Fan reactions to The Leftovers and Twin Peaks: The Return

Jake Pitre

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Certain TV series, such as The Leftovers (2014–17) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), encourage their fandoms to solve puzzles, search for clues, and comb the internet for answers to questions. As a result of this work, fans can consider their readings of the series legitimate, even canonical, regardless of the producers' intent. Just as queer readings can be as valid as mainstream interpretations, these fan viewers use the language and strategies of alternative viewers to legitimize their own readings.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Interpretation; Television; TV

Pitre, Jake. 2018. "Fan Reactions to The Leftovers and Twin Peaks: The Return." In "Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries," edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Even before HBO's The Leftovers debuted in 2014, co-creator Damon Lindelof was saying in interviews that the show's audience should not worry about whether they would ever get an answer to what happened during "the Departure," the moment when millions of people all over the world suddenly disappeared. After the angry fallout following the finale of his previous series, Lost, Lindelof seemed to be attempting to prepare viewers not to expect answers from his new project. "These characters, on this show, are not actively searching for what happened in The Departure," he explained in January 2014. "They're actively searching for what they're supposed to do in their lives. Hopefully, that's what the storytelling is going to echo" (Radish 2014). But despite his emphatic pronouncements, many of the show's fans chose not to listen.

[1.2] Alexander Doty famously argued that his queer readings of ostensibly straight texts, such as The Wizard of Oz, are just as present as any other reading. He said that nonheterocentrist interpretations of these texts are often seen as delusional, suggesting that queer readings are traditionally reserved only for denotatively queer texts. For him, the queer gaze must assert itself, for it is as legitimate as the dominant straight gaze: "There is no need for queer canons that are marked as alternative or subcultural because queerness can be anywhere, in any canon you care to set up" (Doty 2000, 15). Spectators accustomed to existing outside the mainstream and under a system of oppression that limits the amount of cultural representation afforded to them feel emboldened by this oppositional queer practice. "In the context of a heterocentrist (homophobic, sexist) culture, close reading often becomes a social and political strategy: perhaps through overwhelming details and examples we can make what is invisible to so many visible and what is denied possible" (55). Oppositional queer readings, then, are just as valid as dominant readings, no matter what text is being analyzed.

[1.3] This fact is worth acknowledging when thinking about texts that refuse traditional or conventional storytelling (in particular, the requirement to provide answers or closure), such as The Leftovers (2014–17) or Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), and the reception of these texts by their fandoms. In something I would describe as an ironic twist of fate, this spirit of opposition has led fans to develop more confrontational interpretations even for standard, rather than alternative or subcultural, purposes. In other words, certain TV shows invite their fandoms to solve puzzles, search for clues, and comb the internet for answers to questions. As a result of these activities, fans feel that their readings of the show are legitimate and even canon. Even if these readings go against the wishes of the show's creators, and even if they reaffirm the creators' positions of interpretive power (perhaps by reinforcing the male gaze, or by insisting on their analytical superiority), the fans consider their readings valid.

2. The power of one and the search for answers

[2.1] In the individualized social experience of television that comes with social media, streaming services, and on-demand viewing, taxonomies of identity and power are further complicated. It is worth interrogating what I call these "dominant oppositional readings," which tend to fortify dominant ideology by using the language and strategy of queer or racial oppositional readings. As Jacqueline Bobo said about the different responses to Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), "Not only is the difference in reception noteworthy but Black women's responses confront and challenge a prevalent method of media audience analysis which insists that viewers of mainstream works have no control or influence over a cultural product" (Bobo 1988, 95). We are used to understanding marginalized spectators as exercising this oppositional power to take control of mainstream, dominant texts. But we are less prepared for current forms of fandom on Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere providing the opportunity for all individuals to simultaneously feel that their reading is valid and that their interpretation is the marginalized, vilified one. This ubiquitous self-image as persecuted but legitimate creates an interpretive vacuum wherein the pleasures of fans' individualist experience of TV storytelling contrast with their desire for control over their fan object.

[2.2] These dominant oppositional readings reject the unconventional narratives in these TV series. If The Leftovers or Twin Peaks seems completely uninterested in traditional forms of narrative closure or in answering audience questions, these fans feel warranted in their pursuit of hidden explanations. The popular Twin Peaks fan website Welcome to Twin Peaks ( has a discussion board devoted to each episode of The Return. The one for the two-part finale contains more than eight thousand posts debating the series's mysteries and possible explanations, and many posters feel they have "figured it all out." For example, a user called SamXTherapy started a thread titled "why does the ending confuse people? Its so simple" to explain a theory (one of many). In a thread called "What if there isn't an ending or resolution?," SamXTherapy wondered,

[2.3] Maybe there is no definitive story, point, resolution or ending, and the whole of it is a collection of stuff to create an emotional and/or cognitive response in the viewer. A true non-linear "story" that doesn't actually do anything in the traditional sense of story...We keep coming up with ideas to make the whole thing hang together, which is a reasonable idea, since some individual sections make sense on their own. What if the whole thing doesn't hang together, and deliberately so? (, post 1)

[2.4] Some users agree, but others refuse to. One responded (post 4), "I think you are correct, but I just can't accept it. It is a natural thing, to expect books and films to tell a story that leads to some kind of result, conclusion, solution...People naturally long to know what was the author's intent, what meanings did he attach to what he laid out for us. I simply didn't want to decide this story." Another said (post 32), "The Return is just confusing for confusings sake to teach us that life is confusing," and yet another argued (posts 53, 55), "Sometimes I can't help but feel it's something of a cop-out, though." "If I wrote a story that had a definite meaning to it, and then I heard people come up with theories that were wrong, I'd feel the urge to correct them. I wouldn't be saying, 'What's important is whatever YOU believe it means.'" These debates, variations of which continue to rage, reveal not only how accustomed these spectators are to traditional narration, but also their desire for control over these texts. They feel challenged by a text that does not conform to the techniques of storytelling that they imagine to be universally satisfying, and fail to fathom why TV creators would willingly frustrate their audience through obfuscation and abstraction. For them, it is a function of human nature to search for answers, even where there may be none to be found.

