The return of Twin Peaks is a lot to process. After each episode, Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall and Keith Phipps attempt to hash out what we all watched.
Alan: Keith, at first, I was glad that the holiday weekend meant our final Peaks conversation would be postponed a day, because I felt I needed more time to process The Return‘s conclusion. I thought a lot about it, and I read eloquently written, highly laudatory finale reviews by my old pal Matt Zoller Seitz and your former colleagues Noel Murray and Todd VanDerWerff. Ultimately, though, the extra day wasn’t really necessary, because my feelings this morning are exactly what they were on Sunday night: a mix of wonder (primarily at the first half of “Part 17”) and frustration (at most everything that happened after Cooper left Frank Truman’s office). This is often the combination I get from watching the works of David Lynch, but ideally the ratio is far more in favor of wonder than it was here.
Now, I wasn’t shocked or angered by the non-conclusion, because I’d come to expect it from both the larger Lynch canon and from Twin Peaks in particular, which infamously ended its ABC run on a cliffhanger. (Or did it? We’ll get back to that in a second.) But there is opting not to resolve your story — not to resolve many of your stories, in fact, and I look forward to reciting my list of stories The Return introduced and then forgot about — and there is devoting a massive chunk of your final episode, apparently ever, on a couple of silent road trips that seemed to be occurring in real time, and then ending with such little emotional or narrative closure. There were times in The Return where Lynch’s self-indulgences still felt in service to a particular mood, but a lot of this played to me like an artist realizing he was about to say goodbye forever to his most famous creation, and trying so hard to elongate his final moments with it that he lost his grip on it altogether.
I recall feeling similarly as a teenager watching Cooper’s endless wanderings through the Black Lodge in the final ABC episode, and initially read “How’s Annie?” as a defiant gesture aimed at a network that had long since stopped supporting the show. But in the years since, I came to accept it as an actual ending, even if it wasn’t the one I wanted: good tries hard, as always, but darkness triumphs, as always. Finis.
Maybe in time I’ll come to accept the puzzling encounter with the woman in the Palmer house (played by the home’s actual owner, in a nice touch for a part of the finale that seemed more visually tethered to the real world than the rest) and Laura’s scream similarly. I can construct plausible theories about what happened: the Jeffries tea kettle sends Cooper back to prevent Laura’s murder, and in the process he creates an alternate timeline where she is somehow Carrie Page (and Cooper and Diane are now Richard and Linda), or that spot on the desert highway simply transports Cooper and Diane to a parallel universe, or some combination of the two. But the way in which the concluding sequence unfolded — both the driving sequence that put the old Black Lodge curtains scene to shame for how long it kept going and going and going, and then Cooper’s utter bafflement at meeting Alice Tremond — sucked away most of my emotional investment in the story, and made the whole thing feel like a set-up for a fourth season (Twin Peaks: The Return Returns?), even though Showtime has said there are no plans for one.
There’s so much more about the finale — and the season as a whole — I want to talk about with you, Keith, including that aforementioned list of danglers, plus how improbably powerful it was to watch a random English guy in a gardening glove punch a floating rock with Frank Silva’s face on it, but let’s start with that ending. You’ve told me you loved every bit of the finale, so tell me more about why. What were you feeling as Laura screamed and we cut to the credits?
Keith: I’m glad we had a little time to process this one, too, and I feel like I have needed it. (And, before I forget, we should add Sonia Saraiya’s Variety review to that reading list. This finale really brought out the best in our TV writers.) My first thought, like yours, is that the finale scene was an unexpected set-up for another season (or a feature film or whatever) and that I’d be disappointed if such a thing didn’t happen. There’s a lot of unfinished business and, wait, what was all that anyway? Then I started to think this would be an appropriate place to end it. To my eyes, these last two episodes are a case of Lynch and Frost trying to split the difference between fans’ expectations and less expected final episode. “Episode 17” brought much of the cast of characters together in one place at last and mostly settled up the business of the main plot. Bad Coop gets turned into a Bob madball and disintegrates into little pieces.
Then things fall apart. Much of what I love about these last hours is the way they keep finding variations on the theme you laid out above: “Good tries hard, as always, but darkness triumphs.” We get a brief glimpse of a world in which Cooper is able to prevent Laura from being killed — joined to some lovely and unsettling Orpheus and Eurydice imagery of him walking with her through the woods — but in the end her fate is sealed. And I don’t think it’s an accident that so much focus falls on the Palmer house in this last stretch. This is ultimately a story of the little girl who lives down the lane and what happened to her in that house is what set Twin Peaks in motion. Sure, there could have been stories of Blue Rose cases and we might have followed Agent Cooper’s adventures elsewhere, but that would be in a different sort of series. At heart, this is a fatalistic story about Laura Palmer (“Episode 10: Laura Is The One”), a girl who never really had a chance and how the abuse she suffered in the house have rippled out through the years (“Episode 17: The Past Dictates The Future”).
