THIS IS A WARNING IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED BY PLOT POINTS OF “TWIN PEAKS” SEASON THREE OR “STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI” THEN DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER!!!!
Sometimes there can be a such a thing as getting too comfortable. We are prone to ease into what is familiar, and what we can comprehend in our own minds as normal. Normalcy can equal safety and security, if we can predict an outcome, we can at least feel secure in knowing what will happen next. But it’s when things stop being predictable and comfortable, we can start feeling uneasy, and maybe a bit off kilter, and it’s with that feeling of uncertainty that can lift us into astonishment.
When it comes to pre-existing material, there might be more pressure on creators to make something that feels more familiar, and comfortable. After all when we revisit something, especially something that has a legacy attached to it, there’s a feeling that certain expectations must be met. However if these expectations are not met, the creation could be seen as a failure.
In the past week, I’ve recently viewed two such properties that have held a certain legacy in the public eye for decades and both have returned this year with new, albeit polarizing installments to their respective series. The first is the new season of “Twin Peaks” while the second is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. You can’t say that these two series have much in common, one is a cult television show which was prematurely cancelled over 25 years ago, while the other is the most popular film franchise in the history of the world. Yet with their new installments I intend to explore what makes them different from their past incarnations, and by subverting our expectations, they have been able to add upon their own mythology while also finding the freedom to take new artistic risks.
When it comes to “Twin Peaks” it might be safe to say one doesn’t know what to expect. After all it is the brainchild of one of the most popular surrealists of all time David Lynch. Yet “Twin Peaks” became a cultural phenomenon in its day if only for a small while as the public was caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of a high school beauty queen named Laura Palmer. At that time, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost pulled the rug from under us by going through a whole half a season of not revealing who the killer was. The first season ended on a cliffhanger and audiences were left wondering all summer who killed Laura Palmer, expecting by the season 2 premiere to have the mystery solved. But solving Laura Palmer’s death was never what Lynch and Frost had in mind, it was an initial mystery to open up doors to more mysteries within the show. The studio bosses at the Network were not happy with this artistic decision and forced Lynch and Frost to eventually name the murderer who turned out to be Laura’s father who was possessed by the evil entity known as Bob. After the reveal of the killer, the rest of season 2 suffered in trying to develop more stories but it became difficult once the true heart of the series was ripped out. Lynch and Frost moved on to other projects but returned in the second season finale to leave on yet another cliffhanger. This one had the show’s hero, F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) becoming trapped in the mysterious red curtain draped room known as the black lodge, while an evil doppelgänger of Cooper with the Presence of Bob escapes into the real world. The show was cancelled after ratings dwindled, without a clear conclusion to Cooper’s fate.
This year saw the return of “Twin Peaks” with fans now hoping to learn what has become of Agent Cooper and his evil twin, and they got that. What they didn’t get was the show they were used to. Lynch and Frost came at us with a different angle almost to say in order for the show to survive, it couldn’t be what it once was, it had to evolve, much like the strange entity known as the arm which is found in the black lodge. In the old series the arm was dancing, backwards talking dwarf who gave Agent Cooper cryptic clues to the case of Laura Palmer and became one of the staple characters. In the new series the arm has changed into a leafless tree with something like a brain coming out of its branches, this new, even more bizarre iteration of the character could be a symbol for the new series as well.
This need for change in the series might not have just been driven from artistic ambition, but also out of the fact that the television landscape has become a very different place since “Twin Peaks” first aired. The former show pushed boundaries on regular network broadcaster ABC where Lynch went to the limit on the amount of violence and disturbing images he could get away with. It made for a somewhat unsettling companion to other shows of the period such as “The Wonder Years” and “Who’s the Boss?”, people weren’t used to that amount of violence on prime time. The new series would run at a time we have already seen the revolution of “The Sopranos”, “The Wire” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” all of which probably wouldn’t exist without the original “Twin Peaks” paving the way for them. Again there was this legacy of it being the show which pushed boundaries and withdrew from convention, how could it go back to what it once was?
