For the last twenty years David Lynch has been making different iterations of the same story: someone isn’t who he thinks he is. Each of his films in this period tells two stories, one masking the other: the one the protagonists are telling themselves, and one they’re trying not to. The surface story is always a clichéd genre fiction (noir, melodrama, ingénue-goes-to-Hollywood) in which they star as victim or investigator, innocent and heroic; but in the true story, the one they’ve repressed, they’re the villains, guilty of horrible crimes they’ve tried to forget. In Lost Highway Fred, a jazz saxophonist, murders his wife, and in prison imagines that he’s “Pete,” a garage mechanic who becomes the patsy of the same woman in another guise, as a gangster’s moll. In Mulholland Drive, Diane, a failed actress, has had her starlet ex-girlfriend murdered by a contract killer and then, after her suicide, relives it all as a mystery/romance starring herself as ”Betty,” a plucky Nancy Drew, and her late victim as her sidekick and lover. In Inland Empire, actress Nikki Grace, starring as “Sue” in a Southern-gothic melodrama, finds her own life recapitulating not only the plot of the movie but the covered-up tragedy of an earlier, foreign version of the same film, whose leads were murdered. Lynch has been obsessively reworking this same idea in increasingly complex forms: in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it’s pretty clear, after a couple of viewings, which is the “real” story and which an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge hallucination, but by Inland Empire the structure has become so involuted, characters not only doubled but tripled or quadrupled, that it’s hard to know what’s supposed to be “real” anymore, or how many different versions of the heroine we’re seeing. But in all of these films, the secret at the story’s core is the same: a woman has been murdered.
A woman’s murder is also, famously, the central story of Twin Peaks. Its third season, subtitled The Return, is the most formally complex and ambitious work of David Lynch’s career, a single eighteen-hour film with dozens of characters and too many plotlines to untangle, but now that it’s complete, and can be apprehended as a whole, it’s become clear that it, too, is yet another version of this same story, the final entry in a guilt-haunted oeuvre that began with a story of infanticide.
In Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire there’s a schism in the central characters, between their true selves and false ones: Fred/Pete, Diane/Betty, Nikki/Sue. In The Return this schism is given its most literal form yet: FBI agent Dale Cooper has been physically split into two characters, his consciousness dormant inside of “Dougie Jones,” a tulpa, or artificial being, while his evil dopplegänger, “Mr. C.,” is at large. But in all of these films—The Return included—the splitting of the protagonist’s self is an illusion: a dream, hallucination, fugue or delusion. Cooper/ Dougie and Mr. C. are in reality two halves of the same personality: one an idealized self, the other repressed. The entire story of The Return can be read as a battle between good and evil not in the Pacific Northwest woods, but in one man’s soul. In an audacious (or appalling) final stroke that completes (or forever defaces) what may well be his last major work, David Lynch intimates that all the inhabitants of Twin Peaks and their dramas, and its Byzantine mythos of demons, giants, and the Black Lodge, are an elaborate fantasy, the dream of this original Dale Cooper—or whatever his real name is—a desperate attempt to forget what he knows, on some level, is the true story.
What that story really is, we can ’t know for sure. But, just as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire Charles Kinbote’s grandiose fabulations—his flamboyant intrigues, disappointed Queen, and dramatic escape from his imaginary kingdom—offer hints and glimpses of the sadder, more ordinary story of Vseslav Botkin—furtive homosexuality, a failed marriage, and exile—we can infer from Cooper’s fantastic cover story something about the more sordid and mundane reality that lies beneath it. We know that Cooper is an FBI agent, or some sort of law enforcement official, and that he loved a woman, probably a blonde, who died, almost certainly murdered. That her death has had to be buried and disguised beneath so many layers of fabrication, guilt and denial suggests that, at the very least, he, Cooper, may have let her die, was somehow complicit in her death, or an even darker possibility: the real answer to 1990’s question, Who killed Laura Palmer?, may not be the demon Bob or her father Leland after all, but Dale Cooper.
“We Live Inside a Dream”
The scene most crucial to understanding the illusory nature of the world of Twin Peaks, the one in which we get our single glimpse of the original, whole personality who’s imagining it all—the “real” Cooper—occurs in its penultimate episode. The series’ main plotline is abruptly wrapped up by an absurd deus ex machina (a minor character with a superpowered green glove literally punches the demon Bob to Hell). After his dopplegänger’s body disappears, Dale Cooper looks at the eyeless woman who’s dropped out of another dimension (called “Naido” in the credits) with vague recognition, then he looks away, seeming troubled. As he does, a close-up of Kyle MacLachlan’s face, his expression blank, appears faintly superimposed over the scene. It’s significant that this superimposed face appears only once Cooper has overcome his evil double, resolving the schism within himself, and recognized his old secretary Diane through her false face: now that the drama is over and its central characters unmasked, its true author, and audience, can reveal himself.
This face remains onscreen for the next five and a half minutes, double-exposed over all the ensuing action, so that it all takes place, visually and literally, inside Cooper’s head. We’ve seen a similar visual device in Lynch’s work before, with the same implication: the first image in Eraserhead is of Henry Spencer’s head floating superimposed over the planet where the story is set, suggesting that he is the dreamer of the “dark and troubling dream” to follow. Near the beginning of Blue Velvet, the camera tracks into the howling cavern of a severed ear, and at the film’s end it reverse tracks back out of Jeffrey Beaumont’s ear canal, implying that all the intervening events occurred inside his head.
