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By Kate Rennebohm
When the eighth part of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return begins, one doesn’t yet know that the episode will take the form of (visual) music. Though it starts straightforwardly enough, Part Eight soon reveals itself to be likely the most formally radical episode of American television ever made, and perhaps the most experimental piece of television tout court. By the end of its original airing on June 25, 2017, Lynch and Frost had liquidated any claims for the experimentation and provocation of “prestige television” as it existed prior, and they had done so before a rapt, global audience. (While audience numbers are largely untrackable in the streaming age, Twitter trends are enlightening.) As well, the episode had made the original Twin Peaks’ dismantling of televisual structures three decades ago look almost insignificant by comparison, and, one suspects, virtually guaranteed its own centrality to any discussion of moving images (televisual or not) going forward at least as many decades into the future. While many episodes of The Return have aired since Part Eight, deepening the meanings and nuances of that hour’s relationship to the series as a whole, Part Eight still remains the unquestioned apogee of the show—a mountain atop a mountain.
At the age of 72, Lynch has handily created an hour of moving images that counts as his most exciting work since Inland Empire (2006) or perhaps even Mulholland Drive (2001). It should be noted, however, that Frost likely deserves much credit for Part Eight as well, his contributions to the episode likely coming to the fore in its explicit historical bent (which is not a mode that Lynch is known for). As in the original Twin Peaks’ finale, much of the radicality here inheres in the ways that Lynch’s zeal for the abstract works both with and against Frost’s literalism, an intersection that ultimately shapes the defining tension of the episode.
On the one hand, Part Eight solidifies The Return’s removal of narrative from atop the televisual hierarchy, unabashedly making clear that narrative serves here at the pleasure of the higher powers of the non-narrative: music, noise, colour, form. On the other hand, the episode somewhat surprisingly trades on the belief so dear to devotees of experimental film: that formally experimental images are not arbitrary, excessive, or obscure, but rather are irrevocably tied up with our ways of understanding the world, and our hopes for avoiding destroying that world and each other.
These sentiments—not necessarily optimistic ones—come to us here in four parts. And they come as if by music. (Be wary, abundant spoilers ahead.)
1. Sonata: an exposition, a development, a recapitulation
At the episode’s open, “Evil Coop” (Kyle MacLachlan) is on the run with seeming co-conspirator Ray Monroe (George Griffith). Surveillance makes its standard appearance—every episode of The Return has featured it in one way or another—with Evil Coop announcing that their vehicle, acquired from the warden of the prison they’ve just absconded from, has three tracking devices on it. (The questions of visibility that the surveillance introduces—which bodies are subject to certain kinds of seeing—will reverberate throughout the episode.) After a dark night drive into the America that exists just out of reach of gas stations’ light, the men pull over; there is a double cross, and Ray shoots Evil Coop. Suddenly, wave after wave of semi-transparent men, blackened all over and wearing the garb of the stereotypical mid-century hobo, emerge from the night and bear down. They work and dance over Evil Coop’s body, pulling blood and perhaps the spirit Bob (the late Frank Silva) from him to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, slowed beyond the point of recognition. The music, and Ray’s screams, seem far away or at the very edge of our auditory perception, perhaps emanating from the same non-space as the blackened “woodsmen.”
Michel Chion has written that Lynch’s characters talk always as if someone, perhaps us, is listening in on them; as such, they speak in order to create “a void in their voice,” the better to give force to the explosive sounds that often follow in Lynch’s films. In this scene with the woodsmen, Lynch creates a void in sound itself, creating a startling combination of violent images with a soundscape that asks for something like aural intimacy. This scene’s sonic void is followed, per Chion’s prediction, by an aural explosion arriving in the form of a performance by “The” Nine Inch Nails in Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse bar, Trent Reznor and co.’s musical assault extending and recapitulating what has come before.
2. Adagio: slow and stately (or perhaps, Allegro: fast, quickly, and bright)
Onscreen text locates us in New Mexico, 1945, where a nocturnal black-and-white vista of jagged rock is suddenly, terribly illuminated by the blast from Trinity, the first test of a nuclear weapon. (One wonders if Lynch showed his visual effects team this description of the test from Thomas Farrell, the deputy commanding general of the Manhattan Project: “The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined…”) The strains of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima plays as we cross the threshold of the mushroom cloud, at which point we are plunged into a nearly 15-minute sequence comprising churning waves of abstract images, a spaceless void into which an inhuman figure birth-vomits the evil figure of Bob, and a series of stuttering shots of a gas station and convenience store.
