Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: The Return Part 13 - "What story is that, Charlie?"

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 13 - "What story is that, Charlie?"


Somewhere between watching last week's and this week's episode I finally got a grip (I think) on the shape of this series. (Hey, it only took twelve hours.) Nothing big - well, nothing big big, like no earth-shattering twist on the level of a quasi-comatose Cooper popping out in Dougie Jones' place in Las Vegas - is going to happen again until the finale. True, part 8 is already something of an outlier, but look what it actually achieved: not so much a crazy narrative development as a dazzling stylistic detour (whose explicit plot relevance, if any, probably won't be revealed until later). And I don't think we're headed for another part 8 any time soon, though I'm admittedly less certain about that. In a way, this is an odd statement to make right now: aren't I just repeating what I've been saying since the beginning? I have, more or less, voiced such views about Dougie/Cooper (and, with the series more than two-thirds over, I think I've won that bet). But I thought other parts of the narrative would pull the rug out form under us, or rather pull back the curtain and reveal a hidden reality or shocking secret that reoriented our understanding of what we were watching.

This created a nervous dynamic each week: particularly eventful episodes would excite me, inspiring me to think, "Oh boy, we're really onto something big now!" while more low-key episodes would frustratingly evoke the feeling of being stuck in a rut. But after mulling over last week's perplexing, frequently perverse installment I finally sighed in a mixture of relief and resignation. I've always said that David Lynch's notion of an ongoing narrative is different from Mark Frost's (and many other television writers'): less a cycle of beginnings, middles, and ends - existing within an overarching narrative perhaps, but still full of self-contained units - and more an extension of a single middle as long as possible. I should have listened to myself, despite Frost's deceptive proclivity to sprinkle breadcrumbs along the three-and-a-half month-long path. Set-ups and payoffs do exist, characters and storylines have moved (if not exactly advanced), and there are a few mini-arcs within the larger narrative. For the most part, though, The Return wants to linger and doodle between A and B, not leap from A to B to C and onwards.

So the best way to enjoy each week is simply to sit back and let it happen without too many questions or expectations. This isn't a slow-moving train, it's a train that has stopped and calmly rests in place, partly to refuel for the final destination (the terminal point within sight on the horizon, yet frustratingly no closer as each hour passes), but also to allow us to wander and explore this particular way station. In that sense, those who grumble that Lynch stretched a nine-hour story into an eighteen-hour one aren't necessarily wrong, but that's the point. Don't rush the journey, we'll resume eventually; for now, just enjoy the scenery. You'll miss it when it's gone.

I suppose I'm exaggerating a bit. On paper, there's quite a lot learned, resolved, and expanded this week. The first half-hour is devoted almost entirely to the two Coopers (after Kyle MacLachlan grabbed just a few seconds of screentime in "Let's rock."). Dougie parties with the Mitchums and their pink trio (his demeanor is both enthusiastic and limp), but Mr. C is the real star here. If fans hone in on one point tonight (well, aside from the climactic troll, one of the show's funniest yet most heartfelt in-jokes), I suspect they'll focus on the doppelganger's Montana adventure. The Lynch/Frost spin on crime syndicates has always been uniquely wacky, but this passage combines off-kilter goofiness with somber presentation in a fashion both arresting and perplexing. I'm not a hundred percent sure they knock this out of the park. I laughed at the mob composed of defeated arm-wrestlers, but this laughter was mostly at the conceit, which is almost fairy tale-like in its (anti-)hero's challenge, rather than the execution, which I didn't find particularly menacing or uproarious. I liked it but it also left me a little cold, which was probably the point (I was reminded of this humorous recent tweet). Like a lot of The Return, the encounter is imaginative and entertaining but doesn't quite reverberate with the same uncanny vibrations as, say, Lost Highway.

I'm also admittedly still ambivalent (at best) about how the Owl Cave ring has been adopted into a more Frostian mythos (it's also notable just how much mythology is expounded through straight dialogue this season). We actually see the ring dissolve on Ray's finger - the first time it has dematerialized (or materialized for that matter) in such explicit fashion - before Ray's corpse appears in the Red Room and the one-armed man places the ring on the shell-table. Alongside the Dougie incident, this seems to suggest that anyone wearing the ring when they are killed (or, in Dougie's case, disappeared) will be conveyed to the Lodge. I'm not clear if the authors are simply disregarding Teresa's more mundane, extended use, or how exactly any of this relates to Frost's Secret History in which figures like Richard Nixon don the ring decades before their own deaths (if not their own downfalls). And while I tend to think Frost had more of a hand in this turn toward a relatively straightforward explanation - "the ring conveys doomed people to the Lodge" - it's at the very least something Lynch has allowed to happen, despite his frequently stated preference for obscurity. I wonder why?

