David Lynch and Mark Frost wrap up one of the most beautiful, ambitious experiments ever committed to television as ‘The Return’ reaches its conclusion
“We live inside a dream.”
“I have no idea where it will lead us. But, I have a definite feeling that it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
This is a line that Special Agent Dale Cooper tells Sheriff Harry S. Truman in the eighteenth episode of Twin Peaks’ second season all the way back in 1991. It’s a line that perfectly speaks to Cooper’s adventurous, eccentric personality and it’s one that I couldn’t help but think of when Twin Peaks: The Return was starting up four months ago. I had no idea what we would be in store for, but regardless of the end result, I knew that it would be something that’s both “wonderful and strange.”
Over the course of this groundbreaking season of television (or 18-hour film, your call), both David Lynch and Mark Frost have thrown a lot at the audience. And this is Twin Peaks we’re talking about. This is a show where it’s extremely difficult to seem weird and outrageous and yet The Return has been so over-the-top Lynchian that it practically makes the original first two seasons of the show feel like The Straight Story in comparison. This is a season of television that has given people things like Mr. Jackpots, green tea lattes, armpit rashes, David Bowie the Tea Kettle, Jerry Horne’s foot talking to him, killer midget assassins with rhyming names, “The Nine Inch Nails”, jubilant conga lines, Wally fucking Brando, and what might amount to the most beautiful thing Lynch has ever directed in the season’s eighth hour. It’s been truly a hell of a ride, but as Diane or the Arm (Mk I) would say, “Let’s rock.”
Full disclaimer, I was probably more excited for these two hours of television than I have been for any other in my entire life. The first two episodes that kick off the season are unlike anything else and a beyond strong return, but these final installments are more or less set up to be a TV movie where Good Cooper takes on Evil Cooper. That’s pretty damn hard to top. Not to mention, with Lynch seeming all too satisfied for this to be the end of Twin Peaks, these will likely be the last doses of these characters that we’re ever going to see. On top of that, Lynch and Frost get to end this series on their own terms. This is redemption time for what happened to Twin Peaks 25 years ago and so the question is: Can this ending possibly measure up to all of that baggage and those lofty expectations?
Heh. Depends on who you ask and what you ask them. The season two finale of Twin Peaks is notorious for setting off about six cliffhangers before then seeing cancellation. One would think that this finale might attempt to not go out on such an outrageous note that could madden the fanbase. Twin Peaks’ ending is far from unsuccessful, in fact I dig it quite a bit, but it’s absolutely a conclusion that’s going to upset a lot of fans. There are already rampant accusations going on out there that this is worse than LOST or The Sopranos’ decisive finales. However, it is also the sort of ending that is purely, utterly Lynch. But let’s backtrack a little here.
In a lot of ways “Part 17” is the Twin Peaks finale that the fans were asking for. The whole Evil Cooper situation is dealt with in a surprisingly succinct manner. The episode begins with what’s basically a rather large exposition dump rather than Lynch throwing the script out the window and going nuts with it all like he did 25 years ago. The episode explains that Judy—or rather, Jao Dae—is an Ancient Evil from “olden times” and it’s most certainly the “Mother” that’s been inhabiting Sarah Palmer for who knows how long. Cooper and Briggs concocted a plan 25 years ago to find Judy, but that’s when both Cooper and Briggs disappeared, leaving Cole in the lurch on this paranormal ghost hunt. Even Phillip Jeffries, “who doesn’t really exist anymore”, also tries to get in touch with Judy, but ends up getting “Lodged away” as well. Cole has a plan for all of this, which he’s confident is currently falling into place, with Cooper taking care of everything. By the way, Cole screaming out “Dougie is Cooper!? What the hell is this?” is also just pretty damn perfect, as is Tammy and Albert’s recap of Dougie’s wacky catatonic misadventures.
I’m almost kicking myself for never making the connection that the bleeding, drunk guy in the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department jail cell has just been repeating what’s said to him all season, just like Dougie was doing. He is most definitely someone’s doppleganger or tulpa and I don’t know why I never made this—what feels like an obvious connection—before. Make no mistake, whether I’m right or wrong about this really makes no difference regarding the course of the series. Doppleganger or not, the drunk’s story comes to a close—like many others here—leaving it up to your imagination for reconciliation.
