Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 22, “Beyond Life And Death”
Written by Mark Frost & Harley Peyton & Robert Engels
Directed by David Lynch
Aired June 10th, 1991 on ABC
“Wow, BOB, wow. Fire, walk with me.” – The Man From Another Place
Les: And so, we’ve come to the end of our look back at Twin Peaks. After two seasons and 30 episodes of cherry pie and damn good coffee, dancing dwarves and one-armed men, Invitation To Love and One-Eyed Jack’s, Ghostwood Estates and Black Lodge, cross-dressing David Duchovny and near-deaf David Lynch, Twin Peaks was canceled in the summer of 1991. Going from its position as a genuine hit—with a premiere watched by over 34 million people—the life of Twin Peaks ended not with a bang but a whimper. The show lost its focus as Lynch and Mark Frost stepped back, and audiences stepped back along with it, the show shedding viewers every week as they were asked to focus on Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne and road tripping James Hurley. ABC put it on hiatus mid-season and burned off the remaining episodes, not deigning to give the writers the courtesy of knowing they were crafting a season finale rather than a series.
Yet despite that ugly stumble to the finish, there’s something about “Beyond Life And Death” that works as the swan song of Twin Peaks. It’s back in the hands of the master himself as David Lynch returns to the director’s chair since “Lonely Souls,” working off (and heavily modifying) a script by co-creator Frost and long-time writers Harley Peyton and Robert Engels. It brings in almost all of the regular cast, with a few surprise returns in the second half of the episode. It addresses to some degree each of the outstanding plots, even if it’s almost obstinate in its refusal to provide happy endings or even the most basic sense of closure. And while the show managed to pull out of disastrous midseason slump and deliver competent episodes, this episode’s approach to the themes and questions of the show—the nature of good and evil, fracturing and duality of identity, truth within dreams, the dark side of a placid community—claws into your soul in the way that Twin Peaks hasn’t achieved with such efficacy since its earliest installments.
There’s so many things to talk about with this finale and the series as a whole, so before we get into the details let’s start with a general question. (And for the sake of discussion, let’s table for now any thoughts on the upcoming Showtime resurrection.) Jake, does “Beyond Life And Death” work for you as the ending to this story?
Jake: Twin Peaks, like most of us, lost its way. And when people consider the series finale (er, season), they often think of it as an incredibly frustrating hour of television, a glimpse into the bitter abstraction and confident refusal to give answers that Lynch would continue in Fire Walk With Me. I think that many of the conversations people have about TV series endings harbor around this confounding question of whether it works or not. For most viewers, the finale of LOST probably didn’t work for them, even if it thematically “worked” for the series itself. This means that it was the “right” ending, the one that flows with the rest of the series, that makes the most sense when you consider what the series had always wanted to do… but it wasn’t necessarily satisfying.
I think that the ending of Twin Peaks follows in this kind of television tradition (think Mad Men, not Breaking Bad). And for what it’s worth, Twin Peaks and Lost are my favorite TV shows. There is a sense that an ending should mean closure, and in today’s culture, it better be the kind of closure we had in mind when we wrote our fanfiction. Twin Peaks existed outside of that, of course, but its legacy continues as a series that ended somewhat infuriatingly. People, understandably, do not appreciate this ending. This character we have grown to love and care deeply for does not come anywhere near eradicating the evil of this town, and instead becomes inhabited by the most evil figure known to us. The end.
David Lynch, famously, never intended to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. He does not care about answers, nor about how much you may want them. In his finale, he leaves the fates of many unclear, and punishes his protagonist in the most damning way he could have. He is challenging his audience, as he is wont to do, and the surface reaction is emotional and unclear. It doesn’t feel fair. But when you think more closely about Twin Peaks as a series, and David Lynch as a filmmaker, this ending is clarified. Evil is inescapable and invariably corrupts. And how scary is that?
Does it work for you, Les? And have I misunderstood the main thrust of the series and Lynch?
