Over the course of Cops ‘N Killers Month at Nightmare on Film Street, we’ve checked in with a number of world-weary, cynical law enforcers whose hearts have been hardened by the horrors of the job. These callous veterans have little faith in their fellow man and are usually only able find solace in a bottle of whiskey. Today, we’re going to look at a different type of detective. One whose beverage of choice is coffee. He’s seen just as much horror and tragedy as his hardbitten counterparts but he remains steadfast in his belief in the goodness of mankind and life’s simple pleasures. I’m of course talking about FBI Special Agent Dale Bartholomew Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the breakout character of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series, Twin Peaks.
The world was introduced to Cooper in the 1990 Twin Peaks pilot where he comes to the titular town to investigate the murder of high school senior and beloved town figure Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). It was clear from that episode that he was a different kind of FBI agent and detective then what audiences were used to. He was respectful of the local law enforcement, in awe of the small town, had a habit for dictating notes on a personal cassette recorder, and drinking a cup of coffee was practically a religious experience for him. As the show unfolded, we learned more of his eccentricities, like the way dream interpretations influenced his deductions and his penchant for giving himself presents.
“Special Agent Dale Cooper maintained his positive outlook in the face of mounting horrors”
Special Agent Dale Cooper maintained his positive outlook in the face of mounting horrors. Learning about the seedy underbelly of Twin Peaks and the horrific abuse Laura Palmer endured at the hands of her father could have jaded him. It didn’t though. He rarely lost his cool and met the many challenges he faced with professionalism, empathy, and kindness.
Cooper had also confronted quite a bit of darkness before he came to Twin Peaks. Perhaps the darkest chapter of his life was his doomed romance with the wife of his murderous ex-partner, Windom Earle (Kenneth Walsh). Earle murdered his wife, tried to kill Coop, and was later institutionalized. We learn the basics of that relationship in season two where Earle becomes a major villain. That dynamic and some of the other dark chapters in Cooper’s early life are further fleshed out in Scott Frost’s official Twin Peaks tie-in novel, The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life My Tapes.
Cooper’s sunny perspective was a choice, and a powerful one. He refused to let what he saw and endured change him even when it was perfectly understandable for him to become cynical or angry. That choice becomes even more profound when you factor in all the supernatural forces he confronted in season two and the 2017 Showtime revival Twin Peaks: The Return. In those seasons, he came face to face with the type of cosmic horror that would shatter the sanity of a Lovecraft protagonist, but he weathered those supernatural encounters and held onto his humanity.
As a viewer, I respected and admired Coop’s perspective, but when I first watched Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Return I didn’t understand it. Originally, I thought both shows had such downer endings. The original series ends with the real Cooper trapped in the otherworldly Black Lodge while his doppelgänger, which was possessed by the malevolent entity known as Bob, rampaged in the real world. The Return had an ending that felt like an even bigger middle finger to fans. That’s because in the penultimate episode Cooper finally wakes up in the real world and scores what seems to be a decisive victory against Bob by altering time so that the murder of Laura Palmer never happened. The finale seemingly undoes that because it leaves Cooper and a woman that might be Laura trapped in a different world, possibly lost in time.
“Cooper’s sunny perspective was a choice, and a powerful one. He refused to let what he saw and endured change him…”
My opinion on the original series softened a little bit after a couple of viewings of the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me because the final scene has Coop comforting a seemingly at peace Laura Palmer within the confines of the Black Lodge. To me, that scene just makes Cooper even more heroic. He sacrificed his soul to help comfort a woman who had endured horrific trauma. My opinion on the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return (and really the series as a whole) changed dramatically though when I read this Vox piece by Emily VanDerWerff. She found The Return to be an incredibly hopeful series and after reading her article I did too.
In the piece, VanDerWerff argues that the whole point of Twin Peaks was never to provide answers to its many mysteries. Answering questions on the show was like cutting off the head of a Hydra; once you did, several more immediately took its place. Neither was it to provide some sense of legal or cosmic justice. When a victory was won against evil forces they always seemed to return bigger and badder than ever. And when you tried to undo a horrific incident as Coop did, you run the risk of turning the world into a darker and more dangerous place. Plus, if you just focus on the epic struggle of good versus evil you miss some of the wondrous things that happen along the way. They may seem small, but the fact that they happen at all in a world racked by injustice and malevolent entities is miraculous. VanDerWerff points out that The Return has a number of such moments like Cooper’s angry, misanthropic fellow FBI agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) who unexpectedly finds a woman he can talk with or Big Ed Hurly (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) finally able to be together.
Part of the reason David Lynch’s projects are so enjoyable is they’re open to interpretation on a number of levels, Twin Peaks: The Return was about the journey instead of the destination. I think that’s Cooper’s perspective and I really think it’s the perspective of the whole series. I feel that way because David Lynch is a longtime advocate of the practice of Transcendental Meditation. I also believe that because of my own experiences with guided meditation and the idea of mindfulness.
I started doing guided meditation about three years ago to help relieve anxiety and depression. One of the things it’s been helping me do is train my brain so I can be mindful of what I’m currently doing and not be distracted by thoughts. Cooper’s enjoyment of life really strikes me as him being mindful. He really loves the coffee he’s drinking because he’s choosing to and has learned to be mindful of the sensation of drinking it. He gives himself a present once day because his investigations can lead to some pretty horrific stuff and he wants to remind himself that the world can be a kind and grand place.
“…Cooper’s perspective is about accepting that life is a journey that’s both beautiful and ugly.”
So, ultimately, Cooper’s perspective is about accepting that life is a journey that’s both beautiful and ugly. It’s a unique perspective for a detective to have, but it’s one that makes him both a kinder person and a more effective investigator. It’s also the outlook of the storytellers behind Twin Peaks because, as fans know, life in the titular town is always stranger, scarier, and more wondrous than it may seem at first glance.
What’s your read on Special Agent Dale Cooper? Is he the embodiment of mindfulness, or is he just as blinded by the pursuit of justice as every other hard-boiled man of the law? Share your thoughts on David Lynch’s eternally optimistic anti-detective with us over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!