Twin Peaks, and What It Means to Return

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ALL SEASONS OF TWIN PEAKS BELOW


I studied film in college, and -- as you can imagine -- one of the main things I would do when I had free time was watch a ton of films and TV shows. I tried to keep a healthy variety of content in circulation, and this allowed me to ingest a wide array of genres on top of what I was already watching, and studying, in my classes.

It was during this time that I discovered David Lynch. Of my own volition, and out of general curiosity, I rented Mulholland Drive. Since doing so, my perspective on filmmaking, and narrative structure has never been the same. Later, in one of my classes, we watched his masterpiece, Blue Velvet, and this amazement continued. I realized that Lynch was a master of creating a cohesive narrative from a sum of jumbled parts; no other filmmaker has handled surrealism quite as well as him (except for, perhaps, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí when they made Un Chien Andalou in 1929). Furthermore, Lynch inserts this element of pulpy, lustful noire that is twisted wonderfully into his narratives.

It was not long after this class, and these experiences with Lynch's work, that I began to watch Twin Peaks.

© 1990 ABC/Spelling Ent./CBS Paramount Domestic Television

© 1990 ABC/Spelling Ent./CBS Paramount Domestic Television

The pilot of Twin Peaks, and the ensuing episodes, was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was deeply Lynchian, and yet it wasn't entirely Lynchian. You could feel Mark Frost's guiding hand, giving some semblance of episodic form to Lynch's surrealist tendencies. And yet, Lynch's direction in the pilot gave the entire series an ethereal sheen. The town of Twin Peaks had an appeal to it, and yet it was wholly unnerving. Twin Peaks was the kind of place where a man could call his Sheriff if he needed anything and get through to him immediately. It was also the kind of place where a man would need to do so after finding the homecoming queen dead on a beach, wrapped in plastic.

In the pilot, a single question was dangled before us with tantalizing precision: who killed Laura Palmer? Lynch and Frost then introduced us to a variety of characters, most of whom had some kind of motive, or were rather suspicious. Whether that was Jocelyn Packard (played by the alluring Joan Chen), who we see moments before Laura Palmer is found, or James Hurley, a biker who has half of Laura's golden necklace, we were thrust into a tantalizingly macabre town, given a host of characters to suspect, and provided with only the subtlest of hints.

Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper -- a man who is as eccentric and Lynchian as they come, with a penchant for a hot cup of coffee, and a thick slice of cherry pie. With Dale Cooper the audience is given some sort of light in this dark town. With Dale Cooper, we get a moral compass. With Dale Cooper, it seems as though we can figure out the answer to this mystery.

Photo by CBS Photo Archive - © 2008 CBS WORLDWIDE INC.

Photo by CBS Photo Archive - © 2008 CBS WORLDWIDE INC.

I devoured thirty episodes of Twin Peaks in a matter of days. I was amazed, and terrified, by our first exploration into the Black Lodge, and our introduction to The Man From Another Place; I watched Dale Cooper get shot at the end of season one by a mysterious figure; I saw his first interaction with the Giant; I saw the reveal of Laura's killer; and, most shocking of all, I watched Cooper's trek through the Black Lodge at the end of season two, and theorized about the lingering question he asked the entire audience, blood dripping from his forehead, the bathroom mirror shattered: "How's Annie?"

Photo by Suzanne Tenner - © 2017 - Showtime

Photo by Suzanne Tenner - © 2017 - Showtime

That was how audiences were left for twenty-five years. Whether you watched the show during its original run, or through a streaming service (like I did), you were equally frustrated, confused, and saddened. For all we knew, this was the end of the line for Laura Palmer, Agent Cooper, and the rest of our affable characters.

And then, on October 3rd, 2014, David Lynch set out a tweet that excited, and shocked, fans.

With this tweet we knew, on some level, that we were going to see Cooper again. But how? In what state? What would this show even look like two decades later?

We got that answer in Twin Peaks: The Return, an eighteen-hour film (as Lynch calls it) that brought back old characters, introduced us to new ones, and frustrated fans just as much as it did during its original run. It gave no quarter, no answers, and remained stubbornly deceptive, and wonderfully mysterious, right up until its final seconds. It defied expectations, and carved its own path; by doing so, it redefined television forever.

The main question many fans had going into this newest season was how they were going to continue their story after 26 years. Some hints were given in the 60-second trailer, titled IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN.

Fans immediately began theorizing, trying to dissect the images we were shown, while remaining in awe that we were actually going to see (most) of our favorite characters again. 

© Showtime

© Showtime

 Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime

 Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime

What we got with these eighteen episodes, though, was nothing like what we could have imagined. It was equal parts challenging, infuriating, and rewarding. We were shown a new array of images and characters that have become immortal in the mind of all Twin Peaks fans: a large glass box, an older version of the Giant, the Woodsman, the dark version of Cooper, Dougie Jones, the birth of BOB, Diane, and -- perhaps most importantly -- Laura Palmer's scream.

