cynically mocked, as every vestige of the original series is systematically desecrated before our eyes.

None of the characters from the original series (with the possible exceptions of Gordon Cole, Albert, one-armed Mike and the Giant) have been preserved on ice and reopened fresh. In the previous blogpost, I wrote of the ‘gentrification’ of Twin Peaks, and how many of the characters have matured, shed their iconic auras and faded into the background. Those characters that haven’t matured have stagnated.

The most obvious example of this stagnation is the good Dale Cooper. We assumed that Cooper was being preserved for us all this time, waiting patiently in the Red Room, to be reanimated when the time was right. Clearly, Mike and the other Lodge spirits thought so too. And yet we were all proven wrong. The Cooper we’re reintroduced to may look the same, but on the inside he has rotted away, leaving only a meaningless, buffoonish predilection for coffee and cherry pie: a sarcastic middle finger to the fans if ever there was one.

This stagnation has affected a number of other characters as well. James Hurley still haunts the roadhouse like a pathetic phantom, still mired in his own narcissistic romanticism, still singing the same sentimental song, flanked by two new backing singers—an ersatz Donna and Maddy (both of whom were already his ersatz Lauras). Norma and Ed continue to cast each other the same furtive glances, and there is a bitterness to their eventual union: an arbitrary resolution to an arbitrary tragedy that has nevertheless defined their whole lives. (The scene is obtrusively soundtracked by Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, and I have discussed previously the relationship between music and fantastical wish fulfillment in Lynch.)

More putrid still are the fates of Sarah Palmer and Audrey Horne. Our glimpses of Laura’s mother, in her terrible isolation, prove a potent counterpoint to the apparent lack of any enduring impression made by her late daughter and husband on the everyday fabric of the town. Sarah is a casualty of 25 years of Twin Peaks obsession; she alone has borne the legacy of the original show (whose relative absence many fans no doubt lamented), and it has destroyed her. Witness how trauma has diffused so unevenly across a town no longer united in its grief.

And as for Audrey’s storyline… To me, this was the most disturbing element of the season. Suspended for 25 years in a kind of soap opera purgatory, after the cliffhanger explosion at the end of Season 2, we gradually realise that Audrey is still trapped somewhere in that purgatory: a shadow world of emotional abuse more horrific than the Black Lodge. While Laura was the absent fetish that fuelled the original series—suffering for the sins of her community, her family, Cooper, Lynch, all men—so, Audrey, the most fetishised of the original cast, suffers for the sins of the audience. ‘How’s Audrey?’, we ask over and over. ‘Bring us back this fictional character. Make her live for us again. Make her tie a cherry stem with her tongue.’ Impossible cruelty.

Meanwhile, in the sheriff’s station, time has stopped completely. Lucy and Andy trundle around, repeating the same old schtick, like dusty animatronics of their former selves. Only it’s not really funny anymore, just a little uncomfortable, like when your aging grandfather recites his old punchlines but forgets how to set up the joke. The bizarre cameo in which we briefly meet their son, Waldo, only serves to further distance them from reality. Even the new Sheriff Truman is an uncanny presence, as if Lynch and Frost threw together a replica Twin Peaks on a budget and are trying to convince us: ‘Here you are! Home sweet home!’ In a town that’s still a hotbed of drug-fuelled murder, the feeling of intense boredom and stasis in the sheriff’s station is oppressive. Andy and Lucy, Hawk and the Log Lady: they’re all still engaged in solving a mystery that barely exists, aimlessly going through the motions, like Scooby-Doo and gang in their 500th adventure.

From the imprint of the past on the present, we can perceive a negative image of the 25 years intervening. For each character and location, this image is different. Time has passed, but that time is not the same time, and now we—like Cooper—are out of step. So, what of the next 18 hours? I would argue that the show itself produces a sense of asynchrony for the audience, as we watch and wait (like Sam and Tracey in New York, watching the glass box) for the characters to do something, for the narrative to begin, for the wheels to start turning. By the time all the ‘Twin Peaks’ elements are back in place, the series is basically over.

On its 1992 release, Lynch described his much-maligned Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, as ‘my cherry-pie present to the fans of the show—however, one that’s wrapped in barbed wire’. This time round, the box that Lynch has gifted us is actually totally empty.

Or, perhaps the box is the present…?