Twin Peaks S02E22: “Beyond Life and Death” (10/6/91)
Less than twenty-four hours away from the return of Twin Peaks, it’s hard to know what to say about the final episode that hasn’t been said. All up, this is probably my favourite “film” by David Lynch, and such a magnificent episode that it makes it impossible to totally write off even the most questionable components of the second season in any real way. When I first saw it, I felt as if it left a lot of loose ends, but rewatching I’m amazed by how well it manages to wrap everything up, to the point where it almost feels as if it would have been impossible for the series to progress beyond this point without turning into something else. In fact, this already is something else – we’re already, at some level, in the third season, so emphatically does Lynch’s direction and vision differentiate itself from what has come before (and that includes his own previous episodes). For all that quality television takes its cues from Twin Peaks, then, “Beyond Life and Death” still feels more contemporary than anything on television at the moment – or in cinema, for that matter – especially the extraordinary rendition of “Sycamore Trees” by Jimmy Scott, somehow even more visionary than the rendition of “Silencio” at the conclusion of Mulholland Drive.
At the same time, to watch “Beyond Life and Death” is to realise that the reboot is no bland nostalgic gesture, since this was a series that absolutely demanded to be continued in this final moment – or had already been continued – and an unfinished and unresolved masterpiece in Lynch’s filmography as a whole. More than any other episode, it plays both as a self-contained episode in its own right as well as the harbinger of a new kind of seriality – unlike Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which is much more hermetically sealed – although articulating what makes it so unique is remarkably difficult, just because it already seems to occupy a future that hasn’t been disclosed to us yet. In other words, it’s hard to say exactly what “Beyond Life and Death” means – and increasingly hard to speak of it all – until the conclusion to the third season, which may be taking many of its cues from Fire Walk With Me (at least according to Lynch) but which also appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a continuation of this final episode, if the tone and tenor of the trailers are anything to go by.
Let’s start with craft, then, since while Lynch may be renowned for weirdness – and often conflated with the weirdness of the series as a whole – he brings an incredible masterful, accomplished and – yes – auteurist seriousness to bear on this final episode. From its very beginning, “Beyond Life and Death” has a totally different sense of atmosphere and gravity from the rest of the season, as Lynch’s visuals sync up more perfectly with Badalamenti’s score than those of any of the other directors, and every character seems to enter a strange, trancelike iteration of their regular selves. From the opening shot of Andy and Lucy embracing, there’s an overwhelming sense of finality and finitude, a feeling that we are rotating through each character for the last time, with every mise-en-scene exuding a sombre, reflective mood, and little touches that were cheesy earlier in the season becoming inexplicably eerie again – especially the preponderance of owls, which are shorn of any residual CGI operatics in favour of a more steady, calm and emergent sense of horror.
That’s not to say, however, that Lynch simply flattens the palette and texture of the series, nor that he discards or ignores the wackiness of the second season as a whole. There’s still a sense of absurdity, but it’s just not played for laughs in quite the same way, epitomised in a brief interlude in which Nadine Hurley wakes up from her trance to realise that she is still in the present after all. At the same time, Lynch returns to some of the comic figures and motifs from the earliest parts of the series – such as Heidi, Shelley’s companion at the diner – but also estranges us from them at the same time (or estranges us from everything else that has intervened). Even within the Black Lodge, the same old cosy coordinates pop up – there’s an extended discussion of coffee – but they’re irrevocably altered, which is perhaps just to say that the Black Lodge has started to converge with the town as a whole, a process that continues (but has also started) in Fire Walk With Me. In fact, watching “Beyond Life and Death” is a salutary reminder that Lynch’s episodes are amongst the least humorous and convivial of the series, even if he may have been responsible for some of the warmest and most endearing characters. In terms of the less interesting characters, even Windom Earle is comparatively compelling when directed by Lunch, while – astonishingly – it is only at this late point that his motivations for murdering Carolyn, targeting Cooper and abducting Annie become clear and make emotional sense in terms of jealousy of Cooper’s love for Carolyn.
