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A potentially frustrating Twin Peaks finale asks one big question: are we owed answers?

Is it future? Or is it past?

Twin Peaks
Whatever you do, don’t touch dead Evil Cooper!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“What year is it?” asks Cooper.

Laura Palmer — now a middle-aged woman, going by Carrie Page, whom Cooper found in Odessa, Texas — stares up at the house where she lived and suffered before her untimely death. She hears a dim echo of that suffering, and she screams.

Cut to black. Roll credits over an image of Laura whispering something into Cooper’s ear in the Black Lodge, something we are not privy to. Cue the cry of, “What the hell?!” across the planet (or, at least, the handful of people scattered across it who were obsessed with this show all summer long).

The natural inclination is to think that this is a cliffhanger, that a “season four” might start to wrap up the loose ends of what, exactly, transpired in a finale that seemed to walk right up to the brink of explaining everything on the show, then made a U-turn to head off toward some other world entirely. But given the fact that David Lynch is in his 70s, Mark Frost is in his 60s, and just reassembling the cast for this series felt like a minor miracle, I’m guessing this is it, the end of the line for Twin Peaks.

What’s more, Lynch and Frost have to have known, on some level, that this quite possibly will be the last we see of these characters or this world, and they chose to leave us in a place of supreme irresolution.

We don’t find out what was up with Audrey. Or why Sarah Palmer seemed to be missing the inside of her head. Or what was up with the bug that crawled into that girl’s mouth back in the eighth episode. Or just who Judy was. The one story that gets a tidy button put on it — somewhat perversely — is the tale of Douglas Jones and his family. (That said, it’s fitting this satire of American suburban life should end with the restoration of the nuclear family.)

We can speculate, sure. Maybe we should speculate as to the answers to these questions. And that speculation might lead us to some interesting places. (For instance, I’d encourage everybody wondering why the woman now living in Laura’s old house said the names “Chalfont” and “Tremond” to look at this.)

I don’t want to discourage that theorizing, either. It’s a big part of the fun of this show. But at the same time, “Part 18,” in particular, seemed as if it wanted to resist easy answers. It wasn’t about explanation. It was about something more, something bigger, something scarier and wilder and harder to pin down.

It was about history.

Is it future, or is it past?

“Part 17” is perhaps the most straightforward episode Twin Peaks has offered all season long, at least for its first two-thirds. It builds inexorably to a confrontation between good and evil in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station that pays off a bunch of random bits and pieces from the season so far. It concludes with a man in a rubber gardening glove punching a giant ball containing the essence of BOB (and, thus, the essence of evil) until he can shatter it into pieces, and it somehow doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it probably should.

That’s to the credit of Frost’s gift for pulling storytelling threads together in ways you don’t see coming, and Lynch’s gift for juggling comedy and horror right alongside each other. But it’s also to the credit of how perfectly every single character is maneuvered into the place they need to be for the story to pay off.

I like to call this kind of storytelling “clockwork storytelling,” because a big part of the fun is in the storyteller showing you their carefully constructed design. It’s often predicated on reveals, on pulling back and seeing that what you thought was one thing is actually another. And when it’s done well, it feels like watching a magic trick unfold before your very eyes. (Probably the best clockwork show in TV history is Breaking Bad, to give you an idea of a series that used this mode on a more sustained basis.)

Twin Peaks
Cooper and Carrie/Laura show up at a very specific house.

This is not a mode that Twin Peaks works in all that often. It’s a show where Cooper will wander around in the middle of the road in the desert, then nod to himself and conclude he’s in the place he needs to be. Yeah, the show gives you just enough information so you know how he got to that point, but it’s by and large less interested in the mechanics of its story than it is in the tumultuous, roiling emotions underpinning it.

So it was fun to see Lynch and Frost take a swing at the big build-up to an exciting conclusion. But after the BOB ball had been shattered, and the dead body of Evil Cooper had faded from existence, and Naido (the woman locked in the Twin Peaks jail who kept chittering like an ape) was revealed to be the real Diane, the show seemed to let go of resolution and plunge headfirst back into inky nothing.

It did so by sending Cooper into the Lodge, then having him travel back in time to shortly before Laura Palmer’s murder, so he could take her by the hand and try to lead her “home.” A shot from the pilot of her body, wrapped in plastic, flickering out of existence, seemed to suggest that the entire miniseries might conclude with some sort of universal reset. If Twin Peaks is about a town — and now a whole world — that broke when a teenage girl was murdered, well, why not try to overwrite the murder?

It doesn’t work like that, of course. Cooper lost track of Laura in the woods, and we watched as Sarah stabbed a photo of her daughter, over and over. Maybe Laura didn’t die at the hands of her father (and/or BOB), but she could have died some other way. You can’t change the past, because it dictates the future. Maybe Laura needs to die. But maybe she’s also reborn in Texas, as a waitress at a cafe (named Judy’s!). Or maybe this is who she was before she was Laura. Is it future, or is it past?

Twin Peaks is about the impossibility of shoving genies back into bottles

Twin Peaks
The gang’s all here!

There’s a reason, I think, that the big confrontation with Evil Cooper and with BOB seems to come so early in the two-hour finale. This is not a show that would ever feature a confrontation with the Big Bad resulting in the good guys saving the day. Even if you can banish BOB, there’s always some other darkness lurking around the corner. Human nature dictates that.

So, yes, Freddy’s powerful punch sends BOB elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the job is done. There are so many other awful, wonderful things that need to be dealt with, and Lynch suggests this by playing out so much of what happens in this sequence with an image of Cooper’s face in close-up held in a double exposure over everything else that’s happening. At one point, his voice, deep and terrible, says all of the characters are living in a dream, and I briefly thought that might be the “answer” to everything — not that it was all a dream, but that BOB had somehow tricked everybody into a false reality that “felt” real.

