Beyond Life and Death (S2, Ep 22 – The Finale)
The Little Man: “Wrong way.”
And so, an ending.
Not The Ending, of course. That’s something forever denied to us, apparently. Still, this’ll do nicely.
Beyond Life and Death serves as both the Second Season finale and the Series finale. What makes this episode remarkable is two-fold: (1) David Lynch returns to the director’s chair after a near-total absence from the show; and (2) the show’s final scene functions perfectly as both cliffhanger and dénouement. Judging Beyond Life and Death as an episode of television requires the viewer to examine it both as an incomplete chapter in a larger, untold story as well as an ending in and of itself, because it is arguably both of those things at the same time. The finale both makes it clear that this is not the end and, simultaneously, presents us with a starkly dark conclusion. It’s not The Ending, but it’s an ending, and whooboy….what an ending.
Thoughts on Beyond Life and Death:
I’m not going to walk through the episode, scene by scene here. That doesn’t feel right. Are you really interested in hearing my thoughts on Donna’s parentage (Ben Horne is knocked out by Doc Hayward, his forehead bloodied!), or Shelly and Bobby’s whatever (this episode sees the return of that whole “grab each others hair and woof like happy puppies” thing, which is reason enough for their inclusion, but that about sums up my interest in them here), or how Nadine now isn’t a nutty teenager, but is instead back to her old, still-weird self, and shattered over the news of Ed and Norma being together, or the fact that Heidi the giggling German waitress makes her first appearance since the first episode? Because I’m not. Instead, I’m going to give you my impressions on it overall, and spend the majority of the column contemplating that harrowing sequence at the end. To make a surreal story short: Windom Earle has kidnapped Annie Blackburne and taken her to Glastonbury Grove, where he accesses a portal to the Black Lodge and walks them both inside. Cooper, Truman and Andy pursue him and Cooper follows Earle and Annie into the Lodge alone. A bunch of other stuff happens, none of which was anywhere near as interesting.
I’ve talked for a while about Cooper’s resemblance to a knight, and the show’s willingness to paint him in that light. That aspect of the show comes straight to the fore in Beyond Life and Death; Cooper, Truman and Andy explicitly reference the King Arthur legend in talking about the location known as Glastonbury Grove. Note that there are twelve sycamore trees surrounding the grove, and that in some versions of the Arthur legend there are 12 seats at the Round Table occupied by Arthur’s knights, and one seat left open for the knight destined to find the Holy Grail. This seat was referred to as the Siege Perilous, and Bullfinch’s “Age of Fable: Vol. III” tells us that on the Siege Perilous, “No man could sit but he should lose himself.”. Might the Siege Perilous of Twin Peaks be the pool at the center of the Sycamore Grove? A gateway to a realm where “No man could sit but he should lose himself?” Isn’t that, more or less, what we see happen here by the episode’s ending – Cooper losing his true self? The show’s plot also nods toward Arthurian legend by having Windom Earle kidnap a “Queen” and bring her to Glastonbury grove, which mirrors a story told by Caradoc of Llancarfan inVita Gildae (‘Life of St Gildas’), and by Chrétien de Troyes in Le Chevalier de la Charette, in which the evil King Melwas (or “Meleagant”) of “The Summer Country” kidnaps Guinevere from Arthur and brings her to Glastonbury. Legendarily, Glastonbury Tor in England is supposed to hide the Holy Grail beneath its soil, brought there by Joseph of Arimathea. An element in Mark Frost’s script, not filmed for the episode, involves the strange hooded figure we saw a few episodes ago appearing to Cooper when he enters the Lodge. This figure is referred to in the script as The Guardian, implying the need to guard something, which is at least some evidence that Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks may have begun incorporating Grail mythology, had it continued. Another element included in the script, but not filmed: a mysterious woman who appears to Sherriff Truman bearing a shield and a sword, and who is presumably some incarnation of the Lady of the Lake from Arthurian legend.
