Twin Peaks wrapped up this year and, if David Lynch is to be believed, it may be the final chapter not just on Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper but also Lynch’s final cinematic statement. If so, it’s a fitting end. The majority of Lynch’s post Twin Peaks Season One career has been devoted to examining the success of that season. The massive interest in Twin Peaks and in who killed Laura Palmer, combined with the fallout from being forced to prematurely resolve the mystery, seems to have had a profound effect on Lynch, one that colored much of his work afterward. It’s not hard to believe he was rattled by the experience and expectations placed on him, by the network and his suddenly large fan base.
Everybody knows the basic story of Twin Peaks’ creation, a mystery that wasn’t actually interested in resolving the mystery but wanted to use it as a series-long MacGuffin to explore the titular town and its strange inhabitants. Then it became a ratings phenomenon and the network forced Lynch and his creative partner Mark Frost to reveal the killer, which led to a catastrophic decline in creative inspiration and viewership. An abrupt cancellation followed the second season.
Threads of Lynch’s unhappiness weave through Season Two. The most obvious is the identity of Laura’s killer. Some people argue that Lynch and Frost always knew who Laura’s killer was, that it was decided before they began shooting, but I’ve never believed that. For one thing, Lynch is a famously instinctual filmmaker, more than willing to follow his inspiration to see where it takes him. Killer Bob, the evil spirit responsible for so much pain and suffering in Twin Peaks, came about because set-dresser Frank Silva was accidentally caught on film reflected in a set mirror and Lynch liked the look of him on film; and the sinister Black Lodge where Killer Bob resided when not possessing someone was an image that popped into Lynch’s head when he leaned onto a hot car hood on a warm day. It seems unlikely that a man willing to come up with so much of his show’s mythology on the fly would settle on something so significant as the killer’s identity before he began filming.
Especially considering Lynch never intended to reveal the killer at all. Plus, Lynch and Frost never told anyone who the killer was until they filmed the episode where they revealed his identity, not even to the actor who played the killer. It’s reasonable to believe that the decision to make Laura’s father her killer wasn’t made until the second season, after the network pressured Lynch and Frost to resolve the mystery.
That Leland Palmer is Laura’s killer is just about the darkest, cruelest, resolution possible. For Laura’s own father, the man that raised and loved her and who was so visibly shattered by her loss, to also be the author of all her pain means there was no way for her to avoid her fate. There was no choice she could have made, no other road she could have gone down, no authority she could have appealed to for help. The evil that consumed Laura was with her from birth; it walked with her every step of her short life. It also ties Leland to Lynch and Frost in interesting ways, because who are they in the end but Laura’s two fathers? They created and developed her for the sole purpose of striking her down. It’s a merciless act on Laura, and by identifying Leland as her killer they identify themselves as the true guilty parties.
Lynch’s attitude about fans is then revealed through the show’s second season ending. Lynch wasn’t as involved with the second season as the first, but he returned to direct several episodes, including the episode that revealed Laura’s killer and the season finale. And what a finale it is.
Aware of the show’s likely cancellation, Lynch refused to offer anything in the way of a conventional conclusion for his show. He reportedly ignored Frost’s more grounded script and instead filmed what can only be described as an hour of avant garde television, filled with phantasmagoric horror and wild cliffhangers that would never be resolved. In the end, the saintly protagonist, Dale Cooper, is possessed by Killer Bob. This is another sign, I think, of Lynch’s uneasiness with the Twin Peaks phenomenon. Lynch could have wrapped up some or all of the plots and returned everyone to a stable or at least safe place, but instead decided to unsettle nearly every character and plot line, and leave everyone’s fate in limbo.
Lynch followed up the Twin Peaks series with the Twin Peaks movie, but it’s not a follow-up designed to answer questions and resolve the numerous cliffhangers or even to save Cooper. Lynch decided to use his first trip back to explore the last days of its most famous citizen. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is an anti-mystery, it’s a story about abuse and suffering, the outcome of which is never in doubt. This is no watch-this-sweet-little-boy-turn-into-Darth-Vader fall from grace. It is a clear-eyed chronicling of the last few days of a young woman doomed and destroyed well before the story began.
It’s as if Lynch is punishing his viewers for being so obsessed with Laura and instead of denying them their desires, gives more than we could possibly handle. “Look at her,” Lynch and FWWM seem to say, “I gave you characters and humor and heart, but what you wanted was this girl. Okay, look at her. Look at how sad she is, how broken. Look at how hopeless her existence is. Look. Look.” Fire Walk With Me is the cinematic equivalent of your dad catching you smoking a cigarette and making you smoke the whole pack in front of him. It’s an unrelentingly, intense, brutal experience.
After Fire Walk With Me, Lynch made four other movies. One of them, 1999’s The Straight Story, is a lovely G-rated family film about a man driving his lawn mower cross country to reunite with his estranged brother. It’s the only movie that Lynch directed that he didn’t also write. It also doesn’t really fit the themes of this article, so I’m just going to say that it’s great and curious and move on to the other three.
Of the three movies that he wrote and directed after Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me, there are some unavoidable similarities that link the movies and, I would argue, to his experiences making Twin Peaks.
