A couple days before the premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return, I wrote a poll on Twitter. At the time, no one had seen more than a handful of images from the show, none of them particularly informative about what viewers should have expected from it. In the poll, I asked what previous David Lynch project The Return would most likely resemble. Would it recapture the creative heights and more broadly popular tone of the show’s first season? Would it take more from the darker and more erratic prequel film Fire Walk With Me? Perhaps we’d see something akin to Inland Empire, Lynch’s most recent feature film. Or maybe (and this was the number one prediction) it would be something entirely new. With no major work from Lynch in over a decade, it was impossible to gauge where he was as an artist. It was this, more than the sparse and context-free trailers, that made The Return such an exciting prospect.
Looking back on that poll now that the season has concluded, it’s funny to think that not one of the possible answers I gave was entirely correct. The Return is an amalgam of Lynch’s entire career. One unexpectedly prominent touchstone turned out to be Lost Highway. Moody shots of car headlights illuminating pitch-black streets are shown again and again, typically in relation to the sinister doppelganger of the main character. Practical effects made all the more terrifying by their homemade quality call back to Eraserhead and Lynch’s early short films. Rebekah del Rio from Mulholland Drive shows up for another musical performance, as does Trent Reznor’s “The” Nine Inch Nails, a frequent musical collaborator.
And it’s not just his films; he revisits and revitalizes motifs and ideas from his paintings, his commercials, his music, even his public appearances. A shot of smoke billowing out of a blackened convenience store recalls an old ad for cigarettes. An “ancient phrase” relayed to a character in a dream can be found in Lynch’s introduction to a screening of Inland Empire. A ambient drone in the background of one scene is a slowed-down version of the track “Last Call” off his 2013 album The Big Dream.
It would be a disservice to The Return to discuss it as merely Lynch’s greatest hits compilation, a self-indulgent victory lap at the end of a four-decade career. But how does one begin to discuss a work of such enormity? It’s full to bursting with things to think and talk about. Unpacking every hour it over the course of this past summer has been one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had with any film or TV show. I can’t hope to tackle every aspect of The Return in one essay. Its running exploration of the opioid epidemic, for example, requires an article of its own, as does its phenomenal score. I’m going to look at the things about this season that stuck out to me, and I’m almost certainly going to leave some out by mistake. That’s the nature of tackling a work like this, but it’s also what makes it so much fun.
To help define what The Return is, let’s look at what it isn’t. It is decidedly not the story of Dale Cooper, at least not the Dale Cooper we think we remember, or the story we want to be told. There are actually five different Coopers over the course of the season. First we have the Cooper we know, who has spent 25 years trapped in the Black Lodge. Then we have Cooper’s doppelganger, also known as Mr. C, who has spent those 25 years running rampant and committing heinous crimes with the supernatural assistance of Killer BOB. There’s also Dougie Jones, a third copy of Cooper created by Mr. C to return to the Black Lodge in his place when his time in the real world runs out. After Dougie swaps places with Cooper, Cooper’s mind is wiped, and he spends most of the season in a fugue state being guided by visions of MIKE and The Arm. This is the fourth version of Cooper, as much a manifestation of his id as Mr. C, but entirely good-natured. In the final episode, we get yet another Cooper, a sort of amalgam of the original and the doppelganger. All of these Coopers are played by Kyle MacLachlan, in what is undeniably one of the greatest screen performances ever. As each episode cut between the hapless Dougie-Coop and the sinister Mr. C, I kept forgetting that MacLachlan was playing both of them.
The Return’s treatment of Cooper is one of its most fascinating choices. He was the most iconic character from the original series, and the second season’s cliffhanger ending hinged almost entirely on his fate. Rather than spending 18 hours with this version of Cooper, The Return quite literally breaks down his character and shines a light on all his virtues and flaws. As Dougie, Cooper is an unbridled force for good. Guided by his allies in the Black Lodge, he improves the lives of everyone he meets. He wins enough money at the casino to pay off the debts hanging over Dougie and his wife Janey-E, he exposes the crooked dealings of one of Dougie’s co-workers to their boss, and he helps the Mitchum brothers (a pair of mobbed-up thugs with hearts of gold) get a whopping insurance payout. He can’t help but help people, and his karmic reward is protection from the many people who want him dead. It’s almost a parodic take on the Cooper of old, a man whose final regret when he believed himself to be dying was that he could have been kinder to others.
