The Return, Time, and Shakespearean Romance

Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks: The Return | Showtime

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks moments before Twin Peaks: The Return ends. It’s an uncanny return to the emotional space we occupied at the end of the original series: Cooper once again rashly blundering into a complex magical situation in order to help a woman and seemingly bungling the rescue; the narrative abruptly ending without closure, having raised more questions than it’s answered. The greater ambiguity of this new ending means that Cooper is less obviously defeated. As bleak an ending as the appropriation of Cooper’s identity by his evil doppelgänger was, however, David Lynch and Mark Frost have arguably found an even bleaker one in Laura’s scream of horror. Whatever is happening narratively, emotionally this ending suggests that Laura has no way of escaping or transcending the trauma of her past: her story is inexorably one of suffering.

If we look closely, however, we can see that—fittingly for a series that has always been about doubling, beginning with its title—Twin Peaks: The Return has two endings. Commentators have acknowledged that The Return ends for all conventional purposes when BOB and Cooper’s doppelgänger are defeated and Diane restored to her friends in Part 17; instead of which a new Cooper immediately starts out on a new adventure, and then the narrative itself seems to start over in Part 18. What hasn’t been noticed is that the two endings of The Return, one happy and “closed” and one unhappy and “open,” belong to two stories that we can think of as doubles of each other. Northrop Frye’s discussion of the dramatic genre of “romance” in A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance provides a way of understanding the genre of the “closed” story, how it determines the central female figure’s fate, and how it relates to The Return’s treatment of time.

In A Natural Perspective, Frye identifies the mythic substrata of tragedy and comedy as, respectively, the individual life’s birth-to-death pattern and nature’s death-to-rebirth pattern. The reason we are more willing to give credence to tragedy than comedy, he claims, is that we associate the former pattern with “reality,” whereas the latter, although equally observable, has a quality akin to a miracle: “We can see that death is the inevitable result of birth, but new life is not the inevitable result of death. It is hoped for, even expected, but at its core is something unpredictable and mysterious, something that belongs to the imaginative equivalents of faith, hope, and love, not to the rational virtues.” He further distinguishes between realistic and anti-realistic comedy, placing Shakespearean comedy in the latter category because Shakespeare likes to include a difficult-to-believe element in his comedies, “fairies or magical forests or identical twins” or “plot themes derived ultimately from folk tales.” If all comedy asks us to suspend disbelief in order to accept the miracle of the happy ending, Shakespearean comedy is especially insistent on it, and Shakespearean romance more insistent still. In the case of the two most famous, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, magic is central to the plot, and The Winter’s Tale even self-referentially draws attention to its resemblance to “an old tale.”

Magic was part of the Twin Peaks mythos from the beginning, but romance, in Frye’s sense, was not. The genres within which the original series operated were soap opera, murder mystery, comedy, and occult horror. The Return declares its relationship to the romance genre on a couple of occasions: when Bobby Briggs speaks of the “great tall tales” that he and his father would tell by Jack Rabbit’s Palace, when Audrey and The Arm refer to “the story of the little girl who lived down the lane,” and, above all, in the tale of how Freddie Sykes got his magic glove. As if to draw attention to its fable-like quality, Lynch and Frost have Freddie narrate it, although they could have shown it to us as they show Andy’s encounter with the Fireman. What’s more, the story is delivered as a picturesque monologue, rife with cockney clichés, that’s so anti-naturalistic it sticks out like a green thumb. As writing and performance, it’s the companion piece to Michael Cera’s tedious homage to the “open road” and comic Brando impression in Part 4. It’s as if Lynch is using every means at his disposal to make the hard-to-believe plot element of this deus ex machina even harder to take seriously. And yet Freddie is entrusted with the all-important plot task of defeating BOB, the Big Bad (in TV parlance) of the original series, which is crucial to the defeat of Cooper’s doppelgänger, the Big Bad of the current series. Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Freddie is introduced at all, except to take away the glory of that task from both Cooper, who shows up at the last minute with the ring like a skittish bridegroom, and James, who’s relegated to being Freddie’s sidekick. (Maybe James, the Brando nod of the original series, is the missing conceptual link between Wally Brando and Freddie.) 

Freddie serves two purposes: as a personified plot function, in keeping with the show’s formal self-awareness, and as a personification of the spirit of romance. In an age where jaded movie audiences are all too familiar with superheroic marvels, a sense of incredulity may be a prerequisite for genuine wonder. In a way, we’re warned that what we’re about to see is “only” a story, and a ridiculous one at that, in much the same way that the magician/MC warns the audience (in the film and of the film) that “there is no band” in the Club Silencio scene of Mulholland Drive.

