Warning: Major spoilers for Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, and Eraserhead. Proceed with discretion.
Now that we've had some time to breathe after the finale of Twin Peaks, season three, we can look back on this unusual gem given to us by David Lynch and Mark Frost and consider its finer nuances. One of the things I have found particularly interesting is the way that the third season of Twin Peaks contains echoes and connections to all of David Lynch's previous works. Whether it be actors, motifs, or shot recreations, there's something awfully familiar about this series. Could there be a deeper meaning to all of it? Why do an almost exact recreation of a shot from Eraserhead, but with Garland Briggs's head instead of Henry Spencer's? Why is Lynch constantly using red curtains in his set designs? Why are there so many Doppelgangers everywhere? I think the answers may lie in a somewhat unexpected place: David Lynch's under-appreciated surrealist epic, Inland Empire.
I think Inland Empire is a story that, if you know what to look for, explains to the viewer how all of David Lynch's films (and Twin Peaks) are connected. I will refer to this as the Lynchverse Theory from here on out.
For the uninitiated, Inland Empire was ostensibly a film about an actress, Nikki Grace (played by Lynch regular Laura Dern), who has an identity crisis while working on an important film. That's the most basic breakdown of it, but using this MacGuffin, the film takes us on a surreal journey into another world—one that is actually rather familiar, if you are looking for the right things.
The film doesn't really kick off until Nikki, perhaps filming a scene, perhaps not, goes through a door marked AXXONN, the meaning of which is still hotly debated, though it is not necessary for this article. Once through, we see some scary, dark imagery, and Nikki ends up literally behind the scenes on the set, where she is seemingly pursued by her husband. She gets trapped in the facade of the house and starts calling to Billy, another character from the film she stars in. Nikki becomes her character Sue, and lives her life as normal. However, she begins to get indications that this life is not real, and, using something like magic, she is able to pull apart the seams of this world, until she is murdered. Interestingly enough, it's not until "Sue" is killed, and passes into the afterlife (at which point she seemingly becomes Nikki again) that she is able to face a mysterious villain known as The Phantom, who is the one who trapped her here.
The Phantom is a typical Lynch villain along the lines of the Mystery Man, Killer BOB, and the Man Behind Winkie's: He's ominous, with indistinct motivations, and vague mystical abilities. He arouses terror in us without us quite knowing why, and somehow he's using his powers to control everything going on. I believe there's a reason for the similarities here: They are all Dugpas from the Black Lodge.
You might now be saying, "But the Black Lodge is only in Twin Peaks." You'd be wrong, though. Within the Twin Peaks universe, it's said that there are many portals to the Lodges in the world: Twin Peaks, Buenos Aires, and probably one in Deer Meadow. And those are just the ones that are indicated in the series. I think all of Lynch's major movies are stories centered around various portals.
In Eraserhead, Henry Spencer enters a strange dream world, occupied by a being called The Lady in the Radiator. In this world, there is a stage with curtains. Though the film is in black and white, I do not think it far-fetched to presume the curtains to be red. When Henry presumably dies in the end, he encounters the Lady in the Radiator again, meaning that this other world can be accessed through both dreams and death.
In Blue Velvet, there does not seem to be any otherworldly shenanigans, but I believe Sandy's dream of the robins was a vision from the White Lodge.
In Lost Highway, Fred Madison passes by some red curtains, goes down a hallway, and stares at his face in the mirror in a manner reminiscent of Cooper seeing his reflection as BOB in Twin Peaks. He seems to be possessed by the Mystery Man, and murders his wife, but doesn't remember, just as, in Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer is possessed by BOB, and murders Laura and Maddy, but doesn't remember. Later in the film, Fred enters a burning cabin in the desert, which is occupied by the Mystery Man.
In Mulholland Drive, Betty and Rita, the dream versions of Diane and Camilla, enter a theater with red curtains, called Silencio. It is occupied by some odd people, as well as two women who fans speculated could represent Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski. When Diane kills herself at the end, we are once again shown the theater, where a blue-haired woman whispers "Silencio," connecting the theater with death and the afterlife. There is also the ominous figure of the Man Behind Winkie's throughout the film. He is said, by one character, to be "the one who's doing it," as in he's somehow controlling the dream.
This brings us back to Inland Empire. In this film, Laura Dern's character can be seen walking through a series of hallways, like a cavernous apartment building or hotel. There are many doors, as well as clocks on the walls. Earlier in the film, a "lucky watch" is shown ticking backwards, indicating that we are viewing the past. Here, I think the clocks and numbered doorways represent portals to other times and other dimensions. This is the "Inland Empire" of the film's title—a secret network of portals leading to other worlds. It is "an ocean of possibilities," as one character says.
Other than Twin Peaks, I believe Inland Empire shows us the most of this other world, the Black Lodge and the White Lodge, which are occupied by beings with mystical powers and often strange appearances. This world can be accessed by dreams, like Henry Spencer and Laura Palmer, by death, like Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes, and by portals, like those found by Agent Cooper and Nikki Grace. In Lynch's universe, the barriers between worlds are thin, and other times dimensions often spill into each other. His films are about the phenomena caused by these dimensions. I have given the most obvious connections here, and if we look closely, I think we will only find more and more connections between the works of David Lynch.