Twin Peaks: The Return (Part 2)
"My shadow is always with me." -Wally Brando
Episode 2: The Black Iron Prison
Previously on Great Moments in Cinematic Drinking
10 years ago (Jesus Fucking Christ), when I started writing about drinking and movies and myself, I established a clear formula, a small box where I could fit the details of my own life, but just enough of them that I didn’t have to expose too much or admit too much or confess too much. What I’ve realized is that the reason I’ve failed to write it so many times is because I’ve tried to maintain this clear boundary, tried to keep too much of myself from escaping the box. The subject matter is the problem. Neither Twin Peaks: The Return nor the things that have happened to me since the last of these essays was published, Christmas 2015, can be easily contained in the box I built to hold them.
Early on in The Return, David Lynch and Mark Frost portray the difficulty of trying to keep trauma contained. A character we’ve never seen before sits on a sofa in a New York warehouse that would be unassuming if not for what this character watches: an empty glass box large enough for a person, its only ingress a hole leading to the bare sky, dozens of stories up. Multiple film cameras cover the box like a firing squad. The only sound we hear is…a kind of otherworldly whooshing. The air as it moves within this enclosure? Or something more?
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Well, it turns out it’s a trap, meant to catch someone (something?). Sitting on a sofa opposite the box sits a man, waiting for something to pass through it. Or hoping it doesn’t. From where? Well, another universe or a distant part of ours. But the unpresupposing man watching doesn’t know this, nor does the flirtatious young woman who interrupts him with two cups of coffee. They slowly sip their coffees, discussing this mysterious room as the sexual tension and dramatic irony both mount, until they’re rounding second base on the sofa and the space inside the box begins to—wobble? Yes, there is something in the box, now, a figure. Those of us watching…well, we don’t know exactly what to expect, but as we’re watching David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, we aren’t altogether surprised when this thing starts to take shape within the box, this entity, which the obsessive viewer will eventually, after several rewatches and trips to various message boards, come to know as a trans-dimensional god/monster named Judy. It breaks through the glass straight for us, a sort of walking distortion, and literally shreds the two young fornicators to pieces.
My older brother Christopher and I discuss the show constantly over text message in long discursive rants the summer it airs, 2017. He introduced me to the show, back when you had to track it down on physical media to watch it. He’d bring the DVD box set over under his coat like contraband and we’d drink terrible black coffee and eat grocery store pie at an apartment I used to live in that was between two different sets of train tracks, freight and commuter. As we aged, Tim and I drifted apart and Chris and I got closer. I don’t know if we drifted apart because of his habit, or if it was just the fickleness we inherited from our father.
Chris and I talk about the eerie ways it won’t stop intersecting with reality. For instance, that year sees the incipient rise of Democratic Alabama Senate candidate, and namesake of Dale Cooper’s doppelgänger, Doug Jones. Or the eerie parallels between the ongoing FBI investigation of the President and Cooper/Dougie’s slow ride back to consciousness. We talk about how people get Lynch’s relationship to wholesome Americana wrong, how he genuinely loves towns like Twin Peaks. You need that wholesomeness, Dale Cooper rhapsodizing about the beauty of the Douglas Firs and the deliciousness of the coffee, to show what’s really at stake.
What Chris and I quite pointedly do not talk about is our brother. That summer, things are escalating, and in the end he disappears for a long time, drops all contact with his family. Fully off the grid due to some trouble with the law. His story is incredible, but not mine to recount here, not in full, other than to say that in the process he has his own spiritual awakening. First, though, like Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones himself, he dies for a minute. An OD. While briefly dead, he meets Odin, the god of our forebears. Odin would fit in well with the supernatural beings who populate the Twin Peaks universe: his motives aren’t always virtuous, his “gifts” often come in the form of challenges to overcome. In the dark forest of his subconscious, the well from which all human achievement springs, my brother changes his path. Odin—or whoever—sends him to jail, but offers him protection. In jail Tim discovers a new form of spirituality rooted in gnosticism and magic. He reads Philip K Dick’s Valis, a novel of thinly-veiled autobiography about Dick’s own experience with the higher realms after an epiphany/vision of the ancient Christians of Rome.
“Time does not exist. The freedom of the world is under threat by the ‘black iron prison’—Lynch calls it the Black Lodge, you and I know it as power. Empire. Authority. The opposite of life. The thing holding my brother captive when he sees, for the first time, the true nature of existence.”
Like many of us who meet a power larger than ourselves, Philip K. Dick didn’t go looking. He was just trying to do some drugs. (People who do not understand addiction will discuss the choice to do drugs, or to stop, as a kind of academic exercise, and not what it is, a decision between life and death). The woman delivering his pills, a weaker opioid than the type Tim had been addicted to and arrested for possessing, wears a golden cross necklace that catches the sun in just such a way that a pink beam of light shines directly into Dick’s retina. God, or a transdimensional intelligence most easily understood as analogous to God, sends Phillip K. Dick a message. To paraphrase, the universe is made of information. As beings capable of interpreting this information, we are all vehicles of a divine message: Time does not exist. The freedom of the world is under threat by the “black iron prison”—Lynch calls it the Black Lodge. You and I know it as power. Empire. Authority. The opposite of life. The thing holding my brother captive when he sees, for the first time, the true nature of existence.
