This was written before the weekend's news, but feels more relevant than ever. We could certainly use a miracle now. I think we'll get one.
David Lynch's and Mark Frost's TV show Twin Peaks premiered twenty-five years ago today. ABC ran it at 9pm as a two-hour Movie of the Week. The pilot launched a thirty-episode run (eight in the first season, twenty-two in the second) followed by a prequel feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. To my surprise, I did not include any specific plot spoilers for Twin Peaks despite some vaguely suggestive details and discussion of its overall direction.
A collection of my other work on Twin Peaks follows this essay.
A quarter-century after its splashy debut, Twin Peaks remains both influential and ignored. Its influence has been frequently discussed, especially in our current epoch of thematically and visually ambitious cable television. What's amazing is just how widely this influence can be felt, on everything from dark, gritty police procedurals to light-hearted quirky comedies to bizarre supernatural sagas. That's because Twin Peaks touched on so many different genres, transforming them in the process before handing them off like macabre Christmas gifts (from a Jack Skellington-esque Santa, I suppose) to future generations of showrunners. However, I'm more interested in the ways Twin Peaks has been ignored.
The show's mixture of genres goes beyond "high-concept." Typically, if writers are presenting a mash-up they find common ground between two divergent moods or modes of storytelling. "It's E.T. meets Rambo," the classic pitch parody goes, or "Lord of the Rings meets Anchorman." The idea being, find the cross-section where these two very different works meet and synthesize these categories into something new...one plus two equals three. Even a show as challenging and adventurous as The Sopranos drags its comical premise - "Mafia boss visits shrink" - into a darker context rather than switching between wildly divergent tones (and the contemporaneous farce Analyze This makes the exact opposite maneuver with the same premise).
But Twin Peaks, when it's funny (or when it's trying to be), can be as broad and silly as a sitcom. On certain episodes, in certain sequences, a laugh track would not be out of place. The soap opera elements are more often played for pathos than parody - sometimes for both in short order, so that the laughter catches in our throats while the tear is softened by an unexpected chuckle. Alongside the diversity of these conventional approaches are sequences as avant-garde as Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren, broadcast as a Monday movie-of-the-week opposite reruns of Northern Exposure. These forms of filmmaking don't belong in the same universe, let alone the same show and yet somehow, at its best, Twin Peaks works. And even when it doesn't (see much of the show's second half), the train wreck of tones is remarkable to observe.
Alongside wackiness, sincerity, and abstraction, Twin Peaks contains moments of brutality more emotionally devastating than anything you'll find in most R-rated crime movies or HBO shows. To its credit, True Detective would not allow a goofy thought balloon with a little boy dressed as a devil (as Twin Peaks does - he's even named "Little Nicky"). But True Detective also would never allow us to linger, for three excruciating minutes, over the slow-motion butchery of an innocent young woman. The corpses may be mutilated and bloody, suggesting edgy adult fare on hand, but the grittiness stops short of demonstrating what it actually feels like to be truly helpless in the face of evil. Typically, a detective story is about power rather than powerlessness and this brings us to one of Twin Peaks' most unusual, and sadly unremarked, revolutions. The "dead girl" - now recognized as a common TV trope, even credited to (or blamed on) Twin Peaks itself - is no mere MacGuffin, she is essentially the main character.
Laura Palmer begins life (or rather, death) as a plot device. Even so, she is the plot device re-conceived as absent character. The entire first half of the pilot is consumed by intense grief over her death, while the second half is absorbed in the grim discovery of her hidden life. Throughout the first season, Laura continues to teeter between mystery object as gateway into Twin Peaks' broader intrigue and hidden subject emanating from some offscreen space, luring us deeper and deeper into her vaguely-sensed but not-yet-experienced subjectivity. This is already a notable departure from the cliche of distanced victim, but Twin Peaks will go much further in its underrated second season by revealing that Laura's psychological trauma led to her social transgressions rather than vice-versa.
Even before the brutal murder that falls exactly at the halfway point of the episode run, a brief but grisly flashback to Laura's death tells us this is no ordinary "dead girl" show. By the thirtieth episode we have seen (or heard) Laura as serene spirit guide, traumatized abuse victim, wholesome teenage heartbreaker, coy femme fatale, and soul-piercing demon. Remarkably, these splintered fragments coalesce into glimpses of a larger portrait. Even more remarkably, Twin Peaks will eventually allow us something more than a glimpse. There are hints of this destination as early as the pilot's home video fragments, in which Laura unexpectedly returns our gaze - and David Lynch's (a shot that may have changed the entire story for its author).