This scene marks the end of the story of Twin Peaks, and the beginning of Cooper’s return to the real world. With the demon Bob vanquished and Mr. C. dispatched to the netherworld of the Black Lodge, the scene now centers entirely on its sole protagonist, Dale Cooper, who stands alone in the middle of the Sheriff’s office as if onstage, while all the other assembled characters, who’ve simultaneously converged on this spot from hundreds of miles around as if on cue (“right on time!” says Cooper when Gordon Cole shows), are suddenly relegated to passive supernumeraries. The staff of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s department, FBI agents, those lovable gangsters the Mitchum brothers and their assistants all stand in a row like a cast at curtain call, framed together in the doorway as if under a proscenium.
“Now, there are some things that will change,” Cooper says somberly, and Deputy Hawk, who has always been (somewhat stereotypically) the character most receptive to the supernatural, nods gravely at him, seeming to understand. Cooper and the newly revealed Diane look at the clock and see that the minute hand is stuck at 2:53—which, in The Return, is “the number of completeness,” the time when passage between worlds is possible (it’s 2:53 when Cooper first returns to the world and Mr. C. is almost sucked back into the Black Lodge). We’re on the verge on another such passage now.
It’s at this moment that the superimposed face of Cooper speaks his only words, in the slurred low tones of slow motion, reverberating over the scene: “We live inside a dream.” Former FBI agent Philip Jeffries says those same words in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the prequel film, and in The Return FBI director Gordon Cole has a dream about actress Monica Belucci in which she tells him, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream.” This line is a quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
“We are like the spider. We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.”
Lynch himself frequently cited this passage in discussing Inland Empire, and it’s obviously a heavy-handed hint to what’s really going on in The Return. “But who is the dreamer?” Belucci asks pointedly. It’s significant that Cole recounts this dream immediately after learning that there appear to be two Coopers. The appearance of Cooper’s face reciting these words over and from outside of the series’ narrative strongly suggests that all of Twin Peaks—from Season 1’s pilot through The Return’s last moment—has been the dream of Dale Cooper. At one point his wife, Janey-E, derisively calls Cooper/Dougie “Mr. Dreamweaver,” and a co-worker teases him, “Off in dreamland again, huh, dougie?”
No sooner has the superimposed Cooper has spoken these words than the Dale Cooper within the story takes leave of all his friends and colleagues: the dream is ending. “I hope I’ll see all of you again,” he says, “every one of you.” It’s reminiscent of the denouement of The Wizard of Oz (anyone who remembers Wild at Heart knows Lynch is not above a Wizard of Oz allusion) when Dorothy, like Dale, having defeated the villain, bids farewell to each of her friends and prepares to go home—that is, to wake up. As soon as he says this the light in the Sherriff’s office suddenly dims—and it isn’t the fluorescent lights in the room flickering, because large windows are open to daylight; it’s as if the world itself is going out. Characters look up in alarm; Dale and Cooper cry out to each other across the room—“Gordon!” “Coop!”—before everything goes dark. This is the last time we’ll see the familiar cast of characters from Twin Peaks; the story we’ve watched since 1990 ends at this moment. When, in the next scene, Cooper pauses before stepping through a doorway into another world and says, “See you at the curtain call,” it connotes both the end of a play and death—which, for a fictional character, are one and the same.
For a few seconds after the lights go out in Twin Peaks, all we can see is the superimposed face of the Cooper outside the story, alone in the darkness. (“What will be in the darkness that remains?” the Log Lady asked Hawk.) And then from out of the inky black emerge the three remaining players: first Cooper and Diane, hand in hand, and then Gordon Cole—the hero, the woman he loves, and the director. In a sense, there were only ever two characters in Twin Peaks. And in another sense, there was only ever one.
The Two Coopers
If all of Twin Peaks is the dream of some Dale Cooper outside the world of the show, what can we infer about him based on the various proxy selves and imaginary narrative he’s created? Who is the “real” Dale Cooper?
FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper—the one we know from the original Twin Peaks, who reappears briefly in The Return—is the distillation of the real Cooper’s good side, the embodiment of his ideals: impossibly upright, intrepid, chipper and pure, a grownup boy scout (David Lynch made Eagle). Dougie Jones, haunted by dim recollections of this former self, is repeatedly drawn to childhood figures of heroism: he lives on “Lancelot Court,” gently mimes the pose of a boxer on a poster, gazes for hours at a statue of a cowboy aiming a gun, hears the faint strains of “America, the Beautiful” as he fixates on an American flag, and reaches out to touch policemen‘s badges like a child entranced by baubles. When Dale Cooper’s dormant consciousness reawakens, he is once again possessed of Cooper’s signature certitude, confidence, and authority; his saying, “I am the FBI,” expresses his literal identification with the forces of the law and justice.
Some viewers got frustrated as it became clear that Cooper’s stint inside Dougie Jones was not to be a brief way station en route to his triumphant return, but the whole journey. So what is this story of Dougie Jones about? During his time as Dougie, Cooper slowly re-learns how to be a human being, from knowing when he has to urinate and rediscovering the virtues of coffee to having sex and loving a child. This brief, accelerated life is a kind of do-over for Cooper, an attempt to be a decent family man, a good husband and father. (The original Dougie, a creation of Mr. C., the bad Cooper, was apparently no prize: a paunchy, dissolute boozer who frequented hookers and ran up crippling gambling debts.) Cooper’s Dougie, despite being a Chance Gardener-type idiot, becomes a kind and funny father to his son, and earns the devotion (and desire) of his wife. But it wasn’t Dougie doing these things (Dougie was sucked back into the Black Lodge and de-corporealized as soon as Dale returned to the world); it was Dale Cooper. Once he reawakens, Cooper remembers his new family, and genuinely loves them: “You’ve made my heart so full,” he tells them. His purgatorial tenure in Dougie is a recapitulation of what the Cooper outside the story is trying to do through the fiction of Dale Cooper: to remake himself into a better man than he really was, to redeem himself. When we last see Dougie (a new version, created by Cooper), he walks through his front door as if at the end of a long day at work, to the embraces of his delighted wife and son, and exclaims, “Home!” It’s one of the only happy endings we see in the series, one we can presume the real Cooper never got.
