Twin Peaks Ended, Once Again, With a New Beginning
It wasn’t just the need for loose ends to be tied up that made the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return the series’ most trying hour. It was also the jarring effect of the sharp pullback to deliberate, real-time pacing, and the focus on one bleak storyline after the manic, cathartic action in the penultimate episode, in which BOB and Mr. C (or “Evil Coop”) were vanquished, and the revitalized Good Coop found a meaningful way to re-access the past. Most of the finale, abandoning the constructive impressions of Part 17, was all negative energy. The feelings of dislocation and logical opacity that characterized the beginning of the season roared back in full, devastating force. Even against the better judgment of Lynch fans, it was hard not to find one’s self banking on some additional note of clarity being provided in The Return’s waning moments. The show’s symphonic, expertly-paced 18 hours, somehow, was enough to trick even seasoned Lynch fans back into feeling the thirst of a first-time viewer of the original series, when a simple murder mystery kicked off so much knotty, irreconcilable action.
The overwhelming scope of the supernatural activity in The Return should have quickly diminished expectations of coming to some final, settled sense of understanding. The original series, encumbered perhaps by its more traditional primetime TV formatting, seemed to imply relatively modest limits for the powers of BOB and his cohort. In The Return, the threat became beyond seismic; there were no clear rules of engagement. Like the H-Bomb that unleashed BOB initially, the evil has central targets but endless aberrant side effects, nationwide if not worldwide. BOB was only the tip of the iceberg, a weird gelatinous spore that sprang from the real, final-boss evil.
Then there was all the endless other random dust kicked up by “Judy” and her otherworldly opponents, everything from the humming noise from Dale’s old room at the Great Northern to a hovering window into the Black Lodge giving special gambling advice to Cooper-Dougie. The Lodge-centric dark operation, it turned out, was run almost like a criminal enterprise, with several outposts for the ambiguously benevolent Resistance (Teakettle Edition Philip Jeffries’ motel room, for instance). There was also the old mess of semi-comedic noir plots and plenty of earthly reprobates to pad out the occult bewitchment, making the central conflict even harder to distill.
From the very beginning of The Return, the viewer was clobbered over the head with the idea that they should free themselves from being expressly concerned with the particular mysteries of Twin Peaks. The first episode of the show, in particular, was enough to make one feel like they were watching a sequel to Inland Empire rather than Peaks. We were stuck watching mostly-silent images of a warehouse in Manhattan, waiting for an unknown malevolent spirit to materialize out of a plastic box and maul a couple of brand-new, largely non-descript characters as they hooked up. Then, we were shunted off to South Dakota to parse a murder scene for a while, being inspired to check IMDB to see what Matthew Lillard had been up to for the past decade or so and wondering if Lynch would be so bold as to effectively recast him as a Leland Palmer surrogate.
This was all back before the H-bomb symphony, the Woodsman’s catchy little radio address, and the cockroach-fly crawling down the young girl’s throat. It was even before we saw the scope of the numbered portals: the sockets and telephone-pole conduits from the real world to various new Lodge-like spaces recalling different eras, ranging from an island in a purple, tumultuous sea to an abandoned old theater dominated by a hovering Magritte-like pipe structure. In other words, there turned out to be a lot of other ways to flit between dimensions that don’t require hiking to that pool of oil in the woods outside of Twin Peaks. The Arm and the whole gang know Vegas as well; they can make the slot machines work for them. If Dougie’s journey is any indication, they know that money and success in business makes the fickle human world tick, just like little brass soul-balls and streams of plasmic energy emerging from people’s foreheads are essential to theirs.
The Return gave us more opportunities than ever to piece together connections between characters and explanations for “Judy”‘s workings. But in the end, it was clear that no one–no member of the FBI taskforce, no version of Dale Cooper, maybe not even MIKE as protector of the dark realm–fully understood the limitations and rules of the entropic correspondence between the dimensions. It’s fitting and wonderful that it is Lynch himself, as Gordon Cole, who gives us perhaps the most edifying info-dump of the season. After definitively naming the Ur-force that’s driven Twin Peaks’ action through the series (borrowed from one of David Bowie’s previously-inexplicable lines in Fire Walk With Me), he explains:
“Major Briggs, Cooper, and I put together a plan that could lead us to Judy. And then something happened to Major Briggs. And something happened to Cooper. Phillip Jeffries, who doesn’t really exist anymore—at least not in a normal sense—told me a long time ago he was on to this entity. And he disappeared…And now this thing of two Coopers.”
