That Moment When You Realize You Are Agent Cooper


“I believe that these mysteries are not separate entities but are, in fact, complementary verses of the same song. Now I cannot hear it yet, but I can feel it, and that is enough for me to proceed.”—Agent Cooper

These words uttered to Major Briggs in Season Two, Episode 19 of “Twin Peaks,” the groundbreaking series co-created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, serve as splendid advice for the viewer. What begins as a seemingly straightforward whodunit, revolving around the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, gradually unfolds into a much bigger mystery involving time travel, the supernatural and an ever-growing ensemble of eccentric characters. After the phenomenal success of its first season, the show began losing viewers with the complexity of its much-longer second season, which ended on a frightening cliffhanger in 1991. People tend to forget that Lynch only directed six episodes of the original series, an absence that caused his vision to only be sporadically realized. It was 1992’s galvanizing, feature-length prequel, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk Me,” that provided the foundation for Lynch’s 18-part magnum opus, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” released 25 years later. With the existence of this “third season,” an astonishing tour de force that ranks among the greatest cinematic achievements of my lifetime, Lynch has now officially directed half of “Twin Peaks,” helming 24 of its 48 episodes. He has also elevated and improved the saga as a whole, inviting us to rely on our intuition to draw connections between what is new and what came before.

This past January, I decided to binge the entirety of “Twin Peaks,” and the experience was dizzyingly euphoric, to say the least. I truly felt like Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), scribbling down details in the first two seasons that “The Return” echoed in startling ways (and if you haven’t seen the show, please do so first in order to join in the fun). Consider when Leo’s doctor encourages his client’s caregivers to childproof their electrical sockets, or when Cooper glances with bemusement at Dougie, an elderly gentleman who goes on to die of a heart attack while in bed with his exceedingly younger wife (he was also wearing a gold ring at the time). During Season Two, Nadine (Wendy Robie), the local neurotic, transforms into a hybrid of Cooper’s dual doppelgängers from “The Return”—she sports the arrested development of Dougie Jones as well as the superhuman strength of Mr. C. (her gym teacher, meanwhile, remains as oblivious as Bushnell Mullins). The potentially homicidal tendencies of Little Nicky may be shared by the gun-toting boy in “The Return,” while Red (Balthazar Getty) may be the adult version of Mrs. Tremond’s grandson, since both men are capable of performing sinister magic tricks. Perhaps Red transferred “Garmonbozia” (a.k.a. the pain and suffering previously signified by creamed corn) into Richard Horne (Eamon Farren), prompting him to run over a little kid in the next scene.

And let’s not forget Harry Dean Stanton, who died soon after “The Return” finale aired and just before the theatrical release of John Carroll Lynch’s wonderful movie, “Lucky,” a spiritual cousin to David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.” Both films feature great actors in their final starring roles, playing men who are coming to grips with their own mortality. In “Straight Story,” it’s Richard Farnsworth traveling on a riding mower to visit his ailing brother (played by Stanton). In “Lucky,” it’s Stanton himself, finding peace in his godless worldview, while shooting the breeze with friends (including past collaborators David Lynch and Tom Skerritt) and playing “Red River Valley” on his harmonica, the same song we hear him singing in “The Return.” Some of his dialogue in “Lucky” could easily describe “The Return”’s last moments (“Nothing but blackness”; “The saddest silence I’ve ever heard”). Have Jean Renault’s final words to Agent Cooper—“Maybe you brought the nightmare with you, and maybe the nightmare will die with you”—proven to be prophetic? Certainly, Cooper’s realization toward the end of his journey is no different from that of Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie)—“We live inside a dream”—as witnessed in the essential deleted scenes compilation, “Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces.” This is what they say just before they disappear. How fitting that “The Return” reunites MacLachlan with Laura Dern, his fellow idealistic partner in sleuthing from Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (another morbid glimpse beneath the pastel surface of small town life), who once recounted a dream in which a flock of robins brought about the salvation of the world. Cooper may see himself as the “robin” of “Twin Peaks” (the bird perched to observe, like the one we see in the original opening credits), but his attempts to remedy the past have disastrous repercussions.

A defining shot of the series occurs later in the opening credits, as we see two waterfalls spilling out into a lake, their streams of water blending together as they plummet toward the earth. Not only is this a prime example of the “doubles motif” residing throughout the series, crystallizing in the form of two lodges, multiple doppelgängers and even the name of the Double R Diner—it also illustrates what “Twin Peaks” is at its very essence: a distillation of our collective American fantasies blended in a parallel stream of Lynchian consciousness. In a way similar to the final act of “Mulholland Dr.”, fragments of images we’ve previously seen onscreen materialize here in a new form. Let’s begin with the dead girl named Laura, the subject of a detective’s obsession, just like the titular deceased heroine in Otto Preminger’s “Laura.” The killer in Preminger’s film, Waldo Lydecker, is also referenced by Lynch—the name of the ill-fated myna bird who knew too much is Waldo and the veterinarian is Lydecker. An insurance salesman who sees Catherine (Piper Laurie) during Season One is referred to as Neff, the name of Fred MacMurray’s insurance rep in “Double Indemnity.” There’s also a lot of talk about a third man, as well as a one-armed man, whose name happens to be Phillip Gerard (a.k.a. the detective in “The Fugitive”). I caught at least one unintentional homage that fuses with Lynch’s approach hilariously well, and it occurs in an episode pairing future “Titanic” stars Billy Zane and David Warner. Though the show writers couldn’t possibly have seen into the future, they did manage to use one of the most memorable lines delivered years later in James Cameron’s blockbuster: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.” In an especially poignant touch, the show cast Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, two actors most famous for their work in “West Side Story,” where they starred opposite Natalie Wood, a woman who—like Laura—died well before her time and under mysterious circumstances.

