The anti-humanism of Twin Peaks: The Return

Jamie Rycroft argues that last year’s revival of David Lynch’s cult drama passes into a dimension more surreal – and less human

This article contains extensive discussion of rape, incest, familial abuse and trauma. All events discussed are fictional.

June 25th 2017 will probably go down as one of the most influential dates in television history: the day in which episode eight of Twin Peaks: The Return was broadcast. David Lynch’s third season of Twin Peaks, which had previously been off the air for twenty-five years, had so far radically challenged viewers’ notions of what the show should be like, but the eighth episode provided a whole different angle to the story. What began as a conventional episode (by this show’s standards) suddenly leapt back in time – the first temporal jump to take place in a show that had been running for thirty-seven episodes – and depicted the detonation of the nuclear bomb, providing a meditation on the origins of unspeakable evil in a way that informs the original series’ depiction of familial sexual abuse.

Much has been written about the terrifying, wordless sequence of images that Lynch unleashed on unsuspecting audiences that night. But one thing I haven’t seen much consideration about is that this moment is fundamentally different from the majority of the surreal scenes that Lynch has directed elsewhere in his career.

When one thinks of a classically ‘Lynchian’ moment from his vast body of film and television work, they might think of many things: the deformed, screaming baby in Eraserhead; the terrifying Frank Booth breathing through a gas mask in Blue Velvet; Leland Palmer in the original Twin Peaks looking into a mirror and seeing the killer BOB as his reflection; the pale, unblinking and uninvited party guest in Lost Highway; the nightmarish creature that lives behind the Winkies in Mulholland Drive; the distorted version of Laura Dern’s face in Inland Empire. All of these moments feature people made larger than life, whose characteristics are distorted in a way that disturbs and unnerves the viewer.

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So it is intriguing to notice that within the most iconic version of the new series of Twin Peaks, no people feature at all. Blossoming mushroom clouds, exploding colours, buzzing atom-like dots – but no humanity to be found here, not even in a distorted form.

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Something seems to have shifted in Lynch’s presentation of the human subject in the interim between the old and new Twin Peaks. The original series, for all of its dark and surreal elements, had a beating human heart. The pilot, directed by Lynch, is notable for the way it unflinchingly portrays human grief as it shows member after member of the town crying once they hear of Laura’s death. The emotions are exaggerated in classic Lynchian style – no show in which a father leaps onto his daughter’s coffin during her funeral could be viewed as realistic – yet they are nonetheless palpable, and it is difficult not to feel their raw, human power.

The humanity of the original Twin Peaks can also be seen in its moments of humour and light-heartedness. The Log Lady has rightly become a cult figure, seeing that she distils the quintessential nature of Twin Peaks’ characters – people that are certainly a strange and quirky, but somehow feel all the more real because of that.

And at the centre of Twin Peaks is Agent Dale Cooper, a man who from his very first scene completely takes control of the situation, using a detective method that is a combination of rational deduction and mystical intuition. Cooper seems convinced that any crime, no matter how despicable, has an answer that can eventually be found, even going so far as to wonder in an idle moment who really might have pulled the trigger on JFK.

Cooper’s enthusiasm and curiosity carries over into all walks of life, from his love of good food and coffee to his ongoing desire to find out what kind of trees grow in the nearby area. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Cooper is not a detective who detaches himself from human interaction; instead, he immerses himself in friendships with the citizens of Twin Peaks, and in doing so learns more of the town’s secrets. It is difficult to watch the show and not get as excited as Cooper when a new clue is discovered, and the character appears to represent everything that most people would like to be: decent, kind-hearted and good-humoured.

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The plot of the original Twin Peaks was not planned out from the start, and the nature of the show distinctly changed over the course of its two seasons. One of the show’s set dressers was accidentally included in a shot during the filming of the pilot, and David Lynch liked his appearance so much that he decided to make him the series’ antagonist: a demonic figure known only as BOB. BOB’s inclusion signalled the beginning of a shift in the show’s tone, from a story which included strange moments but no openly supernatural elements, to a richer mythology where the real world is influenced by another dimension known as the Black Lodge. Reconciling these paranormal elements with the reveal that the murderer of Laura Palmer was her father, Leland, created an intriguing tension: Leland is shown in some way to be possessed by BOB, but does that mean he is absolved for what he did?

