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Twin Peaks episode 16: it’s all finally happening

With only a two-hour finale left, the show’s true colors are emerging.

Sherilynn Fenn in Twin Peaks: The Return
At last! (Sort of.)
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s all happening, friends. It’s all finally happening.

Tonight’s episode of Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t technically the penultimate episode, but since Parts 17 and 18 are airing back to back as a two-hour finale next weekend, Part 16 is the functional setup for the finale. And boy, does it go places.

The amount of semi-coherent plot setup in this episode makes it feel much more like the old Twin Peaks than like this season, which — well, let me put it this way. While everyone was transfixed by a solar eclipse on Monday, I spent the entire day binge-watching Twin Peaks: The Return. With 15 one-hour episodes, that’s a lot of watching. The drawbacks to experiencing The Return this way should be fairly obvious: exhaustion, confusion, a fading sense of where the curtain between reality and surreality is, and whether reality even exists.

Sherilynn Fenn in Twin Peaks: The Return
It’s happening!
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

But there are unexpected benefits. Twin Peaks: The Return — like all of David Lynch’s oeuvre — is strung together more by dream logic and intuition than by the normal rules of time, space, and dimensionality. However, when you watch every episode stacked on top of the other, what emerges is a kind of order, and even a sense that there’s a method mixed in with the madness.

Part 16 is a great cipher for the many strands of the Lynch/Frost method, for what strings the whole Twin Peaks project together. I don’t think it’s possible for any one person (even one who spent the week marinating in all things Twin Peaks) to pull them all together, but here are five things from Part 16 that are well worth remembering as we head into next week’s finale.

Doubles and tulpas: we’re finally headed for the final crisis

It’s right there in the name: Twin Peaks. Throughout the series, pairs of people crop up over and over — whether they’re just romantically paired for eternity (Lucy and Andy, Ed and Norma) or actual identical copies of one another, in the case of the many Coopers.

In Part 16, we at last get Good Cooper back, our dear Dale Cooper, who’s been catatonically walking around as Dougie Jones for most of the series. (His “I am the FBI” made me cheer.) Some people speculated that his fork-in-the-socket stunt in Part 15 killed him, but it seems to have just dropped him into a coma, from which he woke with the wiring in his head finally working.

When that happens, the first “person” he sees (though transparently and in a kind of connected vision overlaid over the hospital room reality) is the man in the Black Lodge, who says, “You are awake.”

“One hundred percent,” Coop replies.

“Finally,” the man says. “The other one. … He didn’t … go back in. He’s still out.” Presumably “the other one” here is Dark Coop, who spent the first sequence of this episode driving his son Richard to a spot where he apparently shoos him up a hill to “investigate,” which turns out to mean “get fried to a crisp,” while old Jerry Horne watches through binoculars he then tries to destroy.

Kyle McLachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return
A coma with consequences.
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Back in the hospital room, the Black Lodge man hands a ring to Coop, who asks if he “has the seed.” The man does. Coop hands him what looks like a hair from his own scalp and says, “I need you to make another one.” The man says he understands.

What’s the seed? That isn’t clear, though the shiny golden seed bears a striking resemblance to the pearl-like item we’ve seen in other episodes — like the one in which the “manufactured” Dougie Jones disintegrates in a puff of smoke in the Black Lodge, leaving behind a pearl and a ring. In this one, Diane also is told she was “manufactured,” and then she disappears in much the same way, leaving behind the pearl. (She apparently knew of her manufactured state.)

Both Dougie and Diane were vessels for these small, shiny objects, whose pearl-like appearance doesn’t have a clear analogue in the Twin Peaks universe (but it is worth noting that Leland Palmer used to vacation as a child with his family at Pearl Lakes, in a cabin next to BOB). But both were copies of “real people,” and both filled the same function: to carry the pearls to the Black Lodge. They were, in a sense, a pair.

Back to doubles: Cooper’s been living as Dougie, and appears to know this, thanking Bushnell, Sonny Jim, and Janey-E for their help — and he seems genuinely moved, even as he’s confident and determined about getting on a jet to Spokane, all as the main Twin Peaks theme plays robustly. It seems possible, even likely, that Coop was awake in there all along, aware of what was going on outside of Dougie’s body.

Lynch and Frost are making use of the traditional mythology around doppelgängers, in which seeing your own double — generally, an evil version of yourself — is a harbinger of your own death. In the world of Twin Peaks, they are “tulpas”: duplicates of people that are not quite the original. And tulpas are important, since, as Agent Tammy Preston points out, “Diane” was one too.

That seems to matter for our finale because, as the Black Lodge man tells Good Coop, the “other one” is “still out.” And presumably they’re both headed now for Twin Peaks, where they will meet for what’s probably the first time. If we follow the rule of doppelgängers — and probably of tulpas, too — then someone’s definitely going to die.

Of course, that seems likely anyway.

Absurd mortality: people die in the Lynchiest ways

“Someone dies” is a very solid entry for your Twin Peaks: The Return finale drinking game, because someone (or lots of someones) has died in every episode of this season. And with Lynch and Frost untethered from network TV strictures, said deaths frequently happen pretty horribly.

