Edit: I added a couple additional thoughts about the narrative, marked by an *
I think there are at least three levels of interpretation that need to be attended to. They don’t strictly supervene on each other: an interpretation at one of the three levels is compatible with multiple interpretations at the other levels. But they are not totally independent: interpretation at each level does bear upon the other two.
The three levels are:
- The 1990 Level: the narrative of the original Twin Peaks series, taken at face value, and the extension of this narrative in TP: The Return, which I take to be imbedded within but not identical to the new series.
- The Lost Highway Level: I call it this not because of direct connections with the movie Lost Highway, but rather because of certain general features that TP: The Return has in common with Lost Highway. Lynch’s works that involve a multiple worlds metaphysics include at least the unproduced screenplay Ronnie Rocket, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks: The Return. Of these, only Mulholland Dr. explicitly clarifies that one world is the real world while the other world is a dream world. Lynch directly shows us a character going to sleep and then waking up, indicating that what falls between is her dream, and then gives us a concrete basis for understanding the dream as wish fulfillment (he does also boggle up the “real world” in various ways and introduce some ambiguities, but the interpretation of the film is clear enough, especially relative to Lost Highway and Inland Empire). Lost Highway is arguably the film that most fully confounds the question of reality vs. dream. There is an available reading that is parallel to Mulholland Dr., where the character murders his wife out of sexual jealousy and then enters into a fantasy where he is a virile young buck who saves her from exploitative circumstances. But the film goes very far out of its way to confound this interpretation and leave us with no easy basis for separating reality from dream. I think that TP: The Return pulls a Lost Highway: there is some reason for thinking that the entire 1990 Level is a dream, and then there is also some reason for thinking that everything outside the 1990 Level is a dream, and there is also reason for thinking that neither is fully a dream nor fully not a dream. Audrey’s entire arc, for instance, as well as the “has anyone seen Billy?!” diner scene and everything that happens at the Road House beg to be taken at the Lost Highway Level. “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?” That’s an open question.
- The Meta-Artistic Level: One thing that I think is happening in TP: The Return is that Lynch is summing up his career and revisiting the obsessions that permeate his work. My other posts have noted clear references to or connections with his other work. Here’s the clearest way to make the case that this level needs to be attended to: the recurring use of the abbreviation “RR.” Ronnie Rocket, Norma’s RR Diner, Rancho Rosa Production Company (Lynch and Frost’s company), Rancho Rosa Estates (the development where Dougie and Janey-E live). I mentioned in an early post that my brother noted a connection that resonated for me between Dougie and M. Hulot. Lynch has explicitly stated that Tati was a major influence for Ronnie Rocket, and it’s very clear that the “electricity as a means of transportation between worlds” trope from Ronnie Rocket has reverberated through Lynch’s career, most saliently in Lost Highway and TP: The Return. At the Meta-Artistic Level, I think the 1990 Level is a stand in for his creative work, and the Lost Highway Level is a stand in for the practice of transcendental meditation that largely constitutes his creative process (the untethered level, which ideas emerge from and ultimately resolve back into). As a basic guiding thought, within the 1990 Level think of Cooper’s quest to set things right as standing in for Lynch’s artistic obsessions, and (at the Meta-Artistic Level) think of the desolate final episode, where we step soundly outside of the 1990 level, as a melancholy acknowledgement that these obsessions must ultimately go unquenched. Cooper can’t set things right. We leave Cooper and Laura locked in an eternal still life, where she’s whispering in his ear, beckoning him to try harder. NB, I also think the Meta-Artistic Level is reflected in the appearance of Monica Belluci as herself in a dream of the character played by Lynch himself. “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?” At the Meta-Artistic Level, the dreamer is David Lynch, and also perhaps us, his audience.
I do not think there is a consistent, exhaustive interpretation of the 1990 Level available. I have seen a few people complain that they were dissatisfied with the lack of answers and resolutions—not many though: it seems like most people loved the conclusion. The people who make this complaint think that the 1990 Level is the only level, or at least fail to recognize that it is superseded by the Lost Highway Level. The 1990 Level is like the central Balthazar Getty narrative in Lost Highway, sandwiched between the Bill Pullman bookends. It is the primary narrative we engage with, but it is imbedded in a larger structure. In both cases, elements of inconsistency or unreality within the imbedded narrative both signal its status as non-reality and open up connections with the larger structure it is imbedded in (both ways the larger structure intrudes into it and ways that it intrudes into the larger structure).