The most crucial of all homages is Laura’s black-haired doppelgänger, Madeline Ferguson, whose name combines those of Kim Novak and James Stewart’s characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, “Vertigo.” In my previous essay on “The Return,” I compared the hotly debated ending sequence to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as Cooper and Laura (recast as a Judy—“Jowday”—Barton-esque Carrie Page, still played by Sheryl Lee) find themselves in an alternate reality that may have been created especially for them, just as George Bailey wished himself into a realm where he had never been born. Yet on repeat viewing, it’s clear that another Stewart film, namely “Vertigo,” served as Lynch’s chief inspiration, with Cooper bringing a woman—who he believes is secretly the woman he’s been searching for—to a place from their past where they will hopefully find closure. Laura Palmer’s house becomes the bell tower in “Vertigo,” inhabited by a female stranger who happens to live there (in “Vertigo, it’s a nun at the San Juan Bautista mission; in “The Return,” it’s Mary Reber, the woman who actually lives at the house). Rather than bask in a joyous reunion, both stories end tragically and are punctuated by a piercing scream. This is one of many mind-boggling tributes to the Master of Suspense found in the series that YouTuber Nicolas Lincy brilliantly dissects in his video essay entitled, “Twin Peaks & Hitchcock,” embedded above. Lincy needs no narration to explore the ways in which Lynch, my favorite living filmmaker, may have been influenced by Hitchcock, my all-time favorite filmmaker—from bodies “wrapped in plastic” and people who don’t exist (“Someone manufactured you!”) to circular themes ever-refraining (courtesy of Bernard Herrmann and Angelo Badalamenti) and living beings haunted or possibly possessed by the dead (“It’s almost like they didn’t bury you deep enough!”).

What’s so exhilarating about Lynch’s oeuvre is how it can deepen your appreciation and understanding of other great artworks, such as “Paranoia Agent,” Japanese maestro Satoshi Kon’s 13-part animated series that juxtaposes the dreamscapes of various characters with the stark realities they are trapped within. Each episode follows a different protagonist who, when cornered and under pressure, is “attacked” by an imaginary troublemaker known as “Lil’ Slugger.” The injuries these characters sustain from their alleged encounter end up rescuing them from a potential dead end, much like how Diane’s supposed fantasy in “Mulholland Dr.” distracts her from the failure of her waking life. Is the “Bob” of “Twin Peaks” any more real than “Lil’ Slugger,” or the Devil, for that matter? Is it more reassuring to believe that evil is spawned from a supernatural entity rather than human nature? And just what are all the characters laughing at in the unsettling opening credit sequence of Kon’s show? My guess is they’re chortling for the same reason Diane’s parents are in her dream: they are maniacally amused by the absurdity of the surrounding illusion.

At a time when hunger for nostalgic comfort food continues to skyrocket, “The Return” is boldly subversive in how it defies our expectations, affirming that, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “you can’t go home again.” A similarly audacious and polarizing reboot from last year was Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a film that—like “Mulholland Dr.”—has improved with every subsequent viewing and now stands as my third favorite picture in the “Star Wars” saga (bested only by “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”). And yes, the film has a few striking ties to the Lynch universe, not only because Laura Dern and Justin Theroux turn up in the cast. In both “The Last Jedi” and “The Return,” various characters make flawed decisions when they act before they think, refusing to take a moment and just “breathe.” Luke Skywalker and Agent Cooper manage to escape their place of solitude arguably without leaving it, while Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) look to others for answers but are ultimately faced with their own reflection. By the way, Audrey’s insatiable need for the faceless Billy stems from a concept that has obsessed Lynch from his earliest days as a painter (his piece, “Head Talking About Billy,” can be glimpsed in Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes’ fine doc, “David Lynch: The Art Life”).

