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‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Gets Cosmic Conflict Disturbingly Right
“Should we watch Twin Peaks: The Return?”
Now that all 18 episodes of David Lynch’s long-awaited television series are available for binge-viewing on Showtime, I’m fumbling with insufficient answers to this question. As I formulate replies, I feel myself fracture into three distinct personalities:
(1) The Twin Peaks fanboy who spent a quarter of a century dreaming of new episodes.
(2) The film student who finds Lynch’s movies and television difficult to parse.
(3) The Christian whose conscience is troubled, because the show’s imaginative brilliance is tainted by graphic scenes of violence—particularly sexual violence.
There’s no easy answer.
David Lynch doesn’t mean for this to be a comfortable ride. Twin Peaks: The Return is, in fact, about a man split into three personas—possibly more. While the original 1990–91 series began by whispering “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and then asked “Can law enforcement stop an evil spirit?” this sequel series asks “Can multiple manifestations of an FBI agent be reconciled into one human being, healed and whole?”
This theme won’t surprise Lynch’s fans. In his book of reflections on creativity, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch expresses his desire to see human beings overcome divided minds and pursue lives of integrity. (He prefers the word “unity.”)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who need it, here’s a quick review of what preceded The Return.
The Story So Far
It begins: In the first episode of the original Twin Peaks, a fisherman discovers a popular high school girl dead on the riverbank behind his Eastern Washington home. The resulting investigation leads FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) to uncover connections between Laura Palmer’s murder and other unsolved mysteries, thus exposing drug dealers, a prostitution ring, corrupt politicians, and—worst of all—demonic forces.
Along the way, Cooper develops complicated relationships with local eccentrics, law enforcement, a supernatural giant, and an infatuated high school girl. His colleagues discover that he’s more than just a detective—his bureau division focuses on paranormal “Blue Rose” cases. (What could be more unnatural than a blue rose?)
When Lynch took a mid-series hiatus, the show fell into mediocrity. But many viewers had already bailed, preferring the security of formulaic crime shows. This was not a world of “happily ever after” or cases closed. Every question answered raised several more. And it demanded that audiences entertain the possibility that, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The finale presented us with two especially maddening riddles. One transformed the nature of our beloved Agent Cooper; the other involved something like a dream, in which Laura Palmer promised Cooper she’d see him “in 25 years.” Prophecy!
Then, a feature film: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a big-screen sequel, catapulted audiences beyond TV’s boundaries. It provided more background on the FBI’s Blue Rose investigations but also dramatized evils that Lynch had previously left to our imagination. They were worse than we’d thought.
Now… The Return!
The new Showtime series settles the old debate about whether that feature-length horror movie was really necessary: It was.
The new chapters reveal the importance of one memorable sequence, a confrontation between Cooper, his wacky superior officer Gordon Cole (Lynch himself), and a long-lost agent named Philip Jeffries (David Bowie, once again a man who falls to earth). This scene repeatedly haunts The Return, as if Bowie himself wants to rise from the dead for a cameo.
It would take a book to map out the elaborate web of storylines connected to that scene. Let’s leave it at this: Like Jeffries, Cooper is now a man lost between worlds in three distinct personas, all brilliantly played by MacLachlan.
First, there’s Cooper’s monstrous doppelganger—a rapist and murderer dressed like a Satanic Johnny Cash. If he’s onscreen, you might want to fast-forward.
Second, there’s Douglas “Dougie” Jones, an insurance agent, family man, and village idiot. Like Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner, he’s a holy fool, stumbling in a semi-catatonic state, intrigued only by reminders of his FBI past. (Even his name is an echo of Cooper’s enthrallment with the Northwest’s towering Douglas firs.)
Meanwhile, Cooper’s true self? He’s trapped in a red-curtained purgatory, confounded by cryptic messages from benevolent spirit guides.
The Return, then, isn’t ultimately a new string of murders for Cooper to solve (though bodies are turning up everywhere). It’s a multi-genre critique of the iconic Western hero: This suit-and-tie lawman wants to save the day, but he’s too busy warring with his own divided self, incapable of fulfilling his ambitions of solving—or undoing—crimes that grieve the world.
David Lynch’s Televised Revolution
Asking “Should I watch Twin Peaks?” is kind of like asking “Should I watch television?” In this series, Lynch has embraced the best and worst of the medium, celebrating everything he loves.
And he loves it all: those lovers’ quarrels and betrayals in cheesy daytime soaps; those prime-time melodramas about family dynasties; those supporting-cast goofballs in assembly-line sitcoms; those grisly CSI procedurals; and those thrilling Western gunslinger showdowns. He weaves them together into a compelling—and personal—whole. Lynch doesn’t imitate; he innovates. His style is so unique that the term “Lynchian” has become ubiquitous in film criticism, describing a descent from a shiny surface into subterranean rot.
