Threnody in Black and Gold: ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ as Cold War Historiography

By Michael Grasso / February 27, 2018

twin peaks the return episode 3 gordon cole office

FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) and Deputy Director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) confer in Cole’s office, dominated by a poster of a 1957 nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site.

“The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.”
—Gen. Thomas Farrell, 1945

“The fifties remain the haunted house of the American century.”
Greil Marcus

“Got a light?”
—Woodsman, Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 8

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return arrived on television screens in the summer of 2017, promising to take fans of the original 1990-1991 ABC series back to the comfort of coffee and cherry pie at the Double-R Diner. What Lynch and Frost delivered was a sometimes bewildering 18-hour film that tested the limits of serialized television storytelling. Threads from the original Twin Peaks would be followed for a bit, then lost, then picked up again. Fans would be denied the return of protagonist FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) right up until the 16th episode, as MacLachlan played a pair of funhouse reflections of Cooper: evil spirit-possessed arch-criminal “Mr. C,” and holy fool Dougie Jones. And in the middle of the series’ run, during the 8th episode, the audience would be taken on an abstract journey back to the first test of the atomic bomb and to the America of an era—the mid-1950s—which Lynch has used as a stylistic touchstone throughout his career. And just as his works with that ’50s aesthetic, including the original Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet (1985), peeled back the layers of the facade of small-town America, revealing the roiling, seething decadence underneath, so too does Twin Peaks: The Return, and specifically the latter half of Episode 8, offer an expressionist historiography of the larger geopolitical rot under the surface of the Cold War.

The original Twin Peaks debuted on ABC in the spring of 1990, in the midst of the “end of history” and collapse of the Soviet bloc. Lynch, who’d been an arthouse darling throughout the 1980s, shocked many with his move to network television and creative partnership with Mark Frost. How could the man memorably deemed “sick” in dozens of reviews fulfill his unique artistic vision on the FCC-patrolled airwaves of American network television? And with a nighttime network soap opera, in the vein of 1980s hits like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing? Twin Peaks, of course, worked wonders within these strictures and delivered a first season that made the show and Lynch a nationwide sensation. Lynch sketched the outlines of a small northwestern logging town (much like his Lumberton in Blue Velvet) and the tragic story of the blonde homecoming queen, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose dark secrets would be revealed in the wake of her murder. Twin Peaks very consciously evokes one of the classics of popular postwar literature, Peyton Place (1956), which itself later became a film and a television series.

The mise-en-scène of Twin Peaks is redolent with signifiers of the 1950s. Our protagonist Agent Cooper and his investigative partner, Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean, whose character’s name celebrates the first President of the Cold War period) are the kind of throwback, square-jawed, strong-silent types that had largely disappeared from film and television screens by the ironic postmodern era (although Cooper’s belief in the power of prophetic dreams and Tibetan spirituality hint at a nature in tune with the Aquarian turn of the 1960s and ’70s). The high school students in the series don’t look like late-’80s high school students. They wear a weird retro pastiche fashion indicative of the popular image of 1950s high school life: girls in saddle shoes, cardigans, sculpted hairdos, boys either in letterman jackets or wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles. Of course, the letterman is dealing cocaine and the “greaser” has a heart of gold, subtly subverting their genre and period signifiers. From the very beginning, Twin Peaks as a franchise was in large part about interrogating the symbols of 1950s American culture. Considering how the series aired at the beginning of a period of newfound American global political hegemony—during the collapse of the Soviet Union—this conscious look back at the Cold War heights offers an uncanny twinning, making us conscious of the “American-ness” of a town that bears the marks of not only the mundane and earthbound (reinforced by the stunning Pacific Northwest scenery) but also supernatural evil, an evil perched in the woods long before Europeans arrived.

