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Twin Peaks was the only TV show that made sense this summer

The miniseries took place in a broken world yearning for healing. Sound familiar?

Twin Peaks
Dale Cooper is here to take us home.
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.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Twin Peaks — in every one of its several incarnations — is tied up in its inscrutability. Even if you like the show, you like it for its surreal flights of fancy and its nightmare logic, the way that it seeks to explain nothing in concrete terms but maintain a terrifying emotional core.

I felt very differently. Twin Peaks was the only TV show that made sense to me this summer.

I understand, intellectually, the complaints. My friend Alan Sepinwall, for instance, made a long list of storylines that didn’t resolve and stories he felt utilized ineffective or even bad storytelling technique, and I can’t really argue with his points, because he’s literally using things that happened on the show and summarizing them plot point for plot point.

But something about that constant sense of messy irresolution, of the inability to fully understand what had truly happened in many of those storylines, struck me as fundamentally right. The world doesn’t make sense. It feels, increasingly, trapped in a series of storylines that don’t resolve but, instead, peter out in a way that leaves you wondering if you’re trapped in some master narrative dictated by a writers room that doesn’t particularly care if things add up in the end. Centers don’t just fall apart — they dissolve in acid. And all that’s left is an unending darkness that can barely be penetrated by a pair of headlights.

I should probably mention here I find this show incredibly hopeful.

Every week, Twin Peaks was a visit to a different place that was at once unfamiliar and just like our world

Twin Peaks
Into the dark.

If I had to pinpoint just what it was about Twin Peaks that made it feel so essential, it would be the sound, designed by David Lynch himself.

Every week, the episodes would open with the increasingly ominous sounds of electricity humming and sparkling under the Rancho Rosa production card, before giving way to the sounds of wind moaning through trees, and then the familiar theme song by Angelo Badalamenti. It was as if Lynch had found a way to wipe out everything but the world unfolding on your television, to completely orient you within its confines.

That contributed to the feeling Charles Bramesco spoke of at Vox’s sister site, the Verge, wherein it was possible to leave behind this reality, and whatever you found dissatisfying about it, in favor of living inside Lynch and Mark Frost’s reality for an hour every week (and two hours some weeks). It became a kind of palate cleanser from the rest of the world, a way to avoid a reality that seemed to spin ever closer to chaos.

But what made Twin Peaks so vital was its insistence that, no matter what, these questions of evil and suffering and darkness didn’t suddenly arise in the past few months. If you were to engage with the world and humanity’s place within it, you’d see that those questions were always there. Indeed, much of the story of the season — if you can call such a loose, free-floating experience a “story” — involved characters trying to put one thing right and restore some sort of balance, only to find balance not forthcoming.

You can’t simply do away with the murder of Laura Palmer (as Agent Dale Cooper attempted in the two-hour finale) and expect that you’ll invent a world without horrors. The atomic bomb — another symbol of darkness scattered throughout the season — can’t be un-exploded. You can’t hope to restore the world to a perfect state by performing some sort of cosmic fix.

When Cooper leaves behind his reality in the finale and seemingly enters ours (the woman who owns the house that is “Laura Palmer’s house” on screen appears in the last few moments of the finale as the woman who occupies said house), it’s in a desperate attempt to “fix” something. But reality won’t be fixed, because there’s always something rotten at its core. To make it better isn’t to heal anything but, rather, to accept that cycles of trauma exist and will continue to do so for as long as humans do. Putting things right has to begin, necessarily, with ourselves and with accepting our role in these cycles — and the ways that we can help end them by making our own lives better and kinder.

It’s a big, big mission statement for a show that delighted in such oddities as a man sweeping the floor to the tune of “Green Onions,” or that featured a woman who, consumed by her own grief, had become a hollow shell (literally). And it’s one that might seem particularly unhelpful on a series that kept pulling back layers of reality, only to reveal further hallucinations alongside the ones we already knew about. You could wake up from a dream right into another one on this show, and that might prove to be the only sensible way to interpret the universe.

But, again, isn’t that just a little hopeful? Isn’t the act of trying to make the world a better place, sticking a finger in a hole spewing horrific nonsense, something important in and of itself?

Dale Cooper isn’t just an all-time great TV character. He’s a kind of avatar for the way Lynch and Frost would have us approach the world — with a kind of baffled wonderment and curiosity. And even when he’s an evil doppelgänger of himself, or a befuddled insurance salesman named Dougie, or a “real” version of himself named Richard, that curious certainty that the world can be “fixed” somehow carries through. Call him naïve, but that certainty was something I needed to see and hear.

Twin Peaks doesn’t “end,” because it exists in an infinite loop — and maybe so do we

Twin Peaks
Maybe Audrey does, too.

I keep wanting to put a spoiler warning on this article — and I ultimately have — because I do discuss important plot points. But it also feels futile, on some level. This is a show where the characters evaporate from their reality into another reality, and where the whole point is to carry everything back to the beginning, like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or a painting by M.C. Escher. The point of Twin Peaks isn’t to find an ending. It’s to find another way back to the beginning.

Everything Lynch does of late is heavily influenced by his practice of transcendental meditation and what seems to be an interest in the teachings of Buddhism. That feels especially true of Twin Peaks: The Return, with its slow descent into darkness and chaos, then equally slow ascent toward light and meaning. But neither can exist without the other, and each and every new iteration of Cooper, or of this particular set of circumstances, carries with it a new chance to get closer to some sort of perfection, to nirvana.

Of course, the point is that you’ll never quite get there. The point of life is in the struggle, is in the way forward through suffering that marks human existence. You can’t fix the world by changing one little thing, be it a personal failing or a president, because the world is deeply, maybe irreparably broken. You can only keep trying, keep disappearing into the mist and hoping this will be the time that sets everything right, because you never know when it will be.

These tiny, personal victories are scattered throughout Twin Peaks, too, if you know where to look for them. Big Ed and Norma finally find their way to each other, to the love they’ve pined for their whole lives. Gordon Cole finds the proof he’s been searching for of the Blue Rose cases. Albert finds an unlikely connection with a woman he meets entirely through happenstance. It’s easy to focus on what’s awful in the world, because there’s so much of it. But the world is full of a wild kindness, too, that is harder to see but no less real because you have to squint to spot it.

To be honest, I was not expecting to love Twin Peaks as much as I do. I am not a Lynch apologist, by any means, and have found several of his films — including his most recent one, Inland Empire — trying to watch. I hate TV revivals on general principle and was prepared to dislike this one as a matter of course. And I’m not one of those people who thinks the original Twin Peaks is head and shoulders above everything else on TV, no matter how much I love it.

But Twin Peaks nevertheless felt to me like it had finally found its era with this new miniseries. It’s always been a great, even transcendent TV series. But in a world that felt like it was decaying from the inside out, Twin Peaks reminded me, every week, that the world is always decaying from the inside out, and it’s on me to stop it as much as anybody else. If we are the sum of our actions, if the only way toward nirvana lies within all of us, then we can’t give up trying to be better, at least not any time soon.

That idea shouldn’t sound as radical as it does, but Twin Peaks made it seem not only necessary but as simple as opening yourself to the wide variety of human experiences that are right around every new corner. It stopped feeling like a TV show to me, at some point, and started feeling like a gift. I’m grateful I got to see it, in a summer when it felt like I needed it most.

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