Twin Peaks: The Return as Subversive Fairy Tale
by Courtenay Stallings
Abstract: [page 98] This article considers Twin Peaks: The Return as a supernatural fairy tale, employing as it does forces that defy scientific explanation (including the other-dimensional worlds of the Red Room, the Purple Palace, and the White Lodge) and fairy tale tropes like a hero sent on a quest, magic, giants, monsters, and talking animals. However, the narrative does not follow conventional storytelling practices. The fairy tale of The Return allows viewers to grapple with real-life dark forces and trauma. The dream-like story provides a supernatural coding to allow viewers to confront the horror of violence and despair, comforted by the fact that Agent Cooper is on a quest to rescue the princess and battle darkness.
Keywords: civilizing process, fairy tales, folklore, quests, self-transformation
As surreal as the original series of Twin Peaks is, the 2017 season of Twin Peaks: The Return is even more so because of its non-traditional narrative; numerous unfinished plotlines; the time and interdimensional travel that takes place in part 17, when Special Agent Dale Cooper returns to the night of Laura Palmer’s death; and, in part 18, when Dale Cooper/Richard confronts Laura Palmer/Carrie Page in a seemingly different world than that of Twin Peaks. There are many modes of interpreting Twin Peaks, including exploring it as a psychological phenomenon. John Thorne argues that the first thirty minutes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is Cooper’s dream. Martha Nochimson explores the role of the subconscious in Lynch’s art in The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997), and Tim Kreider writes that Twin Peaks is an imaginary narrative created by someone, who may or may not be Dale Cooper, who fashioned the fantasy that is season 3 to forget the fact that he is actually Laura’s killer. [page 99]
Although these theories of dreams and fantasies are not without merit, another way to approach Twin Peaks is through the lens of a fairy tale, in which everything is “real,” and therefore, the stakes are high. The events and characters, although fantastical, are real, and, therefore, what happens to the characters has great consequence for themselves from the audience’s perspective. The Return employs several common motifs of fairy tales, including supernatural beings and a quest, as well as the archetypical characters of the princess (Laura) and the seeker (Cooper). The show is also part of the fairy tale tradition because it has a happy ending, in which Laura is seemingly rescued on the night of her murder and Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones is united with his nuclear family, Janey-E Jones and Sonny Jim. However, I argue that The Return is ultimately a subversive fairy tale that challenges common fairy tale motifs and offers an alternative to the happy ending in the season 3 finale when Laura/Carrie confronts the original site of Laura’s trauma. The story provides the possibility of a radical cultural transformation in which the happy ending is subverted and replaced with an ending in which a sexual abuse victim comes home to acknowledge the reality of the trauma that she experienced, forcing the audience to confront it, too.
Fairy tales, most of which feature a quest and a guide, have their roots in an oral, folkloric tradition but have evolved into modern storytelling appearing across media, including television. Although fantastical, “fairy tales are not unreal; they tell us metaphorically that ‘life is hard,’ or that ‘life is a dream,’ and their symbolical narrative patterns that assume the form of quests indicate possible alternative choices that we can make to fulfill our utopian disposition to transform ourselves and the world,” according to Jack Zipes in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (xiii). Although there are many plots and characters involved in The Return, the centrality of both the princess, Laura, and the seeker, Cooper, forms the core drama of the narrative. Season 3 begins and ends with these two characters, and both serve as a through-line for the season; therefore, a close read of their scenes reveals [page 100] the crux of the overall story. The juxtaposed endings of parts 17 and 18 in The Return reveals a “manufactured” happy ending in which a Cooper, fashioned by the One-Armed Man, unites with Janey-E Jones and Sonny Jim in a loving embrace. In addition, Cooper saves Laura on the night of her death, and she does not end up dead and wrapped in plastic on that cold, sandy beach. This “manufactured” ending contrasts with the traumatic confrontation at the end of part 18 in which Laura/Carrie and Cooper/Richard1 return to the site of domestic horror, the Palmer house. The “manufactured” ending allows the audience to comfortably embrace a conclusion in which Laura is safe and Cooper and Janey-E come together to fulfill their role of a content nuclear family. The alternate ending in part 18, although not a happy ending, forces the audience to confront the trauma of the disrupted happiness of a nuclear family in which the father committed sexual assault against the daughter. This confrontation of past trauma at the site of the Palmer house reveals a moment of radical cultural transformation in which fairy tales can subvert the happy ending in order to be a catalyst for the acknowledgment of past trauma.
