by Benjamín Harguindey
A recap of Part 17 and shot-by-shot analysis of Part 18 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Created, produced and written by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch. Spoilers.
Before we go into Part 18, we have to go back the midpoint of Part 17, which is essentially the climax of The Return and, really, the whole show: Cooper’s evil doppelgänger has been slain, Bob vanquished for good and most of the cast has finally converged in Twin Peaks. Right after Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) retrieves his old hotel keys to room 315 at the Great Northern from Truman, a black and white, translucent close-up of Cooper fills the screen, and old Cooper declares thus: “Now there are some things that will change. The past dictates the future”. Hawk nods.
Now he seems to recognize the eyeless Naido, and we witness her transformation into Diane (Laura Dern) via Red Room smoke and mirrors. The close-up briefly fades away as Cooper and Diane kiss, but makes a return when we’re shown an image of a wall clock stuck at 2:53 (which adds up to 10, “The number of completion”). The close-up mumbles that “We live inside a dream” and the old regular Coop tells his audience “I hope I see all of you again. Every one of you”.
The lights flicker and Cooper, Diane and Gordon are transported to the depths of the Great Northern, where Cooper uses his old keys on a mystery door. He tells his companions not to follow him and, before stepping through the door, “See you at the curtain call”. He’s met on the other side by Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel), who recites the Fire Walk With Me incantation and takes him atop the convenience store, to meet Jeffries.
Cooper gives Jeffries a date – February 23, 1989, the night Laura Palmer was killed – and Jeffries replies that “[Gordon] will remember the unofficial version” and “This is where you’ll find Judy”, summoning with smoke the owl cave symbol, which turns into the figure 8 – an allusion to infinity, perhaps as a Möbius strip. Gerard murmurs “Electricity”, lights flash, the color drains from the image and Cooper is transported to the night of Laura Palmer’s demise, or the ending scene of Fire Walk With Me.
The scene plays out as before – Laura gets in a fight with James and walks away into the woods en route to her killers – but now Cooper appears before her. Laura (Sheryl Lee) recognizes him from a dream and takes his hand. Now we’re shown the beginning scene from the Twin Peaks pilot episode, only Laura’s body fades from the shore and Pete Martell goes about fishing as usual. Color returns to Laura Coop. “We’re going home”.
Just as it appears that Cooper has rewritten history and perhaps erased the events of the show out of continuity – having acted on his cryptic promise of change and that “the past dictates the future” – the present-day Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) is shown in a fit of rage at her home. Sarah takes Laura’s portrait and smashes a bottle against it, screaming and repeatedly stabbing the picture. The stabbing starts looping and the sound starts glitching. And in the past, Laura disappears from Cooper’s grasp, a shriek rans through the woods and Julee Cruise sings one final lament.
In synthesis Cooper has travelled back in time, attempted to prevent the murder of Laura Palmer but failed because of the violent intervention of Sarah Palmer, who by desecrating the picture of her daughter appears to secure her death in the past. The way the scene is shot, though, Sarah’s appearence is preceded by eerie, unwordly growling, and when she does appear we don’t see her face. Is it really Sarah? The last time we saw her she had literally peeled her face off, revealing a void of teeth and claws within. That her face remains hidden seems to imply that it is not Sarah who’s acting, but whatever possessed her earlier, outraged by Cooper’s actions in the past and bent on warding them off.
And so is prefaced Part 18, which essentially chronicles Cooper’s final attempt at saving the ill-fated Laura Palmer.
Having been transported back into the Red Room via the owl cave ring, Cooper’s doppelgänger burns eternal. Gerard keeps his promise to Cooper and creates a replacement “Dougie”, which is cheerfully sent back home to his wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and child Sonny Jim.
Now we replay the final moments of Part 17, where Cooper fails to rescue Laura in the past. Once more in the Red Room, Gerard questions him: “Is it future or is it past?” (not that it matters in the Lodges, which exist outside time). He beckons Coop to one last meeting with The Arm, who asks “Is it the story of the little girl who lived down the lane?”. Cooper then finds himself seated once more, with Laura whispering something in his ear before being violently driven away from him. Cooper next meets Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), who tells him once more: “Find Laura”.
