This year, we've asked 10 writers to pick some of their favorite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Scott Tobias on Twin Peaks: The Return's stunning, apocalyptic "Episode 8."
Cut to black.
July 16th, 1945.
White Sands, New Mexico
5:29 a.m. MWT
How did we get here? That's the first question – or maybe the second, after "WTF?!" and a period of extended hypnosis – that comes to mind as the desert lights up with a brilliant flash and a mushroom cloud. The earth shakes and ripples as if an enormous stone has been chucked into a pond. How did Twin Peaks: The Return, a revival of the David Lynch and Mark Frost series that changed television in 1990 and flamed out with the 1992 feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, come back for a revival 25 years later? How did the simple question of "Who killed Laura Palmer?," a teenager from a close-knit community in the Pacific Northwest, suggest an answer that would take us this far afield, like some surrealist game of telephone? And even given the audacity of the Showtime version, which spent a full two-and-a-half minutes on a man sweeping a bar floor to Angelo Badalamenti's theme music, how did we wind up cutting to the first detonation of a nuclear weapon?
Landing at the exact midpoint of a 16-episode season, Twin Peaks: The Return's eighth installment – titled simply "Part 8" – was one of those rare cultural moments when you'll remember where you were when you watched it. That was also true of the the original series' pilot, a canny fusion of whodunit and nighttime soap opera, but with a heightened atmosphere and emotion that felt like nothing else on TV. There's a bait-and-switch quality to both phases of the series, in that Lynch pitches around a popular conceit, then take it in a singularly bizarre direction – it doesn't start as an anomaly but becomes one. The same forces that brought a cynical enterprise like, say, a Full House revival to Netflix account for how "Part 8" happens: An endless desire for nostalgia projects, shoveled into the great hungry maw of niche television. That Lynch would offer several different Kyle MacLachlan characters before finally bringing back Dale Cooper at the last possible moment is only one indication of how little he cared to tour Twin Peaks 2.0 around like some Baby Boomer arena act.
In the lead up to "Part 8," Lynch at least primed viewers to abandon their narrow preconceptions about what the show could be. For one, the town of Twin Peaks itself wasn't even the primary setting so much as a celestial signal board for transmissions coming from other places: a grisly murder in a Buckhorn, South Dakota apartment; a strange glass box in a New York City warehouse; a casino in Las Vegas, where one "Mr. Jackpots" has scored the loosest slots in town. Then came the third episode, which took took place mostly in a metaphysical tower above a purple sea, residing somewhere between the Black Lodge and the grotesque, post-industrial abstraction of Lynch's Eraserhead. The director's habit is to get us to accept the internal logic of some nightmarish conjuring, then push further.
The best explanation for "Part 8" is that it's an origin story – both for Twin Peaks itself and for the Pandora's Box that was cracked open that morning in White Sands, unleashing all the evils of the world forever. As Lynch's camera slowly zooms inside the mushroom cloud to the sound of shrieking violins, the violent swirls of light, the billowing flames and the small detonations of color recall the famed "Star Gate" sequence from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which send Keir Dullea's astronaut into a monolith and suggested some insight into the origins of life itself. But that nuclear blast feels just as connected to the "Dawn of Man" section of 2001, which ends with the apes discovering weapons and making that evolutionary leap to mankind.
Twin Peak's co-creator and Kubrick are not often associated, but they have the same idea about violence and destruction as our defining traits, and "Part 8" could be seen as a continuation of 2001 in that respect – from the "Dawn of Man" to the sunset of the Trinity test. Lynch's films are often about the conflict between good and evil, but there was always some hope that his characters could pass through the flame (see: MacLachlan and Laura Dern in Blue Velvet, Nicolas Cage and Dern again in Wild at Heart). None of that optimism is present in "Part 8": The story of Laura Palmer and her killer "Bob" appears in an eerie vision of predestination, as two orbs shot through a pneumatic tube, recalling the levers pulled by The Man in the Planet in Eraserhead. And when the camera passes through the atomic flame, a photo-negative of American hell awaits on the other side.
The small town that closes "Part 8" has the idealized quality of Twin Peaks or Lumberton, North Carolina, but it's shrouded in darkness that only we can see, like we're looking into a crystal ball. We know it's being overrun by terror, chiefly in the form of a soot-covered "Woodsman" with a cigarette dangling from his lips ("Got a light?") and a message of doom that he crushes two heads at a radio station to deliver. But the most haunting moment of the episode – and perhaps the whole series – comes when two teenagers are out for a stroll. The girl spots a penny on the ground. "It's heads-up!," she says. "That means it's good luck." Walking along in a hoop skirt, accepting a chaste kiss outside of her house, she can only take in the sweetness of the evening – "the end of the day/ in a dream that's divine," to quote The Platters song that perfumes the air. She doesn't know what's coming. And a lucky penny won't save her.
(By the way, "Part 8" also includes an entire Nine Inch Nails performance. It is by far the most conventional scene of the episode.)
Previously: I Love Dick, "A Short History of Weird Girls"
Next: Bojack Horseman, "Time's Arrow"