Mulholland Drive isn’t like Memento, where if you watch it closely enough, you can hope to explain the mystery. There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.
That quote comes from Roger Ebert’s 4-out-of-4-star review of Mulholland Drive back in 2001. Ebert had spent the previous 15 years panning almost every David Lynch film that came along, brutally tearing into Lost Highway (1997), Wild At Heart (1990), and even Blue Velvet (1986) with all the strength of his downward thumb. But with Mulholland Drive, we have an example of a unique and glorious Lynch paradox: the willingness to crown a film a masterpiece while maintaining (as Ebert did over and over in his review) that one simply needn’t and probably can’t understand it.
In my last post about Twin Peaks: The Return, I said that I didn’t envy TV critics who have to get their reviews online so quickly. But I especially don’t envy any critic who owes a publication a David Lynch review on short notice. Ebert’s prognosis was correct: Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece. His analysis was not; the plot of Mulholland Drive can be decoded, and rather nicely. I first saw the film one Saturday night in college, and it was my first experience with Lynch. I started the movie at 11 PM, and got progressively more and more sleep-deprived as the film got more and more surreal. I lay awake until 4 AM thinking about it, and spent much of my Sunday reading theories about it online instead of studying.
I didn’t see Mulholland Drive again for another 10 years, but when I revisited it, it was almost disappointing how much sense it made. Looking at it in retrospect, each of its pieces could be accounted for. Lynch may be a surrealist, and much of his aesthetic choices—a cowboy with no eyebrows, say—can be explained simply by noting the irrational impact they’re supposed to have. But as a storyteller, he’s more like a puzzle-master who’s gotten high on symbolism and spiritual dream logic. In other words, his best work is clearly more than random wanking or a mere “trip”, but a different approach to narrative—one in which objective and subjective events criss-cross and do a waltz.
All of which leads me to my reaction to last night’s hotly anticipated finale of Twin Peaks: The Return, which said the last word not only on this Showtime miniseries but presumably the franchise as a whole. I confess, the viewing experience left me frustrated. Of all the questions and threads the show had set up—what the fuck is up with Audrey? what the fuck is up with the girl and the frog-bug? what the fuck is up with… etc.—the dawning horror of last night’s 2-hour weird-fest wasn’t just that it wasn’t going to answer the questions, but that it wasn’t going to address them at all. And this raises a hard question for cine-fans everywhere.
There are certain directors—Lynch, Kubrick, Godard, etc.—who attain such a reputation for mastery, for everything being deliberate and meaningful no matter how perplexing, that all their work gets viewed through that lens. But isn’t it possible that those directors, like more or less every great director in history, can lose the thread from time to time? That is, for a puzzle-master like Lynch, if he ever crossed the line from cryptic brilliance to utter messiness, how would we know?
One answer may just be our gut reaction to the images on the screen, and even that only takes you so far; as much as it would suck to be prematurely on the bandwagon, it would suck even more to write off a work of art you’re not ready to understand. So after anxiously awaiting last night’s finale, I found myself anxiously awaiting what the hivemind of the internet would make of it. And I have to say, I saw pretty much every possible human emotion expressed somewhere: raves, confusion, ambivalence, disappointment, and a die-hard Peaks fan friend who simply posted an angry, Diane-esque “Fuck you” aimed at David Lynch.
So what the fuck is going on? Below is a breakdown of one plausible theory. It is by no means complete, and it won’t account for everything, but it’s the theory I like the most. It is also, needless to say, filled with spoilers, so don’t read it unless you know what you’re getting into.
First off, Lynch can make fools of us all. Yesterday, I posted that I thought the new series was heading in the direction of an optimistic finale. I was fractionally right. The optimistic showdown it had been building towards did indeed happen: Special Agent Cooper arrived back in Twin Peaks for a tender reunion, and the evil entity known as Bob was defeated and destroyed.
But almost instantly, you can tell that something is wrong, not just because this “happy ending” happens with 90 minutes still left to go, but because Lynch suddenly stages it with Cooper’s horror-stricken face superimposed over the action. That is, he gives us the triumph and smiles and kisses while framing it with deep unease.
“We live inside a dream,” the floating head of Cooper says. And then the following events occur:
- Cooper says “I hope I see all of you again” to the cast of the show.
- Cooper’s goes back in time to prevent Laura—who in Episode 8 was revealed as a symbol of heavenly goodness—from ever being killed. He succeeds in preventing her murder, but then loses her in a dark forest.
- Cooper and Diane drive out to the middle of nowhere. There is a threshold in the highway, and they know it will change everything if they cross it. They cross it anyway.
- Day turns to night, and Cooper and Diane arrive at a roadside motel. They say almost nothing to one another.
- Diane, briefly, sees an image of her own doppelgänger lingering in the darkness. (Is she no longer whole?)
- The two of them have disturbingly cold, passionless sex, while the Platters’ song from Episode 8 plays in the background.
- Cooper wakes up the next morning to find that he’s alone. There’s a goodbye letter on the nightstand addressed to “Richard” from “Linda”. (The names “Richard and Linda” previously appeared as an omen from the giant in Episode 1. The giant didn’t give us any context, explanation, or even a verb, but in Lynch-land, that’s the closest we get to a clue).
- Cooper steps outside. The motel is now completely different.
- Cooper drives to a diner. He asks for an off-duty waitress’s address.
