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Time and Time Again: A Temporal Analysis of Twin Peaks: The Return

This essay contains massive spoilers for the entirety of Twin Peaks: the original 90s show, the movie Fire Walk With Me, and Twin Peaks: The Return. Spoilers for Mulholland Drive are also included in this. If you have not watched any of the above, I would highly recommend not reading this essay, and instead go and watch Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. They are very good, and well worth your time in my opinion. This is your one warning.

Twin Peaks: The Return’s usage of time can be fitted into two schools of thought regarding the philosophy of time, Eternalism and Growing Block, both of which have extremely disturbing implications about the world of the show by neutralizing the positive impact of protagonist Dale Cooper’s attempts to change the past in order to save Laura Palmer.

Before delving into the weeds of temporal philosophy, we must have a baseline as to what happened in The Return, and Twin Peaks in general. Twin Peaks is about FBI Agent Dale Cooper coming down into the small sleepy town of Twin Peaks, Washington in order to solve the murder of Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer, who was found dead and wrapped in plastic on the shore of a lake in the town. Cooper meets many of the quirky and odd citizens of the town while trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer, while also somehow getting drawn into the extremely strange supernatural occurrences that happen in Twin Peaks, such as dreaming of The Waiting Room. The Waiting Room, or Red Room as it’s popularly referred to, is a place surrounded by red curtains with a black and white zigzagging floor pattern that exists outside of time and space that is inhabited by even weirder supernatural entities, including one’s own doppelganger. Cooper is eventually trapped inside the Red Room for 25 years and his doppelganger, who is possessed by BOB, an entity who represents the evil that men do and who killed Laura Palmer, is free to wreak havoc on the world. The Return picks up after these 25 years have gone by and focuses on a myriad of plot points, ranging from Las Vegas crime lords, to corrupt prison wardens, to missing pages found from Laura Palmer’s diary, to explaining that BOB was birthed by a malignant entity called Judy as a result of the atomic bomb being created. The world, including the town of Twin Peaks itself, has gotten much darker in the interim, with the seedy underbelly of the past making much more outward and explicit appearances in everyday life, often leading to the injury and death of too many innocents. However, by the penultimate episode of the third season, all loose ends were tied up together with one major exception: Laura Palmer still was murdered. To remedy this, Cooper discovers a door that allows him, with the help of MIKE, a one-armed benevolent supernatural entity, to travel back into the past and stop Laura Palmer from being murdered. It is implied that Cooper wants to save Laura because it is the only case he hasn’t solved, and is in line with Cooper’s subtle pride to need to save every individual victim while ignoring the cyclical and systemic reasons for why such violence keeps occurring. When Cooper tells the talking tea kettle imbued with the voice of a missing FBI agent Phillip Jeffries what date Cooper wants to travel to, Jeffries shows Cooper moving through time to the desired date on a diagram showing a point moving along the symbol for infinity (∞). Cooper intercepts Laura before she is killed, but she blinks out of reality before he can bring her to safety. Though to be fair, Cooper “saving” Laura is robbing her of her agency. Laura chose to wear the green and gold ring, a ring that blocks supernatural entities from possessing you, in order to stop BOB from possessing her, which is what BOB’s main goal was, forcing BOB to kill her. Cooper robs Laura of making that choice at all, with her instead disappearing rather than being confirmed dead. It is important to note that Laura Palmer appears in the Red Room in both the original show and The Return, though in the latter she appears only briefly before screaming violently and flying out of the Red Room. Both before and after this encounter in the Red Room, Cooper hears MIKE ask him if “it is the future or is it past”. After attempting to save Laura through time travel, Cooper is shown to be in the Red Room again, where MIKE asks him the same question as before regarding the future and past. Cooper then walks out of the Red Room and attempts to find Judy in an alternate timeline along with his secretary and lover Diane. After finding a Laura Palmer lookalike in Texas, Cooper and the lookalike drive to Twin Peaks, but find that Laura Palmer’s house is inhabited by no one Cooper knows. This prompts Cooper to ask what year it is, to which he gets no answer. The Laura lookalike hears Sarah Palmer’s voice, screams, the lights go out in the Palmer house, and the show ends. One little wrinkle is that Laura’s death is only explicitly mentioned twice in The Return: once by Ben Horne, the owner of the Great Northern Hotel with whom Laura had an affair, and once by Sheriff Frank Truman, brother to Sheriff Harry Truman of the original show, who was not involved in the original investigation into Laura’s murder.

