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Twin Peaks episode 6: Watching this season is like endlessly changing channels on your TV

But in a good way!

Twin Peaks
Laura Dern is here, and she’s playing [SPOILER].
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Ever since that shot of Sarah Palmer watching a wildlife documentary in the Twin Peaks premiere, I’ve been toying with the idea that the whole show is, on some level, about the act of watching television, of sitting back passively and taking a story in, rather than trying to become a part of it.

On its surface, the season’s sixth episode would seem to support this hypothesis the least. It doesn’t feature scenes of characters watching TV, or really any screens of any sort. It features a lengthy sequence where Cooper — still in the guise of Dougie Jones — draws ladders and staircases and swirling black vortexes all over the insurance case files he’s been tasked with completing at home. It occasionally feels as if it takes place in an era pre-television, until you’re reminded that it’s taking place very close to our present.

But this episode also captured a lazy rhythm that the rest of the season has been pushing toward. It really felt, at times, like sitting on your couch and flicking through the channels, looking for something to watch. Except we’re not the ones running the remote. David Lynch is the one in control of the remote. And just when you might feel invested in one story, he flips away to something else.

Is that a little cruel? Maybe. But the series suggests something in the juxtapositions anyway. Or maybe we’re all like the people who do stop to watch in this episode — the bystanders of a horrible hit-and-run accident who simply stand around amid the gory aftermath, even as an old man named Carl (played by the great Harry Dean Stanton) seems to implore all of them with his eyes to do something.

And then — blip! — the channel changes.

Twin Peaks is trying the patience of some of its viewers

Twin Peaks
“Don’t die.”

The viewers of this season of Peaks seem to be split roughly down the middle. There are those, like me, who are enjoying its weird meandering and occasional feints toward openly trolling its audience, because the show’s naked emotionalism and bizarre sense of humor provide all the undercurrent we need to keep going.

And then there are those whose patience is being tried by all of the above. Twin Peaks has never been about straightforward, completely coherent storytelling, but the original series did have more forward momentum than this. This is the second week in a row where the biggest plot development in an episode was Cooper-as-Dougie (whom I’m just going to call Dougie, if you don’t mind) learning a new phrase or two.

If you’re not as into the idea of Dougie standing in for a whole theory of the self, or how we construct our identities, or whatever, I get it. The story is taking its sweet time getting to anything, and Dougie is the one story that’s mostly moving in a standard progression. So if you’re feeling bogged down in it, well, your patience is probably starting to fray.

But even setting Dougie aside — and I’m still digging everything about him — the slow, kaleidoscopic view of these characters and this world that Twin Peaks is offering is really something else. It’s not that the show is anti-viewer, or anti-plot, or anything like that. It’s that it keeps flitting between a bunch of different shows, all of which are progressing at their own rhythms, then drawing little connections here and there, when and where it can.

So you might be watching that scene with the hit-and-run, only to realize that the yellow flame rising from the dead boy’s body looks very like the little green torches that Dougie has seen to signify when someone is lying, or when a slot machine is ready to pay out a jackpot. Or you might note the way the coin flip that seems to hang in mid-air for eons (before landing in a man’s mouth!) feels exactly like something that would play out in the Black Lodge.

I’ll be the first to admit that telling a story this way runs the risk of trying certain viewers’ patience — especially if it never adds up to anything concrete (and Twin Peaks is not really known for adding up to easy explanations). But seeing it done as well as it’s being done here, or seeing how casually the show will drop in the reveal of the oft-mentioned, never-before-seen Diane (played, as long theorized by fans, by Laura Dern), or Hawk finding what appear to be more pages of Laura Palmer’s diary, in the middle of everything else, makes me enjoy all the more every little connection being drawn.

And the biggest one of them all? There’s a whole lot of murder happening.

Something has gone very sour in the world of Twin Peaks — a place that was already pretty sour

Twin Peaks
Sad things are afoot.

Nearly every episode has featured a sequence like the one in this episode, where a little person races into a woman’s office and starts wantonly stabbing her. We’d previously seen him getting the order to kill this woman — and Dougie! — in an earlier scene, and given Mike’s earlier warning to Dougie (“Don’t die”), the murderer’s very presence carried with it certain ominous undertones.

But this miniseries has been suffused with awful, sudden, violent deaths. Now, granted, this has always been a show that was kicked off with the death of a teenage girl, with her killer ultimately revealed to be her own father, possessed by a dark presence, who had abused and raped her from an early age.

Yet the miniseries has taken this to a new level. Murder and death will come out of nowhere, destroying everything, and the characters have as little warning of it as we would in real life.

Yes, viewers are shown the assassin getting the image of the woman and Dougie earlier in the episode, but enough time passes — or Lynch flips through enough channels — between that scene and the murder of the woman that it recedes a bit in the memory. So when it arrives, it feels terrible and random. (Also beautifully Lynchian: the assassin cooing slightly over his bent knife after committing murder. He really loved it!)

This is, I would argue, a good thing. What TV does too often is numb this sort of crime, numb this sort of pain. It turns death into just another plot point, and if you get bored, you switch the channel to something else. But by replicating watching TV with the remote in hand, flipping over to something new when you start to zone out, Lynch forces you to pay attention to all of this. When horrible death can arrive at any time, in any storyline, it ceases to feel like a plot point and more like a thing that can happen out of nowhere.

In its original incarnation, Twin Peaks was uniquely tuned into the medium it existed within, both a part of the greater TV landscape and utterly unlike anything else. What if this Twin Peaks is doing the same thing? What if all that random death exists on the same continuum as the random death on countless other TV series? What if this story isn’t pointing forward, but outward, toward the rest of television itself? The offices of Dougie’s insurance firm, for instance, look a little like the offices of Mad Men’s Sterling-Cooper, don’t you think?

I wouldn’t want every show on TV to be like this, but I’m glad this one is, and I’m glad Lynch is the one holding the remote. When this miniseries is all said and done, we may look back on it and realize that it was about all of the ways television desensitizes us to the world all along.