DAVID LYNCH’S MOMENT OF CLARITY
by Chris R. Morgan
There are two ways, as I see it, to process the eighth episode of Showtime’s third season—or return or reboot, whatever you wish to call it—of Twin Peaks. One way I admit is quite petty, consisting mostly of marveling at The Atlantic’s James Parker for showing us how language, like a model rocket made while inebriated, can detonate without leaving the launching pad. “We will watch it, at any rate, not anchored to time and the boxy television set, but weightlessly adrift in our personal viewing cells,” he writes, whatever that means. “It might be great. It might be a disaster. But it won’t blow our minds. It can’t, because that already happened.” (Emphasis mine.) The other way, then, of piecing together what it was that one has just watched, why it is that one cannot readily let it leave one’s mental space, and precisely to what permanence did it upend one’s expectations and assumptions of a medium (but so much more than that) one thought to be in one’s effective control, is fairly self-explanatory.
In fairness to Mr. Parker, I agreed with him at the time. For as much as I enjoyed Twin Peaks I didn’t think anything needed to be added to it on top of what was already there. True enough, I understood the reviled Fire Walk With Me to be underrated, and I was glad that Lynch was picking up where he left off in its tone and its plot points. But I took to the new season generally with little more than curiosity. I was quite glad to see that Bobby and Shelly, seemingly no longer together, have found maturity, perhaps even contentment, in middle age. I was happy that Hawk is still Hawk, Agent Rosenfield is still Agent Rosenfield, and that the pine weasel is extinct. And I like knowing what New York City looks like through the Lynchian lens. Otherwise I had accepted that no depth, old or new, would be plumed, no mystery uncovered, no grander order of things revealed. So much for that.
When I last wrote about Twin Peaks for The American Conservative, I admitted my disappointment that I was unable to understand the experience of seeing the pilot episode when it first aired. All that can be said about once-in-a-lifetime milestones applies to it hand-in-glove, of course, but it had been a little over 15 years since I’d experienced a cultural black swan like that in real time. It was 2001 and Converge’s second album, the long-awaited Jane Doe, had been released. I remember it well because it was the week of September 11, it came a few days late, and listening to it while walking to my afterschool shift at Pizza Hut, the batteries in my Discman gave out not even a minute into the first song. Listening to it in full later that night, though, I felt that I’d been given a rare privilege of expectations being vastly exceeded, of aesthetic sensibilities being finally validated, and of old ideas being unrecognizably reborn. Even as the global situation was in chaos, what a time it was to be a certain kind of teen in a certain moment in time.
Even then I sensed that that was a feeling I may never have again. Certainly I’d be tricked—and I was, many times—but at some point the reality would set in that, while there may yet be something new (or newish) under the sun, it may not shine on anything in my periphery. And that’s fine, not everything is going to be about me. In fact, forcibly erecting cultural monuments has been something of a problem for many years now, not least of all when it came to television. Alan Sepinwall has made a career as media criticism’s Edward Everett, waxing profound on every Sopranos Easter egg, every pensive stare of Don Draper, like an Athenian triumph in battle. So imagine my shock, indeed my embarrassment, of having been caught in a moment many a critic have been not even halfway-convincingly rhapsodizing for so long. That, anyway, is how I justify writing about something that has been recapped to death since Monday morning.
“Part 8,” as I shall call it henceforth, frustrated people at first as it was a marked detour from the many other storylines the series has been juggling over the previous seven episodes, with many of those carrying frustrations of their own. But viewers familiar with the series mythology, especially as it is presented in Fire Walk With Me, understand that it is not a gratuitous detour. Simply put, it is Lynch’s attempt at the origin story and at contextualizing the supernatural order that surrounds and haunts the northwestern town, and now the world. As it turns out, Bob is somehow humanity’s fault, having either been birthed or empowered by the Trinity atomic bomb test, recreated in a terrifying five-minute sequence. Moreover, the martyr complex of Laura Palmer, long a point of contention with Lynch’s feminist critics, was more or less confirmed. There is also the matter of the fly-frog hybrid who enters the mouth of a teen girl at episode’s end who may or may not be a young Sarah Palmer. And how any of this takes us forward into the remaining nine parts is anyone’s guess, but Lynch has done a strange thing by bringing a lot of elements, once unclear and jumbled (was The Man from Another Place good or evil? Frankly I have no fucking clue) into the forefront and somewhat more carefully positioned.