Different writers for the show had different opinions on this question. Mark Frost, the co-runner of the show along with Lynch, seemed adamant that Leland is essentially innocent and was used as a puppet by BOB to kill his daughter. Frost wrote Leland’s death scene, where he says the following:

“[BOB] said he wanted to play. He opened me up and I invited him and he came inside me. […] When he was inside, I didn’t know. And when he was gone, I couldn’t remember.”

Lynch, meanwhile, is more ambivalent about Leland’s culpability. His masterpiece film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which serves as a prequel to the original series, provides a glimpse into Leland’s mind and life, where he sleeps with prostitutes that look like his daughter and harbours disturbing fantasies about Laura’s sexual activity. Even if BOB pushed Leland over the edge into rape and murder, there seems to be no denying that these feelings and urges already existed in some form. As Albert puts it, “maybe that’s all BOB is. The evil that men do.”

Nonetheless, the shift of Twin Peaks into metaphysical territory introduced a dimension (both figuratively and literally) where people are not fully responsible for their actions, and are in some way prey to forces that are larger than themselves. This anti-humanism only amplifies in Twin Peaks: The Return, which is full of individuals who have lost control in some way of their faculties, and are being piloted by vague, inhuman forces. There is the unnamed girl in the eighth episode, who falls into a trance and swallows a horrifying ‘frog moth’ bug. Sarah Palmer has been hollowed out from the inside, becoming host to a monster that devours people. And most significantly of all, Agent Cooper, the shining Renaissance man, is a phantasm for most of the new series, his soul lost somewhere far away as his body shambles about and repeats other people’s words under the guise of the bumbling Dougie Jones.

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Even the evil characters seem to have lost a recognisably human dimension. Leland’s actions are despicable but are rooted in comprehensible emotions, namely lust and rage. BOB can be seen as a metaphor for these feelings, which is precisely what makes him such a terrifying character. The main villain of the third season is Agent Cooper’s doppelganger, who has no such humanity. Instead he is a cross between a machine and an animal, with black shark-like eyes and an inscrutable expression. Both Dale Cooper and his double are trying and failing to mimic humanity, although the ‘Dougie’ scenes are comical while the ‘Mr C’ scenes are terrifying.

The revived series of Twin Peaks is focused not on exaggerated human characteristics, but in the gaps where humanity is to be expected but cannot be found. This can be found even within the contrast of the visual styles of the old and new series. Primarily due to budget constraints, the original Twin Peaks is shot mostly in tight camera angles, in cosy interior locations, with the human subjects taking up the frame. The new series is lost in the weeds: many of the shots are of empty landscapes, the scenes beginning before people enter and finishing after they leave, and the characters often not feeling like the focus of their own story. The Black Lodge of the original series is a small, curtained room, which perturbs the viewer because it feels close and intimate while simultaneously impossible to locate spatially. The Black Lodge of the new series is scary for an entirely different reason: the curtains blow away and a vast and infinite expanse is revealed, and any people to be found vanish into the inky darkness.

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It’s often easy when viewing a work by an artist as unusual as David Lynch to see such a stylistic shift as meaningless, as merely exchanging one set of weird imagery with another. Yet there are distinct patterns to the ways in which Lynch weakens the influence that the humans of Twin Peaks have over their actions and surroundings.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that many of these moments that show a lack of humanity are linked in some way with technology. Agent Cooper becomes lost in Dougie’s life because of travelling back into the real world via a power socket; it takes another burst of electricity to return him to normal. This is not to touch upon the various ways in which electricity represents a connection between the real and spirit world within Twin Peaks. When Lynch was asked by an interviewer why he was so fascinated by electricity, he replies succinctly: “the fact that it controls us”. People are ruled by technology in the latest iteration of Twin Peaks. The landscape represented in the show is criss-crossed with power lines, carrying both good and evil – hence why electricity both causes and cures Cooper’s ills. The media, as represented by the radio, is a literal soporific, bringing an idyllic 1950s New Mexico neighbourhood into a trance. The idea that people can be controlled by their inhuman creations is a theme that has always fascinated Lynch, but the leaps and bounds that technology has taken in the last twenty years has especially intensified the way in which he represents its impact on humanity.

