Friday, June 10, 2011

A Golden Circle: Looking Back at the “Twin Peaks” Finale

*Warning: This must be where Spoilers go to die…

So little time passed between that golden era when Laura Palmer’s blue face smirked out of every magazine cover in America to the barely-on-the-radar “Twin Peaks” finale that first aired twenty years ago today. The story has been told countless times: ABC forced Mark Frost and David Lynch to reveal Laura’s killer earlier than they intended (i.e.: never), the viewers who so demanded that revelation tuned out as soon as it dropped early in the second season, ABC rescheduled and preempted the show so many times that real fans could barely keep track of when and whether or not it was on TV. Following an extended break after Josie Packard was left trapped in a wooden pull knob in the Great Northern Hotel, ABC allowed “Twin Peaks” to return briefly enough to finish out its second season while manacled in the ratings dungeon. ABC was so over “Twin Peaks” that the network crammed its final episodes into a two-hour “movie of the week” format just so it didn’t have to deal with the show another day. Some who worked on it, including David Lynch, claimed they weren’t sure whether or not “Twin Peaks” would be renewed for a third season, but it’s unlikely anyone involved was really that naïve. When Mark Frost directed the first-season finale, he purposely loaded the episode with so many cliffhangers that the network would have to renew it. The scheme was a clever one, but not realistic from a business stance. No network pours money into a program that isn’t pulling in viewers. “Twin Peaks” ended its first season as a hit, which guaranteed its renewal more surely than the notion that anyone at ABC cared to find out if Shelley Johnson and Catherine Martell survived the mill fire, if Ben Horne discovered his daughter was the masked prostitute at One Eyed Jacks, and who shot Agent Cooper.

Still, the “Twin Peaks” team tried that scheme again with the episode that would be the series’ last. Audrey Horne, Pete Martell, and Andrew Packard blow up in a bank explosion, their fates unknown. Nadine Hurley recovers from delusions that she’s a high school girl, leaving her relationship with teen Mike, and her husband’s with Norma Jennings, in uncertain shambles. Doc Hayward may or may not have murdered Ben Horne. And, most shattering of all, Agent Cooper is left under the influence of the demonic Killer BOB. That’s quite a lot of unfinished business, but the show’s abysmal ratings meant none of it would be resolved.

Writer Bob Engels has spoken quite a bit about where “Twin Peaks” might have headed in its phantom third season. He told the Twin Peaks Archive that it might have shifted “away from the high school setting, so after the resolution of the Cooper-BOB-possession plot point, they would have cut to something like ‘Ten Years Later’, and then shown us a Twin Peaks where Cooper had quit the FBI and had become the town pharmacist, Sheriff Truman had become a recluse, etc.” He also mentioned the possibility of bringing “Sheryl Lee back yet again, this time as a redhead, and having her character killed by BOB again.” No one else involved in the show has corroborated any of this.

The fact remains that there was no way ABC was going to bring back “Twin Peaks”, and that David Lynch had yet to begin toying with the idea of a feature-length sequel (or prequel, as it would turn out). One can reasonably surmise that everyone involved knew “Episode 29” would be the series’ last even before it was finished being scripted. So how does it hold up as such? Most of its cliffhangers discussed above end on an unsatisfying note—assuming one views the show as a soap opera in which no one is ever really dead. “Twin Peaks” had played that game before when Coop survived getting plugged three times and Catherine Martell finally emerged weeks after everyone believed she’d perished in the mill fire. The bizarre nature of Josie’s “demise” suggests she might have returned too. But most of the folks who were supposed to be dead stayed that way: Laura and Leland Palmer, Maddy Ferguson, Harold Smith, all three Renault Brothers, Blackie and her sister, etc. The fates of Audrey, Pete, Andrew, and Ben may very well have been tied up in the finale. It would certainly be farfetched to have everyone survive that bank explosion. Ben’s “death” is more ambiguous, but it certainly looks as though he is breathing his final breath and shuddering into oblivion after clunking his head on the Hayward’s fireplace.

