Twin Peaks gave us a moving meditation on death

Twin Peaks gave us a moving meditation on death

You can’t go home again. The final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return offers the most literal interpretation possible of this old idiom, couched in a typically Lynchian abstraction, when Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) attempts to bring Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) back to her mother’s house—the quixotic righting of a quarter-century-old wrong, the replacement of the missing piece that allowed the darkness lurking beneath this placid Pacific Northwest town to break through—only to find that everything’s changed. It isn’t Laura’s home anymore; it belongs to a “Mrs. Tremond,” and even she’s not as we remember. Laura’s no longer Laura either, even if she screams like her.

Even Cooper isn’t himself—not really. He’s crossed so many thresholds and inhabited so many “tulpa” versions—not so much fire-walked between worlds as fire-straddled them—that we can’t be quite certain which one stands before us now. As he tells Diane (Laura Dern) earlier in the episode, before they drive across some mystical line in the sand, “Once we cross, it could all be different”; their softcore sex scene that follows and Cooper’s waking up to find he’s a man called “Richard” confirms as much. Worse, even Cooper’s ostensible hero’s return in the previous episode was undercut by a close-up superimposition of his own face while he intones, “We live inside a dream,” implying that we can’t trust anything we’re seeing. It looks like Twin Peaks, but… is it?

That’s a question a lot of fans grappled with across the entire 18-episode revival, with this show that often looked like Twin Peaks, and—in the strains of Angelo Badalamenti’s score that gradually broke through the alien, ambient buzz—occasionally sounded like Twin Peaks, but so often, steadfastly refused to be Twin Peaks. And if David Lynch and Mark Frost’s revival of the series could be said to be “about” anything, it was about the impossibility of ever doing that. Twin Peaks has existed in our imaginations for 25 years, even as it has been endlessly recycled and picked apart, its recognizable strains churned into obvious imitators and costume parties and tote bags. Throughout it all, Twin Peaks has lingered in our minds despite this limiting nostalgia that’s been forced upon it, primarily by resisting the exact kind of tidy ending a decades-later sequel threatens. Twin Peaks isn’t Mayberry; you can’t just return there. And not for nothing, but its corrupted-innocent high schoolers are now middle-aged; many of its players are long retired from acting; some of them are dead.

So naturally, when the series was first announced, a lot of fans had some immediate reservations. How can you reprise a series that was based on such a nigh-supernatural confluence of talent and timing, with so much of it dictated by what Lynch calls his “happy accidents”? How do you recreate its strange atmospheres and idiosyncratic quirks, which are by now thoroughly folded into our pop culture lexicon, without creating a pandering facsimile of itself? How do you go home again, when “home” exists immutably, safely ensconced in a collective dream? (Especially when, suddenly, Jim Belushi is living there?) You can’t, and The Return—its subject ironically telegraphed right there in its deceptively innocuous title—was all about Lynch and Frost telling us that.

The word “meta” doesn’t really appear to be in Lynch’s vocabulary; he’s long resisted the idea of his art as allegory, doesn’t like to reveal his own intentions lest it influence the audience, and openly regards his own ideas as messages channeled from the great unified field. Yet the fact remains that a lot of the biggest ideas he “catches” while he’s quietly sitting and listening often have some bearing on his own life: the formative childhood traumas that cracked open Lynch’s suburban idyll in Blue Velvet; his paranoia about fatherhood and the surreal ugliness of life in Philadelphia in Eraserhead. There is much about Twin Peaks: The Return that suggests it’s similarly about Lynch, now 71 and teasingly “retired” from filmmaking, marking the passage of time between himself—and us—and these worlds he created, and making peace with the idea that we can never fully go back there.

There are many ways of interpreting The Return, of course; we’re only a few days into the next 25 years of articles, books, and Oberlin courses it will inspire. But this one might be the most satisfying, at least emotionally: In all its thrilling, occasionally maddening elusiveness, the real closure Twin Peaks gave us was the chance to say goodbye.

“You know about death—that it’s just a change, not an end.”

This was especially true in its inclusion of actors who have died since the show’s original run, and those whom we know now were dying at the time: Frank Silva as BOB; Jack Nance as Pete Martell; Don S. Davis as Major Garland Briggs; David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries; Catherine Coulson as Margaret Lanterman, a.k.a. The Log Lady; Warren Frost as Doc Hayward; Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield. In many of these cases, “inclusion” is actually too light a word. Some of them amounted to little more than sentimental cameos: Frost popping up via Skype to exchange some dad jokes with Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster); Marv Rosand, whose Double R line cook Toad is only known to diehards scouring DVD deleted scenes, but nevertheless popped up here to take a bread delivery from Becky (Amanda Seyfried); Nance, tugging heartstrings by popping up in archival footage from the pilot alongside the lamented (but not late) Piper Laurie and Joan Chen.

