Feature Articles Twin Peaks
In 1990-1, the question of who killed Laura Palmer caught the television audience by storm. The answer was to be found in a bizarre, other dimensional reality.
by Philip Coppens
Actress Sheryl Lee was almost destined to play the dead lead actress twice: she was the face of the murdered popular schoolgirl Laura Palmer, largely an acting role limited to playing a dead corpse or a photo on a mantelpiece, until she was given the lead role in “Fire Walk With Me”, a movie prequel to the series Twin Peaks. In the unaired pilot of Desperate Housewives, she played the dead Mary Alice Young, but as Mary Alice would also be the narrator throughout the series, Lee was replaced for a voice that expressed more comic qualities, which the show demanded. In the end, Sheryl Lee is mostly remembered for Twin Peaks, a series that has a lot in common with the surreal setting of the series Lost, which was described as “the next Twin Peaks”. Part of the comparison is apt if only because like Twin Peaks more than a decade before, Lost set new standards in cinematography for a television series. Twin Peaks also foreshadowed some of the serial killer cinema successes of the 1990s, such as Se7en and the Hannibal Lector series, with the initial examination of Laura’s body revealing a tiny typed letter ‘R’ inserted under her fingernail; a calling card of a serial killer. Finally, Twin Peaks can be seen as being largely responsible for the birth of the most defining television series of the 1990s: The X Files.
But let us focus on where it began: Twin Peaks. It was a television series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, set in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, in northeast Washington. The concept of “twin peaks” comes from sacred geography and it was but one aspect of the otherworldly events that occurred in the town – a “secret history”. The series was set in 1989, with each episode normally representing a single day in the chronology of the town. In total, thirty episodes were produced and the series ran for two seasons, airing in the United States from April 8, 1990 to June 10, 1991. It mapped the murder enquiry of local schoolgirl Laura Palmer by Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan). Cooper’s quirks and predisposition towards the paranormal would soon be brought alive in another FBI agent in another American television series: Fox Mulder, starring in The X Files – with David Duchovny and Kyle MacLachlan sharing some physical resemblances – but then perhaps they just “match” the FBI corporate image.
Like Desperate Housewives would uncover the grave secrets (involving a strange suicide of a popular neighbour) that a tranquil street in suburbia can conceal, Twin Peaks follows the murder investigation of a popular school girl with no obvious motives for the crime. Gradually, while each Twin Peaks resident is exposed to police scrutiny, a disturbing dark side to the lives of many of its inhabitants is revealed – even though most often, these secrets turn out to be unrelated to the murder. The same applies to the various secrets Laura Palmer herself kept, each of which could have resulted in her murder at the hands of so many potential killers, but in the end is found to have become the victim of a supernatural killer.
So, in short, with so many potential assassins, the obvious assassin is an otherworldly being. Slightly surreal? Well, David Lynch is known for his surreal approaches, which in some of his movies have left the audience often utterly confused. In Twin Peaks, specifically the first series, Lynch tried to keep the surrealistic invasion to a minimum, but by the time of the movie, such control was clearly no longer applied – thus leaving his audiences once again on occasion utterly confused. Soon after the cliff hanger ending of the first season, the show’s popularity reached fever pitch and “Peaksmania” was born. Suddenly, everybody knew about Twin Peaks and it began to seep into mainstream popular culture, very much like what “The X Files” would accomplish in years to come. The success of the first series meant that ABC ordered a second series. ABC pressured Lynch to reveal the killer of Laura Palmer in the new season, which was at odds with Lynch’s own preferences, as he wanted to keep the murderer’s identity a secret forever. Though the studio got the identity of the killer, many fans of the show felt let down with its resolution, as the show’s previously hinted at ethereal and “weird” side now came fully to the forefront – and became the main focus of what would be next. But the audience did not like the obscure surrealism; the public at large primarily saw this is a murder enquiry in a spooky town, not the Twilight Zone gone surreal. Hence, ABC decided to place the show on an “indefinite hiatus”, which is surrealistic newspeak for “cancellation”. But this sudden cancellation then caused outrage with the fans, and it was clear that ABC had no idea that the show still had a cult following – of substantial size. The outrage forced ABC to agree to another six episodes, to finish the season as planned. Still, a third season never materialized, but a movie did. In 1992, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”, the Twin Peaks motion picture, was released, returning to the story of Laura Palmer – in essence a prequel to the series. Unfortunately, initially, both fans of the series and critics, were disappointed by the film, for a variety of reasons, including one statement that the movie was inaccessible to anyone who had not been familiar with the series. Like The Da Vinci Code, Fire Walk With Me was greeted at the Cannes Film Festival with booing from the audience and met with almost unanimously negative reviews. However, in recent years, the film has experienced a small resurgence in popularity among Lynch’s fans, some of whom now see it as the director at his best. Times change… opinions do as well. The theme of the series is that supernatural entities invade our reality, cause havoc, resulting in the brutal murder of Laura Palmer. That something out of this reality is amiss in Twin Peaks is implied by mysteriously malfunctioning electrical equipment, suggesting the Otherworld has penetrated into ours.
