Frustration is endemic to the television serial. One of the great joys of the serial is the way the viewer’s interest is propelled forward by cliffhangers and unanswered questions. We all know the feeling of “oh shit, there’s a new Breaking Bad tonight!” There’s tremendous pleasure in the cycle of being frustrated by a cliffhanger, having thoughts of anticipation building towards the next episode, and finally sitting down for the big revelation. Sometimes a show will tease you: postpone the awaited event or answer a question with another question. Skillful play with audience expectations can be deployed to great effect.
Lynch has made this dynamic a theme of Twin Peaks: The Return, and in part 12 it reaches a fever pitch. A brief perusal of the internet indicates that a lot of people couldn’t stand it. I’m not surprised. He takes it so far that it reminds me of Haneke’s Funny Games. Funny Games is an anti-thriller that aims to punish its audience for their blood-thirsty genre expectations. It shows us none of the action but all of the suffering. There’s a 7+ minute scene of someone who’s been shot bleeding out on the floor. I deliberately went to see the English-language version of Funny Games primetime Friday night at the big multiplex with as large a crowd as possible, because the audience reaction is the whole point. I was not disappointed. During the above mentioned 7+ minute scene, complete strangers in the audience started fighting with each other openly. One guy stood up and threatened a group of teenagers that he would “stick all their heads up their asses.” Well played, Haneke.
In an analogous way, part 12 was anti-television. God, where to begin. The episode was entitled “Let’s rock,” which is an iconic line from the original series (spoken by The Arm). Multiple storylines have built a good head of steam and we are getting close to October 1st in the show’s timeline, when we have been led to believe that the shit will hit the fan. I think everyone expected an eventful episode. I’ve even heard that Lynch and Frost deliberately leaked that this would be the most remarkable episode yet (someone leaked this, but we don’t know who for sure). What we got instead wasn’t merely an audience tease; it was an all-out assault on our expectations. The clearest way to make this case is to consider the way Audrey was reintroduced. Sherilyn Fenn is listed in the show’s cast; we knew she would show up sooner or later. I had seen various online comments this last week: “We’re getting down to the wire and so many things still need to happen! So many characters haven’t even shown up yet!” There was a lot of hope circulating that maybe Audrey will finally appear. The show has been brutal about withholding gratification. Basically none of the fan favorites from the original series are seeing heavy play, and when they do show up, it’s not in the way the audience wants them to. When we finally get to hear Coop say “damn good cherry pie,” it’s overwhelmingly sad. Audrey’s reintroduction goes beyond withholding, and approaches open hostility. Lynch brought her back in the most abrasive way possible. Her hen-pecked husband Charlie sits over a pile of work and complains about being sleepy while she angrily berates him because he’s not being helpful in tracking down her missing lover, Billy. We don’t know any of the characters mentioned. The scene goes on FOREVER. Charlie makes a phone call (rotary dial, of course), there’s a big info dump, and we only hear his side of it. He says “unbelievable, what you’re telling me!”, but then refuses to explain what he was told. Audrey has a conniption. My favorite line is when she yells at him to look in his crystal ball and find out where Billy is, and he replies, “Come on, Audrey, you know I don’t have a crystal ball.” She emphasizes “You have no balls! That’s why I’m in love with Billy! That’s why I’m FUCKING Billy!” And then when we do finally get to the roadhouse (where Audrey intended to look for Billy), instead of some kind of exposition of what’s up with Audrey, we switch to two entirely new characters talking about other characters we haven’t met. I was cackling at this point. Again: my reading is that he’s taken a structural feature of television serials in general and blown it up to the point of absurdity. We love to be teased a little by a good TV show. Lynch takes it past the breaking point several times over.
Another great scene involves Lynch himself and French actress Berenice Marlohe (she was a Bond girl in Skyfall). Lynch often gets accused of various forms of misogyny. I think that these critiques are ill-founded, but I’m not interested in litigating the issue right now. A frequent accusation is that he likes to dress women up like 50’s pin ups and ogle them. In this scene, he literally ogles Marlohe (in a pin up getup) for two solid minutes. As for the episode as a whole, in this scene Lynch is really aggressively leaning into his critics. Oh, you don’t like that? You mean you don’t like it when I do THIS?!
Negative emotions often figure positively in aesthetic experiences. Sadness and grief for tragedy, fear and disgust for horror, etc. I’ve argued that we should understand these negative emotions as elements imbedded within complex aesthetic experiences, and that an overall aesthetic experience can be attractive partly in virtue of one or more of its elements being painful or otherwise aversive. I think we can understand the frustrations of Twin Peaks according to this model. Frustration is an unpleasant emotion, but imbedded in the right context, it can be quite pleasant. Television ordinarily plays with frustration by teasing our expectations. I’ve been engaging with David Lynch’s art since I was like 12 years old (thanks, Dad). Part of the pleasure of approaching the new Twin Peaks episodes for me is that I still really, truly have no idea what the fuck he’s going to do. True aesthetic surprise is an exhilarating experience that’s all too hard to come by now that we’ve passed through the postmodern singularity. Last night’s episode really, truly surprised me. The frustration that the narrative engendered wasn’t ultimately unpleasant for me, because it fed into this feeling of exhilarating surprise. Like, “THAT’S HOW YOU’RE GONNA BRING AUDREY BACK! OMG!” I get the sense that people with overly rigid expectations didn’t share my enjoyment, and I think that’s part of the point as well. Much like Haneke, Lynch is showing open hostility to a certain sort of audience. He’s punishing those looking for nostalgia.