“Twin Peaks” season three felt like a dark phoenix rising from the ashes of the original. Very little of the old series remains in the first handful of episodes save for the reassuring presence of Agent Cooper who spends it trying to navigate himself from being released from the black lodge and into the regular world again. Lynch uses these moments to treat us with some of his most creative imagery like having Cooper fall into the zigzag designed floor of the black lodge into a mysterious room with a young woman whose eyes are covered with what looks like an extra layer of skin. Once Cooper does find himself in the real world, he is not himself but becomes Dougie, a slower version of Cooper who must now re-learn how to become human. This new version of Cooper is like a baby but it also becomes a comedy as he stumbles into good fortune while also avoiding multiple assassination attempts. It seems as if Lynch and Frost are riffing on their own version of “Forrest Gump” or “Being There”.
However the Cooper/Dougie storyline became a bit polarizing with fans. There were accusations that it went on too long and meandered as people were waiting for their beloved Cooper to arrive. This wasn’t the only instance the show played with expectations, with the core of the story arc not even taking place in the town of Twin Peaks but rather multiple locations such as Las Vegas, and New York. The original show’s soap opera like tone was pretty much non-existent save for the brief re-kindled romance of Big Ed the mechanic and diner matron Norma. Even the dreamlike theme which accompanied the original so often that it felt like part of the show’s DNA is mostly unheard through the new series, as well as Laura Palmer herself.
This is part of Lynch playing with the audience, but this is also a very different David Lynch than the one from the 1990s. Since the original “Twin Peaks” Lynch has become more experimental with films like “Mulholland Drive” (arguably the greatest film of the early 2000s) and “Inland Empire” (a 3 hour digitally shot magnum opus in surrealism). Maybe like the Cooper/Dougie character, Lynch is re-learning in this new landscape, bringing his sensibility to the forefront and trying to be relevant again.
At the heart though, Lynch and Frost do remember that “Twin Peaks” has always been about Laura Palmer and her savior Dale Cooper and that all of that comes to ahead in the final two episodes. Cooper is able to go back in time to actually save Laura before she is murdered only to have some evil force pull her away from him. Cooper then dives deeper into alternate dimensions trying to save Laura again.
The idea that Laura is now saved from death (maybe?) rips a hole right through what we once knew the show was. The world has changed, nothing can be what it was because the past has been tampered with. This could be seen as a meta commentary on behalf of Lynch and Frost on what a reboot to a series could mean, it changes what we once knew was true. However it’s also a way for them to take back control of “Twin Peaks” when they lost it to the network executives who wanted Laura Palmer’s murder solved. The old “Twin Peaks” no longer exists, as Laura Palmer’s murder never took place, it feels like an artistic victory over the powers that be.
The series ends with credits and a still image of Cooper in the black lodge and Laura whispering something in his ear as somber music plays. It’s a haunting image for me, but it’s a perfect summation of what the show is and always has been, a secret that can never be fully revealed. This was not the “Twin Peaks” we remembered, but it was “Twin Peaks”.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” probably had a more difficult road of fulfilling expectations than “Twin Peaks”. It holds the flag-ship name of all film franchises in this modern era of filmmaking, as well as the main cash cow of our Disney overlord. It is the direct sequel to “The Force Awakens” which was a film that played on our idea of what “Star Wars” is and should be, and could be seen as a direct response to the prequel films which subverted expectations themselves by focusing the death of democracy rather than fun and adventure. “The Last Jedi” had a lot to live up to, however I was surprised by the amount of chances this films took.
“The Last Jedi” which was written and directed by Rian Johnson almost feels like a response to the storytelling approach of “The Force Awakens” which was helmed by J.J. Abrams. In Abrams’ film, he took the nostalgia approach of taking what we already knew of the original “Star Wars” trilogy and made it new again. He played with familiar beats particularly established from “A New Hope” and remixed them for a newer audience. But Abrams being Abrams he also added some “mystery box” elements to the story. These were clues hidden in “The Force Awakens” that seemed to give the promise of a reveal in later installments. Primarily this had to do with the parentage of the young hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as the origin of the new big bad Snoke (Andy Serkis)
You could say that the big joke in “The Last Jedi” is that these mysteries that were raised by Abrams are more or less an after thought. For his part, Johnson is not concerned with feeling nostalgic for the past or playing with the destinies of its heroes but rather playing with what a “Star Wars” movie can be.
