Ducks on the Lake

Sunday Letter | #23

Have you seen Twin Peaks? One of the strangest moments in the show – and there are a few strange moments – comes near the beginning of the third episode. The story is just getting started, and Agent Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman are walking to Leo Johnson’s house to question him about the murder of Laura Palmer. The scene opens with an establishing shot of ducks swimming on the lake. Agent Cooper’s voice over the shot says:

“Look at that! Ducks … on the lake!”

Midway through the second season of a different show, Girls, there’s an episode in which a man comes into the cafe where Hannah works to complain that someone has been throwing the cafe’s trash in the garbage can in front of his apartment. After the man leaves, Hannah goes to his apartment to confess, and winds up having an affair with him. The episode is an anomaly: aside from Hannah’s friend Ray, who manages the cafe, none of the show’s other characters appear in the episode. It’s divorced from the season-long arc of Hannah’s reconciliation with her ex, and from any of the other characters’ arcs.

Like “ducks on the lake,” the Girls episode (titled “Another Man’s Trash”) lives outside the story. It could be cut and the viewer wouldn’t know anything was missing (and if you follow certain schools of writing, it very well should be cut). “Another Man’s Trash” feels like a daydream: Hannah meets someone who is in many ways the perfect guy and makes her incredibly happy. The episode largely puts her in a situation outside Girls’ usual mood of off-kilter neurosis. It creates a gap. Un écart (I’m learning French right now, bear with me) in Hannah’s life that at the end of the episode leads to an unexpectedly tender release and inner change in her character. It’s one of the most fantastical episodes of the entire series, but also one of the most real. The verisimilitude comes from the we all have these kinds of gaps in our natural experience. It is these gaps, I’d argue, that impel change, and often growth. (How often people come back from a vacation and realize they need to end their relationship or quit their job – sometimes both!)

There are less dramatic gaps, too. Even in rough times, in times of tremendous grief, we have moments of joy, contentment. We’ll laugh at a stupid joke in the most seemingly wrong moments. The emotional rails we get on aren’t quite rails but more a well-worn path in the dirt, that we can and do leave constantly, repeatedly. The trouble with over-exposure to efficient narratives and too-neat story arcs is that we begin to feel guilt: like we aren’t supposed to be happy in times when we’re grieving (or trying to find Laura Palmer’s murderer). The guilt guides us back into the groove, and the clinging to the story, the hell-bentness on following the story – it prevents us from acknowledging the gaps and using them as opportunities to pull ourselves out of the ruts.

“Ducks on the lake,” I think, is a small gift from David Lynch. It’s his way of saying: “Look, buddy, it’s just a story. You can leave if you want.”