Consider: all are movies about artists living in Los Angeles, driven to madness and beyond, in part, by their art. In Lost Highway, Bill Pullman is Jazz musician Fred Madison, a passive, mild mannered man in everyday life, but whose music is loud, chaotic and angry. It’s easy to see the murderous Fred as another stand-in for Lynch, a famously sweet man who makes aggressively dark and frightening art. Lynch even used his own home in the film as the Madison’s home, furthering the Fred-as-Lynch metaphor.
In Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts plays the plucky wannabe starlet Betty who falls in love with beautiful amnesiac Rita and is ultimately consumed by jealousy and lust, leading her to take a contract out on Rita’s life and then commit suicide.
And in Inland Empire, actress Nikki Grace disappears into an alternate universe of madness and terror while preparing for a role in a film where she’s unable to distinguish where she ends and her character begins.
Hollywood is no safe place in David Lynch’s world after Twin Peaks.
It’s a place where lives are cheap, violence is bubbles beneath the surface, and artistic integrity is nowhere to be found. Beyond the murderous protagonists of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, we also meet directors who are cuckolded by their wives and pushed around by executives, unable to even cast performers they want. We meet pornographers and mobsters and drug dealers and killers. Lynch’s Hollywood isn’t a place for innocent people or creative people or even decent people. It’s a pit of vipers emoting only rage.
Before Twin Peaks Lynch never showed much interest in Hollywood, but afterward the city of Los Angeles and the costs and compromises of living and working there are never far from his mind. It’s not hard to imagine that this view point was informed by the interference experienced by the previously unencumbered Lynch on Twin Peaks and the very public fall from grace of his show that resulted in that meddling.
Consider also how Twin Peaks seems to be the point in Lynch’s career where he begins his break from conventional plotting. Before Peaks Lynch was certainly an idiosyncratic filmmaker, but his movies made coherent sense. His plots were bizarre and challenging, but they unfolded in linear fashion, following identifiable structures and genres. After Twin Peaks and its unsatisfying conclusion, Lynch seemed to abandon conventional resolutions altogether. His later works are filled with clues that go nowhere, deliberately impossible plots, narratives that fold time and space and collapse back onto themselves and crawling with doppelgangers.
The most obvious analogue between Twin Peaks and his later work is Robert Blake as the Mystery Man in Lost Highway. It’s hard to watch Blake’s terrifying Mystery Man and not think about Michael J. Anderson’s sinister Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks.
Both are small frightening men who seem to exist outside of time and space and who step into the narrative to both drive the plot forward and to distort any hope of conventional plotting. But, beyond that, all the protagonists in Lynch’s post Peaks movies go through transformations where they become different people. Unable to resolve the Evil Cooper cliffhanger from Peaks, Lynch plays it out again and again, in increasingly abstract forms. The mobius strip narrative of Lost Highway becomes the dream turned nightmare logic of Mulholland Drive becomes whatever the hell is going on in Inland Empire.
After Twin Peaks David Lynch seemed to delight in doubling down on everything that frustrated his mainstream audience about the show. First, by grinding their noses in the grime and hopelessness of Laura’s death and refusing to resolve any of the dangling plot threads in the movie and then by making increasingly abstract and logically incomprehensible movies. This isn’t to say that his work before Twin Peaks was bright and cheerful, but it’s hard to refute the fact that after Twin Peaks Lynch’s work returns to the themes of how Los Angeles is a violent, soulless place that challenges and corrupts artists. And it’s also hard to refute that his post Peaks work is increasingly abstract and narratively incomprehensible where mysteries are unresolvable.
I don’t think Lynch necessarily actively tried to antagonize his audience, but I do think that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with mainstream success and that his work afterwards is an attempt to engage and examine that ambivalence. I don’t know if he ever trusted his audience after the response to that second season, and I think that ambivalence and mistrust came to a head in Twin Peaks: The Return, his return to the scene of the crime and potential climax of his entire cinematic career.
There are two important moments in Twin Peaks: The Return that speak directly to Lynch’s ambivalence about Twin Peaks and its success.
One is in the first episode and the other is in the last. The first episode starts with a young man tasked with sitting in a room and watching a large clear box surrounded by cameras. All he has to do is watch the box, but he doesn’t do it; instead he gets distracted by a pretty young woman who delivers him coffee. The two of them start making out and are shredded by a monster that emerges from the box.
The opening credits for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me famously end with a television being destroyed by a cudgel, a sign that the series has moved past its origins as a television show and into the world of film. But The Return ends its first episode with the death of the audience. And not just any audience – it kills the inattentive audience, the distracted audience, the untrustworthy audience that won’t do its job and just pay attention to the big box in front of them. Lynch has one more story to tell, and he isn’t interested in telling it to anyone who isn’t going to give their full attention.
And that last story is ultimately about one thing, taking back the death of Laura Palmer. David Lynch spent four years writing an eighteen hour movie devoted to undoing the thing for which he is most famous. If there is any question about Lynch’s ambivalence about Laura and Cooper this should settle it. None of this is to say these themes were consciously in Lynch’s mind while filming.
As I said before, he’s a famously instinctive filmmaker who makes art more by feel than by thought. He also prefers the work speak for itself, and I think it does. Clearly.
If this is the end of the cinematic road for Lynch, it’s quite a mic drop.