Les: I think you’re absolutely on the right track, considering both the show and the way Lynch’s career developed over the years. Think back to “The Last Evening,” a first season finale that was similarly written at a point where Lynch and Frost had no idea if the show was coming back for another year. That similarly refused to provide closure on the story lines—the identity of Laura’s killer being just the tip of the iceberg—and ended with a series of cliffhangers where many characters’ survival was far from certain, the final shot being a gunshot from an unknown source where you don’t even get to see the bullet connect. And then you project forward to something like Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, films that aggressively defy providing closure or rational explanations for the events that surround the cast. Lynch’s fascination with dream logic means that resolution is secondary to leaving room for interpretation, the feeling that you’ve awoken from an experience you don’t completely understand and are grasping at strings to make it make sense.
And as far as a narrative perspective, the frustrations inherent in the ending are also ones that feel of a piece with Twin Peaks. Regardless of those highs that we appreciate so very much—like you, this is one of my favorite TV shows ever made—it was always an imperfect entity. Even in those early episodes when the show was at its creative peak, you still had screen time devoted to Donna and James falling in love. For the show to resolve everything in its last episode would have been antithetical to the Twin Peaks experience, a feeling that they were forcing a neat conclusion on the audience because they knew the end was there. It was always messy and open for debate, so it’s fitting that the series would end not on a period but on ellipsis trailing into question mark.
On a structural level, what makes the finale’s various cliffhangers all work for me is that they also feel of a piece with theTwin Peaks worldview, the bittersweet attitude that wanted to believe in love and goodness but knew that darkness and human nature always got in the way. Look at all these final beats of the lives of Twin Peaks citizens. Nadine gets her memory back, breaking the hearts of Ed, Norma, and Mike, and all she can focus on is the fact that her drape runners are gone. Ben tries to do good by breaking the truth to Donna, and it shatters the Hayward family and gets his skull cracked against a fireplace for good measure. Andrew and Pete are off on a treasure hunt, and they get blown to pieces in what should be the moment of victory, possibly taking Audrey with them as collateral damage.
And yet there’s still moments of hope amidst the bedlam: Andy and Lucy share a moment of peace, realizing in the wake of the bombing how much they mean to each other. Major Briggs has his facilities back and shares a moment with his wife so tender it inspires Bobby to propose to Shelly. We even see Ronette Pulaski making her return to the series, and despite being traumatized at the smell of oil she appears to be on the road to recovery. The Black Lodge may be at its peak, rising on a tide of unmuffled screams and broken hearts, but entrance to the White Lodge is still visible through the darkness.
How’d you react to these various interactions? Was there anything in particular that broke your heart or you found frustrating?
Jake: The biggest heartbreak for me will always be the final scene, because I think it may be TV’s most devastating character moment. As I mentioned, the ultimate corruption of Dale Cooper is a strong, bleak statement for the series to make in its final episode. Cooper is the beacon of goodness in this dark, twisted, strange town. We have followed him from the moment he arrived, filling Diane in on some fantastic cherry pie, and though we know him to be flawed, he is also the symbol of light. The hero dedicated absolutely to solving the mysteries of Twin Peaks and dispelling it of the evil that lurks. In symbolic terms, his corruption represents Evil taking over Good. But it’s heartbreaking because it hits much closer on an emotional level. Cooper is someone we want to follow, someone we have loved deeply. To watch Lynch rip him of his agency, commit to his failure and herald the further reign of BOB is certainly crushing television. And there are few images that stick in one’s head like the one of a bloodied Dale Cooper in front of that mirror, repeating “How’s Annie?” like a broken record. What a chilling, devastating way to leave an audience.
