“I understand”: Mirror Epistemologies in Twin Peaks S3

mind blown

Welcome to Twin Peaks, a universe – small-town, but ever-expanding – comprising David Lynch‘s eight-part (including feature-length pilot) First Season (1990), followed by a 22-part Second Season (1990-1), Lynch’s spin-off prequel feature Fire Walk With Me (1992), as well as various diaries and other authorised paratexts. Now there is a Third Season (‘The Return’), as Lynch heads back, some quarter of a century later, to a world that is the same and yet so very different – and where he has always been the series’ lynchpin, now he is sole director, collaborating once more with writer Mark Frost. Part detective story, part soap opera, and all surreal mystery, it endlessly raises more questions than it ever answers via a microcosmic mythology which pulls back the red curtain to reveal, without ever quite explaining, a dark and impenetrable flipside to homespun Americana.

When a multimedia phenomenon comes as heavily coded as this, the onus is on the viewer to piece together all its oddball fragments and episodic epiphanies into a coherent whole, as if such deciphering might lead to some kind of over-arching, quasi-theological hermeneutics of the cosmos or a grand unifying theory of everything. The aim of these notes, however, is somewhat more modest. Rather than interpret the deeper underlying meaning of Lynch’s absurdist antics and fine-tuned manipulations of mood, here a selection of scenes shall be briefly analysed for what might be termed their epistemological signifiers: the way that Lynch delineates and dramatises the limits of knowledge within – and of – his constructed world, reflecting back at viewers their own state of disorientation and befuddlement.

“I understand”

After a brief reprise of a scene from the very last televised episode of Twin Peaks Season 2, in which Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), promises, “I’ll see you again in 25 years,” the first episode of Season 3 finds an older Cooper – or at least a part of him – still trapped in the Lodge. Shot in monochrome, Cooper is seated, listening to the Giant (Carel Struycken) deliver cryptic messages to him (in reverse-reverse speech). “Listen to the sounds,” the Giant says, pointing to an old-fashioned gramophone that emits weird rattling noises. “It is in our house now… It all cannot be said aloud now. Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone.” Needless to say, at this point in the new Season – its beginning – the Giant’s words are pure gibberish to the viewer. They may well include obfuscatory references to later characters and events, only to gain in clarity as the show comes together – but for now they are effectively meaningless. Which is what makes Cooper’s untreated, plain-English response – “I understand” – both funny and unnerving. Perhaps if we had also spent the last two and a half decades kicking back in the Black Lodge, we too would have a better comprehension of what the Giant is saying – but for now, Cooper’s words, and his easy apprehension of the situation, mark our distance from this world, and how much catching up we have to do. Of course, once Cooper has been released from the Lodge and, in Episode 3, entered the body of Dougie Jones, he will become like a wide-eyed newborn, or a Chauncey Gardiner figure, even less understanding of his environment than we are – and he will spend many episodes in precisely that state, his ignorance refracting and modulating our own.

“I don’t understand this situation at all”

If the first new episode began with a bold assertion of understanding in the face of the nonsensical, then the fourth episode ends with a blunt assertion of incomprehension. For, confronted, in a prison’s interview room, with Cooper’s evil doppelgänger, FBI Special Agent Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) knows that “something is very wrong” with his old friend and colleague, but cannot put his finger on what that might be. To his fellow agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), Cole confides: “Albert, I hate to admit this, but I don’t understand this situation at all.” Given that the first four episodes of the Season were all released online simultaneously to be watched together, this represents a ring composition of sorts, picking up and reversing Cooper’s initial “I understand”, and locating the viewer somewhere between the stated positions of Cooper and Cole. If we knew less (at the time) than the understanding Cooper, we know more than Cole about what is wrong – or at least we think we do, until Cole and Albert end on an elliptical conversation about ‘Blue Rose’, an obscure loose thread from Fire Walk With Me that they here pick at a little without in any way elucidating it. As meaning is deferred yet again, we are still left in the dark. Viewers unwilling to divide themselves and embrace that cognitive dissonance might as well not bother heading any further down this lost highway.

Sam and Tracey, watching the box together

Of course deferred meaning, when it is finally delivered, might not be quite what you desired after all. A vignette in Episode 1 sees student Sam Colby (Ben Rosenfield) hired to sit alone in a guarded New York apartment, watching (and also digitally recording) an empty glass box in case anything should happen. The box is an obvious reflex for television, with Sam the viewer who dutifully waits – and then waits some more – for even a flicker of significance to break the blank monotony, even if he has no idea what purpose his efforts serve. Yet it is only when he breaches his contract by letting Tracey Barberato (Madeline Zima) in to share his sofa and his viewing experience, that he also allows himself to become momentarily distracted, initially missing the appearance of a freakish form in the box, and then coming under vicious, fatal attack from the entity.

