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‘Twin Peaks’ Has Moved Beyond Television

The eighth episode of David Lynch’s series was a turning point in an already disorienting journey

(Showtime)
(Showtime)

Before Sunday’s episode, applying normal TV standards to Twin Peaks: The Return felt awkward and inadequate at best. After Sunday’s episode, I doubt anyone will even try.

“Part 8” was close to the halfway mark of David Lynch’s 18-part elaboration on his iconic ABC series, and a turning point in an already wildly disorienting journey. Headed into a two-week hiatus — the next episode of The Return will not air until July 9 — Lynch, while not exactly responding to complaints that the action was proceeding at a snail’s pace, rendered them moot. “Part 8” abandons Dougie Jones, the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, and other leisurely unfolding subplots entirely, which sounds like a concession to narrative convention. Lynch replaces them with a full-length performance from “‘The’ Nine Inch Nails” and a 45-minute flashback/origin story/experimental film, which are … decidedly not any sort of concession, to convention or otherwise.

The Return has made a habit of unpredictability, eschewing fan service for the exurban wilds of Las Vegas and adding mournful meditations on aging and the passage of time. “Part 8,” however, takes that departure to another level entirely, immersing us more fully than ever before in the nightmarish unreality of the Black Lodge’s alternate dimension. The result is almost purely sensory storytelling; there’s a reason the credits give Lynch attribution for the sound design. The Return is no longer just unrecognizable as an iteration of Twin Peaks. It’s unrecognizable as TV, a fact as thrilling as the series itself is confounding.

On paper, the events of “Part 8” seem like obligatory exposition, the kind of unnecessary and over-detailed cosmology lesser series depend on because they lack Twin Peaks’ all-encompassing emotion. The Black Lodge is fear and violence incarnate, with BOB the demon (Frank Silva) as its emissary. What else was there to know? Certainly not that BOB was the result of an actual government experiment gone awry, that hoariest of sci-fi clichés.

But an origin story is a price I’m more than willing to pay for the New Mexico interlude, an onslaught of Lynchian imagery with no objective interpretation: the gradual zoom into the interior of a mushroom cloud; the explosions of color and black-and-white static we find inside, set to Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”; the site of BOB hurtling through space in a globule of spiritual vomit (it makes sense if you see it) or the Giant’s (Carel Struycken, technically credited as ???????) soul exiting his body in a fine golden mist. Whatever the takeaway is, it involves soot-covered apparitions, New Mexico, and an atomic bomb that appears to have pierced the boundary between the Lodge and our world in 1945, more than 40 years before the first Twin Peaks began. All of it has the joy and strangeness of a world-class director getting to do what no one has gotten to before or will since: make an 18-hour art project unbeholden to anyone else’s idea of longform visual media and have it distributed on a major American television network.

“Part 8” is still an effective chapter of the Twin Peaks saga, now taking shape as a decades-old, cross-country clash between elemental good and evil. In part, that’s due to the loose yet surprisingly clean logic that’s marked The Return thus far, generally considered to fall under the purview of veteran TV writer Frost. Though the mechanics may be unclear and widely debated — I’ve already seen theories that “Girl (1956)” (Tikaeni Faircrest) is a young version of Laura Palmer’s mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), and that “Senorita Dido” (Joy Nash) is the concept of goodness personified — we generally understand that we’re witnessing the beginnings of the spiritual tug-of-war that will eventually claim Laura’s life. There’s coherence on a much smaller level, too: Both the static and room looking over the ocean directly call back to the equally disturbing opening scenes of Episode 3, when Cooper encountered them during his escape.

Mostly, though, the power of “Part 8” comes from the overwhelming feeling that Lynch is able to elicit despite, or perhaps due to, our confusion. I couldn’t tell you what “this is the water and this is the well” means — only that hearing the ashen, smoking figure chanting it into a radio microphone sent a chill down my spine. Then there’s the half-frog, half-fly that hatches from an egg in the desert and crawls into the sleeping girl’s mouth, an image that sounds like horror rendered strangely beautiful through the crisp, black-and-white cinematography. The whole point of Lynch’s beloved Transcendental Meditation is for the artist to tap into his own subconscious so he can in turn puncture ours. Here, we see that goal realized.

In both look and feel, “Part 8” resembles less an episode of Twin Peaks so much as the sequel to Eraserhead nobody thought to ask for. At what might very well be the end of the 71-year-old director’s career — he has no intention of making more features — Lynch has returned to the aesthetic signatures he established with his first film: monochrome stillness undercut by an omnipresent rumble; an obsession with industry and modernity desecrating a lost idyll; and above all, a conviction that intuition is a more-than-adequate substitute for explanation. That last part especially seems tailor-made to upend a medium as notoriously plot-dependent as television, which is why no one but Lynch has had the temerity to even try. (For all its visual flair, Legion was a cut-and-dried superhero story; The Young Pope came closest to Art Film As Peak TV, though it stopped just short of setting a bottle episode inside a nuclear explosion.)

The Return is still the same story as the late-’80s nighttime soap; for one thing, it’s wonderfully fitting for Lynch and Frost to locate the start of their ’50s-iconography-spoofing tale in the actual ’50s. But this isn’t the same as any hour of television we’ve seen before. We’re at a particular moment of peak nostalgia, creator leverage, and yes, TV, that all converged to make The Return happen. It’s unlikely that a director of Lynch’s sheer eccentricity will ever rise to such prominence in Hollywood again, let alone make a network TV series, let alone see that series gain enough of a second life on streaming to accrue demand for its unfiltered revival. Let’s treasure the convergence while it lasts, knowing that it won’t soon come again.