A Brief History the Fairy Tale as Genre
Today, fairy tales are typically written for children, although this is and was not always the case. Fairy tales are generally associated with a positive ending or outcome. Madame d’Aulnoy first coined the term “fairy tales” when she wrote her conte de fées in seventeenth century France (Zipes, When Dreams 42). Aristocratic women like d’Aulnoy encouraged the exchange of oral and literary fairy tales in salons during the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Zipes, Fairy Tale As 20-21). The name stayed despite the fact that many fairy tales do not contain fairies at all. The modern fairy tale came into being in the nineteenth century when scholars, philologists, and anthropologists sought to transcribe the traditional folk tales in order to retain those traditions in print form. However, as with most traditions of storytelling, the act of transcription and publication, as well as the intentions of the [page 101] publishers, altered those original tales. For example, classic fairy tales such as those from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault underwent both explicit and implicit censorship and were sanitized to conform to contemporary standards of the day. Instead of being culled directly from the peasant folk, they were censored and adapted to fit the ideal social norms of the bourgeoisie (Zipes, Fairy Tales xi).
Fairy tales can be difficult to define since they have roots in the oral tradition and may be repurposed for the time and culture in which they are told. However, some scholars have nonetheless tried to pinpoint narrative structures or motifs that define fairy tales. In Morphology of the Folktale, Soviet folklorist and structuralist Vladimir Propp describes the structure of these tales in terms of plot and the hero’s quest; this quest includes archetypes such as the hero and the villain; the helper, who aids the hero in his or her quest; the princess; and the father/dispatcher, who is the impetus for the hero to embark on the quest (Propp 79-80). Stith Thompson, who categorizes folkloric tales, discusses the presence of magic as an indicator of the fairy tale genre (55).2 Other critics interpret fairy tales through a psychological lens, perhaps most prominently Bruno Bettelheim, who was influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell; Bettelheim claims that the use of enchantment in fairy tales allows children to work through their anxieties and fears when confronting the world. Steven Swann Jones identifies recurring motifs in fairy tales, including the use of fantasy and magic, confrontation of a problem, the successful resolution of that problem, a sympathetic protagonist, and the presence of a central theme (xiv), while folklorists such as Neil Philip identify transformation as key to the fairy tale because fairy tales have been endlessly transforming themselves throughout history. Fairy tales tell stories that can serve as instruction manuals for how to behave in society or as metaphorical narratives that allow people to work through the anxiety of living in the world, and are powerful because they can be adapted to the culture and times in which we live. [page 102]
Originally orally-transmitted stories, fairy tales evolved to become part of the print tradition and are now a not-insignificant presence in film and television. Sue Short, examining the relationship between fairy tales and contemporary film, considers how the genre has been repurposed in ways that are not part of Disney’s animated movies for children, often developing subversive takes on traditional motifs. Fairy tales have been reworked in cinema since its earliest days; more recently, the fairy tale genre appears in films such Tim Burton’s 3D Alice in Wonderland (2010) and recent adaptations for television, including Grimm and Sleepy Hollow (Short 1-2). However, Short argues that some contemporary films less conspicuously employ older tales and motifs. One example is the 2005 David Slade film Hard Candy, which explores child sexual predators and subtly aligns Ellen Page’s character with Little Red Riding Hood in its marketing (Short 3). Additionally, contemporary films like the work of Guillermo del Toro contain fairy tale motifs but speak to an adult audience, often containing sexual and violent elements in addition to the supernatural (10).