Later (in Episode 2) Cooper himself will appear briefly between those glass walls – confused, occasional hero of the box itself as much as of this series – but the room is now empty, and only we are ‘there’ to see, if not quite to understand, his hermetic materialisation. How we feel watching this strange apparition is rather like how we feel groping our way through all the sights and sounds that Twin Peaks conjures in front of us. For it is a slow, meandering televisual tale where, for extended sections, not a lot seems to be happening – but blink for a moment, and you might miss something crucial, unless, of course, you made your own recording for subsequent rewatches…

“How am I ever going to make any sense out of this?”

In Episode Six, ‘Dougie’ presents his boss Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) with insurance case files which the previous night he had pencilled with obscure doodles under the guidance of a mysterious floating light. “What the hell are all these childish scribbles?” complains Mullins furiously. “How am I ever going to make any sense out of this?”

Dougie, whose words have been reduced to a simplistic echolalia ever since he was possessed by Cooper’s lost soul, responds: “Make sense of it” – an injunction which Mullins dutifully follows, until he unexpectedly sees in Dougie’s automatic etchings a hidden meaning. “Dougie, thank you,” Mullins says, “I want you to keep this information to yourself. This is disturbing, to say the least… You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about.”

What this scene constitutes is a sort of promise to the viewer, although one without any guarantees. If we look again at what we do not understand in the series, if we make an effort to collate its conundrums, to break its codes and to “make sense of it”, perhaps we too, like Mullins, will suddenly discern an order in its apparent chaos – or at least be left with something to think about. Or maybe we are all just being led up the garden path by an idiot savant, and seeng only what we (secretly) want to see.

Twin Peaks has become a dizzyingly complex universe, now only occasionally set in the town after which it is named, and accruing an ever-growing ensemble of eccentric characters whose interconnections become ever harder to uncover. It is hard enough to keep track of all the old players and new, all the intricacies and convolutions of the plotting, for those who painstakingly binge-watched every prior Twin Peaks property in preparation for Season 3. For everyone else (either those who last watched the show and the film in the early Nineties, or who saw bits of it, or who have never seen any of it at all), this new series is a televisual labyrinth in which it is all too easy to become blissfully, bewilderingly lost. Do you remember the number 430, or Linda and Richard (“Two birds with one stone”)? The Giant told Cooper – and us with him – to do just that, but it is difficult to recall such random data without a map to show how they connect, and to what, especially when more maybe-essential hints and clues are dropped in each and every episode, like breadcrumbs in the void.

“I have the key!”

This brings me to my very favourite sequence so far in Season 3 – a sequence that appears inconsequential and throwaway, but that, in its way, captures the very essence of what it is like to experience Twin Peaks. In Episode 1, after a text caption reveals the location to be far from Twin Peaks in Buckhorn, South Dakota, we are introduced to Marjorie Green (Melissa Jo Bailey) and her dog Armstrong. When they both notice a strange smell coming from the locked apartment belonging to Ruth Davenport next door, Green calls the police. “Oh, my address?” she says into the phone. “I don’t know. Oh my goodness. Oh I know this. You know I know this.” Eventually two police officers arrive, and Green greets them with the words, “It was a funny thing – I couldn’t remember my address when I called you on the phone.” When the police ask if there is a manager on site with a key to Davenport’s apartment, Green replies: “Oh I don’t know. Barney’s usually here. Do you want me to go check?… oh, I just remembered. Barney’s not here, he’s a funny one that Barney. He’s in the hospital. Not the regular hospital.” One of the policeman radios in for a locksmith to be sent to “1349 Arrow Head”, at which point Green ‘corrects’ him: “No, no, 1349,” and then “just remember[s]” that Hank usually leaves the keys with Barney’s brother (called Chip, though she does not know that and has never met him), and that the maintenance man (and Barney’s friend) Hank Fillmore might know where Chip is. The officers find the suspicious Hank (Max Perlich) outside, who reveals to them that “Chip don’t got no phone” and is inaccessible. When one of the officers suggests, as he had done before, that a locksmith be called, Green appears on the balcony above, and after asking the police if they think her neighbour is away, comments, “Well, it’d be a shame, because I’m supposed to water her plants when she’s out of town. I have the key.”

In narrative terms, all that matters here is that [A] Green should report the funny smell coming from Davenport’s room, and that [B] the police should then discover the body – or bodies – within. Far from advancing the plot, Green’s freak amnesia and utter cluelessness bring it to a thudding halt, or at least turn it into a shaggy dog story or wild goose chase – and yet, in creating these pointless obstacles between A and B, Lynch invites us to pause for a glance in the epistemological mirror. Faced with a mystery (the smell from her neighbour’s room), Marjorie Green quickly demonstrates her struggle to remember basic things from the vast repertoire of facts about her little world, proposes complicated, roundabout routes (getting the absent Barney’s set of spare keys from his brother Chip, via Hank) to solving the problem, and fails to recall or realise, until the right train of associative thought clicks in, that the solution has been available all along. In this sense, Green is a figure for viewers as they try to puzzle their way through Lynch’s mysterious universe. Like Green, viewers easily forget all the little details that have accumulated over these seasons. Like Green, viewers are easily confused as to where they are. And it is entirely possible that viewers groping about for revelation might, like Green, already have the key in their hands, and just not realise it yet…

© Anton Bitel