How Twin Peaks Dragged Television Convention Into the Heart of a Nuclear Blast, and Other Stories  

This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.”

It’s a tale as old as time: a soot-smeared Abe Lincoln type stalks into a radio station and chants some esoteric poetry in order to lull his listeners to sleep (duh) so that a recently-hatched frogbug can squeeze through an open window and crawl down the throat of a sleeping teenage girl. I mean, is it just me, or has TV just become so predictable lately?

I’m speaking, of course, of the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired this past Sunday and featured David Lynch at his absolute Lynchiest: obtuse symbolism, chilling sound design, and a frolicking squad of ghost hobos abounded. The conventional plot–in as much as this show, in its original incarnation or its current one, has ever abided conventionality–was abandoned entirely in favor of an experimental film that depicted the origins of BOB and the White Lodge’s attempts to counterbalance his evil (I think?). Twitter had an absolute field day as audiences found themselves confronted with an episode of television so utterly baffling that was unlike anything that had come before it.

As the episode’s credits rolled and our favorite homicidal Abe Lincoln lookalike/emerging beat poet trudged into the desert darkness, I uttered only one syllable: “Whoa.” I struggled to make sense of what I had seen. The Giant floating in mid-air and shooting a ray of light from his head? A glowing orb with Laura Palmer’s face inside it? A Norman Rockwell-inspired nascent relationship between two teenagers? A frogbug? I couldn’t fathom how all of these visuals united into a coherent story. What did Lynch mean for us to take from this episode? At the time, I couldn’t answer any of those questions.  All I knew was that I had been riveted, disturbed, haunted, and invigorated in equal measure, to say nothing of my complete sense of befuddlement.

But that’s what I love about Lynch overall and his work here in particular: even if the narrative seems impossible to penetrate, I’m never not feeling. The mere sight of the Giant calmed me; the incantation at the top of this post unnerved me; the sight of the frogbug crawling into the girl’s sleeping mouth disgusted me. But if we step back from the traditional narrative and let our emotions lead the way, that’s when meaning emerges, if meaning is something you insist upon, that is. For Lynch, story and emotional response aren’t just synonymous; they’re inextricable.

Even in this era of peak TV, the best series are dependent upon some tropes. We expect an episode to connect in some way to what came before it, a discernible character to follow all the way through, a plot that abides the laws of nature and logic. Lynch denies us all of these things after baiting us with those opening minutes that do pick up with Evil Cooper and Ray driving after having blackmailed their way out of prison in the previous episode. But then those hobo ghosts show up, Trent Reznor performs at the Bang Bang Club, and our understanding of TV figuratively explodes before our very eyes. 

I’m not here to insist that you love Episode 8 of Twin PeaksThe Return (although I hope you did). I know many people won’t, and that’s the beauty of Lynch’s art: he’s polarizing in the singularity of his vision. But let’s set aside enjoyment for a second and just step back and appreciate that this episode aired on TV at all. When was the last time you felt legitimately challenged by an episode of television? I’m not talking about a show that traffics in the moral grey area of an antihero or dares to kill off its ostensible central character. I’m talking about an episode that, by its very existence, challenges your understanding of what episodic television can and should be. An episode that explodes your expectations of narrative storytelling. An episode that uses your emotional register to connect a series of seemingly disconnected images. Prior to this episode, I can’t cite another example. As a lover of television, I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.

In the absence of anything else, I think it’s best to heed Lynch’s advice: drink full and descend.

Twin Peaks: The Return airs on Showtime on Sundays at 9 pm. It is off for the upcoming holiday weekend and will air a new installment on Sunday, July 9th.

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