Fairy tales can reveal the horror and trauma of the world through supernatural forces, as well as the social norms of society. Jack Zipes, Pauline Greenhill, Sidney Eve Matrix, and others argue that modern cinema includes characteristics of the fairy tale genre, with Greenhill and Matrix arguing that films should be classified using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folk tale types (2). Zipes argues that, since fairy tales play a role in the civilizing process, traditional Hollywood fairy tale films are problematic because they contain a “civilizing” function in which they mediate conformist attitudes to a wider culture (The Enchanted 14). The very idea of enchantment, originally used by Bettelheim to describe the psychological impact of fairy tales, can mean both ‘to provide pleasure’ and also ‘to deceive.’ Zipes argues that, while fairy tales are often deployed to deceive, they can also function as the antidote to deception because “they ferret out deep-rooted wishes, needs, and wants and demonstrate how they all can be realized. In [page 103] this regard folk and fairy tales present a challenge because within the tales lies the hope of self-transformation and a better world” (Breaking xi). Zipes’ notion of the fairy tale as an antidote to deception and the hope of transformation plays out in The Return.
Twin Peaks As Fairy Tale
On the surface, the original series of Twin Peaks seems more like a surreal soap opera, akin to the 1960s television series Peyton Place with otherworldly characters, than a fairy tale. However, Twin Peaks employs common motifs of the genre, a quest and magic, and holds up a mirror to the uncomfortable realities of contemporary society, including confronting the taboo subjects of incest and sexual abuse.
The connection between Twin Peaks and fairy tales is not new. In 2014, Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost described how the character of the Giant in the original series functioned as a way to demonstrate the magic of another world:
When the idea of the Giant came up we knew he was part of this dream realm that was becoming a big part of Peaks. We needed entities who could color in and infuse that space with otherworldliness. This is mythological/fairy-tale territory so a giant was a perfect figure for that purpose. When we cast Carel [Struycken] the way David [Lynch] shot him we were able to find linkages between the characters and that realm and helped us deepen that part of the story. (Dukes 169)
Frost and Lynch, familiar with fairy tales, created supernatural characters to act as guides for protagonist Agent Cooper on his quest.
Laura Plummer connects Twin Peaks to fairy tales by labeling it “a fractured fairy tale” that subverts the traditional Disney-esque fairy tale plot of Sleeping Beauty (1959) and others. In contrast to the plot narratives of Sleeping Beauty in the vein of Disney, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, Plummer connects Laura’s story to a darker version of Sleeping Beauty, that of Giambattista Basile, which [page 104] connects the princess sexually to the king, her father, rather than to the prince. Basile’s fairy tale is a dark, incestuous drama rather than a story of a young woman’s sexual awakening. Plummer argues that Lynch fragments and subverts the plot because, unlike Sleeping Beauty, Laura is already “asleep” before the story begins in the original series: she is in the deepest of sleep, that is, dead. Palmer is a Sleeping Beauty who is killed by the “kiss” of the king, her father—Leland Palmer, who is possessed by BOB—rather than awakened by the kiss of the prince. Instead, it is the princess in the form of Laura in the Red Room who “awakens” the prince, Special Agent Cooper, calling on him to become the seeker, his quest to find the truth of her murder. This subversion of roles highlights the taboo of incest and empowers Laura in the Red Room to name her killer, spurring Cooper to seek justice for her. This storyline, highlighting the nature of trauma and empowering the victim to seek justice, even in the afterlife, is subversive in that it allows for “the hope of self-transformation and a better world” (Zipes, Breaking xi).
