It's slippery in here.
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Twin Peaks: The Return // Parts 17 and 18 // Original Air Date September 3, 2017 // Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch // Directed by David Lynch
As was observed in this blog’s first post on Twin Peaks: The Return, the bleak Season 2 finale of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s original, groundbreaking show may or may not have been originally intended as the series finale, but it certainly feels more like a semicolon than a period. The same cannot be said of the finale to Twin Peak: The Return. Whatever one’s theories regarding the meaning of the new series’ final episodes, and notwithstanding what seem like dozens of unresolved questions and abandoned subplots, it absolutely feels like an ending. Just not the ending that viewers may have expected or wanted.
Like the first two episodes of the series, Parts 17 and 18 of The Return were aired back-to-back on the same night. Unlike Parts 1 and 2, the final two chapters virtually demand to be contemplated in relation to one another. In some ways, Part 18 resembles a rebuttal to Part 17 (and to the entire series). In the context of The Return’s sprawling, digressive bulk, it is indisputable that the finale resolves very little. (What has become of armpit rash girl? Or Beverly’s dying husband? Or Audrey fucking Horne??) Yet Part 17 has the unmistakable air of a narrative conclusion to the previous 16 hours. It is plainly a crescendo in which numerous characters converge for a climactic showdown and minor plot points come to long-delayed fruition.
The final defeat of Dale Cooper’s malign double Mr. C (both Kyle MacLachlan) and the otherworldly entity BOB (the late Frank Silva) unfolds like an early, low-budget X-Files episode filtered through art film sensibilities. Not only is the viewer given atypically gratifying payoff for story elements as diverse as the Great Northern Room 315 key and Deputy Andy’s prophetic visit to the White Lodge, but the supernatural villains are dispatched in a strangely straightforward manner. Mr. C is shot and killed by none other than sweet, guileless receptionist Lucy Brennan (Kimmy Robertson). Meanwhile, after emerging from Mr. C’s abdomen as a floating orb of putrefaction, BOB is literally punched to smithereens by Freddie (Jake Wardel) and his miraculous green gardening glove. Of all the fates one might have envisioned for Twin Peaks’ unearthly boogeyman, metamorphosing into a volleyball from Hell and then being walloped into oblivion by a super-powered Englishman was likely not high on the list.
BOB’s demise is so ridiculous and tonally jarring that the scene seems to have been plucked from another show, or even from a work of not-terribly-good Twin Peaks fan fiction. Is it really the case that the show’s embodiment of ravenous, corrupting evil can be obliterated with a powerful right hook? Combined with the worlds-collide uncanniness of seeing, say, Sheriff Truman (Robert Forster), Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), and Bradley Mitchum (James Belushi) in the same room, the sheer Evil Dead absurdity of the villains’ defeat gives the showdown the atmosphere of a fever dream about some other television show. For Twin Peaks—and especially for The Return—it all feels uncommonly neat and tidy, as exemplified by Candie’s (Amy Shiels) breathless glee that the Mitchum entourage has brought enough sandwiches to feed this sudden assemblage of characters.
However, David Lynch provides an unmistakable sign that this discordance—the ill-fitting piece crammed into place as a jigsaw puzzle nears completion—is not only intentional, but the symptom of a more profoundly disquieting idea. This the director achieves through a small but provocative gesture, superimposing Dale Cooper’s confused and faintly distressed face over the aftermath of the confrontation. Even as Cooper reunites with his former assistant Diane (Laura Dern) and quickly brings the gathered characters up to speed on what is happening, his own uneasy countenance hovers, Great Oz-like, over the scene, as though it were a reverie in Coop’s mind. Underlining the point, the FBI agent abruptly observes in an unsettling, slowed-down voice, “We live inside a dream.” (But who is the dreamer?) He also discerns that the time on Sheriff Truman’s office clock is fluctuating between 2:52 and 2:53, the latter summing to the “number of completion” described in Cooper’s earlier message to Gordon Cole. The world seems to be stuck on the brink of a gravid moment.
The victory against Mr. C and BOB is complete, but, unfortunately for all involved, this is not a sufficiently satisfying conclusion as far as Cooper is concerned. By way of the locked door in the bowels of the Great Northern, he enters the meeting place above the unearthly convenience store to confer with Philip Jeffries (Nathan Frizzell), still puffing away in the form of a teapot-like electric contraption. With Jeffries’ assistance, Cooper travels across time and space to the early morning hours of February 24, 1989, the proverbial ground zero for the violent tragedy that originally brought him to Twin Peaks.
In a scene that is amusingly reminiscent of Back to the Future II, he secretly observes events previously portrayed in Fire Walk with Me, and then waylays Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) on her way to rendezvous with Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault. Cooper attempts to lead her by the hand through the forest and away from her fate, and in the process unravels 25 years of history (both in Twin Peaks the town and on Twin Peaks the show). Laura’s plastic-wrapped corpse flickers and vanishes from the riverbank near the Packard sawmill. Thrown into a howling, demonic rage, the entity that occupies Sarah Palmer’s form savages Laura’s framed homecoming photo with a broken bottle, but the image stubbornly refuses to remain mutilated. For a moment, it seems as if Dale Cooper has achieved the impossible and saved Laura Palmer. And then the floor drops out: Laura vanishes with a scream.
