It might be technically over, but it’s been hard to let go of Twin Peaks: The Return, whose final two episodes aired last Sunday. I’d worried about this 18-part work, and how the powerful waves of nostalgia its arrival sent across the web would alter my experience of it. In the end, it was breathtaking: horrific, funny, bold, and masterful — even at its most frustrating.
The middle stretch of the series coincided with the seventh — mostly mediocre — season of Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition was revelatory: I realized how limited my tolerance of narrative experimentation had become in this supposed golden age of prestige television. On the right side, flimsy, expensive, predictable storytelling. On the left, something beautiful and impossible to define, at once seductive and hermetic. The two shows also encouraged very different types of engagement. Sure, redditors have come up with outré theories about both Jon Snow’s parentage and Agent Dale Cooper’s tulpas. But where the former forced you to think in straight lines and pose questions about verisimilitude (“how did those ravens fly so fast?”), the latter invited lateral explorations, detours, and multilayered analyses.
Speaking of which, Sarah Nicole Prickett has written gorgeous, spiral-like reviews after each episode (or pair of episodes), which Artforum has since collected into one mammoth post (the final installment is still forthcoming). These essays take the (mostly dull) genre of the weekly recap and inject it with a sense of intrepid questioning. Here, for example, is Prickett responding to the show’s eighth episode, likely the best hour of television I’ve ever watched.
Imagine having been a child in the jaundiced dawn of the Atomic Age, anticipating the death of all you’d known, the reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki transposed on your Manhattan, or your Missoula, Montana. Imagine seeing one photograph in particular, depicting the instant shared death of a hundred thousand people and thinking, “I have an idea.” Seeing a perfect image in . . . a mushroom cloud, and making it your own. Who is so outrageous? Sylvia Plath? Bruce Conner? I would kill someone to have that kind of brain, which is why God didn’t give it to me. He gave it to Lynch, who reappears on The Return as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, now with a fancier office, and behind his wide desk, as we saw in the third hour, a wider black-and-white photograph of a nuclear blast. Five hours later, this completely inappropriate decorating choice is explained.
We go to the first detonation of an atomic bomb, in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:45 AM (MWT). The date and time, with its stressed specificity, is like an evangelical’s save-the-date for this year’s doomsday. The Trinity Test we are about to see did in fact take place, but a shimmer of unlikelihood, like this is unbelievable, remains. The cloud mushrooms and swallows the camera, so it feels like we’re shrinking, like Alice in . . . Hell. The colors are too much for words: imperial purple, incarnadine orange, gold. (Lynch, in his wonderfully inadequate explanation for dissecting a stranger’s recently deceased cat in his basement, said that “when I opened up the inside, it was unbelievable—the organs inside the cat were brilliant colors, and as soon as the air got to them, all the color started draining out, right before your eyes.”) The rest of the episode is in lambent black-and-white, as in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are quivering shots, almost stills, displaying staticky, patterned abstractions that look like Ross Bleckner’s paintings after AIDS. Bleckner has said that the disease, with its radioactive threat, was “a total paradigm shift in consciousness, a rupture.”