The Continuing Education of Dale Cooper

In what is generally considered to be the worst Star Trek film of all time (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) there is one line that has always struck me as important even though it is overshadowed by the badness that is the rest of the script. In classic Captain Kirk confrontational style, Kirk admonishes Spock’s brother, Sybok, with a typically moralistic dressing down:

You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain.

We need our pain. It makes us who we are.

So, too, does Twin Peaks.

It might seem strange to compare the Star Trek universe with Twin Peaks but as William Shatner and Mark Frost seem to have no trouble whatsoever in blurring the lines between the two works, maybe we shouldn’t either. In light of The Return‘s bold finale, it seems more appropriate than ever to examine why the ending is so tragic, and your friendly 25YL correspondent believes that it’s because someone (*cough* Dale Cooper *cough*) has been trying to take away the pain of Laura’s death.


I’m certainly not the first to suggest that trauma is and has always been central to the stories at the heart of Twin Peaks. This has been fairly soundly established at this point, especially where it concerns the original series; the removal of Laura from the center of that narrative (by solving her murder) sends the entire show plummeting aimlessly towards its inevitable cancellation. Had they left the murder unsolved, and had the town been left to grieve her death while also committing all manner of sins against one another as if they’d learned nothing from it, I’m certain that we could have gotten a more compelling end to Season 2, and possibly even a Season 3, back in 1991. Like it or not, Laura’s trauma was what made Twin Peaks was it was.

giphyWhich brings me to Agent Cooper.

He was the one we followed into Twin Peaks back on February 24, 1989. He was our way of learning about the townspeople, their quirks, and the evil that lived in their woods. He was intuitive and idealistic, and he seemed like the stalwart hero we — and they — needed. But as we journeyed forward with him through Season 1 and Season 2, we saw him falter. We even saw him fail at the end; he faced the Lodge with imperfect courage and was imprisoned there. Even if it was only his bad side that escaped from the Lodge, for all intents and purposes, Agent Cooper was corrupted, utterly. And that was the tragedy of Season 2’s finale.

The prospect of meeting Coop again after a quarter century in forced purgatory was enticing. What would he have learned in his time there? What would he be like? Certainly twenty five years in a place like that would change a man. Could he ever be the same? We got our answer in Part 16 when Cooper awoke and, in fact, was the same — chipper, upbeat, assertive, a forceful agent of change who was totally in command of every part of his life. But it didn’t feel right that he would walk out of this hell unscathed by his time in there.

Apparently, what we know as viewers of the show is not what Special Agent Dale Cooper understands — or at least what he claims to understand. Twenty-five years on and Cooper seems to have learned little. Even after all this time, he is hell-bent on delivering Laura from her fate.

Cooper’s goal all along — from his under-rug-swept exculpation of Leland in Season 2 to his “Don’t take the ring” warning in Fire Walk With Me to his literal insertion into Laura’s life on the night of February 23, 1989 — has been to erase the reality of her earthly murder. He seems to think that if only he could keep Laura alive, he’d have done right by her. It’s as if death is the worst thing that he can imagine happening to her. Never mind the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her own father, or the psychological torment she went through at the hands of BOB; if only Laura were alive, Cooper could rest easy. Perhaps Laura could rest easy too; perhaps he think she would be happier. He cannot fathom how deep her trauma goes, or that it has roots in something other than the violence of her murder. He fundamentally misunderstands everything about her.

I have long thought that Agent Cooper suffered from White Knight Syndrome; this was partly because of my reading of his relationship with Caroline, with Annie, and his attraction to Audrey — all three were victims of something, and he believed he could save them. I also based this reading on Cooper’s Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life My Tapes (MLMT), in which this trend of needing to rescue damsels in distress is extended to his early years. The Return has solidified that for me. Agent Cooper absolutely views himself as a protector, a knight on the front lines in a battle between good and evil in the most black and white sense, and this is most obvious in his fundamentally misguided and ultimately harmful approach to the women in his life.

We know that Cooper was on some kind of long-term quest to find Jowday (Judy) because Gordon told us so. The side-quest to save Laura seems to be coming from within him in some capacity; perhaps it is, as Joel Bocko wrote, because Cooper possesses an “inability to see the humanity of women on their own terms rather than as vessels for his own guilt, chivalry, or desire.” He knows what’s best for them, and is going to do just that whether they want him to or not.

IMG_7990The problem is that, in a post-FWWM world, Laura does not need to be saved. She found her angel. She ascended. She did it of her own free will, on her terms, forcing BOB/Leland to kill her rather than possess her. She had two shitty options, and she chose the one she wanted. It was horrifying and gut-wrenching but it was the ending Laura chose, and that was the whole point.

