Twin Peaks is a game, and I mean this in two ways. First, it’s a game for the detective-like audience, as we try to tease narratives from puzzle pieces through elaborate, case-file analysis on Facebook and Reddit forums. The question in season three is no longer “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” but rather, “Who dreamed this world, and what are its rules?” This makes Twin Peaks a peculiar kind of game, one almost intended for online channels—a game that we play in order to figure out its rules. Of course, we might not be certain that there are rules for this capital-S Surrealist world; it is entirely possible that this 18 hours of genre iconography serves as a kind of Pavlovian mood-trigger, a way to make us feel the emotions we felt in classical cinema that featured similar scenes in favor, once, of a story. On the other hand, if we accept subredditers’ claims that there are rules in place, then that's because David Lynch has constructed something that at least at moments is a coherent Dream Machine. We know that when one Cooper leaves the Red Room for earth, another will take his place; we know that green gloves fight evil lodge spirits; we know that at the 430 mile mark (from where again? Does it matter?), Cooper and Diane will enter another world. One accepts these talismanic presences as so many ruby slippers, witches’ apples, or prince’s kisses.
But that’s also because Twin Peaks is a game, second, for its characters, most of whom seem to be attempting the same work we are of determining what world they’re in, what the rules are that govern it, and what game-pieces they need to win. Within this dreamscape, the characters are obsessed with the rational order of numbers to guide them in space and time. Evidence: the junkie screaming “1-1-9,” the telephone pole labeled 6, the 430 miles, the 8 formed from the owl symbol, and the time of 2:53, which David Lynch as Gordon Cole himself explains to be a number of completeness (since 2+5+3=10 and 1+0=1). Indeed, the focus of so many of the characters’ quests is for numbers—that is, coordinates to certain locations. The two Coopers search for coordinates, the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department searches for coordinates, Bill Hastings searches for coordinates, and Diane seems to search for coordinates. “He asked us to get us numbers, important numbers—coordinates,” says Bill Hastings of Major Briggs. But what are these coordinates, these places rendered into numbers and the myths of numerology?
At various points in the show, the characters find them: the FBI agents in North Dakota, when they’re nearly swept into the sky; Andy in the woods, when he is swept into the white lodge; Mr. C, when he has his son take his place on an electric rock; and arguably Jerry, when he loses control of his foot in the woods. Andy’s visit to the white lodge suggests that these are evidently portals to the lodges. And if episode 8 is an indication, these may be sites where nuclear bombs opened up chasms to other universes. In any case, knowledge of their position offers a kind of power: somebody seems to have intercepted one of these portals in New York in order to capture Cooper on his way to Vegas.
This is only one example of the gameboard that is the Twin Peaks universe. If you figure out the game in this universe, as Cooper comes close to doing in the final episode, you might recognize that the names of diners are encoded with messages about how to find missing women, or that you need to perform your own ritualistic voyages and copulations to channel spirits to earth. And you might eventually realize that the coordinates for these portals, or rather the portals themselves, are not only spatial but temporal. 2:53, for example, a time the clock can’t quite get to, offers Cooper a portal to the night of Laura’s death, though he remains his older self; “253,” says the Arm in episode two, “time and time again.” This is also, I think, how Major Garland Briggs ends up dead as a 45 year old around 2016 when he should have been a good 25 years older. He has also traveled in time by finding the right coordinate. But then, as the last shots of the show reveal, the series has been obsessed all along with the question of whether we can go back to what we had 25 years ago.
Perhaps, if we accept that the past is not what we thought it would be. Or perhaps, alternatively, if we accept that we can never escape it.
Let’s play this game for a few minutes so that we can see the Dream Machine in action. (Skip ahead if you’re not interested in Fan Theories.)
I’m curious about one bizarre detail that crops up early without any great significance later on: the wedding ring inside Major Briggs’ decapitated body inscribed “To Dougie, from Janey-E.” Like Chad’s sudden breakout from jail, or Richard Horne’s appearances in the middle of Mr. C scenes across state lines, this detail seems like yet another very shaggy device to get from point A to point B; the FBI will need to hear these names for Diane to reveal that she knows them for the FBI to track down Dougie in Vegas. (The fact that one can imagine so many more eloquent narrative hinges than these to alert the FBI to Dougie’s presence is part of Twin Peak’s hoary appeal. Like so many B-movies, it thrives on unbelievable, even inexplicable coincidences).
