“Is it…the future? Or is it…the past?”
It’s night, in thick woods, illuminated only by a swinging flashlight. Like the bigass dark house in Gone Home, there doesn’t need to be anything supernatural for it to be scary. There’s darkness, vastness, scant and inconstant light. Focusing on one thing leaves the rest obscured, and leaving anything obscured makes you vulnerable.
You’re not watching idly: you’re searching, and if you’re searching, there’s the terrible possibility you’ll find something. The wonderful possibility you’ll find something. You’re here and you’re looking, and the implication is that there’s something to search for.
Then, suddenly, the shot cuts. It’s still night, in thick woods, illuminated only by a swinging flashlight. But now the flashlight points at you. It hurts your eyes, but there’s more to your discomfort. Suddenly, without warning, you’re no longer looking.
You’re being looked at.
Twin Peaks: The Return is, as explicitly as the camera can make it, about looking. About looking for something, and idly watching, and the dangers of seeing, and the dangers of being seen. And what’s staring at the screen, not knowing it’s a window, is America, or at least a slice of it, America as told by a 71-year-old white man with a career of depicting violence against women and fetishizing disability. In a better world, this isn’t a vision of America we’d have to deal with, but while David Lynch’s gaze is often regressive, it has the misfortune of being timely.
For its glaring flaws, I’m enjoying Twin Peaks, immensely, but I wish I could enjoy it as some nightmare curio, a bizarre distraction, nonessential. But I know that the worst things I see, the most objectionable creatively, politically and morally, didn’t form in a vacuum. They’re built from what the screen has watched, and the screen has been watching us.
Another scene. A young man, Sam, has been tasked with watching an empty glass box (the gig economy!). He knows that’s he looking for something in the box, and he knows that his predecessor did see something there, but he has no idea what. He’s waiting for something for happen, but without any definition of what that is. So, he brings his crush, Tracey, to watch the box with him, and when still nothing happens, they kiss.
The camera–our camera–looks at the box.
The viewers are genre-savvy enough to know that something awful is about to happen. Even without the menacingly glacial pace, or the low, constant thrumming, or the experience with Twin Peaks and David Lynch. There are two clueless young people making out at the edge of the mysterious, one abandoning his watch to do so, and this is so classic a slasher movie scene that I am yelling at the screen in the hopes these characters will listen.
They do not. Instead, Tracey stands to take off her clothes. Her nudity is incidental, like Game of Thrones’ sexposition, at once exploitative and disinterested. The camera is focused on Sam. We’re watching him watching her. We’re watching him ignore the box.
They’re killed, of course. Something comes out of the box, and, as the genre demands, it kills the teenagers distracted by sex. I’m almost disappointed by this: I’m liking the show because I both trust Lynch and have no idea what he’ll show me, but what he’s done here is a creeping buildup to the deeply familiar.
And yet, whatever Lynch’s intentions here, there’s a more interesting reading. Sam and Tracey aren’t killed for their sexuality but their distractedness, maybe even for their faith, because, while both seem to believe something will appear in the box, neither entertains the idea that it can hurt them.
They are looking, but not looking for anything. Which is dangerous. Deadly, even.
And it’s how I’d been watching the show.
My first explicitly political opinions rose during W. Bush’s administration, and they were mostly semi-informed horror and inchoate rage. Like a lot of the nation’s shockingly prescient seventh graders, I opposed the Iraq War, and from there I made hating Bush a piece of my identity, even if it was superficial. I listened to crappy Hot Topic punk. I had a gag-gift poster of Bush’s most embarrassing quotes. When the country reelected him, I walked around in a hurt daze.
But then there was Obama. I liked Obama. And yeah, a lot of his policies were half-measures or imperialistic, and injustice was everywhere at home and abroad, but there was progress. Marriage equality had been a seething debate in 2004, but by 2012, it was pretty much settled. Nightmarish military occupations were replaced with nightmarish drone wars. There was still police brutality, still global unrest, still mass shooters, but with these two presidents, over the course of 16 years, I let myself believe there was genuine progress happening. That history moves towards justice, and all I had to do was give it time.
And then there was Trump.