What compounds this is that Cooper appears to think that if only he could take Laura home everything would be okay. He tries this in 1989, and is thwarted by forces beyond his ken when Laura is wrenched from the timeline and apparently deposited in another dimension, in Odessa, Texas as Carrie Page. He tries it again in this other dimension, this time subjecting Diane to revictimization in order to do this (which is a whole other topic). His motives are single-minded and wrong-headed. He must know that if he succeeds in bringing Laura to the Palmer house on the night of her murder, Laura will be safe from death but not from her abuser. And I’m not entirely sure what he expects would have happened had Carrie met Sarah: an ecstatic reunion? A showdown between the blinding-white light of goodness in Laura and the inky darkness inhabiting Sarah? I’m not even sure if this was part of the plan hatched by Gordon, Briggs, and him; it seems as though even Gordon has lost the plot of that story.

But it doesn’t matter — whether because of her survival in February 1989 or the actions of Sarah in the Twin Peaks timeline, the Twin Peaks Carrie and Richard return to is radically different from the Twin Peaks Cooper expects. There’s no road sign on the highway into town. The Double R is dark. And it’s not even Sarah Palmer who answers the door.

43E323A700000578-4849552-image-a-74_1504508433659Cooper is frustratingly confused about why this brilliant plan of his didn’t work out, but we could have told him why all along: you can’t change the past. But more than that, he didn’t actually go far enough in his goal of saving Laura, if that was his goal all along. He may have prevented her from dying that February night but he didn’t undo the years of abuse before that, or stop the abuse from continuing. As he asks the now infamous question “What year is this?”, Carrie hears bleed-through from the world Cooper remembers — the sound of Sarah calling her daughter down to breakfast on the morning her body was found — and screams. Does Carrie remember that life now? If she does, was it justified?

FWWM was Lynch in the world of Twin Peaks unfettered by network controls for the first time; I believe he made the movie he wanted to make in 1992. Now, of course he is free to revise his opinions of the film and the message he wants to send — the film is his creation; such is his privilege and right as creator to change it as he pleases — but I find it hard to believe that he would take the powerful ending of FWWM and subvert it in order to further inflict pain on his beloved Laura for no reason whatsoever, as my reading of this ending does. There must be some other reason.

Cooper’s guilt over not being able to save Laura in the first place is what leads him down twin-peaks-fire-walk-with-me-1108x0-c-defaultthis path. Laura found peace at the end of Fire Walk With Me; he was there to see it happen. But he thought he could do better; he thought he knew better. So he went back in time the first chance he got and screwed everything up. He loses Diane; he loses his friends in Twin Peaks; he loses out on the chance to be the hero in a very real way where he is most needed. Imagine all the ways Cooper could be of assistance in town? He’d clean up the drug trafficking issues, he’d figure out whatever was going on with Becky, he’d save Audrey…

Instead of doing that (and staying, as some have suggested, within the dream of Twin Peaks) Cooper — like us — attempted to go home again. But when he got there it was no home that he had ever known, and no home that Carrie had ever known. He revictimizes Laura her by dragging her back to the place of her greatest terror and forcing her to confront that terror head on. Why? It wasn’t because Laura wanted him to, that’s for sure; she was at peace. Cooper ruined that.

Some have suggested that the end of The Return mirrors a kind of video game, or maybe a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. I find this possibility extremely intriguing. Is it possible that Cooper managed to lose Laura and himself to the slipstreams of time in what could be an infinite loop the kind Philip Jeffries fell into and the one he might have been warning him about earlier in the finale?1 Is it possible that Cooper is now forced to play out various versions of events to their conclusions? We see him loop back to the Red Room as the end credits roll. Time is repeating itself. He’s back at the beginning. Starting position. Maybe he hasn’t left the Lodge yet after all. But maybe next time he’ll try something else. And maybe he’ll succeed.

It’s a sad ending of a different sort (turning Cooper into a tragic hero rather than a Romantic one, as many have wanted him to be from the start) but for me it offers a modicum of hope: if this is all some kind of grand Lodge simulation, then perhaps Cooper can learn the right sequence of events that will lead him to the right conclusion. He doesn’t have to undo Laura’s self-made salvation. He can grow out of his need to save her. Maybe he can start by recognizing that what (I think) she’s whispering to him is true: “You can’t save me.”

