“What would you do if that woman upstairs is your dead wife?”
It’s been three weeks since Alexis Stokes came into our lives, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned in all that time, it’s that she’s actually her twin sister Angelique, unless she isn’t. The evidence for Team Alexis is that Angelique died six months ago and was buried in a crypt, with a funeral and everything, and if she was still alive, then they probably would have noticed.
The evidence for Team Angelique is: What if someone could come back from the dead? It’s tough to answer a what-if like that, because whatever you say, the other person can still say, Yeah, but what if they could? A conversation like that could go on indefinitely, and we’ve only got 22 minutes a day, not counting the occasional sales pitch for Spic and Span.
So let’s start at the ending: Angelique is going to appear on the show.
That’s not a spoiler, because we’re televisually literate people. Everybody who watches television has an innate sense of the general shape of television stories, based on an awareness that television producers are usually more or less competent at their jobs. They’ve built a big new set dedicated to Angelique, which includes an enormous portrait, and you don’t go around painting portraits willy-nilly. Also, they’ve been talking about her nonstop for a month. If everybody suddenly shrugged and said, huh, I thought Angelique would return from the dead but I guess she won’t, go figure, then that would be storytelling malpractice of a fairly serious degree.
So the question is: what form will Angelique take? There’s a purported twin sister on the show, which gives us several options: a) Alexis is revealed as actually being Angelique, b) the spirit of Angelique takes possession of Alexis’ body, c) Angelique returns as a ghost, like Dameon has, d) miscellaneous.
But it has to happen one way or another, or else the storyline fails and we’ve wasted the last four weeks of our lives. This is what suspense means.
Because, at the most basic level, the only thing the audience cares about is itself. We understand that these patterns of flickering light that call themselves Quentin and Alexis are fictional, and what “happens” to them is whatever the writers and producers think up. There’s no such thing as a true suspension of disbelief; the whole idea is silly. There are zero people who have ever watched Dark Shadows, and decided they were looking at a nature documentary about insane people who live in a haunted mansion with a noisy camera crew.
So we don’t care whether Alexis is Angelique or her sister, not really. Actually caring would mean that we believe that there’s such a person as “Alexis”, and that her welfare matters to her family and friends, who are offscreen and fictional. If I told you that at this moment in April 1970, the real Alexis Stokes is in Florence, drinking expensive wine and making sarcastic remarks as her two athletic Italian lovers fight for the chance to bed her for the night, but we’re not going to see that because we have to stay here in the east wing and watch Bruno play the piano, then who cares how happy that version of Alexis is? She’s make-believe. She sounds really cool, but still, make-believe.
The thing that we care about is that a) Angelique appears on the show sometime in the near future, because Angelique is fun to watch and the story is obviously about her anyway, and b) that she arrives before the show gets boring, and we lose our patience.
You don’t love these people. You love the experience of watching them.
So, yes, you’re upset when a character that you like dies, but that pang of grief that you feel is over the loss of something that you enjoy watching. You would feel the exact same thing if the show was suddenly cancelled in the middle of a season, even if all the characters ended up happy in what turned out to be the final episode.
In real life, you mourn for the days you could have spent with the person that you loved. In your television life, you mourn for the episodes you could have watched. I was upset when Juliet died in Lost, even though it was thrilling and made for a kickass season finale, because I really liked watching Juliet and Sawyer together, and instead of making more Juliet and Sawyer episodes, she went and took a lead role on a stupid alien invasion show that I wasn’t going to watch.
So I’m glad we got the thrilling but “sad” ending, because it was more emotionally satisfying than it would have been if she’d had a boring but “happy” ending that took her off the show anyway. I liked her, and I wanted more, and I didn’t get it, and here I am still whining about it, seven years later.
So the real mystery in a murder mystery story is whether the audience will be satisfied with the resolution or not. Will it be plausible? Will it make sense? Will it be satisfying to see the criminal exposed, and whatever comes after that? And most of all: is this story that I’m currently watching actually a good story?