But some of these ghosts also turned out to be major players, to the point where the spotlight The Return afforded them—and the shadow of their deaths that surrounded it—felt like deliberate commentary on the gulf of time, the impossibility of traversing it, and the lost pieces that, like Laura Palmer, can never be put back. This intentionality is most deeply felt in Coulson’s scenes, which Lynch filmed, quite remarkably, at the very beginning of production in September 2015, only weeks before Coulson would die of cancer on Sept. 28—and so secretively that even her agent was surprised by it. In her conversations with Hawk (Michael Horse), Coulson’s Margaret—frail, missing hair, a breathing tube beneath her nose—says a series of protracted goodbyes that feel movingly direct, gazing into the camera at Lynch (a friend and collaborator since his early short films), as well as at us, which gives her pronouncements the tinge of last testament.

“You know about death—that it’s just a change, not an end,” Margaret says in her final lines. “There’s some fear in letting go. My log is turning gold. The wind is moaning. I’m dying. Good night, Hawk.” There is special meaning in hearing these words from The Log Lady, who became the de facto “voice” of Twin Peaks when she recorded a series of Lynch-scripted intros for its initial Bravo run in syndication, where she teased out—sometimes ominously, sometimes playfully—the show’s more metaphysical questions, becoming the most recognizable embodiment of the show’s spirit. That voice is fading now, The Return said; the spirit is moving on. The subsequent moment of silence Hawk holds for Margaret around the sheriff’s department conference room is also for us, grieving not only for The Log Lady, or for Coulson, but also for Twin Peaks itself, and the times we have shared together.

Knowing that Lynch filmed those scenes first, one imagines it couldn’t help but color the entire production—which was already being assembled under the onus of time running out—with an added aura of finality. Miguel Ferrer was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and his condition reportedly worsened in 2016, to the point where NCIS: Los Angeles wrote his illness into his character. But rather than sideline Albert—or even use him relatively sparingly, like he was in the original series—Lynch brought him to the fore, keeping Ferrer close at hand as the most frequent recipient of Lynch’s own dialogue as Gordon Cole.

“I fell deeply in love with Miguel on the latest Twin Peaks,” Lynch told The New York Times after the actor’s death in January. “I liked him before, but it wasn’t deep love. I just didn’t know him that well. This time I fell in love.” And indeed, as Albert and Gordon exchange their respective confessions about the past, bringing up things they’ve kept from each other for decades, that love is felt implicitly, even when the two are just discussing cold cases. Again, there is the sense of goodbye.

Their deaths give them—and the show—far greater resonance. They are the shadows of the dream we’re now struggling to retrace.

Garland Briggs, whose portrayer Don S. Davis died in 2008, similarly became a much larger presence, mostly by being scattered across various dimensions: Briggs was a naked, decapitated corpse who turns up in South Dakota; a ghostly, floating head who occasionally drifts across the void; and, most effectively, a father still capable of moving his son, Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), to tears from across the span of decades and the divide of death. In the original series, Major Briggs was an outward hardass who revealed himself to have a great inner well of enlightenment, and whose greatest fear is “the possibility that love is not enough.” In The Return, Briggs is love—a benevolent spirit still sharing messages from beyond, still putting people on their path. Death is not the end, but a change.

The loss of David Bowie in January 2016 came right before he was meant to film the reprisal of his swamp-accented Fire Walk With Me character, Agent Phillip Jeffries. Most showrunners would have just written around it; Jeffries, though beloved for his David Bowie-ness, is a character who opens more questions than he answers—questions he explicitly didn’t want to talk about, and which could have easily been addressed without his direct participation, or elided altogether. And yet, Lynch made those questions and Jeffries central to The Return, resurrecting Bowie as a giant teakettle (a literal Tin Machine) and giving him what appears to be the final word on the show’s overarching mythology as he fills Cooper in on Judy, sort of, from beyond.

As great as it would have been to see Bowie again—to discover that his “death” was just a setup for the greatest TV cameo ever recorded—as with Major Briggs, it’s hard to imagine his character having as profound an impact if it were being performed by a living man. The loss of Bowie and Davis adds a melancholy subtext to their characters being trapped inside their respective spiritual holds. Their deaths give them—and the show—far greater resonance. They are the shadows of the dream we’re now struggling to retrace.