From all of this we can infer that the real Cooper may not be the paragon of virtue that Dale Cooper is, or the model family man Dougie becomes. The sinister Mr. C. is everything Cooper has repressed about himself, his shadow: an expert, affectless killer and brutal abuser of women. He casually disarms and coldcocks bodyguards, shoots a woman in the back, blows another’s brains out with a pillow mashed over her face as silencer, and literally punches in the face of a criminal boss, leaving a crushed, bloody hole in the center of his head. Dale Cooper was young Audrey Horne’s chaste protector and savoir; Mr. C. rapes her while she’s in a coma. Cooper’s relationship with his secretary Diane wasn’t just platonic but disembodied (we only ever saw him speaking to her via a tape recorder); Mr. C. rapes her, too, in Cooper’s guise. As Dougie, Cooper is a loving (if eccentric) father; Mr. C. coolly sends his son as a guinea pig to be disintegrated.
Cooper/Dougie and Mr. C. seem like polar opposites: Dougie a hollow, childlike golem shuffling gamely through his days, speaking only in affable echolalia, Mr. C. a sleazy lord of the underworld with unblinking black eyes, his movements ominous as a cobra’s. But, like Jekyll and Hyde, they are not true antagonists but warring parts of a single personality. They uncannily share the gestures of the Dale Cooper we know: in the same episode they each give his signature thumbs-up, Dougie miming it slowly and tentatively, Mr. C.’s a rigid travesty delivered with an unconvincing rictus. And notice that Dale Cooper and Mr. C., like Clark Kent and Superman, can never be in the same place at the same time: in order for Cooper to return to the world, he’s told, Mr. C. must first return to the Black Lodge, and Dale Cooper only rushes into Sheriff Truman’s office seconds after Mr. C. has been killed. And, like a Bond villain, Mr. C. for some reason can’t just shoot his nemesis; instead of directly confronting Cooper, he sets up various traps and fail-safes to divert and hold him in the body of Dougie’s, then hires hit men, via several protective layers of proxies, to assassinate him. As with most literary dopplegängers (cf. Poe’s William Wilson), to murder one’s double is suicide.
The conflict between them is really a battle in one man’s mind between superego and id, conscience and denial: for twenty-five years the “good” Cooper has been imprisoned and helpless while the “evil” Cooper, a serial rapist and killer, has run amok. When Cooper does try to return to the world and replace Mr. C.—that is, when Cooper’s conscience tries to reassert itself—Mr. C. contains him in a happily ignorant, blameless body. But the spirit Mike, a kind of Jiminy Cricket conscience, keeps appearing to admonish him: “You have to wake up!” It’s only in the penultimate episode, when the good Cooper is fully awake—“Finally!” Mike cries—that the story he’s fabricated is no longer tenable, and starts to come apart.
The Cooper we see revealed in the alternate reality of the last episode—where his name is evidently “Richard”—is not the Dale Cooper we know from the original series: he’s an amalgam of Dale and Mr. C., a split self reunited, made whole and impure again. The efficient brutality with which he disables a boothful of belligerents in a diner, and the fact that he holds his gun on innocent civilians, seem distinctly un-Cooper-like; it’s behavior a lot more characteristic of the ruthless Mr. C. His demeanor in this diner scene is ambiguous, menacing; he acts less like a lawman than a stickup man or stalker ex. Also, he is unexcited about coffee. One of Dale Cooper’s defining characteristics—one that Dougie Jones shares, letting us know that Agent Cooper is still in there somewhere—is his unabashed, boyish enthusiasm for “a damn fine cup of coffee.” (And one telltale sign that Mr. C is not the real Cooper in Sheriff Truman’s office is that he casually declines one.) And his dead-eyed expression during his grim ritualistic sex with Diane is unmistakably Mr. C.’s reptile stare. In this other world he clearly still thinks of himself as Cooper—he’s puzzled when Diane/”Linda’s” farewell note addresses him as “Richard”—but when he identifies himself as an FBI agent he always shows a badge (like the ones Dougie admired), never a folio ID with his name and photo, as Cooper used to. “Richard” may still not be the “real” Cooper we saw superimposed over the leave-taking in the Sheriff’s office, but he is, at least, one layer of reality closer to the dreamer inside whose mind the drama of Twin Peaks has unfolded.
