See You at the Curtain Call: Finding Answers at the End of Twin Peaks
“I am dead…yet I live.”
The first time I ever saw Twin Peaks, I felt like I was coming home. Though I grew up in North Dakota, far from the Pacific Northwest or the fairy tale version of it that the show conjures, it reverberated with a nostalgia for something that may never have been real. The way the wind blew through the trees, the everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere, and the lingering sensation that something dark and beautiful hummed in the empty spaces at the edge of town coalesced into a world I had never seen but always known. I followed it to David Lynch’s other work, increasingly mesmerized and gradually realizing that he was a painter first and a filmmaker second, whose art can evoke feelings from a space beyond logic, defying concrete interpretation as often as music or dance do. It was a journey I made with my wife, and our endless discussions about Lynch and Twin Peaks became a central facet of our marriage, trailing off and then picking up as if they never stopped.
Slow dissolve to Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch’s first project for the screen in a decade and the continuation of Twin Peaks after more than twice that long. Two and a half years passed between the announcement and its release, a time we spent devouring and speculating about each piece of information, but paradoxically glad that nearly nothing was known about what was coming. As the Log Lady said in her introduction to Episode 16 of the original series, “There is a depression after an answer is given…It was almost fun not knowing.” Knowing that more Twin Peaks was taking shape on the horizon, there was a feeling that the reality of a 2017 revival couldn’t possibly live up to the unfulfilled potential of an artifact from the dawn of the nineties. But I let go of any particular expectations, eager for nothing more than to see David Lynch and Mark Frost complete the thoughts they had left lingering so long before. Knowing I would need significant space to work out my reactions week-to-week, I picked up both a podcast and this very recap column.
That’s where you found me, back in my reaction to the premiere, bashed out in a haze late in the night of May 21st. Watching and re-watching each individual part in a quest to crystalize my thoughts, concerned more with echoes and interpretations than with clues and theories, the summer blurred as Twin Peaks occupied my mind in the space between Sundays. Often, I’d feel I had a grasp on the rhythm of the story, but every time I predicted the awakening of Dale Cooper or the return of Audrey Horne, Lynch and Frost would give me more strangers at the Roadhouse, or the confounding presence of Charlie, or everything that was Part 8. The biggest thrill was not knowing which classic character would pop up next, what piece of past ephemera would open a new door, where we would be when the first scene faded in from the stillness after each main title. Even knowing that I knew nothing about where the ride would stop, the finale somehow hit me with the distinct gut-punch of discovering the opposite of what I expected.
It would be fair to call me a David Lynch apologist. I’m able to identify and dissect elements of his work that may be unearned, or problematic, or questionable in execution, but I usually find that when I step back and take in the whole product, its flaws do nothing to diminish its impact on me. That’s why, sitting in the dark silence that followed Part 18, I was determined to figure out just what it was I was feeling. If this was the ending Lynch and Frost wanted to give Twin Peaks, then it was the ending I wanted Twin Peaks to have. So why did I feel so unfulfilled?
As always, I found answers by considering the final piece as part of a whole. I had been initially been annoyed by Cooper's rushed reunion with his old friends and the silliness of Freddie's boss battle with Bob. I was frustrated with the lack of resolution to the Briggs family drama and denial of context for Audrey's situation. Looking at The Return as a single work whose parts function in tandem with each other reveals all of this in a different light than isolated analysis. Lingering questions and frustrated hopes were always going to define this story, not because none of it mattered, but because all of it did.
We were all waiting for Dale Cooper to come back, for a quarter century and then fourteen weeks more. When he at last returned in full, he was so fixated on the past that he missed the people we had come to care about while he was gone. Or maybe we hadn’t, if we were pinning all our expectations on our Special Agent and failed to appreciate the stories we were given. Our frustration with the abruptness of getting exactly what we thought we wanted should send us back into what came before, to revisit all those moments when anything still seemed possible. There’s more satisfaction there than a finale could have ever given us.
And then there’s Part 18, one of the most disturbing entries in the Lynch canon, nightmarish in the truest sense of the word. Everything is just slightly off, and only the acceptance of things being wrong can break the dread with a rush of terrible realization. There’s a Buddhist reading of the ending that I really like, that Laura transcended her suffering by accepting it at the end of Fire Walk With Me (hence finding her as a being of pure light when we first see her in Part 2), while Dale’s desire to fix things keeps him from achieving enlightenment, doomed to repeat an endless cycle of trying to save someone who already saved herself.
When the disembodied presence of Cooper echoes Phillip Jeffries in muttering, “We live inside a dream,” he’s acknowledging the unfathomable nature of existence. But I also feel that Cooper, like Jeffries before him, has touched the veil of fiction and realized the unreality of the story he’s in. I have always liked to believe that there are entities in Twin Peaks who can see us watching, who know they are characters on a television show. It’s a feeling I get when Bob looks straight at the camera, or when Margaret addresses us directly. Deceased actors flit on the edges of The Return, just as well-remembered but untouchable as they are for us. David Lynch himself plays a director trying to make sense of the story he’s in, eternally confounded by revelations he didn’t expect. Bill Hastings reaches out through the internet in search of a community to join him in exploring the universe on the other side of his screen, just as we all did this summer. The lines between the show’s universe and ours blur, and this playing with the border makes the fiction all the more real. Electricity is such a powerful, dimension-hopping force because it’s literally how the show gets into our screens.
There’s even a reading of the final hour that suggests that Dale and Laura have found themselves rejected from fiction and lost in the real world. The mundane atmosphere and moral ambiguity surrounding them would support this, not to mention the casting of the Palmer house location's real owner as Mrs. Tremond. But, like all theories that try to “explain” Twin Peaks, it doesn’t quite fit right. People will be coming at The Return from all kinds of angles for years to come, and none of them will ever be more correct than any other. Like a painting or a song, no one can tell you you’re experiencing it incorrectly. Every beat and brushstroke adds to the experience, and only a fool would feel the need to explain the purpose of each one.
I could speculate forever about the function of the Glass Box or the machinations of Teakettle Bowie, but the real rewards will always be the moments that exist for their own sake. Carl Rodd watching the sudden death of a child just after wondering why he’s gone on living so long, or that kiss between Ed and Norma that was worth a lifetime of waiting, or Catherine Coulson and Margaret Lanterman together in one body preparing to let go…these are the things it all leads back to. Laura Palmer is dead, yet she lives. Twin Peaks is over, but it will always be here. It was all stories about stories, dreams within dreams, but that doesn’t make it any less real than life itself. As David Lynch once stated, long before embarking on The Return, “Twin Peaks is still out there.” Maybe you can’t go home again, but you can always remember.
“Yes, now we know,” the Log Lady said in that speech about the depression that comes with answers. “At least we know what we sought in the beginning. But there is still the question, why? And this question will go on and on until the final answer comes. Then the knowing is so full there is no room for questions.”