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‘Twin Peaks’ and the end of history

In David Lynch’s acclaimed series, the ambiguity is the joy—at the end of the end of history, the unknown is a horror

Economic CrisisCulture

Kyle MacLachlan plays FBI Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return. Photo courtesy Showtime.

Oh now it’s gone, gone
And I am who I am
Who I was, I’ll never have the chance
Running out of sand
—Eddie Vedder, “Out of Sand”

The original Twin Peaks, a mystery-horror television series directed by David Lynch, aired on the doorstep of the end of history. From 1990 to 1991, viewers followed the manifold mysteries orbiting the death of Laura Palmer, the fallout from the revelation of her killer, and the offbeat goings-on at the titular town which seemed to be the epicentre of a strange and sinister dimension’s communications with Earth.

One year after the series’ cancellation, American ex-neoconservative Francis Fukuyama published an infamous book called The End of History in which he argued that US-style liberal capitalism was the apotheosis of humanity’s civilizational capacities. “Liberal democracy” was the Manichean good that had triumphed over the evil of the Soviet Union and would enact its righteous destiny upon the rest of the world—whether it liked it or not—battering down national barriers and gathering all peoples into the glorious culmination of human society. “At the end of history,” Fukuyama proclaimed, “there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.”

Twin Peaks aired on the precipice of Bill Clinton’s 1990s, when the Democratic Party fully assimilated Reaganism into its core policies and all serious alternatives to US-led capitalist globalization—the Soviet Union, communist China, Cuba, Vietnam—had either adapted to market economics, collapsed altogether, or seemed to triumphal Western observers like they would collapse any second. Nonetheless, the United States that Lynch depicted in the original series did not share the jubilant teleology that characterized US politics at the time.

Much like how Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1998) sought to reveal the rot that suppurated beneath the stereotype of well-ordered, Leave it to Beaver America, the original Twin Peaks—while hardly a political show—gestured toward a dark and corrosive undergirding that had no place in the marvellous promise of the end of history.

Under the surface of this quaint, picturesque town, an American idyll complete with sprawling woodland and beautiful smiling waitresses, lurked a festering world of crime, drugs, and violent affairs (all typical territory for your average primetime soap), but also an unknowable dream-world where supernatural beings used the town’s blinkered population for their purposes like the gods of the Greek pantheon.

By folding this supernatural layer into his murder mystery, Lynch signified that there were worlds that remained unaccounted for at the end of history, and it was only a matter of time before they made their presence known.

In 2021, Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe published The End of the End of History, a text that examines the disintegration of Fukuyama’s theory of liberal democracy—and what remains now that his ideas, once the uncontested ideology of the US ruling class, have been so thoroughly discredited.

As the jacket copy puts it: “The idea that Western liberal democracy was the ‘final form of human government’ has been exposed as bluster: the old order is crumbling before our eyes. Angry anti-politics have arisen to threaten political establishments across the world. Elites have fallen into hysteria, blaming voters, “populism,” Putin, Facebook—anyone but themselves. They are suffering from Neoliberal Order Breakdown Syndrome… Politics is back, but it’s stranger than ever.”

The accumulative impulses of global capitalism have generated diverse forms of resistance around the world, from Zapatismo to the Bolivarian Revolution to anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East, while in the capitalist metropoles, blatant corruption, cultural polarization, and domestic underdevelopment have caused citizens to revolt in bizarre and often counterintuitive ways.

This was typified by the 2016 election of “political outsider” Donald Trump, a billionaire and long-time political donor whose anti-establishment branding elevated him to messianic proportions with the increasingly schismatic QAnon cult. The Democrats’ answer to Trump, Joe Biden, epitomizes the political power structures which are so scorned by American voters that they were willing to accept someone like Trump in the first place, and if his dismal approval ratings are any indication, he is not providing the refutation that the liberal commentariat seem to think he is.

In short, the supposedly stable floorboards of liberal democracy are cracking, and as of 2022, it is unclear how it will repair itself or, considering the intransigence of US capitalism, what will follow its collapse.