[2.5] By comparison, the ending of The Leftovers in June 2017 ultimately fulfilled Lindelof's promise by refusing to definitively tell the audience what happened during the Departure. Moreover, it left unanswered an even bigger question: whether the story Nora (Carrie Coon) told Kevin (Justin Theroux) about her time in the alternate reality where the departed supposedly went was true or not. The finale gestures at a possible answer, but does not confirm it. Some fans expressed their disappointment online. One tweeted, "LMAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO I'M FUCKING UPSET FOREVER #THELEFTOVERS" ( Reddit user bigphatmike, referring to the lyrics to one of the show's theme songs ("Let the mystery be"), created a thread called "I need Answers/opinions!!" and wrote, "let's not let the mystery be and crack the case!" ( Reddit user mle70 created a thread and wrote, "Boy what a pile of garbage. Every episode I felt like it was gonna be garbage, but I read positive reviews about the progression of the show and kept moving on. I wasted that time and so have all of you" ( User foomy45 responded to another user's rant about unanswered questions by summing up the problem succinctly: "You acknowledge that the producers said they weren't going to explain everything, then rant about how upset you are they didn't explain everything" (, post 14). At the same time, many people sanctimoniously argued that the show was never about answers, and anyone who watched hoping to get them was watching it wrong. In a sense, they were similarly insisting on their own interpretation of the text's ambiguities.

3. Better or worse ways of watching

[3.1] The difference in the case of The Leftovers is that Lindelof attempted to prepare the audience for what was to come (or rather, what would not come). On the other hand, David Lynch has rarely cared to explain anything in his work, including Twin Peaks, and certainly has little interest in traditional narrative expectations or even offering audience satisfaction. In both cases, some viewers seemed unable to accept this. Carrie Coon, who played Nora on The Leftovers, sees this inability as a natural human response: "We do want answers. We are built that way, and I am not supplying an answer to that question. The whole point is, it reveals more about the viewer than me" (Sepinwall 2017). This focus on the viewer is a welcome sentiment for those who value ambiguous storytelling or giving power to the consumer, but it can have the adverse effect of allowing individuals to assert the objectivity of their subjective experience.

[3.2] The social nature of these interactions seems to reveal a willingness to discuss theories, but also a tendency to insist on the superiority and authenticity of one's own. In a TV culture that has rapidly become addicted to choice and convenience, as everyone can watch everything at their own pace and according to their own circumstances, viewers feel emboldened to assert that their experience is the "correct" one. But how correct are they? Jason Mittell summarizes this phenomenon of mapping and cataloging fictions: "Such modes of affirmational fan engagement prioritize canonical authenticity, seek narrative mastery, authorize the role of controlling showrunner, and search for connections and theories to fill narrative gaps" (2015, 316). Mittell, though admittedly concerned with different issues, fails to account for the power dynamics at play in these fan engagements. Interpretive power on the internet, as elsewhere, belongs to everyone, but readings of TV shows that embrace ambiguity and refuse normative storytelling correspond with mainstream practices. I argue that this posturing, which tends to assimilate the language and spirit of the alternative viewing practices of queer and POC spectators, is a solipsistic reaction to the power viewers feel in the modern hyper-individualized experience of their entertainment.

[3.3] This all raises the question: are there right and wrong ways to watch a television series? I am reminded of Immanuel Kant's belief, outlined in his Critique of Judgment (1790), that when we consume art, we do so under the assumption that others ought to agree with our interpretation of it. This is a common, basic principle of how taste functions in a cultural society. For Kant, there exists a universal community of taste that we all subscribe to, and art is the means by which we can communicate our common experiences. When viewers watch Twin Peaks: The Return or The Leftovers, they can't help but understand it in their own way, and can't help but believe that others should be of the same mind. In this sense, the liberatory entitlement felt by queer or POC spectators to take control of mainstream art is a political byproduct of the fundamental entitlement felt by the oppressor class to have control over all texts, even ones that insist on their inherent alternativism. It is a curious function of cultural politics and fan discourses that these dominant spectators assert their experiential supremacy even when a text deliberately attempts to dismantle interpretive power dynamics. What this means for nondominant spectators and their methods of oppositional viewing remains to be seen.

4. References

Bobo, Jacqueline. 1988. "The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers." In Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, edited by E. Deidre Pribram, 90–109. London: Verso.

Doty, Alexander. 2000. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. London and New York: Routledge.

Mittell, Jason. 2015. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: New York University Press.

Radish, Christina. 2014. "Damon Lindelof Talks The Leftovers, Looking towards Future Seasons, Comparisons to Lost, Leaving Twitter, and More." Collider, January 10, 2014.

Sepinwall, Alan. 2017. "Carrie Coon Knows Nora Durst's Leftovers Finale Secret but She's Never Telling." Uproxx, June 4, 2017.