This is the first part of the behind-the-scenes features for Twin Peaks: The Return. The other nine parts are up on YouTube as well (for now anyway).
RIP the great Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017
…Kelly’s Heroes, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Cockfighter, Renaldo and Clara, Alien, Wise Blood, Escape from New York, Christine, Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Red Dawn, Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Fire Walk with Me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Straight Story, The Green Mile, Big Love, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks: The Return, and so many, many more.
Harry Dean Stanton elevated any film he was in, adding strange depth and soul to characters who may have otherwise been flat. Stanton was what people who write about film call a character actor, a subtly bizarre term, really, if you think about it, one that we use to easily distinguish between leading actors—“stars”—and the folks around them who are far more interesting. The greatest character actors are true artists, and Harry Dean Stanton was the greatest character actor. He did play the lead, occasionally though, as in Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders), a cult film that look let me stop here and say, See Paris, Texas already if you haven’t, it’s amazing. And while he’s not exactly the lead in Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox), he’s certainly the weird bouncing gravity that both anchors the film and propels it forward. (I assume that Repo Man is still required cult film viewing for young folks?). It was a joy to see Stanton one last time this year in Twin Peaks: The Return, where his performance of “Red River Valley” was a standout scene in a show full of standout scenes. While I’ll miss seeing him in new films, Stanton’s long list of roles insures that we’ll still be able to wonder into a film or show and excitedly declare, Oh shit! Harry Dean Stanton is in this!
As David Lynch and Mark Frost’s excellent series Twin Peaks: The Return approaches its conclusion this weekend, I have set myself the deeply important task of ranking all (okay, not nearly all) of the new characters we’ve been introduced to this season. They’re ranked from worst to best. The rubric I’m using is my own damn aesthetic intuition.
53. Steven Burnett
Damn. Steven is the worst. Just hated the guy. By the way, Gersten Hayward is not the worst, but obviously she can’t be on this list (even though she’s in that picture above) because she was in the original Twin Peaks, accompanying Leland Palmer on piano for “Come on Get Happy.”
52. Deputy Chad Broxford
Deputy Chad is a total piece of shit. Watching him get booted from the conference room with his sad ass lunch–two TV dinners and some soup!–was a highlight though.
51. Warden Dwight Murphy
Warden Murphy tried to get slick with Dark Cooper, but, nope. I’m almost certain we will get the whole Mr. Strawberry story by the last ep…right?
50-48. The Fusco Detectives
I loved the Las Vegas plot and I wanted to like these guys but they were so annoying. I mean, I guess that’s the joke, but the joke was vexing.
47. Freddie Sykes
Freddie Sykes telling that story to James is probably the most bored I got during The Return. However, he redeemed himself by punching those dudes who attacked James “James Has Always Been Cool” Hurley. I’m guessing his pugilist skills will come into play in the finale.
We hardly knew ya.
Jade was the first to be kind to Dougie, I realize, so I probably should put her higher on this list.
44-43. Sam and Tracey
Look, these two didn’t get much screen time, but the two-part opener is a classic, and their characters quickly showed that The Return was not going to traffic in nostalgic fan service but instead do something new—something somehow darker and weirder than the original series.
Mickey is obviously a very minor character, his presence inarguably enhanced by sharing the screen with Harry Dean Stanton’s Carl Rodd. I liked the dude.
41. Ray Monroe
I think we were supposed to hate Ray and I hated Ray. Typing out his name I realize that maybe he’s named after Ray Wise, who played Leland (?).
40. Special Agent Tammy Preston
Maybe when I go back and watch The Return again in full Tammy will do more for me. But I tended to agree with Diane…
39. Colonel Davis
Look, I know—very minor character. But it’s great to see a Ghostbuster on Twin Peaks…and the name echoes the actor who played Major Briggs, one of my favorite Twin Peaks characters.
I do so hope she survives.
37. Principal William Hastings
Not a particularly interesting character until his utter breakdown and eventual death. Loved seeing Shaggy bawl.
Like so many of the minor characters in Twin Peaks: The Return who show up for a brief monologuish-dialogue, Hank shows us a character drenched in his own paranoid concerns, ready to spin off into his own madness, or his own sitcom. Like, make that sitcom. I’d watch it.
35. Ike the Spike
Ike’s look when he realized that he’d bent his murder-spike was heartbreaking and hilarious.
34-33. The Evolution of the Arm and Philip Jeffries’ reincarnation.