This is where it’s fun to play the game. I’ll try my own theory here for Dougie’s wedding ring.
If we know that Cooper can travel time through specific temporal portals to change history, then we should assume that Major Briggs, the character who probably came closest to solving this game, has also launched through a portal to achieve some heroic objective from the 1990s to around the time of the present. What was that objective?
We have three clues: one, that he died in South Dakota in connection with Ruth Davenport’s murder (her head was placed on his body); two, that he was decapitated, much as the couple is who watch the black box, much as Bill Hastings’ head will explode; three, that he seems to have ingested the ring.
Theory One: we might think that Major Briggs’ mission was to South Dakota. We know from Hastings’ testimony to the FBI that he hid out nearby while he rigged Hastings and Davenport to hack a government database for those ever-important coordinates that would get him to another place (these are, I assume, coordinates for nuclear test sites that are portals to the lodges, but the more wonderful detail is that Briggs' chosen government hacker is... a local school librarian). How to explain the fact that instead of doing anything with these coordinates for the town of Twin Peaks, Briggs instead ascends ethereally to another place? (We know this not only because Hastings testifies so, but because we later see Briggs’ decapitated head floating in the white lodge—that’s where it went!).
Theory One would say that Briggs knew the real purpose the coordinates would serve—sending the FBI to Twin Peaks when they find these on Ruth’s mutilated body. In that case, he’s leaving both the coordinates on her body along with the wedding ring as messages alerting the FBI to check out Dougie Jones, i.e. Good Cooper, and get him to Twin Peaks.
Theory One begins to look dubious. Yes, it is entirely possible that this was his mission all along to alert the FBI through a gruesome double murder. But couldn’t he have dialed up Gordon Cole rather than get two people slaughtered?
Instead, I want to try Theory Two: that while Briggs did ingest the wedding ring so it would serve as a clue after his autopsy, what the wedding ring really reveals… is that Briggs traveled forward in time to summon Dale Cooper to earth.
Here goes. Dougie-qua-Dougie’s only scenes show that he is wearing the green owl ring where his wedding ring should be, and he declares that his left arm (with the ring) has gone limp moments before he’s zapped into the red room. It’s possible Dougie is just putting on this ring for the first time as he gets dressed, but this is less important than the fact that the green owl ring is basically a death sentence in the Twin Peaks universe: Laura puts it on before she’s murdered, Mr. C puts it on Ray before he dissolves, and Cooper uses it to banish Mr. C. (Some claim it has protective powers—I’m not sure). “With this ring, I thee wed,” The Man from Another Place says to BOB in Fire Walk With Me, and the ring is, in that sense, an alternate wedding ring to the Forces of Evil (or something) rather than, say, to housewife Janey-E. No wonder Dougie feels pain in his shoulder: Mike explains in Fire Walk with Me that this is where he felt the satanic touch before he cut off his arm.
How did Dougie get the ring? Given that Briggs has Dougie’s actual wedding ring, it appears that he zipped to the present day in order to exchange one wedding ring for another—and then swallowed Dougie’s original wedding ring so he could hide it from mutilating forces.
In other words, Briggs is the one who has set this whole plot in motion. Knowing that the absence of one Cooper would call forth Dale, Briggs traveled time to kill Dougie and make room for the valiant hero. The message he was trying to convey to everyone, through the map to the Twin Peaks sheriffs, through his final words (“Cooper Cooper”), through the clues of the coordinates and rings, was that there were two Coopers, and the rightful one needed to get to Twin Peaks. At some point, black lodge forces seem to have killed him, Davenport, and Hastings when they came close to a portal.
Why travel to South Dakota to get coordinates for his own hometown? Given that the coordinates were from a government site, he needed proof that Twin Peaks was also a portal. Did he choose a town with its own portal in case he needed to beat a hasty retreat to the white lodge?
And why I am I asking these questions about an imaginary cosmos?
