Israel Daramola wants you to know this article contains many plot points and spoils.
When Laura Palmer—the dead beauty queen played by Cheryl Lee at the center of David Lynch’s beloved cult series Twin Peaks—appears in the first hour of Twin Peaks: The Return, it is a truly beautiful and breathtaking moment. The girl who had been tortured and killed and became an avatar for the fight between good and evil and the sinister goings on of a small town was right there, in the flesh, 25 years older. She shows up in the red room: a dreamlike purgatory of sorts draped in red curtains and zebra stripe floors with zig zag patterns, as though they were meant to hypnotize you. She sits, dressed elegantly in a long black dress, staring at the ostensible hero of the show, FBI special agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan. Dale can’t believe it; Laura died a teenager yet she sits in front of him a grown woman. “Laura Palmer is dead” he remarks after she confirms that she is indeed her, to which she responds: “I am dead. Yet I live.”
It was probably fair to assume that this new edition of Twin Peaks would focus purely on the evil spiritual elements at play in the world of the show, picking up from the dramatic cliffhanger that ended the original series, in which Dale Cooper, after entering the demonic spiritual realm known as the Black Lodge to save his girlfriend, Annie Blackburn, is trapped and replaced by an evil doppelgänger. While the new season did do this, it is a mistake to ignore that this show and its mythology were always going to center around Laura Palmer.
While Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost are sometimes credited with popularizing the dead girl trope found on many primetime procedurals and television dramas, what separates Twin Peaks is that it is truly fascinated and respectful to Laura, as both a character and an idea. As a dead body, Laura was a tool for the characters to explore their sorrow, frustrations and desires onto. In Cooper’s dreams, she was a guide: a beautiful and alluring dame in the classic Hitchcockian sense that held a special connection with Cooper through dreams and ultimately led him to solving her murder. The film Fire Walk With Me was further evidence that the heart of the story rested with Laura.
A year after the show’s cancellation, Lynch brought Twin Peaks back to the silver screen—not to tell audiences what happened to Dale Cooper but instead to tell the story of Laura’s last days. The movie originally left a bad taste in the mouths of many because rather than answer lingering questions, the movie only provided more (this will be a theme). Not only that, but the small town charm and goofy sensibilities of the various townsfolk that were part of the original show’s charm were completely gone, replaced instead with intense horror, esoteric sequences and extremely violent content.
Lynch was not interested in fan pandering or lite comedy to balance the terror that the original show was so good at; he wanted you to understand that at the heart of this story was an innocent teenage girl who represented pure goodness, coveted by scoundrels and the purely evil forces of the world; raped repeatedly and ultimately murdered by her father, Leland, while possessed by an evil force referred to as BOB. The torment and pain of that violence and emotional torture caused her to spiral towards drugs and sex as an escape.
The tragedy of Laura Palmer is that deep down she always knew she had to die, because it was the only way to beat the evil that stalked her every waking moment. BOB doesn’t want to kill her, he wants to take over her body. He obsesses over her and languishes in her torture. In essence he wants to conquer the ultimate form of goodness in the world. As we learn in the 8th part of The Return, Laura’s purpose is to combat the evil thrust upon the world in the form of BOB and the great tragedy is that her death is the catalyst for that fight.
Twin Peaks is a story of severe trauma, the absolute horror of being alive and receiving the battering of an evil world. The effects rape, abuse, loss and terror take on the psyche, depicted in the form of a fantasy fight between good and evil in America. In the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return, Cooper is given the chance to go back in time and save Laura Palmer from her murder. He finds her in the woods; she recognizes him from her dreams. He takes her by the hand and tells her they’re going home. But there is no home. As he guides her through the woods she eventually disappears out of time into an alternate reality. Her life and death in Twin Peaks never happened. In Cooper’s desperation to find her, he enters this new alternate time and finds her in Odessa, Texas, where she is an adult woman named Carrie Page, a waitress at a local dinner.
She has never heard of Laura Palmer, the Palmer family or even Twin Peaks. Still, Cooper assures her that she is a woman named Laura Palmer and that he will take her to her family’s home in Twin Peaks. Once Cooper convinces Carrie to come with him, they enter on the long, drawn out, eerie and offbeat road back to the Palmer residence in Twin Peaks. When they finally arrive and knock on the door, the woman who opens is not Laura’s mother, Sarah, but instead a woman who goes by Alice and tells them that there is no one who goes by the name Palmer there. As Cooper and Carrie walk back to the car, realization hits both of them in different ways. Cooper, completely shaken and distraught asks out loud “what year is it?” and Carrie hears the faint whisper of Laura’s mother Sarah screaming her name and something clicks for her and she lets out a murderous scream.
Twin Peaks was never the story of how Dale Cooper saves the day or saves Laura Palmer; it was never his job to save her. It was his job to investigate her murder and fight the forces that caused her death. In his arrogance, desire, and love for Laura, he has doomed her to relive the hell of her life and death and doomed himself to a hell of trying and failing in vain to save her.
During Cooper’s journey through time and the Black Lodge, he has been given a powerful golden ring, a circular object, and in this finale, when he meets an animated giant tea kettle like object that is the evolution of a former FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, who has also been lost through time and space in the same way Cooper is now, he shows him the number eight. Turned to the side, it is the symbol of infinity: two dual circles connected—”time and time again.”