Are these two a cheat? I’m not sure. I mean…I guess in a way they aren’t “new”…and in a way they aren’t really “characters…except they are and they are.
32. Gordon Cole’s date
I would watch this sitcom.
31. Becky Burnett
Becky at times seemed like an easy shorthand to show that not much has changed in the sweet dark little town of Twin Peaks. The “I Love How You Love Me” scene is one of the best in the series though.
Is Charlie ranked so high on this list simply because his introduction also brings the return of Audrey?
29. Beverly Paige
I was really hoping that Lynch would do more with Beverly.
28. Sonny Jim
Sonny Jim rules.
27. Wally Brando
So I accidentally watched episode 4 of Twin Peaks: The Return instead of episode 2 (like, I watched ep 1, then watched ep 4 the next night, thinking it was ep 2—I could probably write a whole essay on that). Anyway, Wally Brando’s monologue is the most ridiculous moment in a kinda ridiculous episode, an episode that contains maybe my favorite moment in The Return—Bobby Briggs breaking down when he sees Laura Palmer’s picture. Brando’s monologue, delivered to a Sheriff Truman who endures it with weary and forced goodwill, seems like a send-up of everything quirky in the original Twin Peaks run.
26-25. Wilson and Randall
Goddamnit, Wilson, get it together!
24+. The Farm Gang
Dark Cooper arm wrestling Renzo is a great scene in a series larded with great scenes—a dark and violent satire on Hollywood machismo, but one that helps subtly propel one of the major plots of The Return: “The starting position is much more comfortable.” It’s the out-of-place-looking guy at the end who asks Dark Coop if he needs any money who really cracks me up.
23. Anthony Sinclair
Tom Sizemore’s Anthony Sinclair freaking out to the conga line is pretty great. The moment when Dougie gives him an accidental, dandruff-inspired back rub that leads to his break down is transcendent.
22. Duncan Todd
Patrick Fischler was great but underused as Duncan Todd. I liked to pretend that he was the same character who got so scared behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive.
21. Constance Talbot
Jane Adams is a really underrated actor and every scene with Constance Talbot was a treat (especially her interactions with Albert).
As a character, the Eyeless Woman is obviously a cipher, but her introduction in the third episode is one of the most arresting moments of the series.
18. The Experiment
Again, maybe a bit of a stretch of what a “character” might be—but my affinity for the characters I’ve liked best in The Return is very much bound in the aesthetics of their scenes—and I don’t know if I’ll ever see a television show as aesthetically compelling and confounding as the eighth episode of The Return. (And I watched it for the first and second times that I saw it on a fucking iPhone on an airplane).
17-16. Chantal and Hutch
These two wandered in from a Tarantino movie. Again, a spin-off sitcom, please.
15+. All the minor characters in those end scenes at The Roadhouse
One of my favorite things about The Return is its rough pattern of ending up at The Roadhouse (or The Bang Bang Bar, if you like) to witness some tender grotesquerie.
MC proudly presents THE Nine Inch Nails. MC proudly presents James “James Was Always Cool” Hurley. MC proudly presents “Audrey’s Dance.” And best of all…MC proudly dances to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” in one of the most sublimely silly sequences of the season.
13+. All the bands who played at The Roadhouse
The first performance of one of these bands in The Return, the Chromatics playing “Shadow,” provides a wonderfully cathartic rush from the dark tension that builds up in the two-part opener.
12. ….but especially Rebekah del Rio
My dream is to go to that place.
11. Bushnell Mullins
Bushnell Mullins ended up being one of the characters in The Return who I found genuinely moving. I hope we get to see him again.
10. Sheriff Frank Truman
Look. I know we’re all holding out for Harry Truman to show up somehow at the end. But Robert Forster is a ringer, and he’s done a great job this season. It’s also fun to pretend that he’s a doppelganger of his Mulholland Drive character.
9-8. The Mitchum Brothers
Like Bushnell, I ended up surprised by just how endearing these two turned out. Their devotion and loyalty to Dougie and his family (and Candie) seem absolutely genuine. And like Bushnell, I hope we’ll see them again.
God bless Candie.
6. Richard Horne
Richard Horne is the worst. Okay, I started this stupid list by declaring that Steven Burnett was the worst…but Richard is, like, awful. Menacing, horrific, a little bit goofy—Lynchian. You sort of want to save him a little, which you also know is a stupid mistake.
