Monday, September 11, 2017

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Notes on the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks: The Return ended not with a bang, but with a whimper – in the form of an ear-piercing scream from Sheryl Lee, the performer who has gone through more torment than any other in the work of David Lynch. The finale of the series has been hailed as a masterpiece by some and a confounding, confused mess by others. I lean toward the former opinion, but have lingering tinges of the latter in my fanboy soul.

Lynch has conducted a “war” on conventional storytelling since his earliest films. Thus the absolute joy felt by his fans when episode 8 of this season abandoned a narrative for the most part and simply focused on imagery. Given the inclusion of large amounts of dead space between the characters and the slower pace Lynch uses in his work, it was a delight to see him return to his avant-garde roots in that “very special episode.”

The rest of the series rose and fell, depending on one's reaction to the ways in which he and his coscripter Mark Frost sabotaged conventional storytelling. As was the case with Lynch's features and the Lynch-Frost two-season run of the original Twin Peaks, a plot was always present, but odd “swerves” appeared, tongue-in-cheek melodramatic cliches were thrown in, and Freudian and mystic symbolism was introduced with the result being that viewers were uncertain if the authors were respecting that symbolism or mocking its simplicity.

Lynch and Frost's main “strategy” was to introduce a surplus of characters. This seemed reasonable in the first few episodes introducing several new characters, hauling out the ones from the original series, and throwing in the many (many!) guest stars whose presence was entertaining but often distracting.

But it didn't stop after a few episodes (or “parts,” as Lynch deemed them). The scenes set in the Roadhouse introduced several 20-something characters in each show, nearly all of whom were never seen again in the series. It didn't even stop as the season wound down to its final hours. When fan-favorite Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) showed up in part 12, she was married to a character we'd never seen before and had a discussion about three people we hadn't seen or heard of. (Or had we? Online fans would desperately try to connect names from minor characters we'd already seen with these newly-mentioned nonentities.)

This particular device came to be so ridiculous that it seemed as if Lynch and Frost were doing two things: creating a dream world populated by people we'd see only once; and delivering a spoof of soaps that complicate their plotlines with hordes of mostly unnecessary characters.

This strategy even showed up in the final episode, as the most praised/disputed event occurred: Cooper took a trip through a “wormhole” into another America. Here Lynch was utilizing the device he had used in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those films, however, have the trips to the wormhole world (read: fantasies, nightmares) occur well before the final few scenes, so viewers can attempt to situate themselves (and identify the characters in the second world that mirror those in the first).

I believe that TP: TR was one of the most cinematic things to happen to television in quite a while. It was a breath of fresh air in many regards, especially the eighth episode, which I think of as the  “Eraserhead episode.” The multiplication of red-herring characters (for lack of a better term for the many dream-residents who merited only one appearance or mention) was willfully and comically perverse of Lynch and Frost, though, and left many of us trying to “assemble” some kind of narrative for the season.

The next to last episode, part 17, solved the key dilemma of the entire series – the menace of the evil Cooper doppelgänger in a single sequence. The final part produced a classically Lynchian “swerve” with Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern) having sex and then entering another version of their world (why? Because!). In that world, of course, Cooper encounters yet another group of new characters until he winds up back with Laura Palmer (or, more accurately, her manifestation in that world).

As a final in-joke Lynch cast the real-life owner of the “Laura Palmer house” in Washington State as the woman who owns the house in this other reality. (A fact that online fans revealed in the days after the show first aired.)

To pile strangeness on strangeness, Lynch and Frost settled on yet another “swerve” that further complicated the events of the last episode. A warning from the “Fireman” character had evoked the names of “Richard and Linda.” These characters were never mentioned again until Cooper and Diane had sex, which turned *them* into these characters (for what reason? Since no fourth season is planned, it's possible we'll never know unless we want to take the names as a reference to the British folk-singing duo….).

Lynch's war on conventional narrative was never more glaringly apparent than in TP: TR. One of the primary ways in which he skewed the storyline away from the original two seasons of TP was to base the third season's plot on various events that occurred only in the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which he wrote with Robert Engels.

As I noted in this previous blog entry, the film has its merits (and a deeply devoted cult of fans, some of whom consider it Lynch's finest film), but it jumbles the TP chronology with a lengthy first act that contradicts the way things were recounted in the original series. (A prequel that contradicts its source is rare indeed but Lynch has stomped on linearity in various ways elsewhere, so FWWM is not surprising in that way – frustrating for fans of the original series, but not surprising.) 

FWWM contains a “fissure” in time where a character from the end of the initial series Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) appears to Laura Palmer. By doing this, Lynch was creating a scene that only meant something to regular viewers of TP, thus solving the rather flimsy issue of whether anyone should ever watch this prequel before watching the original series.

To make things even more complicated, Lynch included a long scene in “The Missing Pieces,” a fascinating assemblage of outtakes from FWWM (which was a five-hour long feature to start with), showing Annie surviving the ordeal in the Black Lodge and having the owl ring stolen from her by a nurse (thus helping to set up a third season of the TP series in the series prequel!).

When TP: TR appeared, though, it was apparent that Lynch and Frost had wiped Annie from the storyline, along with the super-villain Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). The “erasure” of those two characters got rid of the reason Cooper was split in two he had entered the Black Lodge to retrieve Annie, who had been kidnapped by his ex-partner Earle.

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been spilt on the Internet about the show's finale. My take on it was that it was initially frustrating and confusing but grows on you (well, maybe not the one-shot Audrey “conclusion”…). This is especially true if you remember the unspoken theme of the season, namely growing old.

