One of the most unexpectedly powerful moments in Twin Peaks: The Return, a series that gave us many poignant scenes, involved none other than Carl Rodd. Harry Dean Stanton’s character, who we had previously seen stealing the show as the grouchy manager of the Fat Trout Trailer Park in the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has changed a lot since we last saw him. Other than the usual signs of ageing, he seemed a little more relaxed and generous, and while his exhaustion is still present, now it seems more melancholic than beleaguered.
Carl sits down on a park bench with a cigarette in one hand a coffee in the other. He sighs and looks up at the sunlight flickering through the trees, listening to the birdsong and the gentle shift of the leaves in the wind. It looks as if a smile is struggling to surface under the weight of a lifetime, and he can’t help but stare at the nature that has remained just as beautiful and bewildering. He notices a woman and her young son playing a game. Stopping and starting, they chase each other along the path, laughing with joy. A smile breaks on his face, and he contentedly takes another sip of his coffee. Minutes later, he’s comforting the mother as she cradles her son’s lifeless body in her arms.
“Not much I got to look forward to at my age,” Carl remarked in an earlier scene, “except the hammer slamming down.” Yet now Carl sees the hammer has come down on someone else, a child with his whole life ahead of him. He spots a light emerge from the boy, an inexplicable flickering yellow flame floating up into the sky like a soul to heaven. It’s unfair, confounding, and deeply sad. You can see all of this in Harry Dean Stanton’s face. Nine weeks and three days after this episode aired, he passed away.
Stanton, a long-time collaborator and friend to David Lynch, as well as one of the world’s most accomplished actors, is not the only castmember of The Return to pass away in the last 25 years. Many of the episodes had ‘in memory of’ credits to those close to the show who are no longer with us: Jack Nance, who played Pete; Catherine Coulson, who played The Log Lady; Frank Silva, who played Bob; David Bowie, who played Phillip Jeffries; Don S. Davis, who played Garland Briggs; and Miguel Ferrer, who played Albert.
Many of us were surprised to see the Log Lady or Albert on the screen once more, with every scene tinted with the sadness that the next scene could be their last. One of the most interesting things about The Return is the fact that this isn’t entirely outside the text, as the show directly dealt with the meaning and overwhelming sensation of ageing, the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Even the song that closes the two-part premiere of this season was entrenched in this feeling of finality, as The Chromatics words are repeated over and over: ‘For the last time’.
Even the more light-hearted moments of the show ended up being permeated with this feeling. While viewers were alternately frustrated and entertained by the slapstick escapades of Dougie Jones, we were reminded of the tragedy of 25 years lost as he stands for hours staring at the statue outside his workplace, the image of the lawman he used to be. Similarly, Mike interrupts Dougie’s story to plead with what is left of Cooper:
“Wake up. Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die.”
Twin Peaks co-creators Mark Frost and David Lynch are now 63 and 71 respectively, and the idea of returning to the show over two decades later, as older men with an older cast, is not lost on them. Lynch’s own character Gordon Cole is a mouthpiece for much of this, culminating in a wonderful scene between him and his protégé Albert at the end of Part 4. They have both been searching for Dale Cooper for 25 years, and now they found him, something is wrong.
Talking together, as friends with years of regrets behind them, desperately searching to put things right. The scene is a mournful blue as they admit the mistakes they have made, and lament the fellow agents they have lost. Gordon is at his most vulnerable when he says:
“I hate to admit this, but I don’t understand this situation at all.”
Pointing out the absurdity of a situation is often used as a joke on the show, but here it becomes heartbreaking. Like Carl looking up at the trees, they still don’t understand the world they have lived in, regardless of how many years they have spent trying.
A number of side characters in The Return are dealing with death and ageing in different ways. There’s the scene we spend with Beverley and her husband, somewhat separate from the rest of the show, but still a powerful portrayal of the effect of chronic debilitating illness on a marriage. We learn that Frank Truman’s frantic other half is that way partially because of the death of her son. Elsewhere Shelly finds herself falling for the trick of the bad boy once again, while Bobby has grown from that role into something far more respectable.
Mike Nelson rejects Bobby’s son-in-law Steven in a job interview, having transformed from the trouble-maker to the stern manager of a car dealership. Meeting Steven here, he is hopeless, and we go on to learn he is dependent on drugs and grotesquely abusive to his wife Becky. Then we see that he is having an affair with another woman – none of which endears us to him in the slightest. Yet the last time we see him, he is on the edge of despair, his cruelty remaining yet his vulnerability shining through.
His final words are jumbled mutterings, littered with insulting comments to Gretchen, but certain phrases make it through that suggest regret, failure, and a surrender to unknown, even if the prospect of death is terrifying. Phrases like “I’m a high school graduate,” “I may not even see you there,” “Where will I be?” and “This is the end” keep the specifics out of reach, but his mental state is clear. We hear a gunshot, and assume suicide. His death came without certitude, but terror at the idea of there being nothing on the other side.
This fear of death, of any ultimate conclusion, is something all these aforementioned characters are confronting in some way or another. It’s clearest with Catherine Coulson’s character Margaret, or as most know her, the Log Lady. Coulson, who has been a part of David Lynch’s career since they met in 1971, died of complications from cancer in September 2015. It was a big surprise to see her appear at all in The Return, and incredible that she committed to spending her final time on film dealing directly with her impending death.
Her head shaved short and an oxygen tubes in her nose, she dispenses wisdom to Hawk, her connection to the supernatural still present. Her face and voice are much more pained this time, and she repeatedly calls Hawk’s name, as if searching for him through a fog. In her final scene, she relays a final message:
“You know about death, that it’s just a change, not an end. Hawk, it’s time. There’s some fear, some fear in letting go […] Hawk, my log is turning gold. The wind is moaning. I’m dying. Good night, Hawk.”
That fear of letting go, even knowing that what seems like the end may not be, is the same fear that Steven showed, though her acceptance and honesty in the face of fear made her departure far more graceful. Isn’t it this same fear that drives Cooper to right the wrongs of the past in the season’s final episodes?
Dale is a good man, through and through, but here he shows his inability to relinquish power to the unknown, unable to accept death as a change, rather than an end. He doesn’t want the horrific abuse and murder of Laura Palmer to simply be ‘the story of the little girl who lived down the lane,’ and refuses to leave the case behind without healing the original wounds that started it all.
Time in the show is far from linear, as the symbol Jeffries shows Cooper, of a circle travelling an infinite loop, reminded us; but that’s how we experience it. Humans deal with these struggles as other beings speak to them in ways they can barely understand, and Cooper is wrong to think he can fight his way completely out of the darkness.
Twin Peaks, at its heart, has always been about the irresolution of grief. The town was torn asunder by a murder beyond their comprehension, and it sent ripples across the psychic waters of its residents that will last with them until the end. Death is not a mystery that can be solved; it stands as stoic and unwavering as it does upon our first discovery of its presence in the world. Steven ran to its arms in desperation, Cooper denied it, and many others are tangled up trying to understand it. Margaret Lanterman, who was the only character to receive her own ‘in memory of’ place in the credits, chose to accept it.