When the original run of Twin Peaks was cancelled in 1991 the show’s creators Mark Frost and David Lynch chose to conclude their narrative with one of the most controversial final images in television history. The hero of their series, Dale Cooper, had returned from a brief journey into a surreal nether-realm inhabited by demonic spirits, but it was clear he had come back a profoundly changed man. In the last seconds of the series, Cooper, now possessed by an evil spirit known as ‘Bob’, smashed his head into a bathroom mirror and stared through at his cracked reflection, letting out a maniacal, mocking laugh.
It was a gruesome ending, a cruel ending, one that seemed designed to hurt the show’s most loyal fans, leaving them in an unresolved state of shock. But with the continuation of the Frost and Lynch’s story in Twin Peaks: The Return (currently screening on Showtime in a limited series) this ending has been thoroughly recontextualised, remaking the shape and theme of the entire series.
In its original form Twin Peaks was a reaction to the conventions of ’80s television. Suffused with the tropes and stylistic devices of programming institutions like Dallas and St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks presented a familiar tableau of impossibly beautiful people embroiled in all manner of schemes and illicit affairs. Its characters swooned in mopey romantic melodrama (see the entire relationship of Donna and James) or connived to incriminate or murder one another (plots twists that were often echoed in the satirical play-within-a-play daytime soap opera Invitation to Love, seen playing on televisions within the Twin Peaks universe).
Beneath these familiar conventions, however, a roiling surrealistic horror story gradually clawed its way out of the pretty façade. As the townspeople of Twin Peaks investigated the death of Laura Palmer, aided by FBI investigator Dale Cooper, each episode gradually unfolded more physical and psychological trauma in the form of incest, rape, emotional abuse, multiple personality disorder, and violent psychosis. Like his film Blue Velvet before it, Lynch explored the corruption that can lurk, unspoken, behind the fantasy of suburban Americana; although in Twin Peaks he went even further, eventually embroiling his characters in a gothic tale of murderous possessing spirits lurking in the wilderness of the Jungian communal unconscious.
Over two seasons the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death was solved, but that pursuit — as the final, shocking image of the series declared — left agent Cooper possessed and its audience adrift. Frost and Lynch appeared to be saying that evil had triumphed; that the most virtuous of men had been corrupted, lost in his quest to comprehend the darkness that lurks beneath society’s veneer of normality. It was an audacious, haunting statement, one that took the conceit of the entire series — the allure of exploring the subconscious unknown — and revealed it a fool’s errand. The price of seeking to confront the darkness inside ourselves was seemingly only more death and carnage.
Even when the series briefly returned as a cinematic event one year later as Fire Walk With Me, the narrative did not continue on from that endpoint, but rather presented a prequel to the original series. Whereas the show had concentrated upon the aftermath of the death of Laura Palmer, drawing a portrait of a young, troubled woman by tracing around the negative space of her absence with the myriad perspectives of the friends and family who knew her, the film depicted Palmer as a trapped, traumatised victim in the days immediately leading up to her murder. Unlike the series’ more palatable blend of absurdism and horror, Fire Walk With Me plays more as a surrealist snuff film. It was a claustrophobic experience, concentrating upon the incestuous sexual abuse and psychological torment Palmer suffers until she is literally strangled to death by evil.
Although the film alludes to possible future events in the form of a dream, in narrative terms it continued to leave the viewer, like Palmer, trapped without resolution. For two and a half decades, that was how the story remained, until now.
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With Twin Peaks’ return to television screens, the series is no longer subverting the soap opera stylings of the late ’80s, but rather responding to the prestige serialised format that it once initiated. Having been a clear inspiration for genre defining programs as diverse as The Sopranos, The X-Files, Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Lost, having been endlessly parodied and shown deference by shows like Gravity Falls, Saturday Night Live, Northern Exposure and The Simpsons, Twin Peaks was able to steer even further into its idiosyncratic Lynchian collision of surrealist dreamscapes and absurdist personality quirks without network television restrictions, but it was also now compelled to grapple with its own legacy.
Twin Peaks — as its very name has always implied — is ultimately about duality. About the duality of good and evil in every soul; of the symbiotic nature of family man Leland Palmer and the abusive spirit ‘Bob’ that possessed him; of the disparity between the angelic image of Laura Palmer that her hometown embraced and the unhinged, emotionally damaged person that she was in her private life; of the idyllic Americana town and the seedy, violent underbelly lurking beneath its bright smiles and cherry pie. Now the series is able to explore this yin and yang in its own structure.
With the return of Twin Peaks, the image with which the original series concluded — a cracked mirror and the twisted visage of Bob-Cooper — now presents a different thesis statement for the entire narrative. No longer the end but instead the midpoint of the tale, this portrait of two faces confronting each other through a shattered screen becomes the pivot for a re-examination of both text and audience.