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When I tell people that I find David Lynch’s work therapeutic, they look at me as if I have spoken in an alien dialect normally reserved for the Red Room. The best way I can explain this would be to compare Lynch with a man that I genuinely believe was on his wavelength—Fred Rogers—and after you see Morgan Neville’s illuminating documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, you may agree. First of all, Rogers implemented meditation into his daily routine, as does Lynch. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Twin Peaks: The Return” push against the ADD-addled status quo with their measured yet immersive pacing, enabling viewers to savor crucial details that would normally be overlooked. In one segment, Rogers allowed a minute to pass in real time, and it felt about as long as the scene in “The Return,” when a janitor swept the floor until all the trash—like the plot threads—started to come together. Both men also share a preoccupation with numbers. Neville’s film shows how Rogers swam laps at a pool to ensure that his weight remained at 143 pounds, a number that he believed translated as “I Love You” (1 letter, 4 letters, 3 letters). As for Lynch, he’s made a habit of setting his alarm clock to a number that adds up to 7 (such as 5:20). Indeed, the number 7 is prevalent throughout his filmography, from 1977’s “Eraserhead” to 2017’s “The Return.” Mr. C. breaks out of jail cell 27, Chantal stays in motel room no. 7, Dougie works for Lucky 7 Insurance (and is lucky, as all dreamers are) and the code to open Sylvia’s safe is 9047 (47 also makes a key appearance in “Inland Empire”). Episode 7 of Season Two contains Lynch’s best direction of the original series, and ends with the same song that fittingly closes Part 17 of “The Return.” Just listen to PBS’s auto-tuned track of Rogers singing that you can grow ideas in “the garden of your mind,” and you’ll realize that his words mirror the advice shared by Lynch in every interview, not to mention his book, Catching the Big Fish.

After spending a week in Los Angeles last month, I now know from personal experience just how surreal of a city it is, and how accurately Lynch has captured it in his work. Amidst all the majestic sights and awestruck tourists, there is an enormous homeless populace that wanders the streets, providing a jarring counterpoint to the superficial glitz. They are, in a sense, the man behind Winkie’s in “Mulholland Dr.”, the very thing any struggling actor in Hollywood fears of becoming. It took a cooking fire at a homeless encampment to set Bel-Air ablaze last December, an unavoidable reminder of the poverty that lives in the shadows of affluent communities. “I know a little about fire,” said Fumio Yamaguchi (Piper Laurie) in Season Two. “My family was at Nagasaki.” Though this line, of course, turns out to be as bogus as Fumio himself, America’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains an inescapable fact, and is reflected in the “fire that walks with” the little girl (Tikaeni Faircrest) in Part 8 of “The Return.” She is to Lynch’s opus what the Star Child was to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Only in Mark Frost’s book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, is she identified as Laura’s mother, Sarah Palmer, whose own father worked for the Manhattan Project. Kubrick’s fingerprints can also be found in The Great Northern Hotel which, like The Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” is haunted by the ghosts of our nation’s blood-spattered past. We sense its presence in the snatches of Penderecki music, the “all work and no play” line delivered by Jerry Horne, the commoditization of Native American identity (“It has something to do with your heritage”) and the yearning for less enlightened times, epitomized by Ben Horne’s temporary delusion that the South won the Civil War (the ultimate alternative fact), a non-event he celebrates by waving Confederate flags and dressing up his daughter, Audrey, as Scarlett O’Hara. Frost’s Twin Peaks: A Novel provides a sprawling account of how the history of his show’s titular community represents the history of America itself.

As my thrilling “Twin Peaks” marathon drew to a close, I was blindsided by the revelation that Agent Cooper and I have more in common than I ever would’ve imagined. His undiagnosed “white knight syndrome” is something I can relate to, in terms of my perpetual tendency to fall into a caregiver role when in a relationship. Annie Blackburn—the troubled and disarmingly sweet young woman who catches Cooper’s eye in Season Two—bares an uncanny resemblance to one of my ex-girlfriends from long ago. I only know too well how the decision to pursue a soul in need of saving only leads one on a circular path back to the Black Lodge. Art in all of its forms serves as our collective doppelgänger, intermingling with our reality like a parallel stream. How marvelous that there are artists like Lynch who remind us that the answers to our most burning questions can be found within ourselves, just as Glinda advised Dorothy. In closing, I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from The Final Dossier, written at the very end by Blue Rose Task Force field agent Tammy Preston: “There’s only one redeeming feeling I can cling to, provided I ever get that far—and I’m not saying I’m there yet, by any stretch—but when it’s all stripped away and you realize you’re the only one who can put the pieces of yourself together, by yourself, alone—no easy answers from a book, song, or movie or the reassuring words of someone older and ‘wiser’—I’m noticing it has a tendency to focus and sharpen the mind, and strengthen the will to live constantly with all my senses wide-open to the here and now.” Only when we’ve learned to save ourselves can we find our way over the rainbow.

Twin Peaks: The Return” is available in a pristine edition on Blu-Ray and DVD that includes many hours of behind-the-scenes footage. Seasons One and Two are currently streamable on Netflix and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” is also available on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Criterion (and yes, “Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces” is among the extras).

One response to “That Moment When You Realize You Are Agent Cooper

  1. This is a fantastic essay that illuminates much of the brilliance of the series. I wanted to point out another pop cultural refraction on the same level as Richard Beymer & Russ Tamblyn’s casting. Their characters don’t interact but Peggy Lipton’s Norma & Clarence Williams III’s Agent Hardy shared the screen as undercover cops in The Mod Squad. Circles within circles.

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