Twin Peaks: The Return Finale Theories — The Dream, The Nightmare and the Reality in Between
Twin Peaks: The Return officially wrapped up its first season (or third season of the Twin Peaks franchise) last Sunday. But the mystical mystery show and its complex layers of plot, Buñuel-worthy symbols and evocative soundscape continue to haunt me. To David Lynch and Mark Frost's credit — not only were they pioneers of what is now Peak TV — but they have fortified the show in season 3 with so much soul-deep depth and added enigma that its world is difficult to leave.
I also have a personal connection to the show. One of my first ever published articles as a budding then-teen journo was an interview with Roadhouse singer Julee Cruise. I also went on to conduct an interview for Movieline magazine with Naomi Watts — who of course figured quite heavily in this revival season.
So, in the interest of giving up my Twin Peaks obsession and related sub-Reddit habit and moving on with my own creative pursuits and world creations, I am writing this thorough and lengthy commentary on the show and its double-header finale. Although I am not attempting to answer every question, these are just some conclusions I've drawn based on my experience of Twin Peaks: The Return — the first step in my effort to reverently but resolutely let go of a 25-year mystery and obsession.
For starters, and to build my case, I've noted concepts which have been established throughout the show, in the movie Fire Walk With Me and this return season:
-The 'red room' can be accessed through the red curtains in Glastonbury Grove and in dreams
-People can appear in each other's dreams and share dreams — cases in point: Laura, Cooper and Annie, and the FBI office ambiguous reality/dream featuring Phillip Jeffries, shared by Cooper and Cole
-Duality, twins and doppelgangers are central to the show whose name says it all — Laura and Maddie, Cooper and his evil doppelganger, Diane and her tulpa, the "two worlds" spoken of in the poem Mike recites to Cooper
-If someone dies wearing the Owl Cave ring, they are transported to the red room (Laura, Ray, BadCoop, etc.)
-The Blue Rose task force consisted of Cooper, Cole, Major Briggs, Albert, Chet Desmond and Jeffries, so these are the only people privy to certain classified information
-The idea of a bleed-through between past and present was presented in the original series and FWWM (Laura's dream with older Coop, "see you in 25 years," "Is it future or is it past")
The Twin Peaks Dream
Without much subtlety, part 17 re-establishes the idea from part 14: in Cole's dream, Monica Bellucci says: "We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?" A screen-dominating visual superimposition of a frozen Cooper face (*a shot which I believe was taken from the scene in which Laura Palmer whispers in his ear in the red room) conveys this. And accompanying this is the slowed down voice of Cooper echoing Jeffries in FWWM, saying: "We live inside a dream."
Let's be honest, all the characters, both beloved and new, have a hollow feeling to them in part 17 — as if they are just poorly fleshed out plot devices that move Cooper's narrative forward. At the start of the episode, Cole says "..we should have heard by now. from our deal Dale Cooper." Then, bang on time, the phone rings with news from Vegas of Dougie/Coop's hospital discharge. Similarly, after the Kill Bob scene at the Twin Peaks sheriff's station, Cole shows up at precisely the right moment after Coop tells Bobby Briggs about his dad's mission with Cole, "who is here right on time," says a positively pumped up Cooper.
Everyone in this pivotal scene has been ready for action, poised to be 'activated:' the glove-of-destiny kid from London, Andy prepping Lucy for something 'important,' even Candie, Mandie and Sandie who brought just enough food for everyone, thank god! It's all occurring just right.... like a dream. In fact, this Twin Peaksis not the 'real' Twin Peaks (maybe it never was). Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
This notion is foreshadowed in parts 3 and 9's Roadhouse establishing shots, which depict the neon sign reflected in a puddle of water. The idea that this season 3 Twin Peaks is real already came crashing down when Audrey entered the Roadhouse, was oddly asked to perform "Audrey's dance" and then begged Charlie (who represents her conscious mind incarnate, I believe) to get her out of there. She then woke up in a white room — which many fans assume was an insane asylum. I tend to believe this.
In addition, Charlie had said earlier that if he didn't know any better, he would have assumed Audrey was on drugs, fueling a theory that she's medicated in a mental hospital. Her reality with Charlie — and by extension the Roadhouse — is the domain of the Twin Peaks Dream — a dream that is no less real than reality in that it is experienced by more than one dreamer — a shared dream (from which she awoke in that antiseptic white asylum, presumably). Recall The Evolution of the Arm, in the red room asking Coop 'Is this the story of The Little Girl Who Live Down the Lane?' which is also referred to in Audrey's conversation with Charlie.