The trouble, as ever, with Lynch’s adherence to dream logic is that try as you might to make sense of it, you simply cannot form a whole picture. But Cooper’s extended stay in the Black Lodge suggests to me that in this world, evil is cyclical. The repetition and inescapable tone make the atmosphere creepy and surreal, but also seem to insist on the inevitability of where we’ve ended up. We could have ventured on endless season two dalliances, and yet end up here every time. After all, if BOB can conquer and possess Dale Cooper, the implication would be that anyone and everyone is vulnerable, and that this has gone on for a long time and will continue, with new hosts and new victims. The fact that Windom Earle is shown to be as inconsequential as he seemed, with BOB easily taking his soul, further testifies to BOB’s terrifying superiority.
The way Lynch leaves Audrey is a little more frustrating. Her placement within this storyline, happening to coincide with Pete and Andrew’s visit to the bank, feels somewhat arbitrary and shoehorned in. The action seems out of character, more a plot device than anything else, and the decision to leave her fate unknown still feels equally arbitrary. I do admire that Lynch allowed some moments of hope, giving a semi-happy ending to characters like Bobby and Shelly. I’m just not sure whether the series has known what to do with Audrey once a relationship with Dale was ruled out quite some time ago.
But I want to talk more about the Black Lodge sequence that takes up a significant chunk of the episode. We spend a lot of time here, and the longer we’re there, the more disturbed we feel. I love the aural atmosphere Lynch brings to the Black Lodge, because it has such a distinct feel to it visually and aurally. It is discomforting, full of muzzled noises and shocking bursts of sound. What’s so off-putting for me about all this is how it’s presented almost as if so much is being revealed to us, if only we had the ability to see it. Caroline lies on the ground, then turns into a bloodied Annie who later blames her death on her husband before turning back into Caroline. Cooper’s haunted past which he cannot escape has followed him even into the Lodge, because the Evil we commit (or perceive ourselves as having committed) sticks like glue.
What are your thoughts on the Lodge sequence? And what about how Lynch directs it?
Les: I’ve always loved Twin Peaks the most when it goes into weirder territory, and the weirdness of this Lodge sequence is exactly in my wheelhouse. Watching Lynch direct this episode, it’s a reminder of the fact that as good as various other directors—Todd Holland, Lesli Linka Glatter, Tim Hunter—were at their various episodes, nobody else could capture the same unsettling vibe as he could. There are plenty of oddly framed long shots throughout “Beyond Life And Death” that emphasize the awkward positions these characters are placed into, such as Cooper and his team trying to decipher the map to the Black Lodge and and the way Ed and Nadine’s heartbreaking return to status quo are shot. My personal favorite has to be the doddering bank manager as he deals with Audrey, Andrew, and Pete, such a sense of awkward and deliberate pacing that creates subtle oddness. Too many of the other directors couldn’t match that precise tone, hence the show’s drift to a more assertive kind of weirdness in later episodes.
But there’s no question that the Black Lodge blows it all out of the water. This is Lynch, Frost, MacLachlan and company embracing every part of the Twin Peaks mythos, going deep into the imagery that galvanized viewers way back at the beginning. You have The Man From Another Place return to evoke the great puzzle of “Fire, walk with me” again, the Giant and the Waiter trading places as the coffee goes from gelatin to liquid to sludge, and a lounge singer—none other than jazz crooner Jimmy Scott—belting out an old tune in the middle of disturbing events. Not a moment of it is dull, even the parts you’d expect as Cooper moves from one red-curtained hallway to the next. This is a prison, pure and simple, one that feeds on the worst fears of everyone in it. Lynch plays up the claustrophobia of it to the point that the audience feels the strain increasing at the same pace Cooper does, and he hypes it up with a sea of white contact lenses and strobe lights.
I’ll agree with you on Windom Earle’s fate and how striking it is in how little role he plays in it, but again one that feels appropriate to the character, whose significance both of us debated over the course of the series. While he eventually grew to be scarier as time went on, there was such a theatrical element to his actions that it was hard to take him seriously. Earle was driven by greed alone, and thought that he could bend the Lodge to his will. But when matched with beings like BOB and The Man From Another Place, he was a clumsy amateur, little more than a piece of kindling that BOB could cast aside.