I’m not saying this is the only read of this situation. There are Buddhist readings and various Dream theories; there’s a read that suggests the ending is taking place in a pocket universe of Jowday’s creation, meant to keep Laura from fulfilling her destiny as initiated by The Fireman in Part 8; there are even positive readings, that insist that because the lights go out in the Palmer house at the end (and because the familiar Lynch/Frost logo at the end appears without that electricity buzz) it means that evil was vanquished after all. But in a season that dealt so much with trauma — Becky’s abusive relationship, the cycle of abuse in Shelly’s life, gory physical violence in Las Vegas, and the sexual assault of both Diane and Audrey — it’s hard not to see Carrie/Laura’s scream at the end as a message that the trauma is real. Even if everything we’ve seen is a dream, the trauma is real because we know it’s there, we saw it happen, and we remember it, and our minds are powerful things. Attempting to erase the trauma, no matter how pure our intentions are, is not helpful. In fact, in the end it may do more harm than good.

After all these years, maybe Dale Cooper should know that. Maybe the fact that he doesn’t seem to know, and that he appears as rootless and drifting as smoke from a fire as he stands in front of the Palmer house, tells us something about where he is on his journey. He’s still learning. He still has miles to go. It is why I’m both grieving and celebrating the finale. I never thought Agent Cooper was a superhero; I had faith that he was wiser than this. Maybe given the way this ends, there’s room to hope that he will, eventually, learn what he needs to.


Eileen and I chatted about this at length the night of the finale and something she said stuck out. “Perhaps all these years we’ve been seeing Agent Cooper as a piece on a chess board, but we all thought he was the bishop or the knight. In reality he was just a pawn.” I quite like that summation. Pawns are still important pieces. They have a purpose on the board. With luck and perseverance, they could make it all the way to its opponent’s end and be promoted; they could even become the Queen, the most powerful piece on the entire board.

But they can never become the King, the most important piece.

tumblr_or83juj3YH1s39hlao10_1280Dale was never the most important piece in this puzzle; that grace, that curse, always belonged to Laura Palmer. But in his wild machinations, and because he was never as good at chess as the people he was playing against, he misjudged everything. He took away what he thought was the source of Laura’s pain and suffering — something she had managed to fix for herself at the end of FWWM and which she may have shown him was no longer troubling her (when she removed her face to show the blinding enlightenment within her) — and in the process wrote them both into a terrible corner.

I hope this is just one version of the ending, and that there’s a version out there wherein Our Special Agent has figured out what he really needs to do, which is to acknowledge the trauma and suffering of the people he loves (himself included) and to live through it, instead of wishing he could go back in time and erase it.

I still love Dale Cooper. But I reserve the right to be a little disappointed in him at the moment, and to feel the pain of his mistake.

After all, Kirk says we need our pain.

(For an in-depth examination of trauma as it relates to Laura’s Lodge situation specifically, check out John Bernardy’s Electricity Nexus: Cooper’s Time Loop Isn’t Just His)


This requires an assumption on my part: I do believe Jeffries was offering a warning, and that it’s possible The Fireman was as well. “430”, “Richard and Linda”, and “two birds with one stone” could conceivably be portents of doom that Cooper should avoid rather than clues to lead him to his goal. Cooper claims to have understood the intent behind The Fireman’s words, but I wonder if he did.

25 Replies to “The Continuing Education of Dale Cooper”

  1. I think Cooper succeeded in the end because he is not only an agent of the FBI in the 3 season – The Return. He is also agent of White Lodge. White Lodge created a pocket universe to lure Judy in it. The scream of Laura in the end wiped out Judy and the pocket universe with it. Dale Cooper thought he was lost in the end,but Judy lost in the end because Laura and Cooper won the “battle”.

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    1. I think this is true. I think it’s also why people dislike the Autobiography. It makes Cooper into a flawed individual when people really want to see him as perfect. He’s not. He never was. But even he has bought into his own myth, and now he’s paying the price for it. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but in my opinion it makes for a vastly more interesting character in the end…

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  2. Well expressed, as always. But I do think that such readings require the assumption, as you noted in your postscript, that this was essentially all Cooper’s idea, not the Fireman’s, not that of the White Lodge. At the very start of this season, we see the Fireman talking to him, and Cooper saying, “I understand.” In Episode 18, we see a repeat (I think to remind the viewer, not because it is some kind of repeating loop), of what the Fireman tells him about 430, Richard and Linda, two birds with one stone. I know that you and some other respected TP analysts have chosen to see this not as a direction, but a warning; but I think that this requires a stretch. If he doesn’t want Cooper to try to do any of this, why tell him exactly where the portal is? I read it as the Fireman telling Cooper where to find it; and also warning him that it will take him to an alternate world, where identities will change. That “inoculation” is to me the reason why Cooper does not become Richard in totality, but keeps his memories and his mission. And “two birds with one stone” is what Cole tells his team that Cooper told him he wanted to accomplish. When the Fireman repeats the phrase, in his usual portentous tones; it doesn’t seem that he’s actually telling Cooper not to try to accomplish it. Even allowing for otherworldy impenetrability, one would think that the Fireman would have a more effective way of telling Cooper not to do any of this.

