This story contains spoilers through the end of Twin Peaks: The Return.
Never let it be said that David Lynch leaves his audiences unsatisfied. Presented with the challenge of finding a suitable conclusion to his dazzling, incomparable 18-hour odyssey Twin Peaks: The Return, the director gave viewers the best of both worlds. The first hour of Sunday’s two-episode finale was as clean an ending as fans could have expected from a series that so often defied the most basic concepts of television plotting. And the second hour saw that all unravel, with a resolution that was at once tedious and mesmerizing, a jolt of primal horror delivered to provoke utter bewilderment. It was a conclusion that seemed to undo the show’s entire existence, while leaving us with as many questions as before.
But there’s nothing wrong with questions. “Good art asks questions, you know?” the show’s star, Kyle MacLachlan, said in an interview given after the finale aired. And Twin Peaks: The Return was good art indeed, diverging from the 1990 ABC series it sequelized in so many ways but giving viewers the same thing its forbear did: a television experience genuinely unlike anything that had come before. In the months since the revival debuted, I’ve been foolish enough to try and predict where its story arcs might be heading, what conflicts might be bubbling to the surface week to week. But the creators Lynch and Mark Frost (who cowrote every episode together, with Lynch directing) never let an episode pass without a scene that rendered me dumbfounded at its ambition.
There are too many to list, but I’ll try and recall at least a few: Agent Dale Cooper’s navigation of a mystical black-and-white fortress, the beginning of a particularly trying hero’s journey. The trials and tribulations of “Mr. Jackpots,” the perennial casino winner bankrupting its beleaguered bosses in one crazy night. The first reveal of an older Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook, one of the most revelatory performances of the year), gazing at a portrait of his long-dead girlfriend Laura Palmer. The execution of Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch (Tim Roth) by an angry Polish man. Evil Cooper’s arm-wrestling match with a Teutonic gangster. A visceral rant, delivered from a stopped car, by an unnamed female driver trying to get her family home. The endless depths of the show’s magical eighth episode, detailing the birth of the villainous Bob and the behaviors of the sooty “woodsmen” who accompany him. And the slow, sensuous dream dance of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), seemingly trapped in the prison of her own mind, to close the sixteenth episode.
If Showtime’s Twin Peaks had an overarching plot, it was about the return of Dale Cooper, split into two bodies: one a half-mute simulacrum called Dougie, incapable of much more than parroting back whatever was said to him, and the other Bob himself, inhabiting Cooper’s body and seeding mayhem across America. Their inevitable confrontation was drawn-out, but in the show’s penultimate episode, it finally came to pass, with Evil Cooper laid out by the well-meaning police secretary Lucy, and Good Cooper finally shaken out of his reverie, there to watch the destruction of his tormentor.
This was the “satisfying” part—I put that word in quotes not because the episode wasn’t a joy to watch, but because for Twin Peaks, a satisfying plot resolution still features some of the most confusing imagery I’ve ever witnessed on television. Bob (the late Frank Silva, whose image was used with great and sparing power by Lynch in this revival) emerged from Cooper’s body as a spinning globe of hate; he was eventually destroyed by Freddie (Jake Wardle), a comparatively minor character with superhuman punching power, delivering a literal right hook to the jaw of evil incarnate.
But what to make of the finale—Episode 18—itself? It was, for the most part, a haunted trek through the series’s deepest, darkest psychological scar, the murder and abuse of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the show’s iconic victim and the protagonist of Lynch’s wrenchingly sad film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Many times throughout Twin Peaks: The Return, characters have been treated to a vision of a vortex in the sky, a swirling portal to another world where supernatural beings of emotion try to guide them through their fated paths. Whether this portal is allegory or pure, soaring fantasy, Lynch has always specialized in giving unique flesh to our sorrows, our pains, and our desires to be better or to wallow in pity. The show’s “Black Lodge,” or this series’s black-and-white fortress (rendered as a sort of cinema of the mind’s eye), are beautiful, but confounding realms of darkness and light, seemingly serving as proving grounds for Cooper’s heroic odyssey back into the real world.
The FBI agent’s final journey was centered around Laura, the young woman whose murder he successfully solved in the original series. In the Twin Peaks: The Return finale, after witnessing Bob’s destruction, Cooper traveled back to the scene of Laura’s murder, guiding her away from the crime and apparently erasing it from the show’s history (archival footage of the pilot ended with no body being found wrapped in plastic along the shore). But then, after an unnerving car drive and sex scene with his assistant Diane (Laura Dern), Cooper found himself in a random motel in Texas, subsequently discovering Laura living under a different name, unaware of her identity. As Cooper took Laura to her childhood home, the place where she was tormented by Bob (possessing the body of her father), he found a different family living there; suddenly confused, he asked, “What year is it?” as Laura let out an unearthly scream.
Some devoted fans of the show will debate the semiotic meaning of every scene and gesture in the finale, to try and puzzle out whatever new nightmare Dale and Laura have created for themselves. Cooper’s quest to save Laura, in the end, seemed recursive, and his search for some magical deliverance at her old home (such a portentous place) seemed especially misguided; it felt like Lynch trying to depict the ultimate foolishness of thinking every loose end can be tied up, that every wrong can be undone.
Toward the end of the season, FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch) recalled a dream he had in which the actress Monica Bellucci (playing herself) spoke to him at a restaurant in Paris. “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream,” she told him, adding with a hint of worry, “But who is the dreamer?” There’s no better way to sum up the world of Twin Peaks all the way through its finale. Is Cooper dreaming this all up? Is Lynch? Are the viewers? Whatever the answer, we’re all living inside the dream, forever seeking that dreamer.
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