Everyone has their preferred approach when it comes to parsing David Lynch’s enigmatic work. The miraculous new 2017 revival of his landmark 1990 TV series Twin Peaks has seen critics studying each hour from every conceivable angle. Plenty of writers take the traditional road and attempt to divine a plot from what can feel like arbitrarily arranged scenes. Others prefer a formal, more academic analysis. Some read the show through the context of Lynch’s career. And I’m sure someone, somewhere believes they’ve cracked the show’s code though tea leaves. I’ve found it most natural to interpret Twin Peaks on a conceptual level, tracking Lynch’s pet themes as nebulously defined forces that he’s constantly reconfiguring and evolving.
Through this lens, the revival series — ominously dubbed Twin Peaks: The Return — begins to take shape as a chronicle of one Big Concept in particular. The first 10 episodes of the series’s planned 18-episode run have contained the goriest sequences of Lynch’s work, but now, he’s engaging with the notion of savagery on a deeper, almost spiritual level. Through his signature dreamy conflation of images and feelings, Lynch has constructed a monument to the terrible power of violence, chronicling its genesis and revealing its harsh consequences.
Twin Peaks began as a story oriented around a single atrocity, the murder of small-town homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The series’s original two-season run in the early 1990s focused closely on the impact of that unthinkable act on a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest, to the point where memes have been made out of Laura’s hysterically weeping friends. Other critics have expertly laid out arguments for the show — and especially its spinoff film, 1992’s Fire Walk With Me — as an elegy for Laura and a lamentation for everything wasted by her murder. The Return continues that vein of empathy for those touched by tragedy. In a recent sequence, William Hastings (Matthew Lillard) sobs hysterically over his mistress’s death during a police interrogation. Lynch allows his grief to be unruly and melodramatic, toeing the line of comedy without crossing it. He understands that mourning is messy, and gives his characters (and actors) the latitude to express that.
But violence has assumed chilling new forms in Twin Peaks: The Return, and the show’s treatment of it has accordingly grown more complex. In episode 10, Lynch observes two assaults, shown through diametrically opposed methods: in the first, Lynch holds on an unbroken shot of a trailer as the occupant is murdered. The sounds of her fighting and screaming are chilling, but the static shot leaves an impression of frosty indifference. The second feels far more intimate, operating with close-ups and dialogue that makes the audience privy to the attacker’s white-hot hatred. Even for a filmmaker who’s essentially staked out the nexus of the uncanny and the disturbing as his personal fiefdom, Lynch has doubled down on his experimentalism and overall inscrutability. And that’s granted him access to an elevated sort of cinematic plane, where he can communicate through methods that are less lucid and more primally affecting than ever.
A nightmare-inducing scene from early in The Return attaches Lynch’s newfound taste for bloodletting to the more off-kilter sensory horror he’s mastered. In a move straight out of Halloween’s playbook, a pair of young lovers get frisky while they’re supposed to be monitoring a mysterious glass cube. A Slender Man-ish figure appears and tears them limb from limb, the dyed corn syrup flowing up the walls as their faces disintegrate. But the truly harrowing aspect of the scene isn’t the gristle, or even the unidentified creature’s inhuman, putty-looking visage. Lynch’s technique of shaking the bejesus out of the camera is what clinches the scene. The thing looks like it’s liable to break out of your screen at any moment.
Lynch has weaponized the TV frame itself, using color, motion, light, and sound to create a physical aggression in his images, and shock his audience. Through the showbiz magic known as “pressuring Showtime into giving him final-cut authority,” Lynch recently pulled off the single most avant-garde hour of TV in the medium’s history. Episode 8 of the series sees Lynch pulling every formal trick out of his sleeve to establish an atmosphere of violence located in another dimension. Through double exposure, stroboscopic lights, and jarring hyperactive cuts, he destabilizes viewers and leaves them with no way to get their bearings. He’s attacking people on a subconscious level, manipulating white noise on the audio mix so it continuously fades in and out of awareness. It’s an alien sort of violence, a distinct variety that promotes a feeling of insecurity and threat, rather than immediate danger.
Keeping with its unsettlingly intense focus on the aesthetics and mechanics of hostility, episode 8 also functioned as a dark origin story for the presence of evil itself on Earth. The sight of a detonating atom bomb has lurked around the periphery of the show, wallpapering the office of FBI agent Gordon Cole (Lynch himself), but the image dominates episode 8. The story revolves around that symbolic loss of innocence for humanity, the moment that compelled nuclear physicist Kenneth Bainbridge to declare he and his colleagues to be “sons of bitches.” It’s the birth of a bloodless, incinerating, indifferent instrument of destruction. It inspires fear not for what it is, but for what it represents: a pure expression of man’s will to do harm. The knife was conceived as a multipurpose outdoor tool, the gun ostensibly for hunting or protection. But the atomic bomb was created with the express purpose of reducing human populations to dust.
Even when Lynch is illustrating mankind’s potential for destruction, he maintains a trembling reverence for the violence they create. There’s a horrible beauty to the way Lynch looks at the mushroom cloud, examining it in slow motion, far removed, like a tornado seen from space. He regards the impulse to mangle or otherwise destroy as an elemental force in the universe.
That theme extends to his characters as well. The clear dichotomy between baffled protagonist Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in his current unaware incarnation as Dougie Jones, and the seemingly unkillable, possessed Evil Dale reinforces Lynch’s essential interplay between negative and positive energy. Neither one can exist without the other, and they’re inexorably drawn together. They obey the same cosmic laws as Einstein’s entangled atoms. Violence is inescapable, in the air or inside the characters’ brains. And in Twin Peaks, it always has a touch of the unnatural and otherworldly. A scene where Evil Dale gets shot comes off as weirdly pedestrian — and then the ghostly homeless cannibal zombies arrive. Violence is returned to its proper pedestal, as an intensely personal act that’s impossible to fully understand.
Twin Peaks initially sold itself as a murder mystery, but Lynch and his co-showrunner Mark Frost had more compelling questions on the brain than the identity of Laura’s killer. MacLachlan himself asked the right questions, but in another role for Lynch, playing a compromised innocent facing a sadistic thug in 1986’s Blue Velvet. “Why are there people like Frank?” MacLachlan’s character asks. “Why is there so much trouble in the world?” The Return has continued the original series’s shamanic investigation into the true nature of that trouble. But while the show submits to that omnipresent violence, it doesn’t share Jeffrey’s tone of panic. Lynch hasn’t made peace with the permanent existence of evil, by any means. He’s just endlessly interested in the battle to keep it at bay.
Twin Peaks: The Return airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.