Franck Boulègue

Trees of Life and Death in “Twin Peaks: The Return”

May 11, 2020

There are many trees in Twin Peaks, from Agent Cooper’s beloved Douglas firs to the sycamores in Glastonbury Grove, one of the doorways to the Red Room. There’s the Log Lady with her…well, log, as well as the Evolution of the Arm. The opening credits of the first two seasons start with footage of a bird atop a tree branch. Later images in the same credits focus on the Packard sawmill, where trees are split and re-appropriated. Symbolically, however, none may be more important to the series than the Trees of Life and Death, composed respectively by Sephiroth and Qliphoth.

It is no secret that the series is replete with esoteric and spiritual references, from transcendental meditation to theosophy, from ancient aliens to the works of Lobsang Rampa. The third season of Twin Peaks –also known as The Return– does not diverge from this pattern and makes further use of the esoteric school of thought in Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah (and of the more syncretic system of the Western Hermetic Qabalah) to develop its hermetic vision of reality. Kabbalah seeks to explain the relationship that exists between God and his creation. On the one hand, there is God as absolute transcendental being, known as Ein Sof; the Sephiroth, by contrast, are the ten immanent emanations that sustain the existence of the universe. They are traditionally depicted together as a tree composed of spheres joined by paths and arranged in three columns, where the right one represents expansion; the left one, restriction, and the middle one, balance. The root of the tree is above, in the concealed version of God, and its summit points downward, towards the phenomenal world.

Twin Peaks: The Return is composed of 18 parts which, when grouped together, arguably constitute one long cosmic day –from the morning of part 1, when Doctor Jacoby receives his shipment of shovels, to the night of part 18, when Carrie/Laura returns to Twin Peaks. I believe this third season makes use of several intertextual narrative scaffoldings that reference various works of literature, from Joyce’s Ulysses to Dante’s Divine Comedy, from Eliot’s Four Quartets to the Bhagavad Gita. [1]

In addition to this cosmic day, the season contains another beginning of sorts, a creation myth that takes root in part 8, when the atomic explosion in New Mexico –the 1945 Trinity Test– ruptures the thread of reality and allows evil entities to enter the world. Highly praised by fans and critics alike, part 8 illustrates the Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil at work in the series. From this point onward, the symbolism of the Tree of Life works like a natural progression from the transcendental to the immanent, with the 10 Sephiroths flowing one after the other from parts 8 to 17.

The Tree of Life

Kether, the Sephirah crowning the Tree of Life, is pure formless consciousness and absolute compassion. It represents the Creator, a man with a face bright like the sun, upon a throne. He is the symbol of unity. This Sephirah is associated with the notion of a swirling fire, not unlike the Big Bang. In the context of The Return, the Fireman in part 8, whose appearance follows the atomic explosion, best corresponds to this description. He fathers Laura by himself within his transcendental palace. Although it would be difficult to argue that part 8, partially set in 1945, represents the true beginning of Twin Peaks –since Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks goes much further back– it is nonetheless possible to situate the origin of both Laura and Joudy –their first appearance in the timeline– in this episode.

Part 9 depicts the second Sephirah, Chokhmah, which represents wisdom, the Father. Located on the right side of the Tree of Life, it is a force linked to expansion. It is in part 9 that Bobby goes to his mother’s house to collect the metal tube his father, Major Garland Briggs, left him. Through seasons 1 and 2, the Major is depicted as the archetypal wise man, the perfect father figure who never loses faith in his son. To associate him with Chokhmah is thus appropriate.

Part 10 addresses the mother, Binah, another treasure of wisdom. The Log Lady –the feminine equivalent of Major Briggs– is central to this episode. Together, Major Briggs and the Log Lady represent the parental figures of the series, possessing the wisdom of the ancients. Since Binah is positioned on the left side of the Tree of Life, she is reflective of restriction, as opposed to Chokhmah’s expansion. Her role in Twin Peaks is coming to an end, and her messages to Hawk are those of a dying woman.

