Drink full and descend.
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Twin Peaks: The Return // Part 8 // Original Air Date June 25, 2017 // Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch // Directed by David Lynch
When Part 3 of Twin Peaks: The Return originally aired just over four weeks ago, the first half of the episode stood out as one of the most surreal passages in David Lynch’s entire filmography. Dale Cooper’s unhurried, elliptical path out of the Black Lodge was realized as a kind of Orphic journey, governed by the amorphous logic of a particularly bizarre dream. With that episode, Lynch seemed to be pushing against the limits of what was permissible in narrative television in a way that he hadn’t done since Episode 3 of Season 1 and Episodes 7 and 22 of Season 2. If Twin Peaks: The Return did nothing else so pointedly weird in its 18-episode run, Part 3 would embody the show’s gratifying return to the sort of artistic audacity that was evident in the original series’ best moments.
Oh, how laughably simple the world seemed just a month ago.
Roughly 20 minutes into Part 8 of The Return, it becomes apparent that something is happening. Something strange and wonderful and utterly terrifying. Something that seems to strain against the boundaries of the medium, even against the confines of the physical objects that contain the show’s images: the televisions, the monitors, the laptops, the tablets. When an obscene humanoid entity (Erica Eynon) vomits up an organic nimbus containing speckled eggs and dark spheres—one of which holds the leering visage of BOB (Frank Silva)—this foul plasm seems like it might push, Videodrome-like, right through the screen to engulf the viewer. It’s bewildering and frightening. It’s uncut David Lynch, cooked up and injected straight into the jugular.
Part 8 picks up almost exactly where Part 7 concluded, with Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan) and Ray Monroe (George Griffith) speeding away from prison and through an oppressively lightless night in the South Dakota wilds. What follows is a sequence of betrayal straight out of a gritty Western neo-noir. Ray (perhaps unwisely) attempts to extort money out of Mr. C by dangling the important information he’s been sitting on for several episodes. When Ray stops on a lonely, unpaved road for a piss break, Mr. C attempts to take his lackey unawares, but it is he that is instead shot and apparently killed. “Tricked ya, fucker,” Ray gloats when the gun Mr. C has retrieved from the glove box clicks impotently, allowing Ray to pull a weapon of his own and squeeze off two shots into the man's chest.
Things take a turn for the strange when Ray attempts to put a third and final bullet into Mr. C's head: Rumbling, lightning-like flashes signal the appearance of supernatural forces. While Ray watches in perplexed terror, three identical phantasmal figures (described only as “Woodsman”) scuttle out of the darkness and cavort bizarrely around the fallen Mr. C. These entities resemble the filthy vagrant previously seen in the holding cell and hallway at the Buckhorn police department, but here they seem more like capering demons on Bald Mountain. They appear to claw hungrily into Mr. C’s flesh, smearing blood on his face and ripping open his abdomen, out of which emerges a bulging organ with BOB’s face.
At this point, Part 8 cuts to the roadhouse in Twin Peaks, where “the” Nine Inch Nails—as they are erroneously introduced by the emcee and amusingly named in the credits—perform “She’s Gone Away.” The insertion of what amounts to a performance-style music video into the middle of an episode is unusual, in that The Return has typically utilized the roadhouse shows as outro sequences, providing a musical background for the absorption of the previous hour’s sights and sounds. NIN’s song, intruding relatively early into Part 8’s running time and playing unbroken for four and a half minutes, serves an emphatically different purpose, one consistent with the sharp contrast between the band’s distorted industrial rock sound and, say, the dream pop of the Chromatics (Part 1) or the vintage country of the Cactus Blossoms (Part 3).
In terms of the episode’s structure, NIN’s performance is akin to a hymn during a church service, an interlude that provides a period of expressive release. In this instance, however, the music is not glorifying a deity but seemingly lamenting the predations of some profane, malevolent Other. (The lyrics are eerily applicable to the murder of Laura Palmer: “I was watching on the day she died / we keep licking while the skin turns black / cut along the length, but you can’t get the feeling back / she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone away.”) This is fitting, given that Part 8, perhaps more than any other episode of Twin Peaks to date, is about BOB, and specifically the story of how he slithered his way into the world. NIN’s screeching intermezzo isn’t just a hymn, but also an overture, setting the stage for the violations—of bodies, minds, time, space, and technology—that are about to unfold. Right on cue, the song concludes with a cut back to Mr. C, who awakens from his apparent death with a jolt.