Jeffries was the first to declare, “We live inside a dream,” way back in Fire Walk With Me, as we looked upon Bob, Mike, The Man From Another Place, The Woodsman, and Mrs. Tremond and her grandson et al., cooking up a batch of garmonbozia above the convenience store. (Goddamn, how I will miss writing sentences like that one now that the show’s over.) But Cooper’s “We live inside a dream” also parallels a scene set earlier in The Return, when Lynch’s Gordon recalls a far more pleasant dream he had about Jeffries’ dream—one that featured a cameo from Monica Bellucci.

Aside from telling us a lot about Gordon’s taste in women, the sequence—like the real-world owner of Laura Palmer’s house turning up at the door in the finale—marks a rare intrusion of our reality into Twin Peaks’ carefully quarantined dream world, as disarming as a needle drop on ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” And while Lynch would probably blanch at the phrase, it can be interpreted as the show’s most meta commentary. “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” Bellucci asks Gordon/Lynch, before pointing over Lynch’s shoulder to the younger version of himself. I doubt Lynch ever intended the scene to be read this bluntly, but there is certainly something here suggestive of Lynch’s extratextual role as the show’s creator, now living inside his own dream.

Like Albert, Gordon has a notably bigger presence in The Return, interacting with just about every major character and narrating the plot’s myriad twists in much the way Cooper did in the original show. His more central role takes on greater significance when you consider that The Return’s cast wasn’t just a reunion for the Twin Peaks cast, but also assembled players from Lynch’s vast repertory company. Robert Forster, Naomi Watts, Patrick Fischler, and Brent Briscoe (and had she not turned it down, Laura Harring) from Mulholland Drive. Balthazar Getty from Lost Highway. Chrysta Bell, from his side gig as a musician. Along with some new additions—including actors, like Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who seem like they should have been in a Lynch movie—The Return was a homecoming for Lynch’s far-flung flock. Most notably there is Laura Dern, whose role as Diane comes close to creating some Grand Unifying Theory Of Lynch by bringing her into an another intimate pairing with Blue Velvet love interest—and Lynch’s other longest collaborator—Kyle MacLachlan.

In what will surely go down as one of The Return’s most analyzed sequences, shortly after Cooper utters that line about living inside a dream (and says to those assembled, “I hope I see all of you again”), we watch as that trinity—Lynch, Dern, and MacLachlan, the dreamer and his muses—enter an abstract plane, where a door yields to Cooper’s nostalgia-evoking Great Northern hotel key. Before Cooper passes inside, returning to the season’s earliest scenes, back to the beginning of the loop—back to the very beginning of our collective love of Twin Peaks, heralded by Mike greeting him with its famous, cryptic poem—Cooper turns to Lynch and Dern and says, “See you at the curtain call.”

Twin Peaks: The Return was that curtain call. You can’t say the series was solely about Lynch bringing his players out for one final bow, or saying farewell to us, or even grappling with the enormous, occasionally burdensome legacy of his most famous creation (though the scene of a crazed Sarah Palmer stabbing Laura’s prom photo definitely had the ring of catharsis). The show is far too rich in meaning for just that; we can start writing our think pieces now, and I’ll see you again in 25 years, when we still haven’t talked it all out yet.

But the entire season was littered with enough nods to Lynch’s past—returning faces, recurrent themes, visual references to his films and paintings (Twitter user @ramontorrente has done an excellent job of cataloging these)—that it definitely lends itself to being read as a distillation of his entire body of work, which he then closed the door on by removing its hinges. By creating the uncertainty of a loop, he gave Twin Peaks an elliptical, open-ended closure—one that extends its mysteries and allows those players to go on playing in our imaginations forever, wondering whether Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) ever finds her way out of her mind trap, or whether Cooper’s machinations truly altered the timeline and what that means for the Palmers and the rest of the town, or if Sheriff Truman ever gets to see Jesse’s new car. The uncertainty renders it immortal, existing beyond time and death, where no matter when you’re watching it, you can’t even be sure what year it is. It will always be confounding and oblique; it will always be Twin Peaks.

If you know anything about Lynch, it’s that he is a devout practitioner of transcendental meditation; if you know two things, it’s that he treasures The Art Life, never happier than when he is going through the many granular motions of a restlessly toiling painter. In both disciplines, he preaches and practices finding the joy in the moment, taking pleasure purely in the work. To resolve that work, to be finished with it forever, would be the end. This is death. Instead, he gave Twin Peaks—the people within and without it, those living and gone—the gift of change, to always be working, to remain eternally unfinished. You can’t go home again, it tells us. But The Return isn’t about looking backward. It was about the dreamer, happy to still be dreaming the dream, for as long as we are still able.

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