The thread that I am most interested in picking up from the 1990 Level and into the Lost Highway Level is the final arc of Diane and Cooper. We never met Diane in the original series, and she is replaced by a tulpa for most of TP: The Return. The real Diane emerges from Naido in episode 17. I can’t remember where I read it but someone pointed out that ‘Naido’ is ‘O Dian’ backwards (and Janey-E got the ‘e’). In the glorious central scene, after Freddy smashes the BOB orb, I take the overlay of Cooper’s face with the action of the scene to signal the encroaching collapse of 1990 Level into the Lost Highway Level. “We live inside a dream.”
Naido is brought over to Cooper and they touch hands, initiating her transition into Diane. When we finally see Laura Dern, Cooper cracks a huge grin and walks over to her. They immediately kiss like reunited lovers at the airport, with no concern for anyone else being in the room (and the whole menagerie, Jim Belushi included, is there). Cooper asks, “Do you remember everything?” “Yes.” They seem content and resolved. Cooper tells all his friends, “I hope I see all of you again.” The superimposed Cooper announces, “we live inside a dream.” Full Lost Highway Level achieved. Fade to Cooper, Gordon, and Diane walking through a black space with Cooper’s face still superimposed, looking either confused or concerned or some other hard to pin down emotion (brilliantly ambiguous acting from MacLachlan). The three of them reach a door (I think in the basement of the sheriff’s station) that leads to the Convenience Store. Cooper walks through: “I’ll see you at the curtain call.” This leads him to Jeffries, who in turn opens a gate to the past, where he prevents Laura’s murder, fulfilling Leland’s request from the Black Lodge that he save Laura.
Edit: Twin Peaks let me hungry for more ambitious large scale works, so I’ve been working through Jacques Rivette (more on that in future posts). I just watched Celine and Julie Go Boating (clearly a huge influence on Lynch, especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks), and there seems to be some reason to connect Cooper’s saving Laura with Celine and Julie’s saving Madlyn. This would seem particularly relevant to the meta-artistic level of interpretation. In Celine and Julie Go Boating, the events within the gothic mansion are a fiction within a fiction, and they keep replaying until finally C&J prevent Madlyn from being murdered, at which point the boundaries between the different levels of fiction break down and Madlyn joins C&J in the “real world,” as do the other Gothic characters, though frozen in a tableau. This doesn’t obviously correlate with anything that happens in Twin Peaks after Laura is saved, but there seems to be enough of a connection to warrant further consideration.
The suggestion that has resonated for me the most here is that Diane is coming from the timeline where Laura didn’t die, and therefore Cooper never went to Twin Peaks and the two of them had a love affair. Diane’s tulpa (in its moment of clarity) has already told us that she and Cooper kissed only once, which is part of what leads me to believe that she’s coming from an alternate timeline. Her reunion kiss with Cooper is a kiss between people who fuck each other, not between people who have only kissed once before. We must remember that Laura was created in the White Lodge as a counterpoint to the Mother’s spewing forth of all the evil spirits in episode 8. At the 1990 Level in Twin Peaks: The Return, Judy is still a force in the world but it has been kept at bay. Perhaps Laura’s death was a part of that. In a world where Laura didn’t die, things may get really, really bad. And perhaps Diane and Cooper make a plan in that world to cross over to the 1990 World at the point where Cooper goes back in time to save Laura and intervene. He saves her again (otherwise they couldn’t have become lovers and made the plan and they couldn’t be there), but this time they proceed with a further plan, referred to as “Two Birds with One Stone.” I did a little googling and there is apparently some reference to summoning the Mother (who is either connected with or identical to Judy) through sex rituals in Mark Frost’s Secret History book (which I haven’t read and wouldn’t base an interpretation on, but I am happy to take this nugget to support an interpretation that has an independent basis). The notion that sex can summon the Mother/Experiment/Judy is certainly supported by the wonderful scene in the opening episode where the guy who watches the cube has sex with the girl who brings the lattes and we see the Experiment in the cube before it brutalizes them. The sex scene between Cooper and Diane is one of the greatest scenes Lynch ever filmed. I’ve seen it suggested that Diane’s covering Cooper’s face is explained by the fact that his doppelganger raped her. On my reading, she is from a timeline where this didn’t happen. I watched the scene closely several times and I don’t read her pain and her behavior as signaling PTSD. She loves him. She wants him. She feels pleasure. She kisses him even as she covers his face. She also stares blankly into space, punctuating her vacant stare with grimaces of acute dread. The two of them have already acknowledged that they should kiss (and enjoy it) now because things will be different once they cross over. I think what’s happening is that she knows that she’s literally fucking him into another dimension. She will emerge from the coital interlude as Linda, and he will be Richard to her, not Cooper. She knows she’s destroying the version of herself that loves Cooper and destroying the Cooper that she loves. She can’t stand to look at his face, but she also feels driven to express her love to him with these fleeting moments.