Franck Boulègue explores the psychological impact of Twin Peaks as fairy tale through Bettelheim’s idea that the lack of realism in fairy tales is a signal to the audience that the story has “relevance to the individual’s interior rather than providing useful information regarding the external world” (122). Boulègue argues that fairy tales are concerned with the “symbolic struggle of personality integration against chaotic disintegration, and Twin Peaks makes this apparent in its narrative” (122). This is apparent in the character of Cooper, who ultimately confronts his doppelgänger at the end of the original series. Bettelheim says that “in fairy tales, being lost in the forest symbolizes not a need to be found, but rather that one must find or discover oneself” (220). For Boulègue, the woods become a site of exploration not only of the fantastical world of Twin Peaks but also of the internal world of the self where Cooper must face his opposite.
Boulègue, like Plummer, identifies Laura as the princess, wearing a crown as the homecoming queen, and Twin Peaks as an [page 105] inversion of Sleeping Beauty wherein Laura initiates the kiss with Cooper in the Red Room in season 1 (126). Boulègue also compares Twin Peaks to other fairy tales: in both Twin Peaks and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the evil stepmother in the original story becomes the evil incestuous father Leland/BOB in Twin Peaks, and mirrors become objects that reveal truth (BOB is revealed as inhabiting Leland when he gazes into the mirror at home). As in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, the home becomes a site of dissociation in Twin Peaks. The parental figure is a monster disguised as someone loving and nurturing, but Twin Peaks subverts these tales because “the wolf lives at home with Laura and goes to bed with her there, and it is the house in the woods where she meets Leo and Jacques that represents a form of freedom otherwise unknown under her own roof” (130). Lynch and Frost disrupt the viewer’s expectations when they provide familiar fairy tale motifs but alter them to showcase sites like the Palmer home and the cabin in the woods that should be places of refuge, but instead are places of terror. In Twin Peaks, the cabin in woods does not prevent the monster (Leland/BOB) from finding Laura and ultimately dragging her to the boxcar of her death.
The subversion of the motifs and plot structures of well-known fairy tales confronts the viewer with the possibility of transformation through a break with tradition. While in the nineteenth century and beyond, fairy tales were repurposed and sanitized to be used as part of the civilizing process, indoctrinating children into the status quo, by the twentieth century, some fairy tale stories were being subverted: “no longer was the fairy tale to be a mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the cosmetic bourgeois standards of beauty and virtue that appeared to be unadulterated and pure” (Zipes, Fairy Tales 105). There are examples of modern fairy tales pursuing a radical break from the cultural norm, holding a mirror to the fissions in contemporary society. Zipes’ cultural, historical, and social approach to fairy tales provides a lens through which to examine a work like The Return to understand how the [page 106] subversion of well-known fairy tale motifs reveals the possibility of a radical cultural transformation.
It is no secret that Lynch admires one of the most famous fairy tales of all, L. Frank Baum’s stories of Oz. Baum’s tales of Oz, particularly the Emerald City of Oz (1910), are an example of the subverted fairy tale that mirrors problematic contemporary society. Zipes notes that Baum’s storytelling becomes a commentary on America itself because “the frank, candid narratives are disarming and leave one’s imagination dangerously open to subversive ideas. A trip to Oz is not escape, because one is forced to become aware of what is absent in America and in the world at large” (Fairy Tales 127). The juxtaposition of the original series town of Twin Peaks to the season 3 town mimics the evolution of Oz and reveals what is absent: the good Dale Cooper. Even in part 18, when Cooper/Richard returns to the Palmer House in Twin Peaks, this is no escape for either himself or Laura/Carrie, but a confrontation with the original horror of the home when she recognizes Sarah Palmer’s voice calling Laura’s name. The Return features a double ending, a “manufactured” happy ending according to fairy tales à la Disney versus an ending that is not necessarily happy, but allows for a radical cultural transformation in the way that it confronts trauma.3
The Return as Subversive Fairy Tale
The core story of The Return is that of Cooper and Laura, introduced in the first part and reunited in part 17 as Cooper and Laura and in part 18 as Cooper/Richard and Laura/Carrie. Twin Peaks’ princess, homecoming queen Laura, reappears in the opening credits when her homecoming photo dissolves into the opening title overlaying the mountains of the town of Twin Peaks. “Part 1: My Log Has a Message For You” contains a clip from the original series showing Laura in the Red Room telling Agent Cooper that she will see him again in twenty-five years, which fades to other images from the original series, including the sawmill, the school hall, a girl running and crying outside the high school, and [page 107] eventually, the trophy case that contains Laura’s homecoming photo, which then evolves into the opening credits for the show and the series. This opening clip in the Red Room and the repeated use of her homecoming image throughout the series emphasizes Laura’s centrality to The Return. In part 8, The Fireman and Señorita Dido release the golden orb with Laura’s homecoming image into the world. It serves as a light of hope in the black-and-white world of the Trinity nuclear bomb blast in 1945 New Mexico that ushered in the dark forces of Judy and BOB. Laura’s image figures heavily in the narrative because she is central to the story of Twin Peaks as the princess whom the prince (Cooper) is sent to find.