Much like Blue Velvet attacked the halcyon days of mid-century American life, and the original Twin Peaks pointed to the uncertainty that underlaid life in a country that was drunk off its Cold War victory, The Return (an 18-part limited event series that picks up 25 years after the events of the first two seasons) is a work that is preoccupied with exploring the increasingly unignorable malaise of US society.

In the modern US, decay is no longer an ironic flipside to the polished reality—now, liberal democracy is a crumbling system in which the froth and foam of social putrescence is a daily reality, perpetually visible whether one wants to acknowledge it or not.

The original series aired a few years before NAFTA spilled across the North American continent, devastating the livelihoods of not just US and Canadian manufacturers but to a far greater extent those of Mexico, many of whom were driven into maquiladoras to toil away on the electronic devices that feature so prominently in The Return, which premiered on Showtime in May 2017.

The original series aired around a decade before 9/11 and the subsequent US wars in the Middle East. Despite the disproportionate impact of free trade and the global War on Terror along the North-South global axis, the internal effects of globalization and imperialism are unmistakable throughout The Return. The grief of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan roils through the rural town. Sheriff Truman’s son committed suicide because, as foul deputy Chad mocks, “he couldn’t take being a soldier.” A trailer park resident named Mickey struggles to get an electric wheelchair for his disabled wife, leading park owner Carl to spit “Fuckin’ war.” Simultaneously, poverty and precarity abound. In part 12, an elderly trailer park resident sells his blood for food, giving literal meaning to Marx’s description of capital as “vampire-like.”

Meanwhile, the kids are not all right.

Bobby and Shelley’s daughter struggles with drug use and her abusive husband Steven, who may or may not have murdered her by the series’ end (“I did it,” he snivels, high and dishevelled, seconds before shooting himself dead).

An unapologetic toddler fires a gun into the Double R diner and eerily mimics his father’s apathy when confronted by police.

A girl lurches upright in the passenger’s seat of the car behind them, zombie-like, vomit drizzling down her cheeks.

A toddler is run down by Richard Horne, a major antagonist in The Return, who is blinded by anger after being ridiculed as a “kid” by an out-of-town drug dealer.

In mid-breakdown America, do any of the young ones have a chance?

Amidst all this misery, anti-politics reigns. Dr. Jacoby, a psychiatrist who was seeing Laura Palmer as a patient prior to her murder, has been rechristened as “Dr. Amp,” the Alex Jones-esque livestream ranter that spends his evenings screaming his paranoid personality disorder into a webcam, bemoaning “the fucks” who are out to get average Americans but never explaining who these “fucks” are or what exactly they want.

The conscienceless contract killer Hutch muses about government violence while eating fast food in his van: “So-called Christian nation. Might as well be, ‘thou shalt kill.’ ‘Show no mercy.’ ‘Forgive no one.’” Everybody seems to know that life in America doesn’t live up to the promise of the end of history, but nobody can articulate the material causes for this reality, let alone formulate an alternate path. The processes of capital are as distant and unknowable as the Black Lodge—an extra-dimensional place featuring an endless, red-curtained series of rooms and hallways.

Much like Roberto Bolaño’s seminal novel 2666, in which the gloomy spectre of neoliberalism haunts characters who are altogether unable to pronounce its name, “the majority of the [show’s] characters glimpse the horrors… to some extent, but they all stop short of recognizing the historical processes that reproduce” them.

The series pulses with an undercurrent of grim social critique that occasionally geysers up into amorphous, discordant, and puzzling forms: usually scenes that feel disconnected from the main storylines, but serve as tonal mortar for the season as a whole. The restaurant shooting. The baffling asides at the Roadhouse. Every Audrey scene. The feeling of discombobulation that runs through these moments resonates with the lyrical content of the soundtrack woven through the episodes. “I can’t remember what she came here for,” Trent Reznor howls in part eight. “I can’t remember much of anything anymore.”

The songs revolve around themes of feeling lost, being away from home, and forgetting one’s identity. Likewise, so many characters feel dislodged from their previous selves but remain unsure what has dislodged them and why. “I feel like I’m somewhere else,” a disconsolate Audrey tells her blank-faced husband. “Like I’m somewhere else, and like I’m somebody else… I’m not sure who I am, but I’m not me.”