If a murder mystery ends with the killer being someone you never heard of, and leaves all the clues completely unexplained, then it’s a bad story, even if you enjoy watching it all the way up until the resolution. A good story can turn into a bad story on a dime, and a good TV show can turn into a bad one. In fact, later on this year, we’re going to watch that happen, in real time.
That is the tension that we refer to as “suspense”. The action moves towards a decision point, where the story can’t continue unless something changes, and you feel that short-of-breath excitement, because the good time that you’re currently having could fall apart, if they blow this upcoming pivot point.
My favorite example of the use and deliberate misuse of suspense is that time that David Lynch trolled the entire United States of America, with the first eight minutes of the first episode of the second season of Twin Peaks.
In 1990, the nation unexpectedly found itself enjoying a dreamy and partially abstract murder mystery show which was especially well-known for a lengthy dream sequence in the third episode featuring a character called The Man from Another Place, who appears in the form of a vibrating dwarf in a red suit who rubs his hands together and says, in reversed speech, “I’ve got good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.”
There were only eight episodes in the first season, played and then repeated over spring and summer 1990, and it was a nationwide sensation. People who didn’t ordinarily watch surrealist cinema actually sat around and tried to figure out what that dream sequence could possibly mean, like it was a set of clues that could be decoded. It turns out it didn’t mean anything in particular.
Because the funny thing about Twin Peaks is that it wasn’t a murder mystery at all; it was an avant-garde hipster soap opera and cultural rickroll, constructed deliberately to confuse the American public, and destroy our faith in ABC-TV. The fact that the show appeared to include an aimless murder investigation was basically just a coincidence. But people see what they want to see, and we were entirely convinced, all summer long, that we understood the nature of the story we were watching.
The first season ended with the main character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, being shot at point blank range by an unseen assailant. This was a thrilling cliffhanger, the kind of thing that would usually lead to a drastic plot pivot. Naturally, everyone thought that season two would open with a shocking reveal that would answer some of the questions we’d been puzzling over.
So… yeah. About that.
I remember being super excited for the new episode; everyone was. Twin Peaks was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, this strange and surprising and beautiful show that should never have existed. And David Lynch took that opportunity, with the biggest national audience he would ever have, to tell us, essentially, that we could go fuck ourselves.
The episode opens with Agent Cooper lying on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
Actually, that’s not true. More specifically, the episode opens with a three-minute theme song, and even more specifically than that, it opens with a one-minute shot of a machine in a factory slowly doing something to another thing, over and over, with occasional sparks, to a very pretty tune that slowly builds to a climax, and then unwinds again. It’s the closest thing on television to hypnotism, and it serves as an entrance exam, to make sure viewers really want to watch Twin Peaks, and they’re not just leaving the TV on after The Father Dowling Mysteries.
Then there’s a minute of actor names, one by one, appearing and fading over a seemingly endless shot of an empty road. Finally it cross-fades to a slow-motion shot of a waterfall, with more names and more names and more names. And then a shot of some water, with more names, and then the words “Guest Starring” and a lot more names. And then another shot of water, and the entire production staff.
And then Agent Cooper, lying, as I said, on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
A voice coming from the nearby telephone receiver — Andy, from the police department, who was talking to Cooper just before the shooting — says, “Agent Cooper! Can you hear me? It’s Andy! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! Can you hear me? Agent Cooper!”
Agent Cooper doesn’t respond to this urgent communication, because he’s lying, as I said, on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
And then the world’s oldest man walks into the room with a glass of milk on a tray. “Room service!” he announces.
Cooper manages to grunt a few times. Room service doesn’t really react to the fact that the occupant of this room is on the floor and bleeding, potentially to death.
Room service shuffles across the floor, thirteen slow steps, until he’s standing next to the shooting victim.
He leans over, and asks, “How ya doin’ down there?”
Cooper continues to lie on the floor, potentially etc.
Room service gives him a smile, straightens up a little, and says, “Warm milk!”
Agent Cooper manages to croak, “Would you put it on the table, please? And would you call a doctor?”
Room service says, “Sure!” and shuffles over to the table.
From the telephone receiver, we hear Andy, saying, “Agent Cooper! Are you all right? Can you hear me? Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! Can you hear me? Are you all right? Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! It’s Andy!”
