Twin Peaks: The Return is a lot of things— frustrating, sublime, confounding, profound, subliminal, meandering, extra-narrative—and while it eschews linear storytelling and finite plot points, it offers rich themes, including expounding on the original series’ depiction of evil as an exterior force and people as conduits that let it into the world. (In fact, The Return redeems the ending of OG Twin Peaks, not silencing Laura Palmer but positioning her as a force of light and good to rival Jowday/Judy, the ultimate bad run amok in The Return.) One of the deepest and most meaningful themes in The Return is that of death and grief, for The Return is a paean to the lost and the bereaved.
David Lynch’s unflinching gaze settles upon images of people amidst tremendous suffering, such as a young mother cradling her child after a hit-and-run, or peering into the utter wreckage of Sarah Palmer’s life, or the image of Bobby Briggs’ grief upon seeing a photo of Laura Palmer. Bobby made a startling impression barking in a jail cell twenty-five years ago, but he has since grown into the good man his father, Major Garland Briggs, foresaw in a dream. He’s fathered a child with Shelly (for whom he still pines despite her having moved on to a new relationship), and he’s a respected deputy with the sheriff’s department. But seeing Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo reveals the grief that lives inside him. Perhaps he doesn’t think of her every day, but the sadness he barely expressed in 1989 is still part of him today.
Sarah Palmer, though, is absolutely tortured by her grief. She is the last living entity in the Palmer house, sunk into alcoholism and squalor. At times she seems half-senile, at others, she’s as cutting as ever, and underlying it all is the open wound of her loss. When she removes her face and reveals a maelstrom inside, is it the Black Lodge or just her grief, overtaking everything and leaving nothing but a husk of what she once was? She attacks a vulgar man at the bar, but as much as it’s a real attack—which it is, within the logic of the show, the man is dead—she also defeats him metaphorically, for there is nothing he can do worse than that which has already been visited upon her.
Sometimes grief is for a specific figure, like Laura Palmer, and at others it’s a more general weariness, such as the tired visage of Carl Rodd, watching young love turn to domestic violence and cradling that weeping mother as she holds her dead child. Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo make the case that The Return could only come from middle-aged filmmakers like David Lynch and Mark Frost. The show is certainly informed by the losses they have experienced as the stewards of Twin Peaks, of which so many original cast members have died. Frank Silva (BOB) died in 1995, Don S. Davis (Major Briggs) died in 2008, David Bowie (Phillip Jeffries) was already ill when filming began in 2015 and died mid-production, Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfield) died in January of this year. Perhaps most poignantly, Catherine Coulson, the beloved Log Lady, died just days after completing her scenes.
These deaths shape The Return, from the Log Lady’s somber sign off, to the more practical reimagining of a character like Phillip Jeffries, now transformed into a giant talking teakettle— appreciably weird and suitable for the memory of David Bowie. But they also shape the characters who are, as Tom and Lorenzo point out, mostly middle-aged and elderly, with young people relegated to supporting roles and cameos. Twin Peaks originally dealt in the secret world of teenagers as discovered by a young, energetic FBI agent. The Return, however, is eaten by decay, the symbols of that youthful energy reduced by time. James Hurley is brain damaged after a motorcycle accident; Audrey Horne is half-lost to a dream world and perhaps totally lost to the real one; and Dale Cooper spends most of the series trapped between the Black Lodge and Twin Peaks, a shell of himself who can barely function.
And if not diminished by death, then The Return is at least forced to reckon with it, for it has taken so much and closed so many paths to the storytellers. They find new paths, no less interesting than the ones now closed to them, but there is no escaping how The Return is informed by loss. When Cooper attempts to save Laura Palmer from her fate, he loses her to the primordial forest, and then lands on the doorstep of a middle-aged woman who looks just like Laura. Has he done it? Has he finally saved Laura Palmer? No, for this is a woman called Carrie Page.
Carrie Page is not a tulpa, but maybe she’s a transmutation, a reverberation of the life wiped out in another stream, bearing a resemblance and echoing something of Laura Palmer’s sadness, and possessed of that same terrifying scream. Cooper is looking for Laura, but he has lost her, and Carrie Page is the face in the crowd that haunts the bereaved, seen everywhere, glimpsed from corners of eyes, striking familiarity but not real connection. In that way, Carrie Page is like The Return itself, something very similar to Twin Peaks, but incapable of actually being the thing Twin Peaks once was. Too much is lost, too much is different by necessity.
There is a new grief, the sense of Something Wrong awoken in Carrie Page that now haunts Twin Peaks, a place altered by the absence of Laura Palmer as it was once haunted by her murder. Has Cooper time traveled? Is he in an alternate dimension? It doesn’t really matter, because the end is the beginning is the end, is the Owl Cave infinity symbol puffed out by Phillip Jeffries. There is no solve, no definitive answer to Twin Peaks: The Return. But there is Laura Palmer, once again absent from the narrative, and there is Dale Cooper, once again trapped. He tried to “find Laura”, and in so doing, apparently erased her. Death is inescapable, and grief is the only guarantee.