Around the same time that my brother reads VALIS in jail, I am still in depression’s grip. I’m struggling with many things, not the least of which: I’ve convinced myself the person I love more than anyone in the world is my enemy. Tim writes me from a jail cell in 2019. In a bout of self-righteousness I don’t write him back. Typical of me back then, I’m too convinced that I’m right on the principle to budge, not unlike my father, who stopped speaking to each of us in turn during our late teens and early twenties.
Sitting on the couch by myself one evening, I am suddenly possessed of the urge to go to my bookshelf. More or less at random I pick an out-of-print volume containing the last recorded interview with Philip K. Dick. In this volume, Dick mentions a piece of music, Music On A Long Thin Wire, an experimental recording of the electromagnetic fluctuations around the eponymous wire. I find it on YouTube, lie in bed, and play it through my noise canceling headphones. Soon, as I focus on my breathing, I feel the barrier between my body and that which isn’t my body dissolve. Or rather, to say it in Buddhism, I experience the truth that this barrier never existed in the first place. I lose track of my breathing, forget the imagined difference between inhalation and exhalation, and become a sieve for the air outside of me, for the universe itself. In my mind’s eye, I see my lungs as great bioluminescent forms taking in light and giving light back. It’s enough to, at least momentarily, shake me out of my depression and see things with clarity. The universe, in its seeming randomness, had led me to enlightenment.
“The universe, in its seeming randomness, had led me to enlightenment.”
Dale Cooper, in the form of Dougie Jones, shares the benefit of the universe’s protection with Tim and I, his fellow penitents. Following some obscure rules I won’t unpack here, his allies in the transdimensional Red Room (you know, the weird place with the curtains and the Beetlejuice floors) help him survive his ordeal. First, they rig slot machines, then they steer him towards a fateful cherry pie, all to get him in the good graces of two local mobsters who go on to protect him from the various assassins sent by his arch-nemesis, a transdimensional demon named Bob who’s stolen his body. Later, they direct beams of light to the documents he can barely make sense of from his (that is, Dougie’s) job, helping him uncover major insurance fraud. This sets in motion a complicated chain of events that leads him to re-electrocute himself and return to his own consciousness, finally returning Dale Cooper to us. Agent Cooper saves the day, as usual, with a little help from his friends.
But not all is well.
Cooper ends his story where he began: lost. After another ride inside a powerline, he emerges in another dimension. Like before, he is Cooper, but also sort of isn’t. As usual, he’s trying to do the right thing, reunite the miraculously-not-dead Laura Palmer with her mother. But something’s not right. She’s not home. Judy, the entity who came through the portal and escaped the box in the Manhattan high rise, has beat him to it. Cooper stumbles, his confidence shaken. He looks like me now, sounds like me. He looks around at his Pacific Northwest surroundings, unsteady on his feet. “What year is it?” he asks.
It’s a dark ending, and heartbreaking. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch Twin Peaks: The Return at first. I was sad for Dale Cooper. He ends the original series trapped in a sort of inter-dimensional waiting room, his evil doppelgänger let loose to lay waste to the people he loves. For the show to continue, has has to have spent about 25 years trapped there. I didn’t like this. The idea that a person could lose years of their life was offensive to me. I think because I was still holding onto something, the illusion that I might live a life in which everything is okay. “Okay.” An idea drilled into my head during my upbringing in suburban America, as absurdly fictional in my experience as the electrified tree with a brain on top who Dale Cooper meets in The Return episode 2. Six brutal years since the series aired, it feels like the perfect ending to me. What else could you want? This is our hero. Where he belongs. In the thick of despair, fighting for survival.
This is what life is.
That first time I visited my dementia-stricken grandmother back in 2015, I didn’t think I could go in. I was so afraid that it felt … impossible that it could happen, that I could walk through that door and face her. This is one way of understanding an anxiety attack: the moment when what is imagined to be impossible comes true. To break through the anxiety, I meditate on it as a ball of nothingness. I obliterate with a beam of cleansing light that I’ve summoned from my heart. I used to be scared all the time. And so I had to work on that. And it has been very hard. But the fight has brought me everything good I’ve found. It brought me back to my brother. I call him on his birthday in 2020. We don’t relitigate the past, although we’re also not afraid to discuss it. I tell him how much I love him. Words I’ve been trying to find for my entire life. His struggles have changed him, but so have mine. Tim and I talk all the time now. About the universe. Fate. The interconnectedness of all things.
Before Dale Cooper disappears into another timeline, he makes sure to send the real Dougie (or the closest mystical approximation) back to Janey-E and their son. Before leaving them, Cooper tells them how much joy they brought him during his time as Dougie. Even as he stumbled through life, unable to move or speak, he saw them, from deep within the prison of his mind. Sometimes, if you are very patient, even after years of suffering, the universe will give you that: something worth surviving for.
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