A young woman, Darya, is lying on a motel room bed in her underwear. She is talking low on the phone, then panics when she hears someone coming. Evil Coop, Mr. C, some 50’s specter of transgression, walks in and asks her who she was talking to. She lies to him, and we know because the camera was in the room before Coop was, and we’re pretty sure that Coop knows too because of course he does. He asks her where she keeps her gun. We now know Darya will not leave the room alive.
And maybe because Lynch knows we know, he draws it out for so long. Maybe that’s why she’s half-naked throughout it, and why Coop keeps holding her down and punching her, the violence made conspicuously and unnecessarily sexual. This I don’t know. But what I do know is that, after Mr. C shoots her through the head, the camera lingers on her body.
This isn’t the only objectionable moment in the show. This isn’t the only time the camera is salacious when women’s bodies are present, from Tracey at the box to Jade in Las Vegas to Special Agent Tamora Pierce walking away from high-ranking federal agents. And when it’s not leering at a narrow definition of beauty, it’s lingering on disability, conventional ugliness and fat.
None of this is new for Lynch. His filmography is littered with sexualized women and often mired in violence. He’s treated disability with such a dehumanizing fascination that I wonder if his interest in The Elephant Man was in Merrick as a character or Merrick as a body. Every woman in the original Twin Peaks was model-thin, and every character with a physical difference was an otherworldly spirit. I’ve been a David Lynch fan for a long time, but the man has filmed some heinous shit.
And I had hoped that, by no other virtue than time, The Return would be different. That he would have expanded his social consciousness and critically examined his own work. This is the first project Lynch has released in my adult life, and my own sense of the world has changed since I first watched Twin Peaks as a teenager. I see how unreasonable this expectation is, but I had hoped that he’d have moved on too.
From TV Guide: “‘There are different threads in different parts of the U.S.” that eventually converge, [Showtime CEO David] Nevins explained. ‘It does not go outside the U.S., but it is in multiple locations in the U.S.’
Nevins also shared that Lynch has ‘certain ideas about Midwestern American wholesomeness’ and will, in some way or another, thematically explore ‘what does it mean when we say, ‘Make America great again?'”
Another scene. Headlights cutting through the darkness of country roads. Muddy Magnolias’ American Woman has been remixed to a tortured howl. We’re looking from the perspective of the car, but we don’t know who’s driving. We just know menace.
Bad Coop gets out. It’s the first time we see him, and in the darkness and the music and the menace, he’s terrifying. He’s terrifying because he’s a familiar face turned cruel.
He’s terrifying because we were riding with him.
In the Twin Peaks Rewatch’s review of the first two episodes, they say that this premiere is not a traditional pilot in terms of its function because it doesn’t offer clear arguments to keep watching. There are mysteries, but they’re peripheral. It’s not trying to persuade you to give the show a chance: it’s assuming you’re already invested in it.
I’m already invested in it. This is a world I’ve cared about for so long that any development in it feels important. I trust whatever happens will matter. And there’s benefit to that approach, going credulously along for the ride, because despite the tone of this post, I am absolutely loving this series. I am looking at fan theories. I am impatient for the next episode. I am all in.
But there’s a risk to that, and even if Lynch doesn’t know it, the show does. As with Sam and Tracey, watching with faith is dangerous because what appears can take you by surprise. As with Darya, trust can be deadly. As with Evil Coop–Mr. C, Mr. C, Mr. See–looking intuitively can put us on the wrong side.
On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, an authoritarian monster won the presidency with the help of foreign intervention. This sort of thing happens all the time. Often, America is that foreign intervention. The only difference now is that it’s my country where it happened.
Time doesn’t work normally in the Black Lodge. Its inhabitants speak backwards, walk backwards, travel through time and shrug off death. There’s a repeated poem with a line about “the darkness of future’s past.” Specific times of day–2:53, possibly 4:30–are significant, but the reasons they’re significant are completely obscured. The Red Room is a maze of near-identical antechambers, and running through it gives the illusion of a never-ending loop. There are circles everywhere in the show’s mythology. There are cycles and parallels and repeated events.
Mike asks if it’s the future or the past. A scene later, he asks the same thing.
I don’t have an answer.
("Twin Peaks." Photo Credit: The Kobal Collection)