Like a Good Puzzle, The New 'Twin Peaks' is Meant to Frustrate You
The revival of ‘Twin Peaks’ has us role-playing detectives once again.
All images courtesy of Showtime
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
David Lynch once said this about how the original Twin Peaks works with the viewer in an interview: "The mind, being a detective, pieces these fragments together and comes to a conclusion. […] The audience knows more than the characters know. So when the audience looks at something, it adds what it knows to that look."
Given the appropriate setup, Lynch suggests, and we all become embroiled in a whodunit: What does this symbol mean? Who is missing here? What is that noise? Twin Peaks leans into the audience's capability to be a detective. After all, it was a mystery. Who killed Laura Palmer?
All mysteries are a kind of game. They're puzzles, and they're also three-card monte. What could be lingering in this part of the world? Who is hiding their love? Where was the culprit on the night of the murder?You're given pieces bit-by-bit and Tetris-like they fall into place. For some audience members, the revelation needs to come. Others, more detective-like, solve the game immediately.
Twin Peaks is the kind of game that gets inside of you. You think about the show all the time: when you're driving to work, when you're in the shower, when you're cooking dinner. Now, two decades later, you can listen to theory podcasts, read forums or blogs, and tweet to your heart's desire about what you think is happening to, or what will happen to, Special Agent Dale Cooper.
Twin Peaks, like its pseudo-progeny Lost and Westworld, wants you to puzzle it out (or at least to hope, in your heart of hearts, that you can). Like the Dark Souls or Metal Gear Solid franchises, the very act of going through the motions of sitting there are following along never seems to be enough in the face of Twin Peaks. It demands to be parsed and pulled apart. It wants you to pay attention and then, if that isn't enough, to go read the wiki.
What's striking about the newest season of Twin Peaks is how it positions the detective-viewer. Hollywood cinema has always possessed what scholars call the "invisible style" to some degree. What that means, put simply, is that traditional filmmaking never wants to break the realism of movement and action within the scene. We, as viewers, have to imagine the situation we are viewing as real, and to achieve that effect a film can never reveal the apparatus that creates it. The easiest example of this is when a mirror appears facing the camera on-screen. We don't see a camera staring back at us in the mirror, but not because the camera isn't there; it's about the filmmaking itself always being invisible. Hold on this idea. I'll get back to it.
To build a mystery, you need a set of rules. If you're Sherlock Holmes, those rules are simple: What is possible? What is probable? Eliminate everything that isn't the cause of the mystery. Solved.
If you're a game like Firewatch, those rules are about connecting the dots between different events and data points. How the player connects those dots, and how the characters do the same, makes all the difference as to how that mystery plays out from player to player. The true beauty of that game is that the final revelations are like a sigh of relief. Finally, I thought, someone has come along to line it all up for me.
Twin Peaks: The Return continues to be a mystery, but that mystery is not about what happened. In the first series, things occurred before the viewer arrived on the scene, and like a traditional mystery it was all about doing the detective work of putting two and two together to make four. This new season is about what is happening. It is asking the audience to "add what they know" to their look in a more aggressive and demanding way. What occurred before we arrived on the scene doesn't matter very much. To understand what is happening moment-to-moment in the show, you need to be a very active participant who is listening to sounds, watching the screen closely, and calling back all of the information the show has given you so far.
To keep us in that moment, the show completely dispenses with that idea of invisible style that I mentioned before. For example, there is a moment in the third episode of this new season in which Dale Cooper is trapped in a room with a woman. He's trying to accomplish a task, and she's trying to get him to be quiet, and time is constantly shifting. Or, rather, the frame rate of the show is skipping forward and shuddering backward over and over again, confusing the viewer about the linearity of time and exactly when and how things are occurring in this room. That's the cinematic apparatus in front of us; we're watching David Lynch—knowingly, and with purpose—make this whole structure visible just as if we saw that camera looking back at us in the mirror.
The new series of Twin Peaks is a game that transcends the traditional mystery. It isn't just about putting the pieces together to learn about what happened and who made it happen. Instead, Twin Peaks: The Return is about making the thing we are seeing, this thing in front of us, sensible. We are not just picking up on the story breadcrumbs; we are learning the rules, the mechanics, for this object as they are presented to us on the fly.
Twin Peaks: The Return is a special kind of object that complicates its precursor while troubling the distinctions between audience, creator, mystery, and the media form of television itself. It is weird: not just in content, but in what it asks us to do. David Lynch is demanding that we play along, and we're heading somewhere beyond where we've all been before.