Cooper trying to lead Laura out of the woods recalls the Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painting Orpheus Leading Eurydice From The Underworld, the story of which tells the tale of a beautiful musician Orpheus who loses his love Eurydice from a poison bite and is so wracked with grief and longing that he convinces Hades through the beauty of his music to allow him to bring his love back to the living world under the one condition that he not look back at her until they are safely on the other side. Naturally, Orpheus can’t help himself and he looks back and Eurydice instantly disappears back to the underworld and Orpheus is never given a second chance to return. This painting and story echoes Cooper longing to save a woman he has felt a deep internal affection for; and of course, when he looks back to see her she’s already gone. Her infamous, harrowing scream scatters through the air.
The relationship between Cooper and Laura is a genuine one even though they’ve never met each other in any real sense. On the surface, she is a dead girl at the center of a case of multiple murders but beyond that she is a cosmic guide who Cooper instead tries and repeatedly fails to save. When she first appears to Cooper in a dream in the third episode of the original series, she kisses him and whispers who murdered her into his ears. In this dream, Cooper has aged by many years and he’s sitting across from Laura and a small dancing man, known as The Man from Another Place (or The Arm), who asks him: “This is my cousin but doesn’t she look a lot like Laura Palmer?” When Cooper asks her if she is actually Laura Palmer, she says, “I feel like I know her but sometimes my arms bend back.”
Going back to the infinity symbol, everything that will happen has happened and will keep happening—it is the present yet it is 25 years later yet it is an alternate reality, all at once. In the original series finale, Laura tells Cooper she’ll see him again in 25 years, then she says “meanwhile” and strikes what can be interpreted as a Buddhistic pose (“mudra”) that roughly translates to “do not fear.” The word “meanwhile” by definition refers to time either simultaneous or intervening. She is directing him even as he thinks it’s his job to save her.
In Fire Walk With Me, Laura has the same dreams of the Black Lodge where Cooper is already there trying to save her from the inevitable. She has visions of a bloody Annie Blackburn telling her to leave behind the clues for others where Cooper is trapped as well. Cooper and Laura’s connection is a spiritual one and he has a true love and obsession of her, to the point that he will destroy himself trying to stop what has already happened and will always happen. At the end of Fire Walk With Me, Laura, officially dead in the Black Lodge watches and is moved to tears of joy and peace at the sight of a glowing angel while Cooper silently admires, his hands gracing her shoulder. This is her only moment of true peace and happiness because the worst is over. The dead cannot die again and BOB will never have her or torment her again. Most importantly, Cooper is a bystander; a witness to her joy but not a factor. She is given agency to experience joy and beauty alone. This is ripped away from her the moment Cooper tries to alter history to save her.
In his obsession and desire, Cooper lets go of the things that made him a beloved character and a great cop: his instincts, his good nature, and his objectivity. The most maddening yet glorious thing about The Return is how it both languishes and spits in the face of nostalgia. In part 17 of the show, the story is essentially over: the good Cooper returns and BOB, the literal incarnation of evil, is destroyed but an obsession with nostalgia refuses to let go and accept things being over. The story always has to continue even if the end is perfect; in our obsessions and selfishness, we cannot let go of the things we love most.
In the end, Cooper damned himself to the same cycle of hell and torment where he’ll always try to save Laura from a death that will always come. The ending of The Return loops back to the beginning of the original Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer, the one object of pure goodness that can combat the world, is forever destined to be terrorized and traumatized in order to inspire the fight between good and evil. And Cooper, in his own obsession over her, has created his own hell in which he is forever destined to fail at saving her life. Twin Peaks above all else is a horror story, it was always going to end in a horrifying way.
Sacrifice is a prevalent theme in fantasy stories. Think of Game of Thrones and how Jon Snow is constantly rushing headfirst towards death in an effort to save everyone. Or think of Harry Potter who in The Half-Blood Prince at Dumbledore’s funeral comes to an aching realization that possibly the only way to save everyone is to overcome his fears and sacrifice his own life. Laura is not merely an empty husk being used for nefarious purposes in a film. She is as smart and perceptive as she is beautiful; graceful, depressed, and truly traumatized by the abuse she’s been through. There’s a scene in Fire Walk With Me when Laura, at the local bar The Roadhouse, drugged out and numb begins to cry profusely—scored by a beautiful music performance by Julee Cruise.
In the moment, there seems to be realization in her face that she can no longer live: BOB will terrorize her through her father forever and try to covet her body for himself. The only escape and salvation is her death. Freedom will not exist as long as she lives. Laura spends much of Fire Walk With Me, walking in complete, aching fear and becoming so zonked out on her vices that she is zombie-like—numb to the fate that she knows ultimately awaits her. “No one can save me” she tells the boy she loves, James Hurley. It’s a warning as much as it is her pushing him away. Sheryl Lee’s face and terror haunt this entire story with her heart shredding cries, her terrifying shriek, and her classic movie star beauty. She is the key to all of this.
In part 14, David Lynch appears as fellow FBI agent Gordon Cole and tells a story of a dream he has with Monica Bellucci in it, in which she tells him: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.” An interpolation of the Upanishads ancient texts that provided the basis for Hinduism and religion in general. The actual text reads:
“As the spider creates the cobweb out of its saliva, it lives and plays in it and at the end the same spider swallows up the cobweb, similarly the God, the Lord creates the whole universe as the act of His thought. He manifests in it and again He withdraws the whole universe in Himself.”
After Monica quotes this she asks Gordon, “But who is the dreamer?” We try to create a new reality in one that has already been chosen for us by forces against our control. Laura Palmer cannot be saved, her fate is like the golden ring placed at the center of a Formica table. Laura is the hero of this story even though her triumph can only come in death. It is a true tragedy but Twin Peaks above all else is the story of American tragedy. The show cares about Laura and her agency and even when she is a dead body or a framed picture in her parents’ home. She is the lifeblood pumping through the entire series. This has always and will always be her story. Laura is dead, yet she lives.