Arguably the most defining, revelatory moments of Laura's character development occurred on the page and in the cinema rather than on television, which may be why they are so frequently ignored. In both The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch (in which one young woman gives voice to another) and the prequel feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Laura is established as the person we are encouraged, indeed expected, to identify with. Agent Cooper, on the show, was a highly unconventional and imaginative guide through Twin Peaks' horrors and mysteries. Laura Palmer is something else entirely - a shockingly radical re-invention of the entire concept of mystery storytelling: its practice, its purpose, its possibilities.
The closest precedents for this approach could be found in literature, where Flaubert, Woolf, and others explored the subjective mental landscapes of their psychologically unstable (often female) protagonists. But did David Lynch have these influences, or any influences, in mind when he decided to tell Laura's story? His daughter alleges that he never even read her novel before making Fire Walk With Me, though Sheryl Lee certainly did, and frequently cites it as a guide for her performance. David Foster Wallace calls Laura's transformation from object to subject "the most morally ambitious thing a Lynch movie has ever tried to do." This is all the more remarkable when you realize he actually wasn't trying to do this! The film was created out of passion, not reflection, and its scatterbrained shooting script indicates that Lynch didn't really know what the hell he wanted to do with this movie. It found its way through Lynch's instinctive commitment to - and Sheryl Lee's ferocious embodiment of - Laura's point of view.
Here is another important point, nestled inside the heart of so many other achievements: Twin Peaks was, at its best, discovered rather than designed. So many crucial elements of the experience were stumbled upon in moments of accident or inspiration, usually both. The show's evil presence was a set dresser whom Lynch envisioned crouching in a corner and whose reflection was later caught on camera (in that order or another, depending which version you hear). The entire supernatural mythology spun itself from a non sequitur surrealist sequence, shot to be non-canonical and later shoehorned into the series as a dream. The emergence of Laura as heroine (a development that would have major implications for Lynch's subsequent films) resulted from Lynch's captivation with Sheryl Lee's screen presence in a short video clip, initiating the gradual evolution of a bit player into the star. The unforgettable climax of the series was invented by Lynch on-set during an all-night shoot (writer Harley Peyton says, "I don't know if he put our script down on a table or threw it in the trash but what he did was quite different.") And finally as Fire Walk With Me was shot (or maybe even cut), Laura's gruesome fate was re-imagined as spiritual transcendence.
Sometimes compromises yielded creative breakthroughs. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were contractually obligated to shoot an alternative ending, and used this opportunity to invent the Red Room, possibly the show's most memorable image. More alarmingly, ABC demanded (and Frost probably facilitated) a conclusion for the Laura Palmer mystery. As a filmmaker unaccustomed to the ebb and flow of serialized narrative, Lynch rightfully understood that this mystery was the heart of the story and ending it would spell doom for the show. Yet from this forced reveal emerges a sequence of electrifying intensity, bottomless sorrow, and bravura filmmaking, instantly turning a fantastic entertainment into a truly profound work of art. To this day, Lynch suggests that the killer never should have been revealed. He is wrong: this decision yielded possibly the best work of his career up to that point, tapping into his own discomfort and making it all of ours.
Collaboration too served both positive and negative functions. Mark Frost's role in co-creating Twin Peaks is often undervalued and frequently misunderstood. In the beginning especially, the partners were in perfect sync. The pilot owes as much to Frost's meticulous, careful plotting as Lynch's moody atmosphere. Their sensibilities overlapped too, particularly their offbeat sense of humor and desire to experiment and push boundaries. However, as the pilot became a 7-episode series, and the 7-episode series became a 22-episode season, a divergence in vision and method became more apparent. Anecdotes suggest that Lynch, unaccustomed to the pace of weekly TV-producing, was not heavily involved in plotting the show (incidentally, please put the Wild at Heart canard to rest; that film was shot during the first season, not the second!). Frost, on the other hand, who had come up in TV, relished the opportunity to become showrunner.
