Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: The Return Parts 17 & 18 - "The past dictates the future."/"What is your name?"

Monday, September 4, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return Parts 17 & 18 - "The past dictates the future."/"What is your name?"


Poor Cooper. He stands uniquely in David Lynch's work - a hero so sterling and steadfast that when the narrative mill eventually demands more complexity and darkness, it must manufacture an evil copy of him to do the trick. Twenty-five years ago, the second season of Twin Peaks struggled up to that endpoint, providing a serviceable backstory to set him up for his final Lodge confrontation with a shadow-self who feels as incongruous to him as to us. When "the good Cooper" returned in Part 16, it was with the full force of the first season's bravado - commanding but generous, cheerful yet sensitive, enthusiastic and wise at the same time. This is the Cooper who shows up at the sheriff's station in Part 17 to oversee the destruction of his doppelganger and the Bob bubble - emphasis on "oversee" since it's Lucy (in a marvelous twist!) and Freddie the Glove who do most of the heavy lifting. And this is the Cooper who, in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz and one of the better moments from the old "Leland's wake" episode (where the original series went horribly wrong, erasing the Palmers and kicking Coop out of the FBI), says goodbye to his lovably cartoonish friends and associates before heading into that humming door beneath the Great Northern. This takes Cooper right into the darker, deeper, more abrasive realm of Twin Peaks where he has always been much more lost. The first half-hour of the two-hour finale is an absolute joy and delight, a satisfyingly zany conclusion to a story that doesn't take itself too seriously. And then, with the length of a feature to go, the true brilliance begins - and we are reminded why Cooper is, and will remain, "poor Cooper."

Again, there isn't anyone else quite like Cooper in any other Lynch film. Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet comes close, but he's far less assured than Cooper in his righteousness ("I don't know whether you're a detective or a pervert," Laura Dern's Sandy told that MacLachlan character, in a line that feels like a thirty-years-ahead prologue for their roles in Part 18). Likewise, other do-gooders like Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man or Alvin Straight in The Straight Story are deeply troubled and haunted by their own ambiguities, while Fred Madison/Pete Dayton in Lost Highway and Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive turn out to be the villains of their own stories. Certainly Sailor in Wild at Heart and maybe Henry in Eraserhead arrive in a blissful place, but their approach is naively intuitive in a way that Cooper is just a bit too wise to pull off. This is not to say Lynch's work eschews knowing heroism altogether. But Nikki Grace/Susan Blue in Inland Empire, John Merrick in The Elephant Man, and Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me achieve transcendence not just through empathy but through the direct experience of their own trauma. As Lynch reveals yet again, Cooper is not, in fact, a contradiction of these tendencies: he underscores them by contrast. (This is not to say he doesn't have his own traumas, as Tumblr writers in particular have astutely unraveled - but to me, at least, it seems that he is able to avoid reckoning with them in a way Nikki/Susan, Merrick, and Laura could not.) This is why Cooper is unique and why, ultimately, he may be one of the Lynchverse's most deeply tragic individuals. In my commentary on the season two finale, I observed, "Cooper means well. But he never quite understands what he's up against, nor how best to deal with it. His treatment of Bob as a purely possessive demon, and Leland as an innocent victim are at best, half-truths. He listens to and respects Laura without truly understanding her. Perhaps, tragically, he was the wrong hero for this tale all along."

Perhaps so, but (with the exception of Fire Walk With Me) he remains the hero nonetheless; his personal tragedy becomes The Return's narrative void - an inability to ever quite cross over into Laura's consciousness (and therefore a true experience of Twin Peaks' heart, as embodied in the prequel which gave her life). The irony, of course, is that Cooper literally does enter that very film! In one of The Return's most brilliant conceits, and what has to be own favorite flourish of all, Lynch forces the audience to sit through the film maudit many *still* may have avoided or dismissed, as if to say "You're gonna fucking get this movie no matter how much you want Twin Peaks to be about something else." Shorn of its score and drenched in monochrome but still alight with the fury of Sheryl Lee's performance and the bleakness of its subject, the scene is powerful and its re-conception is exceptionally clever (now we know what Laura sees - and screams at - offscreen). Necessarily, Lynch has to stretch digital effects (and blur Laura's features, or so it seemed on my monitor) to re-render the young Laura for his 2017 show but this is all the more effective in light of where this touching scenario goes. Just as Lynch's strain to offer Laura a belated way out is evident in the effects, so Cooper's strain is evident within the narrative. He's unable to reach the golden pool of Ghostwood before Laura is whisked away (twice, or many more times in a Groundhog Day-like repetition, or is Part 18 just echoing a single moment)?

