Cowboys and Supermen – American Heroism in The Return

America is a fascinating place for a multitude of reasons. For artists and storytellers, one of the most interesting aspects of this diverse and contrasting country is that it has such a strong sense of identity and a powerful narrative about its position in the world. A key component of that fundamental American story is an unwavering sense of good and evil, right and wrong, and a belief that these two sides are locked in a struggle for dominance.

Ringo Kid cowboy movie

This cultural backdrop has led to the development of powerful modern mythologies within American culture – tales of heroes and villains, in which foes are vanquished and the forces of justice prevail against the odds. Western films, which were the most popular genre of cinema for much of the 20th Century, perfectly embodied this world of romanticised honour and justice, delivering morality tales in which ‘white hat’ heroes rescue damsels from the ‘black hat’ bad guys.

While interest in cowboys waned in the 1950s, a new form of hero story was in ascendance, as superhero comics captured the national imagination. Characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America inhabited a world where powerful good guys triumphed over their villainous enemies, saving the world in glorious full-colour frames, week after week.

Sonny Jim's bedroom wallpaper features cowboy motifs

Both these all-American hero figures feature prominently in The Return. Dougie-Cooper becomes obsessed with a bronze statue of a straight-shooting cowboy outside Lucky 7 Insurance. His pseudo-son, Sonny Jim, has an anachronistic cowboy-themed bedroom (thanks to Eileen G. Mykkels for this tip!). Later in the series, Freddie Sykes regales James Hurley with a superhero origin story straight out of the Marvel universe, explaining how a chance encounter led him to a magical green glove that gives him superhuman powers of strength. Freddie’s ultimate confrontation with BOB seems as overblown and cartoonish as the final battle in any number of pulp comics.

On the threshold between these two eras – the heyday of the cowboy and the age of the superhero – America’s own story also entered a new chapter. In 1945, after the Trinity bomb test – an event which Lynch and Frost placed at the heart of their 18-hour story – American foreign policy found a new direction as the country took an increasingly active role on the world stage. It was the birth of the Cold War and a new political narrative in the US, which now projected its ‘good vs evil’ paradigm outwards onto the rest of the world. Communism was an evil that had to be resisted by forces for good. America was that heroic force – using strength and bravery to rescue the world from great peril. This powerful foreign policy narrative survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s by replacing International Communism with International Terrorism – enabling America to continue in its role as the hero, saving the world from a new enemy.

The Trinity bomb explosion

It is interesting, especially in Lynchian terms, that the United States refers to its national ethos as ‘the American Dream’. Dreams are a highly charged concept in Lynch’s works – a truly double-edged sword. They sometimes hearken a truth, as Audrey tells us in The Return. They can also be a valuable source of intuitive insight, as with Cooper’s dream in the first season of Twin Peaks. But often, as in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, dreams are portrayed as unsustainable, idealised escapes from reality – fictional narratives too big, bright and bold to survive scrutiny in the cold light of day. From within, from the perspective of the dreamer, the fantasy can be completely convincing, but for those who are awake, outside the dream, the comforting illusion is replaced by a contrasting and often uncomfortable reality. In Cole’s dream, Monica Bellucci asks “Who is the dreamer?” What if the answer is America? What if America is, to use the ancient phrase, “the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream”? What if the dream is the American Dream? What would that mean?

Captain America cartoon strip

The story of these all-American heroes, these cowboys and supermen, and their place in popular culture is actually quite Lynchian in structure, reminiscent in some ways of Mulholland Drive. Each begins with a period of idealism, in which their stories are presented as occurring in a simplified world of comfortable moral absolutes. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad and the good guys always win. But as time passes, this dream narrative appears to become unsustainable and reality begins to creep in at the edges, threatening the fragile fiction. The stories become less clear-cut and increasingly murky, until the dream collapses in on itself and the divide between good and evil is blurred beyond all recognition.

Funeral scene of a Western film with cowboys

The image of the cowboy, once a pure expression of American spirit, boldness and honour, was reconsidered and revised in later American movies like The Searchers and ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, which were produced outside the US. In these more nuanced takes on the genre, cowboys were presented as ambiguous, morally ambivalent figures rather than simplistic ‘white hat’ caricatures. The new Westerns shed the idealised absolutes of earlier films and began to wrestle with uncomfortable moral and social issues around the brutal war with the Native Americans, the racism of the time and the selfish, greedy aspects of the frontier life.

Comedian from Watchmen comic strip

Within the superhero genre, there was a similar ‘coming of age’ as comics like The Watchmen and The Dark Knight recast superheroes as morally complex, psychologically broken and often barely distinguishable from their foes. Their world was no longer one that could easily be divided into ‘goodies and baddies’. Their methods of solving problems – confrontation and fighting – were portrayed as inadequate in the face of genuine social challenges. These new tales put superheroes into something much closer to the real world and asked how the public would actually react to them. Would people thank them or fear them for their uninvited vigilante interventions? Did the world actually need to be saved by these overblown, borderline-Fascist characters?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that images of cowboys and superheroes are prominently featured in The Return. I think Lynch and Frost wove them into the fabric of their tale for good reason. I think they have something to say about the concept of heroes. But before we get into that, let’s have a musical interlude…

David Bowie, Heroes, album cover

Although he sadly died before he was able to film any material for The Return, David Bowie’s character Philip Jeffries remained a powerful presence in the series. A flashback to his iconic Fire Walk With Me scene was incorporated to great effect in the ‘Monica Bellucci dream’ sequence and his character continued to have a key role in shaping the plot. Many viewers commented on the fact that Dougie-Cooper’s cowboy statue bore more than a passing resemblance to the legendary performer.