Knowing the rhythms and expectations of the medium, Frost was ready to move on from the Laura mystery to explore the town in all its nooks and crannies. He also perceived Agent Cooper as a brilliant but flawed protagonist, burdened by a troubled romantic backstory and confronted by a Moriarty-like opponent. Cooper, once our guide into this world, was now needed to carry the plot itself, as any central TV character should. Perhaps impatient with the vagaries of Lynch's surreal imagery, Frost also constructed an elaborate mythological framework to define "the darkness in the woods," introducing concepts from Theosophy and genre fiction to flesh out the fleeting dream imagery of the series' first half. Some of these decisions were well-executed, others were not (and it's worth noting that Frost was reportedly absent from the worst episodes of the mid-season, as was Lynch). But all of Frost's contributions moved the show to a point where Lynch could deliver its very best episode at the finish line.
To Frost's storytelling momentum Lynch brought a painter's understanding of balance, rooting every element in its relation to the whole. Lynch is frequently defined as a "random" artist, following his whims wherever they may lead, head in the clouds while Frost's down-to-earth story construction plants his feet on the ground. In fact the reverse is equally true: accustomed to the detours of multiple-season storytelling, Frost was liable to forget where the story began, while Lynch's feature-honed instincts kept him from straying too far from the premise. Returning after a fourteen-episode absence for the finale, Lynch re-introduced a dozen or so forgotten characters, some minor, some major, all contributing to a sense of continuity with the past. Lynch also linked Frost's spiritual concepts to the iconography of the earlier episodes (the Red Room, the Little Man, eventually even the one-armed man and the creamed corn). And of course it was Lynch who decided we needed to go back to Laura Palmer's life to fulfill the mission of the pilot episode.
Even as Lynch returns the show to its roots, he fulfills Frost's narrative developments. The finale and feature film complete Cooper's dramatic arc, explore a spirit realm beyond fleeting visions and visitations, and plunge into the truth behind Laura's mystery, even offering us a deeper meaning behind the mystery. Lynch being Lynch, this meaning is delivered cryptically, almost subliminally, but it's there: most notably in the wordless catharsis of the final scene which could be the most beautiful sequence Lynch - or hell, maybe anybody - has ever conceived. Lynch's challenging collaboration with Frost not only improved Twin Peaks, it also altered the auteur's own filmography, as he moved past spooky suggestiveness and plunged headfirst into swooning subjectivity.
Where Twin Peaks differs so radically from even the most adventurous and imaginative twenty-first century television (and cinema) is in its openness to trusting instinct over intellect, to improvising in the face of compromise and collaboration, and to working without a safety net. The show stumbles badly when it forgets this faith and freedom, at which point that lack of security becomes very costly. You can't fly if you aren't willing to fall. Understandably, few showrunners or filmmakers are willing to take this risk. Those who do seldom go as far as Twin Peaks. Until that changes, this series (including the film with which it must be considered) will remain a singularity.
Twin Peaks is a miracle, because it was made with the belief that miracles are possible.
If you're new to the blog, welcome to Lost in the Movies. This post is only the tip of the iceberg as far as my reflections on Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me.
Here are some other highlights:
Journey Through Twin Peaks
Narrated exploration of Twin Peaks' thematic path through clips and commentary - my top post on Twin Peaks
Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death
Non-narrated examination of trauma and repression in Twin Peaks and David Lynch's first six features
Gone Fishin' (media commentary)
Excerpts from 125 articles, essays, blog posts, and other literature on Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks on the Internet...in 1990
Archive of 108 alt.tv.twin-peaks Usenet posts from the show's original run
w/ Brad Dukes (Reflections oral history)
w/ John Thorne (Wrapped in Plastic magazine) 1•2•3
w/ Martha Nochimson (The Passion of David Lynch & David Lynch Swerves)
w/ Andy Burns (Wrapped in Plastic book)
podcasts w/ Cameron Cloutier (Obnoxious & Anonymous) 1•2•3
Cooper & Laura: a visual tribute to the two stars of Twin Peaks
Images from a journey through Twin Peaks: connections, contrasts, interpretations, and quotes in Fire Walk With Me
It is Happening Again: a visual tribute to episode 14
First impressions of Fire Walk With Me
Four-part Fire Walk With Me series w/ Tony Dayoub
The Missing Pieces
Twin Peaks and David Lynch, part 1 (individual reviews) & part 2 (career overview)
Complete episode guide to Twin Peaks (plus other miscellaneous blog posts)