Reinig Road, Washington, featured in Twin Peaks, Photographed by a local resident, Charles.
- It’s possible there is nothing original to say about time anymore, but everyone who ages will experience time as though no one else has experienced it before. In youth, there’s just too much time. Impatient amounts. In midlife, there’s less time than you assumed there was. And in the twilight years, time is a palpably dwindling resource, where everything feels either 10 minutes or 10 years ago.
In this all-too-familiar sounding trajectory, time starts out needing protecting, only to turn on you. Time then becomes borrowed, finite. You now need protecting from it.
In May 2017, David Lynch and Mark Frost brought back their late 20th-century TV show, Twin Peaks, for a much anticipated third season. It was 25 years since the previous installment. That exact amount of time passed to the new season’s story, too. Lynch described it as an “18 hour long movie”—which is really long for a movie. Twin Peaks: The Return, as it was titled, reinvented television as much as its first season had done in the early 1990s—but this time for very different reasons.
Those expecting easy nostalgia were disappointed. Unlike the original seasons, which were all set in one remote place, The Return splintered its plot across multiple locations, cities and realities. I won’t go into all the details—it might take 25 years to properly explain—but what stood out was the texture of time encoded in The Return: full of melancholy and mourning, secrecy and mortality.
A few weeks before The Return began to air, my father was diagnosed with cancer. My memory of this troubled time—pre-surgery, surgery, convalescence—is now inextricable from my memory of watching The Return, week by week. Its otherworldliness, its portal to 15-year-old me, when I saw Twin Peaks for the first time, kept me company, kept me alert, for 18 consecutive weeks. The Return is talismanic in nature––we will see why shortly––but it will be forever talismanic for me, because of the way it unfurled the mysteries of time during our family’s fraught experience.
“Is it future, is it past?” asks Mike in episode two of The Return. Agent Dale Cooper—our hero—looks blankly in response, which seems to be his default look after 25 years trapped in the Black Lodge. When the figure of Laura Palmer arrives, to both confirm and deny her identity as the iconic murdered victim from the April 8, 1990 pilot episode, Cooper asks her how much longer he has to remain in the Black Lodge. She approaches him and bends over. She kisses him tenderly and then whispers something in his left ear. And as she does, Cooper’s neutral face gives way to horror. She has told him a secret—which we will never truly come to know even after 18 episodes of The Return—and this secret mostly likely has to do with the true nature of time.
In a later episode, the Log Lady makes a phone call to Deputy Hawk. Noticeably unwell, she tells him that she is about to die. She’s suffering from cancer. The Log Lady was one of the most beloved characters from the first two seasons, a lady who carried a log, which spoke to her in cryptic koans. During the filming of The Return, the actress who played the Log Lady, Catherine Coulson, died. So too did several other actors. Not to mention David Bowie, who was scheduled to come back on the show, but passed away the previous year.
In The Return there’s no escape from the actual 25 years that has elapsed between seasons. Characters who were once high school kids, now turned into middle-aged faces and bodies. Matinee idol good looks eclipsed by biological realism. They weathered with you.
Electronic devices in The Return also straddle different decades. Scenes are filled with flip-phones and smartphones, Skype calls and hand written letters. Every mode of communication exists at once; bewildered at each other, the way the future is bewildered by the past.
- Then, suddenly, a scene’s duration is determined by the real time it takes for a cigarette to be finished. Or, for a floor to be swept clean. David Lynch is known to be a fan of the Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, who imbued his camera with trained patience. Small gestures of work or domesticity that invoked the sacred. In The Return, extreme violence and horror segue into these drawn out tracts of trembling time.
Which is to say: it’s impossible to guess what will happen after each scene concludes. Laws of causal storytelling do not reign. The logic, instead, is that of a dream. Past, present, and future are discharged of their usual sequencing.
Nowhere is this more tactile than in the eighth episode of The Return. We go from black screen to the first successful test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. The mushroom cloud is observed from a high, approaching angle. Then, the camera enters the cloud—to traverse ectoplasmic time and space, burrowing between molecules and galaxies. It’s the fission version of Stanley Kubrick’s Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A journey to the heart of American darkness. Eight minutes of atonal abstraction as creation myth.
The pandemic has imploded time. I don’t recall days or weeks. The horizon no longer consists of future vanishing points: When will I next see my parents? What happens to all the grounded airplanes? Was that the end of globalization? It renders the present unstable and newly unknowable. Is it future, is it past?
David Lynch himself has taken to enacting daily rituals, such as broadcasting the weather from his Los Angeles garden shed every morning (it’s invariably sunny). Or picking out numbers in a makeshift lottery. Ritual in an endless sea of sameness seems to be Lynch’s improvised talisman. According to the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, “the present era is ‘proto,’ but a preface to what, we do not know.”
At the very end of The Return, Agent Cooper seems to have saved Laura Palmer from her mythic gruesome death. He locates her avatar, Carrie Page, in a separate timeline. Together, they visit Laura’s childhood house, where terrible things once befell her, things that were a consequence of that atomic bomb test in 1945. But, a horrific realization strikes Agent Cooper in the middle of the road. He stutters, and exasperates, “What year is this?” Carrie hears Laura’s name from within the house, and lets out one of television’s most terrifying screams. The house’s lights short. Fade to black.
I’ve been repeating that line again and again over the last months: “What year is this?” Time is scientifically unknown in a way that space is not. Perhaps that is why time, more than space, belongs to theologians and filmmakers. Perhaps this is why Twin Peaks: The Return is my talisman with and against time.