What I love the most about the Lodge sequence is the way that it’s used as something of a Twin Peaks reunion, but one that casts a much more horrific light on those who have left us. Laura Palmer returns, offering a cryptic (and soon to be prophetic) promise to see him in 25 years, and then starts shrieking like a banshee. Leland’s back protesting his innocence, but offering that malicious smile that for once doesn’t seem to be BOB-driven. It’s familiar faces serving as horrific visages, and it asks questions with no positive answers. Are these the Dwellers on the Threshold that Hawk warned us about many episodes ago, the shadow selves of those we lost? Are they basic demons of the Black Lodge, assuming the faces of those Cooper knew in order to play on his fears? Or, even more terrifying a concept, are they in fact the souls of those taken by BOB? Does becoming his prey drag you so deep into the Black Lodge’s evil that you embrace it fully?
The ambiguity also drives what for me is the most arresting part of the whole scene, when Cooper comes across the bodies of himself and Annie on the floor of the Lodge. But is it Annie? Is it Caroline? Or is it Laura? That cycling of women whom Cooper tried and failed to save says a lot about what Cooper truly fears—and also says something about his relationship with Annie, something both of us have dismissed in comparison to how well he and Audrey connected. Cooper couldn’t save Caroline so long ago, so he kept trying to save other women, or at least find a way to make their deaths mean something by finding out who killed them. They all fell into the same category for him, and their doppleganger status simply emphasizes that to both the audience and him, as this revelation is the one that finally starts to break him and send him running for an exit he’s not going to reach.
It’s bleak, it’s ambiguous, and it’s hauntingly beautiful: quintessential Twin Peaks, and a fitting return to form for a season that was at many points a complete mess.
Any other thoughts on the finale, or shall we talk about season two as a whole? Do you think this one was more good than bad, or did the confluence of awfulness—James Hurley’s road trip, Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne, Annie Blackburn and John Justice Wheeler, Little Nicky, and the whole Black Widow arc—dig it into too deep of a hole?
Jake: Something I’ve always appreciated about Lynch’s work is his uncanny ability to craft stories that probably don’t mean exactly anything, but they still remain feeling complete. This means that when he tells a certain story, whether it’s Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet, he does not have a specific intention in mind. Perhaps he has his own interpretation of what he has created, but it is by no means the only one, and he seems to revel in that realm of endless possibility. Ambiguity is overused in cinema and television, I think, because far too often it feels more like an easy way to get out of actually finishing a story. There is a careful finesse to using ambiguity intelligently, in a way that does not feel cheap or easy, and the ending of Twin Peaks fits into that.
The second season was an undeniable mess, and it seems impossible to characterize it as a “great” season of TV. There were too many pointless or absurd side plots, leading nowhere and saying nothing. The problem is that it was never unenjoyable. The characters and atmosphere were always consistent enough with what we fell in love with early on, so it was easy to overlook everything else. Love is blind, after all. And even with that said, it’s an expansive season that covers a lot of ground without ever feeling convoluted (compare to, say, season two of True Detective). The only times I found that it truly failed were when it engaged in eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake, as in Ben Horne’s loss of sanity that began as amusing but was never properly dealt with, or when it was so on-the-nose with its homage that it went overboard, as in James’ soap operatic storyline.
When people think now of Twin Peaks, they most likely think about season one, then skip to the reveal about Leland Palmer, then skip to the finale. This cannot be ignored, because it means that most of the second season is largely forgettable and boils down to mere plot points to be recalled. I’ve had conversations with people that have seen the entire series and couldn’t remember who Windom Earle was. The finale sticks out because Lynch seems to have been allowed to do whatever he wanted for the send-off, and the result is horrifying mania. Without sticking too closely to auteur theory, the loss of Lynch (and Frost) in season two was debilitating to creativity in the writers’ room, and that is the single most promising thing about the upcoming limited series revival. With so many reasons to be skeptical, the knowledge that Lynch and Frost are wholly responsible for the result is reason enough for me to be optimistic.