The first two movies born in Lynch’s imagination were 1977’s Eraserhead (a hybrid of horror and comedy that Stanley Kubrick called his “favorite film”) and 1984’s Blue Velvet (a descent from an idealized white-picket-fence America into an obscene criminal underworld). They set the sinister tone for all that would follow. Even The Straight Story—his wonderful, G-rated Disney film—has moments that resonate with spiritual disturbances that are distinctly, well, Lynchian.
But Twin Peaks now stands as the centerpiece of his career: a mural-sized self-portrait made of memories, fears, fetishes, and dreams. TV shows and movies like The X-Files, Donnie Darko, Lost, and The Leftovers continue to evince the original series’ influence. It is arguably the most expansive and multi-faceted artistic vision in American filmmaking.
But I’m still dodging the question “Should we watch it?” Here’s my one-word answer for Christian viewers: “Maybe.”
A Religious (but Disturbing) Vision
In Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says he was raised Presbyterian and expresses respect for religion. “There’s truth there,” he says. He endorses not a religion, but a “practice”—Transcendental Meditation—as the path to world peace.
As a Christian, I disagree, but I respect his testimony of how meditation saved him from depression and anger. (“I often took out this anger on my first wife,” he confesses.) And Christian traditions often celebrate meditation, pointing to Christ’s own solitary retreats for prayer and fasting.
In Twin Peaks’ prevailing mode of lament, I find meaningful correlations with Christian understandings of sin and redemption. The overlap is strongest, however, in Lynch’s depiction of spiritual warfare. We see a villain’s deathbed repentance and deliverance. Cooper’s strongest allies are like guardian angels, his worst nemesis not a man but a demon.
In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), David Foster Wallace wrote that Lynch’s villains are “literally, possessed. … They have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person.” Wallace went on to describe evil in Lynch’s narratives as a force that “moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc.”
Thus, Lynch’s characters—like real human beings—can’t be reduced to “good guys” and “bad guys.” Perhaps Jesus was thinking of such spiritual forces when he voiced his prayer from the cross: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Evil storms through Twin Peaks like dark weather in ways that inspire empathy for the weak. As I watch, I feel the Spirit’s prompting: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Still, I cannot casually recommend any Twin Peaks manifestation. Lynch’s explicit scenes of cruelty (murder, sexual assault, you name it) and spiritual persecution (demon possession) could do more harm than good. “Lynch’s last name is strangely appropriate,” says a friend of mine. “His art feels like something that is done to you.” For some, that will ring true. Proceed with extreme caution and conscience.
Remember, though, that while Ephesians 5:11 exhorts believers to abstain from “the fruitless deeds of darkness,” it concludes with compelling instructions: “Expose them.” Lynch’s art doesn’t flinch in “exposing” human folly. Nor does he condone or glamorize it. If anyone finds his characters’ evils appealing, the problem is in the viewer, not the show.
Flannery O’Connor’s words seem particularly helpful here:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
A World I Recognize
If art’s purpose is to hold up a mirror to the truth of human experience, Lynch’s mirror reflects more than most. Twin Peaks testifies of a cosmic struggle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
In this sense, I am grateful for Twin Peaks. It feels like home because I’ve grown up in the Pacific Northwest, but also because Lynch’s wonderland of wayward teens, inadequate cops, corrupt politicians, and magical owls seems as relevant to me as Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Lasting friendships were born in the crowded TV lounge of my Seattle Pacific University dormitory, where, episode by episode, we laughed and screamed like kids in an amusement-park haunted house. We made pilgrimages to the show’s famous diner for Cooper’s combination: coffee and cherry pie. We obsessed over “Whodunit?” but we were even more invested in discussing our beliefs about angels, demons, heaven, and hell. Some even shared stories of surviving family violence, sexual abuse, and spiritual persecution.
I find Lynch’s work to be a credibly discomforting testimony of horror, loss, and grief. His rare scenes of joy and reconciliation are similarly persuasive—the contrast makes them radiant. But Twin Peaks ultimately aims to arouse our suspicions that we participate in a cosmic conflict. The tragedy of Dale Cooper bravely asserts that no gun-slinging lawman can completely close our cases, and no TV hero has what it takes to solve our mysteries. It suggests spiritual connections between the atomic bomb, domestic violence, drug abuse, and girls lured into prostitution. By The Return’s conclusion, we have heard in Laura Palmer’s glass-shattering scream the cry of a world that cannot save itself. As we strive for justice with our divided minds and hearts, all Creation groans.
Jeffrey Overstreet has been writing about movies for Christianity Today since 2001. He teaches courses on creative writing and film at Seattle Pacific University, and he is the author of four novels including Auralia's Colors and a "memoir of dangerous moviegoing" called Through a Screen Darkly. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University.