There’s always been a Manichean patina to Twin Peaks—this story of an ancient battle between good and evil fought out in the Northwest woods, grief-eating demons held at bay by secret societies of virtuous men like the Bookhouse Boys and an inner circle of occultist FBI agents. At first it seems as if evil is an external force that possesses people, that can be exorcized and defeated: after the demon Bob flees him, Leland Palmer repents on the jail cell floor under the anointing rain of the sprinklers. Except it’s never really that easy: it was Leland, not Bob, who was seeing prostitutes his daughter’s age. Demonic possession in Twin Peaks has always only been a metaphor for human depravity: FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield calls Bob “the evil that men do.” In Fire Walk With Me, the contrast between Leland’s terrorizing Laura at the dinner table and his telling her, trembling with remorse, that he loves her, is the Janus face of abuse—a monster one moment, the familiar, beloved father the next. In Lynch the divide between good and evil is always an illusion: nitrous-huffing Frank Booth is a nightmare version of Jeffrey’s oxygen-masked father; the real threat in Wild at Heart is not that young lovers Lula and Sailor will be torn apart by their elders, but that they will become them. (The scariest moment in The Wizard of Oz is when, inside the crystal ball, Auntie Em turns into the Wicked Witch.) We don’t like seeing Dale Cooper as ambiguous or compromised because we don’t want to be; we’d all rather identify with Agent Cooper’s cartoonish rectitude. We want to believe in the story of a true, good Cooper and a false, evil one as badly as Cooper needed to invent it.
“Laura is The One”
We can pinpoint when the schism in Cooper’s personality occurred: it’s coincident with Laura Palmer’s murder. After Monica Belucci poses her question “But who is the dreamer?” in Gordon Cole’s dream, she looks over his shoulder, where Cole turns to see his younger self sitting in the FBI headquarters on February 16th, 1989—the day that Dale Cooper saw himself standing in the hallway on a security monitor, a moment he told Cole he’d foreseen in a dream. (This entire inscrutable scene is shown in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.) At the same moment Cooper sees his double in the hall, a missing FBI agent named Philip Jeffries strides out of an elevator, and, walking into the office and pointing at Cooper, demands: “Who do you think this is, there?” This is one week before Laura Palmer’s death on February 23rd, implying that even before Twin Peaks begins, Cooper may not be who he appears. These few days in 1989 are the pivot on which the Twin Peaks universe turns, when Laura is killed and part of Dale Cooper’s personality splits off from himself. The two events are connected not just chronologically but causally: like Fred in Lost Highway and Diane in Mulholland Drive, Cooper/Richard has to dissociate to avoid his horror and guilt over the death of the woman he loved—but whereas Fred imagines himself as that woman’s unwitting victim, and Diane as her friend and confidante, Cooper becomes a detective dedicated to solving her murder.
Just as in dreams a figure can be one person but also someone else, morphing from one to the other or melding the two, almost all the women of Twin Peaks are different incarnations of this unknown woman behind the story: Laura Palmer, or “Carrie Page,” as she’s called in the other world of the last episode, or whatever her name really was. All the blondes around Cooper, in particular, seem interrelated, interchangeable; in the last episode of the original series, Cooper, in the Black Lodge, sees his girlfriend Annie Blackburn turn first into his ex-partner’s wife, Caroline Earle, with whom he had an affair, and then into Laura Palmer. Dougie Jones’s wife, Janey-E, turns out, in a completely gratuitous coincidence, to be the half-sister of Cooper’s secretary/love interest Diane. After Diane leaves Cooper in the last episode, he goes off in search not of her but of Laura. He spends the first 18 minutes of that episode driving into another world with Diane, and the last 18 on the return journey with Laura/Carrie. These two central women in The Return, as well as Janey-E, are all different avatars of the same woman.
But Laura Palmer is the original, the template for all these other variations. Every episode of The Return begins with the milky image of her senior portrait emerging out of a nimbus of light, superimposed over the misty hills of Twin Peaks. Although she died 25 years ago by the time The Return begins, the murdered prom queen haunts the series: we see a recurring image from Twin Peaks’ pilot of a crying girl covering her face as she runs across the schoolyard, the harbinger of Laura’s death; at one point Gordon Cole, who never met Laura, hears a knock at his hotel room door and opens it to see an apparition of Laura crying hysterically as we hear her mother’s voice distantly calling her name. The Log Lady, the series’ seer, tells Hawk: “Laura is the one.”
Whoever this woman really was, it seems clear that she, like Laura, is dead—most likely murdered. All the women close to Dale Cooper eventually come to harm: in his backstory, he fell in love with the wife of his partner Windom Earle, who murdered her; Earle also kidnaps Cooper’s girlfriend Annie, leaving her bloody and catatonic; Cooper’s young admirer Audrey Horne, like Annie, ends up in a coma. Comas, like twins, are a clichéd soap opera trope, but also a way of keeping these characters perpetually suspended between two worlds, between life and death. (Laura says in the Black Lodge: “I am dead, yet I live.”) And it seems likely that Dale Cooper, or “Richard,” or whoever he really is, had something to do with her death. If the entire series is his dream, then it follows that all the acts of cruelty against women in it—Mr. C. cold-bloodedly killing his lackey/lover Darya, Shelly’s daughter Becky attacked by her scumbag husband, Richard Horne terrorizing everyone from girls in bars to his own grandmother—are echoes of Cooper’s own repressed past. Richard Horne, product of the rape of an unconscious girl, and the show’s most vicious abuser of women, is not only Mr. C.’s son (thus symbolically an extension of Cooper) but has the same first name as Cooper’s own alter ego.
When, in the last episode, Cooper travels back in time to the night of Laura Palmer’s murder, he inserts himself into a scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In the original scene, Laura, talking with her boyfriend James in the forest, looks over his shoulder and screams in terror. James looks behind him, but sees nothing there. Presumably she’s seeing at least the mental specter of the demon Bob/her father Leland, whom we last saw glaring furiously after her from a window as she rode off on James’s motorcycle, and later stalks her to the cabin where she parties with lowlifes Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault. She screams between saying: “He might try to kill you…” and “…if he finds out,” clearly referring to Bob/Leland. But in the new version of the scene, it’s Dale Cooper she sees, watching her from the underbrush; he has taken Leland’s place in the memory. The disturbing implication seems to be that Cooper was Leland all along; the murderer whose identity he sought for the whole first season and a half of the series was himself.