5. The Woodsman
4. Janey-E Jones
Janie-E not being in the top three on my list is proof that this list is stupid. Naomi Watts is amazing in The Return. I hope (a version of Dougie) finds his way back to her and Sonny Jim, just as Agent Dale Cooper promised.
3. Dark Cooper
Dark Cooper, or Evil Cooper, or the doppelganger, or whatever you want to call him might not technically belong on a list of “new” Twin Peaks characters, because we know he was there at the very end of the final series. But c’mon. He can’t not be included. Dark Cooper was a cipher with depth, violent, but also radiating a strange sexiness as well as an ironic sense of humor. I’ll miss his black glowing energy.
I didn’t read any of the press stuff for Twin Peaks—I didn’t know that Michael Ontkean wouldn’t be back as Sheriff Truman, for example, or that Robert Forster would be in as another Sheriff Truman—which made watching The Return even more of a thrill. Probably the biggest little casting thrill though was Laura Dern showing up as Diane. (I gasped). Laura Dern is one of my favorite actresses, and she only seems to get better from role to role. (I’m still surprised how many Lynch fans haven’t seen Inland Empire, a film in which she is absolutely amazing). It would be difficult for me to overstate how perfectly Dern’s Diane fits into the visual logic of The Return—I have pretty much avoided all coverage of the new series, so I don’t know if anyone’s written an essay on all of her costumes yet, but I’d love to read one eventually. My hope is that we’ll see some kind of resolution with Diane (even if it’s a bizarre and unsettling resolution) in the finale—is there a non-tulpa Diane out there? Please.
1. Dougie Jones
Agent Dale Cooper’s return in episode 16 is a supremely satisfying moment, but I’ll miss Dougie dearly. I have often used the word “Lynchian” to convey ideas like sinister, paranoid, dark, and weird—and I think the word fits. But a glowing optimism underwrites all that’s dark in the Lynchverse, and this light finds its avatar in Dougie, a kind of holy fool who’s protected and guided by the kindness of others. Thumbs up.
It’s Twin Peaks: The Return Finale Week over at 3 A.M. Magazine. They’re running a series of essays about the new season for the rest of the week. Yesterday, we got to read Jeff Woods’s “Hurricane Bob: Part 1,” which deftly connects the many frequencies of current energy flows in politics, culture, and visual art in a discussion about The Return. Today, they posted my essay on mediacy & electricity (“Algorithmic Weather: Mediacy in Twin Peaks: The Return“) something that’s fascinated me this new season, and a long-term preoccupation of Lynch’s that perhaps reaches its zenith in The Return. Below is an excerpt:
Drone cameras hover over darkened Douglas (Dougie) firs, panoramic views of Las Vegas and Manhattan. The same point-of-view takes in the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. We are to believe that modern electricity, introduced to our world through innovations in military technology, expressed through wall sockets, telephone lines, Skype calls, and cellular data, has its roots in the creation of both the evil and good forces in the universe of Twin Peaks. The Mother, as she is known, spews out the evil force of BOB; the Fireman counters with the innocence known as “Laura”. A frog-like insect crawls into the mouth of a girl hypnotized into sleep by a Woodsman reciting a poem over compromised radio waves. Media determine the situation.
Bodies are made metaphors for data. In Episode 2, Sam explains to Tracy that all he has to do watch what happens in the glass box. Here, the show winks at us—the glass box of television, but also a metaphor for technologies that mediate and express electricity. Recall that they miss Cooper’s appearance, but are privy to what opens up between worlds: the Mother enters through the glass box and eviscerates them. Additionally, new faces are introduced in almost every episode, many of which rarely return. They are given names and ample screen time. They are there solely to deliver information, they are mere voice recorders.
I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN IN 25 YEARS
Chevron tiles swirl into swaying lush red curtains, into an impressionistic recap, into the framed and cabineted picture of Our Girl, into the opening bars of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Falling,” and we are back in Twin Peaks.
THE OPENING TITLES
Well, I shivered. I wish the opening titles had gone on longer.
The twin waterfalls cascade into silk fire curtains, and then we’re back on the dizzying floor, chevrons swirling into black. The red room.
The Giant speaks to Special Agent Dale Cooper. He tells him to “Listen to the sounds,” strange scrapings emanating from an old phonograph.” Is this the Black Lodge? “It is in our house now,” we learn. (But what is the “It”?). The Giant seems to send Cooper on a mission: “Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds…with one stone.”
Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, still sporting spectacles of varying hues, obtains shovels in a remote mountain forest location. The scene is slow, the sound of the wind in the tall trees seems just as important as the few lines of dialogue here. We’re not really in Twin Peaks yet, but we’re not far.
NEW YORK CITY
Oh, we’re in New York City.
THE GLASS BOX
We’re out of Twin Peaks. The lighting, staging, colors, the low rumbling hum in the background—Lynch paints something here closer to his films after Fire Walk With Me—something sharper, blacker, browner than the soft edges of the original Twin Peaks run.
Tracey brings coffee. Tracy’s curious about what’s behind all those locked doors. Pandora. “You’re a bad girl Tracey.” There’s no pie in the scene, and the coffee is not in the wholesome mugs we might find at, say, the Double R Diner.
THE GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL
The Horne Brothers are back. Ben survived the last episode of Season 2, apparently (But what about Audrey Horne?!). Ashley Judd is in Twin Peaks now. Jerry Horne has a weed business. There’s a zaniness to the scene, notes of preciousness even—we are back in Twin Peaks, in Twin Peaks.
THE TWO SHERIFF TRUMANS
There are two Sheriff Trumans. “One is sick and the other is fishing,” Lucy—still the receptionist of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office a quarter of a century later–informs us. The quirky vibes of The Great Northern Hotel carry over. But really, Where is Sheriff Truman? Could “sick” and “fishing” be taken as metaphors? Are there literally two Trumans, somehow both Sheriffs?
INTO THE NIGHT
Twin Peaks’s zany daymode could be read as a parodic inversion of television tropes; a quarter century later, it’s harder to see these inversions, simply because television as a medium (in storytelling, but more importantly, in aesthetics) has caught up to Twin Peaks. The zaniness has a twin—the sinister night, often equally manic, often casually brutal.
David Foster Wallace once described Kyle MacLachlan as “potato faced,” and I’ll admit that I have a hard time seeing him as a sinister figure. He’s no Leland Palmer (or Bob), but he wears his weight well in a scene that tip toes the line between grotesquerie and cartoonish parody. Distortion is necessary.
Dark Cooper—“Mr. C,” as moonshine-swilling addresses him—comes to collect two teens–Ray and Darya—for what? Are these doppelgängers of Richard and Linda? They go into the night, and we are in Twin Peaks.
We’re back in New York.
Tracey returns with coffee and sneaks her way into the locked room with the glass box and young man. We get something resembling exposition—a billionaire pays the young man to watch the glass box. “We’re not supposed to say anything about this place or that glass box.”
SEX & VIOLENCE
Tracey and the young man imbibe a bit of coffee, make out, and then she disrobes. Sex ensues. We are clearly in the realms of premium pay cable, and not the American Broadcasting Company.
The glass box fills with a black atmosphere, and a ghostly humanoid appears. The wraith descends on the couple and attacks them. Was Tracey allowed in to the locked room as a kind of bait?
This is perhaps the goriest thing I can recall in a scene directed by Lynch.
BUCKHORN, SOUTH DAKOTA
We are not in Twin Peaks, but parts of Buckhorn definitely feel like Twin Peaks—there’s a quirkiness here, an at-times belabored zaniness, and even a slowness to the South Dakota scenes. At this point in “My log has a message for you,” we perhaps realize that Mark Frost and David Lynch have no intention of milking nostalgia; they’re going to tell a new story, one with strange new strands. There’s a lot of material on the table by now, here in the episode’s second half. Jane Adams, who I think is a fantastic actress, is the detective who shows up to investigate a murder scene—a woman’s head, missing an eye, paired with a headless male body. Somehow Buckhorn and New York City will connect back to Twin Peaks.
MY LOG HAS A MESSAGE FOR YOU
“Something is missing and you have to find it. It has to do with Special Agent Dale Cooper,” the Log Lady tells Deputy Hawk. She tells him that he will find it by way of “something to do with your heritage.” A reference to the Black and White Lodge? The Giant sends Cooper on a mission; the Log Lady sends Hawk on a mission.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Jane Adams is really underutilized here. She turns up Principal Hastings as a murder suspect. Hastings is played by Matthew Lillard (who seems so much older here than my memory has preserved him).
