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***This article contains major spoilers. If you have not seen Twin Peaks and don’t want to know what happened, do not proceed***
What a mind bender. Twin Peaks is one of the strangest and most innovative TV shows ever made. It is lurid, eerie, surreal, terrifying, quirky and absorbing. It is an odd little saga with odd components, including the usual mundane stuff and the paranormal – along with strong performances that make it all work. It is a genius mix of soap opera, parody, mystery/detective show, and horror film, all thrown together to create something insanely complex, surreal and entirely original. It is symbolic, it is insane and it is tragic.
In an interview David Lynch said “What’s special about it to me is that its a bit of a dream. Its a warm and tender dream, a place you can go to. I love the mood of the place–its based a little bit on the B-Movie.”
The tragedy surrounding Laura Palmer’s death is palpable and heart breaking, resulting in the show creating an emotional resonance that reveals that Lynch is not to be taken lightly. This show will make you sit down in amazement, trying to figure out what Lynch was smoking and how you could get some.
I was not sure if this was intentional or purely incidental, but I noticed that all of Laura’s contemporaries in Twin Peaks are brunettes (Shelly Johnson is sort of like a red-head/dirty blonde). This prompted me to research the inspiration Lynch had for Twin Peaks and indeed there is quite a story behind this mysterious lady whose cheerful eyes harbor dark secrets.
In late 1989, David Lynch and television producer Mark Frost decided to work together on a biopic of singer and actress Marilyn Monroe based upon Anthony Summers’s book, The Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.
Of Monroe, Lynch said: “I always, like ten trillion other people, liked Marilyn Monroe and was fascinated by her life. So when this came along, I was interested, but you know the drill. I got into it carefully… We met with Anthony Summers, who wrote the book. The more we went along, the more it was sort of like UFOs. You’re fascinated by them, but you can’t really prove if they exist. Even if you see pictures, or stories, or people are hypnotized, you never really know. Same thing with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and all this. I can’t figure out even now what’s real and what’s a story. It got into the realm of a bio pic and the Kennedys thing and away from this movie actress that was falling. I got cold on it. And when we put in the script who we thought did her in, the studio bailed out real quick.”
No one ever really seemed to know Monroe; she appeared somewhat of a mystery during her lifetime which turned into myth after her death. Similarly, no one really knew who Laura Palmer was when she was alive, and much less after her death which revealed a side of her completely unknown to even her closest friends. In fact, it is not until her death that we find out who she might really have been.
When Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) finds cocaine residue in Laura’s diary, Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) is astounded and tells Cooper that he must be mistaken as Laura was not that kind of a girl.
Yet, as the mystery surrounding Laura’s death unravels we find out that she was so much more than that kind of a girl.
But Marilyn Monroe and Laura Palmer were also empowered women in a sense. Monroe radiated a sex appeal and vulnerability that rendered her extremely attractive and desirable to the opposite sex and she was quite aware of her power in that regard and she used it to get out of Hollywood what she wanted.
Similarly, Laura exhumed a certain kind of mesmerizing and relentless sexual power over men without much effort. As she said in one of her recordings to Dr. Jacoby: “why is it so easy to make men like me? And I don’t even have to try very hard.“
As we are to find out while looking deeper within the life and death of Laura Palmer, Laura was not quite the victim everyone believed she was. She was a fighter as she opposed Bob’s attempts to posses her and bend her, as he had done with her father; an opposition that cost her her life and sanity as she tried to escape Bob’s influence but which is still a testament to her inner strength and determination.
It was interesting to see that Laura had a dark side to her; a deviant, mischievous side; with desires that most people wouldn’t think a precious teen like her, the prom queen, does or should not have. Was she forced into kinky threesomes with strange men in the woods or did she in fact enjoy it? The scene in Fire Walk With Me where she dances topless in the bar and has a man give her oral sex while sitting at a booth show us a side of her completely unbeknownst to everyone else, including the viewer. Her secret diary further reveals a side of Laura rather foreign to everyone, including her very best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle).
Ultimately, the dark secrets she was harboring and the agony she was enduring drove her to seek out peoples’ weaknesses and prey on them, tempt them and break them down, making them do terrible, degrading things. She corrupted people because that is how she felt about herself.
In the end both Marilyn and Laura were broken women, haunted women, chained by their demons and lost. And as much as both drew the admiration and lust of every man they met, they were never able to overcome their profound loneliness, ultimately facing an untimely and tragic demise under mysterious circumstances that drew an equally mysterious aura around them long after they were gone.