Some other interesting facts about Glastonbury, as they relate to the show: According to K. E. Maltwood, the landscape around Glastonbury has been shaped so that its features (churches, burial mounds, etc) form a zodiac calendar. Maltwood interpreted the Grail stories as archetypes, identified with the signs of the zodiac. Recall the past episodes’ references to the zodiac (Thomas’ puzzle box, Jupiter and Saturn, the Owl Cave map). According to some reports of the Glastonbury area in the 1960s, these zodiac stories began to become linked with stories about….wait for it….flying saucers. That fits pretty neatly with the show’s weird flirtation with aliens/ufos/Project Blue Book. And speaking of Project Blue Book – Major Briggs shows up in this episode just so that he can bear witness to Sarah Palmer’s ookyspooky “There is no Dana, only Zuul” moment, wherein Laura’s mother channels a distorted voice that tells Major Briggs: “I am in the Black Lodge.” Is this Cooper, speaking to Briggs through Sarah, his voice/spirit/whathaveyou reaching back through time and space to communicate, thanks to the Lodge’s seeming divorce from concepts like Past, Present and Future? The answer is: We don’t know. We’ll likely never know. What we do know is that Cooper follows Earle and Annie to the grove, through the red curtains, and back to the Red Room we first glimpsed way back in Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer. Which is where the episode transcends television and becomes (deeply strange, deeply disturbing) Art.
But before we get to that let’s touch briefly on the fate of Audrey, Pete and Andrew Packard. Having discovered that Thomas’ posthumous puzzle box contained a safety deposit key, Andrew and Pete go to the Twin Peaks Savings and Loan to find the deposit box that the key will open. Audrey’s already there, having chained herself to the vault as a way of protesting the Ghostwood development project. The entire scene is shot with Lynch’s trademark molasses-vision, and features an old man who’s pretty much a call back to Senor Droolcup in terms of his tortoise-esque gait and response time. Turns out that the safety deposit box contained a bomb, and in this episode we watch as that bomb goes off, seemingly killing Audrey, Andrew and Pete. It’s a shocking moment, and genuinely unexpected, and it makes me wonder how in the hell the show would have written themselves out of it, or whether the explosion truly meant the end of those three characters. Sadly, the way these characters have been handled of late also means that I’m left without any emotional attachment to them and so whether or not they die doesn’t particularly concern me.
With that out of the way let’s tackle the meat and potatoes – the stunningly surreal and genuinely frightening final Black Lodge Sequence – a sequence that elevates this episode to capital-G Great television and that retroactively makes the entirety of the show as a whole into an extended, unending nightmare.
Mark Frost’s shooting script for the final Lodge sequence differs fairly significantly from what Lynch ended up filming. You can read the script yourself here, but some of the differences are (I think) worth pointing out. They illustrate perfectly the push-and-pull between narrative and dream, between explanation and the inexplicable, that has existed in Twin Peaks from its very first episode. Frost’s script has Sheriff Truman glimpsing an Arthurian sword and shield in Glastonbury Grove. Lynch’s episode contains no such image, denying us any further concrete connections between the show and the Arthur legend. Frost’s script has Cooper interacting with what might or might not be the spirit of his dead father, working behind the desk of a rundown, Otherworldly motel. Cooper becomes himself as a ten year old boy, then reverts back to adulthood in a blink (and this is one aspect that remains consistent between Frost and Lynch’s ideas – the notion of time as fluid and ultimately, maybe, meaningless). Frost’s Black Lodge is a shadow-version of the Great Northern hotel, and in his script there’s an extended conversation between Cooper and Earle in which its revealed that Earle is seeking to be King of the Black Lodge, and that in order to ascend to that position and sit on the Lodge’s “throne,” he needs to sacrifice Cooper’s soul. We learn all of this through what is, if I’m honest, some pretty bald-faced exposition.