Does this de facto mean that the whole show and movie has been a dream of some corny Who Shot JR/Dallas variety? Not necessarily. A dream isn't a fixed scientific term in Lynchland. For anyone who has ever read Carlos Castaneda's books, which refer often to 'the dreamer,' it is clear that dreaming has a spiritual meaning. The author depicted the fourth gate of dreaming as as a threshold which leads to entering other people's dreams. I'm not saying Lynch or Frost read Castaneda but the books were popular in the late '60s and '70s and beyond when the TP creators would have been in their 20s and teens respectively.
I still cling to the hope that the Twin Peaks we first got to know in the late '80s/early '90s was in some way 'real' — a messed-up town seen in sweet but fleeting moments by an outsider (Cooper) through rose-colored glasses despite its inherent secrets and vices.
However, I am strongly leaning towards Twin Peaks, 25 years later having metamorphosed from a real locale into someplace dreamlike via the intentions of some of its key players in their dreams (they shape its new reality like lodge folks shape a tulpa), and a metaphysical rip in the space-time-continuum at the threshold of our reality and other non-real dreamlike realms.
It's important to recall other participants in this collective dream, such as Ed — whose reverie-versus-reality worlds are depicted in his reflection in the mirror at the gas station whose movements differ from his actual movements; and the realistic ending to his love story with Norma ('too little too late') in contrast to the idealized ending I believe he concocts when he closes his eyes tight (the next shot is his beloved's hand on his shoulder and the 'Hollywood ending' — a concept explored more literally in Mullholland Drive).
More of this sensibility is evident in the finale, with a tulpa of Agent Coop being created in the red room and transported down to the red door in Rancho Rosa (not an accident; there is even a character named Red and Rancho Rosa is of course the name of Lynch's production company). GoodCoop's Tulpa is gloriously greeted by Janey-E and Sonny Jim — the perfect dream family reunited at last (Agent Cooper's dream of a family has become a "reality"). Earlier Dougie/Coop episodes are incidentally rife with the language of dreams — from Janey declaring that, thanks to her husband, they're living the life of their dreams; to Mike telling Cooper to wake up.
I even have a theory that Diane is participating in the collective dream. Before she and Cooper enter the motel, she sees herself staring back at herself. This isn't the same effect as the frozen Coop-head we saw in the Kill Bob scene but to me it still begs the question, "Who is the dreamer?"
The Dream as a Spiritual Process
Returning to the idea of the dream as a metaphysical realm entered in sleep and by spiritual will and practice, the main dreamer we follow (the others like Audrey and Ed are less vital to the central plot at this stage in season 3), Cooper, is being tested through via dreaming. This is made clear early on when Hawk tells him about the beliefs of his tribe:
It seems as though Cooper at some stage attempted to get to the White Lodge ("home," a word he repeats), but met his shadow self (embodied in BadCoop) with imperfect courage and has been fighting off the annihilation of his soul in the dream world since. Twin Peaks is a part of Cooper's dream trial. As I will point out in the paragraph below (If This is a Dream When is the Wake-Up Call?), something or some things the 'whole Cooper' (or the rather flawed human I believe to be Richard) are hanging over him like a putrid stench and he has had to deal with this in his own mind and dreams and on the threshold.
A Note on Tulpas
In Tibetan Buddhism, the word tulpa means to build or construct. These are living apparitions/projections of the mind in quasi-human form (a-la Golem). It is perhaps intentional that the two tulpas we know of in Twin Peaks: The Return are drawn from Diane and Cooper (or Richard and Linda — we'll explore that more further down). So according to the show's lore, tulpas can be created by intention (and plucking some hair from one's head as a root DNA base for the ultimate biological body). Taken as symbolism, could these constructs not come to mean what in the dreamer's eye represents the best and worst of himself or herself?
The Discrepancies and Omissions
Also it should be noted that Twin Peaks is all over the map in terms of narratives, due to the fact that Lynch and Frost were not heavily involved in season 2 of the original run. Lynch is said to have hated season 2 so that's the reason that in my analysis I've omitted questions or answers related to the ill-conceived character Windom Earle and that backstory (*when he was first introduced Lynch and Frost were not directing and writing those episodes).
