In the end, we went right back to the very beginning. Josie Packard at her mirror, Pete Martell off out to fish… This was how the original pilot episode of Twin Peaks began. Only this time, there was no body wrapped in plastic.
Actually, we went back to even before then – to the events of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, to the very night of Laura Palmer’s murder. Dale Cooper, now fully himself, navigated a time loop and prevented that from happening. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of driving, he found himself in some other dimension, with a Laura doppelgänger named Carrie Page outside the Palmer residence (except it isn’t) and she screams while Cooper asks “What year is this?” And fade to black.
To say the final two episodes of Twin Peaks were violently divisive is a perhaps the understatement of the year. Especially coming hot on the heels of the episode in which Cooper finally – finally! – came to himself again (“I am the FBI!”). It understandably caught a lot of viewers off-guard, and the disappointment of the two-hour denouement was momentously underwhelming.
I should clarify I count myself as one of those such viewers to an extent. As much as I delighted in the unpredictability of the show over the course of its 18 hours, the ending left me feeling rather unsatisfied. Not that I expected everything to be a glowing nostalgia-fest. It was pretty clear that Lynch still had some surprises up his sleeves, but of course I was hoping for some more of the craziness that distinguished the first few episodes. What we got by comparison was a bit of a damp squib. It was dull, monotonous, and tiresome. And then it ended.
And it left me scratching my head. Frustrated that there wasn’t more.
It’s taken me a while to unpack my thoughts and feelings about it all. My initial impression was that it was quite a downbeat, cynical ending that said something to the effect that life is hopeless, and that darkness and negativity will always prevail. I was perplexed by this. For all the darkness in his films, Lynch has always struck me as a very positive guy. Although he’s always been fascinated by the dark underbelly, his work has always been about good triumphing. I couldn’t comprehend him giving up on that belief now. So, please understand, my frustration with the ending was that it seemed so at odds with what I had expected to come away with. I didn’t want to be left feeling so beat-down and downbeat. There had to be something else there, surely?
Death has been a specter which has haunted the entirety of The Return. The show’s origins, of course, are in the grisly murder of a high school sweetheart, and there’s been plenty of ruthless violence and death throughout The Return too. But more so, off camera. Nearly every episode has been dedicated to the memory of a key player that is no longer with us. Many of these were frequent collaborators with Lynch throughout his career. Some had sadly passed away over the course of several years: Jack Nance, Frank Silva, Don S. Davis. Others, disappointingly close to The Return being filmed: David Bowie, oh what could have been. Yet more in the interim between production and broadcast: Catherine Coulson, Miguel Ferrer, Warren Frost, Marv Rosand. And then just a few days ago, we got news that Harry Dean Stanton had left us. With all the real-life macabre surrounding The Return, it was only too easy to interpret the show’s dour ending as a reflection on death and its inevitability.
But still, that didn’t sit right with me and my understanding of Lynch either.
So let’s backtrack. I would be amiss, after all, to focus only on the final two episodes of The Return, since there was a lot happened since we last spoke. (On that, I think it’s pretty clear by now that I was on the money with regards to Sarah Palmer.)
Also, apologies for this not being the most linear of essays, but that was a running theme in the second half of The Return, wasn’t it? We had not just entire scenes structured around sickening repetition (“How are you today, Johnny”, Sarah Palmer and the boxing match clip on loop) but also the confusion of the whole incident where a gunshot is discharged through the Double R window, only for it to be completely forgotten about in the next episode, and in fact it seems like the characters are talking about events which as far as we’re concerned actually happened a few episodes ago. Needless to say, the script supervisor on this show has probably checked himself into some sort of clinic since shooting wrapped. Of course, this mangled timeline had to have been by design. Right?
We all know that Lynch revels in dualities, and two Twin Peaks takes that idea to its extreme. One could joke that there are certainly two Twin Peaks TV shows, the original series and The Return. But conventional speculation about The Return is that there are, in fact, quite literally two Twin Peaks – at least – and that the blip in time where the gun fires into the Double R diner takes place in one of them. Not the real, real one. Thinking about just how dark that scene is, and especially the woman honking throughout, you know, the one with the sick/zombie child in her passenger seat. That ain’t regular Twin Peaks. That must be the one where all the bad stuff happens. Is there a “good” Twin Peaks, or is “regular” Twin Peaks meant to be the good one, and it just got infected with Bob and all his evil-doing Woodsmen cronies? Or is our Twin Peaks the one in the middle that balances everything out? Where there is goodness but also darkness?