Origins of Twin Peaks and the Story of Laura Palmer
When Lynch’s project based on Summer’s book fell through due to lack of studio support, Lynch’s agent suggested that he should do a show about real life in America, similar to Blue Velvet. Even though Lynch and Frost did not immediately love the idea, talks with studio execs convinced them to give it a try. It was whilst Frost and Lynch were talking in a coffee shop that they both had the idea of a corpse washing up on the shore of a lake, an image they began using as the basis for their next project Twin Peaks. They watched Peyton Place (1957) as the inspiration for the town of Twin Peaks and its inhabitants.
As they thought about their story and began mapping it out (they even knew there would be a lumber mill, just as in Peyton Place), they realized that a lot of the elements of Summer’s book Goddess and their planned Marilyn Monroe which they had wanted to use before but which never came to fruition, could be salvaged and used in this show. Frost and Lynch came up with the idea of the girl next door who had a sweet tooth for nose candy and prostituted herself in order to finance her habit, thus leading a double life that would end in murder and the gradual exposing of dysfunction and terror in sleepy small-town America.
The feature-length pilot’s screenplay for Twin Peaks was finished in only nine days and ABC Entertainment’s President, Brandon Stoddard, ordered the pilot to go into production. Seriously worried that the pilot would never actually hit te airways given network television’s constraints, ABC asked Lynch and Frost to film a “closed ending” to the pilot (now available as alternate ending/European release on the DVD) for direct to video release in Europe to help recoup losses on the $4 million investment in case the pilot never made it in the United States.
Robert Iger, who had become the show’s new advocate at the network fought hard for the show to be picked up after the pilot and after Stoddard’s departure. However, because of the show’s risky thematic, Iger could only secure seven hour-long episodes that would form the first season.
David Lynch filmed the pilot in only 23 days, but in spite of this accelerated schedule he remarked, “I didn’t feel we compromised, and I felt good.” And he later added, “We lucked out on the pilot, and everything fit just right. But any time limit is arbitrary and absurd.”
Lynch and Frost wanted to mix a murder mystery in the form of a police investigation with soap opera elements in order to create a series that was scary and sexy, funny and decadent, mundane and surreal. The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was going to be the main plot element which – over time – was to gradually recede to the background as other townsfolk and their stories were unfolding. In fact, the murder was never really supposed to be solved, as was actually done half-way through season 2, and the aim for Twin Peaks was to expose the gruesome underbelly of the Leave it to Beaver and apple-pie America. Thus, Twin Peaks was born and the rest, as they say, is TV making legend.
Unraveling the Mystery
Laura had secrets and around those secrets she built a fortress that no one seemed able to penetrate. Everytime she tried to make the world a better place, something terrible came up inside her and pulled her back down into hell, taking her deeper and deeper into the darkest nightmare and everytime it got harder to go back up to the light.
As FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), with the help of Sheriff Harry S. Truman (!) (Michael Ontkean) and his local law enforcement team set out to solve Laura Palmer’s murder and get to the bottom of those secrets, they also tap into the lives of these seemingly ordinary townsfolk who each harbor not only great secrets of their own but also entertain severe dysfunctions on a multitude of levels.
There appears to be a whole layer of subtext underneath the surface of this simple town and its inhabitants; a dark, ugly subtext with sinister undertones that slowly creep to the surface as Cooper investigates. As Lynch explained: “I didn’t try to make ‘Twin Peaks’ realistic – it’s sort of a mythical town and it’s a desire town. It’s where you’d want to go at 10 at night to just float and see what was gonna happen. The story revolves around what happens when the most popular girl in high school is mysteriously murdered – she’s found floating face down at the Packard Sawmill. We then get to know the secret lives of all the people in the town as an FBI agent attempts to unravel the crime.”
The Ugly Face of Small Town America and Owning One’s Shadow
When Cooper – quite early in his investigation – tells Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) that in his short time in Twin Peaks he has seen “decency, honor and dignity” it is quite ironic because this town is filled with everything but decent, honorable people who posses dignity.
This brings us to an important theme of Twin Peaks, which is that of double lives that lead to the concept of Doppelgängers: paranormal doubles of a living person, typically representing insidious alter egos. A concept that itself is similar to Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow”, which personifies in the subconscious everything that a person refuses to acknowledge about himself and represents “a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well” (Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996) p. 284 and p. 21).
If and when an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself.
In Jung’s assertion, the unwanted and repressed desires of our subconscious always follow us like a shadow and the more we suppress them in our conscious lives, the more overwhelming they become and cross over into that conscious mind. The conscious personality has to integrate the shadow and not vice versa. Otherwise the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow.