In part 2, an entity whom the audience recognizes as Leland and not Leland’s doppelgänger based on the look of his eyes and the sadness of his disposition appears to Agent Cooper in the Red Room and pleads with Cooper to “find Laura,” sending him on a quest that will ultimately result in his encounter with Carrie Page in the final part of The Return. Leland Palmer serves as both the dispatcher, the impetus for the hero to go forth on the quest, and the helper, who aids the hero, an elision of roles that Propp suggests is not unusual, as the archetypal helper is often the princess’s father, who sometimes also serves in the dual role of father and dispatcher (79-80). However, the idea of Leland being the one who sends Cooper on his quest is both tragic and subversive, since it was Leland, inhabited by the Black Lodge force of BOB, who committed the rape and murder of his own daughter. Now, twenty-five years later, sitting dejectedly in a chair in the Red Room, Leland sadly pleads with Cooper to find his daughter. The figure of Leland reminds the audience of the horrific relationship between BOB/Leland and Laura.
The fairy tale motif of the relationship between the seeker and the princess in The Return is subverted. Leland spurs Cooper on his quest to find the princess, but it is the princess herself who functions as a guide to Agent Cooper. Cooper is supposed to find Laura under the guidance of an entity who looks just like her. In part 2, the Red Room Laura tells Cooper that he “can go now.” [page 108] She instructs Cooper by saying, “I am dead, yet I live.”4 When she detaches her face, a brilliant white light shines from her head. She whispers a secret to Cooper that causes him great concern, and she is violently pulled away by unknown forces. The Red Room Laura may be suggesting clues to Cooper that ultimately lead him in part 18, when he crosses over into another dimension to find Laura but instead encounters Carrie Page, a Laura Palmer-look alike.
Jack Zipes, citing Walter Burkert, claims that the quest is established as a way to solve a problem. Burkert describes the initiation tale that is a common variation of the quest and reveals a particularly female experience in fairy tales:
(1) an eruption in a young girl’s life that causes her to separate from family and home; (2) seclusion for a certain period in an idyllic setting that can be an island, forest, or temple; (3) a catastrophe that drives the young girl from the idyllic setting due to her violation of a promise or her being violated; (4) a period of wandering in which she suffers and must atone for her mistakes; and (5) accomplishment of tasks or rescue that brings about a happy ending. (qtd. in Zipes, “The Meaning” 238)
The quest motif and this variant are important plot points in The Return. Agent Cooper is sent on a quest to “find Laura,” the homecoming princess who has been “asleep” (in this case, dead) for twenty-five years. Laura’s body and mind are violated by the evil entity of BOB/Leland Palmer, who sexually assaults her. She is secluded in a kind of idyllic setting because she is psychologically isolated from the townspeople of Twin Peaks due to her secret. Regarding item 4, Laura’s period of wandering could be her status in the Red Room or her transformation into Carrie Page, a character who resembles Laura and appears to have direct connections to her. The rescue that brings about a happy ending may be the act of intervention when Cooper travels back to Feb. 24, 1989, to rescue her from the boxcar murder.