The gesture is beautiful, moving, a little troubling - is Cooper robbing Laura of her agency? does such a question matter when she's about to die horribly? - and of course, doomed to failure. Why? "The past dictates the future," as the title tells us, even when it's "future past"? Laura's transcendence lies only through direct confrontation with her tormentor and an angelic intervention to rescue Ronette? More grimly, because the universe has a plan and you can't unbreak those eggs? Or for a reason less fixed, having to do with Cooper himself...the fact that by positioning himself as a rescuer, however deeply motivated by compassion, he is trying to lead rather than allowing himself to be led? As with much of these two episodes, it can be difficult to articulate why something works, but it works all the same. To the extent anything is concretely implied, the episode does lead us to believe that Laura's death has been undone. In a powerful moment (as much for its tribute to the never-quite-fulfilled Joan Chen and the long-gone Jack Nance), Lynch reconceives the opening of the Twin Peaks pilot without Laura's body: Pete is able to peacefully go fishing. Yet "The past dictates the future." also implies that a Laura who escapes death can't exist at all, recalling her line to Cooper in Part 1: "I am dead, and yet I live." And a harrowing cutaway to Sarah Palmer, smashing her daughter's portrait in their darkened home, suggests further complications I can't even begin to comprehend yet.

If the final hour's focus on Cooper and Laura is to be somewhat expected, its emphasis on Diane is surprising...yet it feels totally right. Diane is an essential character for several reasons. First of all, she is introduced simultaneously with Cooper in the pilot: literally his first line in all of Twin Peaks is "Diane." She is constructed as a useful absence, a signifier whose entire purpose is to serve Cooper, both implicitly within the narrative (as his secretary or assistant) but also on a meta-level, providing an un-answering service to which he can monologue, a mediator between the hero and the audience. As such, the character is the perfect symbol for Cooper's dark side, specifically his inability to see the humanity of women on their own terms rather than as vessels for his own guilt, chivalry, or desire. There is a dark logic to the fact that his doppelganger chose her to rape. Secondly, as she is costumed in Parts 17 and 18 (and interestingly, never before), Diane is the literal embodiment of the Red Room: red wig, alternating black and white nail polish, black shirt, and black/white dotted skirt. Martha Nochimson has written convincingly of the Red Room's feminine energy in Twin Peaks, and Cooper's varying relationship with this energy (receptive in his episode 2 dream, too willful in episode 29). On this level too, Diane serves a symbolic function - signifying the status (not so good) of Cooper's relationship to the intuitive, fluid Another Place.

It's worth mentioning at this point that Naido, the eyeless woman transported to the sheriff's station (good call for those who predicted this twist), turns out to be some sort of vessel for Diane. Cast ourselves back to Part 3 and recall that Naido is the one who sacrifices herself (or at least, is harmed) in her effort to save Cooper. The next woman to appear in the room, who is in much better condition than Naido and does not fall into the stars, is Ronette - or, rather, "American Girl" played by Ronette's actress, Phoebe Augustine. I think this is an interesting juxtaposition, considering that Laura's compassion arguably summons the angel that saves Ronette (whereas Laura's father and Bob probably wanted her to kill Ronette, cementing their control over Laura). On the other hand, Cooper's blindness inside the Lodge and the urges that motivate his unleashed doppelganger result in Diane's assault. Cooper can't even recognize Naido as Diane in the Purple World whereas Laura stares at Ronette and weeps, just before the angel emerges. If we see Ronette's escape as the key to understanding Laura's salvation in Fire Walk With Me, perhaps Diane's rape is the key to understanding Cooper's perpetual limbo at the end of The Return.

Finally, of course - and most importantly since it underscores the other points (and prevents a paradoxical illustration of what they are attempting to abstractly criticize), Diane is not just a symbol but a fully-fleshed character, as fractured as Laura Palmer and the women Laura Dern played in Inland Empire yet as fundamentally alive as all of them. Dern's performance continues to astonish; as extraordinary as MacLachlan's tour de force has been, she has been just as much of a revelation in a different way. Indeed as Cooper fluctuates between different shades in the series' final hour (the clearcut good guy giving way to a much more complex portrayal that seems to incorporate both the hero and his shadow into a single, often unsettling persona), Diane becomes something of an anchor for the audience. After teasing us with her potential treachery for half the series, Lynch shifts the ground. In bed with Cooper it is Diane whose emotional state is palpable while Cooper grows ever more cipherlike, even allowing her hands to engulf his face as if he's become the enigmatic Naido, a character whose identity remains a riddle. And so Diane's absence is felt sharply when Cooper wakes up the next morning. Diane is gone, and we are left with our shell of an FBI agent.