The Ninth Circle
If the entire world of Twin Peaks is Dale Cooper’s delusion, the way the whole run of St. Elsewhere was the invention of an autistic child, then we should expect to see and hear distorted reflections and echoes of his dissociation everywhere in The Return. Which we do—too many to enumerate here. The series is filled with split or multiple identities—characters who, like Cooper, aren’t who they think they are. “I’m not sure who I am, but I’m not me,” says Audrey. The false Diane cries the same thing—“I’m not me!”—before being whisked out of existence. There are abundant doubles, brothers, twins and triplets (lookalike cousins Laura and Maddie, the Truman, Horne, and Renault brothers, the Mitchell brothers and their three identical, um, assistants, Candie, Mandie, and Sandie, the Detectives Fusco) and characters physically or psychically dissociated from their own bodies (the spirit Mike severing his sinister left arm, characters’ left arms going numb before they’re transported into the Black Lodge, even stoned Jerry Horne terrified of his own foot, not realizing it’s a part of him). The name of the town, and the show, references twinning.
But nowhere is Cooper’s own predicament more clearly encapsulated than in the storyline of Audrey Horne, which otherwise seems like a non sequitur, disconnected from anything else in the series. Audrey’s story is a key to reading The Return, and an allegory for Dale Cooper’s own self-imposed imprisonment in a fiction. Audrey, it at first appears, has ended up in an unhappy marriage of convenience to an unlikely husband—a small, egg-shaped man named Charlie. Audrey hectors and baits him, trying to get him to go to the Roadhouse bar with her in search of her missing lover, all of which he endures with such unnatural patience that some viewers speculated he must be her therapist playing a role in a psychodrama. Their dialogue feels so heavily allusive that it’s hard to make any literal sense of; it seems almost purely metaphorical, a kind of code. E.g.:
CHARLIE: Now, are you going to stop playing games or do I have to end your story, too?
AUDREY: What story is that, Charlie? Is it the story with the little girl who lived down the lane? Is it?
Their subplot seems sealed off from the rest of the story, set in some liminal space neither here nor there. They are evidently at home, but we never see an establishing exterior shot of their house, only disconnected interiors. Each of their dialogues is an endless back-and-forth that goes nowhere, centered on the question of whether or not they will leave the house. In their penultimate scene they are literally standing on the threshold, and though it’s ostensibly Audrey who wants to leave and Charlie who doesn’t, he has his coat on, ready to go, while she keeps picking fights to delay them, afraid of doing what she claims to want. “I wanna stay and I wanna go,” she admits. “I wanna do both.” She snaps out of her dream the instant she finally makes an unambivalent decision: when a bar fight breaks out at the Roadhouse, she rushes to Charlie and cries, “Get me out of here!” As in Oz, where all you ever had to do to go home was ask, she instantly wakes up, into—“What?” she cries. It’s a bright, bare white space, suggesting a hospital or an asylum, and Audrey is wearing a plain white garment like a hospital gown. Whereas a moment before she was shouting into her husband’s face, she suddenly finds herself staring into her own in a mirror: it’s herself she’s been raging at all along.
“I feel… like I’m somewhere else and somebody else,” she says to Charlie. So where exactly is Audrey? Her first appearance is immediately preceded by one of Dr. Jacobi’s online screeds, whose apoplectic peroration ends: “The Ninth Level of Hell will welcome you!” At that line we cut to our first sight of Audrey, standing in front of a fireplace, its crackling audible, flames just visibly flickering at the edges of her dress. The visual implication is that Audrey is in Hell—at least a personal hell of her own making. Her hermetic bubble reality is a microcosm of Cooper’s; his is just is harder for us to see because it encompasses the whole series. The line “Is it the story of the little girl who lived down the lane?” is spoken in both their stories (“The Arm,” a dendritic entity with a fleshy, brainlike head, says it to Cooper in the Black Lodge just before dispatching him to retrieve Laura Palmer), implying that Audrey’s Sartrean domestic drama, like everything else in Twin Peaks, is a figment of Cooper‘s imagination, and a reflection of his reality. (Or, possibly, that he and Audrey are the only “real” people in the whole series, sharing a foile à deux.) Like Audrey, Cooper is also in trapped in a delusional hell of his own creation—or, rather, he’s caught between two worlds, “somewhere else and someone else.” He’s also trying to escape it but afraid to; he wants to stay and he wants to go, to wake up (as Mike constantly adjures him) and stay asleep. And, like her, all he really has to do to wake up is decide that he wants to. But, unlike Audrey, he can’t quite bring himself to do it, resisting the truth up until the last possible moment, when his story ends, too. If and when he does ever awaken, he’ll also realize that the antagonist he’s been fighting the whole time was himself.
No Place Like Home
In the penultimate episode of The Return, after parting with all his old companions and exiting the stage, Dale Cooper travels back in time and tries to undo the ur-trauma of Twin Peaks, its original sin and sacrifice: the murder of Laura Palmer. Appearing on the might of her death, February 23rd, 1989, he intercepts her en route to meet with lowlifes Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault, after which, as seen in Fire Walk With Me, she’ll be killed by her father. And at first it seems as if he succeeds. We see the opening sequence of Twin Peaks’s pilot shockingly altered: Laura’s plastic-wrapped body flickers and disappears from the shore, and Pete Martell, instead of discovering her corpse, goes peaceably fishing. From which point on, presumably, the events of all three seasons of the series never occur. Except then, as Cooper is leading Laura through the woods away from her rendezvous with death, like Eurydice she disappears, leaving behind only the sound of her shrieking and the whooshing wind from the Black Lodge. After which Cooper crosses over into another reality, where he does everything in his power to find Laura and return her to her house in Twin Peaks, to make her remember who she really is, to make the whole story of Twin Peaks—including her death—true again.
