“Sometimes, it’s okay to be late to the party.” A look at Twin Peaks 25 years after its debut, and on the eve of its return.
Who Killed Twin Peaks?
In light of recent hysteria over the resurrection of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, I’ve realized something about cults within popular culture: sometimes, it’s okay to be late to the party. Most of my friends and peers who now drool over this serial thriller were barely cognizant when the show premiered on ABC in April 1990, and therefore discovered Lynch’s dystopian fantasy years later, independently taking the time to fill the cultural gap. And so, for the better part of the past decade, my surrounding community of countercultural addicts has been assimilating characters, quotes, and aesthetics into their everyday lives, subsuming the world of Twin Peaks into their identity, and, simultaneously, using it as a kind of countercultural currency within this world.
Let’s say you are overheard relating a slice of pie to the character Agent Dale Cooper, well then obviously you are a Twin Peaks fanatic, meaning that you must in turn worship David Lynch, indicating that you really get his polarizing style, and therefore, know a thing or two about weird, surrealist films and are probably pretty damn cool—or at least, there are some who might see it this way.
I have listened to and watched the ways that this rhetoric has been passed around my community, keeping my distance and my mouth shut until I decided to bite the bullet and press play. Though the presence of Twin Peaks has been hovering around me for years, I never had the itch to watch it until now for two reasons: 1) I’ve found the aura of “cool” attached to the series pretentious and off putting, and, the far more contentious 2) I’m just not that into David Lynch.
If you feel the urge to burn this piece of paper and deliver a severed ear to my mailbox, please reconsider and be patient with me, for my interest lies much more in the obsessiveness itself rather than my own distaste. Which brings me back to this party I am indeed late to: Twin Peaks aired over twenty years ago, and the only people still talking and writing about it are the ones who want it to live on, for posterity. Whether consumed on the air or years later on Netflix, the show’s enduring presence in the current cultural climate is steeped in nostalgia, now that we are far enough removed from the ’90s to identify and revere its own distinguishable culture. I gave in and watched the first season because I am as curious as the next Twin Peaks fan: how will this show—one whose notoriety is dependent on the associated nostalgia for so many people—translate in the contemporary moment?
I’m sure there are many other people like me out there, feeling like now is their chance to catch up on this eternally buzzing phenomena, stepping outside the atmosphere of current TV trends, from Orange Is the New Black to Modern Family to Girls. Viewers and critics right now tend to favor shows that present “relatable” or “realistic” characters and conflicts, no matter how exotic the setting is. By these parameters, Twin Peaks is the antithesis of the gold standard. The world that David Lynch creates is thoroughly and pristinely alien (just like him); as if the immaculate homes, good natured citizens, and tight knit community weren’t eerie enough, as the series progresses, we, the privileged audience, see the pillars of this utopia crumble, and all assumed transparency abandoned, catalyzed by one mysterious event and the question on everyone’s lips: who killed Laura Palmer? Through the murder of the town’s role model prom queen and investigation of her death we discover that not just Laura possessed a cornucopia of secrets—the entire population does, too. Extramarital affairs, drug rings, domestic abuse, prostitution and nearly every other morally dubious issue riddle this deceptively quaint town. Like many of Lynch’s other works, Twin Peaks can be almost uncomfortable to watch, fraught with the tension of this dichotomy.
David Lynch is no stranger to making his audience uncomfortable. This is largely due to his distinctive aesthetic style, joining his experiences as visual artist, musician, writer, and director to create fully cohesive worlds that revolve around their absurdity. Often, his landscapes mimic the imagined American pastoral, with music that adds a sinister dressing by juxtaposing eerie dissonant textures with hazy and delicate, melodic interludes. Then he’ll have a cast of characters that is half archetypal caricatures, and half total anomalies that could only come from his twisted mind. He is an expert in perpetuating mystique by playing with the audience’s expectations—you never know when a scene could go terribly wrong, therefore you sit on edge anticipating that every scene will go wrong, which, in a Lynchian world, is more often true than not.
