After toying with about two dozen different opening paragraphs and about twice as many basic directions for this latest Twin Peaks essay, we’re opting to cut through everything by asking a basic question of you. When James Hurley was onstage at the roadhouse singing “Just You” with a pair of animatronic versions of Donna Hayward and Maddie Ferguson, was that poignant to you or was it vaguely pathetic?
It’s not a rhetorical question or idle ruminating. We’ve been turning this over in our heads for days now and we honestly aren’t sure how to take it. Because look: not to sound too judgmental about it, but there’s a huge difference between a teenage Bad Boy in a pompadour singing a sappy love song in falsetto with the two girls he’s sort of in love with, and a middle-aged man singing that same sappy love song in the exact same falsetto with two stand-ins for his long-ago teenage crushes a quarter-century later. Especially when there’s an implication that he’s suffered some sort of brain damage after a motorcycle accident (“James is just quiet now”). Lynch composed the song and has never made an indication that it was meant to be taken as anything but a charming, haunting love song. And he made sure to let us know, within the first couple hours of Twin Peaks‘ return, that James is not only cool, but that he’s always been cool; a sentiment some fans of the show would consider highly debatable.
To our eyes, however, that moment onstage was anything but charming or cool. It was more than a little sad. And with the creepy, wide-eyed doppelganger backup singers, it came off ever so slightly horrifying to us. We wonder what Lynch intended, though. And we wonder how other people saw the scene. Because the longer we think about it, the more we think the answer to the question above hinges on what you think Twin Peaks: The Return really is. A sequel? The next chapter in the story? A nostalgia-fest? Or, as we argued in our last post on the show, is it an elegiac examination of just how much the world of these characters has degraded with time and age?
Look at the scene of Truman visiting Ben Horne to inform him of his grandson’s crimes, prompting the display of a bone-deep sadness on Ben’s part; an acute understanding of his own failures as a patriarch. “That boy has never been right.” It’s a scene practically dripping with defeat and regret – and we maintain once again that only a creator as incisive as Lynch, but more importantly, as old as him, could make these sorts of scenes work. Twin Peaks: The Return, as we noted last time, is a world populated by the elderly and a story being told by the elderly, with all the main narrative action being driven by people from middle age to nearly 80, and all the characters under 35 milling about in the background or drifting through to provide color or nuance to a scene. And it occurred to us after writing that observation, that you could use the same description for such shows as Murder, She Wrote, Matlock, or even The Golden Girls. But unlike those “we’ve still got it” takes, Lynch and Frost seem particularly taken up with the idea of showing just how sad the process of aging can be; just how many aches, pains, regrets and secrets pile up over time. To the aged, in Lynch’s view, the world is populated by the soon-to-be-dead as well as the memories of the long-dead.
This is not the “Thank you for being a friend” version of aging. It’s a world of sadness, decline and degradation. This is a world where old men sell their blood to buy food and even older men spot them a fifty to keep them healthy for another week. A world where grandmothers get robbed by their grandsons. This is a world where the blasted landscape of Sarah Palmer’s mind is randomly available for viewing by any passerby. Where the Log Lady is wasting away while she whispers her last mysteries. Where Dr. Jacoby is a ranting lunatic and Harry Truman is dying somewhere far away. This is a world where Big Ed sits alone, eating his soup and watching the same car drive by, over and over again. A world where Bobby is still hanging around the diner, hoping for a glimpse of a Shelley who’s clearly moved on. This is a world where, God help us, Norma’s cherry pie is being cheapened through franchising. If that’s not a pure and perfect symbol of how bad things have gotten for the people of Twin Peaks, we don’t know what else could be.
Lynch and Frost are managing to have it both ways. They are serving up glimpses of virtually every main character from the series and feeding directly into the nostalgia the show’s longtime fans feel for them, while at the same time making sure to disappoint them at every turn, with every introduction. To put it bluntly: practically everybody’s life in Twin Peaks more or less sucks. This is possibly why we get scenes of random strangers at the roadhouse, spitting out names and histories of characters we may never meet; people making bad romantic choices or being run off the road by strangers; people who just lost their mother and went off their meds; people who got fired from jobs and can’t seem to beat this persistent arm rash. When Lynch does background color, he makes sure to point out that their lives suck just as much as the main characters’ do.”Your room seems different,” Sarah Palmer says to a random teenage girl. The past is a room that can’t be returned to. Sometimes, when life goes on, it just drags on and on for some people, without hope or happiness. “It’s a goddamn bad story, isn’t it? asks Sarah rhetorically. She knows the answer. It’s not a happy tale or even an engrossing melodrama. It’s sadness and decline and regret. And it’s amazing how pervasive this theme is, when you consider how relatively un-depressing this series is as a whole.
That could be because, outside the confines of the shadow-laden Twin Peaks, things are dire, but not nearly as depressing or doom-laden. Albert can meet the perfect woman for him. Tammy can get the job promotion of her dreams. Janey-E can find a sense of satisfaction she’d never known with a non-brain-dead husband. There is still death and evil and lifelessness to be found all over America, but there’s also impromptu conga lines in insurance offices and celebrations with cherry pie and Champagne. There’s magical gym sets that light up at night and play Tchaikovsky. And for Gordon Cole, every town is another opportunity for him to find a girl in a tight dress and give him the opportunity to rebuke entirely the notion that getting old has to be anything less than fun. These are the minor interludes that allow the more depressing aspects of the story to unfold without weighing the audience down. And it may be Lynch and Frost gilding the lily just a bit so we could all deal with one of the most depressing character turns yet. With everything else going on, we probably should have been more prepared for Audrey showing up, but it totally threw us for a loop.
We think the re-introduction of Audrey serves as a perfect summation of Lynch’s feelings about nostalgia here. With no buildup or introduction, the scene cut abruptly to an Audrey Horne that was barely recognizable; one that flew in the face of the audience’s expectations, not to mention their memories of the character. The dreamy, bold, beautiful bobby-soxer who danced her way through the lobby of the Great Northern was gone, to be replaced by a nervous, angry, seemingly confused and unstable woman. The girl with the movie star looks had aged into a bitter middle-aged woman. We don’t think it was a coincidence that the scene owed quite a bit to similar staging in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Lynch always played on Sherilyn Fenn’s resemblance to an old-school movie star. Here, he was throwing that back in the audience’s face. She’s not what you expected her to be and the realization of that is meant to throw you off-kilter. The past is gone and the present is not what you’d hoped for. You want to return to Twin Peaks? Fine. Cooper’s brain damaged, Audrey’s unstable, Sarah turned her ceiling fan back on, and James never fully recovered from a motorcycle accident. Happy now? Nostalgia, in this world, is about as useful as a 20-year-old hotel room key.
With all that in mind, we ask again: Was James’ number a pleasant bit of nostalgia; the act of a man wooing a girl in the only way he ever knew how? Or was it a sad display of an aging man attempting to return to a room he’ll never be able to return to?
[Photo Credit: Showtime]