So much has been said about Part 8 of The Return that it scarcely seems possible to introduce new ideas about what has to be one of the defining TV moments of 2017. Fans have spent a lot of time debating the finer points of the White Sands atomic blast sequence and what that means for the mythology of the show, and many have had trouble reconciling the dramatic creation of Laura’s golden orb with what we know about Laura’s story. Specifically, what does it mean that Laura was apparently created and sent to Earth by The Fireman?
The apparent creation of Laura’s orb in Part 8 immediately follows The Fireman’s acknowledgment of BOB’s apparent creation via the atomic blast. It’s not a stretch to read this scene in this way: The Fireman watches the creation of BOB, and he creates Laura in direct response to it. Laura is the antidote, the solution to the problem, the One. And The Fireman is literally putting out the fire. It seems pretty straightforward.
And that’s all well-and-good if you don’t take into account the events of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which suggest that Laura made a conscious choice to die in the train car rather than to allow herself to be possessed by BOB. If Laura was created and sent to Earth with a purpose, and that purpose was for her to defeat BOB, it introduces an element of predestiny that robs her final act of much of its power. Because the moment it’s made clear that Laura was always predestined to defeat BOB, she’s not so much making a choice to allow him to kill her as she is submitting to the plan that was in place long before she was even born.
This would seem to be anathema to the story that David Lynch was so keen to tell. Fire Walk With Me, he said, was integral to the experience of The Return. Why would he tell us this only to subvert the message in his own film? Simply put, I don’t believe he has. I think it is possible to view The Fireman’s actions as something less powerful than outright creation.
I was one of the fans deeply disturbed by the implications of Laura’s golden orb creation in Part 8. As beautiful and moving as it was to see this moment play out against the backdrop of that splendid theatre with its gorgeous and evocative set pieces, in beautifully rich black and white, and with that soaring Badalamenti original score backing it, I felt troubled at the notion that Laura had no choice but to sacrifice herself to rid the world of BOB. It broke my heart to think that she was being forced into that position as such a young and troubled girl.
Plus, knowing what we know of the rest of Season 2, Laura isn’t even successful — BOB is not destroyed. He kills Maddy before leaving Leland and eventually inhabits Agent Cooper, and spends the next 25 years wreaking havoc in the world. So not only did she have no choice in the matter, she failed in her task. It all seemed to elevate the supernatural power of BOB (and, now, possibly the Experiment as well) over the very human story of Laura Palmer, which has always been central to the story of Twin Peaks, and which is a story that is, crucially, allowed to come to a conclusion in Fire Walk With Me.
The power of Laura’s final scene lay in her choice to allow herself to be killed rather than possessed by BOB, which is when she recovers her angel. Laura Palmer, lost and confused and scared and traumatised, has no idea that she was created to defeat BOB, if that’s indeed what The Fireman’s scene in Part 8 is showing us. Laura has to be an ordinary girl thrust into extraordinary and terrible circumstances. In the midst of the awful life she is living, she has to rise above and find her angel. And it has to be a situation that she encounters and rises above of her own volition. Any other version of that story would ring hollow and false.
The Final Dossier added another disturbing layer to Laura’s story with the sudden implication that Leland and Sarah were the modern-day incarnations of ancient Babylonian demons whose union would destroy the world. It was easy to extrapolate from this that Laura, as the product of their union, could be this world-destroying entity.
This was a shocking change to Laura’s tale. Some have pointed out that this came from within a work of fiction solely authored by Mark Frost and with no input from David Lynch. But the fact that one of the show’s co-creators had this in mind gave many of us pause. Was this part of Laura’s backstory all along? Was this format simply the best way to explore it, and is that why we hadn’t heard it until now? And what did that mean for Laura?
As the story unfolded and we were left to put the pieces together in a way that made sense to us, I found myself questioning The Fireman’s actions. For one, I didn’t like the interference in Laura’s story, which I felt was totally finished and complete. It was disturbing to imagine that Laura had zero power at all. I had to believe that the Laura we saw was more than just the product of prophecy, destined for a horrible fate.
So I turned to my favourite 17th century fairy tale for answers.
A Fairy Tale Beginning
The story of Sleeping Beauty is based on a number of folk tales that originate as early as the 14th century. The version we’re most familiar with was written by Charles Perrault and collected by The Brothers Grimm, and was famously made into an animated film classic in 1959 by Walt Disney. The basic elements of the story are as follows: a King and Queen who long for a child are finally made parents to a beautiful daughter, who is given gifts upon her christening from an assortment of fairies/wise women. At the same time, she is cursed by a bitter old fairy who had long been forgotten by the people of the kingdom. The curse says that the Princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall dead. The last good fairy in attendance, who had not yet given her gift to the Princess, uses her magic to undo as much of the evil in the curse as possible, changing the prophecy so that the Princess will not die but merely fall into a 100 year-long sleep instead, to be awoken by the kiss of a King’s son. When the evil prophecy comes to pass, the good fairy’s alteration of the curse is set into motion, and after 100 years, a Prince awakens the Princess, the two are married, and they all live happily ever after.