In 1977, Bowie released the album “Heroes”. In a wonderfully weird twist, the title track is actually incredibly Lynchian in its structure – presenting a dream image and a reality that are completely discordant. The quotation marks around the title are the first clue to the ironic undercurrent flowing through the song. The imagery of the first verse is completely overblown, implying a fairy tale flight of fantasy rather than an achievable goal: “I, I will be king and you, you will be queen”. This is reminiscent of the hyper-idealised images of the ‘white hat’ cowboy and the morally absolute heroes of early comic books. The second verse represents a reversal, immediately undermining what went before, as ugly reality breaks into the fantasy bubble: “You, you can be mean, and I, I’ll drink all the time”. This is the same process of ‘hero-revision’ that redefined the images of cowboys and superheroes – all compressed to fit a six-minute pop song.

So, what is going on here? What is happening to our perception of heroes? What makes their images erode and collapse over time? What does it mean for The Return? And, perhaps more profoundly, what does it mean for America?

Batman carries a body draped in the American flag

Hero myths are undoubtedly powerful and appealing – we all want to believe that good will prevail over evil. That idea of justice is important to us. But over time, it seems like the oversimplifications present in hero myths lead to a dissent, a period of questioning. Can the world really be divided in to ‘good’ and ‘evil’? Who appointed these guys judge, jury and executioner? Who asked them to save us? Do we even need to be saved? This questioning seems to have the power to undermine and ultimately dissolve the myth, revealing it as a fragile falsehood masking an ugly truth. These heroes are actually often amoral, violent and only thinly separated from the villains they claim to combat. Their methods – fighting, overpowering and killing – are the same aggressive actions of which their enemies are guilty. And these ‘blunt instrument’ techniques are completely ineffective against problems of a social, emotional or spiritual nature. Just look at how powerless and confused heroic cop Bobby Briggs becomes in the face of the panic and sickness outside the Double R Diner.

Bobby Briggs looks horrified at a sick girl in a car

Fictional heroes – cowboys, superheroes, cops and even FBI agents – are powerful expressions of individualism – ‘one man against the odds’ – but many problems need a collective, collaborative solution. Mythical heroes deal in terms of domination, rescue and conquest. But often, overcoming real world challenges requires understanding, communication, and reconciliation. Heroes obviously have their place – catching villains, defeating dragons, saving damsels. But they are not the right tool for dealing with complex problems. Complicated situations cannot be resolved by punching a boogie-man to bits with a green glove. Many times, the world does not need to be saved. Often, heroes are redundant.

And this is, I think, why hero archetypes feature prominently in The Return. While the events of the final two episodes are profoundly ambiguous, it does seem like they have something to say about the concept of heroism. It feels like Lynch and Frost may have reassessed their own hero – clean-cut FBI agent Dale Cooper – and found him wanting. Like the cowboys and superheroes before him, his myth is unsustainable. He cannot untangle the complex situation in which he finds himself. It feels like Cooper’s misguided drive to ‘save the girl and kill the baddies’ leads to an ending that is far from triumphant.

Cooper raises his gun in Judy's diner Odessa

In the final chapters of The Return, Cooper appears well-meaning but more and more lost as he approaches the end of his journey. He never seems to consider the possibility that Laura is not ‘in distress’ and might not need to be saved or that his intervention could potentially make the situation worse. During his final quest to take Laura back to Twin Peaks, the FBI agent’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and ambiguous. As he absent-mindedly waves a gun at a frightened waitress after overpowering three cowboys, the image of the peppy, clean-cut hero we met in 1990 slips further and further out of focus. Throughout these final scenes, it is like we are watching Cooper’s hero myth collapse in real time. (Lindsay Stamhuis points out that the cowboys he defeats at Judy’s are all wearing white hats as they intimidate and harass the waitress – another sign that mythology is warping and disintegrating before our eyes.)

The Return contains many elements of overt social commentary. From Dr Amp’s rants to the gentle tension between corporate expansion and family values at the RR Diner, it seems the creators have something to say about modern American culture. And perhaps this exploration of heroism also has something to say about the USA, a country whose identity is so tightly entwined with a hero narrative. Perhaps it suggests Cooper’s mistakes are America’s mistakes. Perhaps it implies the country needs to rethink its role as the world’s hero and consider whether a different, more nuanced narrative would be more fruitful in this complicated modern era. Perhaps the American Dream, like any other, looks different from the outside and risks collapsing if it becomes too far removed from reality.

Written by Mat Cult

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