This article contains Twin Peaks: The Return spoilers
“Is It future? Or is it past?”
When the One-Armed Man Mike (Al Strobel) posed that question to Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in the second part of Twin Peaks: The Return, he may very well have been echoing the thoughts of the viewers. After all, Mike asked that question while sitting in the Red Room, the interdimensional waiting room that became the signature location during the original two-season run of Twin Peaks, and the 1992 prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In fact, Cooper wore the exact same suit and tie combo, and sat in the same chair from the original series.
Before Cooper could answer, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) entered the room, decked in the same black dress that she wore in the season two finale. Although MacLachlan and Lee had both clearly aged in the two and a half decades since they shared a scene, they slipped easily into their iconic roles. The duo played out something of a “greatest hits” version of their earlier interactions, quoting iconic lines and recreating notable moments.
For many who tuned in to watch the first two parts of Twin Peaks: The Return on May 21 2017, callbacks such as these were exactly what they wanted. The Return was a revival series, and revival series are designed to refer back to the source material, whether it’s Fuller House recreating the opening credits to the original sitcom with older actors, or new Mystery Science Theater 3000 hosts working riffs from Mitchell! into their movies. Production companies make revival series because they have a built-in audience and name recognition. But we watch revival series for nostalgia. Even when the series takes a different tone, as with the 2021 Punky Brewster series that starred Soleil Moon Frye as a divorced mother of three, these series give us a sense of familiarity, hearkening us back to a time when we were younger and things were “better”.
But nostalgia was not what creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had in mind when they came back to Twin Peaks five years ago. Unlike nearly every other revival series, The Return actively pushed against nostalgia. Despite what its title suggested, The Return eschewed the comforts of familiarity and demanded that we acknowledge the process of aging.
It’s Not about the Bunny
To be sure, The Return indulged in moments of fan service. The chocolate bunnies that Cooper mentioned off-hand in a season one episode became a key part of the investigation that Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) conducted with the now-married Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Nearly every character from the original series appeared in at least one scene, even if it was a single Skype conversation.
But even in its callbacks and fan-service moments, The Return foregrounded aging and the passage of time. Take one of the most openly warm-hearted moments, when the tragic romance of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) was finally resolved. The pair had been one of the most compelling parts of the original series, a couple who never acted on their love for one another out of deference toward their loveless marriages to other people.
Frost and Lynch constructed the moment of Ed and Norma’s coming together for maximum viewer satisfaction. As Otis Redding’s soul-stirring ballad “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” pushed into the soundtrack, Norma and Ed finally shared a long-delayed kiss. To punctuate the moment, the camera cut back to Norma’s co-worker Shelly (Mädchen Amick), smiling in approval. Her relieved grin spoke for all Twin Peaks fans.
But Frost and Lynch weren’t just interested in giving fans warm feelings. Their construction of the scene never let viewers forget that these two had grown old, that they’d spent most of their lives apart and wasted years that they could have given to each other. The camera held on Ed for several minutes as he waited for Norma’s response, giving us time to study the wrinkles dredged into his face, and the thinning grey hair atop his head. When Norma’s aged hand slipped into frame to rest on his shoulder, it reminded us that the scene wasn’t about revisiting the passions of the past. It was about the two getting to spend their last few years together.
(Un)Wrapped in Plastic
Nearly every part of The Return existed to make viewers feel the ache of years. Nowhere was that more apparent than with the treatment of its main character, Dale Cooper. The original series established Cooper as a bastion of goodness, a boundless fount of fortitude who battled the town’s primordial evil by giving thumbs up and by celebrating each damn fine cup of coffee.
The season two finale left Cooper trapped in the extra-dimensional Black Lodge while a doppelganger took his place, so viewers weren’t surprised that The Return’s first parts kept him away from Twin Peaks. But when Cooper did escape the Black Lodge, he arrived in our reality as Dougie Jones, a literal shell of a man with no personality whatsoever. Even those who appreciate Lynch’s penchant for drawn-out gags (recall the interaction between a bullet-wounded Cooper and an elderly bellhop in the season two premiere) expected the real Cooper to arrive at any second.