This is one of my favourite fairy tales, and the Disney film is by far my favourite animated film ever. I watch the film regularly, enchanted by the Renaissance-inspired art design of background painter Eyvind Earle, and it was during one of these recent rewatches of Sleeping Beauty when I found myself drawing parallels between the actions of the good fairy (named, coincidentally, Meriweather in the Disney film) and The Fireman in Twin Peaks.
It has always seemed as though the character we used to know as The Giant was working within some kind of paradigm that didn’t allow him to directly interfere with the goings on in the mortal world. As far back as the Season 2 opener, when we first meet The Giant/The Fireman in Agent Cooper’s hotel room, he is merely a guiding force, giving clues to Agent Cooper in the hope that he would be able to “break the code” and “solve the crime” on his own. Unlike other entities we see from the Black Lodge/Red Room scenes, like MIKE/Philip Gerard or BOB, The Fireman’s influence is indirect, suggested; he does not seem able to physically act on elements in the real world in order to affect change, but can only suggest clues and hope for the best. Even at his most insistent — such as in the finale episodes of Season 2, when he attempts to warn Agent Cooper about Annie’s participation in the Miss Twin Peaks Pageant — he is largely ineffective, reduced to frantic, non-verbal gestures. Surely if he were some omnipotent Lodge dweller, he would be able to do more than stand on stage and wave his arms around, or mutter riddles to a dying FBI Agent, especially if lives were at stake, as Maddy’s clearly was in the first half of Season 2. But there is nothing about The Fireman in these early episodes to suggest that he is capable of any more than this.
Not much appears to have changed in the intervening twenty five years. The first glimpse we get of The Fireman in The Return brings us right back to Season 2 Episode 1, with another three clues given to Agent Cooper in the opening minutes. It’s incoherent, nonsensical to us until the last hour of the show, even if Agent Cooper appears to understand him. He summons Andy late in Season 3 but shows little more than a slideshow to the bewildered sheriff’s deputy; Andy must make sense of what he sees on his own, much like Agent Cooper did earlier. Even at his most active, he is still merely redirecting Mr. C from one location to another and allowing mortal humans to do the rest. This seems to be the best that The Fireman can offer. He doesn’t so much act on the world as nudge people towards action themselves, giving them everything they need to succeed if they so desire.
In this vein, some have suggested that The Fireman is a balancing agent in the world. When great evil is present, it’s his job to tip the scales back to equilibrium. So when we see The Fireman in Part 8, I have to wonder if he’s doing the same thing: nudging events towards a conclusion rather than directly causing events to happen. Maybe he didn’t create Laura whole cloth.
Presupposing that all of this is true, it’s possible to recast The Fireman’s actions in Part 8:
Upon witnessing the birth of evil resulting from the White Sands nuclear test, The Fireman knows that an ancient prophecy is unfolding. He even knows when and where and with whom the prophecy will involve. He knows that what he’s seeing will cause great destruction and devastation, and out of his desire to provide balance, he knows he must act.
Perhaps The Fireman also knows that altering the past the way Cooper later did is not the answer. Creating an all-powerful Laura may have only spurred BOB and Jowday to try again, perhaps via another timeline or pocket universe. But it’s not as if this is his preferred method anyway; The Fireman takes a subtler approach.
Maybe, like Sleeping Beauty‘s Meriweather, The Fireman simply alters the prophecy, rather than trying to overwrite it. He could do this by imbuing something of himself into Laura Palmer, bringing her into balance with the evil side of herself that was brought into creation by the original prophecy. Maybe, rather than being wholly evil and destined to destroy the Earth, Laura is given golden goodness, a soul capable of acts of human kindness, the ability to choose destruction or salvation.
In doing so, The Fireman introduced the notion of uncertainty into a planned prophecy. BOB and Jowday would have been none the wiser. And Laura would have still had choices to make along the way, and every opportunity to assert her humanity in the face of monstrous circumstances. Her power would still lie in overcoming the tragedy of her birth and the life she was leading, against these new and daunting odds. Her final act in Fire Walk With Me wouldn’t feel like such a foregone conclusion because the choice would still ultimately be hers.