Perhaps the most interesting part of this generally pretty interesting sequence is Richard Horne's appearance amidst the gang watching Ray's execution on a huge surveillance screen. We still don't technically know either of Richard's parents but we're already 99% sure of Audrey being his mom, and now evil Cooper being his dad is inching toward the upper percentages. Will father and son join forces before Mr. C leaves the compound? If not, this would be one hell of a non sequitur, but then again Mr. C is heading to Twin Peaks, the last place Richard wants to return to. Besides, why is Richard there in the first place? How does he know these people, why did he go here of all places, what would be his next step if Cooper hadn't shown up? Is Red - and the whole Sparkle operation - involved with this gang? Admittedly, I don't have any firm idea where this is going but I'm intrigued. Do I want answers, or is it more fun being confused?

That question arises again when we reunite with Richard's other probable parent. I know the Audrey/Charlie situation is already one of the most controversial developments in Twin Peaks, but "What story is that, Charlie?" (both the line itself and the episode it titles) confirms my fascination with this scenario. Part 12 is the first episode I haven't rewatched before its follow-up, but I did give serious consideration to just revisiting Audrey's debut scene. I told myself that it might be my last chance to watch their interaction without context, but obviously I was wrong - if anything, Audrey's screentime tonight only opens more questions and possibilities. Is Audrey experiencing an ongoing (twenty-five year) delusion, with Charlie her patient psychiatrist playing along? Is she existing in a sort of bardo state (either because she's still in a coma or maybe even because she died at some point after giving birth to Richard)? Is the couple playing a weird game, a kind of mutual performance art or real-time activity, Dungeons and Dragons meets Scenes From a Marriage? Is there no "aha!" explanation, but rather a surreal, purposefully inexplicable absurdity (Glenn Kenny compared last week's scene to Ionesco), with plenty of allegorical resonance but no puzzle-piecing potential? I love the disorientation of the dialogue, the idiosyncrasy of the set design, the odd knowingness-yet-unknowingness of the dialogue. As far as the writing itself goes, this is maybe the most Lynchian material all season.

Incidentally, the day/night intervals suggest it's now twenty-four hours later, yet it seems like only a few minutes have passed and Audrey still hasn't left for the Road House. I didn't check up on her costume, but I'll bet she's still wearing the same clothes too. While some viewers might point to this as proof that her scene exists in another dimension or fantasy space, it's actually part of a larger pattern (similar observations emerged about Diane's costume last week, and Lucy's in earlier episodes, suggesting scenes in disparate episodes were originally intended to take place on the same day). This is probably the week where the way Twin Peaks toys with time becomes absolutely explicit and undeniable. I've already noted that far more than two days have passed since Truman saying "October 1 is two days from now," but we receive our final proof when Bobby arrives at the diner to tell Big Ed (hey, finally Big Ed!!) that they found Major Briggs' clues earlier in this very day! Without a doubt, the series has been presenting scenes out of chronological order, not necessarily within storylines but certainly between them (and sometimes within characters' arcs, like Bobby in the above case). People have slowly picked up on this for weeks, and even a meticulous timeline on the dugpa forum was forced to incorporate this screwy sequencing into its layout.

Hell, I'll predict right now that in another episode or two (despite at least one nighttime interval at the diner) we'll find Becky seated in a diner booth, paper napkin tucked into her shirt as she ravenously satiates a Sparkle-fueled appetite, complaining about Stephen through a mouthful of cherry pie (while her mom lends a sympathetic if weary ear, hovering between taking a seat and remaining on her feet to attend to other customers). This won't mean it took Becky two days to drive from the trailer park after Shelly offered her a slice of pie - it will mean Lynch is placing these scenes where he thinks they will be most effective. Or is that the reason why? I do think such intuitive maneuvers inform what we're seeing - he's a director more concerned with emotional beats than hyperfocused narrative logic - but is there something else going on here too? Viewers have predicted alternate universes not just between locations but within them, as well as dream realities embedded inside certain characters' consciousnesses (Cooper, now Audrey, maybe even Jerry!).

