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Twin Peaks episode 9: the more questions the show answers, the more mysteries it creates

The new miniseries is a great reminder of why the “mystery show” is such a powerful type of TV.

Twin Peaks
Bill Hastings has answers. You might not like them.
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.

One of the most common ways to talk about Twin Peaks’ influence on television is to discuss how it made possible the genre I call “the mystery show.”

A mystery show isn’t about solving a mystery, not really. Yes, it invites the audience to play along at home and try to fill in the blanks surrounding “Who killed Laura Palmer?” or “What’s up with the alien conspiracy hidden in the FBI’s X-Files?” or “What is the Island?” But at its center is the idea that mystery only begets more mystery. Once you answer one question, dozens more spring up. The mystery show is about the contemplation of mystery and the idea that the deeper you go into any question, the more likely it is that you will open up a mineshaft into the darkness of the truly unknowable.

This aversion to providing once-and-for-all answers has not always sat well with the American viewing public. ABC forced David Lynch and Mark Frost to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer long before they wanted to on Twin Peaks’ first go-around, and just the fact that something like Lost didn’t conclude with the showrunners sitting down to tell America everything (opting instead to conclude with a bunch of oblique half-answers) incensed a lot of the show’s fans.

But I think looking for answers is almost always the wrong approach to the mystery show, because the answers you seek are going to be either unsatisfying or unnerving. So it goes with Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks. The deeper we get into any sort of “answer” regarding what’s going on, the more unsettling the whole prospect becomes.

I’ve always thought of Twin Peaks as capturing a very specific sort of atmosphere, one that involves being all alone in some unfamiliar place, outdoors, in the middle of the night. You think you know what’s around the next bend, but you can’t be sure.

In almost every case, you do know. You round that bend, and there’s home, or your campsite, or a friendly face. But on Twin Peaks, you might round that bend and see nothing at all.

And we humans, as a rule, don’t really love to contemplate that void.

“Part 9” offers some of the most straightforward “answers” of the whole miniseries so far

I’m put in mind of that void because “Part 9” is an episode all about what happens when you go seeking answers you might not want to find.

For instance: Principal Bill Hastings (the Buckhorn, South Dakota, resident arrested for murder way back in the two-part premiere) finally offers an explanation — of sorts — for why the headless body of Maj. Garland Briggs showed up with the head of a dead woman named Ruth and plenty of evidence tying Hastings to the crime.

Hastings and Ruth were really into the idea of extra-dimensional travel to a place they called “The Zone,” but which seems to be our very familiar Red Room/Black Lodge. (You can read all about their adventures on this website Showtime put together.) They finally made the trip into the Lodge one evening, thanks to some numbers Ruth provided; there, they made contact with Briggs, who promptly floated into the sky and lost his head. Ruth died, and the tableau Buckhorn police found in Ruth’s apartment — her head and Briggs’s body — was the result.

Twin Peaks
Evil Cooper has seen better days.

So, sure, that’s an explanation. You can more or less pin a timeline to it, and you could maybe even make a little diorama of it if you wanted to (though maybe don’t do that). It’s another way for the series to get around the death of a major player from the original series — Don S. Davis, who played Major Briggs — but it’s also a decidedly unsettling story. Indeed, it’s not an explanation that explains anything, because all it does is tell you what happened, while leaving the why completely unexpressed. And the further you go into trying to understand that why, the less you might like what you find.

Consider that Twin Peaks, as a whole, suggests that human adventures are a mere façade atop something deeper and darker and altogether more mysterious. Or consider that it has also suggested that we are the playthings of extra-dimensional beings we can hardly hope to comprehend. You can seek out the Black Lodge (as Hastings and Ruth did), or you can stumble upon it by accident (as Cooper seemingly did in the original series), but one way or another, you’re going to end up in the Lodge if it wants you there.

We like to think we’re driving our own stories, that we’re in control of our lives. But Twin Peaks would argue that none of us is anything more than a vessel for far more primal and terrifying notions, which is true on some level. Even when we have agency over ourselves, we’re the products of histories and psychologies and genetic codes that are vast and unknowable and incomprehensible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be rewarded for what good we do or punished for what evil we do — but it does shake loose the thought that we’re the stars of our own stories.

Questions of duty and responsibility float around the edges of Twin Peaks in both its incarnations. Is Leland Palmer responsible for the death of his daughter, if he was possessed by evil incarnate? The show argues “yes and no,” which is about the least satisfying answer imaginable. But it’s also one worth thinking about. We’re all responsible for our actions. We’re all the products of vast systems that push us toward those actions and make it hard for us to avoid them sometimes. We are simultaneously in control and washed away in the torrent.

As Twin Peaks reaches its midpoint, everybody is grasping at straws

One thing that’s exciting about this Showtime miniseries is that nobody seems to be entirely in control of anything. The FBI is flummoxed by what its investigation is turning up, but Evil Cooper doesn’t seem to always know what his next move should be. The only person who seems to have had a long game is Major Briggs, who left a message for his son — whom he somehow knew would become a police officer, all evidence to the contrary — to find in many years’ time.

With every new episode, the series pulls back slightly further, filling in a few more pieces of the puzzle. But also with every new episode, getting to see that puzzle filled in only makes us understand that we’re not entirely sure where the puzzle’s edges are supposed to be. The picture keeps getting larger, which only makes us realize that while we might see a face or a cloud here, we don’t have any clue what the whole thing is supposed to look like.

Evil Cooper, for instance, survived his gunshot wound in “Part 8” (possibly thanks to his extra-dimensional help), and in “Part 9” he makes his way back to Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch, an Evil Cooper devotee played by Tim Roth. But the gunshot wound has also set back whatever his plan was, and he’s left scrambling to play catch-up. Similarly, the Good Cooper, still living the life of Dougie Jones, finds himself distracted by the strains of “America the Beautiful” while staring at a US flag, before looking into the dark heart of an electrical outlet (which, remember, bore him to this reality out of the Black Lodge).

Twin Peaks
“What happens in season two?” Albert asks. WHAT INDEED!?

Similarly, law enforcement is putting pieces together — and helping us get “explanations” that are none too helpful — but they’re always several steps behind what other characters are doing, even if they manage to catch Ike the Spike, or if Diane seems to be in contact (via text) with the Evil Cooper. You get the feeling that everything will make sense eventually, but also that once something makes “sense,” it will only help us realize how little we understood in the first place.

We’re halfway through the season so far, and with every new episode of this miniseries (which feels more and more like a gift from the TV gods), I’m left gobsmacked both by how casually it keeps filling in the puzzle and by how little I care to see the puzzle completed. I can theorize — doesn’t that ring Ben Horne and Beverly are listening to sound a lot like the ring from the device Major Briggs hid his message in? — but I almost don’t want to. It’s more fun to watch Jerry have a showdown with his foot. (The two battle to a draw.)

The most common misconception about the mystery show is that it’s all about weirdness, about suggesting big ideas that have even bigger answers. And, yes, it’s generally good to have answers somewhere in the mix. But those answers should simultaneously answer nothing at all. They should usually explain “what,” but not “why.” At the center of the mystery show is the unknowable, and how poorly equipped we are to grapple with it.

We often wildly reject art that tries to force us to think about how little we understand about the universe, much less our own lives, or art that tries to get us to think about how little control we truly have. The mystery show, somehow, gets us to think about those ideas in a place where it engages us to treat those ideas as a game. And then when you hear an answer, you realize, all over again, how dark it is in these woods, and how thick the trees.