There are still, in this passage of supposed explanation, a lot of “something”s. In the end, does Gordon Cole really know how and why MIKE and the Pig-Pen-like woodsmen are able to open up portals where and when they need to, to offer to make another Cooper clone or scrounge around in someone’s guts? Of course not. Ultimately, Dale and Diane figure out what is somehow the most important secret: a way to alter the fabric of the past, and travel into that new, rejiggered reality. Of course, everything there is significantly different, as Cooper warned it might be, in myriad ways they had no way of predicting.
And does their voyage to another timeline in the multiverse mitigate Judy’s power, or the omnipresent darkness in the woods, at all? If the sickly and unsettled feeling I experienced during the finale reminded me of any other moment of Twin Peaks, it was the end of Season 2. Both controversial episodes indicated a new grim beginning as much as a point of conclusion. If you become entangled with Judy and her henchpeople–and maybe even if you don’t–it seems like perhaps you’re never really allowed to die, just pass into another reality, and become infected with some other abstracted (Dougie), possessed (Mr. C), or deeply confused (Cooper in the finale) view of the world.
Despite what you may be feeling now, The Return arguably tied up far more before its jarring transition into another world than Season 2. At least Janey-E and Sonny Jim got a Dougie back, after all. Perhaps the overall feeling of comprehension was only psychosomatic trickery, though. After all, there were far more plot lines, and ones returned to less consistently (or not at all), than there were on the original show. One can’t obsess over a dangling thread or unexplained phenomenon if one can’t remember it in the first place. It’s only on second watch, presumably, that all of the loose anomalies of The Return will reveal themselves anew and truly begin to trouble us. New intriguing constellations of visual details and cryptic dialogue will flit before our eyes, pregnant with potential but impossible-to-confirm meaning.
However, there were plenty of outright snubs that were vicious by any metric, one that will definitely haunt fans for years or forever whether they watch again or not. I am thinking mostly of the travails of new-Audrey, all neuroses and flashes of vindictiveness, whose nostalgic dance was cut short by a burst of violence from a faceless man and a lightning-illuminated reflection in the mirror that recalled Dale’s unholy bathroom scene before the credits rolled on Season 2. After the long scenes of unidentifiable names in her introductory tête-à-tête with Clark Middleton’s Charlie, it’s hard not to feel a pang of dissatisfaction, if not sadness. And after all, why was the jazz combo playing backwards? These are the kind of standalone, expressionistic Peaks grand gestures that’s hard to live with, but which make for television that feels, unlike so much of it, designed to be revisited and reinterpreted.
David Lynch has never felt responsibility to unspoken storytelling conventions embedded in our psychologies; in the days of the original Twin Peaks, he was reigned in only by the demands of the suits and his less-accommodating co-workers. The Return more-than-set up the notion that Judy’s reverberations work beyond anyone’s penchant for reasoned deduction, and accommodated the open playing field Lynch had always wanted.
Often, The Return did feel like co-writer Mark Frost was doing the legwork in terms of connecting plot points to fit in Lynch’s haunting, disjunct images into a larger Twin Peaks mythology. (Frost, after all, wrote a novel to remind us that there is some hard-and-fast history and logic to keep in mind.) That dichotomy is certain to the show’s appeal, and always has been. But there’s always only so much that can be reasoned away, and presumably only so many explanatory gestures that Lynch would allow for. A man who was basically forced to betray his central desire for the original series–that the audience would never know who killed Laura Palmer–would certainly not let any of his choicest enigmas be compromised here. He had the money, and the blank slate creatively, to control the bleeding. Fittingly, that freedom even allowed him to, in a couple of shots toward the end of the season, erase that bungled murder plot entirely.
From its ashes, Lynch assembled a whole new canvas for himself–or more likely, the audience’s imagination–but then cut to black. The end of Season 3 is a Season 4, or a new Fire Walk With Me analog, waiting to happen, but that is a pipe dream no one should waste mental energy on. Lynch seems to have left Twin Peaks a lot more satisfied than he was in 1991. All the rest of us got was the most formally adventurous show in television history, one which could set a new bar for unrestricted inventiveness in our prestige-TV-infected era if enough people in the industry paid enough attention to learn anything from it.