Part eight, perhaps the most lore-laden episode of the season, inserts an overtly political core into the mythos of Twin Peaks. The centrality of the nuclear bomb to the series’ history, and the idea that the horrid inhumanity of its creation tore a hole in spacetime and allowed the entry of an untold cosmic evil, directly ascribes the arrival of the Black Lodge entities to rising US militarism.

David Lynch as FBI Director Gordon Cole. Behind Cole’s desk is a picture of Trinity, the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in July 1945. Photo courtesy Showtime.

Importantly, the composition that plays during Lynch’s depiction of the Trinity test is Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” The real-world evil is immediately paired with the suffering of its real-world victims, even though the explosion we are seeing is the first test detonation, not the bombing of Japan. The evil is joined to its eventual victims—the attack with the remembrance of the attack. And while events in the season are contained within an otherworldly Manichean struggle, one gets the sense throughout its 18 parts that one is not only watching a threnody, or lament, for the victims of US militarism, but for the “post-atomic Soul of America”—for the US, and the world, that the atomic bomb inaugurated.

As a symbol, the 1945 explosion blossoms out through the temporal divisions of US history. It points forward to the Cold War, to the “end of history,” and to the current period of US decline, but it points backward as well—to the mining of uranium from Indigenous American lands and to the genocide (in Gerald Horne’s words, the “Apocalypse”) that preceded this exploitation.

“We know that in areas where uranium is mined, such as New Mexico, Utah, the Four Corners and the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, Native people face skyrocketing rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects,” writes David Titterington. “Men and women who grew up in the Four Corners develop ovarian and testicular cancers at 15 times the national average.” Likewise, the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, where the US military exploded 66 nuclear bombs during Operation Bravo, suffer extremely high rates of cancer and birth defects, with people sometimes giving birth to eyeless, boneless infants.

Amongst settler Americans, however, there is little awareness of the impact of Bravo on the Marshall Islands, or the continued effects of uranium mining on Indigenous lands. They tend to associate the horror of the bomb with one location: Hiroshima. Titterington writes:

When the United States decided to drop an atomic bomb on a city filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent people, something changed in us, and in the universe, forever. Something opened. Lynch says the A-bomb in Twin Peaks “creates an opening,” a crack in everything… The United States… broke the world—morally, atomically, technologically, spiritually, and Twin Peaks carefully guides us to that multi-dimensional, macro-moment.

The “breaking of the world” was only made possible by the genocide of Indigenous Americans and settler-colonial resource exploitation on the American continent. The national project of the United States is, according to Twin Peaks, the Mother of Evils.

In The Return, the evil of US government actions bubbles up in ways that are peculiar and scary, but which always point irrevocably toward a sense of decline. In many ways, the season feels like a lament for the US, and the pile of victims it has accrued on its single-minded drive toward the annihilation of its enemies, which will ultimately lead to the annihilation of itself.

Despite the impressive command that Lynch exercises over The Return’s narrative structure, threading so many disparate storylines together in a feat that Nick Pinkerton describes as “architectonic,” the ending leaves one feeling desolate, almost helpless to make sense of what one has just seen. Lynch brings everything together just to blow it up again. The conclusion of The Return is mercilessly concise: Special Agent Dale Cooper, who’s assigned to investigate Palmer’s murder, is totally perplexed as to what he has achieved, or failed to achieve, in his quest, and weakly asks, “What year is this?” His bafflement is interrupted by horror when Carrie screams screams out inexplicably.

By the time the credits roll on part 18, a shocking number of characters and storylines are suspended in liminality. What was Cooper’s plan? Where is Audrey? Did Steven kill Becky? Where (and who) is Billy? Who is the dreamer? Is there a dreamer?

The frustrating ambiguity of so many central elements of the season accord with the frustrating ambiguity of American decline. When will the US empire end? How will it end? What will the US look like after its imperial presence has been deterred but its massive military apparatus remains? In Twin Peaks, the ambiguity is the joy—at the end of the end of history, the unknown is a horror.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Visit his website at


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