In the fall of 1946, Mary McCarthy wrote a letter objecting to a New Yorker essay by John Hersey, which had trained its journalistic sights on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year after the bombs fell. McCarthy argued that Hersey had not only failed to protest the atom bomb effectively, but also trivialized the bombing, treating it as a mere natural disaster, like a flood or earthquake, that occurs in the normal course of events. In reality, the atom bomb had exploded on a plane inaccessible to “human interest” journalism. It had exploded in “the moral world,” blowing “a kind of hole in human history,” a hellish rupture more suited to Dante than to a magazine’s tony pages. With its ads for cigarettes and perfume, the New Yorker had transformed a world-threatening bomb into one more item in the world’s rich inventory, as normal and American as baseball and apple pie.
Or cherry pie, we might say, as we bid our sad farewells to Special Agent Dale Cooper and the third, presumably final season of Twin Peaks. In the course of eighteen episodes, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost detonate an atom bomb in the middle of a show often considered an ode to Americana, friendly diners, small-town quirk, and “damn fine” cups of coffee served “black as a moonless night.” The bomb appears in the eighth episode, which interrupts the show’s splintered present-day narrative to revisit the birth of atomic weaponry in the White Sands Desert of New Mexico. When the bomb explodes, it explodes in the moral world, and profound evil is admitted into American life—or perhaps is revealed to have been there all along.
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The first part of the episode takes viewers down a dark highway in backwoods America. The destination is familiar for the show’s devotees: a place deep in the woods where blank-eyed killers deal out violence under the spectral influence of the Black Lodge, a jazz-haunted, backward-speaking, extra-dimensional netherworld with inscrutable designs on humanity. One man in this scene is a doppelgänger of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. The doppelgänger is an evil product of the Lodge, and slipped free of that place at the end of the second season. That was in 1991, and since then the real Cooper has been held in another dimension (the infamous Red Room) while Mr. C. wreaks havoc in America’s underworld.
In the opening scenes of this episode, the doppelgänger is gunned down on the side of the road, then swarmed by ghostly woodsmen who retrieve from his torso an orb containing the grinning visage of BOB—the evil entity that possessed Leland Palmer in the original two seasons. Cue black-and-white footage of an atomic bomb exploding in the New Mexico desert. Set to the dissonant strains of “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” the bomb erupts and swells to fullness, glowing with malign brilliance. The camera zooms closer and plunges into the screaming inferno, where an entity called Experiment emerges from the chaos and expels a stream of viscous fluid bearing the orbed face of BOB. The camera then accelerates through a wormhole and enters another dimension. What lies on the other side is a tower housing the White Lodge, where a benign entity emits from his head a golden orb containing the face of Laura Palmer, the high school prom queen found murdered in the series’s pilot episode. She is projected through a tube and sent floating to earth, a luminous counterpart to the evil emerging from the mushroom cloud.
In short, the bomb not only exploded in the moral world; it apparently ripped a hole in metaphysical space, allowing evil to seep through and prompting emergency action in the White Lodge. The remainder of the action occurs in New Mexico in 1956. Filmed in black-and-white, like the atomic bomb footage, the episode moves at leisurely speed through a series of horrifying images. The sooty woodsmen who swarmed the doppelgänger’s body reappear at a convenience store that flickers between dimensions, before moving out to terrorize local motorists and a luckless pair working late at a radio station. As he murders the station’s jockey, a woodsman seizes the microphone and broadcasts a creepy poem to the nearby town: “This is the water / and this is the well / drink full and descend / the horse is the white of the eye / and dark within.” Those who hear his grinding voice on the radio lose consciousness and collapse.
Between these flashes of horror, we witness a scene of quiet innocence: a teenage boy walking his sweetheart home from a high school dance. The scene plays like someone’s idealized memory of 1950s America. The teenagers converse shyly to a chorus of chirping insects and share a tentative kiss before parting ways. But the mood quickly changes. Somewhere in the night, an egg cracks open and a slimy frog-insect emerges, buzzing horribly as it creeps across the desert. Meanwhile, the girl who shared a kiss with her boyfriend reclines on her bed and listens to the radio, before drifting into sleep with a placid expression. The frog-insect reaches her house and flies on buzzing wings to her second-story window. Entering the room, it approaches the sleeping girl, and her mouth yawns open to admit this evil portent. The bomb and the forces working through it have done their foul work. Some darkness has invaded the world, and nothing good or innocent remains untainted.
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In retrospect, it seems clear that this episode augured ill for the beloved cast of Twin Peaks, and for anyone hoping the series would have a happy conclusion. The visual details of this episode are as scary and transcendentally weird as they sound; like the bomb itself, they resist assimilation to a familiar, comforting world. The world has been seeded with corruption, and no place on earth is more corrupt than Twin Peaks, Washington. Many fans of the original two seasons remember the town as a quaint throwback, but it was plain from the start that Twin Peaks brimmed with darkness. People seem to remember not the town but Agent Cooper’s infectious optimism—his effusive praise of Norma’s pies or the bacon and coffee at the Great Northern hotel. They forget that the waitress serving pie at the diner returned home every night to an abusive, drug-dealing husband. The Great Northern no doubt serves a fine breakfast, but its owner, Benjamin Horne, also uses his department store to recruit young girls for a brothel. The town’s young people dabble in the drug trade, contemplate murder, and sometimes land in jail. In a running subplot, Catherine Martell, who runs the local paper mill, teams up with Benjamin Horne to commit arson. And, of course, Agent Cooper arrives in town to investigate the murder of Laura Palmer, a victim (we learn) of unspeakable domestic abuse. Though she appears in season three as a golden symbol of hope, we know that her time on earth was brief and cruel.
Apart from its natural setting, the town is not even physically pretty. Most of the commercial buildings look decrepit and utilitarian, and the middle-class houses are dingy and oppressive and spiked with shadows. Otherworldly spaces, such as the Red Room, mimic the town’s depressing atmosphere. With its heavy curtains, kitschy statues, and sinister jazz, the Red Room evokes a musty small-town brothel. Like Vegas, where much of the new season takes place, Twin Peaks can barely conceal its inner rot.
I do not think that Lynch means to dismiss the whole town or mock Cooper’s enthusiasm for everyday comforts. He shares the agent’s affection for simple pleasures, such as coffee and cherry pie (which literally prevents a murder in the third season). And yet Twin Peaks: The Return does not leave us in the comfort of the diner, sharing dessert with old friends. The show could not return fans to their beloved town because the place never existed. Like Lynch characters, they had replaced reality with a daydream assembled from fragments of memory. This season comes to them as a bracing wake up call. Like Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it ends with confused identities, a tortured scream, and terrible silence. In the landscape of prestige television, it detonates a bomb and leaves a smoldering hole that all the pie in the world can never fill.
Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.