[spoilers for potentially EVERYTHING Twin Peaks]
Watching Twin Peaks Season 3 week-to-week was one of the most incredible viewing experiences of my life. It is quite possibly the richest, most rewarding, challenging television I’ve ever seen, and while it frustrated me at times, I rarely doubted that I loved it. That is, until the final episode, which messed with my head so thoroughly, it took months for me to sort through my feelings. In many ways, I respected the hell out of that ending, if only because I don’t think I’ve ever grappled with any narrative twist on a show, film, work of theatre, or book to the extent that I did with this one. ‘What year is this?’ The lights of that painfully familiar house extinguishing. And that scream. That indelible, unmistakable, soul-wrenching scream, Laura Palmer once more not resting in peace.
But what troubled me more than any other aspect–more than the seeming lack of closure, more than the disquieting abruptness, more than the idea of leaving these characters in such an unhappy place–was the fact that David Lynch had already given these characters a happy ending of sorts in Fire Walk With Me. Although she suffered the same horrific death we knew she must (but still, until that last moment, hoped she could somehow avoid), Laura ascended into a state of grace, peace, relief, and even joy. Despite the sadness of her young life being cut short, she still managed to triumph over the demon that had been tormenting her for years, not allowing him to possess her, and upon reaching the afterlife, she was greeted by the kind Agent Cooper, who was there to help her transition to her next state of being and guide her to the angel she had feared herself unworthy of.
In one fell swoop, both Laura and Dale were allowed an uplifting denouement despite their otherwise tragic states. Laura still died but she was able to succeed and move on from her pain. Dale was still trapped in the Lodge, replaced by a doppelganger on our plane, and yet the lack of linear time in the Lodge allowed him to help Laura when she needed him in a way he was unable to do on Earth. Fire Walk With Me gave both of these characters closure. But The Return seemed to take that away.
And that was a difficult pill to swallow. Again, not only because it was a bummer, but also because I had trouble understanding what the purpose was. Particularly given that, although many people argued that the show was bleak and downbeat throughout, I always found Season 3 to have a great deal of grace and warmth. Characters, old and new, such as Janey-E, the Mitchum Brothers, Candie, the ‘Mr. Jackpots’ Lady, Nadine, Big Ed, Norma, Andy, Lucy, Bobby, Shelly, Audrey, Diane, and more were ultimately treated with such love and, yes, even hope, sometimes despite initially harsh and/or unlikable introductions and moments, that I had trouble reconciling that with an ending that, on the surface, seemed to uproot every positive thing that happened before it.
Also, later on, as I started to think about the final two parts of The Return, one thing stuck out to me as not making sense (I know, one thing?!), and that is the fact that, in the black-and-white flashback to Fire Walk With Me, we learn that the mysterious thing that momentarily startles Laura in the woods had actually been Coop this entire time. Yet how could that be when, in Fire Walk With Me, he doesn’t interrupt the original flow of events–Laura goes to the cabin with Ronette, Leland/BOB follows her there, terrible things happen, and ultimately Laura dies in the boxcar?
And then I remembered that many people have theorised that, although Coop seems to have failed at the end of Part 18, that that doesn’t necessarily mean an ultimate failure–that the story is a circle and he will have other chances to set things right. Perhaps this next time, he will listen to the Fireman’s warning at the very start of Part 1: ‘Remember 4-3-0. Richard and Linda. Two birds, one stone.’ And actually, it’s very possible that the first scene of Season 3 is chronologically its last. When the Fireman tells Coop, ‘It is in our house now’, that could directly comment on ‘Mrs. Chalfont’/’Tremond’/Judy/Jowday taking over the Palmer house. And these references to events that crop up in the finale could be warnings to Coop of what not to do again after they ended so disastrously the last time. One could easily imagine this scene happening almost immediately after the finale, the Fireman pulling Coop back to this room after he’s hopefully learned from his failure, and then sending him back to try again.
