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.
This re-establishment of home is Twin Peaks’s most stable and poignant thread, even as it’s paradoxically the most illusory. With its wish fulfillments of wealth, love, sex, friendship and health, the odyssey of Dougie Jones, differentiated from that of his “actor,” Dale Cooper, is the dream from which we’ll hopefully never wake, the play of “real life” on which we pray the curtain never falls. If the original Twin Peaks is credited with inspiring the TV antiheroes who would toil and fail to reboot the happy American “home,” Twin Peaks: The Return treats home less as a fantasy than as an impossibility. Most of the residences in the show are trailers, motel rooms, jails, or places of employment (especially the Twin Peaks police station, where family quarrels break out in full public view), while the demonic specters moving between dimensions, the ashen-faced “Woodsmen,” bear the stereotyped countenance of the perennially displaced. The “Home” we see Dougie/Cooper sharing with Janey-E in Rancho Rosa is, like the town itself, a theatrical stage set, but the integrity of the characterizations—particularly that of Naomi Watts—affirms the reality of the fiction within the fiction. Performance becomes magic and Cooper, believing the empty words of consolation he’s delivering, is Sonny Jim’s dad. “Home” is reconciled precisely where it coexists with ambivalence and even with disbelief.
In Rancho Rosa’s baseless projection, forms are as relative as actors creating characters on a stage. And so, a shady insurance man in over his head like Anthony Sinclair (Tom Sizemore)—who would be one more eventual corpse in the usual prestige drama—confesses his sins and weeps, “I just want to change or die!” The Mitchum brothers (Robert Knepper, Jim Belushi), introduced as typical malevolent gangster heavies, two more toxic men in Twin Peaks’s rampant catalogue of machismo and misogyny, unexpectedly become avatars of kindness. But the apex is Dougie, who is emblematic of all this variance, his mimicry intimating that he is simultaneously no one and everyone. It follows that what should prompt him to snap out of his docile state, finally establishing where the relative world of forms ends and “he” begins, is a film about films, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with director Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, saying the words “Gordon Cole.” That’s the name of the character played by Dougie/Cooper/MacLachlan’s actual director, David Lynch. The author and stage manager calls action, and the actor goes from mimicking Everyman to being the Hero Everyman Aspires To Be. Electrified—literally—to action, Special Agent Dale Cooper is “100 percent” and from there takes charge of the narrative.
But was this even Cooper’s story? The Log Lady tells us, “Laura is the one.” It’s Laura’s picture from 1989 that remains unchanging, while Cooper tumbles into the nebulous canvas of selves disintegrating and restructuring like an actor shuffling through characters, a transmigrating soul with an unknowable original. For Lynch, life, like theater, is transient; or rather, life is theater. Catching the Big Fish, Lynch’s book on creativity, quotes the Upanishads: “Know that all of nature is but a magic theatre, that the great Mother is the master magician, and that this whole world is peopled by her many parts.” In his films, pivotal scenes take place in theaters. In Mulholland Dr.’s Club Silencio, we hear the mantra “No hay banda”—there is no band, it’s all an illusion, which results in the despairing downfall of the main character, an actress (Naomi Watts). In that film’s follow-up, Inland Empire, another actress (Laura Dern) finds herself in another theater, projected on screen, leading to her rhapsodic absorption in the plentiful forms of a great Absolute. The world-play is a world at play, a rapturous masque performance going from tragedy to divine comedy as the performer defers to a Oneness, Lynch’s Vedic idea of a “Unified Field,” manifested in ever changing forms.
In the first episode of The Return, Twin Peaks’s narrative factory begins manufacturing such forms as personalities and plot points—the information to which we become attached, craving explanation and resolution—from an apartment in Buckhorn, South Dakota of a dead librarian, that is to say the public curator of narratives. The cops arrive and ask if there’s a building manager; the manager is being institutionalized, though his brother Chip might have a key, but where is he? The maintenance man, Hank (Max Perlich), might know. The cops find Hank, guiltily holding a couple of bags and apoplectic, believing he’s been snitched out and captured by the law. They explain they just want a key. The cops leave, and Hank, wondering if he’s free, calls someone named Harvey, demanding to know if he ratted Hank out. We never return to find out what is up with this convoluted intrigue of inept criminals. A story with an incessantly receding vanishing point, the Buckhorn “Syndicate” scene sets the whole series’ template of narratives produced willy-nilly, their haphazardness less expositional than decorative.
