I’m disappointed and I’m mad. I’m mad that I’m disappointed. I started writing this reaction to the end of Twin Peaks: The Return the day after it aired. I’ve deleted it and restarted it three times. It has taken time to find the right words to express my profound disappointment over not just the end of the new season (and probably the show, period), but also the continuation as a whole which was only punctuated by a surreal, non-ending ending.
I love (loved? We’ll see) Twin Peaks. When I discovered it in college 12 years ago, it was like I made an amazing discovery. An unearthed surprise from the past that struck all the right chords with me. It was scary, it was funny, it was strange and so much more and most of all it was unapologetic about those things. It was a show that gave me all of the things I loved most about my favorite shows at the time like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Lost, The X-Files. Larger than life, complicated characters, action, supernatural/unearthly situations, and writing that showed the creators respected the audience’s intelligence. The follow-up movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, was a stark change from the series but it still dialed up a dark, yet strangely emotional story in spite of the uncomfortable material.
But that was twenty-five years ago. The series ended just about every main story-line with a painful cliffhanger that suspended many of our favorite characters in situations that put them in peril, questioned their survival, created emotional turmoil in their lives, or, in the case of main character, Dale Cooper, raised existential questions about his fate as he appeared to be possessed by series villain, BOB, a malevolent entity responsible for murder and depravity in town. The movie didn’t bother to address these questions and turned in a prequel about (mostly…) the death of (seeming!) series macguffin, Laura Palmer. A few minor story points indicated vague details about Dale Cooper’s fate, but for the most part, FWWM, was its own thing. Written by series creator, David Lynch, without co-creator, Mark Frost, it was a prequel spin-off with a different feel and treatment of the material as well as elements that, maddeningly, called into question mythology the series had developed throughout its run. But it was over. The series was cancelled, no one was interested in funding new movies so, it was what it was.
When the new series was announced with both Lynch and Frost at the helm, I was ecstatic. For one, how many shows get a second chance to finish their stories twenty-five years after cancellation? Two, there would finally be some resolution to the ambiguity of the series ending. Three, with Lynch and Frost involved the new series would hopefully be more akin to the series or at least a new thing rather than the dark surrealism of the movie, sans Frost.
Unfortunately, David Lynch (and Frost?) wasn’t interested in any of those things. Twin Peaks: The Return provided little resolution to the open questions from the series’ cancellation, in several circumstances it excluded characters from the original run, and posed a host of new questions it had no interest in answering. Glaringly, most insulting, Twin Peaks: The Return reframes the story we thought we were watching to be about something else and calling the whole affair into question.
The iconic, brilliant pilot of Twin Peaks tells the story of what happens when beautiful, loved-by-all, prom queen Laura Palmer is found dead in a, seemingly, sleepy pacific northwest town. But everyone in Twin Peaks has a secret. Whether it’s hotel entrepreneur, Ben Horne, scheming to obtain the local sawmill so he can build a housing development, blue-collar Ed Hurley and diner owner Norma Jennings sneaking around behind their spouses’ backs to keep the flame alive on their 20-year-old romance, Laura Palmer’s boyfriend Bobby Briggs selling drugs and working for local crime thug Leo Johnson, or any host of other seedy plots, Twin Peaks was an exploration of the dark underbelly of small town America and unspoken malevolence in suburbia. Into this web of murder, drugs, and lies comes Special Agent Dale Cooper to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder as the latest murder with the mark of a killer seen first in the southwest part of Washington a year earlier. Young, handsome, loquacious, and slightly off, Cooper is seemingly a paragon of virtue, but he, too, has secrets.
Over the course of two seasons, Twin Peaks embeds Cooper deeper and deeper into the town and the mysterious woods outside of the town where the “strange old woods” have more than just a spooky mood. But the character of the town was a real and present thing and it was a special place outside the hustle and bustle of the busy world with larger than life stakes.