So, to solve a supernatural problem, you need a psychic detective. FBI agent Dale Cooper is not only psychic, he also seems to use various other “divining” techniques to zoom in on the killer, one of which is baseball pitching. Above all, he experiences a series of bizarre dreams, in which he visits a mysterious Red Room, where he meets a diminutive “Man From Another Place”, as well as the trapped spirit of Laura Palmer, who whispers into his ear the name of her killer – which Cooper has forgotten by the time he wakes up. The Red Room seems to be a reference to Purgatory, a possibility that was also applied as to what the mystery island in Lost could mean – Lost being another series where producers endlessly seem to toy with the idea as to what the meaning of the island really is. In the movie, Lynch enhanced the profoundly surreal nature of these scenes by having the actors recite their lines backwards – reverse speech, popularly applied to some of the Beatles soundtracks, to find “hidden messages”. For much of the filming, Lynch meant for some of the film’s dialogue to be incomprehensible to the audience, including the gargled speech of the Man from Another Place and most of the dialogue in the loud night club scene. But then he decided to add subtitles shortly before the film’s release, but not in time for the subtitles to be added to the British edition. This led to three plot points being lost on British audiences, making it even more incomprehensible to them – but obviously adding to the “surrealist setting”. But Cooper is not the only psychic in town. There is Sarah Palmer, Laura’s psychic mother. There is Margaret Lanterman, the eccentric “Log Lady”, who apparently receives psychic messages from a log that she carries everywhere. If this is somehow to be set against a voice of reason, in Twin Peaks, they only have an oddball psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Jacoby. In short, in Twin Peaks, there is no voice of reason, in which it differs from The X Files, where the “sane debate” was paramount in the relationship between Mulder and Scully.
The information that Cooper has gained from psychic and observed means, including the mysterious utterances of The Log Lady, leads him to a number of suspects, but he knows that finding Laura’s secret diary holds the key. In the end, it is one Harold Smith, one of Laura’s confidants, who holds this diary and it reveals that from a very early age, Laura was abused by a character called Bob and that her use of drugs and sex were her way to escape from him. As Cooper delves deeper into the sordid secret life of Laura Palmer he comes across a one armed shoe salesman, who reveals that Bob was an old drinking buddy of his who spouted poetry and engaged in various criminal activities. The Bob he knew, however, is currently in a coma in the local hospital. As such, Cooper is able to make the “logical conclusion” that Bob is trapped in Purgatory: not in this world, neither in the other, but in “the Red Room”. That may not explain anything in a rational world, but it makes perfect sense in the surrealist setting of Twin Peaks.