Besides the satanic wedding ring, other traditional sexual-romantic rituals in the Twin Peaks universe evidently also have portal-like power. When Dale kisses Diane in part 17, his superimposed double momentarily disappears, as if, in his unification with her, he has also united his various selves strewn across parallel universes. Similarly, Dale and Diane will have to kiss on the highway and then fuck in the disaffected real-world of part 18 before transcending one world to the next (as seen by the changing motels—meanwhile, another Diane waits by to take her place). Mr. C’s rape of Diane evidently creates her Tulpa double, as Diane #1, in turn, is evidently sent to some parallel world; this explains, then, what is happening to Audrey, who also seems to have been raped by Mr. C at some point in order to produce his child, Evil Richard. Is Good Richard in the other world? Is the couple’s kiss at the end of chapter 8 what inaugurates hell?
There are a few ways of seeing this point about Lynch’s, um, touch-portals. You could say that these time-traveling sex rituals show how Lynch’s mysticism is grounded so sensually in the interactions of bodies. Or you could say that they show a cold clinician who has devised an arbitrary set of rules for his sci-fi gameboard and can only imagine physical human acts as textual signifiers (sex = dimension-crossing??). Or you could say that they show an entirely puritanical mind who literally sees sexual and romantic behavior as ways of channeling religious forces of evil (notice the twisted version of “My Prayer” in episode 18, or all the imagery of desecrated angels in Fire Walk With Me).
Actually, the overt religiousness of the show raises another question. Given the success of Lynch’s Transcendental Meditation endeavors, will Twin Peaks become his Atlas Shrugged, his Battlefield Earth?
Lynch’s love for signification—for rules that govern his universe, for scenes to be read as puzzle pieces—is part of what differentiates him from, say, the stereotypes about him, and surely what ensures his devoted cult in an era of Fan Theory TV. The use of Penderecki's "Thernody to the Victims of Hiroshima" throughout the series points to multiple, syncretic significances: as an invocation of the real-world nuclear tragedies behind this sci-fi universe; as an alternate religious incantation to the 50s doo-wop love song of “My Prayer;” as a callback to its similar use in The Shining, another experimental horror film about what happens when you build civilizations on Indian burial grounds.
What’s a bit strange is how the multiplicity of meaning can also be so literal-minded. The evident mission of both Coopers, to “kill two birds with one stone,” takes on a number of possibilities just in the show’s presentation of, well, stones. In the waiting room, Dougie’s body dissociates into a golden ball and a stone before joining into a single, golden orb; a stone hatches the frog-moth in episode 8; it is on a giant stone that Mr. C dispatches his son Richard to his electrifying end. Let’s leave aside the fact that Jerry watches this while… (wait for it)… stoned. This is a show that tells us there’s “one missing page” as a key clue before introducing a missing character named “Carrie Page.”
Oh fan theories. How far they go in such short space. I nearly rewatched the whole series just to watch for birds.
Do I, like everyone else, have my own, sort of unfounded but not totally unfounded theory about the last episode? I do.
My theory is not so outlandish, I hope. I think that Dale Cooper is doing exactly what he intended to do. Having saved Laura from her doom, and thus having opened up multiple narratives for the future, as we’ve seen (one in which she dies and one in which she doesn’t), he now crosses over from one reality to another in order to find the living Laura and return her to her mother.
I should pause here. Part of my theory is that changes to the past create ruptures into the present that result in multiple, simultaneous timelines in parallel universes. Just as different versions of Cooper can inhabit the same universe, the same version of Cooper can inhabit different universes simultaneously. Thus it is not Dougie but Dale who returns home to the suburbs to say that most magical word, “home,” while in another timeline Dale returns to a different home, Laura’s, to a very different result.
In other words, it is Dale himself, rather than the Fireman or Judy, who helped create this world by changing the past . As viewers, at least, we also inhabit multiple storylines: both these futures are equally valid to our eyes. Given the giant superimposed Dale face in episode 17, we might assume that the worlds we see are those Dale sees as well.