It looks like Evil Cooper might finally be reaching the destination that he’s been trying to reach all season. Only instead of reaching his goal, he appears to get warped to the Sheriff’s Department, where everything is converging and all of these threads are prone to tie together. It’s sheer terror when Evil Cooper enters the place and good, pure souls like Andy, Lucy, and Truman are all put in harm’s way. Nobody wants to see any of these people die, yet it turns into a ticking clock situation where hopefully the real Cooper and company get there in time before anyone gets face squished. It’s the same level of tension that’s present during a lengthy, pivotal car ride during the tail end of the second episode. The fact that fucking Lucy Moran is the one to take down Evil Cooper is the best kind of fan service and on top of that, nobody has to die (plus, Lucy also understands cellular phones and modern technology, you guys!). Then, in spite of the best efforts of the Black Lodge Interpretive Dancers, when Evil Cooper gets knocked down, this time everyone makes sure it’s for good.
I certainly wasn’t expecting Freddie and his Hulk Hand to play such a pivotal factor here, but he really ends up saving the day and fulfilling his destiny (which Coopers seems to be well aware of, by the way). There’s a ridiculously insane scene that results from all of this that’s basically what you’d get if David Lynch directed a Rocky film and if Cooper were in the Burgess Meredith role. Freddie literally punches evil to death and Twin Peaks is finally rid of the evil of Bob. Somehow though, the craziest thing about all of this is that this wraps itself up half way through the first episode.
After Bob’s expulsion, there’s a rather emotional moment where it turns out that Naido is in fact the real Diane, after all. Their kiss is all sorts of wonderful and it seems to indicate that Coop won’t be returning to Janey-E at the end of the day (although she does get another, flawless Dougie in his place). Lynch employs some creative techniques during this “wrap-up” scene in “Part 17” as 16 and a half hours begin to come together. An image of Cooper is superimposed over his pivotal “reveal” scene as everything clicks into place. But then Cooper decides to go one step further and push his luck. He “goes back in” and the fact that this visual is David Lynch, Kyle MacLachlan, and Laura Dern all walking away together is far too emblematic of Lynch taking a bow towards his entire career. Especially when Cooper is saying things like “See you at the curtain call.” I mean, INLAND EMPIRE, much?
As these episodes begin to go through the rabbit hole, there’s still plenty of gratuitous fan service to keep people happy. There’s the return of Bowie Kettle for this final lap, Philip Gerard chanting the iconic “Fire Walk With Me” poem again, and Julee Cruise crooning “The World Spins” “within” the Black Lodge. In a lot of ways these installments do surprisingly copy the structure of “Beyond Life and Death” from 25 years ago. The “plot” gets wrapped up in a cool half hour while the rest is Cooper journeying to further non-exis-tence and Lynch having fun with structure and breaking everyone’s minds.
Cooper finds himself back in archival footage from Fire Walk With Me as Laura Palmer’s final night alive plays out before him. Cooper doing his best It’s A Wonderful Life impression through all of this is fascinating. Is Cooper supposed to change the past? Discover something pivotal that’s been overlooked? Lynch beautifully mixes Cooper into the moment, explaining Laura’s inexplicable screams from 25 years ago, in the process. It’s some surreal dot connecting that shows just how brilliant Lynch is at all of this. It truly does feel like one story that had to take a necessary break for 25 years rather than a popular series that’s returned over two decades later. It’s perfect.
It’s also nice to get a bit of a reminder of how much of a force of nature Sheryl Lee’s performance in Fire Walk With Me really is. The actress might not really get much of a chance to shine in this revival season, but this flashback gives a healthy dose of Laura to fill in the absence (And hey, Leo makes an appearance via flashback! Remember Leo, you guys?). Cooper and Laura also finally get to really meet and have a conversation with each other, something that’s inexplicably never happened before in the show and something you didn’t realize you even needed. But when the two interact and “Laura Palmer’s Theme” kicks in, it’s as good as the series has ever been. Especially with all of this happening on the night of Laura’s murder. Or what would have been her murder.