That final element is what we are left with in the finale. Cooper, having transcended time itself in an attempt to save Laura Palmer, brings Carrie Page -- the alternate version of Laura Palmer in the skewed timeline Cooper created, or entered (or both) -- to her home, hoping her mother, Sarah Palmer, will be there to greet her. Yet, instead Cooper is baffled when Alice Tremond answers the door, saying she doesn't know who Sarah Palmer is. In fact, Alice bought it from a woman named Mrs. Chalfont -- a character fans will remember from Fire Walk With Me and the original run from Twin Peaks, who also goes by the name Mrs. Tremond. Rebuked and confused, Cooper and Carrie Page walk back onto the street. Cooper stands there for a moment. We see a familiar light pole. Cooper then visibly weakens, seeming to double over, asking "What year is it?". We hear a faint whisper, "Laura", on the wind, in what sounds like Sarah Palmer's voice. And then Carrie Page realizes who she is. She screams, the lights of the house go out, and our screens fade to black.

It's a suitably Lynchian ending, leaving plenty of questions up in the air for viewers to dissect, while giving a rather poetic conclusion to a season that is all about "return."

In fact, one of the most interesting things about this season has been how that subtitle has changed in meaning over the course of these eighteen hours.

When we first see that 60-second trailer, it is easy to assume that "The Return" only points to the show's return to television after its two-decade absence. Then we learn that bad Cooper is running from the Black Lodge, avoiding returning so he can stay out in the real world -- we can then infer that "The Return" is pointing to his return to the Black Lodge. Then we learn about Dougie Jones, and we see that arc unfold before our eyes, and we can insinuate that "The Return" points to Dougie's return to Dale Cooper, in terms of identity and functionality. Then Cooper returns to life, and we can infer that "The Return" points to his return to Twin Peaks.

What does it mean with this finale, though? Where does Cooper return after the essence of BOB has been defeated (if only for the moment)?

Cooper returns to the moment where Laura was murdered, saving her from her fate. Her corpse is scrubbed out of existence on the beach we see in the opening moments of the pilot episode. And then she disappears, that bloodcurdling scream echoing through the woods as Cooper is left alone, his arm outstretched, his hand holding nothing but air.

Futility is perhaps the essence of what we can take away from this season as a whole, and its oddly fitting when analyzed in comparison with the social response to this season in general. Everyone jumped on board thinking they were going to get Cooper and his wild antics, his affinity for coffee, and scenes of him throwing stones at bottles to deduce who Laura Palmer's killer is. They didn't get that, though. Even when the show brings us back to Twin Peaks, with Cooper in tow, it's not truly like it was twenty-five years ago. 

Because that's the ultimate truth about the past: you cannot truly return to it. And, more importantly, even if you could it wouldn't necessarily fix things. Cooper is given the unique opportunity to return to the past, to attempt to save Laura from her grisly fate. In doing so, he skews the timeline; yet, he doesn't change the past. If that scream is any indication, Carrie Page remembers in that moment who she is. With Sarah Palmer's whisper, all of those memories come flooding back. Cooper fails.

Now there is an interesting theory I saw online that offers a rather simple explanation to what we saw in episodes 17/18.

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Regardless of whether or not this is true, though, I think we should return to this notion of "returning". What does it mean to return, especially in the context of a show where we see a spirit world existing beside, and encroaching on, reality?

Twin Peaks: The Return, if nothing else, proved to us that David Lynch was well aware that fans wanted him to take the easy way out, just as Coop wanted to do: give us the nostalgia we wanted, reap the benefits; save Laura, stop the entire process of events from happening. But it's not that simple. 

As Margaret Lanterman said, to open Robert Jacoby's eulogy, in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, “This is now. And now will never be again." In essence, we cannot return to before, whether we want to relive the nostalgic memories of Coop trying to solve a crime, or we want to save Laura Palmer from her fate. We are in the now, in the present, and accessing the past only has consequences. 

Maybe it's Coop's nightmare to never be able to help Laura Palmer. In the series' original run, he is never really able to bring BOB to justice. Sure, Leland is caught, and dies in custody, but Leland was only a conduit through which BOB was able to enact his treachery. Even when Coop visits the Black Lodge, it is to save Annie, not to help Laura -- and in doing so, dark Cooper is born. So I suppose it's only poetic that Cooper's attempts to save Laura here fail as well. Why would they succeed? The past is the past -- it cannot be changed, re-written, or overruled. Attempting to do so only delays the inevitable. 

It's a depressing way for Twin Peaks to go out, presumably forever, but it also is a perfect ending for this series. It says a lot, without explicitly revealing his hand.

I'm reminded of the frustrated response to the series finale of The Sopranos whenever I see the response to this ending for Twin Peaks. People hate not having resolution; especially in film and TV, where we expect to have some sort of finality, the blatant choice to not give viewers what they want, and to take a different, more artistic approach, is often met with vitriol, anger, and frustration. To those people, I must only offer this: it's okay to be confused. 

The ending to Twin Peaks has come and gone. Lynch has done what he has always done, and told a story that defies expectations. He has used our linear logic against us, as he always has, and he has still managed to create a poetic ending to this incredible show. We don't have all of the answers when the credits roll -- that much is true. But if you think Lynch didn't provide you with the tools necessary to figure it out, you are very mistaken.

Those who want to figure out what happened in Twin Peaks will figure it out, just as those who wanted to figure out what happened to Tony Soprano figured it out. I know I will be revisiting this finale, and this 18-hour film, sometime in the future to do some analyzing of my own.

If anything, watching these three seasons of television is the only way to experience the past. Though we cannot change it, and we cannot relive its former glory, we can understand it; perhaps, when it comes to Lynch, that is what we should strive for.