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Secondly, it feels entirely intentional that many of the scenes in which a human presence is actively denied also confront the viewer’s nostalgia for the original show. When Twin Peaks: The Return comes to feature characters whose actors have either passed away or otherwise not returned, the show does not brush these absences away, but presents them directly by replacing the human with an unearthly counterpart. The Man From Another Place is now a tree pulsing with electricity. The minor character of Phillip Jeffries was memorably portrayed by David Bowie, but due to the actor’s death, he is instead replaced with a steaming, clanking kettle.

These moments are uncanny, and deny the kind of nostalgic closure that plenty of other recent television reboots, like The X Files, have provided. Lynch is uninterested in resurrecting the show’s original humanity, and instead wants to represent the passage of time, by starkly showing just how much the actors have aged, and just how many of them have died, since they last graced our screens. There is the sense in which the march of time has caused the characters to lose some of their humanity, whether that is Dr Jacoby becoming the mouthpiece for a paranoid radio station, or Cooper as Dougie shuffling through his life. Seeing a character like Cooper, who once so easily took charge of a situation, now reduced to repeating what other people do and say, is especially disheartening, and it is difficult to escape the interpretation that Dougie is intended to represent someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, since Mark Frost’s father suffered from the disease at the time he was writing the series.

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Finally, Twin Peaks is a show that has always explored themes of trauma, and its return is no different, though now it depicts suffering blunted by time. Characters were once effusive about their grief for Laura, but it has been so long since her murder that she is now abstracted into a misty face in the clouds, a golden orb of goodness. Sarah, the remaining survivor of an abusive family, is worn down and hollowed out. Cooper, having ostensibly solved Laura’s murder, came no closer to understanding its cause, and has now entirely lost his way. Towards the end of the series, he tries to undo Laura’s death, but is transported into an even stranger and more disturbing reality, with no idea of what he is trying to accomplish.

There is no better symbol of this theme than the tulpa, a Buddhist conception of the mind projecting its own body, which within this show is taken to symbolise all the loss of a sense of self brought about by trauma. In the series’ most heart-wrenching scene, Diane describes her rape by Cooper’s doppelganger in a manner that feels achingly real, yet the moment is immediately complicated by the reveal that she is actually a tulpa. Diane repeatedly says: “I’m not me”. Through the use of a supposedly inhuman metaphor, Lynch taps into a very real urge for someone to try and distance themselves from traumatic events.

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Due to his surreal tendencies, David Lynch is often accused of being an artist unconcerned with human feeling, but personally I have found his works to be some of the most raw and unflinching portrayals of specific emotions ever seen. The realness of the feelings he commits to screen is precisely because of, not despite, the indirect methods he uses to explore them. The latest season of Twin Peaks is no different, and despite the fact that his visual style has changed to one that decentres people and their influence, the intention of such a shift is still to explore recognisably human themes: of alienation, aging, death and trauma. Even the nuclear bomb sequence, despite not featuring any people, represents a human fear: the idea that we have gone too far, that we have irrevocably broken our link with the innocence of Nature. The characters within Twin Peaks: The Return feel like they are losing or have already lost their humanity, and Lynch hence removes the humanity from the show, confronting the viewer with the gap left in its place.

There is a very small moment that is among my favourite in the entirety of the revived season. In amongst the sixteenth episode, we briefly cut to Gordon Cole, a character played by David Lynch, who stands in a hotel room full of screens and beeping machines. Within the framing of the shot, the show’s director appears small, and his expression is halfway between lost and worried. There is no better moment that encapsulates the changes in Lynch’s portrayal of people within Twin Peaks, and in the coherence of the ideas being communicated within this masterpiece of television.

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