SOMETHING IS MISSING
“But Agent Cooper is missing,” Lucy informs Hawk. She helpfully reminds him, in what I take to be a piece of jokey exposition that falls in line with the original series’ jabs at television tropes, that Agent Cooper has been missing for 24 years, since before the birth of her son Wally. (Recall that the second season ended with Lucy very, very pregnant). Hawk, who appears to be in charge of the Sheriff’s Office, tells Andy to pull out all the old files on Cooper. Hawk promises to bring coffee and donuts the next morning.
BACK IN BUCKHORN
Principal Hastings is interrogated and he comes across guilty as hell. The cops get a search warrant. Detectives, one with an oh-so-Lynchian broken flashlight, search Hastings’s Volvo. In the truck, under a cooler, they discover a scrap of flesh. (I can’t help but see here an echo of MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont finding a severed ear in Blue Velvet.
DID I WATCH THE NEXT EPISODE RIGHT AWAY?
I wanted to but no, my wife had to go to sleep, but I’ll watch it tonight.
Lynch’s great strength is his evocation of color, light, and sound to create mood. The estrangement this mood often produces can threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and can also create the impression of tonal disjunctions—between characters, characterization, dialogue, motivation, and all of the other things we expect a television show should do. My primary interest in Lynch’s work is the feeling it produces in me, and the finest moments in “My log has a message for you” produced those feelings—feelings that words don’t refer to so easily.
In this series I have a small cameo. The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.
The Handmaids sit in a circle, with the Taser-equipped Aunts forcing them to join in what is now called (but was not, in 1984) the “slut-shaming” of one of their number, Jeanine, who is being made to recount how she was gang-raped as a teenager. Her fault, she led them on — that is the chant of the other Handmaids.
Although it was “only a television show” and these were actresses who would be giggling at coffee break, and I myself was “just pretending,” I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life.
Which brings me to three questions I am often asked.
First, is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”
I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.
Bill Sienkiewicz is my favorite comic book artist of all time.
I like Sienkiewicz so much I can spell his last name correctly without looking it up. I like Sienkiewicz so much that he was the first artist I featured when I first started this silly Sunday Comics thing last year.
Sienkiewicz, along with Chris Claremont, created the character of David Haller (“Legion,” Professor X’s son). David first appeared in the last page of The New Mutants #25, Marvel Comics, March, 1985. (The issue is about the underrated duo Cloak & Dagger).
The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book. (By which I mean: Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book).
Here’s David’s début:
The next three issues of The New Mutants (27-29) tell the Legion story line.
I recall liking the Legion story of The New Mutants, although it never stood out as strongly as The Demon Bear Saga, or the issues where Magneto took over The New Mutants’ leadership. But that isn’t why I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.
I had no interest in watching the Legion television show because every single Marvel television show that I’ve seen so far has been boring, or garbage, or boring garbage. And don’t even get me started on the execrable X-Men films, which have squandered so many good storylines. (Although I thought Deadpool was great, which sort of counts as an X-Men film, and I do have an interest in seeing Logan).
Anyway, after a few critics and authors I admire tweeted that Legion was, like, actually really good/excellent/thrilling/etc., I looked up the show, and saw that the showrunner and creator is Noah Hawley. That’s the dude who did FX’s Fargo, another TV show I was also wary of which also turned out to be excellent.
So, over the past four nights, I’ve watched the first four episodes of Legion. (I’ll watch the fifth tonight).
The show is fantastic.
It’s the first “superhero” show I’ve seen that succeeds not just in its script, casting, and themes, but aesthetically as well. Hawley smuggles in references to the original New Mutants run in a way that doesn’t feel like fanservice—but the other reference points here go past comic books and into film: Legion openly steals from Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, and Wes Anderson. (I mean this as a compliment). Hell, there’s something Pynchonesque about the show too, in its themes of paranoia, its treatment of the concept of reality, its streak of dark but somehow zany humor, and its subversive sexiness.
The casting for Legion is pretty great too. The guy who played the guy who died in the car crash on Downton Abbey so he could leave that show and get better shows does an admirable job as David. The temptation would be to play David as batshit crazy, but the portrayal is measured, often archly comical, and ultimately sympathetic. (Shit, I just looked that guy’s name up—I saw him on a web episode of High Maintenance as a stay-at-home dad who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes and thought he was great, but also thought, Damn, hope Matthew Crawley can get some higher-profile gigs—anyway, that dude, Dan Stevens, is in that new Disney live action Beauty and the Beast film with Hermione Hogwarts, so I guess he’s doing fine).