Despite these expectations, viewers tuned in every week only to be disappointed. For almost 15 hours, we watched Dougie Jones lurch through an insurance fraud case, reconnect with his wife and son, and earn the trust of Las Vegas gangsters, with not even an echo of the Cooper we loved.
When Cooper did finally reawaken midway through Part 16 of the eighteen-part series, he came to Twin Peaks only to stand on the sidelines while other characters – including poor, ineffective Lucy – resolved the central threat. Even worse, Parts 17 and 18 featured Cooper essentially undoing the entire series.
At the end of Part 18, Cooper traveled back in time to the night of Laura Palmer’s death, where he “rescued” Laura, thus erasing the series’ inciting incident. What followed was a recreation of the first scene from the first episode of Twin Peaks, with a key difference. Instead of finding Laura’s body, wrapped in plastic, old Pete Martell (Jack Nance) went about his morning as planned. The mill continued to run, the local business leaders kept their schemes, and the teens went to school. Laura no longer mattered.
But as Cooper led Laura away from the site where she would have been murdered, he heard an awful scream and found her gone. Cooper himself returned to the Red Room, wearing the same suit and tie and sitting in the same chair. Mike sat across from him once again, and asked the only question that mattered, “Is it future? Or is it past?”
Can’t Go Home
The Return echoed Mike’s question with its infamous final scene. After a confusing interaction with the owner of what appeared to be Laura Palmer’s childhood home, Cooper and Laura, back in what seems to be the present, stood in confusion. “What year is this?” a desperate Cooper asked, before the sound of Laura’s mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) echoed through the street and Laura let loose with another of her signature screams.
For those who came to The Return hoping for familiarity and nostalgia, the final scene only cemented their frustration. It provided no answers, no explanations, and foreclosed the chance of ever returning again. Laura’s death was prevented, but she had been essentially erased from reality. Cooper ended the show not as a hero, but as a failure, even more lost than he had been in the original series.
Without question, this ending infuriated some people. But for myself and others, those final moments were the perfect close to a masterful 18-hour story. There could be no return, no going home, after this story. There could only be the present, and the meaning we make in the here and the now.
As the screen went black and Laura’s scream seared our ears, we were left with confusion and dread, which is not what many fans wanted from a Twin Peaks revival series. They wanted comfort and reassurance; the promise that no matter how bad things may have been in 2017, Deputy Hawk was still on the case and Lucy was still confused by phones. They wanted to know that good old Cooper could make his way out of the Black Lodge, that Ed and Norma could finally get together. They wanted escapism from the present and a trip back to the past, where even as our bodies age, some things remain the same. That’s why so many revival series eventually default to bringing back fan favorites, even when they initially tried to do something different, as we’ll see next year when the Enterprise crew joins up with Captain Picard.
But in the same way that Cooper made things worse when he returned to the fateful night of Laura’s death, The Return insisted that there can be no comfort in the past. Lynch and Frost digitally inserted a 50-something year-old MacLauchlan into footage from Fire Walk With Me to portray him rescuing Laura, literally changing the past instead of revisiting it. On a plot level, Cooper returned not to Twin Peaks as it was, but Twin Peaks as he thought of it, remaking it into something that he wanted, but removing the agency Laura showed in Fire Walk With Me and ultimately undoing the series itself.
With its refusal of nostalgia and frustrating ending, The Return did provide something of an answer to Mike’s question. By foreclosing the possibility of the past and providing no interpretive answers to make sense of Cooper and Laura’s future, Lynch and Frost left us with the present. We had only the feelings of dread and confusion as the series ended, only the feelings of joy and frustration as we watched Dougie Jones dodder around Vegas, only the feelings of immense relief and sadness as Norma and Ed embraced.
Ultimately, The Return suggests that only the moment matters, and we make meaning in the moment – yes, by bringing our memories from the past and hopes for the future, but primarily in our presence. We share our confusion and frustration with each other, we acknowledge the loss and aging we’ve experienced. But we do it in the here and now, together.
Is it future? Or is it past? Neither. It’s the present. Sometimes the present can be scary, as scary as lights going out on our hometown street, made unfamiliar. But sometimes it can be warm and inviting, like a long-awaited kiss.