Let’s explain that ending of Twin Peaks: The Return

When Twin Peaks: The Return was first announced, I sort of just assumed it’d be like everything else 2017 has had to offer: another helping of char-broiled butts. Why should the return of Twin Peaks, the most significant and artful television endeavour of all time, be anything but a let down? Lynch hadn’t made anything in over a decade, the cast had presumably moved on, and people seemed to have forgotten all but the most trite coffee and cherry pie adjacent quips with which to prove they gave a flying fig about the ultimate fate of Agent Cooper.

But then, it happened. Like some kind of catastrophic counterweight to all the other world events slamming our collective head in the car door that is this year, Twin Peaks: The Return coasted into view and for 18 instalments blew our minds. Again. I actually – genuinely – believe that The Return is superior to the original Twin Peaks. It’s angular as hell, sure, and it lacks the fuzzy, chintzy edges, but of course it does. It has to. It’s about a world that’s had BOB in it for 25 whole years.

This is a world where the resting pace is the Winkie’s Diner scene from Mulholland Drive. It’s nested deep within the Lynch multiverse, where stories diverge and intermingle, like milk and vinegar you drank on a dare, now roiling hatefully against one another deep in your guts. It’s about contradictory forces of good and evil collapsing in on each other.

It’s great is what it is.

So I’m not going to insult you by checking to see if you’re up to date. This piece is going to be an exhaustive, jubilant dive into what I personally think the two part finale actually meant. Because although I believe this story could easily be picked up and continued by Lynch and his cohorts (Lynch has hinted he’s up for a fourth season, though he’s quick to point out it’d be a long way off), I also think the finale works as an ending in and of itself.

Halfway through Twin Peaks: The Return, we witnessed a giant in a tuxedo floating through a monochrome velvet cinema, golden mist streaming from his mouth into the ether. From there, Lynch and co. somehow ratcheted up the obfuscation, but what became apparent was this. Our giant had a name: The Fireman. And apparently, he had a plan. And I’ve come to the conclusion that he, and Cooper, and Philip Jeffries, and all the other forces of light in the world of Twin Peaks, pulled it off. They won. Mostly.

So if you want, or need, a clean, digestible summary of what The Fireman’s plan was, slotted into a timeline and detailing Dale Cooper’s role in the whole affair, buckle up. Because this is the water, folks, This is the water. And this is the well. Drink deep and descend.

On July the 16th, 1945, the atom bomb is dropped. This creates a Lynchian fissure (and one of the boldest stretches of modern television ever aired), giving birth to “Judy”, source of true evil. She gives birth to a miasma of corruption, including BOB, her star pupil, her chief progeny. This is noticed by The Fireman from The White Lodge, and as a counterpoint, he creates a weapon, a being who can counteract Judy. Laura Palmer. He sends Laura down from the lodge to the world below to combat Judy, but tragically, her father is corrupted and turned by none other than BOB, who takes up residence in the Palmer house (they are in our house now). He abuses, corrupts, and eventually murders her.

When Dale Cooper – someone with deep connections to the otherworldly – is sent to investigate Laura’s murder, The Fireman sees a chance to salvage the plan, and to take out Judy in the form of a new champion, an ally in his weird quest. He contacts Mike, a “reformed” spirit who used to run with BOB. Mike’s Arm – the arm Mike cut off because it was corrupt – then visits Coop in his dreams, delivering clues and dancing while Laura (or someone who looks like her) whispers secrets to him. Agent Cooper is now on board what I’m going to go ahead and call The Fire Engine.

Eventually, sometime down the road on the investigation, Dale Cooper is shot in The Great Northern, by which I mean the hotel. “The Great Northern” isn’t prison slang for a specific part of his body. At this point, The Fireman visits him directly, as well as indirectly through his own vessel, Senor Droolcup, who offers him milk (ethereal abstractions aside, it’s important for Coop to have strong bones).

Cooper is set back on the course. As the investigation builds to a crescendo, BOB proves how feral he really is: he murders Laura’s cousin, Maddy, chasing the high he got after killing Laura, which in turn leads the FBI and the Bookhouse Boys right to him. Finally, they defeat BOB’s vessel (Leland), and send his spirit hurtling back to the Lodge.