So by crossing over to this parallel universe to restore Laura to her mother, Dale completes his mission—though we might be skeptical that it is a mission ordered by Leland Palmer. In fact, Dale crosses over twice: first by driving across the 430 mile limit (in Lynch’s rapid montage, Dale and Diane occasionally switch seats—are they also switching roles?), and then, by having sex with Diane. But sex, we know, has a tendency to generate Tulpas.
Anyway, as far as Dale is concerned, this is an alternative version of the future in which he saved Laura and vanquished evil, and now, with the remove of time, he can safely take her home. He is surprised, then, to learn that his name is not Dale Cooper but Richard, and that Laura Palmer’s name is not Laura Palmer, but Carrie Page. This is not supposed to be happening. They were supposed to lead alternate lives in the future—not become alternate people. He refuses to acknowledge that he, himself, might be a Tulpa, yet another Cooper double, like the Dougie who was planted on earth.
Diane’s Tulpa, after all, felt all the emotions of actual Diane, but this is not a particularly emotional parallel universe. Everyone moves with ritualistic disaffection: Richard most of all, but Carrie and others as well. Like the similarly dessicated world at the beginning and end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it is a world in which the present serves to repress the past. Everyone is guarded.
And then, in the final moments, the past breaks loose. As Richard wonders what year it is, Carrie hears the sound of Sarah Palmer calling her name, “Laura.” And she screams.
I’m going to take this concatenation of events quite literally. Richard asks what year it is; Sarah Palmer answers, in what is the only extradiegetic sound after Cooper’s return to earth, somewhere outside the dreamscape. We can say that it is 1989 or so. Sarah’s voice is calling for them to wake up from what is, it seems, her dream. She will awake into darkness. She will awake into hell.
And yet, though this explanation is plausible, it’s not quite satisfactory. We could say with perfect plausibility that this world is David Lynch’s dream, for example, and while we would be correct, this explanation would allow us preemptively to dismiss the rules of this world as foibles of his imagination. (Indeed, this is tempting to do!) Even if we accept the explanation that this is all Laura’s dream, couldn’t we say that within it, we are witnessing parallel universes generated not only by her fantasies, but the actions and imaginations of so many other characters?
So we see it’s 1989, but it's also not 1989; this parallel universe continues concurrently to others, and it’s not the first time we’ve been here. Audrey’s reference to Billy matches one at the end of episode 7 when the RR’s patrons switch seats in a single cut, and that latter scene demonstrates that we are watching the RR at the same point in different words. Audrey clues us that answers are at the Roadhouse and indeed, in retrospect, it’s easy to see that many of the conversations at the Roadhouse were occurring in this parallel world—the girl who laughs about penguins and complains about her rash, for example, keeps complaining about her memory, a consistent issue for this World of Repression, in which Audrey doesn’t remember who she is, and Laura/Carrie doesn’t remember where she comes from.
This raises some questions about other scenes: Does one girl scream at the end of an episode because of what is happening concurrently in the other world? Is she another Laura variation? Like so many other characters, is she complaining because she doesn't know who she is?
Indeed, this scream of trauma is itself a kind of portal crossing over space and time—from the past, when Cooper loses Laura in the woods, to the Roadhouse, to the final scene at the Palmer household. This is why the Fireman’s gramophone sounds off when Laura disappears; it is a broken record, on repeat.
Once we accept that this trauma is repeating itself—a narrativization of the ways real traumas repeat themselves—we can realize that the dude sweeping the floor for three minutes is doing so in a parallel universe where everyone is trying to tidy up. (Carrie’s one monologue is about cleanliness, her keeping a “clean house” that sounds a bit ironic given the dead man stationed there, as well as what’s happening in her Twin Peaks house, as well as the fireman’s warning that “it’s in our house now”).
In fact, the second episode has already shown us that Renault and Red occupy this parallel Roadhouse together, while James attends with an entirely different bartender. Thus, Renault talks about two “grade-A whores” who go missing because the past is repeating itself. If Laura, a new Laura, is still being abused into the present, on repeat, then she and Ronnette are also still going missing. As The Arm says, time... and time again.