This is where Part 17 ends, and where Lynch shifts gears into a prolonged, listless epilogue, mutating the final hour of The Return in something bizarre, unpredictable, and inexplicably frightening (more so than usual). Cooper emerges from the past, apparently thwarted in his attempt to rescue Laura, and is greeted at Jackrabbit’s Palace by Diane. The pair of them then journey to an alternate portal several hundred miles away, along the shoulder of a highway and underneath some humming power lines. Cooper observes that “once we cross, it could all be different,” and they share a kiss before literally driving their car through the gateway.
The world that they enter is not the Black Lodge, or White Lodge, or some other surreal supernatural locale. Rather, they find themselves on an ordinary nocturnal highway leading to an equally ordinary desert motel. They secure a room and proceed to have uncomfortably detached sex as the Platters croon “My Prayer” on the soundtrack. (Intriguingly, this is the same song that was playing in Part 8 when the New Mexico radio station was commandeered by the Woodsman.) In the morning, Cooper is alone, finding a goodbye note in which Diane weirdly refers to him as “Richard” and to herself as “Linda.” Even more strangely, Cooper discovers that the hotel and his car now look completely different, and that he is in the town of Odessa, Texas.
What follows resembles a plodding, Lynchian riff on a stark Western crime thriller. (The setting is significant: In Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Odessa is where Llwelyn Moss sent his wife Carla Jean to keep her safe during his looming confrontation with the homicidal Anton Chirugh.) Guided predominantly by instinct, Cooper tracks down Laura Palmer, or at least a woman who he believes to be Laura Palmer. (He does take the time, however, to teach some leering wannabe cowboys a lesson for harassing a waitress, as if he were the brutally righteous, new-in-town lawman in a John Ford film.) The woman he finds, Carrie Page, is indeed a dead ringer for a middle-aged Laura. Even though she claims to know nothing about the girl Cooper is seeking, the name of Sarah Palmer seems to resonate with some faint memory in Carrie’s subconscious. Leaving the presence of a dead body in her living room pointedly unremarked-upon, she agrees to travel with Cooper to Twin Peaks.
A lengthy, mostly wordless passage then unspools, in which Cooper and Carrie drive through the night from Texas to Washington. Sporadically, the drone of the interstate is broken by another car’s dogged headlights (“Are we being followed?”) or by weary non-sequiturs from Carrie. Time seems to slip away ambiguously and eventually the pair arrive in Twin Peaks. Carrie attests that she recognizes nothing, but Cooper nonetheless drives her to the Palmer house. There, to Cooper’s confusion, the door is answered by a woman named Alice Tremond (Mary Reber), who has never even heard of Sarah Palmer. This revelation seems to jostle Cooper’s awareness that his situation is profoundly wrong somehow, and both he and Carried stand before the Palmer house in a daze of mounting apprehension. “What year is this?,” Cooper asks fearfully, almost to himself. From within the house, Carrie hears Sarah’s faint, distorted voice (“Laura!?”). Then she begins to scream, and the world plunges into darkness.
For Twin Peaks devotees who assiduously steeped themselves in the 18 hours of The Return in the hope that Dale Cooper would emerge victorious and goodness would be restored (at least in some small way), there is doubtlessly understandable frustration, even anger, with the show’s conclusion. A viewer could be forgiven for feeling aggravation that Mark Frost and David Lynch have succeeded in fooling them again, like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute. Once again, the audience is denied answers to their nagging questions. Once again, the hero who is “supposed” to win is bested by the forces of darkness. Once again, Twin Peaks spends its last episode indulging its most cryptic tendencies instead of resolving plot threads.
However, as the saying goes: fool me twice, shame on me. If a viewer settled into The Return with the expectation that their questions would be satisfactorily answered—let alone that they would witness anything remotely like a happy ending—they have no one to blame but themselves. The Return’s devastating, seditious conclusion is not only consistent with the finale of the original series, but also with David Lynch’s post-Peaks filmography. Dale Cooper’s foray into Carrie Page’s “sideways universe” (to borrow from the Lost lexicon) bears a strong resemblance to the uncanny alternate realities encountered in Lynch’s Lost Highway / Mullholland Drive / Inland Empire triptych. What’s more, the horror of consciousness and perception that underlies these illusory universes has been at the heart of The Return from its first scenes. (Is it future or is it past?) The surprise is not that Frost and Lynch essentially unraveled the fabric of their show in the end, but that viewers ever expected a conventional television drama wrap-up from the creators that gave the world the blood-smeared giggle of “How’s Annie?”