Note how this is all a repeat of Part 2 – Cooper’s meeting with The Arm and his interactions with Laura and Leland. The only difference is the quote about “the little girl” and the fact that Cooper appears to be more in control. We see him actively manipulating the Red Room drapes, deftly fashioning an exit into Glastonbury Grove (finally coming out of it, having entered it during the finale of season two) and meeting once more with Diane. They ask each other: Is that really him? Is that really her? This reaffirms the destruction of Cooper’s doppelgänger and Diane’s tulpa.
Suddenly it’s the day after, and Cooper and Diane are driving down the highway. Diane is anxious about something and questions Cooper to no avail. Cooper stops the car at “exactly 430 miles” (from Twin Peaks?) and gets out to examine the surroundings. The whirr of electricity is in the air and there’re a couple of ominous cutaways to a high voltage electric post. Coop gets back in the car. “This is the place alright”. He warns Diane that “once [they] cross it could all be different”. They share what feels like a final kiss and then drive past the 430 mile mark.
What is the significance of the electric post? “Electricity,” said Gerard. We’ve seen how electric currents can be used to access different realities, much like portals. But what is the special significance of this one, and where does it lead to? Well, it may just be tied to the symbol Coop’s doppelgänger showed Darya (“What he wants”) in Part 2, which was also seen on a map in Part 11 (“You don’t ever wanna know about that” is all Hawk says about it). More on that later.
Coop and Diane are immediately engulfed by a strobe and put on a different highway at night. The scene recalls the film Lost Highway and its recurring imagery of speeding down highways at nighttime to signify shifting realities. In the case of the movie, those realities seemed to be contained within the mind of the protagonist, desperately working on a fugue. In Twin Peaks, we have not one but two travellers, and the reality warp seems to occur on a literal sense. The comparison is bolstered by Jeffries summoning a Möbius strip, a figure of seamless repetition that arguably provides the structure for Lost Highway. They eventually stop at a motel and Diane catches a glimpse of herself waiting ahead.
Cooper and Diane check in and go to their room, where they have sex at Cooper’s behest, and much to Diane’s apprehension. It is not a sexy or romantic scene. It’s quite awkward. Diane looks distressed and in pain and Cooper’s steely gaze is all too reminiscent of his doppelgänger’s, who you will remember raped Diane 25 years ago. Diane attempts to cover his face as she has sex with him, and the soaring love ballad in the soundtrack only makes things more perturbing. The morning after, Cooper awakes alone and finds a note from Diane telling him he’s changed and not to look for her… only it’s signed by “Laura” and is addressed to “Richard”.
Remember The Fireman’s warning to Cooper in Part 1? “4-3-0. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone”. Well, Cooper and Diane crossed the 430 threshold, and now they’ve taken the mantle of Richard and Linda (though Cooper remains conscious of the change). He gets back in the car and continues driving, apparently aimslessly, until reaching the town of Odessa, Texas, where a diner called Judy’s catches his interest. Inside he stops three cowboys from harrassing a waitress, disarms them, deep-fries their guns in oil and gets the waitress to give him the adress of another waitress, missing for three days now. He sets out to find her.
Cooper finds the house and when he knocks who answers the door but Laura. At least Cooper identifies her as such (and is played by Sheryl Lee), but the woman denies being Laura and claims to be one Carrie Page. In any case her memory seems to be jogged when Cooper mentions Leland and Sarah, and convinces her of going with him to Twin Peaks. As she packs we catch sight of a miniature white horse on the mantelpiece (a memento of the white horse seen in the original show, perhaps, as well as a token of Laura’s lost purity) and more shockingly the dead body of a man, sitting on a couch with a bullet hole in his forehead. Cooper notices him, but doesn’t say anything, nor does the woman.
We’re treated to about ten minutes of the couple driving at night, mostly in silence. Some of the dialogue of “Carrie” is ambiguous enough that it might be applying to Laura – like her failure to “keep things organized” and her regret about having been “too young to know better”. Cooper is mute all the way through, and seems to be channeling an eerie mix of his old self – essentially noble and righteous – but also some of the same cold, dispassionate meticulousness of his evil counterpart. At one point it even appears they’re being tailed, but he doesn’t flinch.
They stop for a refuel at what looks like the gas station at the end of the world, which is shot at a distance from a low angle, so it looks completely surrounded by darkness. For a minute you might think the show will end with them still on their way to Twin Peaks, or just as they’re entering. But no, they finally make it to the town, and there’s very little comfort to find in it. They cross the trestle bridge (“Ronette’s Bridge”). They drive around town but there isn’t a single soul in sight. They pass the Double R Diner. Something’s off about it. For one thing, it’s empty, closed and the lights are out, which we’ve never seen before. The camera pans across the café, a presentation so unique – it’s usually shown in a static wide shot – that it carries an unsettling effect.
