Twin Peaks and the Search of the Western

When I first started this blog, I had one main goal: to talk about films and games in an engaged manner without getting overly academic about it; to remove the artifice of pretension from my writing without sacrificing any observations on deeper meaning. Now, for the most part, this goal has manifested itself in writing about the sometimes profound meaning some action films hold for me. And while I think that’s a worthy pursuit, I also understand how pretentious that can appear. It’s like saying, “Look, you just don’t GET Sylvester Stallone like I do, okay?” So, in the interest of trying a different approach, and just because I can’t get this particular subject out of my damn head, we’re going to look at something far more “high-brow” and written about…

The third season of Twin Peaks.

Spoilers. Obviously.


For those of you who aren’t v-neck-sweater-wearing film snobs or old/nostalgic to know this, Twin Peaks… you know, after spending five minutes or so trying to finish that sentence, I still honestly don’t know how! It’s that kind of experience. There are the technical details: it started as a network television show on ABC in 1990, a sort of classic “whodunit” crime soap opera set in the titular small Northwestern town where everyone and their mother has some deep dark secret or scandal as FBI detective Dale Cooper investigates the murder of Laura Palmer, yet supernatural elements are soon revealed to be at play. It was directed by David Lynch, who has also directed the eccentric, brilliant films Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Lost Highway, whose directorial style is barely even hinted at by the word “idiosyncratic.” Yet to simply describe its parts and call it a day—crime, drama, soap opera, supernatural, horror, surrealist—is to mistake the forest for the trees. As with any profound work of art, the best ways to get at the whole of Twin Peaks are in describing the odd details and moments.

I still remember the sense of fear creeping up in my chest as the scraggly demon Bob walked closer and closer to the camera in Donna’s brightly lit living room, feeling there was nothing she—or I—could do to halt his advance, unable to move or hide. I laugh yet feel reassured every time Dale Cooper, played by the inimitable Kyle McLachlan, shows up on screen saying such simple yet charming lines as, “Damn fine cup of coffee.” I am still moved at how deeply this show believes in a universal decency, as if cherry pie, coffee, FBI agents, love, and Tibetan meditation practices are all cut from the same cloth, come from the same source. And, above all else, before the airing of Twin Peaks: The Return, I was haunted by Cooper’s brave, terrifying, and ultimately doomed journey through the heart of darkness itself at the end of Season 2, forever wandering the labyrinthine halls of The Black Lodge as Bob possessed his body.

With such a dour ending as this, it is unsurprising that so many fans of the show felt cheated, that they deserved a third season and some closure. I distinctly remember my mother, an otherwise uber-fan of the show, acidly remarking that this was clearly Lynch’s petty response to the show being cancelled, that he was simply being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. Yet, as always with Lynch, the joke is on us if we come into his work with any expectations—especially such nostalgic and indulgent expectations as we hold coming into The Return. Even the name promises some sort of impossible time travel, the allure of bringing back the show we loved intact and whole and familiar and comforting. But, the uneasy truth is, that feeling at the end of Season 2 is not some aberration.

That haunted feeling of loss is the emotional core of the entire show.


And with that, we’re going to talk for realsies about The Return. All the spoilers ahead. 

Just as there were fewer more formative experiences for me than seeing the original Twin Peaks for the first time, there were fewer odder or more memorable experiences than watching The Return as it aired—always totally unprepared for whatever came next, pushing through an at times colossal feeling of disappointment and loss to satiate my curiosity, my burning desire to see Dale come back, dammit. And I’m going to make no bones about it, I fucking hated this thing the first time I saw it. The first three episodes had me on tenterhooks as I hung onto every detail waiting with more and more anticipation for what would come next, loving the slow pace…

And then it just kind of kept doing that. For a long time. And despite some incredible moments, and even standout episodes (episode 8 may be the best of the entire series), I was finding myself fed up with Dougie, adorable as he was, the slow pace, admirable as it was. Because while there were some lovely cinematic and thematic motives to all of these choices, at the time it really felt like Lynch had just completely lost his editor, especially when the grand mystery started feeling less than grand… and at parts incredibly predictable. It felt like it was manipulatively trading on the good faith of the several avid fans of the show, promising morsels of fan service in exchange for a slog of a main plot.

But then that finale happened, and the entire picture came into focus. The resulting thoughts and feelings kept me up at night.

Because The Return was never about fan service. It’s about something much less satisfying, much more haunting and ultimately, compelling than that. It’s about trauma, loss, and the never-ending search for Home itself.


Consider the machinations of the entire show. It is titled The Return, implying a comfortable return to what we love, yet none of the characters “Return”, really… they have all been ravaged by time, and those who return whole do not remain so. From the first episode, the main-main conflict is simple—Dale Cooper has to take his body back from Bob and return to the world whole. And for 16 episodes, we see a painstaking journey to this point, mostly from the perspective of Dougie Jones, an amicable, yet somewhat melancholy splinter of Cooper’s personality, an echo of how mute the usually chatty and chipper agent was at the end of Season 2 in the Black Lodge. Cooper is a symbol of ordinary yet profound decency, and we love him for it—but mercilessly, the show takes that away from us, destabilizing us. And it is from this point The Return starts, and never looks back.