The magical transformation at the end of The Winter’s Tale, which encapsulates the spirit of Shakespearean romance better than any other sequence, begins with the magician, Paulina, issuing warnings about the implausible nature of what the audience (in the play and of the play) is about to witness. The Winter’s Tale is the story of a queen, Hermione, who is terribly wronged by her husband, Leontes. Believing that she’s having an affair with his friend Polixenes, he has his pregnant wife imprisoned, and when she gives birth to a daughter in prison, he orders the abandonment of the child. All of this results in the death of their young son. When Hermione learns of his death, she dies as well—according to Paulina. Leontes finally realizes his folly. A generation later, Perdita, the daughter who was rescued and raised by a shepherd and his son, has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son. Once the mystery of her identity has been resolved, the reconciled friends, the restored daughter, and the daughter’s betrothed are taken by Paulina to view a statue of Hermione. Declaring it “lawful magic,” she brings the statue to life, and Hermione walks off with Leontes and Perdita.

If the happy ending of comedy is the result of its mythic underpinnings, the miraculous ending of The Winter’s Tale, which undoes most of the harm that occurred in the course of the play, makes the death-and-rebirth myth explicit. The plot of comedy generally only asks us to believe that harm can be averted and the wishes of the protagonist fulfilled, not that harm can be undone. With The Winter’s Tale in mind, it’s possible to see why there have to be two stories, with two endings, in Twin Peaks: The Return. If The Return is about whether or not Laura Palmer’s story can have a happy ending, the answer it gives is that it can—in the mode of romance. (Fire Walk With Me, of course, gives Laura a happy ending of sorts, but not in this world.) In the romance plot of The Return, Diane Evans acts as Laura’s surrogate; Diane’s story resembles Laura’s: both were raped by men they trusted and loved. In a further resonance with The Winter’s Tale, it’s even possible to see in the “tulpa” form of Diane as an analogue for the statue form of Hermione—a kind of death-in-life.

To refresh the reader’s memory about the complicated mythology of The Return as it relates to Diane’s story: by the end of The Return, we have learned that Diane was raped by Cooper’s doppelgänger, then taken by him to the Black Lodge, where she was apparently whisked away by the White Lodge, who disguised her as Naido and hid her in the Purple Sea. Naido helps Cooper escape from the plot against him by his doppelgänger and the doppelgänger of the Arm, whereupon she falls to Earth. Our heroes from the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department find her, and, in a vision, the Fireman instructs Andy to bring her to the jail in the station. This is apparently so that Cooper can recognize her and trigger her transformation back into Diane after the defeat of BOB and Cooper’s doppelgänger. Or rather—her transformation into a new Diane who, to judge from her appearance and her transformation sequence, has merged with the magical Red Room.

While Diane was being hidden by the White Lodge, Cooper’s doppelgänger replaced her on Earth with her “tulpa,” a type of double “manufactured” by magic. Diane’s tulpa can be taken as a metaphor for the traumatized Diane, and indeed the way she acts seems to justify Laura’s fear in Fire Walk With Me that her abuse will turn her into a vessel for BOB: she’s bitter and angry, with multiple addictions. We see a much more drastic version of this kind of relationship to trauma with the likewise bitter and addicted Sarah Palmer, whose grief and guilt have made her into a vessel for Judy, the new threat introduced by The Return. Unlike the Dougie Jones tulpa, a double of Cooper that was also created by his doppelgänger, the Diane tulpa has a “live connection” to the real Diane, as we see when she tells the story of her rape to the Blue Rose Task Force before attempting to kill them: as her inner conflict grows, she announces several times with confusion that she’s in a sheriff’s station. It’s as if trauma has stuck bits of the real Diane to her tulpa.

Diane’s story belongs wholly to the realm of romance: we never even meet the original Diane Evans (who in the the original series was a mysterious absence to whom Cooper directed his innermost thoughts), only her tulpa, Naido, and Red Room versions, all magical. When Diane and Cooper are reunited, each in their true form, it seems like the culmination of the romance plot. The bad guys have been defeated and one of the women harmed by Cooper’s doppelgänger, at any rate, has been restored—not just to Cooper, but, it appears, to wholeness, like Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale. Yet all is not well: Judy is still at large, and the moment when Cooper begins to recognize Diane in Naido is the very moment at which his identity fragments again, this time into a precursor to the version who’ll be called “Richard” on “the other side” in Part 18. Cooper himself has only been restored to the audience for a painfully brief interval before becoming the victim of The Return‘s relentless insistence on metamorphosis. Diane’s return is the gateway between the closed and open endings, completing the romance plot even as it troubles Cooper, and the narrative, into further transformations.

Shakespearean romance is distinctive not only for its use of magic, but also for its treatment of time. Whereas traditional comedy often presents a struggle between generations in which the younger generation ultimately triumphs as spring triumphs over winter, Shakespearean comedy and romance de-emphasize the defeat of the older generation, instead placing the emphasis of the ending on reconciliation and harmony. The ending of The Winter’s Tale foregrounds the reconciliation between members of the older generation and the reunion of mother and daughter rather than the young lovers’ union.

