“There are more things in heaven and earth, my dear viewer, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
Before you have a chance to acknowledge the rich thematic substance of David Lynch’s surrealist television series from the early 90s, Twin Peaks, the plot alone can overwhelm you with mysteries and insights. The people in the town of Twin Peaks lead clichéd soap opera lives with vast and interwoven secrets binding them all together. As people manipulate each other to achieve their ends, the supposed triteness of the dialogue reveals itself to be misleading. The people in Twin Peaks, with all their scheming, actually talk to each other, and weirdly, are trying to reveal a truth about themselves and life. These characters actually seem to believe the things they say while their plans are in motion, and those plans constantly change as alliances shift and warp.
It’s offbeat and goofy, but also undeniably touching. It plays off of sappy and suspenseful soap opera clichés. The music is romantic and soulful. The writing and performances are heightened. We are introduced to the town and its inhabitants as players in a grand soap opera drama—football heros, next-door neighbours, corrupt tycoons, ambitious thugs, waitresses at the local diner. The series warps these clichés by infusing them with a depth of feeling that captures the heart. The plot unfolds to reveal the dark secrets that lurk just beneath the surface of civility, illustrating how grief can mold people into grotesques shapes. Those shapes may seem ridiculous, but look closely… there is much pain lurking beneath the goofy façade.
The story is set in motion by the death of the beautiful and popular teenager, Laura Palmer. The FBI has reason to suspect the murder is linked to a larger series of crimes, and sends the quirky and brilliant agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). At first, Cooper’s wide-eyed wonder and joy at the artifacts of small-town life seem condescending, but you soon realize his affections are sincere. The sights, sounds, smells and people of Twin Peaks are inspiring to him. Cooper is a mystic, and his methods are unorthodox—employing anything from Tibetan philosophies to dream analysis. The people of Twin Peaks are confused and often mystified by him, but they are infinitely trustful and accepting and, eventually, embrace him as one of their own.
Lynch is a master at exposing what lurks beneath—the truths we intuitively understand, but would find difficult to articulate. Rationality is not much use to you in David Lynch’s world. There is something disturbing hidden inside us all that is far older and wiser than rationality. Lynch wants to touch this ancient part of us. If you approach his abstractions with the desire to solve the puzzle, you will be disappointed and alienated by his vision—where dark human malevolence is a tangible menace, and our capacity for goodness is a bright and glorious sunny day. The two truths are in constant flux, as people make individual choices that alter our human destiny. Twin Peaks, like most of Lynch’s work, is a study of goodness and evil. Characters must face their shadow selves, explore the darkness, and learn to hold it at bay. Despite the depravities seen in Twin Peaks, the story itself is far from cynical.
Much like Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the good-natured, small-town goodness—people acting decently towards one another—is first treated as an absurd cliché. But after seeing the atrocious behaviour of which people are capable, the desire to be good is shown to be a noble and valiant effort, but one that requires an acceptance of our inherent capacity for evil.
“One of the things that’s useful about recognizing your capacity for evil, if you can do that without traumatizing yourself, is that its the pathway for recognizing your ability for good. You have no idea what you’re like until you know how terrible you can be, and not only that, you won’t take yourself sufficiently seriously. If you know you’re a loaded weapon, and an unstable loaded weapon, then you’re much more likely to pay attention to what you do.”
Jordan Peterson, The Necessity of Virtue
Twin Peaks sets up a distinctive grammar and, for the most part, holds firm to its language. The opening title sequence is surprisingly long for a television show; in it, we are shown the artifacts of idyllic small-town life—a chirping bird, a majestic waterfall, a quiet country road with the twin mountains looming in the background. We come back to these objects time and again. As we discover more about the hidden menace in the town (and in humanity), these objects take on a sinister quality. The waterfall is powerful and unforgiving, the traffic light swaying in a twilight breeze warns of a dangerous presence, the darkened stairs and ceiling fan of the Palmer house are a constant reminder of the death that set our story in motion. Our human struggle is witnessed by these objects, but they offer no meaning or comfort once we see what lurks inside of us.
The series begins to falter mid-way through the second season. The idiosyncrasies of the story that are so honest and charming in the first season, seem contrived in the second. There are moments of brilliance, sure, but they are fewer and farther between. Early on, all of the elements were in perfect alignment, and my feeling is that David Lynch had a firmer hand in production during the first season. The Lynch-isms of the second seem more like mimicry, and the authenticity of his vision seems corrupted by network executives too timid to stand behind his vision. There are grossly misplaced stylistic devices employed without precedent.
Early on, it is established that the characters’ visions are to be illustrated with a sort of magic realism, where there is an organic connection between the naturalism of the external world, and the fantasy of the inner world. The imagery of the vision sequences blends these two elements mise-en-scène, rather than with overt optical effects. When Cooper’s subconscious gives him clues to solving a case, the lights dim in the actual location, and a spotlight illuminates the harbinger of insight. These sequences are highly stylized and persuasive, but most importantly, they are consistent. It is, therefore, alienating when we are shown a character’s thoughts in the form of a cartoonish live-action thought bubble appearing beside his head. Firstly, we’ve never been privy to this character’s internal world before, and access to it now does not aid in our understanding of him and does not advance the story. Secondly, the sequence disregards the filmic vocabulary that has been established. It is a one-off gimmick, cheap and distracting.
As a whole, Twin Peaks remains a classic. It was cancelled at the end of the second season, leaving us forever suspended from the cliff. However, considering Lynch’s predilection for elliptical storytelling, I imagine he would, given his choice, have ended on a similarly allusive note. Lynch did write and direct a follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which functions as both a prequel and sequel. I have not yet seen it, but I’ve read that it is appallingly bad.
Television with rich cinematic sensibilities is fairly standard now, but back in the early 90s it was a fresh idea. Twin Peaks was ground-breaking and set a new standard for episodic storytelling. In fact, it prepared the ground for the immensely successful The X-Files. The concept of an on-going investigation and underlying conspiracy—both physical and metaphysical—were established here in the fictitious town of Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, at the time, studio executives did not have the courage to allow this insightful and resonant series to continue.
Twin Peaks (TV Series 1990 – 1991)
Creators: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Madchen Amick, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Piper Laurie