As the return series has played out it is clear that it now operates as a twisted reflection of its first iteration, with even their narratives, and the principle character Dale Cooper, playing this out. In the original series, the plot begins as a straightforward murder mystery, only gradually, over the course of several episodes, revealing its true nature as a gothic nightmare of mysticism and prophesies. It ends in a penetration of the metaphysical as Cooper enters the Black Lodge spirit world, a space heretofore only glimpsed in the dream. In contrast, the new series begins already in that mystical space, taking several episodes to seemingly return to the world of relative normality.
Similarly, in the original Twin Peaks, Cooper begins his journey as an upright, impartial agent of the law and devout believer in Tibetan Buddhism. Over the course of the series, however, his legal and spiritual detachment becomes steadily compromised. He develops a brief attraction to schoolgirl Audrey Horne; becomes fixated on the manifest evil of Bob; pursues revenge against Windom Earle; is haunted by his relationship with a previous lover, and is tempted by his attraction to another. The once stoic Cooper eventually loses himself entirely, drawn by his attachments to the world into the Black Lodge where he is overtaken by Bob. (Indeed, ‘Bob’, too, is a perfect representation of the theme of reflection in the series: a palindrome with a void in the middle…)
The new series reveals that Cooper has spent the past 25 years trapped in a metaphysical spirit world, divorced entirely from those distractions of the flesh that once damned him. In his return to Earth, he is deposited into the life of a doppelganger, Dougie Jones, but for the majority of the season has remained a bewildered figure, capable only of mirroring back what others say — his parrot speech mistakenly intuited by others as meaningful.
Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in the new series.
Pointedly, as he tries to reclaim himself through a fog, Dougie-Cooper becomes an audience surrogate for the experience of watching the new season — no doubt to the frustration of many members of the audience. While Cooper shuffles awkwardly through the life of the man he now inhabits, a stranger to himself in his reborn state, he is sustained by the iconography of his previous existence. The symbolism of a lawman drawing his gun; the shimmer of a police badge; the sound of the American national anthem; the taste of ‘damn fine’ coffee and cherry pie; the feel of a tight black suit across his shoulders; each episode tantalises both Dale-as-Dougie and the viewer with remembrances of the show that once was.
Looking at this glacial return of the Cooper character unfavourably (as of this writing, 11 episodes into the 18, he remains adrift), one might be inclined to argue that Lynch and Frost are mocking their fans, reflecting their audience’s longings back at them as a criticism. For any fans who longed for the return of the series to be little more than a reprisal of old memes — red curtains and black coffee and a young girl wrapped in plastic — Dougie-Cooper shuffling mindlessly through the iconography of the original text appears to be representative of the creative stagnation such a constrained revival would present. If the show were merely to operate as a wellspring of nostalgic signifiers, then raising it from the grave would be redundant.
Looked upon more favourably, however, Dougie-Cooper’s journey mirrors the tenacity of the show’s fans, who for two and a half decades, while their series lay suspended, could do little more than celebrate what they remembered of their show, while always hoping for something new. From such a perspective, Dougie-Cooper drinks deep of the familiar, encouraged onward by glimpsed dreams of one-armed, backward talking spirits, in order to sustain his return to a thoroughly unfamiliar world.
This is because return — and the implications of returning to a place that has changed in your absence — is at the heart of this new series. It’s so integral to the theme that it is actually in the title. This is not just Twin Peaks, or Twin Peaks part 2, it is Twin Peaks: The Return. It is about the nature of return itself. Of returning to a place. Returning to memories of what was once familiar. Returning to the person one was long ago.
Twin Peaks, as both a narrative and text, is able to offer itself up as unique example of the difficulties such a return presents, with Lynch and Frost revealing the way in which reflection necessarily returns an altered vision back at us, our perception changed in the act of looking. We peer into the show presuming to know what it is and what it should look like, only to receive back a cracked image that continues to frustrate our expectations.
In its original series run, Twin Peaks was about the search to understand the undercurrent of psychological darkness beneath the mask of civility. Lynch and Frost created a world of nostalgic Americana so that we, the audience, could watch Cooper descend through the comforting layers of a soap opera into the horrors that stir such narratives into being. The series return denies the audience such a distancing objectivity. Twin Peaks is no longer the subversive surprise upending the comforts of procedural, predictable television. It is a product of its own mythos; of its audience’s desire to continue that journey, longing for the familiar and yet hungry for the new. The nostalgia it seeks to erode is no longer abstract: it is part of the text itself.
The act of watching has changed both audience and text. We stare at ourselves in the mirror of our television screens. The darkness is in us. The longing to reclaim what is lost — and the revelation that this might not be possible — continues to haunt. Whether Cooper, the audience, and the text can defy the darkness that threatens them and reclaim the light that began the series remains to be seen. In the coming weeks a new final image will conclude this three decades long narrative. What it will reflect about its audience and its own legacy is the real mystery that the show was always trying to solve.