Twin Peaks all of a sudden goes in a direction that I don’t think anybody expected it to go, by basically Back to the Future-ing things and Cooper stopping Laura Palmer’s murder from ever happening. A flashback seamlessly morphs into “new footage” and the iconic opening moments of the show’s pilot begin to play forward again, only now with a radically different outcome. Pete Martell enjoys a calm day of fishing on February 24, 1989, with there being nothing to report of that’s wrapped in plastic.
Let’s just be clear that this idea of Cooper being determined to complete his mission of saving Laura Palmer from getting swallowed up by evil is completely in line with the character. Cooper was so obsessed with Laura during the initial seasons of the show, that for him to not only be able to unequivocally retroactively achieve his goal, but also get to meet Laura. Well that’s just unreal. But it’s in this evergreen goal of Cooper where his happy ending begins to fall apart. In the end he isn’t able to rescue Laura, at least not completely. Cooper is able to prevent her death from ever happening, but he can’t bring her back into reality and give her a perfect future. Instead, Laura gets painfully whisked away by Judy/Sarah Palmer and the world reacts as if Laura never existed in the first place. The sound design here during Sarah Palmer’s freak out and massacre of Laura’s portrait is also a great example of how much of an audio master Lynch is. He’s able to turn simple audio cues into something truly intimidating and terrifying.
If “Part 17” is about giving everyone what they want, “Part 18” is when the reality of the situation begins to sink in. In the final installment of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, another series which took decades to finish telling, there’s a passage towards the end where King warns some readers to stop. He explains that audiences have been with these characters for so long that a traumatic end to them might be equally traumatic for the readers. He provides a full caveat explaining to his audience that if you want a happy ending, you can put the book down here and everything will be fine. That kind of feels like what’s going on here and I’m sure that many disgruntled viewers will retroactively consider Cooper leading Laura through the woods in “Part 17” to be “their” ending. There’s your happy closure if you want it.
What basically goes on here is that David Lynch is doing an 18-hour adaptation of DC’s “Flashpoint.” As soon as Cooper uses his old room key, the timeline is up for grabs. Cooper attempts to prevent Laura Palmer from dying, which he does, but the Black Lodge intervenes and stops them from getting away. Judy plucks Laura up and sends her away to another timeline, with a new life in the form of Carrie Page in Odessa, Texas. This is also presumably so Cooper can’t use Laura against Judy. That’s why he’s trying to reunite Laura with Sarah—not for some mother-daughter catharsis, but so the Ultimate Good can defeat the Ultimate Evil.
Cooper attempts to solve this problem too, by entering this other timeline and retrieving Laura. Before Cooper and Diane cross over to the other side it’s explicitly mentioned that “some things might change,” and they do. Cooper and Diane are now Richard and Linda. Laura Palmer is Carrie Page. When Cooper manages to find Laura and bring her back to “her” home, the Tremonds and Chalfonts that are said to be living there are Lodge spirits in Fire Walk With Me (and the old lady from Laura’s Meal on Wheels route). Bob might no longer be residing in the home, but it doesn’t mean that other Black Lodge entities aren’t still keeping tabs on the place. Finally, the illusions of this timeline begin to fall apart as Laura does remember who she is, but it being too late to do anything about it. Cooper is lost in time, displaced from reality like all of the other Blue Rose agents that have come before him. As Cooper ricochets through realities, maybe Tammy Preston will one day have an interdimensional conversation with him through a giant coffee pot.
The only hitch with all of this is the Fireman mentioning “Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone” as well as “430” (the required speed while Diane and Cooper are crossing over) in the premiere. That implies that this broken timeline that Cooper has found himself in was actually part of the plan. It means the Fireman was not only well aware of this conclusion, but preparing Cooper for it. So then, does that mean that this is something that he’s able to rise above? Or was the Fireman simply warning Cooper not to go down this path?
