Twin Peaks: The Return: The Rewatch – Gotta light?
We were warned this was coming. On Instagram Peter Deming, who shot The Return (as well as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) said that episode 8 would be unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. In the comments, Sky Ferreira and Amy Shiels said they’d heard rumours about it and they couldn’t wait to see it. In other words, even the series’ cast didn’t really know what was about to hit screens. Lynch purportedly worked on large parts of it alone, just as he’d built the model for the factory floating through space in episode 3 on his own. Watching the glitching, spasming editing for the Convenience Store scene, snapping in and out of focus and hopping apparently randomly between different takes, it’s easy to see why he felt it wasn’t worth trying to explain what he wanted to anyone else.
It is an episode where the most mundane thing that happens involves Nine Inch Nails performing a song at the Roadhouse, whose booking agent must have compromising photos of everyone in the music industry. The song they perform was written for the show. Or rather, rewritten – after carefully writing something which they felt would fit into Twin Peaks’s musical universe, Lynch said he didn’t want it. The familiar was out, and the abrasive was in. The finished song, ‘She’s Gone Away’, seems heavy with hints to the forthcoming direction of the show; the “she” of the title might be Laura or Audrey, who is, after all, probably dreaming this. There is a reference to “a little mouth” which “opened up inside”, which now brings to mind Sarah Palmer. As for the lyric “Spread the infection where you spill your seed”, surely it’s a hint at the parentage of Richard Horne?
Well, maybe not. If the cast didn’t know what was going on, the musical guests probably didn’t either. But Deming did. Deming stands alongside Mark Frost, Angelo Badalamenti and Jack Fisk as one of the great behind-the-scenes interpreters of what’s inside Lynch’s head; Fisk was too busy with Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson to come back for The Return but the other three are here. Deming’s work on The Return deserves to be celebrated: most TV series would consider it to be an active failing if one episode looked noticeably different from the rest, but Deming revels in the chance to design different visual styles for each storyline. The cut last episode from the Buckhorn prison to Lucky 7 insurance was marvellous in its economy. Before the establishing shot is over, you know how the tone is going to change. That’s down to Deming.
Ironically, what might be the most avant-garde episode of TV drama ever created has a solid three-act structure, each of which demands a different visual scheme. The first, which is the closest thing to an episode of Twin Peaks you’re going to get, sees Deming pushing a digital camera’s low light capacity to its limits. It’s nearly pitch black: when a flash of blue light announces the arrival of the Woodsmen, we’re as shocked as Ray is. The second act opens with a hyper-realistic mushroom cloud, then the camera flies inside it to observe the boundaries between worlds being broken down. There are stretches of pure abstraction that recall the very birth of experimental cinema (Man Ray’s ‘Return to Reason’ may be an inspiration), and a drama of cosmic forces that has been rightly compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.
Both of those films achieved their epic scale by going into prehistory: the fact that episode 8 leaves you with the same feeling despite only covering the years from 1945 to 2014 shows you how ambitious the show is. The White Sands explosion was the first detonation of an atomic bomb anywhere in the world, and in Twin Peaks lore we now find it’s what brought BOB into our world. To counter this, the Fireman and his friend Senorita Dido (an instantly iconic silent performance from Joy Nash) send something… representing Laura Palmer to Earth? There was a little concern among fandom here that Laura was about to be revealed as the Chosen One or something similarly trite, but Twin Peaks mythos is more in love with the random than the pre-ordained. Like the numbers the Fireman gave Cooper, the important thing is that they provide a bridge between worlds, not what exactly they mean. In a sense, it makes Laura’s death even more arbitrary: it could have been anyone, but it was this girl.
The final segment begins with something appalling being born in the desert, and ends with the Woodsmen showing the full range of their sadism. I have to admit to making small, strangulated yelps every time Robert Broski snarled “Gotta light?” Again, it is completely different to both the series and the rest of the episode, tending towards a stylized noir monochrome and set in the mid-50s. Ironically, though, it also has the strongest connection to the original series, now that Mark Frost’s book The Final Dossier has confirmed that the young girl is, in fact, Sarah Palmer. Some may question the wisdom of putting that piece of information in a tie-in book rather than on-screen. But maybe it shouldn’t have been here. For fifty-five minutes we can put plot aside and immerse ourselves in a television episode that pushes the medium to its visual and aural limit, a show that increases our understanding of the mythos of Twin Peaks purely through effects and set-pieces and songs, where the most prominent piece of dialogue is a terrifying poem about a horse that makes no sense but somehow tells us everything. Drink deep and descend.