Actors Sherilyn Fenn and James Marshall’s physical evocation of teen idols of 25 years past—Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, etc.—was a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of David Lynch.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which revisits the town a quarter-century later, adds to these layers of nostalgia in its contemporary examination of the decline of a certain middle American milieu. In 2017, Twin Peaks the town seems in some ways to have been frozen in time since Agent Cooper disappeared into the Black Lodge in the 1991 series finale. The Double-R Diner is still there and the waitstaff still look like they’ve walked out of a Norman Rockwell painting, although owner Norma is being approached by a corporation looking to make a regional franchise out of the diner. Everywhere in Twin Peaks: The Return, though, the outside world is slowly creeping in. As the focus of the series bounces over its first few episodes between Washington State, South Dakota, New York City, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and even South America, we note the interconnectedness of the new, wired, 21st-century global economy. Dale Cooper, who returned from his quest into the dark dimension of the Black Lodge possessed by the evil spirit BOB, has connections everywhere, using laptops and smartphones to put into play a number of incomprehensible criminal conspiracies and enterprises. Electricity has always connoted an eerie presence in Lynch’s work, and in Twin Peaks: The Return, the global telecommunications network that has sprung up since the original series is neatly folded into the motif. Local psychologist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), originally modeled on Aquarian hero Terence McKenna, has now become an Alex Jones-style internet conspiracy theorist named “Dr. Amp” (there’s that electricity again). And Twin Peaks the town also shows more of the economic impact of this globalization, with local real estate magnate Ben Horne (very much an avatar of the sociopathic ’80s yuppie in the original series) seemingly done with his conniving schemes once and for all, and brother Jerry a budding entrepreneur in newly-legal weed.

It’s in Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return where Lynch and Frost’s analysis of the midcentury America of their youth goes from a primarily cultural, aesthetic, and psychological one to an expressly geopolitical critique. In this episode, we witness “Mr. C,” Dale Cooper’s dark and twisted doppelgänger, betrayed and shot by his co-conspirator. In the aftermath of the shooting, Mr. C is somehow healed and resummoned back to Earth by a pack of monochromatic, blackened hobos. Their eerie flickering in and out of existence during this strange ritual carries with it that trademark sound of electricity and a jittering, flashing light not unlike a film projector’s. They act like bizarre nurses or midwives, smearing Mr. C’s face with the blood from his gunshot wound to the gut and exposing the presence of a metaphysical tumor containing the evil spirit named BOB from the original series. These hobos, called “Woodsmen” in the closing credits of the episode, will play an important role as we leave the present and tumble backwards into the past.

After a musical performance by Nine Inch Nails (a band whose grimy, industrial aesthetic and sound was directly at odds with the dreamy, ’50s-inflected shoegaze pop typical of the soundtrack up to this point), we begin the most infamous part of Episode 8: a forty-minute, largely abstract sequence of sounds and images (mostly in black-and-white) that will depart utterly from any of the plot lines we’ve seen so far. We are flung backwards in time to White Sands, New Mexico, July 16, 1945, 5:29 am “MWT” (Mountain War Time, reminding us that we are in the waning days of World War II). It is the moment of the unleashing of the atom, the culmination of the Manhattan Project; we realize we are viewing the Trinity test. The keening strings of Krzysztof Penderecki‘s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” screech as we dive into the heart of the mushroom cloud in super slow motion. The landscape, which is dwarfed in scale by the explosion, ripples and bends under the unholy power man has unleashed. Soon we are in the midst of flickering film light, watching chaotic particles in an agitated dance, evoking both the history of postwar abstract film and the Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, another tale of mankind’s scientific hubris being met by an incomprehensible counter-force from outside this universe. Flames blossom like bruises in vivid but sickly colors: glowing purple, fiery orange, noisome green. Fire, too, has always had a special place in Lynch’s visual vocabulary. In Lynch’s 1992 cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Meflames connoted Laura’s slow descent into evil and decadence, but here they are implacable, weird, unconnected to any strictly personal fall into evil. They are the flames of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the flames that would keep the world in a terror-fueled nuclear stalemate for half-a-century, and arguably fling us headlong into the current “anthropocene” era.

The slow zoom into the heart of the mushroom cloud helps impact the superhuman scale of the Trinity explosion, here pinned forever to a place and time of near-mythic importance.

David Lynch is, of course, not the first artist to impart great metaphysical import to the first test of the atomic bomb. The name of the test itself (said to be inspired by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reading of English Renaissance poet John Donne), the invocation of the Bhagavad-Gita in Oppenheimer’s famous quote “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds,” or the many accounts of eyewitnesses, stunned by the uncontrollable power unleashed by these scientists of the Manhattan Project: there was an evident need among the witnesses to the explosion to resort to poetry to place this event on a scale that would allow human comprehension. The Bomb became a symbol of Western science’s desire to play God, a prophetic warning straight out of the Old Testament, one which led the educated men involved—not only scientists, but generals and politicians—to wrap this epochal event in classical language that allowed them to distance themselves from their complicity in the project. Here, Lynch’s artistic vision is visceral, the sound sudden and rippling in one’s ears. (Notably, Lynch is credited as the sole “sound designer” for the entire 18-episode series.) As beautiful and strange as the patterns and colors in the heart of the explosion are, they are also uncanny, impossible. The visuals literalize the need for poetry to explain this event. Lynch, like the A-bomb’s eyewitnesses, is awestruck by the beauty of this Promethean horror, but he also goes further. He is willing and able to show the larger ripple effects of the event, in his own style and in the context of his own mythic universe.

