“When you get there, you will already be there.” “Is it future or is it past?” “Watch and listen to the dream of time and space.” It’s so tempting to kick off a consideration of Twin Peaks: The Return by quoting one of its more gnomic and portentous lines of dialogue, but in the works of David Lynch, words—and numbers, so many numbers!—are a halting, imperfect medium of communication. Images and sounds have all the power. In the long (and fairly tedious) debate over whether Twin Peaks: The Return is episodic and therefore TV or unitary and therefore a film, this dominance of the visual over the verbal ought to settle the matter. Despite having nudged film to the margins of the cultural conversation, prestige TV remains a writer’s medium, something we listen to more than we watch. “I tried to catch up on it while I was doing some other stuff,” a friend recently told me of the new Twin Peaks. “That’s what I do with most TV. It did not work.” Lynch’s career-summarizing masterpiece cracks its own medium open and delivers it to a place beyond words.
The eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, already the stuff of legend, was both the weirdest hour of television most of its viewers had ever seen and an intelligible dose of much-appreciated backstory for anyone familiar with the original two seasons and, above all, with Lynch’s feature film prequel, Fire Walk With Me. After an introductory segment involving the murder and resurrection of Mr. C, the evil doppelgänger of Special Agent Dale Cooper, “Part 8” was nearly speechless, and what dialogue it did offer up was either inane (the first-date chitchat of a pair of teenagers) or impenetrably cryptic. “Got a light?” rasped the apparent leader of a swarm of sooty-faced hobos, striking paralyzing terror in everyone who hears him. Then he takes over a small-town Nevada radio station, crushing the skulls of its night staff with his bare, filthy hands, in order to recite over the airwaves a poem that causes its hearers to collapse, insensible. Any viewers hoping that the two concluding episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return would clarify the meaning of “This is the water and this is the well,” etc., really ought to know better by now.
What “Part 8” did offer up, if you ignored the spooky verse, was an account of how the original series’ chief demon, the entity known as Bob, came into being. It also revealed the allegiance of the Fireman (a character previously known as the Giant, played by Carel Struycken). Alarmed to learn of the emergence of Bob in a stream of protoplasm emitted by the featureless humanoid creature called “the experiment,” the Fireman produced a golden orb containing the face of Laura Palmer. Then the Fireman’s companion, Señorita Dido, sent the orb after Bob, to Earth. That Laura’s suffering and death played some essential role in thwarting or defying Bob, that she sacrificed herself in order to limit his power, was the murky storyline of Fire Walk With Me. “Part 8” confirmed this, casting Laura in an even more explicitly Christ-like light. All of this, as peculiar as it sounds when written down, was fairly easy to follow.
Not so the season’s final two episodes: the first a crescendo of sarcastically dopey fan service; the second a troubling, stricken coda that throws the entire series into uncertainty. Lynch and Mark Frost had already signaled their disobedience to narrative formula in “Part 16.” The plot had elaborately set up some secondary villains: Richard Horne, the sociopathic spawn of Mr. C and a comatose Audrey Horne, and two chip-munching Tarantino-esque hired killers, dotingly married to each other but spectacularly callous about everyone else. Both threats served as familiar generators of rising tension, with every sign of a lethal confrontation with the series’ good guys in the offing. And both were summarily and hilariously dispatched before any showdown could occur. Mr. C used Richard to trigger a trap meant for him, and Chantal and Hutch were perforated, Bonnie and Clyde–style, by a machine gun–wielding accountant in a dispute over a parking spot.
If the original Twin Peaks liked to toy with the conventions of network television, Twin Peaks: The Return often seemed to be trolling its audience’s entrenched expectations. By the time “Part 17” had reached its halfway point, Mr. C, the season’s dead-eyed Big Bad, had been put down by a random Cockney kid with a superpowered, rubber glove–clad right hand. The characters we’ve loved gather together; there’s a climactic fight; the good guys almost lose, but then they win; the world is saved; the real Cooper and the real Diane are reunited; and even Janey-E and Sonny Jim get their beloved Dougie back. “Ta da!” you can practically hear Lynch taunt, “Are you happy now?” Gripers who complain about Twin Peak’s lack of a good ol’ fashioned ending might even want to stop watching right there.
The remaining hour and a half of Twin Peaks: The Return proceeds to dismantle everything that has gone before—all three seasons of it. As foolish as it is to spin theories about any David Lynch film, I’m going to go out on that limb and insist that there was no time travel, no multiple dimensions or alternate realities. What we’ve seen so far, over 48 episodes and more than 25 years, has been the dream of a man named Richard, a man who lives a long way from the misty, haunted forests of northeastern Washington state. Exactly halfway through “Part 17,” an image of Cooper’s face is superimposed over the wrapping up of the preceding supernatural action-adventure storyline.* The scene in the sheriff’s office dissolves, under Kyle MacLachlan’s face, into a shadowy, industrial interior, the basement, seemingly, of the Great Northern Hotel, which inexplicably contains the locked door to Room 315. Only when Cooper, Diane, and Gordon Cole arrive at this door does the superimposed face fade away.