While it is not necessarily the most attention-grabbing part of this section on first viewing, the convenience-store sequence is key to what Lynch is doing here. Following the catastrophic detonation, the only bodies left populating this arid space are the charcoal figures of the woodsmen, shuffling en masse in front of the store. They move, a blast of light freezes them in their tracks, an edit wipes them out; in a new configuration, they move, a blast of light, they freeze, they disappear, their vanished bodies leaving nothing but lingering shadows on the wall. This is the world after the Bomb, populated by shadows only, charred imprints filling a dead space, haunted by bodies made of ash. Coupled with the bodiless strains of the Threnody, Lynch’s spectral images here attest to the unimaginable, annihilating power at the heart of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A power that destroyed a quarter of a million people, this is a sight that—barring Lynch’s imagined movements through it—could not be both seen and survived. Time here stutters, certainly—how could it just go on after this?
3. Minuet: a dance for two
The episode’s third movement begins with a long glide over the purple sea last glimpsed in The Return’s two-part premiere. Moving through a window and settling in the black and white, decoratively furnished space that opened The Return, we encounter Carel Struycken’s character the Giant (initially renamed in the credits “???????” and later acquiring the moniker “the Fireman”) and a woman named Señorita Dido (Joy Nash), who is clad in ’30s dress clothing. Notified by an alarm, the Giant makes his way to a large movie screen (set atop a stage bearing a striking resemblance to Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio), where he watches the nuclear blast and the birth of Bob. In response, he begins to float in the air, eventually producing, from a golden pool of light, an orb containing Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), or at least the ubiquitous prom-queen image of Laura so central to the show’s iconography. Señorita Dido catches the orb and sends it through a machine that pushes it across the cinematic barrier to earth. Before releasing the orb, she looks at it, and Laura, with overwhelming love and tenderness—qualities that have been largely absent from the fairly bleak Return thus far. (Watching this woman kiss Laura’s image, one can almost imagine that this is how we’ll all feel when the robins finally come back.)
The third section thus takes a sharp emotional turn from the preceding one, this notable affective shift doubling and highlighting the overt dualisms that will emerge here (a dance for two). The first polar pairing appears at the narrative level, as Laura is seemingly given form to counterbalance the evil of Bob, who is now able, in Twin Peaks’ mythology, to cross between his world and ours in the wake of the nuclear blast. But beyond this narrative dualism, Lynch builds (or reveals) in the formal moves that structure sections two, three, and four a far more complicated and interesting binary: the fundamental division at the heart of the wish to go beyond ourselves—beyond the human—and the role cinema plays in that wish.
Lynch has long been fascinated with cinema’s ability to see, hear, and experience what human bodies cannot, or what could not exist for humans without cinema. Section two’s visual and structural references to the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which depicts astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) catapulting to a post-human stage of existence, aligns Lynch with (the very dissimilar) Kubrick in implicitly positing the question: What lies on the other side of human experience? Where section two approaches that question with a mix of dread and awe, in section three Lynch explores the positive possibilities of these cinematic imaginings of the extra-human. To reverse the last phrase of General Farrell’s quotation above, Lynch’s images here give us a concrete glimpse of what must be imagined to be seen. This is the documentary nature of cinema, even if Lynch could only ever be called a documentarian of impossible experiences: the ability to bring people images and experiences they would never otherwise be able to have.
On this, the “good” side of cinema’s extra-humanity, Part Eight celebrates the moving image’s ability to put something new and theretofore unimagined into the world, an ability that might turn our attention to things we couldn’t see before. Here, just as a cinema screen gives the angelic Laura her earthly existence, the television screen becomes a space for something that didn’t feel possible before: a shared reflection, through a large-scale collective experience of non-narrative and experimental images, on the legacies of state-enacted mass violence.
4. Rondo: alternation between contrasts
Final movement: we return to New Mexico, where everything is still black and white, though now it is 1956. Over the course of this final section, a young girl (possibly Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, mother of Laura) walks home at night with a boy, in an idyllic vision of postwar middle-class adolescence. After a first kiss, she sits dreamily on her bed. Elsewhere, the woodsmen emerge from the mountainous landscape, where one of them, conspicuously played by a Lincoln impersonator (Robert Broski), slows a car on a highway, terrifying the middle-class couple inside with his inhuman invocation: “Gotta light?” Making his way toward town, he spies a local radio station and enters, crushing the skulls of first a receptionist and then a DJ. He speaks an incantatory poem into the microphone, over and over, and people all over the town, including the young girl, fall asleep, unable to see what is happening around them and to them. A winged, limping frog-thing crawls through the girl’s window (whether it holds Laura or Bob, or is just a mutated lizard-mosquito, only time will tell), and slowly drags itself into her open and waiting mouth. The woodsman walks off into the night. End.