When surveying the vast critical consensus of “Part 8,” I agree with two things. First that it is among the most audacious, most radical episodes of television ever broadcast. Second is that it is not very original. The visual language of “Part 8” comes as echoes from art and underground cinema’s fairly distant past. Some echoes are quite loud, 2001: A Space Odyssey came in for immediate recall. Some, however, are rather faint, such as Stan Brakhage and, to me anyway, Carnival of Souls. But perhaps the most obvious visual touchstone is Lynch himself. Both a friend of mine and another critic used “full Eraserhead,” Lynch’s debut feature released 40 years ago, to describe the overall tone.
One point that I cannot agree with, however, is that the episode is, as some have said, “abstract” or “bonkers.” These designations have followed Lynch from Eraserhead and onward with varying aptness. We have some idea as to what Mulholland Drive was about; we may never conclusively know what Lost Highway or Inland Empire were about. That is part of the fun of David Lynch, who lords over the power to not explain himself as stridently and assuredly as Joe Arpaio lorded over his power to dress his prisoners in pink underwear. But the merits of “Part 8” cut a different way. Indeed, if the episode simply repeated the same fan theorist-friendly guesswork, we would be in a much different mood.
David Lynch has sustained himself for four decades not because his work is weird. To be weird doesn’t take much effort, as the many Twin Peaks descendants have shown. For Lynch it was always a means to an end. That the ends were never more than broadly certain was not his problem, but they always tied back to the thing he understood most: postwar America. This is hardly new, of course. Depicting the stark conflicts of American life and its ideals was always Lynch’s most obvious point of reference. But his due as a moral artist, let alone one with any sort of long game, has been inconsistently given. It was always there but often accompanied by various problematics, or plain perversity. But “Part 8” is distinct as a Lynchian moral document depicting a perversion that he did not exclusively script.
Learning about the atomic bomb is a significant event in the life of the American, though it is one that no American precisely remembers taking place. For my part, I remember in early childhood seeing a vague mushroom cloud in the Harry S. Truman (!!!) section of a guide to presidents. And even there I am not entirely sure. We better remember periodic gestures made by social studies teachers to suggest that maybe dropping the bomb over Nagasaki was a bit excessive. No matter, I suppose. Those watching the episode, many of certain late-Cold War generations, have effectively received a comprehensive recircuiting of how to understand the bomb. Or if not that, then at least “Part 8” allows for comfort in discussing it more directly. As Emily L. Stephens at The AV Club writes: “There’s a grotesque righteousness in the suggestion that the evil of Bob isn’t some external force visited upon humankind, but something born from our corruption, from our willingness to pervert our greatest intellects and abilities to bring about terrible destruction.”
I find it difficult, listing back all the transgressions of the Second World War, to single out the Manhattan Project as evil; but it was arrogant. Today we attach a considerable moral weight to “the scientist,” but those involved at the creation of the bomb were either unaware of its power (some, for instance, thought the bomb might neutralize Earth’s atmosphere) or hyperaware of, but ultimately resigned to, its long term consequences. I always found the sensitivity and insightfulness of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his references to John Donne and eastern spirituality and the like, to be rather repugnant when set against his actual accomplishments. Perhaps implying his Trinity test as the source of Bob’s emergence is somewhat neat and tidy in a narrative sense, but attaching our feelings toward him and all he represents to a moment in our history was a powerful move on Lynch’s part, and certainly he must know of all possible effects that extend from that move.
David Lynch was born in 1944, but it never quite seems like it. In an era, and in the last year specifically, that saw culture turning decidedly against baby boomers, Lynch’s perspective stands entirely out of step with his cohort. Indeed, in the recently released documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch is heard recalling a moment as an art student in Boston in which he got high, went to a Bob Dylan concert, and left in the middle of it, a transgression that caused his roommate, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, to move out. His color palette favored dark Bacon-esque hues, he hates cities and is fond of small towns, and he has a stark, borderline conservative, understanding of what is right and what is wrong. He is not interested in improving America as he is in reminding us what it can be and what it too often is. And every time he veers a little too closely to Tim Burtonization, one of these attributes pulls him back, Loggia-like, from the precipice.
Lynch’s idiosyncrasies and the lack of force with which he exerts them in his art have earned him endless respect from subsequent generations eminently wise to being talked down to. But that is as much a burden as it is a blessing as “Part 8” demonstrates. Its simplest takeaway, whether Lynch intended it or not, is that the Atomic Age is not only back, it actually never left, and now it is ours.
Yes, to my surprise, my delight, and my apprehension, that was the greatest episode of television ever made.