I’ll come back to that.
Before the July 4 break from The Return, what we had were mainly pieces that we had no clue how to place together. Cooper has descended through several layers of hell, into the persona of Dougie. Meanwhile, things were happening in Twin Peaks – and Vegas, South Dakota, and New York – that somehow, we must believe, were tied to the bigger story here. Whatever that was.
From episode 9 onwards, the show hit its most conventional stride of narrative-focused episodes, even if all those threads didn’t quite tie together. Even in the show they didn’t. For while Gordon and crew were learning about portals and glass boxes, it was the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department that sought out messages from the late Garland Briggs. Only we, the audience, had all the pieces. And still, what to make of them?
I should say here, that when it comes to Lynch’s work, I’m not the most analytical of fans. To me, it seems far more appropriate to feel my way through his work. I think it is possible to take away a great deal of meaning from how one instinctively and emotionally reacts to it. That’s perhaps why my least favorite film of his is Mulholland Drive – more so because people obsess over the jigsaw of it as opposed to letting the emotion of it consume them, rather than because of the film itself. Of course, people have done the same with The Return. But there’s been so much going on, that there’s room enough for almost everyone to be satisfied. I hope that people who were fans of Twin Peaks, but not necessarily fans of Lynch per se have found plenty to love too. I suspect they’re quietly satisfied, even if especially miffed at that ending. But I digress.
What I love about the narrative style of The Return is that you have to figure it out for yourself. But you can dig as deep or as shallow as you want. All the pieces are there and you can connect the dots as you will. For the narrative at least. For what it means? That’s something else entirely.
Since the show ended, I’ve been reluctant to read too much of other people’s thoughts on it, with just a few exceptions. The only piece I religiously read throughout the airing of The Return, were the fabulous weekly recaps written by Keith Ulrich on Mubi Notebook. There are two essays I’ve found quite interesting now that everything is said and done too:
- This piece, also published on Mubi Notebook, puts in a lot of effort to explain the prevailing theories about how all those pieces are meant to be connected, to help us understand the basic concept of multiple universes and Major Briggs’ very present actions as a key driving force of The Return’s events. I particularly like the idea presented in here that Cooper requests a new tulpa of himself to be the one that goes on to save Laura, while the true Dale returns to Las Vegas to live out his life as Dougie. It’s an incredibly attractive idea, and one you could certainly argue for quite strongly and plausibly, though I personally don’t think it is the case. If you look at the smile on Dougie’s face when he embraces Janey-E and Sonny Jim, you can tell that’s Dougie, not Dale.
- This rather interesting piece, which really fixates on the whole “dreamer within a dream” angle which supposes that one of the multiple Twin Peaks is actually the TV show, while the other is our reality. Why else would Lynch (yes, actual Lynch, it claims, and not Gordon) be at a Paris café with Monica Bellucci, and why else would the real-life owner of the home used for the Palmer residence appear on screen in the final moments of the show? It’s certainly an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it at all. It’s far too on the nose, and reeks of a sense of nostalgia and meta-ness that is very un-Lynchian. But an interesting read, nonetheless. One of those jigsaw obsessives I was warning you about.
So what do I suggest you make of it all? In short, what you will. Go back and rewatch the whole thing in its entirety if you want. I know I will. Ultimately, you should decide for yourself what it means to you.
To me, it means many things. I’ve touched on a lot of it here and in my previous essay. I think The Return is significantly interested in death and in Lynch’s art as a body of work, and in the duality which is a central concept integral to much of it.
While I like to think that Lynch does things for himself and not his audience – and certainly not for the network – part of me is unable to shake the sense that some of the pieces of The Return are nods to what the Twin Peaks audience hoped for. (And so we have bittersweet moments where we catch up with our beloved characters from more than two decades ago to see where they are now: Andy and Lucy together forever, Bobby and Shelley apart but always linked by a child who now repeats their own mistakes, and Ed and Nadine… I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Excuse me, I have something in my eyes. Ahem.) And it is this integral piece of The Return, that leads me to my conclusion, and the emotional side of things that resonated most greatly with me.