In this episode, all kinds of people die. Richard seems to just burn up. Chantal and Hutch get riddled with bullets as they’re staking out Dougie’s house. And, as often happens on Twin Peaks: The Return, that scene provides a lot of the comedy for this episode, partly because everyone seems to be at Dougie’s house except the people who live there, and partly because of the way it happens, with a game of murderous chicken between the pair and the guy whose driveway they kind of blocked.

That scene is for me the quintessential Twin Peaks action episode. It’s like something that would have happened in Breaking Bad (which most people underrate as a comedy). Two crooks sitting in a van on a stakeout, arguing and eating Doritos, get killed by a neighbor in a sports car for no particular reason while the FBI sits by watching, mouths agape.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Roth in Twin Peaks: The Return
Farewell, Chantal and Hutch.
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

“What the fuck kind of neighborhood is this?” Bradley Mitchum says, peering around the corner of the house.

“People are under a lot of stress, Bradley,” his brother Rodney replies.

I think it’s safe to say that David Foster Wallace would have classified this way of going as deeply Lynchian. Wallace’s essay on Lynch’s Lost Highway defines Lynchian, which he summarized on Charlie Rose’s show in 1997:

A regular domestic murder is not Lynchian. But if the man — if the police come to the scene and see the man standing over the body and the woman — let's see, the woman's '50s bouffant is undisturbed and the man and the cops have this conversation about the fact that the man killed the woman because she persistently refused to buy, say, for instance, Jif peanut butter rather than Skippy, and how very, very important that is, and if the cops found themselves somehow agreeing that there were major differences between the brands and that a wife who didn't recognize those differences was deficient in her wifely duties, that would be Lynchian — this weird confluence of very dark, surreal, violent stuff and absolute, almost Norman Rockwell, banal, American stuff, which is terrain he's been working for quite a while — I mean, at least since Blue Velvet.

That sounds about two ticks off what happens in Part 16, and though death ought never to be taken lightly, it’s basically impossible not to laugh at it here.

But that’s the essence of the Lynchian view on life and death: The former is precious; the latter is absurd. That we live at all has to be taken seriously, but the fact that life ends is just too monstrous for words, and the only way to deal with the absolute reality that it’s going to happen is to chuckle a little.

Twin Peaks: The Return shares this view of life with The Leftovers, but its view of death comes straight from Six Feet Under, just with the amp cranked up to 13. People die in the damnedest ways on this show, and those ways often make very little sense. A beheaded corpse with a ring in it. People just get shot up or explode or disappear in puffs of smoke, or they spend their lives in a living death. It’s madness. It’s wildness. It’s … just what happens.

Playing a part: the women of Twin Peaks struggle to break out of their types

One person who dies in this episode is Diane, revealed to be a tulpa — well, she doesn’t exactly die so much as get sucked out of this world and into the Black Lodge, where she cracks open and then poofs away.

But not until after she tells the horrific story, at last, of the night that Coop (Dark Coop, presumably, given that Good Coop was trapped at the time) visited her. He just walked in, “no knock, no doorbell,” as she tells FBI Director Gordon Cole and his associates. (That’s also the line of dialogue that Showtime used as its “plot synopsis” for this episode, which, sure.) On that night, Dark Coop raped Diane, and “afterward he took me somewhere, like an old gas station, old gas station” — this is of course the gas station we’ve been seeing, where sheer evil seems to live. Given that she seems to be a tulpa, a dark double, of the real Diane, the mystery of where real Diane went is still an open question.

Diane (or “Diane”) seems to have only told this story because she got a text message from Dark Coop (reading “: - ) ALL”), freaked out, texted back a set of coordinates to the “sheriff’s office,” and then went to tell her story before drawing her own gun on the FBI agents.

Laura Dern in Twin Peaks: The Return
Diane, or not-Diane.
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

If Diane was a tulpa, though, the question remains: Is this story the truth? A few episodes ago, people seemed to be catching on to the idea that there are two Coops. But will they put all the pieces together?

Who knows? It’s an interesting question because in being revealed as a tulpa, Diane’s character — which seemed very badass and hard-nosed, even when she was breaking down — fits into a larger Lynchian pattern of female characters who are supposed to play a “type,” something he brought out probably most brilliantly and coherently in Mulholland Drive. Though you could quibble with the specifics of his storytelling, in general Lynch is interested in how we have a set of roles for people — especially women — to play, and how we punish them for deviating from those roles.

The mythology around the stereotypical blonde, virginal dead girl Laura Palmer was ruthlessly deconstructed in the original series, and this one splits that out prismatically. Janey-E and Chantal are also types in this season, drawn a little larger than life for effect; even sweet Lucy never changes, playing the ditzy receptionist. (It’s no mistake that a few episodes back, the police in the back of the sheriff’s station had a tense and brutal argument over Chad’s treatment of women.) The rotating cast of young women at the roadhouse are part of this, too, their stories like little epilogues to each episode in which they are treated with disrespect and rage by the men around them. They have no background except a story revolving around a still-unseen character named Billy.