For fans of “Star Wars” perhaps there are a bunch of invisible rules, one must abide by in order to make a “Star Wars” film. George Lucas certainly didn’t follow it when he made the prequels, which led to an outcry that is still persistent today. Rian Johnson is also one who doesn’t follow the rules either. “The Last Jedi” could’ve been the first film of this new trilogy with the way it throws out what we thought was important from “The Force Awakens”, and how it really ends with a new beginning letting the past fade out gracefully.
The first thing I noticed about this not being a “Star Wars” film I was used to was how very much the idea of “WAR” was at the forefront of the film. This idea was pretty persistent in the stand alone film “Rogue One” which played more like a war movie and remains a main theme in this one as well. In “The Last Jedi” we see people die in battle and unlike the expendable X-wing pilots of the old films, we feel the weight of loss when they die. This actually affects the actions of one of the new characters in the film Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) whose sister dies in the film’s first battle. Johnson uses Rose as a window to a world that is largely ignored in “Star Wars” mythos, that of a girl who was raised below poverty and sees the corruption of the upper class who are the ones that actually prosper in war. Kinda heavy stuff for a “Star Wars” movie you might say.
The film moves back and forth to the training of Rey by reluctant hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who is now a hermit. It is here Johnson plays with the mythology of the Force, which has remained a pretty vague concept up to this point, and one that is joked about in the film that gives you the power to “lift rocks”. The Island which Luke has secluded him on is where the oldest Jedi temple lies which also contains the ancient Jedi texts. These become a symbol of the old ways of doing things, and Johnson comments on this as maybe ways that didn’t quite work. Luke even relates to Rey how the Jedi were ultimately responsible for the rise of Darth Vader and how he blames himself for young Kylo Ren turning to the dark side. Later in the film Luke in a symbolic gesture with the help of ghost Yoda sets fire to the old temple. Yoda then gives his last piece of guidance to Luke in that perhaps the greatest lesson a teacher can learn from is by his mistakes.
Here we see Johnson foregoing with the past, which is indeed one of the main themes of the film and which Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) really brings home. Tired of being a puppet to the dark Lord Snoke , Kylo slices him in two with a light saber thus taking control of his own destiny. This reinforces Johnson’s theme of moving on from the past, and also pulls the rug from under us by revealing Snoke was nothing more than someone who was in Kylo Ren’s way.
I think Rian Johnson has used “Star Wars” as a way of resetting the rules, or at least playing by his own with this installment. “Star Wars” has become a film for everybody, so why can’t the force be for everybody too. He shows this again by playing with Abrams’ “mystery box” set up of Rey’s parents, revealing (at least for now) they were probably beggars who sold Rey off for money or liquor, making her not the special “chosen one” she was set up as. That doesn’t mean she’s not special, Rey is a fighter and remains spunky and persistent, with an energy to change the world, which Johnson really brings out, particularly when she feels her kinship with Kylo Ren and her determination that she can bring him back to the light.
I saw “The Last Jedi” as being unconventional and makes this new series far more interesting than the retread I thought it would be. With the “Force Awakens” you could look at it as someone’s idea of what “Star Wars” should be, “The Last Jedi” is another idea as well, and they kinda compliment each other that way. If we look at the original “Star Wars” trilogy, they were films which commented on past movie serials and adventures as well as Kurosawa samurai films and Joseph Campbell mythology. “The Last Jedi” carries on that tradition of commenting on what came before it, but it’s also a movie that chooses not to sit on its laurels or legacy. It’s a film not satisfied with playing it safe by giving a fanfare movie, it’s deeper and more complex than that. I would say there are more exciting “Star Wars” films out there with more innocent fun and adventure, but “The Last Jedi” is far and away the most contemplative and complex film in the series thus far. We’ll see if this reinvigorating of the franchise will last, or if it was just a passing fancy by an ambitious artist who got the keys to the kingdom.