Man’s first nuclear explosion meets up with Twin Peaks‘s own unique cosmology in the next sequence. A horned, faceless, female figure (tellingly called “The Experiment” in the episode’s credits) vomits into the void a soup of indistinct globules, the largest of which bears the face of Frank Silva, who played the evil spirit BOB in the original series (Silva passed away from complications due to AIDS in 1995; his presence in Twin Peaks: The Return comes exclusively through archive footage). The jet of material left behind is reminiscent of organic material (a rain of red globules later in the sequence looks like a torrent of red blood cells), but it is also visually evocative of the vapor trail left behind by an ICBM after launch. It was the pairing of nuclear weapons with advances in rocketry (allowed by Nazi rocket scientists recruited by America during Operation Paperclip, another American Cold War-founding sin) that would lead the world to the horror of mutually assured destruction. BOB’s birth here is directly correlated with the unleashing of the atom by the United States; BOB will go on to possess Laura Palmer’s father Leland (Ray Wise) as a child and impel him to the eventual brutal abuse, rape, and murder of his own daughter. Twin Peaks: The Return thus implicitly links the evil of American geopolitical hegemony on the largest scale with the patriarchal crimes enabled by the American nuclear family on the individual scale. As above, so below.

“The Experiment” vomiting forth evil into the world, including “Killer BOB,” is reminiscent of the rocket exhaust from Cold War-era ICBMs and anti-ballistic missiles.

And just as the eerie “Woodsmen” were midwives and nurses to Mr. C’s death and rebirth from the gunshot wound in 2017, the same Woodsmen in 1945 swarm, insect-like, around a convenience store amid plumes of smoke and the crackling of electricity. Again, time is out of joint as we watch the Woodsmen and the smoke moving back and forth in a jagged, staccato fashion. But why a convenience store? This is both a reference to the original series and Fire Walk With Me, where “magician” Mike and his familiar BOB were said to live above a “convenience store.” But it is interesting to examine the anachronistic use of the phrase here and what such an anachronism might mean. “Convenience” became the watchword for the American consumer during the Cold War period: the mom and pop dry goods and grocery stores of the early part of the century were subsumed under an avalanche of, first, supermarkets, designed to serve the new suburbs popping up all over postwar America, and, eventually in the 1960s and beyond, often-franchised convenience stores, open 24 hours a day, selling pre-packaged junk foods full of artificial preservatives with long shelf lives. This convenience store’s exterior possesses two very important features: gas pumps and a phone booth, tying the store as a kind of locus of evil. Electricity, fossil fuel power, the shrinking of the globe through telecommunications: all present in Lynch’s work, all elements linked through the technological acceleration unleashed by the nuclear age. These Woodsmen are here to usher in a poisonous era of “convenience” above all.

But there is another birth being attended to, on a much less hellish plane. Lynch expanded his universe in Twin Peaks: The Return beyond the eerie, red-draped Black Lodge. On a vast, mauve world-ocean, rocky promontories soar into the sky, bearing structures that tower over the infinite waves. Is this plane the White Lodge, hinted at in the second season of the original series? Whatever the case, this monochrome building, its architecture reminiscent of the Bauhaus and other Modernist design, is full of the decor of an earlier era. The scratchy music on the phonograph is revealed in the credits to be written by Lynch and and Twin Peaks: The Return‘s music supervisor, Dean Hurley: it’s titled “Slow 30s Room.” Two characters dwell on this otherworldly plane: a woman dressed in richly sparkling clothing of the prewar era (called “Señorita Dido” in the closing credits, played by Joy Nash), and the “Giant” from the original Twin Peaks (Carel Struycken), who was a kind of emissary from the various otherworlds touching Twin Peaks. Here, in the “Slow 30s Room,” an alarm in a giant metal bell is sounding. All the technology in this strange plane is from that prewar era: the antique Victrola, the strange bell-alarm with old-fashioned gauges and lights on it, even the film projector that the Giant uses to view all the events of the previous 10 minutes of the episode: specifically the Trinity test and BOB being unleashed on Earth. Eventually, the Giant and Señorita Dido will send Laura Palmer’s soul to Earth in a golden orb, as a presumed antidote for the evil that the Trinity test and BOB’s coming will bring. I believe the series of aesthetic choices is incredibly important in the development of Lynch’s view of the America of the 1950s. Lynch now has to locate the concepts of innocence and goodness in an era earlier than his often-used 1950s, in an era before the development of nuclear weapons, before the worldwide, often industrialized slaughter of the Second World War, in an era before Lynch himself was born.