    And I think this is crucial, because IF it is the Fireman’s instructions to Cooper, then this takes Cooper out of the realm of “doomed romantic hero,” or “flawed knight errant,” and it leads to a more positive interpretation of the admittedly ambiguous ending. Unless Lynch is saying that the White Lodtge is flawed, and that their plan was a bad idea? If so, then you’ve really got a dark ending. Since the Fireman, along with Senorita Dido, was shown to actually create Laura Palmer as the antidote to evil (the mystically attuned Log Lady echoes this when she tells Hawk that “Laura is The One”), I am inclined to think that he is doing the right cosmological thing, and that Cooper of course is going to follow his mandate. And one final thought: if Laura is simply the tragically abused and tormented girl of Seasons 1 and 2, that is one thing; if she is actually the entity created and sent down to Earth to contest pure evil, then saving her in this fashion becomes more explicable and even imperative for Cooper to try to do. In that reading, waking her up is in one sense horrifying, but in another sense, the necessary event to defeat Judy and evil. If one wants to blame anyone, blame the writers for changing the stakes in this season–but I personally like that they did so.

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  3. Well thought out and nicely done. I also want to hope the ending was uplifting and a victory, but it seems so bleak and horrifying. The beauty of what Lynch/Frost did is that in some ways, every theory is potentially right. One small nitpick: The line from Cooper was “What year is this,” not “What year is it.”

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    1. Darn! I thought I fixed that little mistake! 😛 Thanks for pointing it out!

      I think there is a way to read it as positive. It just takes a little work…and our Special Agent has to be put through the ringer a bit first.

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  4. I don’t know. You’re awfully hard on Coop and seem to blame him for all the feminine horror going on in Twin Peaks. You paint him with a misogynistic wide brush and I do not buy it…at all!! As I started towards your wrap up of your thoughts you seem to go through all the mistreatment of even more of the girls/women in our story.
    As I’m reading I’m thinking, Damn, hold on here. Coop is a man trying to do his job as an agent of the F B I. I don’t believe he was only on his own personal quest. He has instructions to follow. We may have not SEEN or HEARD Gordon lay down specific paths to follow but as I said he is under the thumb of the bureau. He not some rogue cowboy out there with his six shooters a blaze! You may see him as that and I believe it’s a purely feminist viewpoint and interpretation of his actions that you are pushing. I almost felt some proselytizing flowing from your brain and I ain’t buying it, not even close!!!

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    1. Calm down triggered. Cooper forced Laura to relive her trauma in the end. Unfortunately Twin Peaks is a very feminist show about the trauma inflicted on women by men & their inability to learn from their mistakes thus continuing the cycle of trauma.

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      1. I like your comment! However, triggered possibly but still you seemed to tie him into every ‘unnatural’ occurrence against women/girls in Twin Peaks all 3 seasons. I simply disagree!!

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      2. Wait a minute. Judy… so you didn’t write the article that’s in my question. Is this JOWDAY?? If so your scaring me!!
        Well, kinda…

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      3. Hey katsync! I wrote the article, not Judy—she was just commenting here. I think you’ve misread my article entirely—I’m not at all blaming Cooper for anything except the decisions he makes after getting out of the Lodge, which may or may not have retraumatized Laura by forcing her back to the scene of the horrific abuse she suffered (whether in another life that she becomes privy to at the end, or whether in some repressed memory she didn’t have access to until right before she screamed, or whatever.) I feel as though Cooper was misguided in thinking he could save Laura; I believe that she managed to save herself at the end of FWWM and so any action by Cooper now risks undoing that for her specifically. Bringing in examples of other types of trauma seen in The Return was only to underscore that trauma (specifically female trauma perpetrated by male actions) is rampant and I believe Lynch/Frost are trying to call attention to it. I do not believe Cooper is responsible for all of the bad things that happened to every woman in The Return.