So Richard-Cooper fucks up in two ways. First, he makes the mistake of thinking that this is his dream world—the one he forged by saving Laura. But this world is highly unstable, possibly a kind of intrapersonal dream space dreamed by multiple people at once, like Ubik’s universe of deteriorating time. If he could go back in time to save Laura, Briggs could also go forward, and thousands of other agents could be jetting back and forth as well—continually tweaking the past until Cooper is not even born as Cooper, but as Richard, and Laura is not born as Laura, but Carrie Page.
Why would Carrie hear the voice of Laura? Perhaps because this is Laura’s dream that he has concocted as a space of repression to deny the present. Or perhaps because this event is eternally ongoing. The coordinates point to a portal in Twin Peaks; that portal, I think, is the basement of the Great Northern, which would explain why lodge spirits have taken up residence in Laura’s house, the convenience store, and possibly the Roadhouse.
So really, I think we have two equally valid interpretations by the end. One is that there is a single, verifiable reality: Laura being abused by her father in 1989 and inventing an elaborate fantasy of time-traveling FBI agents coming to save her across multiple universes. The other is that of multiple, fantasy realities within this dream—but here, too, there is a constant. The Black Lodge will continue to propagate this same story of horrible pain across all times and universes in order to generate the pain on which it feeds. Carrie hears Sarah’s voice saying “Laura” because Laura is inside the house.
In either point, the first point here is that that dream worlds are also gameboards with multiple players who lead their own lives and make their own decisions. Cooper can lead an autonomous life in someone else’s dream. His first mistake, then, is believing that he’s the author of the world in which he lives.
His second mistake is fairly simple: bringing Carrie/Laura her to confront her worst nightmare under the belief that she can be saved. The ending serves as one more terrifying inversion of The Wizard of Oz, whose structure parallels the last two hours of Twin Peaks.
There truly is no place like home.
To put it another way, every Cooper until episode 18 is monstrously competent. Dale, peppily so; Mr. C, violently so; even Dougie, bumblingly so (wherever he goes, he too solves problems, rights wrongs, and restores a moral/social middle-class order). But in the last 30 seconds of Twin Peaks, as this hybrid Cooper perches forward, almost mid-fall, Cooper and the audience are faced with something they haven't seen: a Cooper whose righteousness for restoring moral order makes him horribly, and horrifically, incompetent. It is not just that he has failed in his mission. It is that he's reinitiated a cycle of violence that had been calloused over in this repressive world. It's that in his own savior complex, he's forced a woman to confront horrible trauma from which repression might have protected her.
We enter into a question of whether Lynch is pro-suburban-repression—but let's put that aside.
In any case, the fact that this final episode is such a powerful corrective to the rest of the series does not necessarily undo what is a powerful 17 hours of dubious mythology; it does at least help us frame that dubiousness.
Twin Peaks is, basically, a story about law enforcement agents who represent a rational order in fighting against the demons of the subconscious; battling the cropped hair of our white male heroes, these demons take the form of dwarves, cripples, hobos, dirty hippies, and that shaggy roadhog, Mr. C. Good, suburban family men prove all too susceptible to these social outcasts, who require some veneer of white-normalcy as cover. But ultimately, the Black and White Lodges are fairly literal in their implications, religiously, racially, and otherwise. The force of the good White Lodge is embodied by the fair-haired, blonde girl-next-door, all-American Laura Palmer; the force of the evil Black Lodge is embodied by anonymous, blackface homeless men who tend to the wounds of their fallen. That Laura herself does cocaine and prostitutes herself might count as some mark of her own “dark” nature… if you think these are actually evil things to do in life.
It’s Lynch’s paradox that he can only show that normalcy is a sham by showing its horror under siege. The Manichean mythological tropes come out strongest in the audience-pleasing episodes of parts 16 and 17: a toughened FBI agent salutes his loving wife on a battle to protect the country against evil as he intones the crowd favorite, “I am the FBI”; a valiant young man with tools forged by gods fights the pokeballs of hell. Meanwhile, a petite Asian woman with mystical powers makes monkey sounds before gaining full human form as a white blonde, and a whole lot of femme fatale motifs are tossed around. As it turns out, our heroic FBI agents are supposed to rescue the good damsel in distress from the ultimate threat to this universe—old women. Judy, Sarah Palmer, Mrs. Tremond, and the Mother of All Evil take interchangable places as matriarchal monsters. In vain, the men seek to restore order and reason to this world of feminine madness.