But before I dig more into season three speculation, what are your overall thoughts on season two, and how are you looking ahead at the new episodes?
Les: This is my second time watching the entire series (though I’ve watched season one multiple times), and I admit that I’m more kindly disposed towards it than I was before. I’ve always thought that you can segment it into three parts: the first season, the second season up to the episode where mystery is solved, and the second season after that up to the end. My view was that those three parts go down in quality in that order, and that hasn’t changed now.
But I think revisiting it, the good stuff in season two is more apparent because you know what you’re looking for. The stuff that’s bad—James’s neo-noir plot, the Milford brothers, Dick Tremayne weaseling his way into Lucy’s life, inexplicable cross-dressing costumes, that godawful guitar scene with James, Donna, and Maddy—is still so very bad and can’t be defended. But it’s possible to appreciate things like Josie’s descent into desperate madness, Denise Bryson’s comfort in her own skin, Leland’s embrace of the inner BOB, Windom Earle going from caricature to dangerous lunatic. (I’ll still stick up for Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne, because there’s something so inherently goofy about the idea and Richard Beymer’s performance that I enjoy watching it even if I acknowledge it has no place in this universe.)
The greatest sin of season two was that Twin Peaks, having become a hit, became aware that it was a hit and of the things fans liked about it. As such, it became more and more about things like appreciation of pie and coffee, cryptic Log Lady behaviors, Cooper’s cheerful outlook on life, Andy being inept, etc. The Lynch/Frost season one version of the show had those details as part of a whole, and when the show pulled them to the front and called attention to what it was doing, it lost its efficacy. There’s so much of Twin Peaks that can work on its own, but it’s such a distinctive entity that when parts of it start to get tweaked, it’s easy to sit up and take notice. And while it might be lazy to say that having David Lynch involved fixes everything, there’s no question that in “Beyond Life And Death” (and other Lynch-helmed season two episodes like “May The Giant Be With You” and “Lonely Souls”), elements were dialed back and reemphasized in a way that felt much truer to the best version of the show.
For the new episodes? It’s hard to say. Partly that’s because as much as I might get shivers down my spine at seeing Kyle MacLachlan back in the black suit with a cup of coffee or awesomely cryptic new posters, new Twin Peaks has been a pipe dream for so long that I can’t bring myself to believe in it until they’re actually on air. (Lynch’s public arguments with Showtime and the constant flux about when it’s premiering/how many episodes there are are not helping matters.) What excites me the most comes up in the “Twin Peaks without David Lynch is like…” video that surfaced when it looked like Lynch was going to cut ties with the project, as a reminder of both how many of the original cast are still alive* and how many of them still have affection for the show that they’re always going to be connected with. (Lara Flynn Boyle being a possible exception.) All of these people would happily come back to the show, and I feel that both Lynch and Frost are committed to doing this right after the way things got off track. I’m concerned that Lynch’s track record in recent projects may make him even less disposed for answers, but Frost, who’s also writing a book to fill in the gaps, is likely to help channel his partner in the right ways.
*RIP Frank Silva (BOB), Don S. Davis (Major Briggs), Jack Nance (Pete Martell), Dan O’Herlihy (Andrew Packard) and Hank Worden (The Waiter).
As for plot specifics, I’m trying to keep expectations down but there’s a bit of a wish list. I think beyond the obvious questions (How’s Annie?) the biggest thing I want to see is a return to Cooper/Audrey dynamics. That moment in the finale where she tells the bank manager to call Cooper before the bomb goes off is tragic to me, and now that the age discrepancy is a thing of the past I’d love to see them recapture that chemistry. I’d also like them to touch back on the idea of Josie’s ghost trapped in the Great Northern, as they never did enough with that idea beyond a confused Pete talking to the mantelpiece in “The Path To The Black Lodge.”
Though I admit, part of me wants the premiere to open exactly the same way season two did, with a deadpan Lucy recap of all the craziness that happened.