After Coop settles into a life wearing silly flannel shirts and looking to buy real estate, Wyndham Earle, his old mentor and nemesis, returns. After a game of cat and mouse, Earle takes Coop’s girl, Annie, and hurries her into the Black Lodge. Naturally, Cooper goes in after them. Wyndham and BOB try to derail the Fireman’s counter-plan yet again by trapping Dale in the Lodge, and releasing into the world Mr C, a Cooper Doppelganger, inhabited by BOB himself. Mr C is rescued, having been mistaken for Coop, and thanks the good guys for their trouble by smashing his head against his mirror in The Great Northern, and capping off the original series with the immortal words, “How’s Annie?”.

Mr C heads out into the world, violating people who matter the most to Cooper (Diane and Audrey chiefest among them). The Black Lodge seems to have a deal with it’s darker denizens: time outside is limited to 25 years. Mr C can’t be easily stopped by the forces of good during this period (probably because he’s inhabiting the body and memories of Dale Cooper), and so he hangs onto the reins. So the Fireman needs to enlist the aid of other paragons, such as Garland Briggs and Phillip Jeffries, until the arrives for Dale’s return. Thus begins a quarter of a century surrealist cold war.

When the time comes for Mr C to return to the Black Lodge and swap places with Cooper, his true machinations are revealed: he has created a Tulpa, Dougie Jones, a simpleton who works at an insurance firm in Las Vegas, married to a relative of Diane herself. When the summons to return to the Lodge goes out, Mr C fights it just long enough to ensnare Cooper inside the Dougie Tulpa, essentially doing a full factory reset on Coop, trapping him in a near vegetative childlike state. Jade gives two rides. The world turns.

As Mr C has his agents try to close the net on a weakened Coop, housed as he is inside the unflappable joy-fountain that is Dougie Jones, and as Dougie somehow manages to find allies to get him home, other individuals attuned to the needs of The Fireman (The Log Lady, Hawk, Freddie Sykes, Bobby Briggs, Andy and many more) are activated and begin preparations for the final conflict. Finally, in Episode 17, it is revealed that the coordinates fed to Mr C were, all along, designed to trap him in the one place all the good guys would be: the sheriff station. The good guys converge, and Cooper, now fully awake, arrives. Mr C is cornered.

He is hemmed in, attacked and destroyed. BOB is killed, and the husk of Mr C burns forever in the Black Lodge where he belongs. We also see him superimposed over this, indicating he is remembering this from somewhere in the future, or that he envisioned this would happen while in the lodge over the intervening 25 years – or perhaps that this is Cooper’s tulpa, watching the real Cooper in bewilderment from The Lodge, drinking it all in.

Having ensured everyone is safe and BOB vanquished, Dale can now finally enact the second stage of the plan as intended.

The plan is audacious: He plucks Laura Palmer away from her fate, and in doing so creates a pocket timeline of sorts – a timeline in which Laura never died. This enrages Judy (Jow-Day), whose rage manifests through the body she inhabits: Sarah Palmer. Judy then enters the pocket dimension to go after Laura (I suspect she is summoned there; we know Judy can be summoned by sex, as seen before the glass box in New York at the start of the season). The Fireman anticipated this move – to ensure Judy doesn’t find her mark, he hides Laura in this timeline as someone else, someone who can’t give away that she’s Laura because even she doesn’t know who she is. He gives Cooper directions on how to find her, which he does.

So Dale and Diane enter that world to rescue Laura. Dale was prepared for this (“Remember Richard and Linda”) and tries to warn Diane, but Diane can’t process or cope with the situation and leaves (and I hope she finds her way back). Dale finds Laura and takes her to her mother, in order to kill or negate Judy. They arrive at the Palmer Home, and meet Mrs Chalfont, a previously established denizen of the Black Lodge, and the convenience store. If she’s not Judy, she’s certainly guarding Judy. But Laura isn’t Laura, and Cooper leads her away.

At this point, he twigs that something is wrong, and asks what year it is. And just when it seems like all is lost, Laura hears something from her old bedroom, and finally remembers who she is. She screams, the memories flooding back, and the electricity – source of all power and life in Lynch’s worlds – that makes up the nest Judy has made, shorts out. Blows up. The pocket timeline detonates. Judy has been bested.

