“I hope I see all of you again. Every one of you.” ~ FBI Agent Dale Cooper
For the past three months, Twin Peaks: The Return has, rather quietly, not just been revitalizing the glut of televisual continuations overwhelming our programming (ahem Will & Grace) but redefining what a television show can accomplish with its storytelling. It has challenged, frustrated, delighted, terrified, and disturbed me in ways I’m not a gifted enough writer to convey, often because these eighteen episodes struck us repeatedly in the gut and heart, even when our brains struggled to keep up with the dream logic and Lynchian turns of narrative. While so many viewers clamored this summer to watch the battle for the Iron Throne unfold over on HBO, they missed the best show of the year and one of the most uniquely singular series I have ever watched.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, the original run of Twin Peaks was always about darkness. Sure, Lynch and Frost prettied that up with small-town nostalgia, humor, and quirkiness, but if you strip those layers away, which the show did carefully over the course of those first two seasons, then the darkness lurking beneath was unavoidable, suffocating. Said darkness takes center stage during this third season. In fact, that’s the central motif of the series: the macabre lurking beneath the veneer of quaint normalcy. But, as Gordon Cole revealed in the opening minutes of the two-hour finale, there’s always a negative force out there, desperate to replace the good with terror and chaos. In Lynch’s world, this incomprehensible evil is called Judy, a commonplace name masquerading an almost Lovecraftian horror. The Coopers of the world, the Gordon Coles, the Major Briggses, they fight against it, however futilely. It’s the only choice we have. It’s like Phillip Jeffries says to Gordon, Albert, and Coop in the Philadelphia field office: “We’re not going to talk about Judy. We’re not going to talk about Judy at all. In fact, we’re going to leave her out of this.” What choice do we have? We can give into it, harbor it within us as Sarah Palmer seems to have done, to drink full and descend. Or we can cross the very planes of space, time, and reality, in the name of goodness and strength, as Cooper has done, despite the inevitability of the outcome.
I don’t blame you if the last hour of Twin Peaks: The Return infuriated you. Twitter exploded in a conflagration of ire, as fans felt they deserved more definitive closure after being left with the season two cliffhanger almost three decades ago that seemed as if it would never find resolution. How could Lynch do that to us again, they cried? Well, the short answer is this: he didn’t leave us hanging, not really. Sure, he compounded his mystery (The Fireman’s tease of “Richard and Linda: two birds one stone” from the premiere finally found a cryptic payoff here, and the Palmer house seemed to once belong to an old gal named Tremont, a figure flitting in and out of Twin Peaks over the years with ties to the Black Lodge). Lynch never did get around to telling us what happened to Audrey or why Shelly’s new dirtbag boyfriend could suspend coins in midair. But what he did do, surprisingly and with the deft touch of a true artist, was tackle the cosmic questions always underpinning this series, even when we pushed them out of our minds to focus on the more fathomable murder mystery throughline.
But let’s not forget that there was a generosity to this two-part finale, too: episode 17 depicted a conclusion to the overarching plot machinations, finally bringing Cooper to Twin Peaks to have a showdown with BOB, or the floating orb he now embodied. Naido really was the new Diane. Lucy overcame her paralyzing confusion over cell phones. Freddy fulfilled his gardening-gloved destiny. The tie-ins with Fire Walk With Me and the Twin Peaks pilot provided a lovely cyclical closure to this story, as we watched the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic fade from sight. Pete Martell never found Laura’s body because Agent Cooper, with the help of teapot Phillip Jeffries and the one-armed man, traveled back in time to prevent Laura from ever meeting up with Ronette, Leo, and Jacques, thereby preventing her death. It seemed, as the final minutes of the seventeenth hour loomed, that Cooper had fulfilled his mission: he’d found Laura, and he’d saved her.
Except, as he’s leading her through the woods, there is a bloodcurdling scream, and Laura disappears. Across town, in their living room, Sarah Palmer destroys the famous picture of her daughter with her bare hands. It seems Laura has escaped Judy’s grasp, that Cooper has triumphed and good has won out once and for all, even at a major cost (that is, Laura cannot escape her fate, not fully). Heck, even Julee Cruise croons over the end credits, her song wrapping us up in a warm, sonic hug. Not a bad way to end the series.
But Lynch and Frost know there’s more to it than that; such resolution to this wildly ambitious series, though deeply satisfying on one hand, would have betrayed not just this third season but the original episodes as well. In many ways, the dance between good and evil is an unending cycle. Look at the number 8 that floats from Jeffries’ teaspout (a nonsensical statement unless you’ve seen the series, I understand); turn it sideways, and it’s an infinity sign, an unending loop. Whether she’s trapped in another dimension or an institution as the result of her coma and assault, Audrey is stuck in a loop. Shelly left behind the abusive relationship with Leo all those years ago only to break up with the father of her child (a rehabbed Bobby Briggs) and fall back into old relationship patterns with another lying, criminal dirtbag. Heck, poor Jerry Horne spent most of the season lost in the woods. Other Twin Peaks characters broke their cycles: Nadine absolves Ed of his marital duty, and he finally proposes to Norma; Becky’s psychotic and abusive husband retreats to the woods, where he kills himself; Cooper breaks free of Dougie. So, while several of the plots didn’t have narrative closure, their connection to this theme provides them a closure of a type.
Which leads us to Cooper’s series-ending interdimensional travel, to his tracking down the Maybe-Laura in Odessa, Texas and whisking her back to her erstwhile hometown and childhood home. Sarah Palmer is not waiting for them there, just a confused woman (played by the real-life owner of that actual home). After the failed homecoming, Cooper and Maybe-Laura return to the street where they’ve parked. Cooper asks, “What year is it?” Maybe-Laura hears the wails of Sarah Palmer coming from inside the house, which promptly goes dark, and Maybe-Laura screams that bloodcurdling scream again.
Sure, it’s not a traditional ending, and it left me baffled upon initial reflection. But this is the true journey and responsibility of Cooper: whether future or past, reality or dream, his — and ours — is to fight on behalf of goodness and virtue. It’s a disorienting battle; grief, tragedy, and horror threaten to knock us off course, to make us question who we are out our cores because defeating these forces is impossible. So, no, we haven’t been left hanging. This isn’t in the same ballpark as Coop getting shot at the end of Season 1 or the chilling taunts of “How’s Annie?” in Season 2. This ending posits that the evil this show has confronted and explored isn’t contained within the confines of Twin Peaks though it does seem to emanate from there, so we must all be vigilant as we wage the war of good and evil that surrounds us and even threatens us from within.
Is it possible to break the cycle? The realist in us says no. But Coop isn’t a realist. He’s a romantic in the best sense of the word, and he won’t stop, no matter what the Black Lodge throws at him. He’s crossed realms of existence to try to save Laura Palmer. Just consider the title: Cooper returns, but Jeffries’s figure eight reminds us that to return is to start again. Maybe with a new face and a new name, not a thumbs-up or a hand outstretched for that next hot cup of black coffee this time, but a stalwart of goodness nonetheless, even when faced with certain failure. There’s comfort in that, despite an otherwise bleak, and perhaps nihilistic, ending. And that is Lynch’s genius. He provides us with a closure we never saw coming, but it’s one that, ultimately, feels just about perfect.
I know Coop hopes to see the Twin Peaks denizens again, but I for one (despite my obsessive love and adoration for this show) hope we do not. Lynch and Frost have created something special here, something as tragic and beautiful and profound as a dream. I’ll never forget it.