It’s no secret that, by the time Season 2 of Twin Peaks rolled around, co-creator David Lynch was growing disillusioned with his TV hit. Frustrated by network executives demanding that the show resolve its, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery (something he and co-creator Mark Frost never wanted to do) and increasingly more interested in new film projects, Lynch took a less deliberate role in much of Peaks’ second season. Then, though the show was already doomed, he return for the season finale. “Beyond Life and Death,” directed by Lynch and co-written by Frost, is a great episode of the original Twin Peaks series. Combining soap opera pop (a beauty contest, a bomb in a bank and a madman on the loose) and Lynchian nightmares (huge chunks of the episode take place in the infamous “Red Room”), the 45 minutes is a surreal, mythology-expanding mindfuck masterpiece.
Last night, Lynch and Frost somehow topped it.
Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return opens exactly how you might expect it to, picking up where the last episode left off as the evil doppelganger of Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) and Ray Monroe (George Griffith) drive through the night following their release from prison. Then Ray double-crosses Cooper and shoots him in the chest. From there, nothing in the episode ever feels normal again.
Bad Cooper’s body is swarmed by spectral vagrants known in Peaks mythology as Woodsmen, who poke and prod until he’s covered in blood and a menacing orb containing the spirit of the demon BOB (Frank Silva) emerges from his torso. “The” Nine Inch Nails headline the Bang Bang Bar with a howling rendition of “She Gone Away,” as frontman Trent Reznor finally makes his first physical appearance on the David Lynch landscape. Truly, only David Lynch could have a full performance of a Nine Inch Nails’ song feel like the most cogent part of an episode.
Viewers who’ve been following The Return closely probably expected the show to then pivot to another of its ongoing storylines, but Lynch’s camera refused to follow a pattern this week. Instead the show transported us back to a 1945 nuclear test, and the most visually stunning and utterly unnerving origin story ever offered up on television.
Describing exactly what happens in the episode’s remaining runtime would take thousands of words and read like the ravings of a lunatic. It’s a very specific visual experience, with almost no dialogue and even fewer recognizable pieces of TV grammar to guide us. Twin Peaks was already known as the show that broke the rules with its own vision of longform small-screen storytelling. With “Beyond Life and Death” all those years ago, it felt like Lynch and Frost had slammed the rulebook shut and thrown it out a window. With “Part 8,” they traveled to another dimension were such a book doesn’t even exist.
What transpired last night in terms of actual plot is tough to parse because we don’t have context for a lot of what happened, but it essentially boils down to this: Lynch zoomed in on a black-and-white mushroom cloud until the chaos within became a tangle of abstractions. As a screeching orchestra played we went further and further into the heart of a destroyer of worlds until a literal monster from our nightmares appeared. This androgynous creature belched out a torrent of glossy fluid. Nestled within it was BOB, waiting to wreak havoc. The imagery that got us here is dense with detail, but the implication it all arrives at is not subtle: BOB is evil personified. Remember: Twin Peaks is a show that often gives symbolic form to indescribable human urges and fears.
And Laura? Well, Laura Palmer obviously was not born in 1945, but it appears she was at least conceptualized then as a direct response to BOB’s appearance. In a quasi-art deco fortress perched on a crag in the middle of the ocean, The Giant (listed in this episode as “???????” for extra mystery) watches BOB’s birth, then drifts into the air and births a golden bubble from his own mind. This bubble, containing Laura’s smiling face, is then released to Earth via a golden tube that looks not unlike the twisted torso of a saxophone. Again, you could spend weeks on the images alone.
Laura Palmer has been at the center of Twin Peaks, since she arrived wrapped in plastic and captivated the hearts and minds of millions of viewers, but even beyond her death the show has made it clear that Laura was special. Lynch devoted an entire film (Fire Walk With Me) to her last week alive, and her face looms over the opening credits of The Return. We’ve been waiting for 25 years to understand why Laura stood out, and why she seemed to understand long before it happened that she was doomed. Now, at least in an abstract way, we know. Laura and BOB were connected decades before their final clash, and suddenly one of TV’s most meaningful mysteries is even more profound.
The rest of the episode returns us to New Mexico, this time in 1957, where we witness the strange takeover of a small town by “Woodsmen” who violently hijack a radio station and serenade the populace with a cryptic message.
This is the water. And this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.
By the end, a teen girl is infested by a freaky insect-amphibian hybrid monster and the Woodsmen fade into the night after participating in one of the most effective horror shows on the small screen. We are given no further context for these events (the teen is credited only as “Girl (1956)”) and we might never get answers because that’s the David Lynch way. The combined effect of these events is dazzling, nightmare-invading and ultimately confounding. Even as a good chunk of the internet can’t stop talking about it today, we know we may never fully comprehend what we just saw.
Which brings us to the true genius of “Part 8,” one of the most ambitious hours ever attempted in TV’s new Golden Age. Anyone can do weird, as music video directors have proven for decades. It’s one thing to craft a series of strange images and throw them up on a screen, but it’s another to be David Lynch. Whether through storytelling craft or intuition of pure coincidence, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and watching something like “Part 8” unfold has the effect of reassuring us that we should keep going even if we’re baffled. All of the visual brilliance and the dreamy plotting and the visceral terror came from the same calm, confident guiding hands. We don’t watch Twin Peaks because it’s weird. We watch it because it’s a weird with intention, not caring where it ends up as long as we experience Lynch’s vision on the way, and this episode is the best example of that we’ve seen yet.
Lynch and Frost have spoken, and now the rest of television has to up its game.