Because Lynch is a non-normative filmmaker who takes from his own psychoses, I guess, we could say he’s a true poet of the Devil’s party who very much knows it. (Maybe. I'm not sure.) But another way to frame all this is that Lynch remains a dubiously machismo American filmmaker of the 70s: both of deadbeat, Monte Hellman Americana, and of Cold War battles repackaged as interplanetary, George Lucas warfare between good and evil. And that split, a very different one from Good and Evil, is almost perfectly crystallized by the last two episodes.
I’ll try again. The years of battle between Laura and BOB are set from the eruption of the atomic bomb in 1945 to Laura’s death in 1989. What I mean is that they are inscribed by the Cold War. And the concerns of Twin Peaks are those of the Cold War as well: of nice, white American towns being body-snatched by evil, non-normative forces.
In that sense, it’s possible to imagine episode 8 as a kind of subconscious counterpoint to Histoire(s) du Cinéma, another of the few experimental movies that uses visual and sonic abstraction as a form of historicization. (Let’s leave out Michael Bay's recent scene of Transformers defeating the Nazis). For both filmmakers, the horrors of World War II seem to be a kind of primal scene for cinema itself—but in such different ways. For Godard, the Nazi genocide marks not only a failure of cinematic figuration to represent the unrepresentable, but a damning indictment of pre-war cinema that could at best prophesize what was to come without any ability to stop it; Renoir and Chaplin become sort of Tiresias figures. The war becomes both the epitaph of cinematic aspirations to bear witness—as well as the birthplace of Italian neorealism that would attempt to do exactly that.
For Lynch, though, of a different generation, the horror is not the Nazi's so much as the Americans'; as for Spielberg, Dante, etc., the bomb becomes a mechanism of chaos designed to instill a new-world order, the ultimate horror safeguarding the suburban 50s regime of pleated skirts, doo-wop love songs, and teenage romances. It's that premise—that innocence is predicated on horror—that not only fuels his films but offers a cosmic duality of the dark and light sides of The Force, the White and Black Lodge, his George Lucas mythos. Our figurative abilities to so easily divide the good from the bad, the white from the dark, is itself founded in a total abstraction and visual chaos. When "Thernody to the Victims of Hiroshima" plays in episode 8, Lynch delves into specks of light that could be detritus from a bomb that has ruptured the universe, or, for that matter, simple film grain: plain cinematic texture, nothing more. World War II in that sense is not the death of cinema, or rather, the death of cinematic figuration—but its birth.
At the end, we return to the game, and we wonder if we learned to play it. Can we replay it? Isn’t that what the characters are doing?
At the same time, one of the major questions of the last episode is: how hard has it really been to play a game that presupposes a religious axis of good and evil? If we labor to solve the puzzle by recourse to a moralist logic, do we willfully convert to its binaries? Or to put this more personally, how much is my excitement about Fan Theories and puzzle-solving owed to my relief at not having to trouble any kind of social preconceptions? How much is it owed to me being a white dude who was really into Star Wars D&D? Basically, if Twin Peaks is a challenging work, what kind of challenge is it making me perform?
In the last episode, at least, the moral hooks for our own map-making of portals and lodges falls away. There is a parallel universe to our own, we find out, which has endured its own historical development, seemingly outside this cosmic war. It is a place not of backwards-speaking dwarves and talking trees and sagacious teapots, but a place where waitresses are getting harassed at the coffee shop while the old folks mind their business, where women see no way out of the suburbs, and where it takes a really long time to drive from one place to another. “Is it really you?” Diane and Cooper each ask each other. “Yes,” they each reply.
What year is it? As much as this a place of eternal recurrences, a number 8 looped back on itself, it also is far too familiarly our world. What I mean is that we might wake up at the end of Twin Peaks and realize that when it finally leaves us in a world of natural diegetic sound, of on-location shooting, of real homeowners opening their door when fictional characters knock, it is leaving us in another kind of horror movie altogether—the world of our own present, whenever we return to watch.