- He goes to the waitress’s house. The door is opened by a woman named Carrie Page, who, because she’s played by Cheryl Lee, is the spitting image of an older Laura Palmer.
- Cooper tells her that he suspects that she is really “a girl named Laura Palmer”. He asks her to come to Twin Peaks with him to see her mother.
- The two of them drive to Twin Peaks on a long, lonely, eerie journey.
- They arrive at the Palmer’s house, to find it occupied by a different family who’ve never heard of the Palmers.
- Cooper asks to himself “What year is this?”. In the distance, you can hear Laura’s mother call her name, and Cheryl Lee suddenly seems overtaken and gives possibly the most terrifying scream in Lynch’s filmography.
So what exactly happened, and what was the threshold that Cooper and Diane crossed? Was it a kind of time warp, or yet another alternate dimension? Or is it possible that, as has been intimated rather directly, the entirety of Twin Peaks has been a dream?
I don’t say this with any hatred for the it-was-all-a-dream trope. In fact, Lynch is one of that trope’s best practitioners, because in the spiritualism of the Lynch universe, what you dream means just as much as what you do in waking life. But he has, of course, played tricks like this before—even if who-shot-J.R.-ing a 25 year franchise would take balls, even for him. Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive feature characters who construct fantasy versions of themselves, only to watch the fantasy come apart. And the way those films yank reality out from under you, or show you not the story but a reflection of the story, never bothered me. In fact, their doppelgänger funhouses strike me as not only daring, but emotionally coherent; for Lynch, “dreams” and “reality” are two rooms you can walk between.
So it’s not unlikely that he’s doing similar metaphysics again here. Consider how different Cooper behaves in this last stretch of the show: he is fatigued, lonely, without the heartwarming pep that defined his character. He accepts his coffee at the diner (his favorite drink!) without any enthusiasm. He never smiles. Look at the way he confronts the violent shit-kickers who harass a waitress: it’s a mixture of moral purpose and vicious tactics. This final incarnation of Coop is played by Kyle MacLachlan, rather brilliantly, as a kind of cross between the impulses of the good Coop and the dourness of his evil doppelgänger.
So has Cooper really been “Richard”, and Diane is “Linda”? Has the world of Twin Peaks, in which he’s a knight in shining armor, been both his fantasy and a way of processing the pleasure and pain he’s seen over his lifetime? In the real world, is Richard a worn-down FBI agent who’s been in a relationship with Linda, who instead of his gal friday (as “Diane” was) is a lover who was slowly drifting away from him? What’s so eerie about this final stretch is how alien the town of Twin Peaks looks when Cooper and this latest version of Laura arrive back in it: the familiar eccentricity is gone, leaving just a town after nightfall in its wake. It is as if we’re seeing Laura’s house and the Double R Diner for the first time. And while that rattling scream raises questions, it suggests most of all that we’re in a world where no permanent resolution to your scars can be found—that the horrors and wonders of “Twin Peaks” will always run under the surface until the end of time.
This would make red herrings out of all the subplots we hoped would be addressed. Or rather, it makes them individual units or thematic coloration instead of larger plot points. Audrey’s terrifying and unspecified awakening at the end of Episode 16 would be a mirror of Richard’s, or her own threshold crossed. The Janey-E plotline would reflect an all-American suburban relief that Richard doesn’t have. The evil frog-bug that crawls into the girl’s mouth after she has her first kiss—and after she listened to the same song Cooper and Diane make passionless love to—would be not a crucial detail of Twin Peaks backstory, but a discrete Lynchian sketch of sex turned sour. Richard’s haunting final question—”What year is this?”—would be the pondering of an old man who no longer recognizes the world. The entire universe of Twin Peaks, with its “Laura Palmers” and “Bobs”, would be a psychic space, not a literal one. And so, last but not least, Richard’s insistence that “Carrie Page” is really “a girl named Laura Palmer” would be symbolic, because “Laura Palmer”—or the concept of “Laura Palmer”—would be an image of young innocence that a dutiful lawman is never able to fully protect from trauma.
All of which is to say that even if fans wanted plot, the answers they got came as themes—and in our new Twin Peaks, it’s much easier to account for the themes and feelings than plot. (Where did Cooper/Richard learn who Carrie Paige was? Is that what Laura whispered to him in the Lodge? Does Carrie sense her alternate identity in the dream world, too? Who knows…for Lynch, dreams could even be shared. Twin Peaks might be a kind of Oz that Carrie and Richard and whoever Audrey is return to when they close their eyes). So my first prediction about Twin Peaks: The Return may have been right after all: we’ll be arguing the shit out of this new series for some time to come.
And for my own part, after feeling cheated and pissed off, I woke up the next day to find myself more and more drawn to these ideas, to the point where they’ve almost completely won me over. I’ve dipped back into Episodes 17 and 18, and suddenly they seem more lucid, or at least more entertaining, because I know the answers we were hoping for won’t come. We were asking the wrong questions.
So argue as we may, the moment I’ll remember most is Cooper in the Twin Peaks sheriff station, saying “I hope I see all of you again.” It could just as easily be a man talking to his fantasies, or Lynch bidding farewell to his own artistic creations—creations that, as Lynch has insisted over the years, seem to spring into his mind from some unknowable source, but that he’s had the luck, fortitude, and skill to put on screen. Bless his madness.
Twin Peaks: The Return ended last night. The entire 18-hour miniseries is available for streaming.