Where was I? Oh, casting—yeah, there are solid performances here. Aubrey Plaza plays a dead junkie who may or may not be a ghost in David’s head. Jean Smart (aka my least favorite Designing Woman) plays the not-Moira MacTaggart/not-Prof. X character Melanie Bird. Smart was smart in the second season of Hawley’s other FX show, Fargo, which also featured Rachel Keller, who is basically the second lead on Legion as Sydney Barrett (not subtle, I know), David’s untouchable girlfriend. And the show basically had me when Bill Irwin showed up. Like I said, it’s great stuff.
Probably my favorite thing about the show so far though is that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in being anyone’s franchise. It stays true to the paranoid spirit of mid-eighties Claremont X-Men, and seamlessly combines plot and aesthetics in a way that a show about a telepathic and telekinetic mutant would have to to succeed. It’s also dark without being self-serious or self-important. (So many superhero films and shows fail utterly here).
Anyway, I’ve loved the first few episodes, and even if the showrunners fuck it all up, hey, it’s just TV, right?
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” was thrumming through my head the second time I watched “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, a naive youth ventures into the dark evil woods—for reasons never fully expressed—and witnesses his community’s Satanic inversion: Witches and wizards and a “devilish Indian behind every tree.” The narrator’s gambit (Was it all just a dream?) doesn’t ultimately matter—Brown’s experience irrevocably change him. He crosses the threshold of his domestic door, traipses into unknown terrors, and becomes a new person.
Last week, in my review of Westworld’s pilot, I wrote that the series engages “that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would ‘sivilize’ him.” For Twain the territory is freedom; for dark Hawthorne the frontier is freedom’s dark twin terror. We find a bit of both in this episode of Westworld. (Along with wizards and Indians).
Our naive youth here is William (Jimmi Simpson). William arrives at Westworld for the first time, “guided” by his loutish friend Logan, who chooses to “go straight evil” (if I may echo a guest’s line from last week). Westworld’s pilot episode pulled a bait-and-switch last week, presenting Teddy Flood (James Marsden) as the naive youth, new to town, only to reveal that he is actually an automaton, a “host.” William provides a more traditional audience surrogate, and his opening sequences are closer to what we might expect from a traditional pilot episode. William’s entering Westworld also feels a bit like the beginning of a video game. (Westworld often feels like a video game. I mean that as a compliment).
We enter the Westworld with William; we savor the bespoke attire he’s offered; we glance with apprehension and desire at the guns on display. In a pivotal shot, William—and perhaps the audience—must make an important choice: White hat—or black?
William chooses white, and much of his narrative in “Chestnut” is spent establishing his contrast to his “friend” Logan, who has donned a black hat, of course. William shows empathy, restraint, and civil humanity to the park’s automaton hosts, whereas Logan uses and abuses them with sadistic abandon. While Logan engages in an orgy (thanks HBO!), William rejects sex, declaring that he has “someone real waiting at home.” William hence represents a “family man” archetype. Perhaps he’s like Young Goodman Brown who just wanted to get home to his wife Faith.
Will crossing the threshold change William too? Yes. Of course. It’s a television show. For Hawthorne’s hero the results were dire: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” Maybe Westworld will find a more optimistic path for William.
But this isn’t a show that’s generally optimistic about domesticity. In the pilot episode, we saw that one android father can simply be swapped out for another android father. (Mothers, android or otherwise, remain absent). In the one glimpse of a full family we get in that episode, we hear the father advise that crossing the river is “too adult” for the son. The Territory is a wild space ripe for masculine domination. Westworld continues the American fantasia of exploration and destiny-manifestin’.
“Chestnut” continues Westworld’s breaking down of familial order in two plot lines that seem to converge. In one such plot, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills the cousins and then the wife of a host he claims is an “old friend.” (More on the Man in the Black in a moment). In a second plot line, told mostly in nightmare-flashback mode, Thandie Newton’s character Maeve is a mother whose family is apparently killed by Indians. (More on the convergence of these plotlines in a moment too).
I was happy to see Maeve get screentime this week. Her nightmares throughout “Chestnut” echo Hawthorne’s observation that our dreams alter our realities, that our night-consciousness is vital, real. (Perhaps this is Dr. Ford’s design when he injects “reveries” into his automaton’s new programming system in Westworld’s pilot). Maeve’s dreams begin to affect her work performance, so she’s hauled repeatedly into Westworld’s underground body shop for reconditioning—and a possible decommissioning. Maeve delivers the same monologue three times to different guests in the episode. Each segment feels like a separate audition, the producers leering offstage. Westworld again draws attention to its own form, its metatextuality, its “TV-showness,” as it were.