However, the audience does not receive reassurance that Cooper’s intervention in part 17 provides a happy ending for [page 109] Laura. Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, disappears from the beach, but it is not clear what happened to her. Did she survive and continue to live in Twin Peaks? How does BOB factor into this timeline? Is he still a threat? Has he possessed her? Or, was she whisked away to another world only to become Carrie Page? There appear to be some interesting crossover clues from both the Odessa timeline from part 18 and the original Twin Peaks, including the telephone pole, which appears in the Deer Meadow, Washington, trailer park in Fire Walk with Me as well as in front of Carrie’s house, and horses—the hobby horse and photos of horses on the wall at Judy’s Diner in Odessa, Texas, as well the horse on the mantle of Laura/Carrie’s apartment and her horseshoe necklace. Laura/Carrie is a waitress at Judy’s, and Judy is the name that FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries repeats in Fire Walk with Me. Judy is an entity of pure negative energy, and horses seem to portend the unleashing of that energy, as with Sarah Palmer’s vision of the white horse in the Palmer home when BOB kills and the sound of the horse whinny as the woodsman enters the night in part 8 of season 3 after he commits murder, too. The white horse also evokes the pale horse which represents death within the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Odessa seems jarring in the way that Deer Meadow is jarring: this “reality” seems unreal because it is so unlike the world of Twin Peaks that audiences are familiar with, but it is more like the “real” world that audiences understand.
The Return provides two endings, one that is happy, at least on the surface, with the rescue of Laura and the unification of Cooper and family, and the other ending that contains the return of Laura/Carrie and Cooper/Richard to the Laura’s home in Twin Peaks, which is unsettling and subversive in its implications for transformation. Traditionally, fairy tales end happily. Cooper tells Laura in part 17 that he is taking her home. The manufactured Cooper in part 18 says “home” when he returns to Janey-E and Sonny Jim. Cooper/Richard brings Laura/Carrie “home” to the Palmer/Tremond house in part 18. Lynch, given the influence of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, might be drawing on [page 110] Dorothy Gale’s full story here: Dorothy returns to her home in Kansas again and again, but in the last book, she is placed in exile in Oz (Zipes, Fairy Tales 127) while Glenda the Good Witch renders Oz invisible to all but those who live there. This is not an escape but a reckoning, suggesting that there are different types of homes: homes to escape to for manufactured happy endings and homes where one confronts the truth.
Part 18 of The Return is dark and unsettling. Agent Cooper crosses over into another dimension, where he is now “Richard” and Diane is “Linda” (both names that The Fireman told Cooper to remember); they drive four hundred and thirty miles to cross over into the other dimension (the number “430” was another clue provided by The Fireman, but the other dimension is no Twin Peaks. Richard discovers that Linda has left him. He finds himself in Odessa, Texas, and embarks on a journey to find a waitress, leading him to Carrie Page, who looks exactly like Laura Palmer, but her personality seems very different from the woman in Fire Walk with Me. Page speaks with a southern accent and acts like an outlaw, which is no surprise since a dead man with a bullet hole through his head sits on the sofa in her living room. Page does not seem like any kind of homecoming queen, let alone a princess, and yet there is a kind of recognition in her eyes when Cooper/Richard asks her about Sarah Palmer. This name suggests something to Laura/Carrie, who then travels to Washington with Cooper/Richard, who brings her to the Palmer house in Twin Peaks. Instead of encountering Sarah Palmer, Laura/Carrie and Cooper/Richard meet a woman who identifies herself as Alice Tremond and does not seem to know them. As they leave, Cooper/Richard seems confused and despondent and asks, “What year is this?” Laura/Carrie looks up at the house and hears the sound of Sarah Palmer calling out Laura’s name. Laura/Carrie screams and the lights in the house go out, almost as if there has been an electrical surge. Cooper/Richard brings Carrie to the literal threshold of what appears to be the Palmer doorstep, but the moment is also a Lynchian threshold, according to Martha [page 111] Nochimson’s concept, in the sense that it is a “passage between two perceptions of the same space, and a wake-up call for a fuller apprehension of our mind/body realities” (David Lynch 2). Cooper/Richard crosses a threshold with Diane/Linda when they drive across space to a world in which Cooper/Richard brings Laura/Carrie to a literal threshold at which she is awakened when she hears Sarah Palmer call Laura’s name. Laura/Carrie’s scream in this moment suggests a recognition of the horror that took place in that home and, perhaps, a recognition of who she really is and was: Laura Palmer.
