Twin Peaks - Or How David Lynch Never Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
So, by now, most people who want to watch an hour-long monochromatic nightmare have probably seen yesterday’s episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. I started watching over my Weetbix, and it was perhaps too early in the morning for a surrealist story about the nuclear origin of evil. It didn’t horrify me, exactly, despite the skull-crushing and entomophagy. But the cumulative impact of the imagery gave me a feeling like insects were buzzing in my own head for the rest of the day, which I presume was David Lynch’s intention. So, it’s a success?
I’m not going to tell you that You Have To Watch It. I’m not even sure how good it is. It’s surrealist cinema, but unusually for surrealism it demands an attentive understanding of plot to contextualise and decode what is going on. Your mileage may vary. The Twin Peaks Redditors love it, I’m sure many people hated it. It was bonkers at the periphery, but quite straightforward in the centre. Killer BOB, Twin Peaks’ avatar of evil, was born into our world as a direct result of the first atom bomb test, the Trinity Test, in July 1945. An act so Biblically destructive that the world has been broken, and BOB killing, ever since.
In other words, the Trinity Test is an Original Sin for America (at least if you leave out slavery and racial genocide, as Lynch usually does). An Original Sin for a certain ideal of America, then. That’s not a new theme in pop culture, in fact you could say that Robert J Oppenheimer was first in line with his retroactive quote on the test, now burned into popular culture, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” But I’ve rarely seen the point made so bluntly and vividly as it was in this show purportedly about FBI agents eating cherry pie and hunting demon rapists.
David Lynch was conceived in Eden and born After the Fall, in January 1946. His artistic career has been about a lot of things, but primarily the darkness hiding beneath the hypocritical comforts of America in the 1950s. Mulholland Drive had its bouncy pink ingenue singing ‘Every Little Star’, Wild at Heart is suffused in Elvis imagery and Twin Peak’s original teenage cast were straight out of the 50s. But beneath the bobby-socks is always violence and horror, literalised in the unforgettable opening of Blue Velvet where insects writhe beneath suburban lawns.
This new Twin Peaks is a distillation of all those themes and imagery Lynch has worked with over his career. You could knock yourself out with a Lynchian drinking game involving slow zooms into tight spaces, waitresses in diners, or headlights on dark roads (all checked off this episode). But Episode 8 was as direct a comment on the underbelly of the 1950s as Lynch has ever made. The (apparent) forces of Good live in a pre-War dreamworld. The Bomb goes off in 1946, but its ten years later, in 1956, that the repercussions come back to terrorise the chaste innocents of New Mexico.
Lynch is an artist, and most artists spend their productive life working through the dreams of their childhood — see the number of neo-80s films that have filled Hollywood recently. But that particular juxtaposition of 1950s innocence and horror made me think immediately of two of Lynch’s immediate generational peers. The two Steves — Steven Spielberg (born December 1946) and Stephen King (born September 1947). Behind their very different styles, all three of these guys have a lot in common. They were (are?) all boy scouts. They all grew up across multiple states in their childhood, giving them a front-seat view of the endless sweep and sameness of America. And I imagine that all three of them had those civil defense classes as children, where they were told to hide under their desks when The Bomb hit. We all have a good laugh at that now, but I guess it was pretty horrible then.
Creatively, Lynch, King and Spielberg form a trio of pop-culture greats who have spent their careers trying to balance their emotional understanding of the Holocaust and nuclear age with their personal memories of innocent suburban lives. King rained nuclear fire in The Stand and The Dead Zone. Steven Spielberg turned atomic tests into an internet joke with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but also gave the Hiroshima Bomb a sober cameo in Empire of the Sun. All three men have made sweet stories of Americans riding across their sunlit country on bikes or lawnmowers, but none of them have flinched from depicting ultra-violence, and they’re all clearly aware of the shadow of the nuclear age on their lives.
Not that everyone from that generation feels the same way. Donald Trump (born June 1946) doesn’t seem to have too much fear and loathing of nuclear weapons. But it’s clear that for a whole lot of people now in their 70s, The War, The Holocaust and The Bomb were the crucible that formed the modern world. And maybe that leaves a guilt that their early happiness was somehow built on those foundations.
I don’t actually agree with Lynch’s idea that 1945 was such a total loss of innocence. There is something perversely nationalistic in thinking that your culture is so special that it’s deployment of a new weapon could herald a fall from grace that Aztec sacrifice, European colonisation, Mongol hordes or World War I hadn’t already done. But that’s because I didn’t grow up in 1950s America. I don’t remember the end of the Cold War and my main cultural exposure to nuclear holocaust growing up came from Mad Max and Fallout, which made the whole concept seem like a barrel of laughs.
My generation laughs, because World War II is ancient history, the Bombs seem defused as a threat, and their twin-use has become a ghost story about paper cranes. I’ve spent my life fighting for climate action, but I don’t know anyone my age (31) who still protests nuclear weapons. Who lies awake fearing them? But there they are, mouldering in their silos, still ready to end the world if asked. So maybe we’re the crazy ones.
I’ve changed my mind. Watch Twin Peaks. I know we’re juggling a lot of existential threats at the moment, but it’s probably not a bad idea to be reminded of this one.