I wasn't sure what picture to use at the top of this post. To show characters for whom incest is an issue in Twin Peaks would give away crucial story aspects to the casual browser who hasn't watched the show yet. And that's a problem I'll get to in a second. The picture of the cabin in the dark woods, with the light in the window and the action inside obscured, is eerie enough to suggest a secret beneath the surface without getting explicit. That in itself is in the spirit of Twin Peaks, a show that digs beneath Twin Peaks' welcoming but spooky appearances to unearth corruption, betrayal, loneliness, violence, murder and, yes, in more than one storyline, incestuous overtones.
How to talk about this is frankly one of the most problematic aspects of being a Twin Peaks fan. On the one hand, the show revolves around secrets (not just who killed Laura Palmer, but the relationships and motivations of half the town independently of that storyline). Discovering these secrets, and wondering what they will be, is part of the "fun." On the other hand, worrying about "spoilers" ruining the game seems impossibly glib when dealing with a subject as serious as this. Twin Peaks, for all its quirk and playfulness, has very serious things to say about the abusive familial relations (including incest) that quite a few of its characters experience. How do we discuss this openly if we're always tiptoeing around giving everything away?
Yet it's not just a choice between treating Twin Peaks as a game and treating Twin Peaks as a work of art. The way it functions as art, and particularly the way it uneasily balances art and entertainment (to the ultimate benefit of the former), rely upon surprise and shock. I didn't know much about Twin Peaks going in and part of the reason it has had such a lingering effect is because things didn't always turn out the way I expected.
On that note, I should observe that the rest of this post does, indeed, contain spoilers.
Twin Peaks lures us into its universe with that uncanny uncertainty that Lynch masters: through genre motifs and other gestures, he signals to us that it's ok, we are not going to be confronted with violence, ugliness, unsettling material, but there's something slightly "off" about everything which indicates that actually, all of those qualities are there...but maybe he'll withhold them just a bit? The first half-hour of Blue Velvet does nothing to prepare us for the fury of Frank Booth, and Lynch's later films only escalate that bait-and-switch tactic.
In Twin Peaks, incest is the secret to end all secrets, and not just because it provides the key to the central mystery. By its very nature, incest is the ultimate taboo, to the point where even the eager analysts covering the show in 1990 tended to tiptoe around its implications (the biggest exception, Commonweal's outraged "Incest for the Millions" was furious at Lynch for "gradually seduc[ing]" the audience into this shocking reveal. This is what makes Twin Peaks so damn unsettling, and what makes it so powerful as art.
But the show itself attempts to cover its tracks with the device of the "inhabiting spirit" Bob - an ambiguous symbol that serves both to clarify and obscure the truth that Leland Palmer raped his daughter. The film's unpopularity was, in part, due to its refusal to cover up the nature of Laura's trauma anymore. It still utilized Bob (in a way I found troubling on first viewing), but immersed us directly in Laura's subjective experience of abuse. Murder mysteries aren't supposed to do this - they are supposed to titilate us with extreme violence while mystifying and obfuscating the victim's perception of the events. (This is one of many reasons O.J.: Made in America, the documentary I am watching right now, is incredibly powerful.)
Today, there are two things which tangle up our discussions of incest in Twin Peaks: the confusing distraction of Bob (especially on the concluding episode of the mystery - the one in which Leland dies), which bogs us down in qualifiers and speculations, and the concern with spoiling the show for outsiders, which keeps even the meatiest discussion insular and away from the public sphere. It's possible, even likely, the new show will tear down these walls - for better...or for worse. If it doesn't, though, and the conversation continues to skirt the core of Twin Peaks, it may be time to reconsider the notion of "spoilers" altogether.
For now, here is my discussion with Ben and Bryon, my second appearance in the "Lost in Twin Peaks" segment they have added to Twin Peaks Unwrapped. It appears near the end, accompanied by discussion of the show's soundtrack releases and an appearance by Brad Dukes. Thanks to the hosts for having me, and for doing a superb job editing what was at times a wandering delivery into something tight and cogent.