With that out of the way, let us examine the different temporal interpretations we can fit this narrative into, and what the implications are from these different views of time, beginning with Eternalism. Eternalism is the philosophical view that time exists as a four dimensional structure, most often described as a cube or rectangular prism. The past, present, and future are all contained within this cube, which makes it easy for Eternalists to claim that past entities, such as dinosaurs, do actually exist but are in the past. Theorists most often contrast Eternalism with Presentism, the view that the only things that exist are the things that are right now. To use a common metaphor, Presentism’s conception of time is akin to a film being projected on a screen, while Eternalism’s conception of time is the collection of every frame in that film stacked on top of one another, constructing a cube of infinite frames. One would naturally wonder why we can not see the future like we see the past due to the past, present, and future all existing within the temporal block, which is a good question and one that has yet to be entirely answered. The best answer we have currently is that entropy moves in only one way, so we can only perceive the time block in that one way. Time travel itself does also work with Eternalism quite well, the only caveat being that if one changes the past, the change must have been priced in, so to speak in the block itself, at least if the time travel wishes to be Novikov self-consistent, which are scenarios that are much more coherent and possible both physically and metaphysically than time travel scenarios where one can change the past without the change being priced in. An example of this feature of “priced in” would be if a criminal vowed to travel through time to avoid his sentence by killing the guards who escort him into the prison, and the criminal sees an old man with an injured hip walking towards the guards with a gun. The old man shoots the gun and hits the criminal in the hip due to the old man’s injured hip, permanently injuring the criminal. The time traveling criminal did affect the past by injuring his hip, but the criminal still served the prison sentence. If one did seek to actually change the past unlike Novikov self-consistent stories, Eternalism can work, but in these cases, the block itself would split into two timelines, one where the past remains the same and is completely unaffected by the time travel, and one where the past, and thus the future, changed as a result of the time travel.

Now, if we ascribe the Eternalist view onto The Return, we do immediately get some arguments in its favor. Jeffries’ diagram of time being akin to an infinity symbol could certainly imply an Eternalist view, that the past, present, and future all exist and are real. The Eternalist interpretation is bolstered by the events that happened within the past. Laura Palmer sees the time traveling Cooper in the past and screams at him, a scream that the audience up until this time traveling episode, was unaware of the cause, since there was no cause for Laura to scream shown in the Twin Peaks film Fire Walk With Me, in which the scream first occurred. The fact that Laura did see time traveling Cooper back in the original canon of the series, even though the audience was unaware at the time, possibly indicates that Cooper’s attempt to enact the change by trying to rescue Laura is priced into the block of time. However, this possibility is made less plausible by the black and white of past events turning into color as Cooper walks Laura away from her death, likely signifying that the past has changed and is now within the present's canon, or more likely a branching timeline’s canon. If Cooper’s actions were priced in, the past could not have been changed in such a way that Laura’s body disappears from the shore of the lake, yet the body does disappear. All this means is that The Return is not Novikov self-consistent because Cooper is able to change the past, unlike the time traveling criminal. Even still, Cooper’s time travel can still be coherent and possible within Eternalism via the branching blocks conception. Thus, the Eternalist conception is still possible even if The Return is not Novikov self-consistent, Cooper would just create a splintering time block. Cooper’s process of time traveling itself also supports an Eternalist viewpoint, at least the conventional ideological viewpoint of Eternalism: the B theory of time. The B theory of time holds that all temporal facts are reducible to facts that hold B-features, namely that they are based on date alone. An example of one of these B-facts is the fact that Laura Palmer was killed on February 23, 1989. When Cooper tells Jeffries where he wants to go in time, he specifies a certain date, in which Jeffries traces the infinity symbol of time to that date. The fact that Cooper did not use any tensed facts, and only dates, goes hand-in-hand with the high likelihood of past, present, and future all being bound by the infinity symbol, the series’s analogue to the time block.

What are the implications arising from this interpretation? Given the end of the show, it seems easy to conclude that Cooper changed nothing in the grand scheme of things. Sure, Laura screamed at him, but all that shows is that his attempt was real. This argument is not particularly convincing, because the show explicitly shows Laura Palmer’s dead body phasing out of existence on the shore due to Cooper’s actions in the past. Obviously, something changed as a result of Cooper’s intrusion into the past—Laura’s body is gone. What is more likely is that Cooper’s time traveling created a separate block to the original time block where Laura Palmer only went missing instead of showing up dead, supported by Laura disappearing from frame, likely voyaging to the other temporal block. But for the original citizens of Twin Peaks, Cooper achieved nothing, while the other block has to contend with Laura, who is explicitly coded as the ultimate force of good in the world, quietly bowing out of existence, with no explanation or cause provided whatsoever.