This leaves us with the finale’s biggest shocker: Cooper left in the Red Room while his BOB-“possessed” (for lack of a better word) doppelgänger is free to roam Twin Peaks, and presumably, cause a lot of mischief. But think way back to Episode 2, which ends with Cooper’s famous dream in which we first glimpse BOB, the Red Room, and the rest of the phantasmagoria with which the show is associated. In this dream, Cooper is twenty-five years older. And what does Laura (or the spirit who resembles Laura) tell the agent during his disorienting trek through the Red Room in the series’ finale?
"I’ll see you in twenty five years."
While these two details do not clue us in to everything that transpires during that twenty-five years, they do give us a degree of closure on Cooper’s fate. In Twin Peaks, there is only the thinnest veil separating the dream world from the waking one. The bizarre characters that populate Cooper’s dream in Episode 2 eventually appear in the waking world. Messages he receives in his dreams relate to events yet to pass in the real world. Dreams are not mere nocturnal fancies; they relate tangibly and directly to waking life. The old Cooper we see in his dream really is Cooper, just as the Little Man from Another Place and the “dream Laura” really give him real clues about her murder that will manifest in the real world: Leland reveals that he is his daughter’s murderer (or the vessel that housed her actual murderer) when he repeats the Little Man’s strange statement, “That gum you like is going to come back in style”; the Little Man refers to the cousin who would be BOB’s next victim even before Cooper is aware that Maddy Ferguson exists.

According to this interpretation, “Twin Peaks” itself is a “golden circle,” just like the ring the Giant takes from Cooper, or MIKE and BOB’s “golden circle” of appetite and satisfaction. Cooper essentially begins the show in the Red Room, so it is inevitable he will end up there. Time is cyclical in the Twin Peaks world. But the situation is not so simple as to conclude that the Agent Cooper left waiting in the Red Room for twenty-five years is the “real” Coop and the one we see leering at his reflection in the Great Northern bathroom while cackling “How’s Annie?” is nothing more than an evil replica created by BOB. They are both Cooper. Like all of us, the heroic special agent is capable of good and bad. Remember, this seeming paragon of good had an affair with his former partner’s wife. Cooper’s two poles have split à la Jekyll and Hyde. As his new love, Annie Blackburn, will later explain, “The good Dale is in the Lodge, and he can’t leave.” Annie speaks these truths to Laura in what may be a dream, reinforcing the realness of dreams in the Twin Peaks world. That she speaks them in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which takes place before Laura dies, reinforces the looping nature of time in that world.

So the “Twin Peaks” finale does give us some idea of Agent Cooper’s future (as well as his past): his good self remains in the Red Room for twenty-five years, while his evil, BOB-possessed self continues to hunt in the outside world. That period could conclude with the Good Dale reemerging from the Red Room to defeat his evil twin. That, of course, we’ll never know. But as it stands, Episode 29 works fairly well as a series finale since it finally shows us how Cooper ended up languishing in the Red Room for twenty-five years: a mystery presented very early in the series, whether we viewers realized its importance or not.

Cooper has some trouble with his favorite beverage in the "Twin Peaks" finale.

We are also left with what may be network television’s most experimental and disturbing hour. Following a diffuse period in which characters and situations were becoming increasingly silly and meandering, David Lynch finally returned to set “Twin Peaks” back on track with reinvigorating confidence. The power of those early episodes leading up to the revelation of Laura’s killer is back. Episode 29 unravels with the slow queasiness of a nightmare (a Lynch trademark) as we see beloved characters dispatched mercilessly. Then there’s Cooper’s walk through the Red Room, which stands alongside his first dream of The Red Room (Episode 2) and the death of Maddy Ferguson (Episode 14) as one of the series’ most mesmerizing sequences. To a backdrop of sawing string bass, characters emerge from behind curtains and furniture to posit puzzles and threaten Cooper. Long lost Laura, Maddy, and Leland are back in various states of good and evil. Little Jimmy Scott materializes to croon a haunting torch song about the sycamores standing guard around the entrance to The Black Lodge, then disappears. Cooper comes face to face with Caroline Earle, the lost love about whom we’ve heard so much. She transforms into his new love, Annie, then into her own wicked husband, Windom. But as soon as we catch sight of Cooper’s own cataract-eyed doppelgänger lurching into the strobe light, we can already guess how all this will turn out. His pursuit of the Good Dale is terrifying. The resolution of that pursuit in the Great Northern bathroom is punishing, heartbreaking. Painful as it is to see our friend Cooper making a mockery of the good person we’d come to love throughout the previous 28 episodes (and pilot), there is comfort for viewers open-minded enough to experience the unfairly maligned Fire Walk With Me. We see the Good Dale once again, gabbing to his little tape recorder, chatting with his curmudgeonly buddy Albert Rosenfield, investigating, drinking coffee, being the old Cooper we all adore. In the end, we see him during his twenty-five year stint in the Red Room, as angelic as ever, guiding the Good Laura to a better world where she will finally be at peace. A happy ending for Coop, Laura, and “Twin Peaks”, because as Lynch informed us in his first film, he believes that “in heaven everything is fine.”

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