I mentioned earlier the idea that there are three Twin Peaks – the good, the bad, and one which encompasses both. The truth, of course, is both this and not. Ever since Eraserhead, Lynch has shown us time and time again that the world does not exist in absolutes. “Good” and “bad” (or “evil” if you’re so inclined) aren’t mathematical equations. They both exist together. Always have, always like. Like male and female (see Dune), public and private (see Blue Velvet), or strength and weakness (see The Straight Story). There might be multiple Twin Peaks, yes, but they each contain an equal share of good and bad. Such is life.
Consider that disruptive moment when a bullet is shot through the window of the Double R. It’s a suddenly scary moment that quickly turns nightmarishly ugly. But even without the gun and the honking and the zombie, it’s a moment that most people would agree falls into the bad category. Bobby and Shelley, former lovers, are united as they try to comfort their wayward daughter, Becky, who has just admitted to being beaten by her loser husband. And yet, there is joy present too, when Shelley’s new lover, Red, arrives, and the two of them slip outside and enjoy a giddy kiss, enthralled by each other and the promise of a new romance. It doesn’t matter what Twin Peaks this specific scene takes place in. There’s good and bad. Even in the sense of Becky’s story. In an earlier episode, there was a lingering shot of her with a huge smile as she and Steven drove down the road together. Theirs was a shitty relationship, but there were good times too.
Likewise, that final destination of Cooper and Laura/Carrie. It’s Twin Peaks, but not. Laura Palmer didn’t die here, because she never lived here. In this reality, Laura is Carrie. But just because some homecoming queen wasn’t brutally murdered, doesn’t mean there’s no evil in this version of the world. See the festering corpse on Carrie’s couch. Regardless of the how’s and why’s by our jigsaw-loving friends, the takeaway is this: there’s no getting away from the fact that life is the sum of good stuff and bad stuff.
This seems like a good place to talk about Audrey. Her storyline has been one of the most debated of The Return. I’ve heard some interesting theories about it: that she’s dead, or in a coma, or banished to a different reality after being raped by Mr. C. My thoughts on it are this – her situation speaks to the larger themes and feelings that I take away from the show at large. I believe there’s a definite connection between Audrey and Josie. It is no accident that after witnessing that final shot of Audrey looking at her reflection, it is mirrored in the very next episode by the very shot which began the show in the first place: Josie and her reflection. And remember how Josie ended up?
The world spins.
And this is where I think Lynch reflects inwards, about everything he’s done before, the people he’s loved and worked with, the people he’s lost along the way, and the fact that his end is coming too. (Is it better to bemoan the loss of a loved one, or celebrate the life that was?) He’s 71, so he’s getting on up there, but he hopefully has a lot of stuff still to say and the desire to put in out there in the world. But the fact, as we’ve already seen, that so many of his collaborators have passed on already must give him some cause to reflect back on life and try to articulate what he’s determined its truths are.
Based on The Return, I think it’s that life is for living, though death is an inevitable part of life. Bad stuff happens. Bad stuff even happens to good people. And even “bad” people can have hearts of gold. And even strained father-son relationships have their happy memories of private fantasies. You should always strive to be a good person. Be honorable. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can single-handedly right the wrongs of the world, but know that even small actions can make a big difference. Smaller good deeds are more powerful in a way. They can impact a person, and turn their life around. Know that actions have consequences, and that even when you think you’re committing some tremendous act in the service of what you think is right, the consequences can be catastrophic. The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Remember Hiroshima.
And so, after all of that, we come back to one of the greatest joys of the original Twin Peaks: the celebration of everyday life’s small pleasures and the sense that being a decent person pays off in the end. The banality of episode 18 and its unexpectedly abrupt and discombobulating finale overshadowed it, but really, it’s a Frank Capra ending: It is a far richer man who can look back on his life and see that he was surrounded with loved ones who made him smile, and whom he made smile too. Forget everything else that you have no control over. Be good and make the most of what life gives you. In the end, death comes from us all. At the end of the day, all you really need is a clean room, reasonably priced.