Why does Cooper do this? What does he intend to accomplish? It’s as if, having saved her, he’s compelled to doom her all over again, to condemn her to remember her own molestation and murder. The Laura in the other reality, “Carrie Page,” is a waitress in a cruddy diner with a dead guy in her living room, but at least she’s alive. When, in the show’s last moments, Laura suddenly screams in terror, it’s both horrific and exhilarating because Laura Palmer’s scream is as unmistakable as Fay Wray’s—we know that she remembers everything, and is herself again. Except that, for Laura, being herself involves unendurable horror: incest, rape, torture and murder. What Cooper seems to want is impossible, a contradiction. He can’t save Laura, has never saved her, will never save her: her death is the unalterable fact at the heart of this entire fiction. He’s trying to reconstruct the fantasy he built around her death as it’s beginning to come undone, simultaneously trying to forget who he is and what he’s done, and to remember everything, frantically inventing cover stories even as he works to expose them, a killer covering his tracks and a detective in relentless pursuit of himself.
When Cooper takes Laura’s hand in the dark forest and she asks him where they’re going, he tells her: “We’re going home.” Surely he doesn’t mean back to her house, where she’s raped nightly by her father, to a mother whom we now know is inhabited by a demon: the word seems to have some deeper resonance, something metaphoric or mythic. Home is a word that Dougie Jones often repeats with vague yearning. From the prison’s interview room, Mr. C tells Gordon Cole: “I never really left home.” This may suggest that he has always been a part of Cooper, was never really separate at all, but it also faintly echoes The Wizard of Oz, whose heroine travels to a faraway magical world, where she meets colorful comrades and battles evil, only to wake up and find she was never gone at all, and all the characters she met there were only dream-versions of the people she knew in real life. (And we all recall the moral of The Wizard of Oz.) Notice that when Cooper returns to 1989 to try to save Laura, the scenes from Fire Walk With Me are now rendered in black and white, a common device to indicate that scenes take place in memory or the past, but when he takes Laura’s hand in the forest to lead her to salvation, the film slowly turns to color. It’s a magical moment, like Dorothy opening the door to behold the Technicolor wonderland of Oz. Except that in The Wizard of Oz black and white signifies drab reality; color is the beautiful dream. The series’ title, The Return, signifies not only our return to Twin Peaks, and Dale Cooper’s return to the world, but the real Cooper/Richard’s reluctant return to reality, his homecoming.
After Laura disappears, Cooper travels into another reality to try to retrieve her. The Odessa, Texas we see in the last episode is clearly a different world than the one where the Twin Peaks of the show is located. To get there, Cooper and Diane cross through a field of buzzing electricity, which in Twin Peaks acts as a conduit between worlds (Cooper re-enters the world through an electrical socket, reawakens himself by sticking a fork into one, and we hear an electrical crackle as Audrey Horne awakens from her own dream world). The next morning Cooper—or “Richard,” as he seems to be named here—wakes up in a different motel than he went to sleep in the night before (it has two floors, not one, and palm trees outside instead of bushes) and drives off in a sleek black modern Lincoln town car parked across the lot, not the boxy ‘60s model he and Diane parked right outside the hotel room the night before. Odessa looks and feels like a different reality than the Twin Peaks of the show: instead of the lush greens and browns of the Pacific Northwest, the landscape is parched, the color bleached out of it; instead of the susurration of the wind in the pines, we hear the dry chirring of cicadas. In Laura/Carrie’s denuded front yard we see dead flowers in plastic pots, and a spare tire propped up on the porch. Even the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks seems bucolic by comparison. (Texas is arguably just an objectively uglier place than Washington State, but it’s also photographed here in a harsh, parched, unforgiving light.) It’s a cruddier, more lusterless world than the world of Twin Peaks—more real. It’s probably still not the reality in which the original Cooper/Richard, the show’s “dreamer,” lives (because Laura/Carrie is still alive in it), but it’s one step closer to it.
Just as dreary black-and-white Kansas contains the models for the fantastic characters of rainbow-hued Oz, we can spot in this shabbier reality some of the mundane inspirations for the more vivid world of Twin Peaks. The incarnation of evil the FBI is fighting in The Return is called Jow-day, or “Judy”; “Judy’s” is also the name of the diner in Odessa where Laura, or “Carrie,” as her incarnation here is called, works—an emptier, dingier, more depressing and unfriendly version of the homey Double R. (Conspicuously, there are no tables in the center of the restaurant, just a bare expanse of burnished floor.) Cooper spies a white mechanical horse ride outside Judy’s, and a ceramic figurine of a white horse on Carrie’s mantel, an animal that’s appeared to him, and to Laura and Sarah Palmer, in supernatural visions, often as an omen of impending murder. But are these supposed to be signs from the spirit world that Cooper is on the right track, and that Carrie really is Laura—or has Richard just incorporated these knickknacks from real life as mythic symbols in his elaborate dream world?