While Lynch/Frost included Annie's character to tie up some loose ends in FWWM, I don't believe she was terribly important to the overall arc of the Twin Peaks world. Also there are apparently discrepancies from the book The Secret History of Twin Peaks: A Novel and this season, according to some super-fans. Some might be used to fuel the theory of alternate realities but there is also an inherent hanging threads problem with the show bible for the aforementioned reasons. And I'm certainly not ruling out alternative worlds or parallel universes; I just wouldn't use the discrepancies (or inconvenience of deceased actors) as rationale for such notions.
If This is a Dream When is the Wake-Up Call?
Although time, particularly this season, seems to be bending our minds in all sorts of non-linear directions (and I don't propose to timeline everything because frankly I don't think even the show's creators have gone to great pains to keep this all terribly fine-tuned), for the purposes of the two-part finale, there is a point at which Coop clearly exits the dream.
It's quite obvious: when he wakes up (after a night of truly tense, negatively charged and uneasy sex with Diane) in a different motel room than the one they went to bed in, in Odessa. But this Coop is different; more like a normal multi-layered person — polite at times, harsh at others, not truly evil, nor truly chirpy and positive — perhaps more like how a real agent might act. He calls after the Diane he believes he spent the night with (perhaps a Diane he dreamed about, perhaps a woman he knows in the real world under a different identity) but she's gone.
She's only seemingly left a cryptic note to some guy named Richard from Linda. There are shades of (Bad)Coop and Diane's past and the apparent rape in the letter, which lead me to believe something quite dark (perhaps a rape or date rape) transpired — not merely the awkward sex that took place the night before. But was it 'BadCoop' who raped Diane? Or did Richard rape Linda?
Who are Richard and Linda? I believe they are Coop and Diane's real-world identities. I am not, here, saying that Coop is a completely different person. I still believe that this Richard character works for the FBI but his persona is far different than that of Agent 'Damn good coffee and pie' Cooper — it's more real, practical, perhaps even a bit jaded. I will unpack some of this theory in the next section, Dream Bleed. Continuing with the narrative...
The first thing Coop sees when he drives out of the motel is Judy's diner — coincidence? Not. The dream world's influence is bleeding through to this (real) world — this has happened before (when the giant took Cooper's ring and later returned it in the original show run) so it can easily be said to be 'happening again' (to quote a line from the show's episode featuring Maddie's grisly murder).
Again, like a Wizard of Oz style wake-up call, other elements of Cooper's dream greet him in reality. He gets the waitress from Judy's diner's address, shows up at her door and the woman who greets him is someone named Carrie who looks to be Laura Palmer, 25 years on. She also has a pale horse on her mantel. And of course a Mrs. (Alice) Tremond does live in the old Palmer house purchased from a Chalfont — names that come back to haunt us here from our previous knowledge of Twin Peaks in FWWM.
The Dream Bleed and Our Reality
So what the Hell is going on? To even begin to scratch the surface of this question we need to look back at the real-life lore, fueling much of Twin Peaks' mythology. It originates in the true story of Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist and occultist behind NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in the '40s/'50s. He was not only a cohort of the wicked Aleister Crowley but also performed rituals in 1946 to summon a powerful female avatar Babalon.
Not long after completing the series of rituals he met his future wife Cameron — who whether it's coincidence or not, looks, style-wise, a great deal like Diane — in the finale with a red flapper cut and theatrical Asian inspired garb (see comparison shots below).
Granted, as some critics have remarked, Diane's stylistic color scheme is also a nod to the red room (red hair, black and white painted nails). But, this Diane (in the post-Kill Bob scene) seems to be a saccharine sweet version of herself, which makes sense as I believe all of this occurred in Cooper's mind as he idealized the memory of a person who, this season indicates, was a great love (who I believe he betrayed in a very dark way).
As Twin Peaks/Parsons lore goes: science coupled with man's hubris led to ripping a hole between worlds, opening up a portal — effectively from the dream world (or non-physical world) to reality. So I believe this is what we've been seeing accelerate with the town of Twin Peaks as its nexus. We saw it cinematically referenced in the swirling maelstroms in the sky (when Cole sees the Woodsmen and Hastings is killed by one of them; and when Naido is found by our 'true men' and Andy is swept into the White Lodge).
What began as a gateway between worlds (the red room) accessible in quite limited ways, has evolved into a thruway that is not only open but may well consume whatever we know as the real world. The most obvious clues: the clock is literally stuck between 2:53 and 2:54 ("one chance out between two worlds"). Also early in the two-part finale, Albert says to Cole (who is talking the phone to the nimrod Vegas agents), 'has my watch stopped or is that one of the Marx brothers?'