And there’s another type, too — the bombshell, or in this series, the aged bombshell gone mad: Audrey Horne.

Madness and mirrors: the fan theories around Audrey Horne may be true

Famously at the end of Twin Peaks’ second season, Coop, now possessed by BOB, slams his head into the mirror, cracking the mirror and bloodying his forehead. That famous shot is echoed in this episode, with the suggestion that Audrey Horne — as some fans have theorized about her strange purgatorial timeline this season — is actually institutionalized after losing touch with reality, and that Charlie is not her husband but her doctor.

The second-to-last scene in this episode isn’t conclusive, but with Audrey appearing in a starkly lit white room, gasping into the mirror, it seems pretty clear that the fans were onto something. This will certainly be a big part of the finale.

Sherilynn Fenn in Twin Peaks: The Return
Dance, Audrey.
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

It raises other questions, though. Audrey’s sudden awakening comes after a scene at the roadhouse (finally, I thought, she made it!) in which she dances sensually and happily to “Audrey’s Dance” in the middle of the floor as everyone else just watches. As with the triumphant return of the Twin Peaks theme as Coop peels out of the hospital, the return of Audrey’s Theme was very welcome. And given all Audrey’s been saying this season, it seems like she’s been longing to be at the center again — just as many fans have been longing for her to be at the center of the show again. (In Twin Peaks, we’re never just watching at home; the show is always watching us too.)

You could say this is a commentary on how society pushes aging women to the margins, and maybe it is. But it’s also a clear mirror to the awakening of Coop: Both bolt awake in sterile spaces, and if we take Coop-as-Dougie’s arc as an indication, then perhaps Audrey has been also living in a catatonic state. Are they doubles of each other too?

Also, all this time, Audrey’s been telling Charlie that she has been having an affair with Billy. But if she’s been in a hospital — and Charlie’s actually her doctor — then who is Billy? (There’s only one established Billy in Twin Peaks lore to date, and that is Billy Hurley, the father of James Hurley, who abandoned the family when James was young.) Is he a person in the hospital? Does he exist at all? And why are all of these women in the roadhouse talking about him?

And wait: Does the roadhouse really exist, or is it the past stuck in Audrey’s fevered and mad imagination? Have we been just watching figments of her subconscious all this time? What exactly is going on here?

That there’s some connection between the roadhouse and Audrey’s psyche actually seems kind of likely by the end of this episode, for one big reason: The final credits play over the roadhouse band performing Audrey’s Theme — but in reverse, as things also sound in the Black Lodge. It’s incredibly creepy, but it also indicates that there is some kind of deeper connection here — something that will undoubtedly be part of the final two episodes.

Computers and telephones: Twin Peaks uses electricity to stand in for connection between ourselves and it

Which brings us to the final, more meta strand that’s been in Twin Peaks: The Return all along. This show deliberately sets itself up as occurring 25 years after the end of the older series, and that it’s airing 25 years after isn’t just a neat trick: It’s drawing on our nostalgia while also consciously trying to subvert any strictures we might want to place on it.

Twin Peaks broke the way people thought about TV, and about what was possible in a TV show, when it first came out. A lot has happened on TV since then — and of course, David Lynch and Mark Frost know this.

So with Twin Peaks: The Return, they try very hard to both make and break those connections. There are new characters and old characters. Old plots get tied up, while new plots seem to get introduced and then spun off into oblivion. There’s old technology and new technology, desk phones and iPhones. (I will never forget the computer screen rising out of the sheriff’s desk several episodes ago, as if it’s been there all along.) There are scenes that feel like they’re straight out of Mad Men and others that seem lifted from corporate dramas in glossy office buildings. It’s a show that’s racked by anachronism, and it’s got no problem with that.

The overall effect is of a messing and mushing of time, a disorientation that can only be both observed and accomplished because of the things that have existed since both the dawn of Twin Peaks and the premiere of this season: electricity, data storage, the signals that distribute TV, and the screens themselves. As Vox’s Todd Vanderwerff and Constance Grady noted in some of their recaps, this is a show that’s about being connected and disconnected, and about how we watch television.

The fact that electricity and signals figure so strongly in this episode — from the way Richard is incinerated to Sonny Jim’s questions about electricity and comas to the monitors and screens that are present everywhere to the sounds that happen deep in the show’s sound mix whenever someone is approaching a place where the curtain between world seems especially thin — all of those things point to the idea that Twin Peaks is strongly interested in the connection between us and it, between our perceptions of it and what it actually is.

Which brings us back to doubles and tulpas. Is Twin Peaks: The Return a tulpa of Twin Peaks — a copy that is eerily unlike the original, and darkly, unpredictably dangerous? Well, I’m not willing to venture a guess yet, till I see next week’s final installments that will wrap this universe up at last. And even if it turns out the series is a tulpa for the original, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Tulpas, after all, seem to be manufactured vessels for pearls.