The concluding half-hour is among the strongest material in the series but in a different way than other standout moments. Absent the dazzling grandeur of Parts 3 or 8, it is closer to the ache of Diane's first waking moments in Mulholland Drive. Cooper's disarmament of the three cowboys is fantastically directed: despite the conventional derring-do of his actions, his subsequent behavior is unnerving. At times he almost seems to be holding up the other inhabitants of the diner, his gun lazily drifting in their direction and his voice a quasi-monotone brimming with implicit threat. So much is unnerving, unexplained, yet suggestive in this last stretch: Diane's dissociative vision, the Richard/Linda names in Diane's goodbye letter, the dead man in Carrie Page's house, the headlights behind Cooper and Carrie, the Tremonds/Chalfonts as owners of the Palmer home, Cooper's final inquiry: "What year is this?" (What could that possibly mean in a show that hasn't seemed especially concerned with fixing temporal continuity?) This conclusion, as I had very much hoped, closely follows the pattern of Mulholland Drive, swapping characters' names and identities, relocating larger-than-life icons in a more mundane reality, but it does so without relying on the dream device. Although this section feels rather more down-to-earth and realistically textured than the previous seventeen hours (still though, that corpse in the chair!!), it doesn't offer us any obvious route to categorize it in relation to the earlier material.

This reminds me, again, of Martha Nochimson, whose reading of the final third of Mulholland Drive is that it's not an awakening from a cartoonish dream/fantasy but rather a negative inversion of Betty's initial optimism, a forced, crushing environment no more or less "real" than that earlier state, but much more closed off. The diner dubbed Judy's is further evidence of this reading applied to The Return (given Gordon's explanation of "Jowday" as "an extreme negative force"), suggesting that Coop has ended up in an alternate universe saturated by negativity - probably a result of his own stubborn determination rather than relaxed receptivity. Cooper's dogged commitment to "find Laura," much like his nervous attempt to save Annie in the season two finale or Betty's fixation on resolving Rita's identity crisis in Mulholland Drive may enmesh him in a damaging trap: treating himself as a willful actor rather than a patient receptor. And who told Cooper to find Laura in the first place? Leland Palmer, whose immobile, barely verbal screentime in The Return must total less than a minute (in what feels a bit like Lynch's passive-aggressive punishment for a character who refused to hold himself responsible for Laura's abuse). There is also a peculiar cut in which Cooper, seated in a chair, witnesses himself emerge from the curtains to approach that same chair, finding Leland in it. As with Leland's greeting of the doppelganger in the season two finale, something links Cooper to Leland, paving the way for Bob to find a home in both (albeit, it would seem, in very different ways).

I must wait to further unravel and toy around with the various suggestions, enigmas, and contradictions of The Return's finale, which will prove as endlessly rewarding and provocative as the season two finale and Fire Walk With Me, next to which it can proudly stand as summits of Twin Peaks. (Or perhaps the two finales are the summits, with the film the valley in between, the cross-section where the two worlds meet as suggested in the Owl Cave ring insignia.) Looking back over the series after awakening from the haunted dream of the Cooper/Diane/Laura-focused finale, we can also recognize just how much was left open, loose, incomplete. What happened to Becky? Hell, we don't even know if Stephen died - or perhaps more importantly, why ("I know what you did!" he cries, but we never will). We never met the Linda of the trailer park (was she just a red herring, or does she remain a hidden clue?) and Red's malevolent energy is simply left a narrative curiosity, never fulfilled. Most notably of all, as I kind of suspected, the shot of a startled Audrey staring into a mirror in a white room leads to...nothing. No, not "nothing" exactly, because it wasn't resolved in a flat or disappointing manner, it just wasn't resolved at all. Maybe, then, it would be more accurate to say it leads to everything, or anything.