It’s a pessimistic vision but I don’t think it’s a nihilistic one. From the start, Twin Peaks has depicted a universe in which the good we make in the world comes from the moments we kick back against the darkness. (Or sometimes, the moments in which we can use gloved, superpowered fists to punch at it.) But the darkness has a way of creeping in. Once you let go of what you want from a Twin Peaks finale, I think “Episode 18” is one of the most haunting depictions of this in Lynch’s career, an uncompromising variation of what he did with Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire brought to the world of this beloved TV show whose universe we think we understand. We’ve been waiting all season for MacLachlan to go Full Coop, and he gets to live in that Boy Scout-ish skin for maybe 10 minutes of screen time. But the Cooper we see after he loses Laura and, especially, after he wakes up from his night with Diane is different. He’s not full-on Bad Coop, but the Cooper we know would take no pleasure in assaulting a diner full of hicks, even if they had it coming. And if, in this alternate dimension, Carrie Page is a Laura who lived, she’s clearly had a life of hardship and violence as well. They’re beaten-up characters attempting to find the light by going to what Cooper believes to be a place that can redeem the troubles they’ve experienced but, in the end, the voice screaming out “Laura” confirms there’s no escape.
All this worked for me, especially once I let go of the notion that the episode would be circling back to deal with lingering business in the town of Twin Peaks, particularly Audrey. (If anything, the end of the previous episode now seemed like a set-up for loose ends, thanks to footage from the pilot and Fire Walk With Me that seemed to dwell on unmentioned plot threads (“Bobby killed a guy!”) and characters unseen in The Return. (Hello Catherine, Leo, and Josie.) This is to say nothing of the moments that started to draw back the curtain on the fact we were watching fictional characters in a made-up universe and should think of them as such.) Then again, I found the endless driving footage remarkable and could have watched more of what’s become Lynch’s signature shot: headlights just strong enough to see what’s immediately ahead but unable to pierce the darkness of the night. When they finally hit Twin Peaks, it’s almost shocking the way Lynch shoots landmarks like the RR Diner. We know these places but we’ve never seen them in this light. If anything sums up The Return it’s these images.
But maybe that’s not enough? Alan, let’s get into what remains frustrating about these eighteen episodes. Would the strange case of “Why Was Ashley Judd’s Character In This Anyway?” be a good place to start?
Alan: I’m with you on the idea that it’s thematically appropriate to end on a nihilistic, even baffling note. I just didn’t like the execution of it, especially coming on the heels of an hour-plus that mostly left me cold (with a few exceptions like the aforementioned shot of the RR from a more “real world” perspective), and especially with so many more bits of business left behind.
And speaking of Ashley Judd and friends, I have compiled a list of stories that I either wanted more closure on, or was left wondering why they were in The Return in the first place, other than Lynch’s need to fill all those extra hours he leveraged Showtime into giving him. It is not a complete list, as I’m sure my brain has already erased entire characters and subplots as if I traveled through the same desert portal as Richard and Linda (there must be some leftover Buckhorn business), but it’s what I’ve got so far:
- Where is Audrey, and what is happening to her?
- What is in the house with Sarah Palmer, and what is the entity hiding behind her face?
- Is Steve dead or alive? What happened to Becky? To Donna’s kid sister?
- Who was responsible for the glass box in New York City? What is the relationship of the monster that came out of it to Bad Coop, the Black Lodge, Judy, etc?
- Beverly (and her husband): why?
- Who were all the Roadhouse randos, and who were they talking about?
- Who sent the accountant to kill Hutch and Chantal? Was it Bad Coop wrapping up his earthly business?
- Whither James and Renee?
- What happened to the girl who swallowed the frog-bug? Is she connected in any way to the Palmers or any other character?
- What other furniture did Lucy and Andy buy for their study, and what did Wally Brando think of it?