It would be easy enough to simply recount everything that happens on screen in the fucked-up avant-garde nightmare that follows, but no matter how vivid, descriptions cannot possibly replicate the experience of watching it. It's perhaps best to forego encyclopedic recollection of every detail and instead touch on the major gestures and the moods that they evoke. The sequences that make up the remaining 42 minutes of this episode constitute a deep, dizzying plunge into the kind of abstracted imagery and evocative cinematic iconography that characterize Lynch’s early short films, such as “Six Figures Getting Sick,” “The Alphabet,” and “The Grandmother.” Most of all, Part 8 feels like the second coming of the David Lynch who created the freakish Eraserhead, a film where the sheer, menacing wrongness of every frame more than earns the feature’s notorious tagline, “Where your nightmares end.” Part 8 of The Return could be the inversion of that phrase, as this episode reveals the Ground Zero where a cosmic evil wriggled its way into the material plane of existence. This is where nightmares begin.
It starts in White Sands, New Mexico on July 16, 1945 at approximately 5:29 a.m with the initiation of the Trinity nuclear test. The first atomic bomb explosion changes something forever, not just in terms of politics and history, but in terms of humanity’s fundamental place in the universe. Lynch posits this as the moment when the evil that’s been lurking at the periphery of reality (the "Dweller on the Threshold," to borrow Hawk's phrase) finally finds an ingress into the physical world. It seems obvious that the forces that BOB represents are older than the atomic bomb, of course. In Episode 3 of Season 1, Sheriff Harry Truman describes “a sort of evil” that’s “been out there for as long as anyone can remember,” and the show has previously intimated that the Black Lodge is, if not eternal, at least as old as humankind. However, Trinity ushers in an era when a godlike power of destruction would be at humanity’s fingertips for the first time. What better age for BOB, a malicious entity who is “eager for fun,” than the age of nuclear fire and all-pervading fear?
Lynch illustrates BOB’s blasphemous birth or invasion through a smorgasbord of cinematic styles. It begins with a slow, mesmerizing zoom into the Trinity mushroom cloud, its liquid flame somehow rendered even more frightening in crisp black and white. Scored to the demonic keening of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” it’s one the lushest sequences that Lynch has ever directed and it’s utterly, nauseatingly terrifying. There’s no need to project BOB’s face onto the atomic cloud; the unholy screeching of Penderecki's composition and the alarming beauty of the roiling nuclear plasma convey his arrival just as effectively.
From there, Part 8 descends into its most abstract passages, as images flash and ooze at a dizzying pace. Here are blooming inky pools of darkness, swarms of flecks and filaments, and blurry expanses of dully-colored nothing. Here are pulsing tunnels of clouds erupting with magenta and amber fire, evoking the cosmic voyages of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life, except with a cast of convulsing malignancy. Here is an old-fashioned gas station, bluntly labeled “CONVENIENCE STORE,” where smoke pours from the door in stuttering plumes and figures resembling the Woodsman (Woodsmen?) flicker in and out of existence. Here is the sexless, vomiting creature (named only as “Experiment” in the credits) floating in the void with its stream of ovarian excretions.
Eventually, the raw-nerved momentum of these images dissipates. In the scene that follows, a rocky promontory juts from the windswept, purple sea that Cooper observed in Part 3. Atop this spire stands a pale, fantastical stronghold, where a strange sequence of events unfolds. This is more grounded in conventional narrative than the impressionistic passage that preceded it, but still relatively opaque. The Giant (Carel Struycken) and a lavishly dressed woman named Señorita Dido (Joy Nash) are alerted by the ringing of an electrical bell-shaped structure, one of several such devices throughout the complex. This prompts the Giant to review a film of the preceding atomic detonation and its chaotic aftermath—the very footage the viewer has just seen, in fact. He then enters an altered state of some kind, levitating and spewing golden ephemera from his head, which coalesce into a sparkling orb with Laura Palmer’s face. Dido kisses this radiant sphere and then propels it into a tubular contraption that spews the orb into a projected image of Earth. This whole sequence is at once strange and lovely, but its most intriguing aspect is it otherworldly stillness. The Giant is alarmed at the sight of BOB’s face in the Experiment’s vomited fluid, but his response is not urgent. It’s methodical and reverent in its way, and the manner in which Dido plants a kiss on the “Laura orb” is quietly rapturous.
What follows is the lengthy final sequence of Part 8, which plays like an R-rated variation on an Atomic Age creature feature, with a dash of Night of the Living Dead’s mood of apocalyptic upheaval. In New Mexico it is now 1956, and on this particular night several terrifying and apparently related events unfold in a nameless town. A spotted, rock-like egg expelled by the Experiment lies in the sand, where it hatches into a repellent insect-amphibian hybrid creature. More tattered, soot-caked Woodsmen materialize in the desert and march towards civilization. They encounter and terrorize a middle-aged couple in a car on a lonely stretch of highway, recalling horror features, such as The Hills Have Eyes, where cannibals and mutants come shambling out of the wastes. The lanky leader of these figures (also named the Woodsman, played by Robert Broski), has the chin curtain beard and hollow cheeks of a demonic Abraham Lincoln. He leans with an unlit cigarette through the driver’s side window of the couple's vehicle and repeatedly croaks, “Got a light?”