Cooper's past includes a Chinatown-like situation in which he inadvertently caused the woman he loved to be murdered. He entered the Black Lodge to prevent this from happening again (this time with Annie)  and this caused an evil doppelgänger version of him to be created. So, despite his Sherlock Holmes-like talent for deductive reasoning and his Zen-like calm, he already was revealed to be a flawed hero in the original Twin Peaks.

In TP: TR he is split in two and, when the going gets rough in Part 17, it is the mysterious young man with the green glove (a deus ex machina who finally made an impression in part 14) who defeats the evil “Mr. C,” not our cool and calm hero. Then, “whole” again, Cooper moves back in time to “liberate” Laura Palmer and, of course, screws things up even worse.

The final sequence shows Cooper as a detective who clearly has lost his touch at deduction. He has wrecked the life of the Laura Palmer living in that wormhole reality. The lingering feeling one gets is akin to Sondheim's line “...losing my timing this late in my career...”

Cooper is not only incapable of being a hero anymore, he's actually perpetuating a new horror by awakening a “past life” in that version of Laura (if that is indeed what is going on here viewers are left to make up their mind as to when/where the wormhole is situated). Lynch and Frost also complicated matters by making the alt-Laura into a shady character who is indeed capable of murder no write-ups of the final episode I've read have mentioned the dead body that Cooper sees in her home….

What we are left with is a finale that reverberates after one sees it most especially if one had already keyed into Lynch and Frost's obsession with aging. The rigors of age were indeed felt throughout the season in the faces of the cast, in the inclusion of three sick characters, in plot threads concerning the stasis of others (job-wise, romance-wise, and life-wise), and in the slower movement of the players. Lynch has always enjoyed slowing down his works and now he finally found the perfect vehicle with which to do it. (For Lynch's own words about his pacing, check out the quote from him in my last piece on Twin Peaks.)

In spite of its intentionally capricious plotting and profusion of red herrings, there are several “rewards” one got from watching all of TP: TR. Perhaps the greatest of these is the “revelation” that Lynch is indeed an emotional artist. Given his background in the avant-garde and the return in this series of the ultraviolence he fetishized in three of his four Nineties features, it has been hard to think of him as an emotional artist.

Inland Empire
But this aspect has been there, from the longing for the happy American ideal in Blue Velvet (an ideal that the film itself acknowledged was overly sentimentalized and simplistic) to the deep, dark depression and moments of exultation that punctuated Inland Empire, Lynch has continually “surprised” us with moments that are not just visually striking and blissfully eccentric, but also deeply emotional.

Cooper's obsession with Laura Palmer's death and his final, overwhelming desire to prevent it even though it was absolutely certain that it wouldn't solve anything in the long run, since her abuse had gone on for so long is the ultimate manifestation of the emotional aspect of the show. An aspect that, as always, was made even stronger (and sadder) by the beautiful, moody music of Angelo Badalamenti.

The younger Cooper operated on instinct and wound up in the Black Lodge, a fractured man; the middle-aged Cooper is completely adrift, able to physically fight and outdraw those who menace him, but not logical enough to understand the cardinal rule of much sci-fi: toying with the past inevitably alters the present.

He wasn't the only one whose age was a topic in this season: The extremely attractive, 20-something characters of the original TP are now visibly older and grayer. They are parents now, but still making the same terrible decisions in their lives. (This was perhaps the reason that Lynch and Frost let two of the “more normal” characters, Norma and Big Ed, above, have a completely happy ending.)

The middle-aged characters from the original series are now seniors with the singular best transformation in TP: TR occurring with Dr. Jacoby's rebirth as an Alex Jones/Glen Beck vlogger/entrepreneur. Another senior remained a presence even though he never appeared onscreen Sheriff Harry Truman, battling cancer and existing only in the dialogue (mostly characters wishing well to him via his brother).

So, when one sets aside the red-herring factor and the tragic ending (compounded by the trapped-in-an insane-asylum-or-limbo fate of the much-loved Audrey character), there is one sweet legacy of the series: its treatment of old age and death.

Miguel Ferrer was ailing when they shot the show, but he concealed his sickness in his character Albert Rosenfield's trademark deadpan. There was a gift for Albert, though: an image of him happily chatting up an equally caustic coroner, Constance Talbot (Jane Adams).

The character of Doc Hayward was played by another ailing performer, Warren Frost. He was reportedly afflicted by Alzheimer's when he did his sequence, but it was a joy to see the Doc, another one of the “normal” anchors of the original series, if only for one scene (but Lynch and Frost did give the character one piece of seminal info to impart, about Evil Mr. C and Audrey!).

The most moving sequences, without question, were the appearances of the Log Lady, Margaret Lanterman. The actress playing her, Catherine E. Coulson, was visibly sick with cancer, her hair fallen out and an oxygen cannula visible in every scene. Her interactions with another “normal” anchor character, Hawk (Michael Horse), were beautifully acted and extremely touching.

One got the sense that not only did Hawk care for Margaret as an ailing friend, but that Horse cared for Coulson, and that the quirky and impenetrably odd Mr. Lynch let down his “screens” and he too, was showing his love for his very sick friend. (Coulson was a key crew member on Eraserhead and a longtime friend of Lynch's.)

The gray hair, slower movement (although Harry Dean Stanton looks cool no matter how slowly he travels), and the mentions of cancer conveyed the show's message about the vagaries of aging. The sight of Coulson in very bad shape still playing her role and contributing suitably weird “warnings” was one of the sweetest (that word again) things Lynch has ever done.

Coulson's final scene, in which she acknowledges her impending death and notes her fear and uncertainty, was perhaps the most beautiful note that was struck in the 18 episodes of TP: TR. It reminded us of the sense of oddball community that characterized the original series and, in its own way, was the emotional core of the show, leading up to the ultimate failure of our aged and very uncertain hero, Agent Cooper.

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