‘Twin Peaks’ Is More Satisfying If You Stop Trying to Figure Out What It Means

Fan theories can be fun, but they're also irrelevant to appreciating David Lynch's artistry.
Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch Isn't Going to Tell You What It Means
Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch Isn't Going to Tell You What It Means
Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch Isn't Going to Tell You What It Means
Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch Isn't Going to Tell You What It Means
Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch Isn't Going to Tell You What It Means
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My work is described as beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius, maundering, precise, quaint, avant-garde, historical, hackneyed, masterful, trivial, intense, mystical, virtuosic, bewildering, absorbing, concise, absurd, amusing, innovative, nostalgic, contemporary, iconoclastic, sophisticated, trash, masterpieces, etc. It’s all true. —Bruce Conner

What does it all mean? This question, when applied to the ever-expanding mythology of “Twin Peaks,” typically leads to a series of murky pathways and dead ends, but they’re usually irrelevant. Sure, it’s fun to dig through the pileup of circumstances that led FBI Agent Dale Cooper from investigating a small-town murder to becoming trapped in the red-hued inter-dimensional prison known as the Black Lodge. Play that game if it makes you happy — IndieWire’s TV team has done it beautifully — but that doesn’t mean Lynch or co-creator Mark Frost will always make the journey worthwhile.

The show, which has recreated its appeal from the ground up in 2017, only adheres to the episodic format by virtue of its delivery method, but make no mistake: Showtime has ostensibly created a platform for Lynch to unleash 18 mini-movies, resulting in the greatest release of pent-up filmmaking frustration in the history of the medium. “Twin Peaks: The Return” is less the must-watch TV of the summer than it is the cinematic event of the year.

The show went on hiatus following its eighth episode with a mic drop for the ages. Following an opening act that found Cooper’s evil doppelgänger betrayed by his alleged partner-in-crime, Lynch flashed back to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945 New Mexico, ventured into the thick of the mushroom cloud, and into an entirely abstract plane.

Still, viewers wanting to know what it all means could find a few clues as the episode progressed. After all, compared to the 10 minutes of disorienting lights and colors that followed the bomb, the next set of events seemed pretty straightforward: a floating demonic critter belches up the demonic BOB and the Giant, in a far-off realm, unleashing a ball of light containing Laura Palmer’s essence; back in New Mexico, a frog-like critter with wings finds its way to a sleeping teen girl, while a terrifying, decrepit figure invades a radio station, turns the announcer’s brain to slush, and broadcasts the scariest set of stanzas this side of T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland.” Have fun sorting all that out. Serious clues, people!

Joy Nash, "Twin Peaks"
Joy Nash in “Twin Peaks”Showtime

Or don’t, because “Twin Peaks” has already done most of the work for you. In order to grapple with the brilliance of this show, one has to consider Lynch first and foremost as a film artist, not a storyteller, and the way that artistry has remained consistent over the course of a 40-year career. Lynch toys with outmoded movie genres, particularly film noir and classic horror, as a conduit for more abstract ideas about the darker impulses invisible to society at large.

It’s there in that opening sequence of “Blue Velvet,” when the tranquil image of suburban domesticity gives way to a sudden medical emergency and the images of insects lurking beneath a cozy green lawn; it’s there in the dazed expression of the apparent father to the monstrous child in “Eraserhead”; it’s there in the whisper of “silencio” that concludes the horrifying finale of “Mulholland Drive,” and the way it doesn’t quite add up — but still feels like the ideal capper to a movie about the desperation of searching for meaning with no sense of payoff around the corner.

Silencio, indeed: Relax with the theories, the work speaks for itself.

And so does “Twin Peaks.” Watching the mushroom cloud work its destructive magic in slo-mo, I was instantly reminded of “Crossroads,” the chilling montage of atomic bomb tests that comprise a 1976 installation piece by experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, whom Lynch has cited as an influence. Then came the blur of red and shape-shifting imagery that some viewers immediately connected to the psychedelic interludes of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” but Lynch was more likely inspired by the same avant-garde traditions to which Kubrick and Malick were paying homage. The lights and colors felt particularly in tune with the work of Stan Brakhage, whose movies unfolded as pure visual experiences — poems that moved.

That might sound like a tough proposition for someone who just wants to know if Agent Cooper will ever emerge from his zombie-like state as he recovers from his time in the Black Lodge, and perhaps “Twin Peaks” will provide an answer to that conundrum at some point. But it should not be a primary metric for measuring the success of the show, no more than one might assail Brakhage’s “Dog Star Man,” a hypnotic evocation of childlike wonder, for lacking a three-act structure. I will never forget the first time I saw avant-garde tinkerer Ken Jacobs present one of his stereoscopic 3D projections, completely unprepared for a trancelike experience of floating squares dancing to the rattle of a projector being manipulated in real time, and realizing how little narrative mattered in that context. It made sense simply by being there. So too with “Twin Peaks.”

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