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A history with dementia made Twin Peaks: The Return a tough watch
Even if you've never watched Twin Peaks, you probably know a little bit about it through cultural osmosis. There's a small town in middle America, a girl is found dead, the FBI shows up, and things get strange and surreal, with people talking backward and cryptic clues delivered by a lady cradling a log in her arms. On the surface, that's a decent enough explanation of Twin Peaks, but it skims over a lot of what makes it such a difficult, fascinating, and complicated show to watch.
Twin Peaks initially follows the story of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) as he visits the small rural town of Twin Peaks, in the hopes of solving the murder of Laura Palmer, a seemingly beloved young woman who is found washed up on a beach. Cooper is presented as a quirky but effective investigator, a little disconnected from social norms, but charming, polite, and intuitive. He's likable, open to finding clues in dreams or damn fine cups of coffee, and trusts his gut instincts above all else.
Over the course of the show's first two seasons we are introduced to a series of memorable characters from across the town, whose lives become as much a part of the show's identity as Cooper or the mystery of Laura's murder. These two seasons are about understanding how the inhabitants of this small town are interwoven with each other, which remains something of a constant throughout the show's earliest episodes. When all else fades away, they are about understanding the town, as much as the crime that took place there.
The show's creator, David Lynch, never intended for Laura Palmer's murder to be solved on the show, believing it was the central mystery that allowed the rest of the show's mystery plot threads to work, but his hand was forced by the show's producers. Laura's killer was revealed during the show's second season, causing Lynch to leave the show after his six contractual episodes, and when he eventually returned, it led to Lynch taking some pretty drastic steps with the direction of the show's plot.
Lynch returned to working on Twin Peaks for a couple of episodes at the end of the show's second season, but rather than providing fans answers and closure, he used the final few episodes to set up a brand new mystery. Our protagonist, Dale Cooper, had seemingly had his body possessed by the ghost of an evil serial killer, a doppelganger, and none of the characters we had spent countless hours watching had any idea.
And that was it. For 20 years, that was where the plot of Twin Peaks ended, with a huge new mystery, and no closure. It's a big part of why the show ended up with such a cult following, this show with a likable cast of characters set up a huge cliffhanger for its hero, and for a few decades fans had nothing to do but speculate, and hope for more episodes of Twin Peaks to one day be created.
I explain all this context, because it's important to understand something about David Lynch before we move forward. As a creator, he doesn't like having others dictate where his plots should go, and he doesn't like his narratives ending neatly wrapped up. So, after 25 years of silence, when Twin Peaks: The Return finally aired as a third season, it shouldn't be a surprise that it departed drastically from what audiences thought they wanted to see.
Where fans had spent 25 years expecting to see their favorite show pick back up right where it left off — with the Dale Cooper we know and love as the protagonist, trying to find a way back to Twin Peaks to capture the killer running around with his face — what we instead got was a show set largely outside of Twin Peaks itself, following characters other than the Dale Cooper we knew. It carried the same name, but our protagonist was essentially unrecognizable.
For the vast majority of Twin Peaks: The Return, Kyle MacLachlan plays a version of Dale Cooper who, after 25 years trapped in The Red Room, escapes back into the world, dropped into the life of Dougie, a man who looks like Cooper but is living a very different life. Cooper is trapped in an unfamiliar body, in an unfamiliar life, and in the transfer he loses a significant part of who he is.
He awakes to a wife and child he doesn't know, unable to talk or communicate his needs. He can't remember who he is or manage basic tasks like dressing himself or going to the bathroom unaided. He can only seem to follow very simple instructions, or parrot words back that he has heard others use, and is forced to try to navigate a life he doesn't seem to understand.
Throughout the bulk of The Return, we see a character who we recognize, who looks like someone important to us, unable to remember who he is, or properly communicate his own needs. Our once competent hero looks just like he always did but is almost unidentifiable due to how much of his personality has disappeared.
As someone with a family history of degenerative mental health conditions, as well as family friends effected by similar conditions, I have more than once in my life had to watch someone I know start to lose their connection to themselves, and the world. A lot of what I have experienced over the years was present in The Return, mirrored by Cooper's journey.
My grandmother, who passed away after a battle with a brain tumor, started by forgetting words here and there, getting amused and frustrated when she couldn't remember what the TV remote was called. By the end, she couldn't remember where she was, or who I was, for reasonably large stretches of time, with only brief windows of lucidity. Most of the time, she thought she was much younger than she was and thought she was somewhere else in the country.
There was an old man who lived across the road from me growing up who had dementia. I remember him once walking over to our home completely naked late at night, taking our silverware from the kitchen drawer, and trying to take it home with him. His wife eventually caught up to him, apologized, returned our silverware, and took him home. He got increasingly frail and would get upset and confused if left alone, quickly losing track of where or when he was. Caring for him became his wife's full-time job.
I've lost people in my life to a variety of conditions over the years, but degenerative mental health conditions are perhaps some of the most emotionally difficult ways to watch someone you know be taken away. Watching them slowly become someone you visibly recognize, but who has become somewhat of a stranger to you, is incredibly jarring. Whether intentional or not, Twin Peaks: The Return reminded me of the experience of living around someone who is slowly losing the mental abilities, while still physically present. It made the bulk of that season very tough to watch through but served the narrative of the season well.
From watching Dougie's son having to help him eat breakfast to seeing him struggle to find his way home, it's hard watching a character we know, who was previously so independent and self-sufficient, relying so heavily on the compassion and care of those around him to survive. Dougie is brought to his office but doesn't remember what he's meant to do there. He's recognized, but by people he can't seem to place. He's asked about completing tasks he doesn't ever remember being given. He's floating through life requiring others to point him in the right direction, hoping things work out okay.
It's in many ways made all the more difficult to watch by his moments of lucidity, the moments where the Dale Cooper we remember is shining through on the surface. From his love of coffee persisting to his quick reflexes in moments of physical danger, his ability to tell when people are lying still, and his glimpses of memory of his former job, we keep seeing flashes of the person we know is in there, but dare not hope to connect with. Dale Cooper is clearly still in there somewhere, but he can't connect with enough of his identity to get himself somewhere that people know him and can help properly.
Those moments of lucidity, where he remembers something he used to like drinking, or a word that had significance to his old life, only reinforce the fact that most of the time that person we remember simply isn't present. Without those moments of lucidity, it might have been easier to move on, and accept that the person we knew was gone.
But all throughout the season, the bright light that kept me watching was the support of Dougie's family, friends, wife, and coworkers. The people who knew him best could see he was struggling and went out of their way to try and help him keep living as normal a life as he could. They tried to make concessions, to make him feel included, and to make him feel loved. They may have occasionally struggled to understand what he wanted or needed, but they went out of their way to try and keep him included in the world.
Every scene Cooper spent as Dougie, I was on the edge of my seat, hoping nothing bad would happen to him, hoping he would avoid pain and suffering he couldn't understand. Every time someone took a shine to him, supported him, or appreciated his presence in the world, it seemed to make every effort the world had made to keep him included worthwhile. It was the one bright spark in a season that was often tense and unsettlingly unfamiliar.
By the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, Agent Cooper does eventually get back his memory and his sense of self. He makes sure things are set up so that the family who cared for him can have a comfortable life, and we get the eventual relief, if only for a few episodes, of seeing the person we had been missing all this time returned to us. But, in reality, that is rarely ever the case. Degenerative mental health conditions rob us of the people closest to us, and much like the bulk of episodes during The Return, it can be incredibly tough to watch unfold.