Twin Peaks was always a puzzle that seemed to gain complexity with every episode. Its final two episodes stand among the densest of the series’ history, and rival many of David Lynch’s other complicated works. These final two episodes expand upon a concept that the franchise has toyed with since the very beginning: time travel. In the original series, we were introduced to a familiar chant—“Out of the darkness of future’s past.” In Fire Walk With Me, Annie Blackburn, who was trapped in the Black Lodge weeks in the future, appeared as a vision to Laura Palmer to leave clues about the doppelganger Cooper. In the novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, series co-creator Mark Frost creates dozens of continuity errors. This was done to introduce the concept of retconning - altering things that happened in the past and providing a new way of looking at old material. What we’re left with is a strange revelation: The Return is two seasons in one; both a third season and, in some ways, a fourth as well.
The first scene in Part 1 was in black and white—which we later learned was to indicate the scene took place a past time frame. When the scene returns to color, Cooper is with Mike, who asks him “Is this future? Or is it past?” Cooper goes on to have the same conversation with Mike again in Part 18, revealing that the first scene in Part 1 takes place in the unknown past and the second takes place in the now-established future. This is not a sudden sequence, but part of a larger canvas.
The original Twin Peaks series had one episode equaling one day in the investigation into who killed Laura Palmer. The Return does not quite operate in the same way. When Bobby and Hawk realize they must go to Jack Rabbit’s Palace in two days, it takes several episodes for us to return to that plot point. Days and nights do not line up in Twin Peaks and Las Vegas, despite being in the same time zone. The episodes are presented in such a way as to clue the audience in on the fact that time is off-kilter. Unfortunately, so is history.
During The Return, it gradually became clear that time and space were being manipulated in some way. First of all, Annie Blackburn was all but written out of continuity. Dougie Jones’ wedding ring somehow made it into the dead body of Major Garland Briggs. The Major's body is exactly as it was 25 years ago, not having aged a day. Despite Bobby Briggs remembering his father dying in a fire, the Major was also somehow lost in the multidimensional grid of the Lodges. In Part 7, the patrons at the diner change from shot to shot; only Shelly has the vaguest idea what just happened. Ed and Norma’s romance is rehashed. Once again, Nadine frees Ed, who proposes marriage to Norma, who gratefully accepts. Sarah Palmer watches the same thirty seconds of an old boxing match time and time again. Shelly has ditched her husband to shack up with Red, once again falling back on her cycle of being attracted to bad boys. Mr. C—Cooper’s evil doppelganger—makes it to Jack Rabbit’s Palace too early, and is launched into a future frame to make it to the destined fight with Freddy on time.
The time travel element allowed for the plot to be reshaped as needed. Gordon Cole and Albert Rosenfield had forgotten about their strange meeting with Philip Jeffries in Fire Walk With Me, only to become reminded of it as further strange events that thin the membrane between our world and the Lodges began to take place. In Part 17, the most noticeable retcon to that point is established: Briggs knew about a powerful, negative entity (ostensibly the Mother of Evil who we saw give birth to BOB in Part 8). He told Cole and Cooper about it. The entity’s name was translated over generations to the name Judy. Cole then also drops another bombshell: Philip Jeffries “doesn’t really exist anymore—at least not in the normal sense.” We saw Jeffries in Part 15 where he had been transformed into a giant tea kettle. Cole could not have known that, but Cooper (as of Part 18) did. Finally, he says that the last thing Cooper ever said to him was that if he disappeared, Cole needs to do everything that he can to find him. Cooper apparently even used the “two birds, one stone line,” which the Giant had said to him, in a version of the past that Cooper had not yet known about. Admittedly, these are plot conveniences brought on by time travel, though, at this point, very few in the audience would be aware of it. The retcons have existed for years, but only now are we beginning to understand what’s happening. Dale Cooper has been changing the past to affect the future.
When the real Cooper wakes up from his Dougie Jones coma, he has a plan formulated. All roads lead to Judy, and he has already figured out that Sarah Palmer has been taken over by the entity, hence Coop’s desire to go back in time and save Laura from being killed. Not only would he be able to stop Laura’s murder, but together, they could stop BOB and keep Judy from becoming attached to Sarah Palmer. These are implanted memories and information coming from another Cooper at another point in time, attempting undo the evil that the Mother and BOB have done. Instead, removing Laura from that moment in time also removed her from the Red Room 25 years later. That’s why she was ripped away in Part 1. She was lost in limbo and ended up living another life in Odessa, Texas (indeed, likely a nod to the unending odyssey Twin Peaks is) as Carrie Page (a clear reference to turning the page). Of course, Laura did not “die” again because, as we saw in Part 8, she was created in a distinct way and with a special purpose. At best, we can hope that her spirit can eventually rest, but that doesn’t seem likely. As Carrie, she doesn’t quite remember her life as Laura, though that certainly changes by the end of the episode.
Cooper and Diane travel together 430 miles into Texas, where they pass into another dimension. They become Richard and Linda, as the giant suggested esoterically back in Part 1. Diane sees herself at the door of the motel and is confused, if not somewhat disgusted. We’ll likely never know for sure, but the Diane we saw standing at the edge of the motel was a future Diane, working with Cooper to again change the past. Unfortunately for the Diane we traveled with, she believed she was Linda and left “Richard.” Of course, Cooper didn't become Richard because he had been through this electrical transportation before when he was stuck as Dougie Jones. However, something did change in Cooper. He became monotone and distant. He began to act with the single-mindedness of his doppelganger. That isn’t to say that Cooper was evil, but in traveling through electrical currents into different dimensions and time zones (which are now all subject to change) has possibly merged the different Coopers. Yes, he stopped those men from harassing the waitress, but his violent response was right out of Mr. C’s playbook.
In hindsight, The Return is a ledger of how Dale Cooper’s actions in the past were affecting the present-day world. It also highlights the importance of Laura Palmer; no matter what form she takes, she is important to the fight against evil. However, by the time we make it to the episode’s final minutes, we are actually at the beginning of the season all over again. As Mr. C said during his arm-wrestling match “Let’s return to our starting position.” Now, as Cooper and Carrie/Laura have come to understand, they are in the wrong time frame. By removing Laura Palmer from the equation, things changed. A small thing like the RR to Go simply being called the “RR” tells us something’s different, but then the real hammer falls. In the Palmer house, another family lives there. The Tremonds, who purchased the house of the Chalfonts. In Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me, the Tremond and Chalfont families were Lodge spirits. Alice Tremond's eyes darted back and forth from Laura/Carrie with a mix of fear and disdain. Here, the point is clear: without Laura, evil has greater lease on the world. In the closing moments of Part 18, we now know more than the characters; we’ve seen the changes that were made, and now we know how. Unfortunately, like Cooper and Carrie/Laura, we don’t know what happens in the end. However, there is one truly dark possibility.
In Part 18, Philip Jeffries reveals that the owl cave symbol is an altered infinity symbol. Perhaps Cooper finally remembered the awful thing that Laura Palmer whispered to him, and that’s why his legs buckled when the realization they were in the wrong year crashed like gravity: this was yet another prison Cooper was going to have to escape from, and he would be escaping from these prisons forever. It also makes his final, wistful goodbye evermore heartbreaking. “I hope I see you all again. Every one of you.”