I should have been prepared for Twin Peaks: The Return because Fire Walk With Me was a stunning departure from the humanity of the series. I refer to FWWM as a spin-off more than a prequel or continuation of the series because it was centered mostly on the last days of Laura Palmer’s life.
The parts of FWWM that weren’t centered on Laura told the muddled back story of the murder of the first girl killed by Laura’s assailant and the FBI agents who investigated. Consider it a prototype for the kind of mood and storytelling The Return would practice. Characters behaved strangely and rarely spoke like people. Scenes smashed from one frame to another. And the supernatural elements the series explored with whimsy and stark horror were dealt with in FWWM as confusing dead-end jumbles. Series hero Dale Cooper appears first in a confusing, glorified cameo effectively retconning the character’s pre-Laura past (co-starring David Bowie as a character named Phillip Jeffries who does little more than confound). Cooper appears later in short vignettes in the red curtained Black Lodge where he has been trapped since the series end, yet time, apparently, is a murky thing in that realm which is why we see this in the context of Laura’s final days. But no real resolution is given to his post-series fate other than to clarify that Cooper wasn’t possessed in the show’s final moments but rather replaced by his malevolent doppelgänger. Even better!
Regardless of the fantastical fate befalling Agent Cooper, the story of Twin Peaks was about a small town reeling from Laura Palmer’s death and about the gateway, figurative and literal, to Hell it opened. FWWM opened the door to a broader story about the elements at the play in Twin Peaks, but in context as a prequel, our show characters were on the trail of these elements already.
In Twin Peaks: The Return, however, Lynch and Frost have decided the story wasn’t really about the dark underbelly of a small town where malevolent forces were at play or the reaction of a small town to the death of a beloved, troubled girl, no the town of Twin Peaks is merely a footnote in a broad pastiche of strange, seedy characters all over the country (and world!) and there are aliens, the nuclear age birthed the personification of evil, and, oh yeah, Laura Palmer is really an intergalactic (interdimensional?) Chosen One (?) sent to us to destroy (?) evil. And if that weren’t bad enough, we learn all of this through the most dispassionate and detached mode of storytelling possible. The characters of Twin Peaks: The Return are stripped of all humanity and the story, such as it is, is propelled forward by nothing and no one until the final 2 parts of the 18-hour season.
My theory about how and why this happened is about fundamentals of storytelling vs. art. David Lynch describes himself first, and foremost, as an artist. He’s less concerned with coherent narrative than he is with the artful fusion of pictures, words, sounds, and music. This has made for some of the boldest and beautiful cinema in the last 40 years. So, while there are other visionary directors and writers out there who tell stories in unconventional, but artful ways, they still adhere to the logic and basics of telling a story. Lynch does not want to do that. His ardent fans say that’s brilliant. I say that’s bold and, maybe creative, but it makes him an awful storyteller. And it disappointed me so deeply, so completely on September 3rd, 2017 that I’ve barely been able to speak about it since.
The world, characters, and story I’ve loved for 12+ years are gone from me. I can’t imagine trying to rewatch the show from the beginning without the whole experience being tarnished by the new season and the “ending” which denied any kind of closure to the story in favor of a nebulous, non-ending that served to confuse not with bold, challenging material, but by willfully withholding information needed to understand it.
I feel like an outcast from my own fan community. The usual stable of Lynch sycophants are praising what he delivered as “genius” and “visionary.” And I think, really, they just don’t want to admit they have no idea what they saw and are attributing meaning to it that makes them feel better. They don’t dare criticize a single story point that was ignored or a payoff forgotten or wasted. For some reason, with David Lynch, unlike any other filmmaker, writer, or actor he cannot be criticized. It cannot be tolerated. Martin Scorsese can be imperfect, Stephen Spielberg can turn in a formulaic stinker, but David Lynch is an artist and a genius and if you do not like his work, you just don’t get it.
