This is how the long-awaited third season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks ends: Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) tries to correct the past by bringing murder victim Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) home to her grieving mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). But Laura isn’t Laura. Now alive, she’s Carrie Page from Odessa, Texas; and instead of Sarah answering the door, it’s a woman named Alice Tremond (Mary Reber), who’s never heard of the Palmers. Even Dale isn’t Dale, he’s “Richard.” This “absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence” (as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) says of accumulating strange events at the series’ beginning), where the heroic sleuth has traveled through space, time, alternate dimensions and multiple identities, ends in devastation as “Richard” retreats deflatedly from his destination. Still, he’s troubled by an uncanny sensation, picked up on by Carrie too. “What year is this?” he asks. From the house we faintly hear Sarah Palmer, from 1989, calling Laura’s name. Sheryl Lee is transported back to her original role, and Laura screams. The house’s electricity erupts before a curtain of black fills the frame. The play is over and the rest is silence.
Where else do we have to go at this shattering conclusion other than back to the beginning? Being that this is a TV show, we’re already home. Following the cut to black, credits scroll over a scene from early in the series, a loop of Laura whispering startling information in Cooper’s ear. But even if the time machine of art can take us back, the sense of this ending is that “home” is still far away. “There’s no place like home,” The Wizard of Oz tells us, and Twin Peaks replies, “There is no place.”
Twin Peaks began as a subversive primetime murder mystery with the desperate denizens of a Northwest mountain town entangled, between damn fine cups of coffee and copious cherry pies, in the mysterious death of the local homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. Like Laura, this town is “full of secrets,” which we discover along with FBI Agent Cooper and his local guide, the Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean). In the first season, there was infidelity, drug and prostitution networks, and eccentricities like the auguring Log Lady Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson)—whose “log” delivers cryptic messages from beyond. There was also Cooper’s own “Tibetan Method” for solving crimes by communing with nature and dreams. Dictating everything in the case to “Diane,” his handheld tape-recorder, the stalwart, intelligent, receptive, quirky and always hungry FBI agent, standing in for the show’s audience as a visitor to the small Northwestern town, instantly became a cultural phenomenon.
Lynch is typically thought to have influenced a generation of showrunners dedicated to creating long-running, serial formats: The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Leftovers. Like Twin Peaks, most of these shows featured white male antiheroes—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White—attempting to forget their domestic instability by re-establishing the placid American paradise they imagined might exist in a small town like Twin Peaks, USA. But Lynch’s American pastoral is tainted from the beginning—and in the second season the good “home” is unmasked as an incestuous hell. Laura’s murderer is her father, the well-respected attorney Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), himself corrupted by a parasitic demon that feeds off his incestuous impulses, BOB (Frank Silva).
The longing to set things in balance and re-establish “home” is the engine behind the return of Twin Peaks in 2017. But remembering what was so good about the illusory Golden Age—in life and in television—means forgetting how it went wrong. In Twin Peaks’s case, this refers in the first place to the quality of the original show. After the mystery of Laura’s murder was solved in the second season, the series seemed rudderless. Amid a series of goofy subplots, the most fascinating of the supporting ensemble was Audrey, a beautiful temptress who used her rich girl sassiness to find clues and help Cooper, while sparking a reciprocal attraction that challenges the special agent’s Boy Scout morality. But each find more suitable romantic partners—Audrey with bland and wealthy dreamboat John Justice Wheeler (Billy Zane), and Cooper with an unremarkable damsel-in-distress, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham)—and the show degenerates into a cartoonish stupor. Eventually, Cooper is stripped of his badge for breaking Bureau regulations and takes up residence in Twin Peaks, allowing the soap opera, however listlessly, to continue.
The series was salvaged, artistically at least, in the finale, which was also the first episode Lynch had directed since the revelation of Leland as Laura’s killer. Cooper’s demented adversary and mentor Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), obsessed with reaching an otherworldly realm of great power known as the Black Lodge, kidnaps Annie and holds her captive. Cooper offers his soul in exchange for his wife’s, saving her but rousing a shadow self in the process. The following morning at the Lodge entrance, both Cooper and Annie are found unconscious. She is taken to the hospital and he wakes in his hotel room, where he locks himself in the bathroom and shatters the mirror with his forehead. The broken reflection reveals that BOB, the demon previously inhabiting Laura Palmer’s father and murderer, has possessed Cooper. With the hero trapped and facing a shrieking, malevolent demon, the series was canceled.
In Lynch’s 1992 prequel film about Laura’s last days, Fire Walk with Me, scenes with Cooper in the Lodge and intimations of his doubleness obliquely recall the previous cliffhanger, which is acknowledged explicitly when a bloodied Annie appears in Laura’s dream and says, “The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary.” After Laura’s death, Cooper stands beside Laura as she smiles into an empyrean happy ending compromised by the caveat that Cooper still can’t leave, though his doppelgänger is free. In one scene, we see Cooper repeatedly stand before a surveillance camera and then walk over to the monitor, as if trying to make himself stick in permanence. For a moment, he does, and he watches himself in the hallway, looking at the camera. Even so, the implication is that the double isn’t “him.” (“Who do you think this is there?” asks the long-lost FBI agent Phillip Jeffries [David Bowie], who passes the double Cooper in a hallway.) But Fire Walk with Me’s lackluster box office seemed to put the final nail in the Twin Peaks coffin. The only hope was in Laura’s final address to Cooper (and the show’s fans): “I’ll see you again in 25 years.”