With this basic framework now understood, here are the rest of the otherreal components: it turns out that The One Armed Man himself is possessed, but in a good way: he acts as a host for Mike, a good and supposedly reformed spirit, who in the movie actually tries to stop Bob from killing Laura Palmer. Mike also has access to the Red Room, as does a supernatural giant, who helps Cooper. And, as mentioned, there is the enigmatic dwarf, The Man From Another Place, who consumes “garmonbozia” (pain and sorrow), and it seems almost as if this evil dwarf is responsible for Bob’s killing spree, as Bob needs to help the dwarf in getting him these negative emotions. But though Bob is the killer and has been abusing her since childhood, in whose body does he reside? In the movie, Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to something more frightening when he starts questioning her about her necklace. This is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the series. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face – he is clearly possessed by something. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. The “thing” that seems to have taken possession of his body has left him temporarily and “Leland” is back in control again, but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. However, nothing compares to the realisation, made by Laura, that her dad is indeed under the spell of an evil entity, “Bob” – a frightening realisation that is probably one of the most emotionally charged scenes of the movie (how would you feel if you find out that your father is actually a supernatural child molester?), in which Lynch was able to give a supernatural angle to a topic that in our reality would be nothing more than child abuse by their parents. But not in Twin Peaks… In series two, Sheryl Lee was finally able to make an appearance, with the arrival of Maddie Ferguson, Laura’s twin cousin, making it appear as if Laura has returned from the dead herself – and a possible storyline, though never developed, that somehow Maddie could “channel” the spirit of Laura. Eventually, Maddie too is brutally murdered by Laura’s father, Leland… or Bob, who is soon apprehended by Agent Cooper. Cooper then realizes that Bob has possessed Leland – a lesson Laura had learned too, had tried to tell Cooper in his dreams, but unsuccessfully. Leland then smashes his own head against the wall of his cell and in his dying moment his soul is restored – hence, he does not end up in Purgatory, like Bob. In the movie, there is another scene in the Red Room, where we see Leland and Bob splitting off from each other, suggesting order to “the way things were supposed to be” has been restored.
This, it seems, is where it should have ended, but where it did not. Hence, Cooper stays in Twin Peaks and is actually framed for drug trafficking, the role of a transvestite DEA agent being played by none other than soon to be “Fox Mulder” David Duchovny. Like Mulder would be on numerous occasions himself later, Cooper is temporarily suspended from the FBI. After he is cleared of the charges, his former FBI partner and mentor Windom Earle comes to Twin Peaks to play a deadly game of chess with Cooper. While this is going on, Cooper continues to try to track down the origins of Bob and learns more about the mysteries of the dark woods surrounding Twin Peaks. After all, it is clear that this supernatural intrusion into our dimension has a cause that extends beyond Bob – Bob is not the cause, but evidence of something gone haywire in the fabric of local reality, for thousands of people are in a coma, but aren’t able to take possession of a human body to start a killing spree.
Cooper also falls in love with a new girl in town, Annie Blackburn. When she wins the Miss Twin Peaks contest, Windom Earle kidnaps her and takes her to the Black Lodge, the mystical extra-dimensional place in the woods that Bob happens to inhabit and of which the Red Room is apparently a part. Cooper follows them into the Lodge and has a series of bizarre encounters, including meeting his own shadow self. When the series comes to an end, it seems that Cooper, although unknown to those around him, has become possessed by Bob himself – hunter and hunted thus united in one brain. It would have led to an intriguing surrealistic third season, but, as mentioned, that never happened.
Instead, a prequel happened: Fire Walk With Me. The movie excellently illustrated the surrealism and the otherworldly nature of the series and started off with the murder investigation of Teresa Banks, Bob’s first victim, about a year before Laura’s murder. The two agents were played by Chris Isaak and a young Kiefer Sutherland. Supernaturality hits when the two suddenly disappear in the midst of their investigation just as a mysterious, long-gone agent (played by David Bowie) reappears at the FBI’s Philadelphia office, with Cooper apparently aware of what is about to happen and in charge of documenting the paranormal event at the FBI office. This plot itself would be worthy of at least one X Files episode, but Lynch just throws it into the melting pot, without doing anything further with the exceptionally intriguing story he has just created. The themes of Twin Peaks developed into other series, but some of the actors in the series equally seemed to have become “typecast” because of the series. Don S. Davis starred as Major Garland Briggs, father of Bobby Briggs, the boyfriend of Laura. In The X Files, he played Dana Scully’s father, before taking on “Stargate SG1 Command” in that series. But in Twin Peaks, he is already an Intelligent and Air Force officer involved in Project Blue Book, deep space monitoring, and the woods surrounding Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks’ success was perhaps best illustrated by its incorporation into The Simpsons. In “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part Two”, Chief Wiggum has a dream that resembles Dale Cooper’s dream, in which Lisa talks backwards to reveal clues. The chief awakens from his dream with his hair mussed like Cooper’s after his awakening. In the episode “Lisa’s Sax”, a flashback to 1990 shows Homer watching the show as Dale Cooper remarks “That’s some damn fine coffee you got here in Twin Peaks… and damn good cherry pie.” The Giant is then shown waltzing with a unicorn, under a tree with a traffic light hanging from a branch. Homer’s opinion of the show is “Brilliant!… I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” And that about sums Twin Peaks up.