After Kether, Chokhmah and Binah, Chesed symbolizes kindness and love between people. Several moments in part 11 match this description exactly: Shelly’s scenes with Becky and Carl, the coffee and donuts at the Buckhorn sheriff’s department, and the sequence when the slot-machine addict recognizes Dougie/Mr. Jackpot with the Mitchum brothers.

The powerful warrior Gevurah, the masculine centre of the Universe, may well be Gordon in part 12. In his hotel room, he is heard narrating his exploits to the French woman in red: “and then, seventy-five strong, they came up over the mountain, sirens wailing, guns drawn…” prior to Albert’s interruption.

Tiferet, the sixth Sephirah, is situated at the centre of its Tree and bears the image of a child (or a sun) restoring harmony and balance. In part 13, Sonny Jim playing on his new gym set brings a peaceful equilibrium to Dougie’s relationship with Janey-E.

Netzach is linked to beauty and the image of a nude woman, but also to leadership and the ability to rally others to a cause, motivating them to action. In the context of part 14, the duo composed of Naido (the nude) and Andy (who leads the sheriff’s team following his encounter with The Fireman) embodies this sphere.

The rigorous Hod is the sphere that, instead of “conquering” an obstacle, is able to submit to it. This is a summary of Ed’s approach to Norma, whom he meets at the RR in part 15. He sits at the counter and submits until Norma finally joins him.

Yesod, the ninth node in the Tree of Life, constitutes the interface of consciousness and reality, and is represented by a strong and handsome man. Beyond this, the kabbalist must see past appearances. In part 16, Cooper awakens from his coma and comes back to “reality”.

The tenth and last Sephirah, Malkuth, is depicted as a crowned young woman on a throne. It is logical that Laura Palmer should follow Cooper in part 17. Her photograph wearing the homecoming crown, which Sarah does her best to destroy at the end of the episode, represents Malkuth.

The Tree of Death

But just as there is a Tree of Life composed of the 10 +1 Sephiroths, a Tree of Death also exists, made up of 10 + 1 Qliphoths, which are representations of evil. The Tree of Death is the polar opposite of the Tree of Life and as such, the list of its shells –the Qliphoths– correspond to and negate each of the Sephiroths.

As Kether is to unity, Thamiel, the first Qliphah, is to duality. The force opposing the Fireman in part 8 is that of the Experiment, hurling its eggs (and BOB’s rock) into the Abyss. The entire arc of The Return is in this struggle against duality and towards unity. Thamiel’s correlative entities are Satan (the Adversary), Moloch, and its associate Beelzebub (BOB, as one can guess from reading Frost’s The Final Dossier). Its colour is white and it is known as a horned dragon [2] –with horns not unlike those on the Experiment’s head. These point to Moloch, the Canaanite god propitiated with child sacrifice, especially by fire; which should be read in conjunction to the burning of children in Carthage as an offering to Baal Hammon, the city’s chief god, equivalent to Greek Kronos or the Roman Saturn, the planet opposite to Jupiter (associated with The Fireman) [3].

As Thamiel is linked to Joudy, Chaigidel is reflected in both BOB and Mr. C, with both Qliphoth being traditionally connected. Chaigidel is another manifestation of Beelzebub, Lord of Demons. As with Mr. C and his snake-print shirt in part 2, Chaigidel is frequently related with a python.

The third Qliphah is Sathariel, who flees light and whose colour is black. Sathariel is the concealment of God. He lords over the Valley of Gehenna, which comprises Tzoah Rotachat, where souls are sent for punishment. Its purgatorial role is linked to Rancho Rosa, the place from which Cooper must find his way back to himself and to Twin Peaks. In part 10, Sathariel reflects Duncan Todd, the hidden hand ruling Las Vegas, who is always dressed in black.

Next is Gamchicoth, an order of beings that seek to devour the substance of creation, often depicted as giants with cat heads. The Woodsman who devours Hasting’s head in part 11 moves and acts surreptitiously, like a feral black cat, while the Woodsmen who revive Mr. C in part 8 seem to knead, cat-like, over his body.

In part 12, Hutch and Chantal correspond to the description of Golachab, the Qliphah associated with those who seek destruction by enforcing their will upon others through strength. Their dispassionate discussion about whether or not to torture warden Murphy over dinner illustrates their psychopathic tendencies, devoid of empathy.