Left: the Giant and Señorita Dido in the “Slow 30s Room,” surrounded by outdated decor and technology; Right: the “movie palace” style chamber where Laura Palmer’s orb-bound soul is sent down to Earth (here represented by a crudely-animated globe in a 1930s style; see the Universal Pictures logo from the 1930s).

Suddenly, eleven years pass and we are again in the midst of Lynch’s beloved 1950s: 1956, in fact (the year of Peyton Place). And I think it’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, this is the very first narrative sequence in any of his works where David Lynch has portrayed the actual 1950s. All his pastiches and retro aesthetic evocations of the decade are now gone: we are actually here, for the first time ever. We’re also back in New Mexico, and the very first thing we see is an egg hatching in the desert, revealing a horrifying creature that resembles a cross between a roach and an amphibian. We’re reminded, of course, about the well-known mutating power of radiation, used to great effect in B-movies like Them! and Gojira (both 1954) throughout the 1950s (Entertainment Weekly TV critic Jeff Jensen offers a fantastic summary of this 1950s motif in his review of Episode 8). American nuclear tests took the lives of those living on distant atolls in the Pacific Ocean as well as those in the continental United States who lived and worked downwind of nuclear tests, including much of the cast of The Conqueror, a 1956 film starring American strong-and-silent icon John Wayne that was shot downwind of the Nevada Test Site.

The Woodsmen are back now, threatening a chubby, comfortable-looking middle-aged American couple in their state-of-the-art midcentury sedan. The lead Woodsman’s crackling voice, redolent with electricity, croaks out a mocking request: “Got a light?” The implicit reference to the Trinity test here is clear; the Woodsman is asking for a bit of the Promethean fires that these humans created (and that allowed these dark spirits to enter this world). The older couple screams in distorted slow motion and flees the mysterious encounter; we’re reminded of yet another Cold War-era cultural touchstone, the UFO abduction narrative, or even the oft-reported mythic encounter with Men in Black (here “Black” is embodied quite literally by the scorched, blackened Woodsmen). The Woodsmen’s mission is not to scare a privileged postwar couple, though. The destination of their mission on this plane is of much more subtle import.

Meanwhile, nearby, a first date is taking place. A boy and a girl, given no character names in the credits of the episode (played by Xolo Mariduena and Tikaeni Faircrest) are walking awkwardly back from a dance, having a conversation about who the boy might be going steady with. It’s a pitch perfect evocation of the ’50s innocence that Lynch has dined out on throughout his career. The girl asks the boy if he’s still going steady with someone; she finds a lucky penny; he shyly (then insistently) asks for a peck on the cheek. The light’s on on her porch and she gets safely home. Or so we assume.

The lead Woodsman (Robert Broski, whose resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is no accident, considering his history as a Lincoln impersonator) heads to a radio tower in the desert, a local station playing “My Prayer” by the Platters. We get some insert shots here of “ordinary” New Mexicans, avatars of 1950s “normality,” listening to the radio: a grimy mechanic, an all-night diner waitress, and the girl who was seen earlier on the date, listening in her bedroom just as teenagers of the Baby Boom generation did all over the Western world. Everything is as normal as can be until the Woodsman walks into the skeleton crew-staffed station, time stuttering in his wake. He first kills the woman secretary at the front desk by gruesomely crushing her skull, then heads into the broadcast booth and commandeers the airwaves (taking the time to slowly crush the DJ’s skull as he does). Taking the needle off the 45 and knowledgeably switching on the microphone, the Woodsman then proceeds to recite an uncanny piece of verse into the mic and broadcast it over the area: “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.” Radio listeners drop off into sudden unconsciousness. All the while, the strange bug-frog mutant scuttles its way towards its eventual goal: the sleeping form of the teenage girl. Once it flutters through her bedroom window and crawls towards her unconscious form, her mouth opens and the creature crawls inside her.

Left: the Woodsman, unlit cigarette in mouth, on the mic at the radio station; Right: the nameless Girl about to be infested with the mutant from the Trinity desert.