Cooper remains Cooper, through a final encounter with the One-Armed Man and a conversation with the giant tea kettle that either is or contains Phillip Jeffries (played in Fire Walk With Me by David Bowie, who died before The Return filmed). He receives more cryptic signals, gets sent back to spy on and ultimately intervene in the events of Feb. 23, 1989, the night of Laura Palmer’s death. Orpheus-like, he leads Laura away from her fatal meeting with Ronette, Leo, and Jacques, then loses her before he can bring her “home.” But her murder is erased, and the opening scenes of the pilot replay as another ordinary morning. “Is it the story of the little girl who lived down the lane?” the Arm asks Cooper. “Is it?” Maybe not. Cooper leaves the Red Room, finds Diane again, and the two set off, for unclear reasons, to follow the Fireman’s directions to a portal, 430 miles away—but from what? After 17 episodes filled with named locations and precise coordinates, the story has loosed its moorings in both place and time.
The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were studded with references to the Hollywood films Lynch loves best: Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard, Laura, Double Indemnity, Persona. Drifting through Twin Peaks: The Return are similar allusions to the films of Lynch himself: the road movies and long shots of headlights tunneling into the night from Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, the livid body found curled up in a bed from Mulholland Drive, the tender pairing of Laura Dern and MacLachlan from Blue Velvet. The Return often has the melancholy feel of a retrospective, not just of Twin Peaks itself, but of a long, idiosyncratic life of making movies. “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream,” Monica Bellucci (as herself) tells Gordon Cole in a dream. “But who is the dreamer?” It might be Lynch himself, as the autobiographical flotsam in Twin Peaks: The Return sometimes suggests. Dougie’s boss, Bushnell Mullins, has the same first name as Bushnell Keeler, one of Lynch’s early mentors. The hobos turn out to be “woodsmen,” like Lynch’s father, who worked for the Forestry Service and wrote a monograph on the ponderosa pine.
But the most weighted sign that the dreamer is Richard comes after Cooper and Diane make it through the portal, arrive at a lonesome motel, and engage in a long and unsettlingly mournful sex scene. It is when the man wakes up that everything has changed. He’s in a different motel, in another place, with a different car. The breakup note left by the side of the bed is addressed to Richard and signed by Linda. He sets off (where to?), then pulls over when he spots a diner called Judy’s. He might be following the lead of chance and intuition, Cooper-style, or perhaps he’s been there before. He certainly seems to expect to see someone in particular: the waitress who currently happens to be off duty.
Who is Richard? He calls himself Dale Cooper but behaves like an amalgam of Cooper and Mr. C., who displayed his stone-faced skill at hand-to-hand combat repeatedly throughout Twin Peaks: The Return. For a law enforcement officer, he is oddly indifferent to the corpse in Carrie Page’s living room. He’s single-mindedly focused on bringing Carrie back to Laura Palmer’s childhood home because “It’s very important,” but why? In the Red Room, Leland Palmer told him to “find Laura,” yet even if it strikes Cooper as a good idea to follow Leland’s instructions, no one has asked him to return Laura to the site of her original, unbearable trauma. Richard/Cooper’s firm, bland confidence in his mission, so unwavering that neither Carrie nor the viewer initially doubts it, is as hazily motivated as any dream quest. A car trip of several days takes place over one long night, and the man at the wheel has nothing to say to the woman he has been obsessed with for so long.
The final scenes of Twin Peaks: The Return, however you interpret them, have an unmistakable air of devastation and loss. Either the beloved, quick-witted Eagle Scout Cooper has lost his wherewithal while wandering the passages between worlds or the dreamer is finally beginning to wake up for real. (“What time is it?” is the question most people ask when you wrench them out of a dead sleep.) Perhaps Cooper, like the character Betty Elms in Mulholland Drive, is the innocent, capable person the dreamer wishes he could be, or could be again. Whoever Richard is, however compromised, he’s never going to achieve the simple, satisfying conclusion that Cooper reaches in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office. What were we thinking? Twin Peaks is where we long to be, among old friends at the Double R and in the company of ancient, inscrutable trees with a mystery to solve. It is the place we dreamed of one night a week and have yearned to return to ever since. And now we’ve woken up, back in Odessa, with only that last, terrible scream from Sheryl Lee to remind us of the price of such dreams.
*Correction, Sept. 6, 2017: This piece previously misidentified which episode the shot of Agent Cooper’s superimposed face was from. It was “Part 17,” not “Part 16.” (Return.)