When Cooper finally brings Carrie back to what he believes is Laura Palmer’s house in Twin Peaks, Washington, the people he finds living there are named Tremond, and tell him the previous owners were named Chalfont—both names previously used by apparitions in Twin Peaks and in Fire Walk With Me, denizens of the supernatural zone “above the convenience store.” Apparently, no family called the Palmers lives here, or ever did. A hopeful reading of this scene—one that would reinstate the world of Twin Peaks we know as the “true” reality of the show—is that these occupants are impostors, disguises adopted by malevolent spirits to confuse Cooper and thwart his attempts to set things right. A bleaker one would be that the characters and events of Twin Peaks have always been appropriated from Cooper/Richard’s real life, the same way all the details in Verbal Kent/Kaiser Soze’s story in The Usual Suspects are borrowed from random objects in the interrogation room.
Dale Cooper/Richard’s last line in the series, as he stands sagging in the street, is: “What year is this?” Laura/Carrie hesitates, suddenly uncertain. We actually don’t know the answer. In the Black Lodge, just before sending Cooper back into the world, the spirit Mike twice asks him: “Is it future… or is it past?” It’s hard to determine what era Dale/Richard and Diane/Linda of the last episode are from: the car they drive across the border between worlds is an early-60s Lincoln with bench seats and circular side mirrors and tail lights, and his black suit and her shrug sweater could be from almost any decade since the 40s (Diane always wears retro fashions). For all we know, the other world of the last episode—Carrie’s Odessa and the Twin Peaks where the Palmers don’t live—may be decades in their future. Even though the series’ timeline is pinned to Laura Palmer’s death in the year 1989, there’s always been a weird timeless quality to the town of Twin Peaks: in Fire Walk With Me Laura, an ‘80s high school girl, drives a 1956 Buick Roadmaster; her classmate Audrey Horne dresses like a bobby-soxer in a plaid skirt and saddle shoes; and in Lynch’s alternate-universe 90’s Washington State, teenagers have apparently never heard of grunge or hip hop and instead groove to cool vibraphone jazz and dreamy doo-wop ballads. (We don’t see any 21st-century technology in Audrey and Charlie’s house, either—he uses a rotary phone, and vinyl records lean on a shelf—suggesting that Audrey, like Cooper, is trapped in the past.) Dale Cooper seems less like an FBI agent from the decade of Waco and Ruby Ridge than a caricature of a Hoover-era, straight-arrow G-man. The town of Twin Peaks is Cooper/Richard’s distorted memory of the era he grew up in, or nostalgically imagines. His imprisonment in the Black Lodge for twenty-five years may only be a dream-metaphor for the denial, amnesia, or fugue state he’s been in since Laura/Carrie’s death.
One scene in The Return intimates that Cooper is trapped in a sort of time loop, reenacting the same tragedy over and over. When Cooper asks former FBI agent “Philip Jeffries” (whose mind is for some reason now contained in a large, steaming black metal tank, kind of like the third-stage Guild navigator’s in Dune) to send him back in time to rescue Laura, Jeffries’ tank emits a symbol that turns into a figure 8, infinity sign or Möbius loop, and we see a ball within that loop roll slowly from one position to another, seemingly signifying a different point in time. “You can go in now,” Jeffries tells him. Lynch often referred to Möbius loops in talking about Lost Highway, and Cooper, like Fred, seems caught in an endless cycle of re-living/repressing some unspeakable act. (“Time and time again,” the Arm intones. “The circle is almost complete,” says The Log Lady.) Who knows how many times he’s acted out this tormented effort to save this girl and solve her murder, how many different versions of the story he’s told himself?
This may be the iteration when Cooper finally escapes the cycle and wakes up into reality. As Cooper/Richard and Laura/Carrie are standing in the street, dumbstruck, their quest at a dead end, Laura hears her mother’s voice faintly calling her name, and suddenly, remembering everything, she screams. At that moment the lights of her house blow out and the screen goes black because that world—like the world of Twin Peaks in the previous episode—has been extinguished. It’s the third time we’ve seen this happen: when Dougie worked a fork into an electrical socket, blowing out his house’s lights and making his wife scream, he was knocked into a coma and woke up as Dale Cooper again; after the lights went out in the Sheriff’s office to everyone’s shouts, Cooper cast off his identity as Dale Cooper and woke up in another world as “Richard.” Now, in the next, unimaginable instant, Cooper will awaken into the present—into reality—as his true self, and remember everything he created this whole world to forget. Who will he wake up as this time, and what will he do next? When Leland Palmer (another reification of Cooper, like Mr. C.) suddenly remembered what he’d done in the demon Bob’s thrall, he killed himself by repeatedly ramming his own head into a metal door. (And the first thing Mr. C. did when he woke up in Cooper’s body in the last episode of the original Twin Peaks was to bash his head bloody against a mirror.) For Lynch’s protagonists, the truth is often lethal, and to remember obliterating.
Both Fire Walk With Me and The Return end with Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer together in the Red Room, the purgatorial waiting area of the Black Lodge. In the former scene Dale stands beneficently over her, a hand on her shoulder, as she laughs and weeps for joy, redeemed, her guardian angel hovering over her in a flickering light. But the all-a-dream frame of The Return casts this benedictory ending in a different light: it’s Cooper’s fantasy of a happy ending beyond the grave for Laura. The last image we see in Twin Peaks: The Return inverts that scene, with Laura now standing over Dale, bending down to whisper in his ear. This is a reprise of a moment we first saw in Season 1 of Twin Peaks, in Cooper’s first dream. We later learn that what Laura whispered to him then was: “My father killed me.” But this scene is different: the two characters are twenty-five years older, and Cooper’s reaction is different, too: he gasps, as if taking a blow. We never find out what she tells him this time, but it’s clearly something that shocks and disturbs him. My guess: “You killed me.”