This scene, probably the most uncanny of the entire 40-minute sequence, seems to me a metaphor for the power of American mass media (and propaganda) in the Cold War period. Radio before World War II (and television afterwards) brought American popular culture to the entire world; on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Communist governments spent much time and effort to block and jam American efforts to reach Soviet and Eastern bloc citizens. The CIA even used artists and cultural figures to fight a soft war alongside the build-up of conventional forces and nuclear proliferation. Lynch’s own artistic roots in abstract expressionism loom large here as well; the abstract expressionists and their movement were bankrolled by the CIA, in order to demonstrate the abstract power and freedom to experiment in Western art and to contrast this with the “approved” prevailing Cold War Soviet aesthetic of socialist realism. The Woodsman’s cryptic verses call to mind the code phrases and phantom operations called out in American Cold War psyops like the “Voice of Liberation” radio station used during the 1954 coup in Guatemala under the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS. Furthermore, America’s global mass media and pop culture hegemony and the American intelligence community’s efforts to overthrow Communist-sympathetic governments are inextricably linked throughout the Cold War. Cold Warriors like ad man-turned-propagandist General Edward Lansdale brought techniques from the 20th century advertising industry (and, notably, appeals to occult superstition) to the forefront of American psychological and information war efforts.

But the Woodsman is using this mass media microphone to hypnotize, to sedate, and to infect the innocent Americans out there in the night. This is the power of American mass media at home. Obviously, this idea of the mind-altering properties of pop culture in the Cold War period centered around rock and roll, African-American music, and the supposedly “Satanic” qualities of both. Using the gentle, inoffensive harmonies of the Platters to embody this idea is nicely subversive. But the Woodsman uses mass media explicitly to hypnotize the younger generation, to get them to consume—consume a dangerous, mutated, presumably evil presence that would remain and fester internally for years to come. The metaphor could relate to anything from the general consumerist tendencies of Baby Boomer youth, to advertising for cigarettes (again, not for nothing is this Woodsman a smoker who’s searching for “a light”), to wilder mass-media conspiracy theories like the rumored connection between the Beatles and the Tavistock Institute. As the episode closes, we see the girl sleeping soundly, monster within her, and the distant sounds of a horse neighing; comparisons to and evocations of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation come immediately to mind.

When I watched Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, it seemed so obviously to be very specifically about America of the Cold War period, and in particular the myths that Cold War-and-after America has told itself to keep itself asleep, to not confront its role in bringing great evil into the world. The very same dynamic that Lynch investigated with his impossibly-twee small towns harboring cancerous personal and family relationships (often mined for its impact within the genre of gothic horror, which Twin Peaks in all its incarnations has embodied) was suddenly exploded in scale. Lynch’s analysis stopped being personal, and expanded to examine why America might be full of such seething towns full of incestuous secrets in the first place. Lynch does not consciously or literally examine the connections between the moral rot in the U.S. government and the evil that could create a Leland Palmer, but in Twin Peaks: The Return he begins to conceive how and why they might be connected. Lynch’s strong silent male heroes (again, it’s noteworthy that Lynch casts himself as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole) struggle to keep a sinister world of supernatural terror at bay, not realizing that all the serial killers, Woodsmen, Experiments and other horrors they fight were born on that day in July 1945 when the sky turned to flame in the New Mexico desert.

Lynch’s (and Frost’s) evolution from a reflexive reaching out to an innocent past (the duo also partnered on the short-lived series On The Air, a 1992 follow-up to Twin Peaks, about the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s) interests me as a scholar of nostalgia, as someone who appreciates the regard artists have for the pop culture past. This new geopolitical focus is part of the reason I call Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return an “expressionistic historiography.” The field of historiography, where the overall analysis of historical periods over time are themselves examined by scholars, has always had to confront prevailing cultural biases over the course of time. Cold War historiography has evolved too over the past few decades, the standard received wisdom mutating as our contemporary perspective has deepened and lengthened. Was the Cold War the fault of Stalinism, or the cancerous growth of the American military-industrial complex, as war hero Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans in his 1961 farewell address? Or both? What are the roles of the individuals within the societies involved in the Cold War? Are we as American consumers, listening to pop music on the radio and driving our brand new sedans, complicit in this geopolitical struggle? Victims? Both? As Lynch seeks to understand his own fixation on the signifiers of his youth in a more “innocent” America, he and we begin to understand that that innocence may have been nothing more than a comforting myth all along. The focus on Trinity and the development and legacy of the atomic bomb in Twin Peaks: The Return is a recontextualization of the standard American Cold War narrative. It places an uncanny and symbolic blame on the American war machine, in conjunction with capitalism, patriarchy, and the cultural drive towards control inherent in these ideologies. Drink full, American, and descend.

Many thanks to Rob MacDougall for his help and advice with this piece.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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One thought on “Threnody in Black and Gold: ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ as Cold War Historiography

  1. Pingback: Portraits of the Mushroom Cloud, 1946 – 1990

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