I believe that Richard is an FBI officer who was assigned to a case in Twin Peaks (possibly the murder of a young girl or not). He's been there, he knows the townspeople. But his rosy perception of himself and how the case starts are his dream vision and/or part of his vision quest to go "home" to the White Lodge. Eventually, reality or the dark side seeps in (literally his dark Doppelganger) and he can no longer deny the schism inside himself. This split is externalized in the swap of Good Coop for Bad Coop and Bob's possession of the latter.
But in actuality, as referenced above, this is all part of his test — attempting reintegrate himself and purge himself of not only BadCoop but the false shiny, happy Cooper of the original Twin Peaks series. That is why he symbolically goes through the (clearly not real) room 315 door of the Great Northern Hotel to reintegrate. His initial passage into Dougie was through room 15 (but there had also been a room 3) and the result was an minimally conscious existence. But 315 ultimately leads him to the neither good nor bad self — a holistic persona that takes hold after he exits through the red curtains and meets Diane. I believe he is still in a dream here but he is no longer the evil doppelganger or squeaky clean perky FBI agent.
Another indicator that Coop has dreamed up or idealized himself in relation to the Twin Peaks we know and love are the Roadhouse scenes in The Return, which largely depict the unseemly underbelly of the town (a dark core we also knew well from the murder of Laura, her dad molesting her and the One Eyed Jacks barely legal prostitution and drug ring).
In the original series — which had its limits having been on network TV — the cute little town of Charming Cooper's dreams, while immediately revealed to be toxic (the murder) really starts to unravel in by season 3. The toxicity surrounding the Palmer family in FWWM scales new heights, spreading throughout the town and beyond its limits. So while the darkness is expanding, so is the rip in the space-time (or dream-real time) continuum.
At the end of the day, Twin Peaks is a story of duality that baits us in with a simplistic view of good and evil (White Lodge/Black Lodge, Good Coop/Bad Coop, etc.). But the reality Coop/Richard wakes up in is unfortunately a lot more nuanced than that. People are not wholly good or evil. The main character of the entire franchise, Laura Palmer (or Carrie's dream/nightmare vision of herself) has both these energies in her; we see her struggle with these contradictions when she says goodbye to James back in 1989).
Twin Peaks is such a work of art though that it manages to navigate multiple lost highways — Cooper's passage through the threshold and dealing with his spiritual demons, a real evil of man's own creation whose influence is spreading and a tenuous boundary between reality and dreams (getting to the core of human spiritual beliefs and existential crisis).
Coop's last question before Carrie/Laura screams and the lights go out as she presumably has total dream/nightmare recall is: "What year is it?" Essentially it's the real-world version of: "Is it future or is it past?" The past indeed dictates the future and Richard/Cooper's actions in the past have done significant damage to the ones he loves and cares about and to his eternal soul. ∞
Addendum: Love is Not Enough?
Major Briggs, while intoxicated with truth serum at the hands of Windom Earle in the original series admits that his fear is that love is not enough. While, as I've said, Earle is not important here, I think this concept is. I set out to write this final 'purge entry' with one conclusion in my mind (the above) but as I was writing it, something else struck me. Those final two episodes felt like the story of a guy named Richard and his great love, Linda who crossed a line they couldn't uncross (perhaps on April 30th, 430) and everything changed. It was their charged chemistry and tenderness towards each other in the sheriff's office dream that gave me the impression of a deeper connection between the two.
Was this some sort of assault like the BadCoop/Diane rape? Perhaps. It may be that Richard — a working FBI agent on the job, solving crimes — never came to grips with what he did to Linda, so much so that he has had to construct a charming in some ways, but truly ersatz in other ways, version of himself (who is eventually absolved of whatever he did by being split into Evil Half and Good Half and ultimately killing the former in a dream world) to deal with his conscience. And after receiving that Dear John letter, it's clear that love is not enough to fix what he's so carelessly dismantled.
Anyway, this could be all 'wrong' but I think David Lynch and Mark Frost might appreciate all the serious thinking and soul-searching their creative endeavor has enabled. And my former teenage self and my current grown-up self appreciate the quarter of a century of poetry that has been Twin Peaks.
I hope to get the chance to one day interview them and gain insights into their creative processes, and spiritual inspirations, for this epic oeuvre.
*And thanks to Redditor davesnice3000 for reminding me... we're not going to talk about Judy... evidently.