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer/Carrie Page in Twin Peaks. Photo: SHOWTIME

Over the credits, we see Cooper in the Lodge, with Laura whispering something in his ear. My suspicion is this: Laura tells him she knows her role in this plan. She knows she’s going to have to die.

Cooper has ensured his friends and loved ones are safe back in the other timeline – Twin Peaks is intact, BOB has been killed. Hawk, Bobby, Andy, Lucy, those who helped Dougie. And what of Cooper himself? Perhaps by shutting down the pocket timeline, he ensures he never left. Or perhaps his desire will be fulfilled; perhaps he’ll see them all again someday (not a stretch, given his skills). Or perhaps the tulpa he left with Janey and Sonny Jim is the real Cooper, and it’s his tulpa that went spelunking in Odessa, meaning the first scene in the series is a Coop tulpa being briefed for his mission.

Either way, the future isn’t nearly as dark or hopeless as people think. It’s the perfect level of “what comes next” to either leave us with a sense of hope and (admittedly nightmarish) adventure for Coop, or it’s the perfect place for a fourth season to pick up.

And what of the various loose threads? Allow me to quickly address a few.

Why do you think the “prime” timeline remained intact after Coop ran off with Laura?

Partially because I’m certain Lynch wouldn’t wipe out everything he’s crafted thus far. He’s a bold storyteller, he’s not a cruel one. But mostly, because Cooper wouldn’t do it; he wouldn’t save his friends and greet them just before wiping them out, before ensuring they never existed. And he sure as hell wouldn’t leave a version of himself with Janey and Sonny Jim, just to rip it away from them. That’s not Cooper, and it’s not Lynch. Lynch weaves a multiverse where concurrent realities can swirl and interact (just look at Inland Empire).

Why do you insist the ending, and the final episode, is actually hopeful? It’s so dark!

It’s dark because Cooper jumped into the body of someone else, and he’s essentially fighting to maintain enough of his old self to complete his mission. Cooper and Diane arrive and are essentially themselves; as they make love, things get dark. Judy is phasing in as they summon her whilst boning down. They sleep, and Cooper awakes in an entirely different hotel, alone, as this Richard character. But as the Dougie Jones trap proved, Cooper has the psychic fortitude to hang on to (most of) who he is. The hotel he and Diane arrive at, however, is a placeholder. Overnight, Judy fills the details of the world in around it, and perhaps “re-writes” Cooper as someone else, hoping he’ll lose the trail.

Kyle Mac:Lachlan and Sheryl Lee in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: SHOWTIME

He doesn’t. He follows the agreed upon markers and navigates a bleak “what-if”, against the current, drives through an uninhabited, backlot-esque dream of Snoqualmie, where Twin Peaks is shot, and delivers Laura to her destination. It’s a terrifying swim upstream, and they almost don’t make it. But they do make it. There’s a reason Cooper looks at the stopped clock in the Sheriff station and notes that, after BOB is vanquished, the time is “the time of completion”. It’s because THAT is where the story of Twin Peaks proper finishes. The pocket timeline is a foray into hell, and to win in hell is what Cooper has spent 25 years training for.

What about Audrey?

My theory on Audrey is this: the trauma she went through at the hands of Mr C, and effectively giving birth to the child of BOB, has trapped her between worlds, between dreams. And because she doesn’t know where she is exactly, she’s capable of accidentally affecting things, shaping things. This could explain why there are occasional time-jumps and inconsistencies in The Return: the denizens of Twin Peaks are living inside a world being gently warped and swayed by someone trapped in the past.

Sherilyn Fenn in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

And just like lucid dreaming tends to kick you out of the dream world shortly before you spring awake in bed, her exercising sudden, visceral control over her environment in front of so many real people – making them dance with her – is too much. And perhaps because her son has been vaporised, perhaps because BOB is about to die, it all collapses and she wakes up. Where? Who knows. Perhaps Odessa. Perhaps a fourth season, god willing, could reveal her ultimate fate.

Ugh. Paul, Coop said it himself: we live inside a dream. It was all a dream.

 In Lynch’s works, dreams are just other places. They’re as real as anything else. There’s no “and then I woke up”, there’s “and then, I was somewhere else”. No rug is pulled, everything is as real as everything else. That’s what makes Lynch so magical, and so unsettling.

