Content warning for discussions of violence against women, drugs, sexual discovery, abuse, pedophilia/incest, and allusions to suicidal ideation.
Spoilers for all of Twin Peaks, through the finale of The Return.
I first watched Twin Peaks: The Return some time after the initial zeitgeist. It took some effort to keep myself mostly unaware of spoilers, but it was worth it to wait until I had time to rewatch the original series first. And so, I watched through all the entries in the Twin Peaks “canon” (the original series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and its deleted scenes, The Return) in sequence, and was able to process them as a whole on my own terms.
Watching it this way helped to crystallize that one of Twin Peaks’ biggest themes is in full force in The Return: Twin Peaks is ultimately about a community that has failed itself, failed one woman in particular, and failed women more broadly. The support network that is the promise of small-town Americana is that of a dense cluster of interconnected people all relying on and helping each other in turn. It’s been a standby of American TV canon for decades, a fictional creation that is to be relied upon by the viewer as a lens through which to view events and relationships. This structure is an absent myth in Twin Peaks, and Laura dies because of it. The show’s primary adversary BOB may be a creation out of time, but he finds in Leland Palmer a host, a symbiosis, to perpetuate the acts he commits.
As the show progresses, the characters struggle to understand who or what BOB is; he could be any number of great and mystical forces of evil throughout the world and throughout time. What they fail to understand is that BOB is a cypher for abuse, and more specifically, the abuse perpetuated by a toxic and harmful conception of what it means to be a man in his community. In Fire Walk With Me, we learn that BOB feeds on something called garmonbozia, or the transfer of pain and sorrow from one person to another. If Leland Palmer is the good, loving father he purports to be up until BOB takes over, or that he appears to be once BOB leaves him, then where does the pain and sorrow that is transferred to Laura come from? BOB is attracted to Laura because of her being “the one,” the representation of goodness in the world, but he finds a host in Leland because Leland wasn’t a good man. He’s someone that was always capable of hurting Laura because he can’t process his own pain, and he can’t reckon with his inner violence. It’s this inability that BOB takes advantage of and that allows the cycle to begin as it does.
In the finale, Cooper tries to reset the world, tries to stop the cycle and create a world in which Laura was either never killed, or was safe from the threat of BOB entirely. Whether Laura’s haunting scream in the finale was her awakening or her death is immaterial — something is still clearly wrong to both her and Cooper. Something did not go as planned.
There’s been a lot of talk of Cooper’s hubris in responses to the finale, and that’s integral not only to Cooper as a character, but to the show itself. Cooper, the audience counterpart, beloved by fans — myself included — constantly believes that his goodness, intelligence, and belief in making things right can save the women around him, that he is the hero of the story. What he doesn’t realize is that this is only half of the picture. Even if you save someone from one moment of pain, is it really saving them if you put them back into a world unchanged? This is why he failed in the original series — he failed Annie Blackburn, he failed Caroline Earle, he failed Audrey Horne, and he failed Laura Palmer. And it is for this hubris that he was trapped in the Lodge. Yet, still, even after the incredible journey of The Return, he has failed again.
What Cooper doesn’t realize, his fatal flaw, is that you can get all the goodness in the world together to save a single person, but that doesn’t change the traumas that have been inflicted on them up until that point, nor does it change the structural issues of the entire world. If you don’t actually think about how to center the victims’ needs, how can you stop the same from happening again? Dale Cooper leads Laura away from her death in the crucial moment, only for her to fade away. What Cooper fails to understand is that “saving” Laura there still delivers her back into a Twin Peaks that cannot help her, that doesn’t see her suffering, that can’t help her heal, that still contains Leland Palmer, even free from BOB’s influence. And it denies her final choice.
If The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (the metatextual book cowritten by David Lynch and his daughter Jessica) is to be believed, Leland has been abusing Laura since she was 12. Her diary also shows that Twin Peaks fails all its women and girls on a structural level. They don’t talk about things like sex and love openly, only in hushed tones and passed-along rumors. There doesn’t seem to be any sex education in Twin Peaks, or if it exists, very little. There isn’t even an internet yet, not really. And thus, young Laura is left to feel like her sexual desires make her unnatural, make her dirty, because the desires she has are different from her friend Donna’s. No one told Laura about consent, about how both “no means no” and “yes means yes”, no one was there to explain that masturbation is okay and shouldn’t make her feel guilty. So it’s in this climate that Laura is left to grapple both with her own desires and with the control of BOB, thinking that maybe, she deserves what BOB is doing because she’s committed some grave sin. That this is her punishment from God.
Laura, in her diary, eventually comes to this conclusion: if she can’t stop BOB, she can at least stop him from having the satisfaction of corrupting her. She will corrupt herself, and maybe in so doing she’ll destroy whatever part of herself attracted BOB to her in the first place, and that’s how she’ll beat him. It’s an awful decision for a child to have to make, but it’s one she makes regardless. And it’s one that absent any support system, many that have gone through similar abuses have to make for themselves — how do you reconcile your personhood with your abuse? You compartmentalize, you rationalize, you make yourself into someone who’s deserved it.
It’s this Laura that is the one Cooper tries to rescue. In his hubris, he doesn’t truly think about the fact that even saving this Laura — one who hasn’t gone to her final doom, but one who has been hurt and whose spirit has been crushed, one who has already been traumatized again and again — would be sending her back to a world that has hurt her, and stealing the peace of finally having agency in a world that denies her that. Merely rescuing her doesn’t give her anything. In order to truly stop the cycle, he would need to go back even further, to go back to a time when he could stop all of that from happening. Or perhaps he’d even have to change the very fabric of the town itself, from a well-meaning but ultimately unsupportive town, to one that truly loves and supports its women. After all, at this point, Teresa Banks, Leland’s first murder victim, is already dead as well. Leland has already killed her for being too much like his darling Laura, for daring to be feminine, sexual, and strong.
This is why Laura slips through Cooper’s fingers. She may not be dead, but the world that she returns to is also not one in which things have significantly changed — instead, perhaps he is dooming her to a worse fate in that reality, one where she may be alive, but she has to live with her trauma, not feeling that there is anyone she can truly share it with.
After crossing to the other side with Diane, Cooper once again tries to find Laura, tries to ensure that his plan has worked in this reality. Instead, he goes on a journey that ends with him making a crucial mistake. He asks “What year is it?” before Carrie Page, Laura’s parallel in this new world, unleashes a terrifying wail.
Once again, Cooper has let his hubris, his thought that all it takes to save someone is to summon up your good intentions, and change one thing… change the wrong thing. He has missed some vital thing. I’ve read the theories that maybe they are all waking from the dream that Monica Bellucci described. It’s a possible reading. But it’s also an answer that’s still too simple for Twin Peaks. Cooper has failed in this cycle yet again, and the cycle is set to repeat.
The infinity symbol Cooper’s similarly-failed predecessor Phillip Jeffries showed him is not just a curiosity, it’s fact.
It’s well-known that David Lynch, and the character of Dale Cooper, believe in enlightenment and meditation. I think that the cycle is set to continue. The events of Twin Peaks will continue to play themselves out again and again in a brutal cycle of failed enlightenment, until Cooper learns that it isn’t just one person changing one small thing that saves someone. Change, real change, has to happen on a systemic level to dismantle the structures that perpetuate abuse. Laura Palmer can only be saved by saving her town, by building a community that truly supports her and others like her. Laura Palmer may be the one, but Twin Peaks is the place. And only when Cooper learns that can Twin Peaks, and the world, be free.