Lynch’s episode contains none of this. His Black Lodge sequence strips away nearly all of Frost’s ideas and remakes it as a barely-sensical nightmare. It veers away from borrowed symbolism to invent its own symbolism from whole cloth. Logic and narrative collapse in on themselves as Cooper makes his way through identical rooms and navigates endless red drapes, participating in a series of conversations that are like encounters in a sinister Wonderland. The Little Man might as well ask Cooper why a raven is like a writing desk. But by refusing us literal meaning the show somehow manages to create a sense of deeper meaning that we’re able to touch the edges of, but not perceive clearly. Instinctively, this just plain works, even if we’re not sure how, or what any of it really “means.” The real triumph of this sequence lies in its curiously powerful “antilogic”; none of this makes sense, and yet it does make a kind of sense to me on an intuitive, primal level.
The Little Man: “This is the waiting room.”
Which answers nothing, really. Is it the waiting room of the Black Lodge? If so, and if both the Little Man and the Giant are there, then doesn’t that mean Cooper’s been guided exclusively by the forces of the Black Lodge? Or does it instead mean that the Red Room is neutral territory – a place neither White nor Black but somewhere in between? Given the way in which the nature of the this place seems to shift precariously from quirky/odd to “So creepy I pooped myself” I’m inclined to think that this place contains both Black and White Lodges, that Cooper essentially flips back and forth between them during his time inside. His initial encounter with Laura and the Little Man has the same kooky unreality as the one we glimpsed in Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer; while it’s bizarre it’s not truly frightening. It’s only once Cooper leaves that initial waiting room and proceeds onward that the horrors begin. It’s then, or so I tend to think, that Cooper truly enters the Black Lodge. But first…
Laura: “Hello Agent Cooper. I’ll see you again in 25 years.”
Time does not have the meaning we ascribe to it inside the Black Lodge/the Red Room. We’ve already learned that Cooper and Laura communicated to each other through a shared dream of the Red Room in a seemingly impossible manner, linking them over an expanse of time they should not have been able to cross. Laura seems to be referring to that dream here – remember that in it, Cooper was an old man presumably 25 years older than he is here. Cooper also begins to bleed before he’s stabbed, an instance of time running backward. He even goes so far as to track bloody footprints through the hall of the Lodge, only to then retrace his steps and follow his prior tracks backward. This fluidity of the properties of time and space is visually illustrated to us by way of Cooper’s cup of coffee, which goes from liquid to solid to some state in between in a matter of moments.
Twin Peaks reaches the apex of its obsession with twins and mirror images (again, shades of Lost) with this episode’s Black Lodge sequence. The Lodge contains what appear to be evil/crazy/savage doubles, or “dopplegangers,” of Cooper, Leland Palmer and Laura Palmer, all identified by their totally-spooky white eyes (interestingly, Frost’s script specifies that their eyes are black). Annie appears to Cooper, but when she speaks its clear that she is Caroline, Cooper’s dead lost love, making clear what we already knew: Annie is Caroline’s doppleganger. Maddy also appears in what seems to be her white-eyed doppelganger incarnation (and remember that the character of Maddy is, in and of herself, a doppelganger of Laura), as does the Little Man himself. My interpretation of this: just as the Black Lodge exists as the “shadow” of the White Lodge, so these dopplegangers exist as the “shadow-selves” of these characters. Peaks’ description of the Lodges emphasizes Good and Evil’s interdependence and inextricability. Anything that exists in light must cast a shadow, after all. This episode underlines that notion in a number of ways, most obviously in the dialogue of the Little Man: “One and the same.” It’s possible that these words are meant to explicitly link the Giant and “Senor Droolcup” together (Note that the war whoop that Senor Droolcup gives here is likely a winky homage to the actor’s role in the classic Western The Searchers), but it’s also possible to read this as a veiled hint toward a secret of Peaks’ metaphysical backdrop – that the Black Lodge and the White Lodge are “one and the same.” This theme of doubling and recurrence is underlined by the repetition of events – Laura repeats Bob’s mortally-frightening couch crawl to similarly skin-crawling effect. She also recreates her “Demonic Laura” moment from earlier in Season 2, and in the process granted me a fresh batch of nightmares on the evening I watched this episode.