That list is a mixture of things I genuinely care about, particularly Audrey, and things that left me wondering why Lynch and Frost bothered with them at all, but this all gets back to the argument you and I have been having all summer, Keith. There was obvious and abundant brilliance here, but it was padded out with non-characters, narrative dead ends, and other indulgences that only served to distract from the things Lynch, Frost, and company were doing so well. There’s an inherent looseness to this world, and to Lynch’s work in general, but there’s loose and then there’s loose, and The Return was too loose, too often, even with the things it did resolve. Consider Richard Horne, whose death you and Josh discussed while I was on vacation. Here’s a character introduced in one of those Roadhouse rando vignettes — one of the few that wound up with any bearing on the plot, in fact — with no real explanation of his identity or relationship to other characters beyond his name appearing in the cast credits, who wasn’t tied in-story to the rest of the Horne family until many episodes later, and whose full origin story was explained in a single line of dialogue after his death. That’s bad storytelling, plain and simple, and there was enough of that kind of thing scattered throughout The Return to fill half the rooms at the Great Northern. Even the great Freddie/Bob showdown — Lynch making incredible lemonade out of the lemon that was the death of Frank Silva — was undercut to a degree by how late Freddie was introduced into the series, and how little we knew of him other than the (admittedly detailed and charming) story he told James about how he acquired his superpower. This was deus ex gardening glove.
Meanwhile, as you note, we got maybe 10 minutes of Cooper as the guy we knew and loved from the original series (most of that in “Part 16”) after hour upon hour of Dougie the holy fool. The moments we did get of the full Cooper were so thrilling in part because of the long delay, but it felt like Lynch lost interest in that version of the character very quickly — as if, once he’d fulfilled his obligation to let us enjoy that guy, and to place him in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station around the remaining characters who knew and loved him, he wanted to be done with giving the audience what they wanted, and give us what he felt we needed. I can respect that approach (it’s one of the reasons I so love the more inscrutable moments of Twin Peaks‘ creative descendants like The Sopranos), but it’s much easier to swallow if I haven’t spent so much time watching Becky cry and hearing about Chuck and Billy and Tina.
I’ll admit that given how rambling the earlier chapters were, these last three or four resolved more than I was expecting, but the whole of The Return still feels like less than the sum of its intermittent amazing parts. Have I forgotten anything significant that didn’t get returned to? And now that you can step back and look at the whole of it, do you feel this was worth the 18 hours, or would we have been better off if Showtime had held firm to the initial planned length of nine episodes?
Keith: I guess one question I would ask is if you’d be less bothered if you knew there was more Twin Peaks on the horizon? I doubt there will be, but The Return itself was such an unexpected development, nothing would surprise me.
I have some thoughts on some of those unanswered questions, but, to answer the big question first, I absolutely think this was worth the 18 hours, dangling threads and all. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it, honestly, much less try to cut it down to nine streamlined episodes, even if those nine episodes contained a more streamlined, coherent narrative. And while I can’t argue with you that introducing a late-arriving English kid with a magic glove would count as bad storytelling in virtually any other show, Twin Peaks has, in each incarnation, not been like any other show. That’s what’s defined it. Freddie doesn’t make me blink. The seeming dead ends don’t make me blink. I wouldn’t trade the languorous stretches, be it “Green Onions” or the emotionally fraught lovemaking of the finale, to know more about Renee, especially since that shot of her crying at James’ performance probably tells me everything about her I need to know. At the end of it, this feels like a remarkable work, both as a continuation of Twin Peaks and as an addition to Lynch’s filmography, and the final episode, an unexpected turn that’s casts everything we’ve seen before in a new light, just makes it that much greater an achievement.
But let’s get granular. Here are my best, brief attempts at addressing the points raised above, assuming Twin Peaks: The Return is a finished work with a narrative reason for everything we’ve see:
• Audrey remains in a coma. Some but not all of the Roadhouse exchanges we’ve seen are in her head, perhaps because she’s still keying off events in the outside world even in her comatose state.
• With Sarah, I think you can read the scene of her smashing Laura’s picture as doubling as the moment that kept Laura from escaping her fate. The house is a site of evil (or fate) and she’s a resident doing its bidding, calling Laura back.
• Steve and Becky are dead. Donna’s kid sister is traumatized.
• New York: [Shrug?]
• Beverly is there primarily as a confirmation that Ben has become a changed, and more virtuous man, by not getting drawn into her femme fatale scheme. The old Ben wouldn’t have responded as he did.
• Roadhouse randos: See above.
• Was the accountant really there to kill Hutch and Chantal? I just took that as a bit of random American violence. (“What the fuck kind of neighborhood is this?” “People are under a lot of stress, Bradley.”)
• James and Renee: The Return did a fair amount of compressed storytelling when it came to matters like the Ed / Nadine / Norma love triangle, which was revisited and wrapped up in just a few scenes. This is an even more extreme version than that, but do we need to know more about James other than that he finally found a woman who appreciates him for who he is? (Specifically, a nice, sappy guy in a rebel’s clothes.)