Against that backdrop everything comes full circle, as Ronette Pulaski is called into the Sheriff’s Office as if all the intervening, non-Lynch episodes had never occurred, and Sarah Palmer returns for the first time in ten episodes to channel BOB’s voice from the Black Lodge. At the same time, the entry to the Lodge turns out to be the clearing where Laura’s possessions were originally found, as the topographies of the first and second season finally fuse into one. Within the Lodge itself, all the weird figures and motifs from earlier in the series are incorporated back into the Red Room, but in the most seamless and elegant way, with the result that even the corniest and cheesiest surrealism suddenly takes on a new life and recasts the entire season in a chilling and macabre light, thanks in no small part to Mary Sweeney’s editing, so crucial to creating just the right balance between repetition and difference during these dreamlike sequences. With all the characters vaguely partaking of Cooper’s trance state within the Black Lodge, Laura, Maddy, Carolyn and Annie come to feel like one and the same person or presence, projections of Cooper’s psyche even as his psyche is dissociating and distending itself across the Lodge as a whole.
At a visual level, the Black Lodge and the surrounding woods converge beautifully and perfectly, in a pair of scenes in which Earle and Annie, and then Cooper, enter a trance-like state and enter a pair of red curtains superimposed gracefully over the darkness. Throughout much of the second season the “woods” felt like a bit of a McGuffin, a lazy and generic way to generate atmosphere, but here Lynch turns their brooding potential into the most exquisite tone poem imaginable, as if the iconic establishing shot of wind in the firs has been expanded into an entire sequence, or an entire episode. In other words, “Beyond Life and Death” absolutely makes good on the promise of Cooper’s original dream, and proves that, whatever may have happened across the course of the second season as a whole, Lynch had absolutely not given up on the series, which may be why the great majority of the cast have returned to give him the benefit of the doubt for a third time, despite not being given a full copy of the script or being permitted to view any of their scenes until they become available to the general public.
From the moment we glimpse the contours of the Black Lodge, then, it genuinely feels as if we have entered another season – another world – and yet it also feels as if these sequences could have been shot yesterday – or tomorrow – as well. Again, at the level of craft, Lynch does a terrific job of alternating between the Lodge and the world outside, partly by resorting to spaces that act as an analogue for the Black Lodge. In fact, it becomes clear in “Beyond Life and Death” that Lynch has been using these analogues all along, with most of his episodes focusing on taking spaces from the series and distending and expanding them – both spatially and temporally – until the narrative is pushed to one side and replaced with a heightened sensitivity to all the uncanny, minor textures and ripples pulsing across those spaces. In Fire Walk With Me, Lynch effectively crafts an entire film in this way, to the point where Twin Peaks dissolves into its unconscious, but for now the balance is held more delicately, especially in and around the concluding sequence in the Seattle Bank, which ostensibly focuses on Audrey’s protest and Pete Martell and Andrew Packard’s mystery box, but instead becomes Lynch’s concluding exercise in shooting uncanny ripples across vacant, ambient, deep-focus space before returning once and for all to the Black Lodge.
As far as this final twenty minutes in the Black Lodge goes, it’s safe to say that it’s still one of the most daring sequences ever committed to television, already seeming to contain both digital horror in its strobe-lit vistas and the more recent return to analog nostalgia in the way those strobe flashes are contained and contoured by Lynch’s ever-present red curtains. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have never seen a television sequence as daring as Jimmy Scott’s rendition of “Sycamore Tree,” nor a sequence in Lynch’s entire filmography that rivals it for vision and strangeness. In the way in which he often appeared to meld male, female, African American and American Indian stances within the same body, Scott works perfectly to capture the deracination and queerness of this later part of the season, which, between Special Agent Denise Bryson and the gradual incorporation of Indian lore into the Black Lodge, suggests a more fluid and provisional identity than the series itself was able to accommodate at this particular point in time, but which will presumably play more of a role in the third season. Similarly, the fact that this is Cooper’s first spectacle within the Lodge also suggests a new kind of dispersal and reconfiguration of his character as well, and the beginning of a long journey back to what initially appeared as his normal or quotidian self.
No wonder, then, that when Cooper emerges from the Lodge his transformation is so startling and estranging that it has traumatised fans of the series for some twenty-five years. On the one hand, it’s enhanced by Lynch’s very wise decision to keep this epilogue as brief and economical as possible – I remember watching it again and again in search of something more, some kind of respite – but also by how plausibly Kyle McLachlan sinks into this new role. Even or especially if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, it somehow seems to rival and contain everything we have seen or know of Dale Cooper so far, making for a conclusion that still haunts me a decade and a half after I originally watched it, and hasn’t been diminished at all by the passage of time. On the eve of the third season, it resonates stronger than ever, and, with that in mind, I’ll see you all in twenty-five years.
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