A Short Retrospective on Twin Peaks Season 3: “The Return”

Yes, there are far too many flaws in the new Twin Peaks. But the one thing that makes it all very worthwhile is how it is intentionally (and at times one could even say maliciously or even sadistically) designed to take your sense of nostalgia and enthusiastically shit all over it.

For me, discarding any other reason to watch the new show, the greatest thing it achieves is attacking not just the audience’s vague sense of nostalgia (in which we collectively chant “again, again” like babies wanting a fairytale to be re-read to us at bedtime) but digs into the toxic nostalgia that powers horrors like Trump, Brexit, Putin, and the plethora of “bring back the past" culture that has now metastasized to media, from Star Wars/Trek to… well, everything on TV or Cinema these days. If they could get away with making The Bible, Season 3: Jesus Strikes Back (but played by a Japanese female actor to keep it fresh), they probably would.

But TP Season 3 almost says “you want cherry pie and boppy music in small-town America? Well, here’s a wakeup call - the 1950s are done, and even the jazzy 1980s nostalgia of those times is done too, and guess what, you wanted Twin Peaks to come back to life? Here it is, dug right out of the grave”. 

In many ways the meta-story of fans' expectations of Twin Peaks and what "we" got reminds me very much of the tale of "The Monkey’s Paw" where the old man gives in to his wife’s desperate wish that their (horribly mutilated corpse of a) son should come back to life, and uses a magic talisman to make it happen - without considering the implications. In that story it is implied that the old man manages to make another -final- wish, reversing his previous one, before his wife can let in what was sure to be a zombie-like horror knocking at their door. But Twin Peaks season 3 is what happens when Lynch instead changes that - the door opens, but this time the desperate desire to hang onto something that's gone isn't reversed: Lynch lets us encounter the zombie, lets us blindly bring it into the house, lets us celebrate "The Return" in small ways while we fight the terrible impression that something is very wrong indeed.

TPS3 tastes bitter and mean. The classic show opened every week picturing a lively saw-mill, with the sparks and fury of industrial (and economic!) activity front-and-centre. TPS3 opens with the mill abandoned, empty, shrouded in mist. Unemployment. Poverty. Hatred. Twin Peaks residents are often pictured getting drunk at the bar, punching each other out over cheating partners, and taking drugs, in a way that implies that this is now the norm. The feeling of small-town-coziness is completely gone, bleached and scrubbed out intentionally from every frame. The soundtrack is bare and lighting is bleakly naturalistic most of the time.

It’s like the whole town has turned into what Laura Palmer had been in her secret life. The dark underbelly of small-town America, a staple of Lynch's work, is now the dominant lifestyle. Humanity can be glimpsed occasionally, but it only seems to come from the more elderly characters, and is portrayed as a quaint lost art. If “Fire Walk With Me” was “The last 7 days of Laura Palmer” then “The Return” could be “The last few decades of Twin Peaks” in many ways. The real Agent Cooper is rendered brain-dead (which seems to turn him into the perfect husband for Las Vegas), and his doppelgänger is a lizard-like sociopath whose evil can’t adequately be described without resorting to heavy spoilers. 

Everything that looks like it may go well, doesn’t, for almost anyone - a bit like the original S2 ending, but in this season it is blunt: With a notable exception, most plot threads reach either a bad ending or are amputated with deliberate cruelty. Even the humor is mostly caustic and mean-spirited - the most human characters in the series are literally murderous gangster caricatures. Fetishes like cherry pie are still there, but scarfed down robotically. An epic theme of good versus evil exists, but is played out and superficially resolved in the most banal way imaginable, and for good reason. It’s clear Lynch isn’t interested in making X-Files With Cherry Pie. Once the “what will happen next” element evaporates after you’ve seen the whole thing, you realize what you’ve actually been watching instead is a society in decay, and it’s a bait-and-switch that will be studied for years to come. It’s hard to describe how well and subtly it’s all done. It’s almost Eraserhead’s nightmare Philadelphia painted in a far more subtle palette, but as hard to digest.

Sounds horrible? Well, yes, it’s David Lynch, isn’t it. Just like Mulholland Drive, when things are looking nice, it’s most probably because we're witnessing a dream that’s disintegrating. Lynch loves that precise moment where a dream ends, that twilight moment of the opaque-cross-fade and audience double-take, it permeates all of his work. Literally, metaphorically, on all levels, he's a fan of the patterns of decay and its transformative power. Rotting meat on canvases, abandoned factories, fading dreams, and now Trump's America: "It's A World Of Truck Drivers."

Blue Velvet dealt with waking up from the American Dream as a rite of passage, Mulholland Drive was about the end of dreaming up excuses and accepting responsibility (in the darkest possible way). In this instance Lynch takes this to the next level - the dream in this case is everything that was perceived as the kind side of conservative small-town America. It’s like audiences wished their dead Reagan Decade back to life via a Monkey’s Paw, only to realize they raised one horrid corpse; Lynch leisurely draws out that realization for over 18 hours, which is really the best way I can describe my experience of Twin Peaks S3: A very slowly fading smile. But what comes through is not some eulogy for a lost American Dream, as some would claim, it’s a confrontation. It’s what you get after you voted Trump (or Clinton for that matter, out of fear of getting Trump) in vain hope that you can start up that ghostly mill again. And what now, it seems to ask, quite literally: “Is it future, or, is it past?”

In TPS3 we are gifted a made-a-deal-with-the-devil ticket to re-visit a place we loved, and, as promised, we definitely do visit it. But something doesn't feel right. We begin to realize that our misguided assumption, all along, has been that places and times are somehow linked. Turns out we didn't want to visit just the place, we wanted to re-visit a memory: A place and a time. And we can't. The realization comes through like an angry headache that won't go away as you watch the series, until you realize what's wrong - and what’s wrong is you, the expectant audience, the baby wanting Grandpa David to make it be February 1989 again. The plot anticipates this all too well, and uses it against you mercilessly.

In an early scene, a drugged-out wreck of a young person keeps calling “One One Nine!” out into thin air: It's the audience's nostalgia personified, a young person trying to desperately claw herself back from a post-“Nine One One” America, a country run by illiterate cowboys, professors-turned-comedian, and reality TV hosts, filled with fear, nostalgia and protectionism. The “One One Nine!” chant is an absurd attempt to try and reverse something, anything: If not time, then literally reversing just the numbers themselves, while smoking as much crack as possible.

Yet for me that whole viewing experience was very worth it, and even improves with repeat viewings. It’s a glorious kick in the head, it grabs you by the shoulders and won’t let you sleep, it shouts “Fuck You, Wake Up” in a manner that's far less didactic, political, or obnoxious as my rant here would imply. It’s decorated by great musical numbers in (almost) each episode that make for a great soundtrack. Some imagery, especially in its more surreal sequences, is incredible. High production values are evident in every shot. Plus there’s some hilarious slapstick, courtesy of Kyle McLachlan.

It’s a “Fuck You”, certainly, but it’s a very classy “Fuck You”. And if you're desperately clinging to things that were, as many of us do these days, it also serves as a great “Wake Up”.