Lucy: Mr. Martell and Mr. Packard got blown up in a bank explosion, Leo Johnson was found covered in spiders, Mr. Horne is in a coma from a fight with Dr. Hayward after Donna found out he was her father, Nadine got her memory back and broke up with Mike so Ed and Norma broke up again. Poor Ed and Norma.
Cooper: How long have I been out?
Harry: 25 years.
How about you? Do you have a wish list or will you be so happy to see these episodes it won’t matter?
Jake: I completely agree about season two becoming too self-aware and pandering to what they thought the audience wanted (and thus, of course, they lost the audience). For the same reason, it becomes a little disconcerting when the first trailer for the X-Files revival was nothing more than a sequence of iconic quotes (“I want to believe!”, “Trust no one, Scully.”). If the new episodes follow the same trend, with callbacks to damn good coffee and the like, it will be rather disappointing. I can envision Lynch dolling out as many as possible in the first few minutes then focusing on completely different characters for the rest of the time, however, so I’m not too worried. And you’re right, I think, to feel reassured by how enthusiastic the cast seems to be about the project, and about working again with Lynch.
You helpfully pinpoint something crucial about the success of the series when you mention how Lynch’s impenetrability will be countered by Frost’s ship-steering. It’s easy to see how this collaboration, yet another duality, helped to make Twin Peaks what it is. It’s so hard to imagine it without Lynch because a Frost-only Peaks would lack the personality and vision of Lynch. By the same token, a Lynch-only Peaks would lose the satisfying magic provided by Frost. Their core sensibilities are perfectly matched, and even if Showtime is giving Lynch total creative freedom, I believe that Frost will keep him from drifting too far into befuddling abstraction or losing sight of why people love the series in the first place.
For the new episodes, I’m curious whether Ed, Norma and Nadine will return and in what capacity. Their stories were left in a place of, frankly, utter bleakness. With the truth and return to normalcy, everything came crashing down, and I’m not sure where the story could go from there. Norma and Ed truly deserve to be happy together, and Nadine doesn’t deserve such a tragic ending, so hopefully we’ll get an update on them.
I also agree about Cooper and Audrey being the biggest thing to hope for, because I am an unabashed shipper and they are the ultimate couple to be shipped. Don’t let me down, guys.
Reboots and revivals live to disappoint. And 25 years on, expectations are stratospheric for longtime fans. Part of the obsessive appeal of Twin Peaks is that it was a show “too good for this world”, ripped away from us and now rendered a cult classic for us to proudly declare our love for, as if it is a personality trait to love Twin Peaks. A revival is the kind of thing that will remind us that these people are no longer who they used to be, and neither are we – such is the inescapable truth of nostalgia. Fortunately for Peaks, though, it’s a show that somehow manages to exist outside of time. Sure, in many ways its storytelling was “ahead of its time”, but it’s also a story that exists independent of Hollywood or television or years, hours, minutes. Try as others might to recreate the tone and effect (and many have), it has not once been replicated. If there’s any reason to be hopeful about getting it back, that would be it. Such strange, dark, absurd, goofy things appear on television every week, if not every night, but this is a singular cultural artifact that we have the privilege of experiencing again for the first time. I take that as a blessing.
Any final thoughts, Les?
Les: I don’t think there’s much to add beyond that point. For good or bad, Twin Peaks remains one of the most distinctive, visionary, important things ever to air on television. It’s remarkable that we got what we did, and even more remarkable that it’ll be emerging from the Black Lodge of cancellation in the near future. Whatever form it comes out as, be it the show we fell in love with, a strange white-eyed doppelganger version, or something entirely different, one thing is certain: we will not be bored. I can’t wait to see it, and hope we’ll get to talk about them in some form when they eventually debut.
And to close this project out, I think we can trust no words other than those of the Log Lady.
“And now, an ending. Where there was once one, there are now two. Or were there always two? What is a reflection? A chance to see two? When there are chances for reflections, there can always be two—or more. Only when we are everywhere will there be just one. It has been a pleasure speaking to you.”