The whole enterprise wasn’t a total disaster; there were a few wonderful performances worth praise in spite of the whole. Kyle MacLachlan’s turn as “Mr. C,” Agent Cooper’s evil doppelgänger was a dark, driven force unlike any character he’s ever played. Juxtaposed against the empty shell of one of his other 3 roles, Dougie Jones, he’s proven how effective his expression alone can convey a performance. What little we saw of the gallant Agent Cooper was like he’d never stopped playing the role. I might have liked more pathos in light of playing a man who lost 25 years of his life, but given his limited role it makes it somewhat worth it that he was a man of propellant action.
Harry Dean Stanton (RIP) had a bare semblance of a role in returning character Carl Rodd from FWWM. But what little screen time he had he was the only one in the whole cast imbued with great humanity and empathy. Nothing he said or did mattered to anything else happening, but heck, we got him strumming a guitar and singing a beautiful song. That alone was worth it.
Catherine Coulson’s final turn as Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, was also a beautiful performance made more poignant by the self-awareness that she had to know she was dying. I only wish what she had contributed had been in service of a more worthwhile endeavor that brought closure to the Twin Peaks mythos.
New cast member, Amy Shiels, who played the empty but effervescent Candie was delightful. She played a quintessentially “Lynchian” character, both in the fact she is a beautiful woman adorned in a pretty dress and also Candie wasn’t quite right, operating on her own wavelength separate from the other characters in her scenes.
But these bright spots are bittersweet because they weren’t in service of a coherent story with characters to follow and stakes to protect. And the plot also decided to throw in narrative curves seemingly “just because.” The most egregious example of this (how do I choose??) is when the character played, ironically (!), by David Lynch, Gordon Cole, reveals at the top of the 17th part a whole slew of back story about what Agent Cooper was doing before he disappeared twenty-five years ago. There are a few problems with this, but let’s start with the ones off the top of my head: Cooper was pretty busy before he disappeared at the end of season 2. He was on the trail of his old FBI partner, Windom Earle; chasing down clues relating to the secrets of Owl Cave and the White and Black Lodges, and spending time with the woman he’d fallen in love with, Annie Blackburn. Cole tells us that Cooper and Major Briggs had discovered evidence of a malevolent presence/entity called “Judy” before Cooper disappeared and they were making plans to reveal its presence. Is it possible that Cooper and Briggs discovered something all those years ago that we didn’t know about? It’s possible but it flies in the face of the story we watched. Cole intimates this is why Cooper disappeared. Based on the good story we were shown at the end of season 2, rather than the last-minute, crammed-in story we were told at the end of season 3, that doesn’t pass the smell test. Cooper disappeared because he pursued Earle into the Black Lodge to save Annie who’d been kidnapped; in the lodge, he faced his “shadow self” and that version of Cooper escaped, trapping Cooper there. Trying to retcon the whole thing as the result of this malevolent entity, Judy, is lazy. And, more insulting, why do it at the end after none of this came up before? Maybe if this story had been developed instead of the “story” about Cooper “asleep” in Dougie Jones body eating cake slowly and being, literally, pushed from room to room in his insurance agency office it would be easier to accept. Or, at least, if the narrative work to establish the idea would have been more than a monologue by a character with about 90 minutes left in the series, I might be more accepting.
And that’s just one thing. There’s so much more.
What about the glass box in NYC? It seemed like Mr. C put it there, but we never got much of an answer.
What was Mr. C’s plan? He was first trying to escape being pulled back into the Black Lodge and then he was looking for Judy (I guess?). So, if he’s looking for pure evil, why would he seek out the coordinates to the White Lodge? And why would it then deposit him at the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s station?