Additionally, Lynch and Frost have indicated that Fire Walk With Me is a major key to unlocking The Return, which is no surprise, given how much of its mythology comes not just from the original Twin Peaks but that film. Note the prominence in the narrative of elements such as Phillip Jeffries, Carl Rodd, the convenience store over the gas station (referenced in the original show but given much stronger mythological significance in FWWM), Judy, etc. But, again, one of the most striking aspects of the film is how it plays with time. It’s both a prequel and a sequel to Twin Peaks, thanks to the Lodge’s lack of linear time. And I think that that might be the answer to what is really going on here. Why did Laura see Coop in the woods in FWWM and yet continue towards the fate we always knew? Why did The Return return Laura to a haunted state after a glorious ascendance?
After a lot of consideration, the conclusion I’ve come up with is that The Return doesn’t rob Laura or Coop of a ‘happy ending’ because FWWM actually takes place after Season 3. In Part 17, Coop made the mistake of trying to literally save Laura from her fate and in so doing doomed both of them and possibly the entire world. In FWWM, however, when Coop finds himself in the woods again, once more poised on the brink of stopping Laura, he makes the different, heartbreaking, yet necessary choice of standing there and allowing events to play out as they originally did.
On a pure comfort level, I obviously like this concept because, thanks to the final scene of FWWM, it allows the story to not end on such a seemingly bleak note. And yet, the more I think about it, the more sense I think it makes structurally and thematically. For one, it allows the bleakness of The Return’s ending to coexist with FWWM without feeling like either is invalidating the other. The idea of Laura’s death continuing to haunt the world of the series is a powerful one, and The Return’s ending reasserts that. At the same time, placing FWWM after it allows the Laura of that film to retain her agency, without feeling like Cooper has ruined the peace she has finally found and dropped her into a nightmarescape.
And it also helps to explain another dangling question from Fire Walk With Me, namely why and how Coop goes from beseeching Laura to not take the ring to being someone who stands by her and offers silent comfort when she dies, essentially acting as her other angel. Whereas earlier on, he seemed to be actively trying to change the course of history, by the end, he is a calm, wise Lodge figure, expressing neither sorrow nor regret at her passing but instead simply wanting to help best make her passage smooth and rewarding for her. In The Return, Coop actually does manage to alter history, and it ends up being a disaster, and yet by the end, he seems to have realised he was wrong, or at least to be on the way to that realisation (Who knows how many times he might attempt variations on saving her before learning his lesson? The Return might not even be the first time, depending on how much or little memory Coop retains on each go-round.).
But this, then, is what I think: the Coop who enters Laura’s dream and begs her not to take the ring is a pre-Return incarnation. Because he isn’t able to sway Laura via that sort of interference, when he finally gets the chance to literally turn back time in The Return, he takes that opportunity by more directly forcing events the way he thinks they should have gone. Only when that doesn’t work either (however many variations that might take) does he ultimately assume the role he should have all along, simply being there to observe and comfort. Letting go is the lesson he finally learns that allows him to help Laura find rest. The first time around, Laura ages in the Lodge, because she is not at rest. Her soul continues to rage at what happened to her. This is also why Coop encounters a screaming Laura in the season 2 finale, even ‘after’ she should have ascended in FWWM–chronologically, that is, for whatever that’s worth in the Lodge. It’s only once Coop learns his lesson, goes back, and doesn’t interfere that he can be there to help Laura find her peace.
I feel that this symbiosis is important, as it speaks to the frisson and deep, mythic charge that seems to occur whenever the two characters are on screen together. Laura and Coop both have to achieve this sense of self-realisation in order for the magic to occur that sends Laura to her higher plane of joy and acceptance. That is what I believe was really happening when Leland asked Coop to ‘Find Laura’. Because of the timey wimeyness of the Lodge, Coop heard this message after he, Coop, had already caused Laura to disappear from the Lodge by having taken her out of time later (confusing, I know), and that’s ironically what sets Coop on his mission that ultimately leads him to the very actions that cause her disappearance in the first place…and yet, it’s due to a misinterpretation on Coop’s part. By ‘Find Laura’, Leland actually meant for Coop to go to her at the point right after her death and find her there/help her find herself, so she could move on.