• I see “Episode 8” as a depiction of evil coming into the atomic age world of David Lynch’s childhood, a world that deeply influences the universe of Twin Peaks, which often uses images of its corruption to great effect. (Take, for instance, the convenience store, or even just the creepiness of the diner in the final episode.) It takes place in the Twin Peaks universe, but any specific connection to the characters of Twin Peaks feels like a stretch.
• And the unanswered question of Lucy and Andy’s furniture choices now makes me think there has to be a fourth season. I will not rest until I know.
I doubt those will satisfy you and I don’t even know if they satisfy me. But I also don’t know that little dangling bits makes The Return any less of an accomplishment.
Alan: We will have to agree to disagree on the shagginess. A version of The Return without, say, Steve/Becky/Gersten loses nothing, in my opinion. (Ooh, I just remembered another dangler! Who the bleep is Red, does he actually have supernatural powers — to make coins appear in Richard’s mouth, to mesmerize Shelly while she’s in the midst of a big family moment with Bobby and Becky — and what was the point of him at all?)
And the Audrey of it all in particular feels like Lynch in that same “How’s Annie?” mode of defiance, but this time sticking it not to the network, but to both the fans and to Sherilyn Fenn. Why delay Audrey’s return for so long, make each of her scenes before the dance so unpleasant and repetitive, then tease the image of her looking so haggard and confused in that white space and provide no further explanation? A lot of the other things I can shrug off (as you say, “Part 8” was more about the origin of evil in general, even if Bob did emerge from the mushroom cloud), but the more I think about the Audrey story, the angrier I get, and the more I wish Lynch and Frost had simply left her out of it altogether along with Donna, Leo, Annie, Catherine, and the other veterans of the original series for whom The Return had no interest (other than in archival footage).
When The Return was great — Big Ed in the diner waiting for the universe and Otis Redding to answer his prayer (which they did!), Lucy shooting Bad Coop (and finally understanding cellular phone technology!), and Hawk and Margaret Lanterman’s final conversation, to name just three of many knockout moments — it lived up to every dream I could have possibly had about a revival, and then some. And then in other moments — “Green Onions,” the sheer tonnage of Dougie, Chuck and Billy and Tina and Chuck and Billy and Tina and Chuck and Billy and Tina — it reminded me of all my fears for the show, and of my general Lynch agnosticism. The original series remains my favorite of his works because — at least through the episode that closed the Palmer investigation — Mark Frost’s interest in more traditional narrative styles made for the perfect “your chocolate’s in my peanut butter” blend with Lynch’s eccentricities and command of mood and emotion. It was never a 50/50 partnership even back then, but I’d have preferred The Return if it exhibited more of Frost’s influence, particularly at this length.
That said, I’d place the very best moments of the revival ahead of all but a handful of original recipe Twin Peaks moments — which, considering how highly I rank the old show in the history of all of television, is a remarkable thought to contemplate — and I can’t blame Lynch true believers like you and Matt and Noel from adoring every last bit of this. I hate pretty much all TV revivals and think this trend is a plague on the business. For all the grousing I did over the last few months, I did not hate this, and in fact often found myself stunned by how much I loved it.
Before we meet up for the curtain call, Keith, any last thoughts?
Keith: I think you’ve correctly outed me as a Lynch true believer, but I feel like I should qualify that a little. I’m a longtime admirer but I went into this with a fair amount of trepidation. It’s his first significant work since Inland Empire in 2006, and that’s a movie that still doesn’t really work for me even on repeat viewings. (Your “moments of stunning brilliance surrounded by question marks” summation of The Return pretty much nails my feelings about that film.) But then Lost Highway really didn’t work for me the first time around but, after revisiting it 10 years later, it became one of my favorite Lynch films. I’ve always had a hard time with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but I wonder if it plays differently on the other side of The Return, since much of what I assumed was going on in that movie now looks much different in light of what’s followed. In other words, I don’t feel like I lose critical perspective with Lynch, even though he’d make any list of my favorite directors.
That said, I’ve felt like we were witnessing something special each week with Twin Peaks: The Return. I tuned into every episode not knowing what to expect and left each one surprised with what we got and eager for another installment. There are few directors as talented at blurring the lines between dreams and filmed images, and The Return found Lynch working at the height of his abilities while remaining anchored to by what had come before with Twin Peaks (and the expectations of television in general, however strange the series got). If this is the end, and I suspect it is, it feels like a fine ending, an acknowledgement that the story Twin Peaks has been telling has no real resolution. It’s tempting, to borrow a line from a song used in another show’s finale, to say that the movie never ends it goes on and on and on. But really it always ends the same way, with a scream and a whispered secret and an unanswered mystery that only deepens the more we learn and the longer we try to chase it down a road that seems to grow darker with each turn.