“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return, the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago.
It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head.
Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did.
Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it.
Agent Cooper, the third part of this Trinity, remained far away for most of the story, but when he finally returned, he was already in the middle of long-made plans. And that was the problem. His plans didn’t change to suit the environment. His plans didn’t change to factor in his missing years.
The original series of Twin Peaks was a detective mystery set in a soap opera town with elements of the supernatural weaved in. Dale Cooper was an FBI agent who used his intuition, rock throwing and dreams to solve the case of who killed Laura Palmer. He was, as Agent Albert Rosenfield explained, “the only one of us with the coordinates for this destination”. He was perfectly equipped to answer the mysteries of a small town with big secrets.
A quarter of a century later, the world has moved on but Agent Cooper has not moved along with it. We entered The Return hoping to go back to the town we loved, but as we watched each part, viewers were continually denied the reunions we hoped a revival might bring. In an early episode, Deputy Hawk tells Lucy to bring donuts and she does, but they remain in the box; we do not get to see the spread of baked goods the original Twin Peaks had made iconic.
As the new series progressed, though, elements of the show that we remembered from 1990-91 were slowly reintroduced. Characters we hadn’t seen for twenty-five years were paraded throughout the eighteen parts; Dr Jacoby in one of the earliest scenes of Part 1 through Ed Hurley who remained off-screen until Part 13.
But after waiting so long for the series to return, the character withheld from us the longest was Special Agent Dale Cooper. The paragon of virtue. The knight errant. A character who has never really been seen on television before or since; an odd mix of worldly and naïve.
And when he did finally return in Part 16, viewers and fans rejoiced. And then the rug was pulled out from under us again.
It’s not that Dale Cooper was flawless. The end to his original story was a classic tragedy; his imperfect courage saw him fail. Yes, he solved the mystery he came to town to solve, but he got stuck there and got drawn into trying to answer a larger question – what was hiding in the woods?
As you might expect from a soap opera, the villain who haunted Cooper late in the series was his ex-partner, a man who went mad after Cooper slept with his wife. Windom Earle was his nemesis in the classic melodramatic style; his obsession was personal but his plan was, well, world domination. Earle wanted to harvest the evil in the woods and Cooper had to confront his shadow self to save the woman he loved.
He saved the woman but was trapped in limbo. For twenty-five years.
“What year is this?” Cooper asks, perhaps coming to grips with all he’d lost. Or perhaps realising the futility of his best-laid plans.
Twin Peaks: The Return was released with very little indication of what to expect. The trailers gave very little away, even if many of the images turned out to be from the final two hours. Without context, these glimpses meant nothing. In context, they weren’t much clearer.
In early weeks, with the show’s resistance to nostalgia and its insistence that fans and viewers not be pandered to, it became more and more clear that while Twin Peaks, the town, was the subject of the original series, it was the object of The Return. Viewers might have been allowed more and more time there as the week’s progressed, but this was setting up the end goal; for Mr C, for Dougie and for Agent Cooper.
The town when we first visited many years ago was “a long way from the world” and it felt out of time. The music was dreamy, the clothes and hairstyles were classic and the male and female roles were stereotypes; men were the law enforcers and women were the homemakers. The mystery uncovered the dark underbelly of small town America and expectations were continually upended.
We had no such certainty when the series was returned to the world. There was no central character; Cooper had been split into a triumvirate and it was harder than ever to grasp where the story was headed. The further in we travelled, the harder it was to get a grip on. As Agent Phillip Jeffries explains in Part 17, it’s slippery in here; he’s talking about time but he might as well have been talking about narrative.
The final moments of the original second season are hard to come to grips with; evil has won and the good Cooper is stuck in another world. Surely, the new episodes would give us closure and resolution. Surely.
But we have lost twenty-five years and so has our paragon of virtue. He is far away and a long way from the world. Cooper is no longer of the earth, he is an agent of the Red Room.
This is difficult to accept. The hero we waited so long for doesn’t solve the problem of his doppelganger; the destruction of Mr C and BOB are left to supporting players, both long-standing and brand new.
Cooper is there to observe; much like The Fireman helps Andy to make sure Lucy is in the right place at the right time, Dale is only at the Sheriff’s station to make sure Freddie fulfils his destiny. It feels narratively perfunctory, but tells us that Agent Cooper has bigger things to contend with. Much like Windom Earle, Cooper is now playing off the board.
And the moves he makes are difficult to parse; even though we have some idea of his two end goals – find Laura and stop Judy. Two birds with one stone.
Laura Palmer is The One, the Log Lady tells Hawk. But the one what? In Twin Peaks, she was the object. In the film Fire Walk With Me, she is the subject. In The Return, she is an open question and as much a destiny as the town of Twin Peaks itself.
“Now the circle is almost complete. Watch and listen to the dream of time and space. It all comes out now, flowing like a river. That which is, and is not. Hawk, Laura is the one.” Margaret Lanterman was never easy to decipher and no easier in her dying days. But she is warning about the dream of time and space; it’s slippery in here.