Then there’s Mr. C, who resembles the “real” Cooper more than fans may want to admit. Cooper’s familiar determination and single-minded pursuit of his goals can be found in his doppelganger. Mr. C is more ruthless and violent, but the key difference is in their justifications. Mr. C makes this distinction very clear in “Part 1,” when he snaps at his subordinate Ray for saying that he needs a set of coordinates. “The first thing you should know about me,” he snarls, “is that I don’t need anything. I want.” Cooper always seemed to be on the side of justice and righteousness. Mr. C fights for himself and his desires.
The Return’s uncomfortable message to fans is that the original Cooper isn’t so different from his doppelganger after all. By the end of the season, it’s revealed that both of them had been chasing the same thing all along: the malevolent force known as Judy which gave birth to BOB and may be inhabiting Sarah Palmer. The comparison between the two gets darker still when Cooper travels back in time to try and prevent Laura from ever being killed. At this point, both Mr. C and BOB have been permanently destroyed. What was wrong with the world has been made right. But Cooper can’t leave it at that. He can’t accept a peaceful world that was built on death and pain. So he tries to rewrite history and prevent the original sin. It’s not something the world needs. It’s something Cooper wants. This turns out to be his undoing, his tragic flaw. As he ends the season trapped in an unfamiliar alternate world, having dragged a version of Laura back to what he thinks is the Palmer household and accomplished nothing but reawakening all of her trauma and turmoil. The series ends on Laura’s familiar blood-curdling shriek, as the memories of her anguish all come flooding back.
That scream is what Twin Peaks has always been about. Laura’s pain and suffering is the bedrock of the story, even long after her killer is caught. Even though Sheryl Lee is absent for most of The Return, her ghostly image still appears at the beginning of every episode, hovering ominously over the town like a never-ending accusation. In the final scene of Fire Walk with Me, when Laura first appears in the Black Lodge after being murdered, she sees the angel who earlier had disappeared from the painting in her bedroom. She cries tears of joy. Her long ordeal is finally over. In attempting to prevent her death, Cooper plans to deliver her back to the doorstep of her torturer, to rip her out of the spiritual plane and imprison her again on Earth. I think Cooper even witnesses this in “Part 2,” when Laura is whisked away screaming by some unknown force. Cooper may have the best of intentions, but even Mr. C isn’t shown doing anything as cruel as that. Actually, Mr. C is never shown killing anyone who isn’t already morally compromised. That doesn’t justify murder, of course, and we know he’s a rapist. But as far as he’s depicted on-screen, is he ever seen doing something utterly unjustifiable? Once again, we see that the distance between him and Cooper is smaller than we’d like to admit.
As Cooper leads Laura through the forest at the end of “Part 17,” he keeps looking back at her. It’s like he thinks she’ll disappear the moment he loses sight of her, like his observance of her is what’s keeping her fixed in reality. Visually, it’s clearly meant to recall the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Eurydice dies of a snake bite, her husband Orpheus travels to the Underworld to get her back. Hades makes him a deal: If he can lead her out of the Underworld without looking back at her until they reach the surface, she can stay in the world of the living. When Orpheus crosses the threshold, he looks back at Eurydice, but she hasn’t crossed over yet and is torn back into the Underworld for good. Cooper takes his one opportunity to lead Laura out of the Underworld, but he can’t resist looking back at her, and consequently she’s pulled away from him forever. Both Cooper’s and Orpheus’ quests ultimately have nothing to do with the women they’re trying to save. They’re about what the two of them feel they have lost and deserve to get back. It’s not an ignoble goal. It is a wrongheaded one. Both Laura and Eurydice deserve to stay at rest.
In a way, that might make The Return an indictment of itself, an 18-hour swipe at the idea of resurrecting Twin Peaks. The Return is so much more than just a reboot or a sequel. It’s an entirely new take on the core concepts of this series, plus a cornucopia of brand new ideas. The viewers who went in expecting it to pick up where it left off had reason to be a little confused and disappointed early on. It’s okay to grieve after something is lost. But it’s the inability to let go of the past and embrace the future that ends up being Cooper’s tragic flaw, and that same flaw deprived so many people of the most exciting work of cinematic art in ages. The Return isn’t a sequel to Twin Peaks. It’s an evolution of it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. When I wrote about Fire Walk With Me a couple weeks ago, I called it Lynch’s masterpiece. The Return is something even greater. It’s a masterpiece of its medium, standing shoulder to shoulder with the best film and television has to offer.