Part 18 hardly seems like a happy ending, but The Return is a subversive fairy tale that offers more than one ending, both of which hold that radical, fractured mirror up to the world. As much as Agent Cooper, the seeker on his quest, tries to prevent the murder of Laura, he is unable to rescue her from her trauma. Instead, the memory of that trauma is buried deep within Carrie. Cooper/Richard’s quest to bring Laura/Carrie to the Palmer home at first seems like a fool’s errand when Page does not seem to remember the place. But in that moment when Page hears the voice of Sarah Palmer and seems to realize the horror of what was forgotten, a breakthrough occurs. The abuse that Laura experienced at the hands of her father/BOB cannot simply be erased. While sexual abuse and incest are acknowledged to exist in disturbingly high numbers, discussion of these topics remains taboo in society. Zipes argues that “as long as there is discontent with the civilizing process, there will be fairy tales that will either project alternatives to the status quo or that will reconcile us to our social conventions and religious beliefs” (Fairy Tales xiii). The ending of The Return, while not a happy one in the traditional sense, offers an alternative to many traditional fairy tales, which offer an escape from the reality of the world, by revealing to the audience the reality that trauma is not so easily vanquished, and the princess not so easily saved. But there is transformation in the revelation and confrontation of traumatic memory. Laura/Carrie remembers where she came from. [page 112]
The Return provides an alternate and more traditional happy ending earlier in part 18. After the evil Mr. C burns up in the Red Room, the One-Armed Man creates another Cooper with a lock of hair and a golden ball (another common fairy tale motif). Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones returns to Las Vegas and lovingly reunites with Janey-E and Sonny Jim. This storyline provides a more traditional happy ending for Cooper, but this ending is literally manufactured; however, this manufactured happy ending is fulfilling because the audience witnesses the sheer joy of all involved and the completion of a family reunited in their home in contrast with the dissolution of the family, both in terms of the Palmers and of Cooper/Richard and Diane/Linda. Both of these plotlines take place in part 18, emphasizing the contrast between the traditional happy ending in the Las Vegas story and the radical cultural transformation in the alternate dimension. As Zipes argues, “certain fairy tales can disrupt the normative structure and affirmative discourse of the classical fairy-tale tradition that are locked into the bourgeois public sphere” (Fairy Tales 105). The Dougie/Cooper ending in Vegas is comforting and familial. It reflects the normative structure of the ideal nuclear family, while the alternative dimension with Carrie and Richard is disruptive and reveals the cost to Cooper’s psyche in trying to save the princess. It also reveals that trauma is never truly vanquished no matter how a person is saved or transformed. Instead, Carrie’s awakening at the end, while startling, can perhaps be read as hopeful because she can finally understand what happened. Perhaps Laura/Carrie is regaining an agency that was lost when Cooper intervened. The subversion of the traditional fairy tale ending is a revelation because, by returning home, Laura/Carrie confronts the truth of past trauma and awakens with a scream. It also awakens the audience to the idea that Twin Peaks was always Laura’s story. And it could be interpreted as the story of a princess who saved her soul from BOB’s possession in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me but who also woke herself up from a Sleeping Beauty-like sleep when confronting her problematic home with the aid of a confused [page 113] Cooper/Richard.