This is less of a question and more of a criticism (surprise!). What was the thinking behind the character of Freddie with the green glove? Here’s where Lynch’s “artist first, storyteller/filmmaker second” stuff falls apart. BOB was the embodiment of evil, depravity, and fear throughout the first two seasons and FWWM. Rightfully so. He was in many ways the “villain” of Twin Peaks, if such a role could be identified. But he was also a supernatural entity. Spirit, demon, alien? Whatever he is, it didn’t seem like BOB was a force you could defeat so much as contain or lock away. The end of Twin Peaks episode 16, “Natural Law,” features our leads, Cooper, Truman, Hawk, Albert, and Major Briggs hypothesizing about the nature of BOB. Cooper hopes to understand so as to stop him, but it seemed as clear as anything on Twin Peaks ever was that BOB was a force. Well, hold on, because “nope!” BOB is really just a big black bubble that, if you punch it hard enough with a special green rubber glove, can be destroyed. And, if that weren’t enough, the guy wielding the glove isn’t Cooper or Hawk or, heck, even Andy. No, it’s some random guy named Freddie who appeared once in part 2 and then showed up again in part 16 to explain how he got the green glove before using it in part 17 to punch out the ultimate embodiment of evil. Why didn’t James Hurley have the glove? I mean, it’s an asinine idea in the first place, but at least it could have been something a character we knew with some emotional tie to the events of the series had. Hell, James could have picked it up while he was motorcycling the roadways of America with the likes of Wally Brando.
While we’re on the subject of James, why did he come back to town? What was his “motorcycle accident “all about? Where is Donna Hayward? She was James’ main squeeze. And she learned that Ben Horne was probably her dad at the end of season 2. Never mentioned.
Speaking of Haywards, why is Gersten Hayward in a disturbing adulterous relationship with a drug-addled guy married to Shelly’s daughter? What does it have to do with anything?
Why is Shelly fooling around with a strange, dangerous, maybe supernatural drug dealer named Red?
Why can Carl Rodd, who apparently relocated his trailer park franchise across the state from Deer Meadow to Twin Peaks, see spirits (Garmonbozia?) expel from dead children? And does it even matter that he can since it’s never referenced again, nor needed to advance any story?
Was the “Evolution of the Arm’s” doppelganger in league with Mr. C? Is that why it hurled Cooper into an abyss when he tried to leave the Black Lodge? Did things go wrong because Mr. C created a Tulpa to replace him or were things haywire before that? “Is it future? Or is it past?”
How about the question we’ve been waiting twenty five years to answer? “How’s Annie?” Turns out, we’re still waiting to find out. She’s mentioned once by Hawk and then never again. Heather Graham is busy, but not so busy she couldn’t have appeared in this. Cooper risked his life and spent 25 years in purgatory to save Annie. We never learn what became of her.
Oh yeah, what the hell happened to Audrey? Is she in a coma? Is she dead? Delusional? Why even include her if that’s what you’re going to do with her iconic character? Nothing. At least Donna went unmentioned.
I could go on for a bit, but let’s stop with the biggest cul-de-sac of all: Dougie. What purpose did including 12+ episodes of Cooper meandering around in Las Vegas, unable to do anything without help, serve? We kept being promised that it would all payoff in the end. Other than the Mitchum brothers flying Cooper to Washington, that story added nothing. And even that bit, Cooper could have found another way to get where he was going. What makes this whole thing worse is the thought that maybe there was an element of gamesmanship here. Not just on the audience, but on executives and movie studios. It was revealed recently that Lynch and Frost wrote an unproduced screenplay in the late 80s, One Saliva Bubble, with a character very much like Dougie. Were Lynch and Frost regurgitating an old character in a new form? A more popular, high-profile form that would validate a past script that wasn’t picked up? It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. There is a reading one could make about Twin Peaks: The Return being Lynch’s revenge for the critical savaging that FWWM received. Much of the new season was spent justifying and layering in elements of FWWM. Regardless, it’s troubling to me that they may have retrofitted another character and another story to make this one. There’s no way to know for sure.