And maybe that’s what The White Lodge is: home to all of the dreams, or the dreamers. Maybe that’s what those endless rows of bells are. Maybe that’s why Coop is allowed to pass between worlds: to combat nightmares like BOB and Judy.

So now that I’ve held your hand and walked you from uncertainty to what I hope is a modicum of chill regarding the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return, here’s a treat: I caught up with a handful of the cast of the show and asked for their thoughts on the finale. It’s important to note that these are their own interpretations and nothing to do whatsoever with David Lynch and Mark Frost’s intent! The cast watched at the same time as we did, and were just as lost, more often than not, as we were. As with everything else Lynch does, meaning is often in the eye of the beholder.

AMY SHIELS (CANDIE)

For me the ending of Season Three means whatever you want it to mean. I will spend many moments reflecting on the images we saw and the sounds we heard… however, mostly, I will relive that wonderful feeling of excitement in my chest every time I think of the line, “What year is this?!”

Because it awakened in me an excitement for what could come in the future, and what has happened in the past. A never ending cycle of adrenaline rush towards the unknown.

I love secrets.

Let’s be better assh*les.

JOSH FADEM (PHIL BISBY)

I am so fascinated with Kyle [MacLachlan]’s performance in the diner, at Carrie Page‘s door, and at Alice Tremond‘s door, as well Sheryl [Lee]’s performance at Carrie’s house and Alice’s. I keep watching it for clues. I love watching these actors! It’s like a brain puzzle and massage at the same time. There are so many subtle emotional turns they both make.

Each viewing creates a different interpretation, too. It feels like Cooper – in Odessa – is a hybrid of all the Coopers we’ve seen through the series, sometimes speaking soullessly like Mr. C, but also acting with good intentions and possessing the focus and drive of Cooper, but also bumbling and easily thrown like Dougie. If you watch carefully for Kyle’s distinct physicality he’s created for his characters, it appears all three Coopers are leaving the lodge at once.

I wouldn’t attempt to verbalise the meaning of the finale, but I keep revisiting this feeling that in the final episode, the two characters that are the hearts of the story, the ones that embody good… every version of them has melded together, into a struggle to maintain a sense of “self”. Their motives are grey, I cannot look away, even they seem at moments unsure where to go, Some things that happened for the first time seem to be happening again. But who knows where or when?

JAKE WARDLE (FREDDIE SYKES)

I get the feeling Part 17 is about happy endings and resolving things, giving the fans what they want – that would be to defeat evil and even preventing it from happening in the first place. It’s also about unlikely heroes. People were expecting (and some wanting) Cooper or another major character to vanquish Mr C and BOB from the world. However, Lucy of all people shot Mr C, and then a random unsuspecting looking British guy who was only properly introduced three episodes prior comes along and smashes evil BOB orb into oblivion with a magic green glove.

There were a lot of people who didn’t even notice or remember Freddie when he walked into The Roadhouse at the end of Part 2. He wasn’t even born (and neither was I) when BOB began his evil rampage in Twin Peaks. It shows that anyone can be a hero in the right place and right time. It also shows that you should not underestimate anyone.

As for the tail end of Part 17 and then all of Part 18… Well, I didn’t know what to make of it at first. I knew there was time travel and alternate universes involved, but that was about it. After watching it a few more times, it became more clear. It seemed like an episode of Doctor Who. In Doctor Who, there are these fixed points in time that cannot be changed (you cannot prevent World War II, for example, it has to happen whether you like it or not). I got that impression with Laura’s death. Even the moment she vanished in Cooper’s hands in the forest, and started screaming. It’s like the universe was saying, “Nope, sorry. That’s a fixed point in time, you can’t change that – and if you do, it’ll mess everything up”.

So those were my first independent thoughts before I read any other fan theories. After reading the sync theory, where you watch Part 17-18 in sync, It made a lot more sense and I really liked it. So I’m going to go with that one for now. It contradicts a bit of my original theory about ep 18 but that’s fine. I think it’s the most logical theory I’ve seen so far. Although there are so many I’ve not had a chance to read them all yet. I love how subjective it all is!

All seasons of Twin Peaks are available to stream exclusively on Stan on now.

Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC ME and of the weekly gaming podcast, 28 Plays Later. His first novel, Loose Units, is out through Penguin Publishing in late 2018.