Doubtlessly, every jot of The Return will be obsessively scrutinized in the years to come, with much attention paid to the film’s final episode and how it retroactively changes the preceding 17 hours. Certainly, there are plentiful clues in the text that permit study and exegesis, such as a curious proliferation of pale horses. However, given that, 40 years later, there are still fragments of Eraserhead that remain stubbornly inscrutable, it seems doubly pointless to rush forward to decode every detail. (“Break the code, solve the crime,” has always been Twin Peaks’ fundamental lie.) Like all of David Lynch’s work, The Return is not completely impenetrable to reason, but it cannot be adequately assessed unless the emotional responses it elicits are acknowledged and examined.
There is so much warmth to be found in The Return—humor, splendor, and excitement—one is hesitant to focus exclusively on the fears it explores, or worse yet, to reduce its staggering breadth to a single moment of elemental terror. What cannot be denied, however, is that the potency of the series' concluding moments are founded on the preceding 18 hours. Without arm wrestling and golden shovels and frog-locust things and a boxed cherry pie and all the rest, the annihilating darkness of Part 18’s last breath is not nearly as potent in its door-slamming finality.
In Béla Tarr’s brutally nihilistic masterpiece A Turin Horse, the resigned sigh that concludes the film is predicated on 140-plus minutes of repetition and hopelessness. The former achieves its apocalyptic power through the latter. Similarly, Laura Palmer’s final shriek of terror in Part 18 of The Return is the stuff of nightmares, not only because of Lee’s singular scream (Jesus, that scream), but because it punctuates a massive work that repeatedly expresses the anxiety of depersonalization (the unreal self) and derealization (the unreal world).
In part, The Return’s interest in such fears lies in their psychological ramifications in the real world. Notably, Audrey’s mysterious plight illustrates how easily unreal sensations can spiral into a panicked, paralyzing existential crisis for those suffering from anxiety disorders. However, The Return is particularly preoccupied with the unreality of dreams, fantasy, and fiction—and to what degree such ephemeral worlds can be thought of as “existing” at all. It’s perhaps intellectually precarious to advance a Grand Unified Theory of Twin Peaks: The Return at such an early date. However, this theme is undeniably essential to an appreciation of Frost and Lynch’s idiosyncratic and shrewdly metafictional approach to the very idea of a Twin Peaks revival. At risk of sounding glib, The Return is a show about itself. It is concerned with creation, consumption, television, television shows, television show revivals, audience expectations, the emotional ownership of fiction, and the “realness” of fictional people and worlds.
That last item is a recurring thematic element in The Return, but in Part 18 it takes center stage. If Fire Walk with Me can be regarded as David Lynch’s effort to restore Laura Palmer’s humanity and agency, The Return is a corrective in the other direction: an acknowledgement that Laura Palmer is a construct, doomed to follow the dictates of her dual Cartesian demons, Frost and Lynch, for the entertainment of millions. Although the viewer knows Who Killed Laura Palmer in the proximal sense, the query persists in other forms, leading the questioner down rabbit holes both mythological (Is Judy ultimately responsible for her death?) and extra-textual (Is David Lynch responsible?). Perversely, by asking the question, the viewer is obliged to murder Laura Palmer all over again. By reviving their television series after 25 years, the creators are exhuming her corpse, breathing life into her, and then once again allowing her to be murdered, millions of times over. She must be murdered, or, as when Cooper takes 18-year-old Laura's hand in the woods, Twin Peaks the show will become something unrecognizable. (Not Twin Peaks?)
Twin Peaks is not merely about Laura Palmer the murdered girl and the Dale Cooper the FBI agent, but also about "Laura Palmer" and "Dale Cooper," the characters on the television show Twin Peaks. Regardless of whether one views the sideways universe of Odessa, Texas in Part 18 as an alternate timeline, a sanctuary dimension, a demonic prison, or whatever else, it is not where Laura and Cooper are “supposed” to be. It is Not Twin Peaks. They sense it, deep within their (nonexistent) bones, that something is not right. Twin Peaks has its own gravitational field. Like water flowing downhill or iron filings skittering towards a magnet, Dale Cooper will always seek out Laura Palmer, alive or dead, no matter what names they go by in any given reality. Dale will always be the questing detective, and, as the corpse in Carrie’s house attests, Laura will always be the archetypal Lynchian “Woman in Trouble”.
Confronted with the façade of the Palmer House and an echo of her mother’s voice, Carrie suddenly comprehends who she is. She’s the girl who’s full of secrets, the murdered homecoming queen, the body wrapped in plastic. She has been abused, raped, and murdered by her father countless times, and will be again, for eternity. She screams when that glut of garmobonzia, the pain and sorrow, comes flooding back. However, she also screams because she understands a deeper, sanity-splintering truth. “What year is this?” Cooper asks, but he’s not truly asking about the date. He’s asking, “How did I get here? How do I work this? Am I right? Am I wrong?” In that moment of comprehension, he has achieved an awful enlightenment: He is living in a dream (a television show), but he is not the dreamer. Neither is Laura. They are tulpas, projections of the minds of Mark Frost and David Lynch. They are manufactured.