At the narrative level, the murderous movements of the woodsmen in this section elaborate their previously established link with the nuclear blast; as Matt Soller Zeitz has pointed out, these figures evoke the various movie monsters of the ’50s, creatures birthed by American hubris or rampant technological advancement that have come back to menace an ignorant but complicit public. Lynch’s work at the formal level both extends and complicates this reading, however—and the question of race plays a major role here.
An essential element comes earlier in the episode: a few seconds into the atomic blast sequence, Lynch fills the screen with what looks like white confetti, snowing down across a black screen. As the realization dawns that this is neither snow nor confetti but rather nuclear ash, the opening scene of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) flashes to mind. There, white and grey ash falls on entangled limbs, visually linking the embracing bodies of the film’s two lovers (Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada) with the destroyed Japanese bodies left by the nuclear bombings. In this, Hiroshima is an illuminating reference point for the woodsmen’s blackened bodies, which likewise read as largely indistinguishable—first from each other, and later from the landscapes through which they move. In their interchangeability with both one another and with their surroundings, the woodsmen embody the contrasting—and distressing—side of what happens when we leave the category of the human behind.
Racism, an ideology that was born in and for the genocidal European colonization of North America, and later sustained the Middle Passage between the Old World and the New, is built on the notion that “the human” is a category that not everyone has equal access to—that some bodies are not human at all, and are to be seen and treated as such. In this schema, then, the woodsmen exist in those spaces where the recognition of bodies as human break down, and only inhuman bodies—interchangeable and merely material—are left behind. And naturally, the indistinguishability of these bodies is premised on blackness, a blackness that is equated with terror.
Those who would want to claim that Lynch or Frost themselves see non-white bodies as less than human could find much evidence in the figures of the woodsmen, just as they could with the woodsmen’s nearest analogue in Lynch’s oeuvre: the hideous, blackened Man Behind the Diner in Mulholland Drive. But Part Eight offers much to contradict this reading as well. Lynch overtly portrays the woodsmen, in both their physicality and their costuming, as stereotypes of a Depression-era white underclass, the white bodies that have been expunged from postwar America’s Edenic self-conception no less than the visual figurations of blackness.
And then there is Lincoln. While the casting of the lead woodsman (the only woodsman who actually performs any violence, it should be noted) could perhaps be written off as unintentional, the moment where the young girl lovingly rubs the image of Lincoln on a found penny would seem to suggest otherwise. Lynch and Frost’s visual evocation of the man who plays such a central role in the imaginary of white America’s awakening (or lack thereof) to the racism on which it was founded suggests that the pair are consciously invoking America’s shameful ongoing history in that regard—a history that is intimately connected to the apocalyptic violence wrought on the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Given that it evokes histories of injustice and violence that both predate and extend beyond the atomic bombings, it is clear that Part Eight is not about the “birth” of evil in any simplistic sense. The horror that this episode calls up extends beyond actual acts of violence to include the modes of seeing and ways of thinking that make such violence possible in the first place. The Return’s treatment of the current opioid pandemic is relevant here as well: Lynch presents the unfolding catastrophe of the drug crisis via a parade of women in various degrees of deterioration, with Sky Ferreira’s uncomfortable turn in Part Nine as the most memorable example. Leaving these figures largely unnamed or uncharacterized—save for Amanda Seyfried’s drug-addicted Becky Johnson, daughter of Double R Diner fixture Shelly (Mädchen Amick)—but assertively, disturbingly present nonetheless, Lynch dramatizes both his and our willingness to look past these people, to forget them in their seeming interchangeability.
In other words, Part Eight amplifies and clarifies a theme present in the whole of The Return: that seeing bodies as indistinguishable and expendable (read: inhuman) is not only an aftereffect of violence, but also the precondition for such violence; that this manner of seeing is one rooted in the dynamics (and the privileges) of race, class, and power; and, perhaps, that the wish to move beyond the human, to experience the impossible, begins with the entitled assumption that one is able to take the relationship to the category of “human” for granted—and as such, it is far from a universal wish.
Part Eight of Twin Peaks: The Return comes to us as if by music, and perhaps now it becomes clear why. Music is a form of expression beyond words (like “human”) and visual figurations (like bodies). The questions of whether something is good or bad cannot be posed, let alone answered. One imagines that this is why music, here and elsewhere, so attracts Lynch, and how it lent itself to the new kinds of formal moves Lynch incorporates into his aesthetic repertoire here in The Return—the evenly divided, classical structure of this episode, and its references to the tradition of visual music among them. Music perhaps persists as a space where transcendence can be something worth aspiring to, and where such aspiration does not necessarily bring with it the horrors that seem always to follow so closely behind.