So what the Two Birds with One Stone plan entails is that Cooper and Diane somehow use this sex ritual to transition into an alternate dimension. (edit for aftethought: perhaps Mr. C’s assault of Audrey and Diane is directly related to the sex ritual. Either he is trying to enact the ritual with them or he is trying to close Cooper off from doing so.)
David Auerbach, picking up from another commentator, has suggested in this fascinating post that the world containing Odessa and Twin Peaks that we enter in episode 18 is trap developed by the White Lodge to catch and destroy Judy. That’s one way to take it. I see another, though: what if this alternate world IS Judy. Jeffries shows Cooper the symbol that Mr. C earlier pointed to and said “This is what I want” and refers to it as the place where Cooper wants to go. Perhaps the reason there is a dead body in Carrie’s house is that Judy is trying to hide her from the Blue Rose Task Force. She does explicitly say that she would normally avoid the FBI.
*Edit: a different thought: perhaps when the Fireman says in the first episode “it is in our house now,” he means that Judy is in the Richard and Linda world. Perhaps Judy has taken up residence in the white lodge’s domain and has corrupted it and stayed to harvest the garmonbozia. This is supported by the desolation of the world and the fact that the diner is called Judy’s. (continued at the end of the post)
Tangent: What did Mr. C want? I don’t have an answer, but I see two possibilities: he wanted to stop Cooper’s plan, or he wanted to somehow connect in a deeper way with Judy, perhaps by integrating himself into it or (the inverse) by integrating it into himself. Perhaps he wanted to go into the Richard and Linda dimension and kill Carrie. This requires some weird assumptions about the way the time travel loops work but these assumptions don’t seem out of bounds.
Returning to the main strand: so if the place where Cooper goes actually is Judy, some version of Laura is trapped there. This is a version that Cooper saved from being murdered by her father, but who then somehow became trapped in another life in the dismal alternate version of Odessa, TX. So what is Cooper’s goal in bringing this version of Laura to the home where she was raped repeatedly by her father and otherwise tormented? We can infer that it is the final stage of Two Birds with One Stone. When they are about to walk away, she looks back at the house. He asks her, “what year is this?” She thinks for a moment. She hears Leland’s voice (or is it Sarah’s?) faintly calling, “Laaaauuuuuuura” and lets out a scream for the ages. Electricity flashes. Everything goes black. Show’s over. Epilogue: she’s whispering into Cooper’s ear.
The implication seems to be that Laura’s recollection somehow destroys Judy: the alternate world they are in. In the piece linked above, Auerbach suggests that it’s a garmonbozia overload. I think that’s plausible. Recalling Laura’s origin as the White Lodge’s response to the events following from Trinity, it could be the case that Laura was from the beginning a bomb meant to destroy Judy, if only the right set of circumstances could align. These circumstances are oblique, but I think it’s significant that Judy has trapped her in such a way as to hide from her who she really is (she’s living as “Carrie”). Also notice that she’s got a dead body in her house and she explicitly says that she would normally avoid FBI agents– perhaps a way in which Judy is trying to hide her from the blue rose task force. Somehow or other, perhaps through garmonbozia overload, the key to destroying Judy is Laura becoming conscious of herself as Laura within Judy.
What are the two birds, and what is the one stone? I don’t know. I think we have to address that question firmly at the Lost Highway Level. If Lynch wanted it to be clear, that would have been easy to achieve. One thing that I think is clear is that Cooper doesn’t find exactly what he expects in the world where Laura is Carrie. Things don’t go according to plan. Is it a success or is it a failure? He certainly doesn’t save Laura, but does he willfully sacrifice her or is it rather that something goes wrong and the ending is both a success (Judy is destroyed) and a failure (Laura is destroyed)? Are Judy and Laura the two birds while he is the stone? Are he and Judy the birds while Laura is (supposed to be) the stone? I’m not convinced that things worked out as he planned. He did, after all, hope to see everyone again at the curtain call. I don’t think these questions have definite answers. They must be embraced in their ambiguity.
*(Edit: I do think it’s ambiguous but the best I’ve come up with, riffing on the Auerbach story, is that the two birds are the White Lodge and Black Lodge and the stone is Laura. If “it is in our house now” means that Judy is in the white lodge’s domain, perhaps the idea is to seek a Pyrrhic victory: detonate Judy through a garmonbozia overload, sacrificing the white lodge in the process)