So what the hell does any of that mean? Well, it all seems to tie in pretty closely to not only the concept of “who is the dreamer?” which was brought up in “Part 15,” but also Lynch’s iconic film, Mulholland Drive (which began as a Twin Peaks extension starring Audrey, mind you). Let’s run with the theory that Laura is the dreamer through all of this. In this new reality that Laura has been inserted into as Carrie Page, it’s easy to view everything as some awful nightmare. The whole thing is made up of twisted snapshots of reality, like the two Dianes, the dead body in Carrie’s house that’s not addressed, the white horse on the mantle, “My Prayer” from “Part 8” playing over the sex scene. Furthermore, the hotel that Cooper exits as Richard is completely different than the one that he entered. His car is also totally different too and in a different parking spot. It’s dream logic to the highest degree.
Mulholland Drive explores the ideas of two realities blending together because someone has done something so traumatic that pieces of reality are eventually invading and taking over their dream. Lost Highway sees a character becoming an entirely new person as a means of coping with something horrible that they’ve done. This new timeline continually allows dark truths to leak through in exactly the same way as these films do. The fact that right before the episode ends and cuts to black, Sarah is faintly screaming “Laura,” which ostensibly “wakes” her up and starts this cycle anew lends a lot to this theory, too. The fact that Cooper repeats the pivotal Fire Walk With Me line, “We live inside a dream” is no coincidence.
In this sense, the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t a cliffhanger or even a pessimistic direction for the series to conclude on (although it does go out on a downer of a moment) in David Lynch’s eyes. It’s a cyclical conclusion, sure, but it still sees things moving in the right direction. You might want to scream over how those final moments feel even more bait-y than “HOW’S ANNIE??” from 25 years ago. I was half expecting “Richard” to ring the doorbell and deliver the line, “Dale Cooper is dead,” with this fully looping into Lost Highway. Take a minute to try to consider the bigger picture here. In the previous timeline, Laura was dead and there was no way to defeat Judy. Now, in this new reality that Cooper has built, Laura might repressed away into another person, but she’s still alive. Cooper might have brought back all of her garmonbozia in those final seconds, but that’s still better than there being no hope at all, right?
While this above idea speaks most to the series as a whole, there are also some other slightly different perspectives to argue that still connect to Lynch’s inclinations as a filmmaker. You could likely argue that all of this has been Laura’s dream, with Cooper being this eternal figure designed to save her from her awful life. Laura gets a little closer to avoiding death this time when she “wakes up,” but it’s still coming. You could also probably even prove that the “dreamer” of the episode is whoever ends up killing Laura, with the dream being them trying to avoid what they did (a common theme from Lynch’s films).
After taking all of this into consideration, it’s a lot easier to be understanding of this finale instead of responding blind rage. It’s at least some sort of evidence that Lynch knew where he was going here and he got the ending that he wanted. Which is pretty much the same ending of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and INLAND EMPIRE….But it also doesn’t completely salvage the finale either. We surely didn’t need 10+ minutes of silent night driving. And what even were the specifics of Evil Cooper’s plan? I know what he was trying to do with the coordinates, but then what was the plan after that? It would have been nice to have gotten some conclusion regarding Ben Horne, his secretary, and what’s going on with the walls of the Great Northern (and if this was a Josie reference). Some sort of follow-up regarding Becky, her awful boyfriend, Steven, and that magician drug dealer, Red, would have been nice. I guess that drug going through Twin Peaks probably killed them all? Plus, I suppose the resolution to all of that Audrey stuff is that she is just stuck in the Lodge? I could see people arguing coma, but the fact that the Evolution of the Arm mentions “the little girl who lives down the lane,” which Audrey refers to herself as, is confirmation enough that she’s Lodge-bound, apparently.
After such an unpredictable season that’s surely going to alienate a lot of people, I’m perfectly fine if this is the last that we see of Twin Peaks. However, David Lynch, please don’t wait another 11 years before making a new film. Twin Peaks: The Return would be a more than fitting swan song to the director’s impressive career, but if anything this season has proven that this guy is far from out of the game. Please keep creating.
“I hope I see all of you again. Every one of you.” Amen, Cooper. Amen.
Part 17 Grade: 4.5
Part 18 Grade: 3
Overall Season Grade: 4.5/5