There are two passages in episode 11 of “Twin Peaks: The Return” that perfectly crystallize why the show, in all of its various iterations, has always been so special. One is a sequence, the other is a single shot. The sequence epitomizes David Lynch’s novel approach to narrative — the shot illustrates how that approach has evolved over the last 25 years, and why David Lynch (the actor) has become so invaluable to David Lynch (the storyteller).
The sequence begins in a small town diner. Three people are wedged into a booth along the wall: A waitress, her police officer ex-husband, and their bleary-eyed adult daughter. They slouch in their seats like they’re unsure of the roles they’re supposed to play, their alien posture suggesting that it might have been years since the last time they all sat down together for a meaningful heart-to-heart — since the last time they felt like a family. A handsome man approaches the window, and the waitress runs outside to greet him; they kiss in full view of her kid, as reckless as teenagers.
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CRACK! A bullet crashes through the diner window, prompting the cop to spring into action. Pistol drawn and jaw clenched, he bounds into the street to find the shooter. It isn’t hard: A minivan has screeched to a stop in the middle of the road. The irate driver runs around the front of the vehicle and yanks her young son out of the backseat — there’s a smoking gun dangling from his little fingers. It was an accident, just another kid playing with a loaded firearm. America! The car behind the minivan won’t stop honking. The cop goes to investigate. The driver is screaming her head off, something about being late to visit someone’s uncle. A figure — a girl? — lurches up from the shadows of the passenger seat. She doesn’t look so great. That’s when she begins to go full Linda Blair, vomiting a thick green fluid all over the dashboard. It’s just another night in Twin Peaks.
It’s true that “Twin Peaks” has always been able to turn on a dime, but it might be more accurate to say that such abrupt shifts in tone have defined the show from the start. For David Lynch, the punctuation of a sentence is every bit as important as the words, and “The Return” has done more than any of his previous work to emphasize how such narrative virtuosity isn’t a byproduct of his genius, but rather one of its most fundamental means of expression.
This approach is so inextricable from “Twin Peaks” that it’s even baked directly into Angelo Badalamenti’s music — “Laura Palmer’s Theme” so abruptly pivots from soaring piano notes to an ominous synth drone that it’s shocking to learn both elements belong to the same track. The ineffable beauty of the song’s melody is made all the more striking because of its grim aftertaste, and that cold electronic rumble is made all the more ominous because of the euphoria that it follows. A loving conversation between the emotionally strained members of a broken family is made all the more poignant because of the terror that comes next, and a child projectile vomiting pea soup in the passenger seat of a crazed woman’s car is made all the more terrifying because of the poignancy that it disrupts.
But it’s not the contrast that Lynch is after so much as it’s the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile both of these wildly divergent sensations. For most filmmakers, bouncing from domestic reconciliation to feverish romance to raw suspense to anxious satire to vile body horror in the span of a few short minutes would be disastrous — it’d be a telltale sign that they had lost control. But Lynch’s control is never in doubt. On the contrary, he’s fueled by the friction that results from rubbing such disparate elements against one another. Lynch clashes whole scenes against one another in much the same way that Sergei Eisenstein contrasted individual shots, orchestrating a mid-air collision between two opposite energies in order to capture the explosion that results (it’s no wonder that he’s so morbidly compelled by the atomic bomb).
The original “Twin Peaks” was both a show about the intractable trauma of abuse, and also a show about the overwhelming power of love (among other things), but a large part of what made Lynch’s short-lived series such a watershed cultural moment was how fearlessly it shined a lot into the black void between such ostensibly disparate themes, how it suggested they weren’t as unrelated as we might assume (or hope). “Twin Peaks,” for all its moral shading, has never been shy about pitting pure good against pure evil — and that’s truer than ever in “The Return,” with its diametrically opposed Dale Coopers — but Lynch remains more interested in the dynamic between them than he does the idea that one might defeat the other.
For all of its symbols and mysticism, this isn’t “The Lord of the Rings,” this isn’t a story in which sadism can be eradicated (no matter how unsurprising it would be at this point if the last episode ended with somebody throwing a ring into an active volcano). On the contrary, it’s a story in which light and dark are forced to co-exist, where pearls of beauty are snatched from the clutches of a cruel world and horror is hiding just below the surface like dirt (or clues) under a fingernail. It’s a story in which cognitive dissonance is practically the only honest thing that someone can feel.
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