This is a critical moment. Cooper tries to rescue Laura from the night of her murder, but instead of rescuing her, I argue, he transports her to this other dimension as Carrie Page. But Carrie is not living her best life—there’s a murdered man on her sofa. She laments to Cooper that she tried “to keep a clean house, everything organized,” but was “too young to know any better” (“Part 18”). Cooper could not save Laura by rescuing her in the woods, perhaps because it was not his destiny to save her; he could not remove the trauma of what happened. The trauma was always there, and it remained there with Carrie Page. Only Laura/Carrie’s confrontation with her past could help her move beyond what was always there. It was always there for the audience, too, but it was difficult for viewers to confront that Twin Peaks was, at its heart, about sexual abuse. This is why it was crucial for Laura Palmer to battle BOB, even if it meant her own death—because only Laura could confront her trauma (BOB/Leland Palmer); no one else could do it for her, and the confrontation allowed her agency.
David Lynch and Mark Frost are reinventing the story of Twin Peaks for our time just as fairy tales are repurposed to confront contemporary issues. In The Return, the co-creators twist the themes of the original series and offer up a story that is darker but comes closer to the truth in the way that it looks at trauma directly, just as Fire Walk with Me dealt directly with BOB/Leland Palmer’s rape of Laura. The quest narrative is inverted and complicated because Cooper, in finding Laura, removes her from the night of her murder and, ultimately, removes any agency she has in saving her soul from BOB. In the end, Cooper/Richard discovers that Laura’s trauma did not disappear but lived on in Carrie Page, who crosses the literal and figurative threshold when she confronts the troubled home of Laura. She is awakened in that confrontation, but this is not Disney’s Sleeping Beauty who is awakened by a prince; instead, it is the story of a lost and traumatized woman who is roused by a dark memory when she hears her mother call out her name. [page 114]
Zipes argues that subversive fairy tales can disrupt the normative structure and affirmative discourse of the fairy tale tradition of a happy ending according to its social norms. Fairy tales are socially symbolic artifacts that
enable us to intercede in civilizing processes that deny the ethical fulfillment of the meaning of humanity. They speak out against passivity and exploitation. They conceive worlds of contestation in which the art of subversion ultimately reveals stunning truths that we try to avoid. . . . They pervade and invade our lives by telling us truths without telling us how to live those truths. (Zipes, Fairy Tales xiii).
Lynch says that he loves the film the Wizard of Oz because “there’s a certain amount of fear in the picture, as well as things to dream about. So, it seems truthful in a way” (Rodley 194). The Return, when considered as a fairy tale in which everything is real, raises the stakes of what happens. It is fantastical but truthful in the way it explores fear and trauma, and it is this truth that allows for a radical cultural transformation.
1. Since it is not clear who these characters truly are and because I argue that Laura Palmer/Carrie Page and Dale Cooper/Richard, as well as other doubled/split characters, are inextricably linked, I will use both names when relevant throughout this article.
2. Thompson built upon the work of Annti Aarne in the development of the Aarne-Thompson (now Aarne-Thompson-Uther) system of classification for folk and fairy tales.
3. Lynch has also made no secret of his love for the film The Wizard of Oz, even incorporating aspects of the story in his films like Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Regarding Wild at Heart, Lynch said, “I love the Wizard of Oz, and somewhere along the line it struck me that Sailor and Lula would be the kind of people that would embrace that kind of fairy tale and make it really cool” (Rodley 194). In the tradition of Baum, Lynch structures some of his cinematic storytelling using fairy tale motifs that contain happy endings, like in Wild at Heart, where in which Sailor and Lula find true love.
4. The Laura Palmer of the Red Room is correct in that she is both alive and dead. In one timeline, Laura Palmer is murdered, but Agent Cooper disrupts this in part 17 when he intervenes by going back in time to the [page 115] night of her murder and tries to rescue her. Instead of Cooper rescuing Laura, her body is whisked away in a similar manner to the Red Room Laura Palmer.
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MLA citation (print):
Stallings, Courtenay. "Twin Peaks: The Return as Subversive Fairy Tale." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 98-116.