Early in this new series, Cooper is implored by Laura’s father, Leland, to find her. We see this moment again in Part 17; is it future or is it past? Some of The Return has played out of chronological order, so these moments that are outside of time cannot be definitively placed. But much like the icons of the series we have revisited, shot from unexpected angles, these replayed scenes are slightly different. Are these the exact same moments? Or is Cooper experiencing them again?
Is it happening again. And again?
The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was long solved. The mystery of where she is plagues Cooper now – and the way he chooses to fix this problem brings about the final leg of this strange and troubling return.
Bringing back long dead film and television franchises often feels cynical, like a network or a studio wants to make money from brand recognition. It’s a fraught business because fans want the world they once knew but writers and directors want to stretch themselves creatively; the concerns of David Lynch and Mark Frost in the late 1980s are not the same concerns as they have now in 2017.
As Mark Frost explained during production, this new series or eighteen-part film, is not an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, it’s something of a criticism of nostalgia; ironic given how much the original series feels nostalgic for an era long gone.
Pie and coffee is withheld from us and from Cooper. We don’t hear any music from Angelo Badalamenti for hours and few new cues from him until late in the season. And our hero, our Special Agent, makes a mistake so fundamental that it changes the world and upsets the premise of the original show. That long-ago question of who killed Laura Palmer is rendered moot; I tell you, she has not died.
Agent Cooper does not remember the dire warnings of The Fireman. Beyond getting 430 miles (from where?), he does not remember Richard and Linda. He does not listen to the sounds. And much like Lot and Orpheus, as he tries to rescue Laura, he looks back.
And she is gone. Gone from his grip and gone from history. No longer dead nor wrapped in plastic.
In this current era of prestige TV, lead characters need not be heroes; they may well be villains. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper are varying shades of dark, but they gain the benefit of our doubt because they are the series’ lead character. We are appalled by their behaviour, but much of the time we are hoping they get away with things. Narrative gets us on their side.
We are on Dale Cooper’s side throughout The Return, willing him to come back to the world, to us and to Twin Peaks. Perhaps, like Dougie saves the people he meets in Las Vegas, Dale Cooper might save Twin Peaks from itself. No longer a quiet logging town, it’s infected by drugs and threatened by political fucks and franchise stores.
We are with Dale Cooper right up until…
The climactic scene in the Sheriff’s Station should have been unambiguously triumphant, but the story is almost anti-climactic with the super-powered green glove and evil reduced to a fiery ball. Unnervingly, Cooper’s face is superimposed over this moment; he’s observing these people, these objects, these pawns. His plan is running like clockwork, though it cannot reach 2:53 – the moment (and number) of completion.
“The past dictates the future,” he explains. Things will change. Beyond life and death.
Dale Cooper is no longer the hero of the story. He changes the past and alters the world. And not for the better. I’ve spent much of the past week trying to understand the plot and the details; trying to break the code and solve the show. But this has always been futile. I knew this all along.
The hardest thing to reconcile was the fact that Cooper has failed. Again.
And worse than before.
Agent Cooper of the Red Room is stuck in a loop. He is trying to save Laura Palmer. He is trying to give her more life. But he doesn’t understand that he cannot do that. He doesn’t understand that he cannot erase trauma. He asks Diane if she remembers everything and she tells him that she does. But this doesn’t stop him from trying to fix her by recreating the assault visited upon her by Mr C.
This doesn’t stop him from trying again and again and again to find answers and to solve the world, returning Laura and Diane to moments of deep hurt and not listening to them. Not all can be said aloud now, but when these women speak, Cooper should listen. But he doesn’t.
His plan continues. Is it future or is it past? He enters one motel and exits another; another try and another loop. He enters as Dale and exits as Richard; another try and another loop.
He swishes his hand and the curtains part; he’s learning things but not the fundamental lesson.
He cannot save Laura. He cannot give her more life. He cannot erase her trauma without victimising her further.
Dale Cooper is not Dougie. Dale Cooper is not Mr C. By the end of The Return he may be an amalgamation of all three parts, but there’s one thing he is not.
He’s not the hero.
He may be the villain.
Dale Cooper finds a woman named Carrie Page, but doesn’t she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer? She’s living in Odessa, a clear allusion to Odysseus and the epic of The Odyssey. We thought this was the story of Cooper returning to the world and to the town we had such sweet memories of.
But Odessa is the feminine of Odysseus and it is Laura who is returned to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks. By force. Without thought for the woman or her story.
This is not nostalgic.
This is traumatic.
Twin Peaks: The Return doesn’t end with the question “What year is this?” It ends with the blood curdling scream of Laura Palmer.
And as the credits roll, Laura once again – as we saw in parts past and decades ago – whispers into Cooper’s ear. We do not hear her this time.
And if Cooper listens to her sound, he seems not to hear her, either.
And that is why he fails and why his return is so troubling.