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      4. Dear Lindsay, thank you! I wasn’t trying to ‘stir’ anything up but that’s how I reacted to your article, strongly. I appreciate your comments on my comment! I read it 1 & 1/2 times so I wouldn’t fly off the handle. My first reaction was a bit more caustic. You certainly are a accomplished writer and I do respect your take. It’s just not mine and that is what this is all about! Thanks for your thoughts…

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      5. Absolutely, katsync! It would be a boring world if we all agreed with one another, wouldn’t it? 😉 I’m really proud to be a part of a community that is mostly very respectful. Other fandoms devolve so quickly into nastiness but that’s not the case here, at all! So thanks for commenting.

        Do you have a favourite theory about the finale and what it means?

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      6. Thanks Lindsay,
        I really like David Auerbach’s theory as posted on Waggish site!
        I’ve read his writing 4 times to digest and this one makes most sense to me. Of course we are doing as L/F would like in that we are seeking theories that fit our personal sensibility dictated by our own history of life. The ‘baggage’ we carry, if you will. This is so much fun and brings joy to me and I’ll bet many. I love reading others thoughts b/c I learn so much more about not only writing but about the human behaviors behind the thoughts! Thanks for being so kind and understanding about my strong reaction to your text! You’re a ‘cool’ woman, Lindsay and I like your picture… katsync = (Rich)

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  5. what bothered me wasn’t that Cooper wasn’t the knight i thought he was, but that suddenly he was supposed to be after a completely unrealistic goal. since when was he trying to bring someone literally back from the dead? there were so many suddenly convenient reveals in the last two episodes and Cooper being given this wildly cosmic quest was one of them. Gordon Cole suddenly knowing all kinds of pertinent information that would have helped from the beginning was another. we were suddenly dropped into a combination of the X Files and Donnie Darko and none of it felt congruent with the rest of the Twin Peaks world.

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  6. In strong agreement with you, Lindsay. What I find a baffling about positive readings like the pocket universe theory is their blindness to the tone of the ending and themes developed throughout the show. The pocket universe makes a degree of sense in terms of plot – you can superimpose the causal chain without going through too many mental gymnastics – but it doesn’t feel at home. A non-trivial point when you’re dealing with a creator like Lynch, *who is all about feeling and tone*.

    The primary objection to what you’ve written, the thought that it denies the agency of powerful supernatural characters, misses the point that TR isn’t reality. It’s a story about a man and his private pain. Seen through that lens season 3 starts to make sense in a way that all the plot mining in the world can’t complete with, because concrete plot details and story-facts are hard to come by. Conversely the themes, ideas and tones of the show are right there in front of us, waiting for us to take notice.

    I dunno… it’s a funny thing the way we struggle to think of TP as allegorical and figurative. If I were talking about it in a lit class no-one would bat an eyelid if I said the show was about Dale, and, in some important ways, his interior experience. Say that in fandom and people automatically literalise the idea and make it about dream v reality, and then reject it on the grounds that they hate the thought that it all might be a dream, as if they were the only options on the table.

    Sorry, got a bit ranty there. Made it about me. Great post.

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    1. Totally 100% agree. It’s going to be interesting to rewatch the series again with the end in mind because, like you said, the themes and ideas were there all along. It’s just now we know what to look for. So I deeply suspect that themes of fatherhood, themes of abuse and trauma, and other themes maybe that we haven’t picked up on, will stand out more and resonate differently in light of the finale. (Already looking forward to picking apart Audrey’s scenes to see if they have any more heft now that we know where Dale’s story leads…)

      I’ve been blindsided by some of the fan reactions to this show for the exact reasons you mention as well. Maybe it’s because I come at literary criticism from a different, non-fandom place (though I totally have my fandom moments!) but I think you’re also 100% right that this sort of allegorical/metaphorical wouldn’t trouble a first-year lit major, but it sends some people in the fandom into a tizzy. Why is that? I feel like I want to study fandom now because of this experience. It’s been fascinating.

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      1. Someone has to do it if they haven’t already.

        It will be fascinating to go back through, yeah. I plan (starting today) to do a series on mini-podcasts for our Patreon channel where I look at how the themes and the ideas of the show are developed, amongst other things.

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  7. “You are far away.”

    It’s very tempting to read this as a REPLY to “I understand.”

    “It is in our house now.”
    “It is?” (looking very upset – would be interesting if guilt-ridden)

    Coop isn’t a superhero. We’ll leave that to Freddy. Coop is a guy, fighting to good fight – but he doesn’t have all the answers. And sometimes, when he chooses the wrong path, the results can be catastrophic. As they can for any of us.

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