Okay, here comes the real craziness. You read the previous article in this series, right? Where we unearthed the feminist themes of the original Twin Peaks? Good. Now we can trace these themes to the recent, long-belated third season, 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
If the 1990 series was mysterious and enigmatic, then The Return was damn near unintelligible by comparison. In addition to the machinations of the actual story being purposely obscure (What’s that tree talking about? Why are there evil hobos?), The Return is saturated with metaphorical content exploring a dizzying array of subtextual themes, from fossil fuels and American imperialism, to nostalgia and regret, to spirituality and the human condition. I could use a whole separate collection of essays to explain The Return’s story and the messages hidden within it (and hey, maybe I should), but for our purposes here, let’s narrow our focus down to how The Return picks up Twin Peaks’ feminist thread.
But first, we’ll need to stop off at the Twin Peaks project that came in between. Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was a project borne out of the TV show’s seismic cultural impact and subsequent creative nosedive. Lynch washed his hands of the series when the network forced him to solve Laura’s murder during season 2, fucking off to go write/produce the baffling On the Air. He gave up on Twin Peaks not only because the creative concept hinged on Laura’s mystery lingering throughout the series, but because this boneheaded move busted his entire artistic vision for how the show would convey his underlying message — slowly and insidiously.
As we previously discussed, part of Lynch’s message with Twin Peaks was how the wholesome veneer of small-town America actually makes it an even more fertile breeding ground for misogyny and abuse — because nobody wants to believe these things are happening just next door. Along these lines, Lynch’s plan was to bewitch us with Twin Peaks’ picturesque woodsiness and damn fine coffee, all while gradually exposing us to the full spectrum of darkness lurking within. It would have been freaky to look around during a fourth or fifth season and only then realized that all the things we loved about this town were ridiculously outmatched by the horror that pervaded it. We’d definitely have understood how the place so handily blinds everybody to its malevolence — even poor, naive Cooper, who started thinking about buying property there like 48 hours into his visit.
Though the 17 episodes we got before the show shit the bed provided our first glimpses of that evil, Lynch was forced (artistically at least) to bail before he got to the punchline. Audiences were charmed by the town’s quirkiness, but the full-scale deceptiveness of that charm was never revealed. That’s why we got Fire Walk With Me, the project wherein Lynch effectively told his audience that loving the town of Twin Peaks without acknowledging how fucked up it is completely misses the point. He makes this pretty freaking clear when the first image we get after the opening credits is a TV set being violently destroyed.
Lynch goes on to use FWWM as a means to reveal way more plot info on BOB, the Black Lodge, and other Twin Peaks canon he never had the chance to explore on the show. But he also uses it to finally reveal the full extent of Twin Peaks’ dark side — and does so by taking a long, hard, unwavering look at the hell that was Laura Palmer’s life. And man, we see it. The Francis-Bacon-nightmare of Laura’s terrified agony and brutal death has kept me up many nights.
This compounded what so many misguided fans hated about FWWM. “What happened to the donuts and Tibet references and quirky characters?” they whined. But that was exactly the point. Lynch was distraught that, as far as the TV series had left it, the unspeakable cruelty visited upon Laura (and Ronette, and others) was just a spooky footnote on the Twin Peaks legacy. So he made FWWM in part to honor her and what she went through.
Through FWWM, Lynch tells us that to fixate on the town’s cuteness without acknowledging the horrible things that happen there is as willfully ignorant as the people of Twin Peaks are about Laura’s suffering. Or (ahem) as willfully ignorant as people all over America are about what happens to women outside the view field of their own blinders. Lynch holds us to the conditional agreement that if you want to indulge in your love of this cozy little town, then you can’t turn a blind eye to the glaring crimes of misogyny that should (one would think) dominate your view of it. In this respect, Lynch’s comment on the way middle-American society deliberately ignores the abuse and exploitation of women brings to mind a turn of phrase that’s familiar to most feminists: silence equals complicity.
Then we come to The Return, where Lynch brings 25 more years of life experience to the table. Again, I can’t emphasize enough just what a small fraction of the series’ sweeping subtext I have room for here, so once again, we’ll stick to how The Return deals with feminist issues.
Interestingly (considering the topic of this article), it’s sometimes erroneously argued that Lynch’s works are actually kind of shitty towards women. Because when you have the fearless inclination to deal with crimes of misogyny on screen, you can bet a cultureless swath of the population will respond by channeling their myopic bitchery through the abject fallacy of thinking that depiction equals endorsement.
You can’t very effectively confront the horrors of society in film without depicting those horrors, and the fact that some people would rather bend over backwards to misread Lynch’s works as somehow championing the evils inflicted by his villains than shoulder the social responsibility for these crimes that his films place on American culture at large is…well, a bummer.
That being said, The Return is hard-packed with far-from-perfect characters — and plenty of them are women. But for every one permanently-angry-wife or pouty-faced moll, there are three male characters just as useless or destructive. People in general don’t come out well here, regardless of gender. Women wasting energy on deeply shitty men (see: Becky, Gersten, eventually Shelly) is clearly a theme, but even if we engage with this predilection on a literal (bordering on reductive) level, you can’t deny that it serves the show’s characters and themes. Or that honestly, he depicts the men in these situations as like, a thousand times worse.
The show’s deeper subtext seems to grapple with human drama being somewhat inescapable anyway. But here and there, he lets on that he’s still violently pissed about the state of our misogynistic society. Like when Sarah Palmer walks into that bar in episode 14, and that Trump-thumping-truck-fucker gets viciously belligerent as soon as she asks to be left alone.
She pulls her own face off(!) to reveal the unfathomable darkness within her, and after scaring the piss out of him, she straight up tears his throat out.
The ugly moment feels so tragically familiar. And for that matter, the revenge fantasy feels so perfectly sweet. You know instantly that Lynch is paying as much attention to the struggle as ever, he’s just widened his scope to include women in a discussion about (*gasp*) human beings.