This unsettling feeling continues all the way until Cooper parks in front of the Palmer household, which “Carrie” doesn’t seem to recognize. They knock on the door and are greeted by one Alice Tremond, who says she doens’t know a Sarah Palmer and bought the house off a Mrs. Chalfont. As they leave in defeat, Cooper seems to realize something, much to his horror, and asks “What year is this?”. Carrie doesn’t reply but begins shaking. And when Sarah Palmer’s voice can be heard calling for Laura, Carrie lets out a terrible scream, and the lights in the house go out.
The very last thing we see in the series is a looped image of Cooper sitting in the Red Room, Laura Palmer whispering into his ear. The rest is pure conjecture. So let’s conjecture away.
Let’s begin at the end – the loop of Laura whispering into Cooper’s ear. The same scene doesn’t just play earlier in Part 18, but it’s actually the same footage. In fact, Cooper’s wole trip back into the Red Room and his meetings with Gerard, The Arm, Leland and Laura are all lifted off Part 2. The show is no stranger to reusing old archive footage with a new spin, but because the setting is the Black Lodge – which exists outside of time – the question is, is the use of footage just an economical decision or is it meant to imply that Cooper is stuck on repeat? Is the entirety of the season contained in the wishful whisper seen at the beginning? Has Cooper’s renewed failure rebooted reality?
One thing is for sure: the finale of the series cannot be construed as anything other than failure. Cooper may be able to best some of the evil in the world, but in the end, he cannot undo it. Not by going back in time in Part 17, and certainly not by the events depicted in Part 18.
The question now is why does he fail? A simple guess of cause and effect suggests that Cooper’s rescue attempt is thwarted by the actions of Sarah Palmer, who seems to react to the rescue and her own actions seem to undo it subsequently. But why? Well, we’ve been given reason to suspect Sarah is concealing something – from Hawk’s visit in Part 12 and more explicitly her face-peeling reveal in Part 14. The question is what, and while there isn’t an obvious answer, there’s a pretty good guess that only takes just a little bit of suspension to stick.
Maybe Judy has taken over Sarah. Never mind how (yet), but everything we know about Sarah and Judy checks out. Gordon describes Judy as an “extreme negative force” and sure enough, that’s what Sarah appears to be hiding behind her visage. It would also account for her power to thwart the innate good of Cooper’s actions across time and way in the past. What else but an “extreme negative force”? Even the way the destruction of Laura’s portrait is shot calls to question Sarah’s real identity by hiding her face and preceding the violence with sounds of demonic growning.
So how did Sarah get to harbor Judy? Here comes another leap, albeit an educated one. What if Judy is incarnated in the Experiment (Erica Eynon), shown in Part 1 bursting from the glass box and seen in Part 8 birthing all sorts of evil? The only other clue we’re given about Judy’s identity comes from Jeffries, who tells Bob that he [Bob] has met Judy already, even if he doesn’t know it. We see Bob being birther from the so-called experiment, which would account to their meeting and also Bob’s ignorance about his own origin. So let’s go on the theory that this Experiment (credited as such, though never actually named) is a form of Judy. How does it connect back to Sarah?
Suppose Sarah was the “Girl” from 1956 (played by Tikaeni Faircrest), also shown in Part 8, being lulled to sleep by the Woodsman and infected by the hybrid creature spawned from Judy? Consider the rather poetic implication of Judy’s offspring infecting both Sarah and Leland Palmer (via the egg-hatching creature and Bob, respectively), and the White Lodge’s answer of concocting their child Laura as a countermeasure. With Bob’s defeat, Judy would go to a Plan B of sorts via an evil Sarah Palmer.
It’s not much of a stretch. There is evidence within the show that Judy is the Experiment, an “extreme negative force” who has met Bob and acts to thwart the extreme positive force of Cooper via Sarah Palmer, infected earlier in history. One last clue about this origin story might be The Arm’s question to Cooper, which goes “Is it the story of the little girl who lived down the lane?”. What are the odds that the story of the little girl who lived down the lane was shown to us in Part 8, through that nameless girl who walks and lives down what could easily be construed as a “lane”, and who herself could be a young Sarah Palmer, if not Laura by proxy?
The answer to The Arm’s question about Cooper’s quest is yes, it’s the story of the little girl who lived down the lane. The girl is Sarah, who would tragically channel so much evil, or maybe it’s Laura, who seems to have been engineered to suffer it and contain it. Laura and Sarah appear to have ended up as vessels for good and evil, respectively, and both of them illustrate this by peeling their faces to reveal lightness and darkness within, respectively.
Understanding the cosmic implications of the show and its puzzling finale may be more rewarding than deciphering the particulars of Cooper’s journey. His final words of alarm are “What year is this?”, though the answer may not be terribly important. Nothing about the world around him suggests anything other than the current year (or for that matter 2015, which is when the scene was shot). It may not be a question of when but where, and that where may be located in a different timeline, or a different dimension, or even the “real” world (the woman who plays the owner of the house, Mary Reber, actually owns the location).
The point is that Cooper has done everything “right”, following The Fireman’s instructions and heeding Jeffries’ warning to “Remember” (which he does, unlike Diane). But in the end he fails, because he’s destined to fail, because the extreme negative force that is Judy is stronger and works its influence across the space-time continuum. At least that’s the implication. The Tremond/Chalfont bait and switch you will remember from the second season, and whatever the specifics, it seems to entail that reality can be manipulated by higher powers. That we manage to hear Sarah Palmer’s faint cry for Laura even through Judy’s influence (which cues Carrie’s scream and perhaps her memories as Laura) appears to undo the faux reality and sends Cooper and Laura back to the Red Room, to an eternity of meditation on failure.
Back to the scene where Cooper and Diane drive past the 430 mile mark, while the camera keeps cutting back to an ominous high voltage electric post. If you see the resemblance with the symbol Mr. C was looking for, that he “wanted”, you will also make the connection to Judy, which Mr. C was also looking for. This may mean that Cooper has found Judy on his own, or at least with the aid of the Lodge residents, and that he’s going into the heart of the problem by confronting this extreme negative force known as Judy. In a way, that is his all-or-nothing moment: either he rights the wrong in Judy’s own turf or he doesn’t at all.
Maybe the whole season was contained in that whisper from Laura to Cooper. Maybe it was all a wishful projection for Cooper, who is doubled on screen as soon as he stands victorious over Bob, reminding himself that “we all live inside a dream” (Cooper’s? Laura’s?) and that it’s 2:53, which equals 10, which is the number of completion, which signals the end of Cooper’s wonderfully wish-fulfilling, extraordinarily lucky crusade and it’s time to go back to the Red Room.
However you read it, however you explain it, the result is failure. Evil has won, because good – as depicted in the show – is but an answer to evil, and no real match in the long run and the grand scheme of things. What little hope exists in the world lies on the relentlessness of good, even if the finale seems to suggest that all possible combinations of time and effort lead to the same results. By the end I’m not sure if Cooper has erased the series from continuity, simply skipped to an alternate, equally doomed dimension, remains trapped in the Black Lodge, or a combination of any of those. And even if we do live in a dimension where Twin Peaks gets a fourth season, Dale Cooper will continue to fail in his crusade.
It’s a beautiful but disheartening ending, and even if you can find some solace in its explanation, we’re left in the dark about so many characters. Some of them – Ed, Norma, Nadine, Jacoby – are given closure. Others are dropped altogether, despite their burgeoning subplots (Ben and his affair, Jerry serendipitously witnessing Richard’s death, the troubles endured by Bobby, Shelly and their daughter). What about all those mentions to Harry Truman? And whatever became of Audrey? Is she still in a coma? Has she been locked away in an institution? Or is her fate of the paranormal kind? Once more the character is shortchanged with another cliffhanger.
What do I think of all of it, personally? I would’ve loved a happier ending. To see Cooper as anything other than victorious is a pain. I would’ve loved to see the show end on a similar tone to that reached in Part 16, with Coop returning in all of his do-good glory and converging in Twin Peaks for a more heartfelt reunion with the rest of the cast. Instead he’s railroaded once more into yet another paranormal binge that proves too much for him, and his fate is rendered ambiguous once more. Only now we’re also left to wonder about the fate of Twin Peaks, both the town and the series, with only our memories for comfort.
And in that regard, now we’re all Dale Cooper.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).