Laura’s augury was fulfilled. The third season of Twin Peaks is set 25 years later, Cooper is still in the Lodge, and his doppelgänger—introduced as “Mr. C”—has been causing trouble as an underworld kingpin, retaining Cooper’s investigative instincts while sporting a Scarface wardrobe and tan. The implication is that Cooper’s failure in the Lodge had led to a kind of enchanted imprisonment, which at expiration will result in his release and the doppelgänger’s return. But Mr. C, determined not to go back to the Lodge, took out “insurance” by manufacturing a physical replica of himself—a “tulpa”—who becomes corrupt insurance man, Dougie Jones. At the moment Cooper’s 25-year enchantment ends, Mr. C bends the flow of electricity so that Cooper switches places with decoy Dougie. Mr. C has hired assassins to kill Dougie—a seemingly easy target being that he’s now a placid, docile body lacking agency—but Cooper’s supernatural acquaintances from the Lodge intercede on Dougie’s behalf, his fortunes multiplying in casinos, at work, and at home. Meanwhile Mr. C, with BOB inside him, follows his own homeward bound journey, not only geographically to Twin Peaks, but also to when this story began: the Palmer house, still caught in a seemingly timeless cycle of rapacious abuse and control. As Mr. C causes havoc, the audience waits expectantly for Cooper to snap out of his “Dougie” paralysis so our shipwrecked wanderer can come back to center stage and save the day, rejuvenated and ready for his morning joe.
Structurally, Lynch and Frost have anticipated their audience’s expectations. Mr. C’s plan is uncomfortably similar to the audience’s appetite for nostalgically going back to where it all began, recapturing a lost time, dressing it up and replaying it. But Twin Peaks: The Return refuses to be a facsimile of the past, and the fans hungry for old Cooper are made to wait as he lurks within the inarticulate Dougie lump. There are, in addition, endless and repetitive sequences where ostensibly nothing happens. We hear none of Angelo Badalamenti’s familiar music cues, and get few nods to “damn fine coffee” or cherry pie. Sexy young performers (the focus of so many magazine covers in 1990) are mostly killed or sidelined, and the sprawling narrative seems intentionally to defuse all potential suspense and drama.
But the show’s refusal to be anchored by narrative or genre can also be exhilarating. Lynch and Frost repeatedly set up scenarios that, by the standards of any screenwriting course, demand specific payoffs, then they throw them away. The grandest example involves Mr. C’s hired assassins Hutch (Tim Roth) and Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh), married sociopaths with a torture fetish. Being that their first victims are disposed quickly by gunshot, the implication is that their final contract, i.e. Dougie Jones and his family, will be part of an arduous torture scene. But as Hutch and Chantal wait outside the Jones house, they’re interrupted by a parade of gangsters and federal agents—another screenplay set-up for a three-way shoot-out. The stakes raised, an anonymous Polish accountant appears, upset that Hutch and Chantal are blocking his driveway. The accountant happens to carry a full arsenal in his trunk, which he uses to obliterate the assassins along with our expected narrative payoff.
Like the bodies of characters moving in and out of alternate dimensions and timelines, anything is possible in Twin Peaks, and the show itself can feel, like Dougie, a tulpa in a world full of tulpas. And this is the point. Dougie was created as a blank slate, a puppet in Las Vegas’s Sin City, surrounded by food, sex and gambling. Before he switches bodies with Cooper, he’s already become a spiritual vacuum (one may surmise he has perhaps watched too much TV). With the fresh eyes of Cooper in this mild-mannered insurance man cocoon, however, he’s a new character abounding with possibilities, his neglected household going from dysfunction to idyllic sensual explosion (in perhaps the most blissful representation of sex in David Lynch’s body of work). Being its own tulpa, Twin Peaks likewise manufactures itself. We meet the original Dougie just before Cooper takes his place, in a bare, suburban plot of foreclosed homes called “Rancho Rosa,” recognizable to us as the production company behind Twin Peaks. Rancho Rosa is of Las Vegas, a Tulpa City in the middle of the desert (antipodal to Twin Peaks, where nature is in abundance), the product of dreams and the grand apparatus of “air conditioning” (as pointed out by gracious mob moll Candie [Amy Shiels], herself having an uncanny, tulpa-like quality). The audience is like Cooper insofar as it inhabits the vehicular golem, receptively absorbing and imitating life around him as if he were a sympathetic mirror. It is not coincidental that he appears around the time we meet the notorious Wally Brando (Michael Cera), biological son to the Twin Peaks Sheriff Station mainstays Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson), though he’s adopted the name and (Wild One) manner of America’s most revered method actor.
These are characters cut off from nature, and yet much as a loving bond is undeterred between Wally and the Brennans, we ride as docile guests through Dougie into Twin Peaks’s one functional home, meeting his wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), and son, Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon), their own heightened performativity initially giving a sense of uneasy artifice not unlike David Lynch’s small town in Blue Velvet or Watts’s bubbly aspiring actress in Mulholland Dr. And yet, like Dorothy’s friends in Oz, we cannot help being charmed by the energy around Dougie and his family. Awoken from his Dougie trance, Cooper says to his adoptive family, “You’ve made my heart so full,” and we feel the same.