In the case of Twin Peaks, the audience is mostly informed by the actions and research of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), the FBI specialist brought in to crack the case. Cooper is undeniably eccentric, as infatuated with high quality pie and coffee as he is with linking the puzzle pieces of mysterious criminal acts. He brings with him a big-city finesse and charm, with a diligent work ethic and uncanny proficiency in scrutinizing detail, while heavily relying on the insider information of Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), Cooper’s impeccable foil. Truman is the epitome of Twin Peaks’ romanticized values, a trustworthy and compassionate man dedicated to preserving the town’s spirit of goodness. The pair function as a highly effective team, using their contrasting backgrounds and perspectives to reveal the monstrous underbelly of the town. Despite all of the wicked dishonesty that only becomes increasingly apparent, Cooper falls in love with the idea of Twin Peaks, delivering this memorable monologue in S1E4:
I have only been in Twin Peaks a short time. In that short time I have seen decency, honor, and dignity. Murder is not a faceless event here, it is not a statistic to be tallied up at the end of the day. Laura Palmer’s death has affected each and every man, woman, and child, because life has meaning here, every life. That’s a way of living I thought had vanished from the earth but it hasn’t…it’s right here in Twin Peaks.
Through Agent Cooper, a visiting tourist just like us, the audience sutures itself into the world Twin Peaks and eventually falls in love with it, too. Besides the humanistic sentimentality towards good values and naïveté, our romance relies on the symbols that keep the fantasy so wholly contained in our imagination, which can be anything from Laura and James’ heart necklaces to the infamous Log Lady, or quotes such as “That gum you like is going to come back in style.” The cult of Twin Peaks did not arise from character identification or riveting action, it was born in the show’s essence of surrealness, an equal mix of the incredibly mundane and the palpable idiosyncrasies. It is a unique tactic that few have been able to mimic on television.
The other characters on Twin Peaks—of which there are many, with equally significant roles—all follow essentially the same developmental arc: the establishment as an archetype followed by complexification and redesign of identity. Often times, these complexities will remain hidden to everyone except us. The seen vs. the unseen serves as a prominent theme in the series, as it relates to the details of Laura’s life and death but also the different sides of the characters’ personalities, and with whom they choose to share those different sides. Forbidden romances are so ubiquitous in Twin Peaks, it barely even feels necessary to mention how Laura’s boyfriend had been cheating on her with Shelly from the diner where she worked with Norma who was unfaithful to her husband in prison to be with Ed, the uncle of James, whom Laura was secretly seeing before her death and . . . it goes on and on. Basically every single citizen of Twin Peaks has the partner, who they’re supposed to be with, and then they have the lover, to whom they can reveal their true self, which must remain a secret for the sake of the town’s unspoiled face. The trend of divorcing the internal and external sides of the self is so pervasive in the society of Twin Peaks that it becomes difficult to believe that these characters have any emotional depth at all: instead they serve as agents with set roles that can be related to the life and death of Laura Palmer. Their fixed superficiality only adds to the notion of Twin Peaks as a self-contained fantasy land, isolated and overlooked by the rest of the world.
So what does this mean for the future of Twin Peaks? Nostalgia works twofold in this series’ favor, relating both to the nostalgic, simplistic way of life depicted, and the nostalgia for the show itself. Sure, it debuted in the ’90s and is associated with that cultural moment, but this world that Lynch created could really exist anywhere at any time in the past half century. Twin Peaks exists in solitude, outside of the framework of reality. By bringing it back to network television, Twin Peaks won’t be reserved for the counterculture anymore, and the two seasons that are so precious to so many will adopt new meaning and significance as they circulate with new audiences preparing for the next season. To respond to my aforementioned ambivalence surrounding the show: I don’t buy it, but I get it. Though I’m still not ready to drink the Kool Aid, I understand the appeal of the enigmatic sensationalism of watching Twin Peaks, and what a unique concept it was for David Lynch, already a highly established auteur, to put such a world on network television. My dad recently said to me, “You can’t even imagine what a big event it really was. The fact that I even know the name ‘Laura Palmer’ without ever having seen the show should say something.” It was an event, that came and passed, that the cinephiles of my generation wish they could have experienced, so they have learned to cope by building this cult around Lynch’s tour de force that is specific to the second wave of Twin Peaks fandom, the ones that missed it the first time around. Amidst the fervent excitement, there is also a tangible fear that the impending third season (and third wave) will belittle the unblemished oeuvre as it remains in tact today. Some shows are meant to end prematurely, before they have the chance to fail. Though Lynch-heads will undoubtedly trust whatever artistic decisions he may make, perhaps the myth of Twin Peaks is meant to remain exactly that: a myth.