[The following contains spoilers.]
Is the denouement of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return affectionate and cheeky or insincere and cruel? Episodes seventeen and eighteen sail on for almost another hour and a half after the twenty-seven-year story has been officially wrapped up. If this series had been always enacting a “return” to the nostalgic idyll of the Twin Peaks community, “starting positions” should make any ending merely another beginning. But the happy ending to Twin Peaks is instead followed by a lengthy, apocalyptic P.S. that hints that we might have never at any point experienced the reality of this town in 2017. Many fans of the series have found the finale and its implications to be harrowing.
The happy ending ominously resembles one of those silly, hayseed scenes from midway through the second season. There is a bit of a carnival atmosphere, the potted mayhem of the pine weasel scampering through the fashion show. Everyone involved converges on the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department – FBI agents and prisoners from the cells, tulpas and malevolent woodsmen, gangsters and cocktail girls – all at the same time. “It’s a good thing we made so many sandwiches,” Candie (Amy Shiels) marvels. It is indeed the sort of happy ending in which everyone would eat finger food afterwards.
The story is brought to a finish with a conclusive punch-up, between the arch-nemesis BOB (Frank Silva) and… well… a minor character named Freddie (Jake Wardle) who has been equipped with a magical green glove. The CGI seems to be authentically from the early 1990s. Had this been filmed as the finale to a season three in 1992, it would not look significantly different. After saving the day, Lucy Brennan (Kimmy Robertson) exclaims “Andy, I understand cellular phones now.” In 2017, this is perfectly nonsensical – Lucy’s befuddlement over mobiles could have only worked as a serious plot device in 1992. A posthumous Frank Silva is bouncing around like a tennis ball, even though it is not clear that the actor would have ever consented to feature in such a ludicrous spectacle.
So Twin Peaks regresses to infancy and child’s play in order to try to solve itself. Yet the innocence that is the very crux of its aesthetic turns out to be unobtainable. The finale does not just trivialise the traditional Twin Peaks imagery and characters – it does this to more recent, radical material as well. The woodsmen from the highly experimental episode eight, for example, dutifully take their positions within the circus endgame.
Paradoxically, those who are the most passionate fans of this series and its nostalgia will be the most distressed by the flippancy of its ending. On the forum of the leading Twin Peaks fan website, users’ responses include: “I don’t know if I want to punch Lynch in the face or fall on my knees and beg for forgiveness, for what, I have no idea”; “My stomach hurts from where Lynch and Frost punched me as hard as they could”; “Worst than Lost’s last season… My Sunday’s were wasted for 17 weeks”; and “If anyone here tells me how great the ending was .. I’m driving to your house and punching dead in the face… that’s how angry I am I am right now… that sucked.” Perhaps it reflects the treatment meted out to BOB that “punch” is the commonest verb here.
Twin Peaks has been always about how you interpret Twin Peaks. Do you delve into the evidence, discovering the clues and cracking the codes? The series appears to encourage this interpretation by priming itself with multiple hidden messages, such as, say, the code that flashes across the windows of the FBI’s aeroplane in episode seven. Cryptanalysts and their ilk are nonetheless the ultimate butts of this series’ humour. Twin Peaks cannot be cracked like a code. There is a neat ending to the story – an ending that has been richly and meticulously plotted for over twenty-five years since the first appearance of Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) in Fire Walk With Me – but unfortunately this ending is the scrappy bust-up in Sheriff Truman’s office. Imagine mapping out every intricate detail of the story for years on end and then being handed a celebratory sandwich by Candie!
The strange thing is that Twin Peaks supplies exactly the happy ending that many of its fans want. It has technically fulfilled its side of an implicit contract. BOB is smashed, Chad (John Pirruccello) ends up in cuffs, everybody who is good gets a sandwich, and then Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to live in domestic bliss with Janey-E and Sonny Jim (Naomi Watts/ Pierce Gagnon). Our dissatisfaction arises from the blatant indications of insincerity on the show’s part or from its undisguised boredom with its own ending. Maybe, during all of the years that we had been engrossed in the lives of the Twin Peaks townspeople, Lynch and Frost had never actually believed in their own product.
The festive atmosphere of the finale is overlaid with an alternative one of immense disquiet. Cooper’s impassive face floats above or beneath the rejoicing. If you are watching Twin Peaks on a laptop then Cooper’s face initially looks like the reflection of your own that you are usually rearranging the room’s light to efface. Next, his unsmiling mugshot is like the ghost at the banquet, bleakly unseen by the merrymakers. At this point, you might realise that Cooper was never himself a codebreaker. Codebreaking was a part of his method and personality, but what he had termed the “deepest level of intuition” had involved throwing rocks at a glass bottle. The ghostly face represents his deepest level of intuition, the dawning, fearful wisdom that evil can never be defeated and that you can never go back to an unspoiled past.