This particular Woodsman eventually shuffles towards a rural radio station, where he repeats his query mechanically as he crushes the skulls of a receptionist (Tracy Phillips) and disc jockey (Cullen Douglas). Meanwhile, a young teenage Girl (Tikaeni Faircrest) and Boy (Xolo Mariduena) stroll to the end of a date, the Boy concluding the night with a chaste peck on the Girl's cheek as he leaves her at her parents' door. While she lounges on her bed in the afterglow of adolescent puppy love, the Girl and the rest of the town’s residents listen to the crooning sound of the Platters’ “My Prayer” on the radio. The song abruptly ends and is replaced by the buzzing of the Woodman’s voice, who repeatedly recites a disquieting poem that sends the listeners into an unnatural sleep. Everyone but the Girl, that is, who cooperatively lays down and closes her eyes as the Woodman’s words drone on. Meanwhile, the locust-frog critter enters her room through the open window, and when the Girl obligingly opens her mouth, the repulsive creature crawls down her throat. The Woodsman then walks away into the desert night, his silhouette blending into the smeary digital murk.
Though many will doubtlessly try, it’s probably a futile effort to parse what is shown in Part 8 into a totally coherent cosmology or history. Lynch is working partly in the realms of metaphor and abstraction, and through Twin Peaks (and other works) he has expressed an affinity for seemingly paradoxical truths, in the fashion of Zen koans or quantum superposition. Did the atomic bomb give birth to BOB, or did it simply allow the birth of BOB, or has BOB always been out there in the darkness? Yes, yes, and yes. Making sense of it all through strictly rational means is a fool’s errand. Arguably, one of the purposes of avant-garde art—and stretches of Part 8 absolutely constitute avant-garde television—is to reflect the madness that the artist perceives in the world. If the work of art doesn’t make sense, it's because the world doesn’t make sense, notwithstanding the admittedly soothing self-deceptions that everyone internalizes to keep moving forward day after day.
In Episode 9 of Season 2, Albert Rosenfield provided, in an atypically understated way, the clearest description of BOB’s nature: “Maybe that’s all BOB is… the evil that men do.” Much of Part 8 feels incomprehensible because its subject, the evil that men do, is incomprehensible. The original Twin Peaks—and Fire Walk with Me, in a more pointed fashion—was a story about the banal evil of rape and violence that occurs within domestic spaces. While such abuse is routinely declared “unthinkable,” its pervasiveness reveals otherwise. What is truly meant by “unthinkable” is that people would rather not to think about it, preferring to look the other way. One thinks of Bobby Briggs’ outburst at Laura Palmer’s funeral in Season 1, wherein he takes the entire town to task for their denial and passivity: “You damn hypocrites make me sick. Everybody knew she was in trouble, but we didn’t do anything. All you good people.”
In this context, that the Trinity test should be the gateway for BOB’s entry into the world is fitting, as there are few things on Earth more unfathomable than the destructive power of a nuclear weapon. Except perhaps the fact that good people (the freedom-loving U.S. of A., in fact) used such weapons to kill other people by the hundreds of thousands, and the fact that some people alive today would willingly use them again to snuff out millions or billions of lives. The shadow of atomic annihilation—the nuclear sword of Damocles that has mutated from Fat Man and Little Boy to an ICBM to a terrorist’s dirty bomb—is unthinkable in the same way that a father raping his own daughter is unthinkable. To accept the reality of it is to acknowledge that the world is an unsupervised madhouse.
Part 8 looks hard into the white eyes of that madness and doesn’t flinch, even when it discerns that the comforts of modern life are part of the problem. One of the main enigmas of David Lynch’s work is that while he evinces a persistent fascination with the tangible aspects of technology—from the decrepit pseudo-steampunk machinery of Eraserhead to the Giant’s bell-shaped electric receivers in this episode—he also has a strong streak of Luddite skepticism. This aspect of the director’s work is clearly evident in Part 8, and not just in its obvious linking of weaponized nuclear fission with an invading force of absolute evil. Significantly, the same radio signal that brings the smooth harmonies of the Platters into people’s homes and workplaces also broadcasts the soporific chant that primes citizens for infiltration by a mutant horror. Technology doesn’t merely improve quality of life and mediate connections between individuals; it also enables terrible evil, expanding its reach and imbuing it with an enhanced capacity to spread suffering.
The appearance of the otherworldly convenience store—a recurring Lodge-associated locale in Twin Peaks mythos—is likewise evocative. Not only does such a store show up in the flurry of images that follow the Trinity test, but the Boy and Girl stroll right past a similar gas station during their walk home in 1956. (The store where the Lodge inhabitants convene exists outside conventional space, but its real world corollaries are ubiquitous on Earth.) The titular “convenience” of these stores is, of course, for the benefit of motorists, freshly liberated in the 1950s to guzzle petroleum while crisscrossing the nation on ribbons of petroleum-based asphalt. The store is a symbol of automotive modernity, but also of consumption, disposability, and despoiling extraction. The odor of scorched motor oil, it should be remembered, is often presented as a telltale sign of BOB’s presence, and the head Woodsman doesn’t look so much burned as coated head to toe in axle grease.