In light of all these open-ended melodramas and mysteries, the action-packed conclusion of the show's primary arc feels all the more consciously absurd. I've talked a lot about Lynch in this review, and not at all about Frost which is interesting for a few reasons (I suspect I'll have the opportunity to dig deeper into his contributions on a future occasion). It's much easier to sense Frost's touch in the first half of "The past dictates the future." than in the subsequent ninety minutes: the knowingly wacky tone, the coming-together of various characters and plot threads, the fruition of elements seeded long ago, the fun sense of derring-do and adventure, clever conceits like Cooper calling the station while the other Cooper is there or Lucy being the one to shoot the doppelganger, the way these colorful personality types intersect and pay off. It's cartoonish to begin with but the radical contrast with subsequent material further highlights that quality. Frost obviously had a huge hand in shaping the flow and many details of this series, right up through the conclusion of the central thread - but I don't yet feel comfortable enough teasing out his contribution to the rest (which feels so overtly Lynchian, more like material he wrote with Barry Gifford than any of his previous work with Frost). The question of how the Lynch/Frost collaboration on The Return follows from their more tug-of-war relationship on the original series requires more digging; for now it's enough to note that Lynch's treatment of the Cooper/doppelganger storyline commits so fully to the outrageousness of the material that it both affectionately honors Twin Peaks' plotty side and maybe mocks it a little bit too.

Indeed, I feel as if the finale answers my long-simmering question "How can we make the literal division of Coopers both dramatically compelling and psychologically incisive?" by essentially shrugging off the question and dispensing with that denouement quickly in order to move on to other matters. What follows still draws upon the idea of a divided Cooper, but in a more subtle, abstract manner, as if The Return decided to tell two stories: one which could be stretched over seventeen hours without having to lead anywhere profound, and another which could materialize closer to the end to deliver a weightier riff on the same themes without attempting to sustain a weekly story. This sounds critical, but I can't say I mind. Besides, I've always relished the push-and-pull of the old Twin Peaks and occasionally missed that tension in The Return, so it's nice to see it re-emerge in the end. I'm mostly pleased and surprised that the show went in the directions I hoped it would, indeed in surprisingly specific ways. I hoped the series would ultimately point the viewers back to Fire Walk With Me, and it did that notion one better. I hoped it would play around with time and alternate realities in a thematically compelling way, less in literal Quantum Leap sci-fi form than metaphorical experimentation. It sure did! I kept yearning for a Mulholland Drive-esque time/space/identity-bending twist and, as already discussed, The Return followed suit with every other late Lynch screenplay.

Weirdly, I even wondered, from early on in the production, if Laura would reappear as another character, probably a working-class middle-aged woman far from Twin Peaks, who had no knowledge of the town or her other identity when Cooper discovered her. This instinct was so on-the-nose that I'm honestly wondering if I've just forgotten that some gossip leaked years ago, and was hinted to me. Perhaps it was just an inevitable conclusion when trying to figure out how a dead, essentially resolved character can re-enter the narrative? I did have one thing spoiled for me (long after I already suspected Laura would come back): the very ending of the series. Yeah, that's right - the vaguely-whispered TMZ spoiler you may have heard about and avoided? It was literally the final scene of The Return: here, you can safely read it yourself now. Obviously I wish I'd never read that, but part of me still suspects Lynch knew what he was doing that night (despite associates' assertions that the location just got out of hand, and they were unable to properly deal with the size and proximity of the crowd watching - and filming - that day's shoot). Ok, so I knew Cooper and "Laura" (not Laura, as the credits themselves stress) would walk up to the Palmer house and that she was going to scream at one point. But I didn't know why and, more importantly, even after watching I still don't really know why! This leak that Lynch essentially enabled merely emphasizes what we already knew was the core idea of Twin Peaks: Cooper striving to help Laura beyond her death, with the town as a bridge between them.

But he can't. And it isn't. The conclusion produces so many mysteries that it can't be "spoiled" even by watching. Lynch may view that as the ultimate "spoiler" - not something that is learned ahead of time, but something that is learned concretely at all. As Cooper's own failures tell us, the harder we try to knock at the door, the more certainly we'll be shut out. The house whose windows darken, as if to emphasize that he's forbidden from treading its doorstep, closes The Return off with an emphatic "no." The silent whisper that follows has a taunting feel, traumatic as much for its unreachability as for what Cooper's expression leads us to dread. This is it, this is how the story ends, or rather doesn't end, can never end: with Cooper learning something we can't share, and which perhaps even he doesn't understand.

Of course, this isn't actually how the story ends. It ends, to the extent an eternal story can ever "end," with Laura receiving her angel in the Red Room, Cooper by her side smiling softly with generosity (but not necessarily sharing her sight). You get there the same way you always got there: by submitting to Laura's vision and realizing that this will take you further than Cooper can ever go, to places you may not want to reach but which are necessary routes to the heart of Twin Peaks.

Cooper can't save Laura, or any of us, or even himself (except at his own expense) from the darkness in the woods. But there is something beyond that darkness.

"And then there was a time...when I cried, because I was so happy.
Because I saw what it was, and it was so beautiful.
I was awake."



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