Confused, room service picks up the receiver, and places it on the cradle.
It takes him fifteen seconds to hang up the phone. He has to use two hands.
Room service moves back to the center of the room, and says, “I hung it up for ya.”
Agent Cooper slowly turns his head, and then — this actually happens — he says, “What’s that?”
Room service leans in a little closer. “Hung it up for ya!” he repeats.
Cooper stammers, “Did you call… the doctor?”
Room service gives him a pained expression, and blinks.
“The doctor?” Cooper asks.
Thrown off guard by the rapid pace of events, a confused room service groans, and says, “It’s hung up.” And then he says, “The phone.”
Agent Cooper smiles. “Thank you,” he says.
Room service brightens up. “Sure!” he says. “No problem!”
Then room service goes back to the tray, and picks up the bill. He bends down to offer Cooper the tab, and a pen.
Cooper takes the pen, and looks at the bill. Then he looks up at room service, and says, “Does this include a gratuity?” This is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed. I swear to god, there is nothing else like this.
“Yes, sir!” room service says, and Cooper signs the bill.
“Thank you,” room service says, and straightens up. “Thank you kindly.” Cooper smiles.
And then there’s a whole two minutes more of this scene, which continues along exactly the same lines. Room service ends up shuffling in and out of the room a couple times, giving Cooper a thumbs-up, followed by another thumbs-up. It’s unreal.
So that was David Lynch, saying to America: This show is not the show that you think you’re watching.
Everybody thought that there was going to be action, and more clues — and most of all, “answers”, an absolutely irritating and irrelevant request that was also thrown at the Lost creators, because nobody understood Lost either.
Twin Peaks is not a show about questions and answers. If you want to see the tidy resolution of a mystery, says Twin Peaks, then go and watch the fucking Father Dowling Mysteries, as seen on this channel eight minutes ago. We genuinely do not care whether you watch our show or not.
Obviously, America didn’t take to that idea very well, which was kind of the point. Viewers turned against the show, which had already pre-emptively turned against the viewers. The network reportedly called Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost in for a series of meetings about actually revealing Laura’s killer, which apparently they didn’t want to do, probably because everybody kept asking them to.
“For all its depth, it is nevertheless a murder mystery,” said the Chicago Tribune, “and it had better be able to satisfy the whodunit desires of viewers weaned on Columbo and Perry Mason.” The fact that the show made it clear that it had absolutely zero interest in satisfying those viewers just sailed right over everybody’s heads, including mine. I didn’t really figure it out until Lost came along, and pulled the same trick for six years running.
Anyway, the point is that the audience doesn’t really care who killed Laura Palmer, in the sense of fictional justice. We just want to like the show, and apparently, we also want the show to like us, which is a very weird thing to want.
That eight-minute opening of season two was deliberately designed to signal that no, this is not a murder mystery, this is avant-garde supernatural comedy soap opera, and you thinking that it’s Columbo is part of the joke. We’re not going to meet your expectations, because you don’t understand what you’re looking at, and we can’t believe that ABC is still giving us money to make a prime-time network show that openly hates the prime-time network audience, oh my god, how is this still even happening?
And meanwhile, twenty years earlier, something about Dark Shadows, something something something something.
Tomorrow: Back From the Death.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Bruno makes a couple mistakes in the same line: “Once Mrs. Collin was out of here, that woman upstairs had to get rid of anyone who wouldn’t believe her. So, enter Dameon enter–Edwards.” He also stumbles a minute later: “Even you were… ready to believe, in fact you did believe, that the occult was involved here!”
When Quentin walks up to Angelique’s portrait, the shadow of a camera moves into the frame.
Buffie holds up the cash that Cyrus gave her, and you can see several of the fake bills, with weird markings. Although, maybe that’s how Parallel Time money looks.
During the closing credits, we can see a stagehand sitting on a chair, chewing gum. He’s visible for a full minute, and then the camera pulls in tighter to cut him out of the shot. You should go and look at this one, it’s amazing.
Tomorrow: Back From the Death.
— Danny Horn