In case that option isn’t depressing enough, a slightly different temporal ontology applied to The Return can easily fit your dour needs. The Growing Block theory is in essence a combination of the Eternalist view and the Presentist view: a temporal block exists, and is always growing as the past solidifies, with the growing edge of the block being the present. The block grows as time marches on. Time travel is a sticky issue in the Growing Block conception however, and much less accommodating compared to Eternalism. The Growing Block theory does allow for one to change the past through time travel, but doing so eradicates the entire section of the block after the change takes place. So if I time travel back to 1934 and blow up Nazi Germany, then the time block from that moment to the present, including everyone in it, would be completely annihilated as a result of my actions, and begins to grow again from the change in the past. Frame The Return through the Growing Block theory and a very disturbing picture begins to emerge. As mentioned earlier, Cooper did in fact change the past by leading Laura away from her death. Thus, the block has been annihilated from February 23, 1989 to present. This revelation leaves us with two possibilities, both of which are equally plausible due to the frequently opaque nature of this show. The first option is that Cooper, through his time travel, completely annihilated the past conception of Twin Peaks that the audience has watched up until that point, including the past 17 hours of The Return and the fairly happy ending that had just taken place in the same episode right before the time travel. If this is true, we are unsure of the fates of the citizens of Twin Peaks who now have to live in a world where Laura Palmer never died but instead went missing. Cooper’s interference in the past may have done some good, or it may have been a terrible mistake; there is no way to know because the show does not tell us. The second option is much darker. Almost immediately after failing to truly rescue Laura, Cooper is in the Red Room again, being asked by MIKE whether it is future or it is past. A similar sequence occurs in the beginning of The Return, where we see Laura Palmer in the Red Room being whisked off to who knows where, likely the result of Cooper’s time traveling shenanigans far later on in the series. What does this tell us? It alerts us to the distinct possibility that the timeline being presented to us may be out of order, objectively speaking. Cooper’s interference in the past was shown early on in the show, but we just didn’t know it when first watching The Return. As such, it may be possible that we have been watching the effects of said interference without knowing of the cause until much later. Laura’s “rescue” was revealed early and then explained later, is it implausible to think the effects were revealed early and explained later in the same manner? Remember, the Red Room exists outside of time. If the Growing Block theory is applied, the temporal block has been severed at the moment Laura took Cooper’s hand. But, the block continues to grow after the severance in a new way based on the past alterations. And what deep and twisted growths there have been since this alteration. The town of Twin Peaks, as is the rest of the world, is now host to corrupt cops, an influx of crime and drug trafficking, a noted lack of any sort of justice for the exponential increase in innocent injury and death, and a genuine lack of care or empathy for one another: a far cry from the sleepy idealistic town from the original show. Yes, that sleepy town did have a seedy underbelly, but in present day Twin Peaks the underbelly is topside, rotting like the corpse of a dead whale. The darkness in modern day Twin Peaks can easily be explained by Laura Palmer not being able to counter the evils of BOB with her unending goodness due to her sudden departure from reality, a departure completely due to Cooper’s temporal meddling. Granted, this theory has some holes. Ben Horne and Sheriff Frank Truman both explicitly mention Laura Palmer as being murdered, though one can dismiss these statements as being conjecture on the characters’ part: many people will claim that missing persons have been murdered even when there is no definitive proof of death. But even outside of this, many continuity issues arise from this interpretation as well, most of which deal with the sequence of events in the show leading up to Cooper’s time travel. There is a way for the Growing Block theorist to hand wave these claims, namely by stating that everything from when Cooper gets out of the Red Room in the beginning of The Return to the final question asked by MIKE is all part of Cooper’s dream inside of the Red Room. This is not a particularly satisfying explanation, but it is supported by the show, with a superimposed face of Cooper stating “We live inside a dream” right before Cooper time travels, and also supported by co-creator David Lynch’s other films which deal with similar concepts of dreams substituting reality, such as the entire first half of Mulholland Drive being a dream sequence of the main character. The dream hand wave makes the issue of how Cooper’s time travel affects the world of the show mostly irrelevant, because it is all a dream. Instead, the idea that Cooper’s time travel is all a dream reveals a truth inherent to Cooper’s moral character: he is absolutely willing to do whatever it takes to save every individual victim and solve every individual crime, with no thought put into the systemic causes of victimhood nor the fact that his actions may make the world worse as a result. Regardless of which temporal interpretation you lean towards, both Eternalism and the Growing Block theory present disappointing and disturbing implications due to Cooper’s time travel: an interference that either created a branching timeline that in no way helps the original citizens of the town, created a new time block that could be better or could be worse, or actively made the town, and the world as a whole, much worse by disintegrating the ultimate source of good from Earth due to Cooper’s hubris and need to right every single wrong while ignoring the systemic and cyclical traumas that create individual harms.

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