Ultimately, what is Part 8 about? In the words of Hawk, “I don’t know, but….” It seems reasonable to conclude that the episode is an origin story about evil, although its 1940s-50s setting subverts the expectation that such tales unfold in pre-historical legendary times. To borrow from the lexicon of Christian mythology, this isn’t the story of Lucifer’s Rebellion, or of the Fall of Man, or the Great Flood. It’s the story of Armageddon, with Trinity serving as the first trumpet that signals a new age of ascendant depravity. Only there is no subsequent judgment or second coming, only chaos, much like the little girl’s apocalyptic vision described in Inland Empire: “Fire and smoke and blood rain… you know, like they say. The wailing and the gnashing of teeth.”
More so than the birth of BOB, Part 8 concerns the birth of modernity. It would be tempting for a pedant to second-guess how Lynch chooses to represent this moment. Did the rampant dehumanization that conventional wisdom attaches to the Western world of the 20th century truly begin with the Manhattan Project? A historian might make an alternate case for, say, the debut of mechanized mass murder during the Great War. However, there is something undeniably evocative about the idea of contemporary history kicking off with its own Big Bang, with light and fire blossoming seemingly ex nihilo from a singularity.
Likewise, the timing of the Woodsman’s broadcast and the emergence of the locust-frog has its own thematic weight. Fast-forwarding 11 years after Trinity gives the illusions of the Post-War period ample time to settle over the American landscape like a cozy, woolen blanket. It allows for a neo-Victorian myth of wholesome American innocence to take hold. By 1956 it would be well-established even in Soccoro County, New Mexico, where the most terrible weapon the world has ever known was built literally just down the road. Lynch doesn’t suggest that this wholesomeness is a put-on—the sweet murmurings of romance between the Girl and Boy are painfully genuine—but rather that it conceals something hideous that people would rather forget. Squatting above every squeaky-clean Texaco station is a monster, and it manifests not just through lurid psychopaths like Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, Wild at Heart’s Bobby Peru, or Lost Highway’s Mr. Eddy. It’s all the evil that men do.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- Part 8’s opening scenes recede a bit in light of the massively WTF character of the rest of the episode, but the exchanges between Mr C. and Ray are delectably thick with menace. The highlight is the way that Ray obliviously talks himself into a metaphorical grave when he concurs that he’d “probably like to go to that place they call ‘The Farm.’” This suggests the expression “bought the farm," as well the white lie parents tell when a beloved but ailing pet dog is sent to (ahem) live on a farm. In the context of Peaks lore, 'the Farm,' also evokes Dead Dog Farm, a safe house for cocaine trafficking back in Twin Peaks, which in turn reminds one of the severed dog leg in Mr. C's trunk. Incidentally, Ray is admirably collected and matter-of-fact in his assessment of what transpired with Mr. C’s body and the spectral Woodsmen: “I think he’s dead, but he’s found some kind of help, so I’m not 100%.”
- It’s easily lost amid all the other weirdness of the Giant and Dido sequence, but there’s an unsettling moment when the Giant turns and stares directly into the camera (and thus at the viewer) for an awkwardly long time. Something about Struycken’s anxious expression, held in close-up for 24 uncomfortable seconds, gives this shot a disturbing fourth-wall-busting quality, as though the Giant was aware of all the people out there in their living rooms, watching him. It’s reminiscent of the disquieting way that the murderous Lars Thorwald seems to be directly addressing the filmgoer at the climax of Rear Window.
- Radio station KPJK’s musical selection is not incidental. The Platters were one of the first African-American R&B groups to crack the Billboard charts—with their massive doo-wop hit, “Only You”—signaling the imminent breakout of rock and roll. In 1956, however, racial segregation was still a matter of law in most Southern states, notwithstanding Brown v. Board of Education. It was the year of the noxious, anti-integration Southern Manifesto, and of Virginia's Senator Harry F. Byrd’s call for “massive resistance” to Brown's implementation. There’s something unnervingly suggestive about a 1950s black vocal group being preempted by a malevolent signal that puts all the white people to sleep.
- Sightings: There aren’t too many familiar faces in Part 8, partly because there aren’t that many recognizably human characters. The Boy in 1956 is portrayed by Xolo Maridueña, who is best known for his recurring role as sullen adopted son Victor Graham in later seasons of the Parenthood television series. Otherwise, this episode mostly features returning actors and unknown faces. Oh, and “the” Nine Inch Nails as themselves.