By this point, I'm pretty firmly resistant to all of these ideas but the question does remain. Sure, Lynch allowed himself wiggle room in post-production, but is there also a larger pattern at play, a broader canvas being painted? After all, he could do a better job disguising these chronological holes if he wanted to. A little post-dubbing here, a useful cutaway there, and we'd never notice inconvenient dates and times refusing to line up. Instead, Lynch rubs our face in these inconsistencies, provoking hyperattentive viewers (and historically Twin Peaks has plenty of those, as he well knows). Is it even fair to attribute this entirely to Lynch (and editor Duwayne Dunham)? Was the story in fact designed this way from the start, in full collaboration with Frost? A lot of circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise, but because we don't know where it's going we can't say.

More concretely, this confused timeline further undercuts any sense of a propulsive narrative engine. That's one reason (despite all the important events that occur within) "What story is that, Charlie?" only reinforces the sense of delayed development (let alone denouement). Another reason is that much of what does take place - especially the Vegas story - plays like it's parodying the entire notion of "plot." I remain delighted by Dougie/Cooper's adventures, as yet again he disarms a would-be assassin through a mixture of luck, coincidence, spiritual guidance, and goofy, willfully perverse authorial conceit. This material cheerfully breaks many rules of storytelling, featuring a largely passive hero, an endless array of deus ex machinas, and a cheerful cycling through contrived challenges and even more contrived escapes. Because the texture of these scenes is so charming (especially, but not only, MacLachlan's pitch-perfect performance) said contrivance only adds to the joy. This isn't exactly Lynch and Frost laughing at us, it's them asking us to laugh along with them (albeit, perhaps, at ourselves).

Besides, the Counter Esperanto podcast just honed in on a crucial aspect of this character that gets overlooked in the discussion of him being a blank slate or broken soul. In a sense, isn't Cooper's condition - while not the most amenable to viewer identification - fairly akin to Lynch's ideal state: a pure-bliss buddha so in tune with the essence of his surroundings (if not always their physical requirements) that memory, proactive action, and verbal communication seem almost unnecessary? There are probably valid counterpoints (for one, Lynch aspires to and advocates an advanced state of consciousness that encompasses the all rather than seeking the void), but this is a compelling reframing of the way the character usually gets discussed. Whatever the spiritual implications, undergirding almost all of the Dougie/Cooper material (aside from the Mitchums' casino beatdown, the "1-1-9" mom, and especially Ike the Spike's first victims - i.e. the few Vegas scenes that our hero isn't in), there is a sweetness that feels entirely sincere.

That, I guess, makes the perfect segue into the penultimate scene. Lynch and Frost must know exactly what they are doing when the Road House announcer, previously glimpsed only before the grandiose Nine Inch Nails, reappears to introduce................................."James Hurley!!" Cue the beleaguered fan non-favorite who launches into Twin Peaks' most mocked musical number, "Just You and I." The backing singers look even more humorously anachronistic as rando stand-ins for Donna and Maddy, and Lynch is determined to let the entire song play out (not even with credits rolling over)! Yet the show has far more than cheerful trollery in mind. James Marshall never winks once - this is an entirely (even defiantly) earnest reprisal - as we cut back and forth between the singer and a smiling, weeping woman holding her engagement ring aloft. A hip-to-be-square delight in perverse anti-fanservice bleeds seamlessly into a heart-on-his-sleeve commitment to eternal innocence, world-weary but unbowed. I don't know that the moody biker is, has always, or has ever been cool, but at least one person in the Road House thinks he is, and you'd have to be made of stone not to share their relief in this romance (also, I always actually liked this song, damn it).

The episode ends not there, but with Ed, a character who gets no such relief. We've waited twenty-five years to find out if Ed and Norma got together, and the answer appears to be no. Ed's road-gazing solitude, one of the most gorgeously Hopperesque shot/reverse shots of the series so far, is bleak and sumptuous, bittersweet but beautiful, as sad as it is simply resigned. There's still a lot we don't know about why a half-century couldn't draw these star-crossed lovers together (I'll concur with every single other viewer, and I can assume this without having actually conferred with any of them, that Norma's present squeeze is an incredible drag). Is Nadine still married to Ed (she seems more interested in Jacoby, whose very odd exchange with her rivals Audrey/Charlie for intensely awkward interaction)? Is Norma married to this business manager, or are they just dating? Did Ed and Norma spend any time together, and then drift apart as Bobby and Shelly apparently did? And finally...even after fifty years, is there still hope? Maybe, maybe not, but there is still time. Let's be patient.

Previous: "Let's rock."

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