All of it culminated in a mind-boggling two-part finale with an unsatisfying, cobbled together confrontation with Mr. C and BOB, time travel, and then dimensional (?) transport to another world “because.” Cooper undoes Laura’s murder by Leland/BOB and the timeline is, arguably, reset but Laura still disappears. Theories abound that what we saw in the last episode was actually a happy ending and Laura’s/Carrie’s scream destroyed “Judy.” Maybe? I didn’t expect I would have to pull out my trigonometry textbook to understand the end of the show. The Black Lodge sequence at the end of season 2, while surrealistic and crazy, makes a certain logical sense. You had enough information throughout the preceding season and your own common sense to piece together what was happening. Not so with the latest finale.
Characters do things because they do. We are given no reason for why these things happen. Despite Cooper having a deep emotional bond and friendship with Audrey Horne, they never encounter one another. Despite Cooper having fallen in love with Annie Blackburn, her name never once comes up and the haunting “How’s Annie?” tag from the season two cliffhanger goes unanswered. Instead, Cooper apparently has a deep, abiding romance with his former FBI assistant, Diane, played by Laura Dern. Despite never appearing in the flesh before season three, she is now the most important new character and someone who Cooper loves deeply, despite none of this being apparent before. Apparently, artists can change their stories at will, make characters do and say anything no matter whether it makes any sense, and conveniently ignore what came before if it doesn’t line up with what you want to do now. That’s bold and visionary!
Since Cooper and Diane are (apparently) soul mates, they partner on a trip 430 miles away from Twin Peaks (I guess) because that number was given to Cooper by the renamed Giant, who is apparently the “Fireman” now. What they are doing seems important, but again, we have no idea what it is. Eventually, they cross from day into night with the help of “electricity,” which Fire Walk With Me kinda sorta tells us is important, but it is front and center in season 3. They appear to have gone into a new world (a parallel universe? A pocket dimension comic books are so fond of?) the nature of which is unclear. They now behave differently and somewhat distantly from one another. They go to a motel and have sex which goes from passionate to disturbing and painful. Diane disappears in the morning and Cooper forges ahead, leaving from a different motel and driving a different call than the one he used to get there. Another parallel universe? A dream? Whatever.
Cooper finds a diner called “Judy’s” where he confronts a gang of cowboy hicks harassing a waitress and learns another waitress works there, but she’s off. He goes to the waitress’s house and, lo and behold, it’s Sheryl Lee as a waitress named Carrie Page. Cooper insists her name is Laura Palmer, but she doesn’t know that name. He wants to take her to Twin Peaks and she agrees because she just killed a guy in her living room. Okay. Visionary! After roughly twenty minutes of night driving without dialogue and without purpose or plot or motivation revealed, they drive through downtown Twin Peaks (North Bend!) and end up at Laura Palmer’s house where, conceivably, her mom, Sarah Palmer still lives. But they learn that Sarah doesn’t live there. Confused, they go back down to the street, where Cooper seems to realize that something is amiss, he utters, “What year is this?” Whether it’s Cooper’s question or the veneer was cracking anyway, Carrie hears Sarah Palmer’s voice faintly calling Laura for breakfast. Carrie screams like only Sheryl Lee can and the power shorts off everywhere and we smash to black.
After twenty-five agonizing years of not knowing what happened to our favorite characters and the town of Twin Peaks, we still don’t know. And we’re more confused than ever. All we’re left with are more questions and memories of 12 episodes featuring Kyle MacLachlan as Dougie learning how to eat pancakes and doodle on insurance contracts.
While the bulk of Twin Peaks fans are poring over the third season looking for clues and trying to disassemble the unknowable “puzzle” that Lynch and Frost conjured up from old scripts and ideas that were maligned 25 years ago, I’m inconsolable. I loved Twin Peaks so much and I feel like I was bamboozled, like a member of a cult who realized the whole thing is at the whim of its eccentric leader and the only rule is that he makes the rules.
Will I buy Mark Frost’s book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier? It’s pre-ordered already. Of course I’ll read it because I hate myself and. like anyone coming out of a bad breakup, I have to spy on my former love to see what she’s up to. I’m desperately hoping that the book will provide answers or closure to that train wreck of a finale, even though I know it won’t.