Yet the more I thought about this notion of a “dream,” the more I realized it jibed with seemingly every single storyline that has played out this season, in ways both obvious (Audrey is clearly trapped in some sort of “other space”) and not so obvious (the characters who surround Dougie Jones in Las Vegas all find some better versions of themselves reflected in him).

Twin Peaks itself seems like it’s been warped beyond recognition, stuck in a time loop or maybe a part of Audrey’s dream space or maybe just broken down and splintered. It’s a place that looks right, but it doesn’t feel right, and the more time we spend there, the more its artificiality seems to take over.

You never get the sense of a warm, goofy place that so dominated the original series’ depiction of the town (and made its sinister undercurrents all the harder to shake). Something broke here, long ago, and the connections between these people have been severed.

In trying to restore Laura to life (maybe), Cooper, then, is trying to fix what’s gone wrong. But he can’t do that any more than someone can un-invent the atomic bomb. On the one hand, the events of “Part 8” (the episode that flashed back to the birth of BOB in that bomb’s explosion) have little to do with everything else that’s happened. On the other, they’re like prophecies of everything that followed. It doesn’t matter what Eden you invent and tell yourself is perfect, because there’s always a snake.

Twin Peaks, America, the world — they’re all built atop endless cycles of abuse and terror, but also punctuated with moments of great kindness and caring. Yet the only way to get to those moments of beauty is to acknowledge that the cycles of cruelty exist. The snake didn’t destroy Eden; Adam and Eve did. But in so doing, they also found a way to rebuild it on their own terms, and maybe the work of that has been all of human existence.

This sort of cosmic thinking is what Twin Peaks encourages in the viewer. When it offers a confrontation between good and evil, it almost does so just to show it really could be the conventional TV show that gives you all the answers you crave. And when it somehow turns a romance between Cooper and Diane into the most important thing in the world for all of a half-hour, you go with that as well.

But it always veers off course, always makes that U-turn. You go to bed in one reality and wake up in another one, where everything and everybody is different, up to and including yourself. You wake up from one dream right into another one.

Let the mystery be

Twin Peaks
Alone in the dark.

The immediate aftermath of the Twin Peaks finale on social media has been frustration. Some of that frustration has been playful, enjoying the episode’s final moments in the way they were intended. Some of it has edged toward anger, at the thought that these stories might never be wrapped up in a more conventional fashion.

Let me suggest an alternate interpretation, then: Think about what it might mean for the ending of this miniseries to be the ending of Twin Peaks, period, forever and ever and ever. Think about what it means if this is the last moment you spend with Cooper, or Laura, or Diane, or Audrey, or Sheriff Truman. Think about if we never see the “curtain call” Cooper suggested he would see his old FBI pals at. What does that mean?

The Lynch work that this Twin Peaks miniseries has most reminded me of isn’t the previous two seasons of Twin Peaks but, rather, his 2001 magnum opus Mulholland Dr., which featured a similar drive toward “answers,” before an abrupt U-turn toward irresolution at the end. There are plenty of really strong theories out there as to what happens in that film, but what I love about it is the way it forces me to live inside the horrible inability to find closure the protagonist experiences. Somewhere, buried inside of it, is a really bad breakup, and sometimes, we don’t get the closure we seek in such situations.

The same is true for criminal investigations, or for long-healing wounds, or for grief. Twin Peaks, in all of its incarnations, has been a meditation on what it means to live inside the irresolution of grief, especially when that grief is attached to someone whose life shouldn’t have ended in her teens.

To be confronted with this sort of shocking, violent act is to be confronted with how little you can ever understand or control the universe, how ultimately tiny human beings are in the grand scheme of things. We all hope that we and our loved ones will live to ripe old ages and die peacefully, of natural causes, when we can all agree it’s time to go. But we also know, on some level, that we have no control. I could step outside after writing this and be hit by a car, and that would be that. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen, but if I really think about it, I have to acknowledge that’s the case.

But we’re so bad at acknowledging the incredibly basic horror of terrible, random death that could strike any of us at any time. If we thought about that all of the time, we’d essentially be unable to live. And so being alive is a kind of sleight of hand trick, where you know death could be coming, but you also don’t really know. You pretend maybe it doesn’t have power over you, not yet, just as you might pretend you can really know what’s going on behind your neighbor’s closed door, or understand a darkness that might seep into a friend or loved one’s soul.

Much of the last 20 minutes of Twin Peaks that we will ever see (most likely) is spent with Cooper and Carrie (the maybe-Laura he’s found in Texas) driving in silence along empty, unending backroads. She talks, every so often, but nothing that explains anything. It’s mostly quiet, mostly silent. I thought of all the times I’ve driven somewhere with someone, how the quiet dark of the highway seems like it might breed closeness but can just as often breed uncertainty, the idea that I don’t know the person I’m riding with, not really. Cooper and Carrie/Laura don’t find answers on their road trip, because not all of us are owed answers.

If Carrie really is Laura (as the last few seconds suggest), then some sort of incredible reprieve has been granted — but it’s also created an entirely new world (and/or timeline) that has changed everything else. To try to right the past is to change the future, because we’re all, always, paying for who we become with who we were.

So I choose not to try to pull all of this together into a grand series of answers. I choose to leave Cooper and Carrie on those backroads, in that silence, waiting for a solution to the greatest mystery of them all, one none of us are promised but one all of us hope might be waiting for us around the next bend.

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