It's undeniable that the Red Room plays an important role in the Twin Peaks saga. Not only are these scenes some of the most memorable of the series, but the final events of both Fire Walk With Me and (except for a brief epilogue) the television series take place there. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper's ability to tap into the secrets and mysteries of the Red Room helps him solve the crime of the murder of Laura Palmer. In FWWM, the Red Room is the place in which Laura's angel meets her, allowing Laura finally to experience the peace and joy that eluded her in life.
Upon examining the presentations of the Red Room throughout the series and film, however, one notices a difference of interpretation among the show's writers as to the identity and function of this place.
Lynch first committed the Red Room to film in the so-called "European version" of the Twin Peaks pilot in which Lynch ad-libbed an ending that would allow the episode to be presented as a film. In this version, Sarah Palmer remembers seeing the killer hiding at the foot of Laura's bed. Deputy Hawk makes a sketch based on Sarah's description. Meanwhile, Mike, the one-armed man, has information about the killing and calls Cooper, who meets him at the hospital. Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and Mike find Killer Bob in the basement. Mike shoots and kills Bob, then mysteriously dies himself. Cooper says, "Make a wish," and a ring of candles blows out. Suddenly it's "25 years later" (as a subtitle on the screen tells us), and Cooper is in the Red Room. The Little Man introduces his "cousin, who looks almost exactly like Laura Palmer," and the footage is virtually identical to what would appear at the end of the second Twin Peaks episode, but re-purposed there as Dale Cooper’s dream.
Unlike in the series, the scenes in the alternate (Euro) version are not part of a dream--or if they are, they're not identified as such. The story simply moves ahead twenty-five years. Obviously something strange is going on--Cooper is considerably older, yet Laura has not aged. The speaking is odd, the room is peculiar--everything is quirky, yet the viewer is not told why or given any context for the events. It doesn't make any sense and doesn't conclude the story at all. Lynch admitted to Chris Rodley that he was "just winging stuff for this ending that we had to do. Feeling our way." (Lynch on Lynch, P. 165) He also admitted that "it had the feeling of an ending that may or may not relate to anything else....It all happens so fast and nothing was really that thought out." (LoL, p. 167)
We can only wonder what Lynch was thinking when shooting these Red Room scenes, and what his ideas of the place really were. And though written and directed by Lynch, the scenes, as existing in the European edit, are hard to consider as part of the official Twin Peaks canon, falling, as they do, so far outside the television series and FWWM continuity.
When episode 2 of Twin Peaks was developed, however, the Red Room footage appeared, though altered. Most importantly, the scenes take place within the context of a dream that Cooper has one night. Also, the "25 years later" line has been deleted--though it was obvious from Cooper's age that many years had passed, and in fact in the next episode, Cooper tells Truman and Lucy that in his dream, "suddenly it was twenty-five years later." (In the final episode, when Cooper physically enters the Red Room, Laura tells him that "I'll see you again in twenty-five years.")
Whatever Lynch intended the Red Room to be in the European edit, the third episode clearly establishes it as a dream-world, a gateway to the subconscious, full of secrets that provide guidance to Cooper and answers to the mystery of his case if only he will utilize them.
However, when the Red Room appears in the final episode of Twin Peaks, something has changed. As noted above, Lynch went so far as to say that "it was . . . completely and totally wrong."
Television is a collaborative medium, and Twin Peaks had two primary co-creators, Lynch and Mark Frost. But Harley Peyton and Robert Engels also contributed significant elements. As the second season progressed, the involvement of Lynch and Frost varied. An element like the Red Room--vague and mysterious to begin with, and quite possibly intended to exist only in subjective reality anyway--was bound to experience some change as different writers brought their own interpretations.
For Mark Frost, there were two aspects of the Red Room, which he called the Black and White Lodges, an idea he had picked up from the works of Alice Bailey and Dion Fortune. In an interview with Wrapped In Plastic, Frost said, "I brought it [the idea of the Lodges] in, in general." More specifically, he notes that the Bailey writings "influenced me as a young person..., and it becomes the basis for your thinking about the duality of good and evil in the world. Is evil, in fact, made manifest anywhere in the world? And the Black Lodge was all about . . . the idea that there was, in fact, a true manifestation of evil that needs to be actively and physically combated." (WIP 9, 1994, p.2.)
For Frost, then, the Red Room becomes a place that can be physically entered. This interpretation would become a critical element of the final episode, in which Dale Cooper leaves this world for the world of the Red Room. But when David Lynch returned to direct the final episode he was not comfortable with what the Red Room had become. Discussing the Frost/Peyton/Engels script for the final episode, Lynch said, "[W]hen it came to The Red Room, it was, in my opinion, completely and totally wrong. Completely and totally wrong. And so I changed that part." (LoL p. 182). Unfortunately, Lynch does not elaborate, and interviewer Chris Rodley does not press him on the point, so we are left to guess what Lynch was referring to.
But although Lynch told Rodley that the script's presentation of the Red Room was "wrong,” he is careful not to state categorically that his version of the final episode is better than what Frost, Peyton, and Engels had written. "I'm not making a judgment on it....If Mark and I had been working together, it would've been different." (LoL p. 182.)
This is a very important comment. Lynch acknowledges that he and Frost had not been working together on the final run of Twin Peaks episodes, and he admits that a collaborative effort between the two may have resulted in a stronger interpretation of the Red Room.
We are now on the cusp of new Twin Peaks. The fact that David Lynch and Mark Frost are creating Twin Peaks together is a cause for celebration. Perhaps we will soon find out how they mutually interpret the Red Room. Will it be a physical place? Will it be a realm of the subconscious? Or will it be something else entirely? On May 21, we may have our first answers. Stay tuned.
A much, much, longer version of this article first appeared in Wrapped In Plastic 54; it is worth seeking out for the deep analysis of the Red Room it provides.