For me, this also helps explain Dougie even further. Throughout The Return, Dougie seems to impact the broken Las Vegas world around him and make it a better place simply by being there. His presence alone alters events, even though he himself is barely capable of communicating. He basically just observes, and yet numerous people begin to owe their newfound happiness to him. He seems to perfectly embody the Chinese Taoist concept of ‘Pu’ or the ‘uncarved block,’ which according to Elisabeth Reninger on ThoughtCo.com, ‘refers to a state of pure potential which is the primordial condition of the mind before the arising of experience…Closely connected to this…[is] the idea of Wu Wei–effective action through non-action. To Taoists…ethical life involved not exercising human willpower over one’s self and others, but in quiet acquiescence to the power of the Tao’, or ‘the Way’, in other words the flow of the universe.
The universe seems to practically set itself right when Dougie is around, even though our instincts as viewers, at least throughout the early part of his arc, is to practically beg for Agent Cooper to return, while the show insists on leaving us with this essentially catatonic imposter in his place. And yet, in many ways, through inaction, he achieves the sense of spiritual oneness with the universe that Coop always longed for through his studies of Buddhism, Tibet, etc. and in so doing indirectly helps others find their spiritual centre.
But as soon as Coop returns, we rejoice that our Man of Action is finally back to Set Things Right in Twin Peaks, even though Dougie had managed that effortlessly in Vegas. And he then proceeds to royally fuck things up. Dougie wasn’t a meaningless diversion that protracted Coop’s return to us, but was actually a lesson that Coop failed to heed his first time around. I wouldn’t even put it past the ‘good’ Lodge spirits to have set up the entire chain of events to help Coop get over his White Knight complex. They know he has to be there for Laura but that in order for that to happen, he first has to learn to accept her death and accept the fact that he can’t save her, and so they enact an elaborate plan, allowing Mr C. to go about his own plans, knowing that they will ultimately lead to Dougie, helping facilitate Coop along his own spiritual journey. Taking 25 years to set the world right would be nothing to interdimensional beings that live outside of the regular flow of time. And so by the end of FWWM, Dale finally takes all of the lessons of The Return to heart and returns to the beginning to save Laura by not saving her.
If Fire Walk With Me helps fill in the blanks of Laura Palmer’s previously untold journey in Twin Peaks, Season 3 helps explain how Coop evolves from the hero who has the obsessive need to always save the day, who suffers untold psychological guilt and damage each time he fails to live up to the impossible standards he sets for himself, into someone who understands that simply being there for someone and listening to their needs can be more heroic and meaningful to a person than constantly trying to ‘fix’ them.
It’s entirely possible that this isn’t what Lynch and Frost intended but, at the same time, I feel that with this explanation, unlike some of the more elaborate theories I’ve seen, all of the evidence can be found right there in the text, and it doesn’t twist itself into knots trying to make every single Lynchian element fit perfectly into a master scheme. Unsolved and unexplainable mystery threads are crucial to Twin Peaks’ narrative and, for me, this more helps reconcile some of the emotional confusion surrounding the meaning behind Coop and Laura’s arcs rather than tries to make every piece fall into place like a puzzlebox, which has absolutely never been what Twin Peaks is about. Both Fire Walk With Me and, to an even greater extent, The Return actively encourage viewers to look beyond traditional, linear, chronological storytelling, and the idea of giving us a continuation to Twin Peaks that basically reinforces the much-maligned film prequel/sequel, establishing it as having been the actual definitive ending to the saga all along, feels very in keeping with that thesis.
It also performs the neat function of this one film now sitting chronologically in three spots in the series’ narrative–before the pilot (as it tells the story of the last days of Laura Palmer’s life), after the second season finale, which was the final episode of Twin Peaks for over 25 years (because of Dale being in the Lodge, and his earlier attempts in the film to sway the course of Laura’s life), and, if I’m correct, also after the current series finale, as he finally decides to not interfere, thus possibly setting the world of Twin Peaks right after all these years.