Maeve’s “truest” performance comes underground—she somehow bypasses “sleep mode” and wakes up in the middle of the (real) nightmare: the Westworld labs and body shops. In an echo of the scalping motif that slices through the episode, Maeve grabs a scalpel and takes off, running deeper into the nightmare. The sequence is aesthetically arresting, wonderfully weird, and ultimately devastating when she finally happens upon the heaped bodies of her android fellows. Maeve’s underground odyssey furthers the Big Plot of Westworld thus far: How much consciousness–and self-consciousness –do these androids have? I’m digging how the series takes on memory, dream, and reality.
Maeve’s performance is under pressure specifically because Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director (ahem, head writer), wants to cull dead weight to make room for his new campaign, “Odyssey on the Red River.” Sizemore, who we’re invited to view as a kind of Hollywood hack asshole, assures the assembled management team that this new storyline’s grotesque savagery (meta meta meta) will make it look like “”Hieronymous Bosch was doodling kittens.” Sizemore’s smugly assured that Dr. Ford, who hasn’t commented on the story in years, won’t interfere. So of course Ford shoots him down.
Ford is the true magician of Westworld. He regards Sizemore as a huckster, a fraud peddling cheap tricks. Ford blasts Sizemore’s claim that Westworld will “tell the guests who they are,” arguing that Westworld’s true potential is to transform and transmute the guests into what they can be. Ford notes at one point in the episode that the guests crave nuance, subtlety, mystery. They want witchcraft; they want a spell that transmogrifies chaos into magic.
Where does Ford’s magic come from? Boredom! In a wonderful discussion with (what I’m assuming simply has to be) a replicant version of himself as a child, Ford twists the old idiom and suggests that “only boring people cannot conceive of boredom.” He guides the replicant child to a desert vision of the “Town with the White Church,” pointing to the imaginative possibility of the Territory—to the frontier’s magic. The Black Sabbath in the wilderness is all in the wizard’s mind. “You see what a bored mind can conjure,” Ford tells the boy, and then charms a snake, declaring, perhaps a bit glumly, that, “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.” Ford dismisses the boy, and later brings Bernie Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) up to the surface to survey the desert terrain, the rocks where he will build this church. (Bernie dons a brown baseball cap. No black or white stetson for Bernie).
But The Man in Black: He’s pure Black Hat. Compellingly, Dr. Ford’s thoughts on subtlety and magic parallel The Man in Black’s. (White wizard/Black wizard?). “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real” he snarls at an automaton he’s interrogating, echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of agony / Because I know it’s true.”
The Man in Black’s back in town, not a stranger, in search of something called The Maze, willing to scalp androids, smash families, kill cousins, wives, daughters, etc. to get clues—ah but wait, I’m forgetting, They’re just androids, right?
Is The Man in Black an android too?
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” he reminds us. (Westworld wants us to remember this three-decade benchmark—recall that the last time the park faced trouble was thirty years ago). But then, and perhaps without much of that magic subtlety, he tells us: “In a sense, I was born here.” Egads!
Black’s plot converges with Maeve’s nightmare in a Satanic reverie. Indian marauders have chased Maeve and her (dream)daughter into a cabin corner; one enters and shape-shifts into The Man in Black, knife out, ready to scalp her.
Is this now? Is this then? Is this real? Is this dream?
I started with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” so I’ll end with it. The Man in Black—but also Dr. Ford, perhaps—recall to me Brown’s traveling companion into the woods (lovely dark and deep), an old wizard who bears “a considerable resemblance” to the young (good?)man. The old mage steers YGB deeper into the Frontier, into the Territory, into the Weird, and he protests about going over the line:
“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–”
“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”
Hawthorne here lays out an American history of religious persecution, the murder of indigenous peoples, and hypocrisy, themes that find their echo in Westworld’s continuation of the American myth.
Or maybe it’s the Territory itself, the dream/nightmare of the Frontier:
America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)
Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agape howls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.
Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episode. The motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.
You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).
Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.
For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).
The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!) thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!
But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).
Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.
But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?
As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular). I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).
And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?
In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).
If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.
Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!
The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.