The Twin Peaks that we have been watching for four months has been a “tulpa” of our own mass creation. We have come together to interrogate the clues, to let our mouths water over the cherry pie, and to wait impatiently for Dougie Jones to stop blocking the story. It was easy to ignore those tell-tale signs that the narrative was becoming slightly too dreamlike to be tenable, as when Nadine (Wendy Robie) simply gave up on a lifetime of keeping Big Ed (Everett McGill) to herself, or when a girl (Priya Diane Niehaus) started to overflow with green vomit in a random car outside the Double R Diner. In the finale, the unreality can be no longer ignored. The gangrene has become so putrid that Lynch will be forced to amputate the town of Twin Peaks from his story. But we had known all along in our heart-of-hearts that we couldn’t go back, hadn’t we?
To nostalgically covet the world of Twin Peaks is to miss the reality that this world had always been a fallen one. Indeed, it was the death of Laura Palmer that had brought this world on to our screens. To make yourself at home with Lucy and Big Ed and the Double R Diner is to be reconciled with a town in which Laura’s goodness was absent. Some middling region on Kyle MacLachlan’s spectrum of performances – one shorn of the goodness of Dougie Jones (who is now with his family in Las Vegas) and the evil of Bad Coop (who is flaming forevermore in a comfortable armchair) – returns to try to prevent Laura’s death. His folly or hubris is to think that Twin Peaks can be complete – that it can be solved.
If Laura had never died, then nothing in season one or two would have happened, including Cooper’s visit to Twin Peaks. Or, to take the last first, if BOB was destroyed in the Sheriff’s office then, since he exists outside of time, Laura would have never been murdered.
We are soon immersed in this very alternative reality. The first hour or so of Cooper’ new adventure has the feel to it of an independent noir thriller. The humour of the original Twin Peaks remains available – a fight concludes with some cowboys’ guns being dropped into a deep fat fryer. But it is a cold, alien world, without the innocence of Dale Cooper or the goodness of Laura Palmer. It should be noted that, like the endings of season one and two, Cooper comes to mischief in his original hotel room in the Great Northern Hotel. At the end of season one he was shot there – when two was done he smashed up his face there – and now he enters the alternative reality using his key to the same room.
In contrast with the “jobsworth” who was the earliest victim of the magical green glove, Cooper will not refuse to pursue the truth because it is more than his job’s worth. His statement “I am the FBI” still holds true – he still has the badge and it still opens doors. In the alternative reality, he, Diane and Laura are walking the Earth under different names. They all live with crime and maybe they have been all at some point reallocated new identities. Or maybe they had never inhabited the identities by which we know them. Carrie (née Laura) seems to confirm that her parents have the same names as Laura’s and that she is ignorant of their whereabouts. Had a girl been sexually abused by her father, she might have gone into care and remained hidden from him under a new name. She might be still curious about the welfare of her lost mother.
Richard (née Cooper) and Carrie drive to Twin Peaks. “Recognise anything?” When they drive past the Double R Diner, it is dark and uninhabited. Billy and Tina and Chuck and all of these characters who are referred to by Audrey Horne, and during the mysterious conversations at the Roadhouse, could plausibly people this alternative universe. When Richard asks the baffled owner of what we know as the Palmer residence, “is Sarah Palmer here?,” the name is as unfamiliar to her as Tina is to us.
There is a rustle of the familiar behind this reality’s innocuous gloss. The name of the house’s former owner, Mrs Tremond, is shared with that of an old woman from the first reality, who was either psychic or a spirit. It is Cooper who is more than literally not himself. Depleted and with his voice echoing, he does not regard this new clue as anything other than hopeless. The alternative reality ends, like the original Twin Peaks dreamscape, with darkness falling over it.
This ending is not fanciful or irrelevant – it represents the triumph of evil. Carrie screams after apparently hearing Laura’s mother cry out with despair. BOB is undefeated because if Laura was never murdered, then the twenty-seven-year trail of events would have never led up to him being pulverised with the green glove. Good and evil thus stand conjoined, like twin peaks on the landscape.
Postmodernism is a philosophical dogma in which there is no truth, only an infinity of contradictory narratives that are all equally untrue. Aesthetically, its most characteristic medium is metafiction. In my view, the detachment and game-playing that are indicative of metafiction mean that postmodernism has never produced a great work of literature. You can list potential candidates off on one hand – Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Paul Auster all spring to mind. None of them have the stature of a Mark Twain or a Henry James. Things look more promising in the cinema, with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Blade Runner (1982), and Pulp Fiction (1994) all eligible to be categorised as postmodern masterpieces.
Twin Peaks: The Return might not necessarily be the first great postmodern work of art but it does seem like the most postmodern work of great art so far. This is probably David Lynch’s last storytelling project. He will never be trusted in quite the same way again after leaving one of his most beloved creations stranded in another dimension. After promising a banquet of nostalgia, he leaves us with empty stomachs. We cannot dine on postmodern sniggering. Even so, Lynch will be surely never able to better the scale and brilliance of Twin Peaks: The Return. It feels like the culmination of his aesthetic. The last two hours have been his achievement of a lifetime.