Thagirion, Qliphah 6, is the Demon of Disputers, who maintain evil forces. Renzo’s faction at The Farm in part 13 is a gang of such disputers, held together by their leader. Though Renzo’s replacement by Mr. C comes as a shock, the group falls in line as soon as the latter asserts his authority.

The Harab Serapel are the hideous ravens of death that come from a volcano and are frequently depicted as women with birds’ heads. The manner in which Sarah removes her face in part 14, revealing the darkness within and beneath before taking a bite out of the trucker’s throat, links Joudy, the parasitic entity possessing her, to this Qliphah.

In part 15, the devilish Woodsman who allows Mr. C to meet Phillip Jeffries is seated by an electrical mechanism, holding a long wooden stick that connects him to Samael, Prince of Demons, who presides over the barren desolation of a lapsed creation.

Diane’s Tulpa in part 16 is equivalent to Qliphah 9, Gamaliel, related to unconscious sexual urges and perverse repression. In this episode, Diane relates how Mr. C raped her to create her “polluted” image, the tulpa that replaced the real Diane, who became a prisoner of the Lodges, hidden behind Naido’s mask.

The list of the Qliphoths concludes with Nehemoth, the inferior Mother, related to Matter and Night. Who better than Sarah Palmer, usually seated on her couch/throne, to represent her in Part 17? The way in which she tries to destroy Laura’s photograph underscores how, if one represents Sephiroth 10, the other is her corresponding Qliphah (other such oppositions –such as Cooper, Sephiroth 9, opposed to Diane’s Tulpa, Qliphah 9– and connections –such as Cooper, Sephiroth 9, beside Laura, Sephiroth 10– can be observed).

The Number of Completion

Both lists of ten Sephiroths and ten Qlipoths end in part 17, where Cooper states 10 is the number of completion. It is possible that Da’at, sometimes described as the eleventh Sephirah/Qliphah –the place where all the Sephiroths/Qliphoths converge as one– corresponds to the events in part 18. The Return is ultimately a quest from multiplicity to unity. Da’at corresponds to the ego-death and is akin to Crowley’s concept of the Night of Pan, which leads to Babalon and to the City of the Pyramids, home to those who have crossed the great Abyss that separates the phenomenal world from its noumenal source. The fact that part 18 ends at night, in Twin Peaks, with The One (Carrie/Laura) returning home, confirms the likelihood of this.

[1] I analyse these links in my forthcoming book on season 3, The Return of Twin Peaks : Squaring the Circle (Intellect/University of Chicago Press), to be released in late 2020.

[2] Could this dragon be a Naga, the race of half-human half-serpent beings in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that reside in Patala? Nagas are often associated with bodies of water, including wells. More importantly, in the context of part 8 and the regurgitation by the Experiment of its eggs and of BOB’s face contained in a rock: the Garudas are enemies of the Nagas who, by imbibing large stones, make themselves too heavy to be taken by the Garudas, who can then only pick them up by the tail, forcing him to vomit up their stones. This is mirrored in The Return with the Trinity Test playing the role of the Garuda. Moreover, according to the Tibetan zodiac, 1989 –the year of the death of Laura Palmer– was the year of the earth snake, with 2017 –that of the death of BOB– being the year of the firebird. Notice the inverted dragon worn on Laura’s dress while in the red Room. If Laura is the anti-Dragon, then surely Joudy is the Dragon (laying her eggs, depicted as pearls on a necklace).

[3] Interestingly, Kronos is known to have disgorged his children, and to be a stone meant to replace Zeus (known as the Omphalos Stone).

Franck Boulègue is a French film critic who has published in Positif, Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and La Septième Obsession. With Marisa C. Hayes, he edited Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks in 2013 (Intellect/University of Chicago Press), as well as the special issue of the Supernatural Studies Journal dedicated to “Twin Peaks” in 2019. He is the author of Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic (2016, Intellect/University of Chicago Press), with his new book, The Return of Twin Peaks: Squaring the Circle, scheduled to appear in late 2020. You can read his ongoing research at or follow him on Twitter @franck_boulegue

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