The original Twin Peaks was already notable for the way it mixed generations, paying as much attention to the love triangles of characters in their 40s or even 60s as to the relationship drama of the show’s teens and 20-somethings. All reunion or revival shows necessarily make viewers reflect on the aging process—that of the actors and, by extension, their own. But The Return, obsessed with time as a thematic and formal element as it is, embraces this necessity. The romances we care about in The Return are Cooper’s with Diane, “Dougie Jones” with Janey-E, and Norma and Ed’s. We certainly aren’t rooting for the one new-generation relationship introduced, between Becky Burnett and her husband. But although The Return celebrates older lovers, it also acknowledges the interconnection of age and death. Several established members of the Twin Peaks universe died between filming and airing, or soon after, and Catherine Coulson’s death is commemorated, along with death’s general proximity to the production, in the in-story passing of Margaret Lanterman.

The one happy ending that The Return delivers to original series characters foreshadows the restoration of Diane, which in turn foreshadows the attempted restoration of Laura: the resolution of the Norma-Ed-Nadine triangle. Throughout The Return, we have watched Nadine watch the angry political ranting of Dr. Jacoby, aka Dr. Amp, while radiating a quiet, self-possessed joy that seems utterly unlike the original series character, but which is nevertheless loopy enough to potentially swing into that character’s familiar mania. Accepting Dr. Amp’s challenge to “shovel yourself out of the shit,” Nadine takes up the gold shovel she purchased from him online and sets out to tell Ed that he’s free. She doesn’t tell him that she no longer loves him, or that she’ll get over him: her love is as mythic as his and Norma’s. Nevertheless, she accepts full responsibility for the pain that her selfishness has caused him and Norma, and maintains that true love means giving the other person what makes them happy.

Even more than the ecstatic, continued love between high school sweethearts Ed and Norma, now in their 60s, it’s Nadine’s metamorphosis that the viewer has to believe in order to believe this happy ending. If Diane can be transformed by trauma into her tulpa self, why can’t Nadine’s trauma be undone by Dr. Amp’s words of truth? “Not too late” is the specific emotional tenor of this resolution: not too late to change; not too late to stop causing pain; not too late to be happy. Ed and Norma could have had 70 years together instead of 10 or 20. Nadine could have found a way to be happy decades ago, instead of spending so much of her life miserable and making others miserable. But as soon as Nadine has her change of heart, as soon as Norma and Ed realize they can be together, time dissolves. When the present is so full, there can be no thoughts of wasted time–or rather, their new life takes place in a new time. Frye says of the happy endings of comedy (giving The Book of Job as an example!), in which all is forgiven and forgotten, that the audience must think of them as taking place in a different world from the nightmare world of the previous action. Norma and Ed needn’t think of the nearly 70 years they could have had and contrast them to the 20 years they may now have, because there is no continuity between the world of their suffering and the world of their happiness. Yet the pathos of their long wait, oddly mirroring Cooper’s lost time in the Lodge and the wait for “old Cooper” that The Return puts the audience through, presses urgently at the edges of this new world. Like the restoration of Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, Norma and Ed’s union simultaneously telescopes time by restoring what was lost and calls attention to the time that has been lost.

For all of this, however, Lynch can’t find a way to restore Laura to wholeness. Romance is not entrusted with the whole truth of experience, not even for the space of one story. In any case, not this story. It’s hardly a new thing for works by Lynch to implicitly or explicitly contain two worlds, usually but not always one light and one dark. Darkness gets the last word in Blue Velvet, and light hardly gets a chance to speak in Lost Highway. Blue Velvet ends on a fairy tale note, with the young hero killing the bad guy and restoring mother and child to each other. This is what Cooper would like to do for Laura by pulling her out of the nightmare world of Fire Walk With Me and into a world where there are still possibilities for her. It’s a testament to what Lynch and Sheryl Lee achieved with that film that Cooper’s attempt to undo its events seems like a violation of the reality of Laura’s experience.

Our sense of that reality, however, has to do not only with our belief in Laura’s pain, but our belief in pain: in the sense that tragedy and trauma are more real than romance and possibility that Frye calls into question; the past more real than the future. The Return is undecided about whether it wants to present trauma or wholeness as the deepest level of reality. Its final moments dramatize this indecision, with the two most traumatized residents of Twin Peaks on the brink of a reunion that could bring about healing or be a fresh hell. How do we do justice to the reality of suffering, and at the same time to the different reality of metamorphosis? The Return ends on the note of suffering, but its structural use of the doubling motif allows it to come as near as possible to having it both ways—struggling toward a form that can fully articulate joy and possibility alongside an equally full articulation of evil and pain.