The imagery and action in the Lodge sequence gets creepier and creepier by degrees – in exactly the sort of way that some dreams seem to accumulate their power to inspire dread. Lynch repeatedly has his doppleganging actors invading the camera’s space and shoving their faces into the frame as if threatening to break out, or glancing directly into it as if sharing a private joke. This technique becomes utterly unnerving both in the way that this somehow ends up feeling like it violates the viewer’s own private sense of space and safe distance (seriously, I thought doppelganger Laura was going to crawl out of my TV, Ringu-style at one point), as well as in the way that it showcases the dreadful glee in the faces of these malevolent entities. Lynch’s villains, as David Foster Wallace noted, and as I’ve previously quoted, seem ecstatically transported by the evil that they do. There is a sickening joy in their wicked laughter and in their savage, animal screams.
And there is none more joyous in evil than Bob. After offering his soul to Windom Earle in exchange for Annie’s safety, Cooper is stabbed (the resultant wound and bleeding show up “earlier” in the Lodge sequence, implying that the consequences of actions may be reversed in this place). But before Earle can take Cooper’s soul Bob appears, and he ain’t happy. He tells Cooper to go, that Earle is wrong and cannot take Cooper’s soul. Bob then proceeds to harvest Earle’s soul in a sequence that straddles the line between slapstick comedy and dark dream. Earle’s soul appears as a jet of flame that erupts from the top of his head, and while this is deeply silly (Kenneth Welsh’s work in the scene doesn’t help matters – he’s mugging for the camera far too much for my tastes, and not selling any “reality” here to speak of) its also weirdly compelling. The more-or-less mundane, “earthbound” evil of Windom Earle is easily trumped by the free-floating malignancy of Bob, and Lynch makes this clear to us by having his blue collar spectre of darkness take the soul from a kooky madman as if performing a parlor trick at a children’s birthday party.
What exactly HAPPENS in the final minutes of Beyond Life and Death? It may be significant that Cooper’s doppelganger does not appear until after he witnesses the taking of Windom Earle’s soul. Is it possible that fear creates a doppelganger? That Cooper created his own double after witnessing Bob’s soul extraction? Whatever the reason, a Cooper doppelganger appears just after Cooper leaves Bob’s room and proceeds to chase our intrepid hero through the strobelit halls and identical rooms of the Lodge before finally appearing to grab Coop from behind and then…
And then we cut to Cooper and Annie lying on the floor of Glastonbury Grove, returned from their sojourn into the metaphysical woods of the Black Lodge. Annie’s face is bloodied badly, but Cooper seems relatively unharmed. He wakes in his bed at the Great Northern surrounded by friendly faces and while his demeanor is a little off, it’s not troubling. Coop wants to brush his teeth? Well, that’s weird, but Cooper’s weird, right? And so Cooper’s companions let their friend step into the bathroom to do some judicious teeth cleaning.
The Little Man: “Wow, Bob, wow!”
And that’s when Lynch and Frost suckerpunch us square in the face. Cooper stares into the mirror, squeezes an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink, and then methodically slams his head into the mirror. The glass cracks, and past Cooper’s eerily grinning visage we can see the figure of Bob reflected. Cooper and Bob are now, apparently, “one and the same.”
