“We are living in a dream.”
I’ve started writing about the final episode of Twin Peaks: The Return a dozen times now. Each time I’ll get a few paragraphs down before I think to myself, “No, that isn’t it.” Ctrl+a delete.
The problem is that I tried to get my head around this thing. To come to one succinct message revealing all of Twin Peaks’ mysteries. I’ve seen a lot of plausible theories about what happened in the final two hours of the series. They all go something like this:
Cooper goes back in time to prevent the death of Laura Palmer. He’s successful, but Judy/The Experiment shifts Laura into a divergent timeline. Cooper passes mile 430 with Diane to track down Laura and return her to Twin Peaks, but when they arrive at the Palmer house they discover that they’ve been duped. Laura/Carrie comes to some horrible realization and collapses the universe. In the end, Cooper and Laura are trapped, or in the words of Gordon Cole- they don’t really exist anymore, like Phillip Jefferies and Major Briggs.
That’s satisfying enough. Kind of a down-ending, but it puts a neat, little bow on things. However when it comes to Twin Peaks, maybe we’re not meant to understand the story in a completely rational way.
When examining the work of David Lynch I think it’s important to consider the artistic movement his portfolio is shaped by- Surrealism.
Surrealism is a form of artistic expression dating back to the early 20th century. At its core, it’s a response to The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century. Enlightenment thinking included concepts like reason, logical inquiry, and individualism.
Surrealist artists believed that devotion to these strict modes of thought hampered the unconscious mind, where dreams and creativity were born. Through Surrealism, artists were no longer bound by the stringent confines of logic, and neither were their audiences.
In post-war America, this lead to a movement in painting called Abstract Expressionism exemplified in the work of Jackson Pollack. These artists catered to the subconscious and intuitive interpretation. This form of expression found its way into film and, with Twin Peaks, television.
For a lot of viewers, we might find a lack of clarity, and logical meaning, as a cop-out on the part of the creator. As if, they weren’t able to come up with a satisfying “real” story, so they made up a confusing and twisted tale with a lot of interesting visuals and labeled it Avant-garde.
On the contrary, David Lynch and Mark Frost have put as much thought into their work as any other showrunner.
I recently found a video in which David Lynch was asked by an audience member to explain his movie Mulholland Drive. This was his response: David Lynch on understanding art
Lynch won’t hand you a gift-wrapped meaning to this story because morals are for fairytales. Instead, he places the impetus on the audience to derive our own meaning, giving us an active role in the creation of his mythos.
As I think about The Return I’m struck by two concepts- the fluid nature of identity against the constant, forward-march of time. This is best expressed through the character arch of Dale Cooper.
Cooper cycles through three different identities, not counting bad Cooper. These identities are Dougie, Dale, and Richard.
He starts his journey as Dougie. An infant, completely dependent on the people around him. Janey-E and Sonny Jim are his family, his surrogate mother, and brother respectively. Dougie has no agency and relies on chance and the kindness of the people around him.
In episode 16 we see the emergence of Dale Cooper. Dale is a man in his prime, confident and competent. This is the younger Cooper that we remember from the original series. Within the family unit, he’s transformed from child and sibling to father and spouse. This is the man to lead the charge, and triumph, against the evil of BOB.
But as time goes on, Dale grows old, and as with a lot of us, his aging is coupled with regret. Dale regrets the failures of his past. Specifically, the failure to fully resolve the case of Laura Palmer. He revisits this failure, not just in his mind, but literally in time. He attempts to save Laura but finds that it is impossible. Not only is the past set, but it dictates our future.
He sets off, with Diane even further into the past. The motel they visit and the car they drive could be artifacts straight from Cooper’s childhood. This too is a mistake, as Diane begins to realize. She encounters a vision of herself in the parking lot. In myth, a doppelganger is seen as an omen. Could this be her subconscious warning her she shouldn’t follow Cooper on his ill-fated journey?
When Cooper wakes in the hotel, he is Richard. A man plagued by the past he cannot change. He’s been abandoned by his wife Linda (Diane) as she no longer recognizes him. Cooper is meaner now, more aggressive. He attacks the men at Judy’s, shooting one of them, and landing a low-blow on the other. He brandishes his gun at a waitress while pumping her for information.
In his single-minded quest, Cooper abandons the ideals he once stood for. When he Finds Carrie Paige he ignores the murder that’s been committed in her house. He’s become unsure of himself, holding his FBI badge as if was some foreign object.
In the end, Cooper is old and senile. He’s lost track of his purpose, his life, and of time. This confusion is clear in his final words:
“What year is this?”
Laura screams, and the lights go out.
This is a simplistic reading of Twin Peaks: The Return, but it’s one of a thousand or more that can be drawn from the text. The point is, if you want to understand this story, you have to do the work of understanding. And in the end, that’s the true fun of it!