These winding narratives leading nowhere reach an apotheosis with the long-awaited return of Audrey Horne, remarkably alive after being caught in the original series finale’s bank bomb explosion. Her scenes mostly involve angry exchanges with her husband, Charlie (Clark Middleton), about her infidelity with a missing lover, “Billy,” and her desire to be escorted to the Roadhouse bar to look for him. At the Roadhouse, the audience watches transfixed as Audrey performs her notorious solo dance from years ago. Audrey’s vain attachment to her legacy reflects the audience’s own attachment to her, or to a “Twin Peaks” that is no more. The dance becomes feverishly disjointed, then is halted as a jealous boyfriend attacks someone dancing with his lover. Distraught, Audrey suddenly finds herself in a white room. Gasping, she looks at herself in the mirror. Has she been dead all along? Is she insane or in a coma? The episode’s end fools us into thinking this is a cliffhanger, but we never find out. The jarring cut is a reminder of the way our performance of the past distracts us from the truth of our mortality: Audrey and the (frustrated) audience are one and the same.
Cooper can’t change what Laura’s already done to the viewer. If Cooper possesses or saves the Laura in his memory, he is powerless to alter the image of Laura, with its terror and beauty, that endures on the other side of the screen. Likewise Laura’s mother Sarah, possessed by her grief, is shown breaking the picture frame housing her daughter’s picture, but the glossy image proves impervious to destruction. Laura is the foundational thing-in-itself around which the other players orbit. The Homecoming Queen denotes the ineffable abstraction of home, the pursuit of which is humanized by infinite plots made up of fictional biographies and actors’ rotating countenances.
Of course there’s no greater metaphor for giving transitory text a face than Diane’s metamorphosis from tape recorder to Lynch’s favorite stock company actress, Laura Dern. With her platinum blond bob haircut, razzmatazz wardrobe, and fingernails of multiple colors, Diane exhibits a plastic, cosmetic nature along with a “fuck you” belligerence. She’s eye-catching but unfathomable, ultimately revealed to be another tulpa. The real Diane was taken to the Lodge, wearing the “mask” of “Naido,” an ethereal fairy-helper who makes puzzling monkey sounds (a further intimation of mimicry and performance: monkey see, monkey do). After Mr. C is defeated, Diane is freed and is reunited as Cooper’s accomplice and, unexpectedly, lover. Together, they try to go backwards in time by going through a portal and enacting what feels like a conjuring sex ritual in a desert-hued motel room. The conjuring must have worked; the next morning, a note informs Cooper that they’re “Richard” and “Linda,” and the motel is completely different.
But the actor is alone, with secretary and mediator having left him. Cooper’s subsequent discomforting blankness is related to this absence. It’s not that, as “Richard,” Cooper isn’t himself; on the contrary, he’s more than ever “himself.” But he’s only himself, lost in the solitary limitations of his storyline. MacLachlan himself was the sole actor who had access to the whole of Lynch and Frost’s screenplay; ostensibly, he knows everything, but this means being exiled from the dreamstuff of Rancho Rosa. Being “real,” he borders on nothingness, like Shakespeare in Borges’s “Everything and Nothing,” where God tells the playwright and actor who wants at last to be just one man, himself, “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work … and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”
What waits for Cooper and Carrie Page is the real-life owner of the Palmer house in Everett, Washington, Mary Reber (playing Alice Tremond), though as the umbilicus of Mother Time calls, the confused players and audience absorb an all-encompassing dread that overshadows the illusions of actors, not to mention the conceits and consolations of comic-book closure (parodied earlier when the garden glove of Freddie Sykes [Jake Wardle] “defeats” demon-ball BOB). The lights go out, and in the darkness is in fact the “freedom” to which various characters refer throughout the third season, beginning with maintenance man Hank’s question, “Am I free to go?” and continuing with Cooper in the Lodge, and Audrey in her ominous home space. As the metaphorical stage manager-as-wizard Prospero says toward the end of The Tempest, the revels now are ended, and the beloved forms shackled in despair are released with the audience’s own will to let go. After journeying with Cooper through nearly fifty hours of Twin Peaks and beholding mind-boggling and ineffable things that elude explanation, the ending tempts us with the thought that it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The curtain falls and the house lights go up, and these unresolved narratives and beloved characters disintegrate as if into a televisual stream flowing out into an infinite ocean of images. Still, there is that final, indelible scream, which keeps ringing out long after we’ve switched off the TV. “I am dead, and yet I live,” Laura told Cooper in Episode 2, before whispering something in his ear. What she tells him is left to our imagination.