Confrontation with the shadow, during what Jung called the “time of descent”, genuine courage and strength are required with no certainty of emergence. Such descent, while dangerous, Jung believed would eventually be followed by an ascent - enantiodromia - and assimilation of, rather than possession by, the shadow becomes at last a real possibility. In other words, one has to own one’s shadow - acknowledge and let it in – otherwise it will overwhelm the conscious mind making ascent impossible.
We see that duality, that doubleness everywhere in Twin Peaks – from the actual twin peaks of the mountains to the duality present in the characters of Twin Peaks and the shadows that inhabit them.
Twin Peaks quite expertedly explores the concept of shadow selves to varying degrees. This dichotomy can be comedic, like the two Horne brothers being named Ben and Jerry, or nightmarishly terrifying, such as Laura’s outward appearance as the homecoming queen and straight girl vis a vis the dark slide into Jung’s “descent” in the form of a desperate double life in which she is caught in a vortex of drugs, sex, incest and crime dragging her down.
As the story of Laura Palmer unfolds and as we get to know each and every character in the seemingly Norman Rockwellian town of Twin Peaks, we become gradually acquainted with these characters and their shadows, their Doppelgängers.
Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), the town’s richest and most powerful citizen who has everyone’s respect, runs a drug trafficking scheme and brothel on the other side of the Canadian border, the latter of which he frequently employs with young teenage girls he hired for the perfume counter of his department store (Laura and Ronnette Pulaski both worked there); he cheats on his wife with those teenage prostitutes, he even had sexual relations with Laura Palmer and he sleeps with Catherine Martell (Pipe Laurie), who is married and whom he later orders to be murdered just to get the land she owns. He isn’t much of a father to his mentally incapacitated son and ignores his daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) to the point where she puts (herself in harm’s way just so he notices her.
Leo Johnson (Eric Da Ra), who helps smuggle drugs across the border and engages in various criminal activities for Benjamin Horne, gruesomely beats and abuses his wife Shelly (Madchen Amick), a young high school drop out whom he married only because it was cheaper than hiring a maid. Shelley, in turn, cheats on Leo with Bobby Briggs, who used to date Laura Palmer and whom he in turn was cheating on with Shelley.
Laura’s popular quarterback boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) is a drug pusher who also leads a shady double life vis a vis his law-abiding, Army General of a father who always appears to speak in sermons.
Ed Hurley himself is the stand up guy who – as a member of the secret society the Bookhoue Boys helps apprehend dangerous criminals and fight the evil forces believed to be lurking in the woods, yet he is scared of his wife, Nadine, almost turning to a frightened adolescent boy when she is around. What’s more, while he acts obedient and faithful to his wife, he is cheating on her with Norma Jennings and deep down holds Nadine in deep contempt, resulting in him to lead a double life.
James (James Marshall), Laura’s secret boyfriend first tells his uncle Ed Hurley that Laura was “the one” and next evening is seen kissing Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), telling her that he had been in love with her all along, even when he was with Laura.
Finally, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) – Laura’s father – as we find out in Fire Walk With Me - while on the outside portraying the loving husband to his wife Sarah and an upstanding member of the community as the attorney for the Horne’s, cheats on his wife with girls looking like his daughter and is involved in a incestuous relationship with Laura, not to mention the ultimate duality within him, namely possession by BOB.
All this poo-poo platter of intercoiled relationships sound soap operaish? Yes, because that was the intention. While on the one hand Lynch shows the deep psychological chasms that exist within the characters, he also touches upon them in a lighter way, such parodying the soap opera theme he introduced into Twin Peaks with Invitation to Love, which was a ”series-within-a-series” popping up in nearly every episode of the first season, acting as some kind of a commentary on events unfolding in Twin Peaks itself.
It is interesting how Lynch took that picture of the prom queen with the perfect smile and the small, sleepy town she was living in and painted all black over it. As the audience gets to know the people of Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer, it becomes clear that there were terrible secrets and a dark facade hidden underneath that perfect smile and those sad, haunting eyes.
Twin Peaks is as much about the mystery of this surreal, secluded town, its eerie, mysterious woods and its lurid characters as it is about the life of an American teenager having lost her bearings, entangled in a web of deceit, drugs, promiscuity, crime and sheer terror.
By creating Twin Peaks, Lynch ventured into creating a soap opera but of nightmarish proportions. At times it is light as air and mundane, at other times it is terrifying and sinister. We are introduced into a beautiful and sleepy small American town that has, beneath the surface, crossed over into a very real nightmare.