Audrey appears for only three episodes, only to be in a terrifying, unknowable situation where we can only say that something is wrong. Oh, and that she was raped by Bad Coop for sure. Diane, a never-seen but until now untouchable symbol of friendship and goodness with Coop, has also been raped, and ultimately turned into a shade of herself by her trauma. The patrons of the Bang Bang Bar all have their own issues, to put it lightly (remember that woman being thrown into the ground among the crowd by bikers, unseen, uncared for, screaming?) Sarah Palmer has become a creature of pure malice and wounds, destructive toward everyone and herself. The main demons of the series are also born of trauma—the trauma of the creation of the atomic bomb. From this, they slowly take hold throughout the dark crevices of our collective world and thoughts, lingering just beneath the surface.  


And in this world of seemingly unending pain and trauma, we finally get catharsis—the return of Cooper in episode 16. And he makes everything better, immediately, just as we have been promised as an audience. He takes charge, he drives to Twin Peaks, he fights Bob and defeats him. He then goes a step further, finding the real Diane and saying goodbye to all of his deepest friends in this journey before stepping into the Other World for some unknown purpose. And then we learn he’s gone back in time to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—he’s catching Laura before she goes to Leo and Jacque’s cabin. He takes her hand, Pete doesn’t find her body in the morning by the water, and… I’ll admit it freely here, I started crying. After all this horror, all this pain and fear… the audience receives catharsis upon catharsis. We are potentially undoing the events of the entire series, and we never wanted it because we never thought it was possible—but seeing it now, seeing the possibility so close, we want it more than anything. I wept because I wanted to save Laura from that fate with her father with all my heart, I wanted Coop to get her out… 


And then Sarah Palmer smashes her photo. Laura lets out an ear-piercing shriek and disappears. Cooper is left alone in the dark woods, scanning the trees. The dread is back, the horror is back. It was not going to let us go that easily. Julee Cruise sings a final song of farewell, about how we don’t want to let go.

Finally, in the season finale, with all these possibilities in the air and still craving above all else that catharsis, Cooper and Diane go to yet another alternate universe, one where they can see their doppelgangers milling about, where Cooper is a cold, uncaring yet just as willful man. They have the creepiest, most distant sex you could imagine, and Diane leaves Cooper. And in less than an episode, so leaves one of the most-yearned for relationships in the show, ruined forever. In this strange alternate land, Not-Cooper finds Not-Laure in Odessa, Texas, and gets her to come with him to Twin Peaks to end all of this once and for all. He takes her there, they approach her house, dread in the air… but it is only a random couple there. They have nothing, no lead to go on, no catharsis. They stand in the middle of the street, dumbfounded and panicking and lost. Then, finally, something clicks—we hear someone, likely one of Laura’s parents, scream “LAURA!” from the house, and all the sickening trauma comes back to her in an instant—the sexual abuse from her father, all the pain and fear. Her eyes widen and she screams, and the lights of the entire world go out. And this is all we are left with. A journey to make things better, a desire to fix all that has hurt us, gone too far and horribly awry and sucking Laura right back into the world that hurt her so much.

It is at this point I recall the incredibly Western motif of the entire show, especially this season. As a genre, the Western has very searching, lost motifs. The silent, strong male protagonist searching for his love or gruffly righting every wrong, forever wandering the desert on our screens never finds resolution. Clint Eastwood will simply wander into another situation in the Spaghetti Western. And even the real-world frontier West on which the genre of frontier fiction is founded has these qualities. America aimlessly pushed outward out of a sense of “Manifest Destiny”, displacing citizens into unsafe territories as they felt dissatisfied, and searched, at great peril, these new borders for their Home.

And indeed, Twin Peaks is very much a psychedelic Western, except the frontiers are not the physical natural landscapes of the desert and the western territories, but our very understanding of ourselves and the universe. It brushes up against the boundaries of aliens, demons, angels, alternate realities, the hidden emotional currents of electricity and atomic bombs. This is the frontier that Dale Cooper, the new John Wayne, explores.

But this search is never satisfied. We never find Home again, as Home has been disrupted from the very first episode of the show with Laura Palmer’s murder. Remember the infinity symbol shown to Cooper by Jeffries in the season finales—trauma begets searching which, as the ending shows, begets more trauma. And our selves splinter more and more with each collision, into Dougies and Bobs, Mikes, new Dianes and atomic men and Richard Hornes. As Cooper searches for a way to save Laura, we too stay too long in the show out of a desire to save Cooper from the fate he begins the season in.  

What The Return (which I hope you now realize is a cruel, cruel title) emphasizes so hauntingly is how we can never return home. Yet if there is a failing of the show, it’s how it doesn’t build anything outside of this anguished thesis—it is a self-fulfilling dead-end prophecy, similar to the more solipsistic tenets of Romanticism. Because my first question after hearing “You can never go home,” is—“What now?”

And the show does not say. And that’s a little disappointing, given how humanist and sentimental Lynch clearly is. It’s a nihilistic statement not befitting his genuine faith in humanity. Still, what it does say, it says brilliantly.