“A Dark, Dark Age”
Lynch loves mysteries, not puzzles: Twin Peaks: The Return is too large, too rich, strange and elusive to reduce to any one reading. This isn’t the only possible interpretation of its last episodes; it’s just the most compelling one—even, given the idée fixe that’s persisted through David Lynch’s films for the last two decades, unavoidable. And I think the reason it hasn’t occurred to more viewers isn’t because it’s particularly implausible or obscure, but because it’s so unwelcome. I don’t like this interpretation any more than you do: in fact I hate it. It threatens to render all the characters and their dramas in which we’ve become so invested moot, mere illusions. All the show’s moments of pathos and wonder, surreal horror and cornball humor—Carl Rodd watching a boy’s hazy golden soul ascend heavenward, the phantasmagoric episode 8, Albert and the lady pathologist exchanging deadpan puns—seem obviated. Most of all, our sensibilities rebel at the notion that that the intrepid Dale Cooper might actually be some government thug or killer. But I think this is how Lynch wants us to feel: my squirmy resistance to my own conclusion is like Dale Cooper’s own denial, his attachment to the convoluted narrative he’s invented to avoid the truth. Like me, he’s trying not to remember what happened, to figure out some way to make it not have happened after all.
The real dreamer who’s woven the world of Twin Peaks is, of course, David Lynch. Lynch is over seventy now, and The Return is the late work—quite possibly the last work—of an artist looking back over his life and career, full of allusions to his forty years of filmmaking, and a meditation on age and death—his curtain call. Teasers for the series featured a lot of new, attractive young actors, none of whom proved to be major characters in the show. (In Episode 1 we meet a couple of twenty-somethings who at first seem as if they might be our new protagonists, a pair of young sleuths like Jeffrey and Sandy in Blue Velvet; the second time we see them they’re mauled into offal.) Most of its principals are in their fifties at the youngest; actors Catherine Coulson (Margaret Lanterman) Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfeld) and Warren Frost (Doc Hayward) were all gravely ill as the series was being filmed. This isn’t a show, as Twin Peaks often was, about the melodramas of adolescence; it’s about the tragedies of senescence: people reckoning with their pasts, divesting themselves of illusions—“digging themselves out of the shit,” as Dr. Jacobi says—and facing the imminence of death. Harry Truman is fighting a terminal illness; amoral Ben Horne is trying to reform before it’s too late; Ed and Norma belatedly consummate their adolescent passion; Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, spiritual voice of Twin Peaks, dies. We leave Special Agent Dale Cooper on the verge of an unfaceable truth about himself. The tone of The Return is far darker than that of Twin Peaks, and only grows darker as the series approaches its end: it’s filled with long POV shots of driving at night, headlights barely illuminating the road ahead, and the final episode is one long nocturnal journey into the unknown. It all ends not with the girl saved and the natural order restored but with a scream of terror that plunges the world into darkness. The revelation of its last moments feels like a betrayal—an unraveling of the tale Lynch has spent decades spinning, and the unmasking of his most beloved hero. It’s like Prospero breaking his staff, an artist done with tricks and shadowplay, freeing his insubstantial creatures and abandoning his enchanted land to return, at last, to the real world. To go home.
Acknowledgement: James Boyd White offered invaluable insights that have been incorporated into this essay.
 Even The Straight Story, which at first looks like a departure from this pattern, conceals a darker story beneath its golden-hour surface: kindly Alvin Strait was once a mean drunk who started a fire that burned one of his grandchildren, causing his daughter’s children to be taken from her. His interstate journey by lawnmower is a pilgrimage not just of reconciliation but penance. (See my essay “The Straight Story,” Film Quarterly Vol. 54, number 1, Autumn 2000, pp. 26-33.)
 In one of her cryptic late-night phone messages, the Log Lady, who’s always been a medium for messages from the beyond, told Hawk: “The circle is almost complete. Watch and listen to the dream [italics mine] of time and space.”
 In Wild at Heart, the young heroine Lula and her wicked-witch mother also share a telltale gesture that links them: fingers hooked and slowly closing in on the palm, like claws.
 Most of the cars featured in Twin Peaks are vintage, not contemporaneous with the series: Big Ed’s truck is a ’62 Chevy, Bobby Briggs drives a ’69 Chevy Barracuda, Leland’s convertible is a ’75 Chevy Caprice, James Hurley rides a ’75 Harley, etc. Even when the original show aired, the most recent of these makes was 15 years old.
 The only writer I’ve read who’s come close to this reading is Rosemary Rossi, who speculates in The Wrap (https://www.thewrap.com/twin-peaks-revival-dream-analysis-first-four-episodes/) that Cooper is literally a split personality, suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. But her hermeneutic is a little too pop-psych dream-analysis for me, relying on one-to-one correspondence between certain images/colors/numerals and a single fixed and arbitrary meaning—e.g., “Purple is the color of spiritual healing.”
 These allusions go all the way back to Eraserhead (both Gordon Cole and Henry Spencer have framed photos of mushroom clouds on their walls) and beyond, to the first “home movie” Lynch ever made in 1967, “Sailing with Bushnell Keeler” (Dougie’s stand-up boss, Bushnell “Battling Bud” Mullins, is named after Keeler, Lynch’s artistic mentor), including his unmade project Ronnie Rocket (whose subtitle Albert ruefully recites: “The Absurd Mystery of the Strange Forces of Existence”)