As the narrative of Twin Peaks unfolds, we become intensely drawn into the lives and drama of its multifaceted characters and realize that while there is an element of terror in there, there is also familiarity; a bizarre kind of reality that cannot be described easily but can always be felt when entering the world of Twin Peaks.
Unfortunately, with the revelation of Laura’s murderer and the resolving of the main story arc less than halfway through Season 2, the pace changed and the series seemed to drag on a bit only to meet an unsatisfactory cliffhanger ending.
Some of the characters began behaving in a way designed to service an extended plot instead of the plot responding to the characters. It was like they let out all the air at once and then suddenly they had about 12 episodes to go with nothing to do, since, after all, the show was mainly about Laura’s death and the mysterious circumstances under which she died.
The truth about who killed Laura should really have come last, not half way through. The connection Lynch drew between the evil that is lurking in this town and its woods, Laura’s death, the concept of the Black and White Lodge and Cooper eventually being inhabited by Bob at the end of the series, were brilliant and everything fell together, but the order should have been reversed and the revelation of who murdered Laura and the demise of Cooper should together have made for an explosive finale. Lynch blamed network pressure for the decision to resolve the Palmer storyline prematurely.
The final episode was terrifying and it makes you wonder just how far down the rabbit hole Lynch would have taken us in subsequent seasons had he been given more creative control.
The possible romantic relationship between Cooper and Audrey was also never resolved and instead they had him more than half way through season 2 fall in love with a random girl named Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), Norma Jenning’s (Peggy Lipton) sister. It was an abrupt deviation from a story arc that had so naturally developed over time and was just awaiting its conclusion.
The official story for why they did not pursue the romantic storyline between Cooper and Audrey was that MacLachlan himself had objected to the idea because he believed it would have been out of character for Cooper to be falling for a teenager.
But the reality seemed to have looked differently, as reportedly Lara Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks’ Donna Hayward), who was dating Kyle MacLachlan at the time, objected to co-star Sherilyn Fenn being paired together with MacLachlan in a series of romantic scenes, especially considering their considerable on-screen chemistry. Boyle seemed to have been further irritated by the fact that Fenn’s character Audrey was gaining prominence in the storyline while Boyle’s character Donna was given little to work with and had gradually been moved to the background.
In a recent interview Finn recalls that David Lynch, by creating Audrey, had “made a character that got bigger than his original characters that were the important characters [in the show]. And those girls were not happy about it [...] this was supposed to be the Lara Flynn Boyle show.“
Finn’s increasing popularity on and especially off screen as well as the immense chemistry she and McLachlan had were apparently too much for Boyle to handle and so it is believed that she pressured McLachlan to convince the writers that a romantic relationship between Cooper and Audrey was out of the question.
Of course, it would not have been out of character for Cooper to have fallen for Audrey; he was only a few years older and it was obvious that he had already fallen for her throughout the show, so following through would have just followed the natural course of how things had been set up.
Whatever the reason for it, the abrupt ending of Audrey and Cooper’s romantic relationship and the introduction of random love interests for both was probably the worst misstep of the series, creating a disconnect.
Twin Peaks – After 20 years
Twin Peaks still stands the test of time, however, and in fact rivals, if not supersedes, a lot of the even “smart” network TV shows out there today. Lynch truly is a master. Every character he created truly inhabits their role and I don’t think they could have picked anyone better than Kyle McLachlan for the part of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.
In fact, one can clearly see the template of the The X File’s Agent Fox Moulder (David Duchovny, who also had a guest role in the show) in Agent Cooper. In many, ways Twin Peaks paved the way for a lot of the detective/mystery shows to come later and set a new standard for television shows in that regard.
The ultimate question Twin Peaks poses, and never answers because that is not Lynch’s style, is what is that mysterious, evil that lurks in the woods, or the soul of men; is it insanity or evil? What even is insanity, what is evil? When we say someone is a schizophrenic, like the One Armed Man in Twin Peaks, what does that really mean? What is schizophrenia and mental illness? Chemical imbalances? Possession by evil?
Did people imagine BOB? Can anyone believe BOB existed given how fantastic the circumstances surrounding his presence seem? As Agent Cooper said “is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?” Is it more comforting calling it that and expressing it in terms we understand?
Twin Peaks is all about that little space – the line between insanity, evil and the surreal – the very fabric of which things are made, secrets kept, actions towards each other informed. because what really is the definition of evil in relation to the human condition? When someone commits an evil act, while others never break the law their entire lives, you wonder what separates the latter from the former. Is BOB, as Major Briggs suggests, just the evil men do?
In this saga David Lynch is showing us – in his very own peculiar way – that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy…