What year is this?
Cooper’s final words in Twin Peaks: The Return cast a haunting shadow over the series finale, raising questions that will likely never see answers. But they also remind me of something I’ve heard a lot of this year. Tweak his words slightly and they become the thought on everyone’s minds. You might have even said it yourself:
What a year this is.
No matter which side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, there’s no denying 2017 has been a year of intense national turmoil. There seems to be no shortage of division in our government and in the streets—not to mention our families and social circles. It can sometimes feel like this year is ready to come apart at the seams.
Amidst this turmoil, Americans are fed a constant stream of information about the deteriorating state of their nation. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with. And the more they do keep up, the more they’re told the dangers of disengaging. You need to stay informed and speak out and #resist! It’s a stressful cycle, and one that is often difficult to step out of.
Many attempt this by simply changing the channel—putting on something to help distract from the real-world problems on the news. But sometimes this can have the reverse effect. Some shows only offer more opportunities to experience information overload at the expense of escapism. Try watching Game of Thrones without scrambling to remember so-and-so Redwyne’s family tree, or Westworld without falling down a rabbit hole of fan theories and Reddit boards.
While these shows have their moments of escape, sometimes this overload of fictional information feels little different from the onslaught of real-world information we experience day in and day out. Of course, there is a way to do this well. But in a fast-paced world, some shows would do well just to slow down for a bit and allow viewers to take everything in.
Enter Twin Peaks: a show content to focus on someone sweeping a barroom floor for five minutes. A show that feels comfortable having a beloved character appear for a few moments, only to disappear from the show entirely. A show that frequently throws plot to the wind, to the point where you’re not even sure there is a point anymore.
In short, it’s everything we need and more in 2017.Granted, The Return is anything but perfect. For any season that runs 18 episodes, there are bound to be moments that simply don’t work. And for a show like Twin Peaks, this means using that length to draw everything out as much as possible. There were more than a few times watching it where I found myself bored and reaching for my phone, as much as I resisted the urge.
But God, what a pleasure it is when it gets things right. It has been one of my great joys this summer to sit down on Sunday nights and get lost in Lynch and Frost’s world—even when I’m not sure what they’re showing me.
To give one example, The Return‘s first episode devotes much of its time to a glass box situated in a New York highrise. We see someone watching the box, alone in the room. There are cameras trained on the box, and the person switches out memory cards when necessary. We don’t know what the box is, and we don’t find out beyond a general idea.
The scene stretches exorbitantly. At times, it is uncomfortably long. Yet I found myself leaning closer to the TV while watching it, compelled by Lynch’s unorthodox pacing. How he managed to make this so intriguing, I still have no idea. But as the scene dragged out, I realized I was the one in the room (that is, my living room), staring at a glass box (my TV).
Much like cousin Lil at the beginning of the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me, the glass box provides something of a cypher for how to read what follows. We don’t get an explanation for the glass box. We aren’t told why it exists or what its purpose is. Yet we continue to watch it, open to anything that might manifest inside it.
Grow impatient or distracted… well, spoiler, but it doesn’t end well.
This is what makes Twin Peaks the antithesis of just about everything on TV right now. It approaches its art not as something to disseminate information to its viewer, but as simply existing for the sake of itself. It provides a space for the viewer to contemplate, letting go of their constant thirst for answers.
And it’s not just that the show enjoys withholding explanations. It’s deeply ambivalent about them. In the show’s penultimate episode, Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) describes the origins of Judy, the object of several FBI investigations into the paranormal. He calls Judy “an extreme negative force, called in olden times ‘Jowday’.”
Thanks to one insightful Twitter user, we see this “Jowday” (spelled as such in close captioning) bears a deep resemblance to the Chinese “jiāo dài,” meaning to finish or explain.
— Joanna Robinson (@jowrotethis) September 4, 2017
Why should an ending or explanation be an “extreme negative force”? Because the ultimate good, in the view of Twin Peaks, is simply being. Being present, being aware, being open. This show is not about trying to reduce the mystery—it’s about entering into it and letting it be. It’s about meditating on the numinous, inexplicable nature of our world. It’s about pulling back the curtain and stepping beyond the veil of our immediate reality.
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the finale creates room for more questions than answers (if it answers anything at all). Rather than provide audiences with a resolution, Frost and Lynch opted to create an entirely new mystery to end their show, quite possibly for the last time.
In a sense, this is deeply dissatisfying. Those who have stuck with the show since the beginning have waited over 25 years to see how their favorite characters wind up. Yet the show’s creators depict an explanation as something that Cooper is always just on the heels of, perpetually out of reach. As such, we as an audience are forced to accept—in the show as in life—that the jiāo dài, the Ultimate Answer, is beyond our grasp.
Instead, Twin Peaks implores us to find peace in the irresolute, in the uncertainty and chaos. And this is the ironic part. For a show that makes use of such disturbing subjects and imagery, I’ve walked away from it week after week with an unusual sense of peace. Viewers who heed the warning of the glass box in episode one will get this. Those who do not will continue chasing explanations, trying to make the show into something it desperately does not want to be.
There are plenty of articles online that deal with the show’s overall subject matter, without trying to explain or nitpick certain scenes. But so much of the internet consists of rehashing things that we’ve seen—whether in our government, our nation, or in our pop culture—over and over and over. Twin Peaks has always been something that’s more adaptable to cousin Lil’s interpretive dance than a weekly episodic review. In fact, I often found that putting language to what was happening tended to reduce the experience for me. In a way it resisted recaps or explainers, forcing viewers to take everything at face value.
What made The Return such a cultural landmark in 2017 was the ability to ease viewers into that mindspace for an hour every week and engage in silent contemplation of a world just beneath our own. After all, who couldn’t use more time to tune out and turn inward for a little while? To quote Rodney Mitchum, “People are under a lot of stress, Bradley.”
The cure may well lie in a small, northwestern town, where logs talk and the owls are not what the seem, and the mystery is ever present.