Any essay about current serial television usually comes with a spoiler warning. This seems particularly unnecessary for Twin Peaks: The Return, which is an experience that can’t really be spoiled. But for the sake of tradition, let this serve as the requisite spoiler warning. Things will be discussed, not that it will matter if you decide to dive down the wormhole that is this show.
The thing about it, really, is that it actively defies the conventional wisdom about what a show should be doing. In this age of prestige event television, this is a show that largely deprives the viewer of big, blockbuster moments that tie up the disparate plot threads. It stands in stark contrast to something like this most recent season of Game of Thrones, which seemed pressured to provide an exciting endgame that will pay off six seasons worth of buildup. In doing so, the show, which rose to acclaim for its ability to subvert narrative expectations, seemed to settle for familiar formula in the name of delivering the requisite moments of triumph and defeat.
Twin Peaks has other things on its mind. The original show was set up to be a pretty simple mystery: a young girl is murdered, and an FBI agent is sent to investigate the case. The marketing around the show focused on that question: who killed Laura Palmer? But then the show itself didn’t seem to be in any real hurry to answer the question. It instead explored the surrounding weirdness of the town of Twin Peaks, crafting potent horror through the sheer unpredictability of what the town had to offer.
Right up to the end, this new series of Twin Peaks was unpredictable. It just kept going about things in unusual ways. In a more conventional show, our hero, Dale Cooper, would have found his way back into the real world within a few episodes, setting him on a collision course with the doppelganger that had been wreaking havoc within his form. Instead, the show took its time on a Las Vegas detour that built a whole new life for the character, setting him up with a family and a job and an inability to speak in complete sentences.
And the series went on, depriving the audience of the conventional thrills of episodic television. It never really felt like we were drawing closer to a conclusion, even when it offered up a climactic battle that seemingly depicted good triumphing over evil, a prophecy fulfilled, and the characters enjoying a sandwich. But then you realize that there’s one more episode, and it all breaks apart. Of course, the very nature of this show allows it that leeway. Twin Peaks actually ended over twenty-five years ago. Then, the movie Fire Walk With Me took apart that ending and reconfigured everything we knew about the characters, turning time into a loop that traps its characters in an existential prison.
The show, which rose to acclaim for its ability to subvert narrative expectations, seemed to settle for familiar formula in the name of delivering the requisite moments of triumph and defeat.
And this new series creates a new ending as well. Or perhaps more accurately, a new non-ending; a powerful one that reinforces the horror that this series has always embraced. The series has always been uncomfortable with definite answers. It always chose to be unsettling, keeping just a shred of doubt in every scene, indicating to the audience that they cannot at all trust what they’re seeing.
One can certainly understand why people may not have been able to stick with the eighteen episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return. We are all trained to demand closure, and we are comforted by familiar narrative structures. One could certainly argue that the whole show is just eighteen episodes of blind self-indulgence. But the rewards of Twin Peaks go beyond the conventional satisfaction of a three-act plot. Given some of the reactions to the conventional and predictable plotting of this season of Game of Thrones, there is half a chance that people might actually be looking for something different and just don’t know it. And Twin Peaks is there, more atmosphere than plot, more willing to explore strange liminal and subliminal spaces in its depiction of a seemingly futile battle between good and evil, ending most of its episodes not in a cliffhanger, but with a band at a roadhouse, playing some sort of song. It is paradoxically satisfying in its insistence on being unsatisfying, the show built to tell a story that is beyond stories, rejecting the notion that there is ever an end, that it is ever really possible to find closure.