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Algorithmic Weather: Mediacy in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Ryan Chang.

Algorithmic Weather: Mediacy in Twin Peaks: The Return


A stranger comes to town. You know the one: Dale Cooper speaks into a handheld voice recorder, addressing it as Diane. Twenty-five (or -six) years later, I was hoping that we’d find her as only a collection of tapes, a name as enigmatic as “Blue Rose”, traces of the Dale Cooper lost to Mr. C and Dougie. Because so much of the show had already told me that what we were dealing with was not another murder, the return of Dale Cooper, or playing catch-up with the locals. What seemed most important, straight away, were the rules of the world that instantiated and continue to govern Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks.

Frustrating to many, we didn’t get the Dale Cooper we once knew until the sixteenth episode. It is forgivably forgotten that we did get him in the opening episodes, and lost him once again. What’s so powerful about this new iteration of Twin Peaks is both its resistance to easy nostalgia – often critiquing it through the very medium in which it is often found – and foregrounding media itself as content. I’m pleased that Diane was Laura Dern, and that she was integral to this strand of the story, precisely because she preserved the mediating power of a voice recorder as well as embodied it, further delineating the connections among the Lodge mythology, Native American spirituality (a la Hawk), and the contemporary. This is important – not only was she a name once known only by address in the original run, and given full form in The Return, that wholeness of being was short-circuited by the fact that she was created specifically and especially for the sake of mediacy.

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Crime and noir are genres dependent upon the revelation of information, by re-forming it inside different epistemes—different media. What’s at stake in Twin Peaks: The Return is the extent to which media determine our situation.1 The channels of information transmission determine where the story proceeds, not how the characters act on their world. Mr. C seems one step ahead of the story itself, as if he knows how it ends (“Is it future, or is it past?”); Dougie’s guidance by the Lodge, that electrified place of wonder. The flow of information is, according to Mark Seltzer, the critical foundation of the Crime genre. Specifically true crime, but exactly where the latter shades into the former is ambiguous:

The weather—the residue of nature and the rites of spring—is there in order immediately to give way to second nature: the routine flow of bodies and machines (the body–machine complex) that makes up the workweek. This is the normal time and second nature of mass commuting and ‘perfectly run of-the-mill’ workdays, transit and work in a society of total mobilization via media technologies, technologies of body and message transport.2

Weather, as a given natural fact of being, determines what bodies can do in the world. Technologies develop to tame and/or compensate for nature in order to continue to act on that world; hence the rhythms of a man-made second nature—of subway terminals and communication technologies—are, in some senses, intimately related to an ultimately inscrutable first nature, are determined by it. It is a distinct feature of the information age, however, that communicative content—i.e. language—itself becomes mediated into data, abstract receptacles of value that trade places unbeknownst to us. Today the critical attention paid to new narratives of corporeality, of non-binary and -white bodies, clashes with a system of mediation that compresses all bodies into algorithmic identities.3

Bradley Mitchum (John Belushi) stands over a comatose Dougie. “It was, like, what—electricity?” The Return makes the instrumentality of the category of “characters” as important as the lives they’re leading in Twin Peaks. The primary concern for The Return are the electrical and vague energy flows that determine the situation of the denizens of Twin Peaks (and their associates). A world of variable doubles and not-quite perfect reproductions of one and another. Bodies are not at stake in the new Twin Peaks insofar as “body” and “self” are assumed to be inextricable. Remember that Bob needs a body, but which body matters less than it is a body. A vehicle in order to commute through the world. 

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In Episode 11, Hawk explains the images in a hand-drawn map to Sheriff Truman. He points to an ideogram of black fire, and explains that it most resembles “modern electricity”. The phrase is strange—does electricity have a time? A history? What history does electricity have if not for the linear development of technology?

Electricity has been one of David Lynch’s primary concerns, starting with Eraserhead, through Mulholland Dr., all the way to Twin Peaks: The Return. It exists in an unproduced script titled Ronnie Rocket, about a man who controls electricity. Yet, in much of the popular criticism of The Return, electricity is either taken for granted, merely ornamental or a side-effect of the myriad themes in the new series. Perhaps it’s too unwieldy of a motif and theme—it’s everywhere. In Twin Peaks, it splits the division between first and second nature. “One chance out between two worlds / Fire walk with me.” And ignoring it also puts too much onus on the characters in The Return, when it’s clear that the show is more concerned with the world itself.

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Drone cameras hover over darkened Douglas (Dougie) firs, panoramic views of Las Vegas and Manhattan. The same point-of-view takes in the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. We are to believe that modern electricity, introduced to our world through innovations in military technology, expressed through wall sockets, telephone lines, Skype calls, and cellular data, has its roots in the creation of both the evil and good forces in the universe of Twin Peaks. The Mother, as she is known, spews out the evil force of BOB; the Fireman counters with the innocence known as “Laura”. A frog-like insect crawls into the mouth of a girl hypnotized into sleep by a Woodsman reciting a poem over compromised radio waves. Media determine the situation.

Bodies are made metaphors for data. In Episode 2, Sam explains to Tracy that all he has to do watch what happens in the glass box. Here, the show winks at us—the glass box of television, but also a metaphor for technologies that mediate and express electricity. Recall that they miss Cooper’s appearance, but are privy to what opens up between worlds: the Mother enters through the glass box and eviscerates them. Additionally, new faces are introduced in almost every episode, many of which rarely return. They are given names and ample screen time. They are there solely to deliver information, they are mere voice recorders.

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Bodies are compressed, transmitted through invisible channels. As if dispersed through the atmosphere, molecules of black fire, on the winds that ruffle Douglas firs. The show seems simultaneously suspect and in awe of the potential of electrified technological media, as if to assert that the task of cinematic art is to learn how to grapple with the power to visibilise the unconscious (one could go on about Lynch’s aesthetics, his love of LA and the Frankfurt School) at the same time it loosens the psychic boundaries imposed on our bodies.

“Shovel yourself out of the shit!” Dr. Amp exclaims to us. We’re the screen, watching back. The political commentary is obvious enough that we are compelled to examine our investment to new media ecologies and landscapes. The Return couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be reduced to a shallow critique of contemporary media culture, but I do think understanding the dense mythology of Twin Peaks in terms of its second-natural expression—harnessed, expressed electricity—goes beyond the typical Freudian analysis of Lynch’s aesthetic. Where the original run unearthed the secrets of an innocent small town, debunking the fictions they relied upon, The Return recapitulates this by casting doubt on fictions as technologies themselves.

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The brilliance of this new Twin Peaks is its utter contemporariness, how it stands apart and inside of the moment of electrified transmission, how it doubles and mediates itself.

1. Here I am borrowing from Friedrich Kittler’s preface in his book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.
2. Mark Seltzer, True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity.
3. The excessive violence inflicted on women’s bodies in The Return deserves its own consideration; for now, let us remember that the same technologies that enable visibility and representation also replicate them ad infinitum, of which the ultimate consequences are yet to be seen.


Ryan Chang‘s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, Black Sun Lit and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He tweets @avantbored.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017.