Watching a possessed(?) Cooper squeeze the entire tube of toothpaste from its housing, the image seems to sum up so many of the shows larger, darker themes. The act itself is a sort of impulse of the Id that leaves something useful now useless. It’s an unthinking, animal action without regard to consequence. It is also a literalization of what has happened to Cooper – this figure is something like the tube of toothpaste itself – something bright and clean and ‘good’ that is wrung out and left filled by negative space
Has Cooper been possessed by Bob? That’s the first, most obvious reading of this ending. But if so, then how? How does a man as stalwart and purehearted as Dale Cooper become so easily subsumed by Evil? That, I think, is the most troubling question posed by the show’s final image, because it seems to reinforce what we were told earlier on, in watching Maddy’s brutal murder at the hands of her Uncle, in catching sometimes-frightening glimpses into Laura’s past, in catching our first glimpse of a Homecoming Queen wrapped in plastic. We are none of us righteous – not one. There is no safe harbor from the ambient omnipresence of Evil. When I began writing about this show I talked a fair amount about Lynch’s conception of Evil as a force – a rootless, insatiable energy that pervades and degrades in equal measure. That basic, primal notion has been explored throughout the show in many ways, from the banal evil of Leo Johnson’s drug trafficking to the complacent, self-satisfied “elite” evil represented by One Eyed Jack’s and its owner, Ben Horne, to the near-transcendent and utterly terrifying supernatural Evil that manifests itself as BOB. Evil as force, as permeating atmosphere, has been one of Twin Peaks’ most consistent topics. And so its fitting that the show would end (however abruptly) on a vision of Evil triumphant. As David Foster Wallace wrote:
….Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are – at least potentially – everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”
That’s a devastating assessment of humanity, a vision of real hopelessness. As I wrote way back in the column where I announced Twin Peaks as the first show we’d watch:
“Wallace submits in his (great, great) essay that all of Lynch’s films focus on Evil, and that this focus comes without the comforting narrative fiction that is clear “moral victory.” As in Lynch’s films overall, so also in Twin Peaks. When people do terrible things on this show there are sometimes consequences. But there are sometimes no consequences at all. Lynch doesn’t introduce Evil into Twin Peaks so that Good can vanquish it. Lynch introduces Evil as fact, as uncaring force of nature – a storm to (maybe) survive but not vanquish; not really, not ever.”
And that’s essentially the message of this final sequence.
What gives Twin Peaks’ ending its real power is our not knowing and our inability to ever know. What happened to Cooper? We have no idea. All we do know is that the embodiment of all that is transgressive and violent and terrible and Evil has set up shop behind Dale Cooper’s chipper smile.
By ‘ending’ where it does, Beyond Life and Death makes Twin Peaks into a kind of twisted palindrome with bookending scenes evoking the senselessness of Evil. Both the pilot and the final episode in part concern the taking of a young woman from this life, either by murder or by metaphysics. Both of these women are Queens – one of Homecoming, one of Miss Twin Peaks. Both the pilot and the finale feature scenes of unredeemed malice, of evil triumphant and unpunished. The Pilot and Finale create a kind of closed circuit – a palindromic affirmation of Evil’s victory. Like the Little Man’s dialogue above, the show’s narrative now reads the same backwards as it does forward: Evil lodged firm in the midst of what should be -would be, in a Just world – a place of trust, safety and shelter.
If you’re willing to give yourself over, to invest in the reality of a finale this unreal, then the show achieves a kind of unsettling poetry in its final moments. We’re left totally unmoored. Ultimately the show refuses our interpretation of it, refuses answers or closure or light or hope so completely that it becomes an answer in and of itself, one that answers Major Briggs’ deepest fear: Love is not enough.
But there are other interpretations. Did Cooper really leave the Lodge at all? Or are we instead watching his doppelganger out and about in the “real” world? After all, the last we see of Cooper in the Lodge he’s being grabbed from behind by his white-eyed double, and we know that Cooper is shown looking much older in his earlier dream, implying that it’s possible he never left the Lodge. And then there’s this simple fact: This wasn’t meant to be the show’s “true” ending. There were more stories to be told. And presumably, given the obvious affection both Lynch and Frost had for the character of Cooper, the stalwart FBI agent would not permanently fall prey to Bob’s parasitic plans. This is AN ending, after all, not THE ending.
Next week I’ll be writing on Fire Walk With Me, the Twin Peaks prequel film. I’m told that (a) it’s an underrated film, (b) its deeply strange, in ways both good and not so good, and (c) it’s going to scare the sh*t outta me.