Lost in the Movies: TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: The structure of the original Twin Peaks

TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: The structure of the original Twin Peaks

These short Twin Peaks episode responses are spoiler-free for upcoming episodes, presented here for first-time viewers who want to read a veteran viewer's perspective on each entry while remaining in the dark about what's to come. They were first published as comments on a Reddit rewatch in 2016.

On the thread for a late season two episode, Iswitt wrote the following comment in reply to one of my own (which it quotes at the outset):
This episode really hammers home how unnecessary the entire mid-season stretch was, and it contributes to why people look back at those episodes so scornfully. Now they we've moved on to a whole new set of subplots (aside from Nadine, who we don't see much of in this or the next few episodes), can we say anything from those episodes really mattered?
I see people say things like this a lot, not just in reference to this TV show. There will be a subplot within some TV series that someone happens to dislike and they ask, "Did this matter?" I find this an interesting question. Does it matter in the context of what? The overall series? What you think things ought to be like?
In the case of Twin Peaks, I think people are comparing these middle plots to things that happened in season one and what happens at the very end of season two (Owl Cave, the Lodge stuff, etc.). To me, so what if these middle plots had any bearing on the last few episodes' events? Why is that so important? TV shows that go on for any length time always have certain plots that come, they happen, and then they go away (The Walking Dead is a good, modern example). People often use phrases relating to subplots such as "it didn't go anywhere" or "it didn't matter", but this is entirely opinion based (where's it supposed to go to and what makes it matter to someone?). Obviously I'm speaking as someone who really enjoys the "slump" in season two, so I'm biased, but it irks me that people look at Dead Dog Farm, the Marsh plot or others and say "These plots don't matter. They aren't the Lodge or Laura so they're unimportant."
I disagree. I found them to be a fascinating look at what was going on in and around Twin Peaks as a whole. That's what I wanted out of this show. What is life in this town like? Who are these strange people? The murder mystery and the final sequences of the show are just icing on the cake to me. To me they did go somewhere (or perhaps take me somewhere) and they did matter (I was entertained and I learned more about the town, like I wanted to). So I contend those events did matter, as much as any long-term TV show's plot events can matter (yes, this show did get canceled, but they obviously intended for it to go on longer). To use TWD as an example again, we're entering season seven. Does anything in basically the first 4-5 seasons matter anymore? Go back and watch season two and try to feel like any of it matters. It really doesn't in the context of what's happening now. And that's okay. Pretty much all shows go through this kind of thing, some faster/sooner than others.
This was my response...

That's a great answer to what is a (slightly) more open-ended question than it may have initially seemed. I've actually been enjoying those midseason episodes more than usual but there does seem to be a widespread dissatisfaction with them which I’ve often shared. For me personally, this has something to do with a preference for “film” over “TV” storytelling. There are advantages to both – film usually has a stronger sense of purpose and momentum, reaching cathartic moments that can carry greater dramatic weight, while television can build attachment and investment in a way that a two-hour film usually can’t. Serialized shows attempt to bridge this gap by telling one ongoing story but usually stretching that story out by telling smaller chapters with their own dramatic arcs (sometimes as long as a season, sometimes as short as a single episode).

The tension between those two approaches will be present in any serialized show, but is especially sharp on one which aired on an early nineties network, where the format was also pressured to function on an episodic basis. And it’s especially sharp on Twin Peaks for a very specific reason: because Lynch came from the world of film and Frost came from the world of TV, and their sensibilities (maybe for other reasons too) really, really reflected this. It’s even apparent in the dichotomy of their interest: Lynch, much as he loves all the eccentric characters, repeatedly hones in on Laura and her singular mystery whenever he has the chance, whereas Frost is all about the town as a staging ground for various, perhaps unrelated dramas. Lynch is also a painter, which means he has an eye for the overall shape – the big picture – in a way a TV writer, under pressure to produce week to week and take the story in ever-new, ever-expanding directions, does not.

If you listen closely to Lynch’s seemingly TV-friendly statements about “a neverending story” or “the mystery shifting to the background” it becomes increasingly apparent that he isn't talking about abandoning movie structures so much as taking one part – the middle – and extending it perpetually. This avoids the finality of the ending while maintaining the momentum a fixed endpoint implies. It’s essentially a massive cheat code in which a destination creates a sense of purpose, but that destination is placed so far on the horizon that it allows an unusual amount of immersion in the journey. (And, in terms of the audience of the time at least, it didn't work - they demanded the ending any movie requires but any TV show dreads.) For Frost on the other hand, the narrative model seems not to have been an extension of a middle but a perpetual, interwoven succession of beginnings, middles, and ends in a consistent environment. In other words, something closer to the traditional TV model but perhaps more intricate and inventive than usual (the essay you and Somerton were discussing does a good job of laying this out).

The mid-season epitomizes the crisis in Twin Peaks between these two different, essentially contradictory modes. We could also argue about the effectiveness of its execution, but that’s immaterial to this particular point. These episodes are attempts to create a much looser serialized structure for the show, one which theoretically could have carried it into multiple seasons. There are some big threads that trickle information to us – Windom, the Lodges – while other stories carry the show week to week. Obviously the proposed Cooper-Audrey romance was supposed to form a stronger central axis, but even that would have a different nature than the Laura mystery, more of an in-the-moment sense of discovery than a perpetual hungering for more. My – and others’ – frustrations with this development may partly be due to a preference for more filmic types of storytelling, but I think they are also fostered by the show itself, because it begins very differently.

The pilot of Twin Peaks puts forward a much more cinematic conception: here is this terrible incident that is haunting everything else, and all the events of the story are driven by and/or circulate around this event. To then abandon this story, as the show does at its midpoint, would be a bit like The Godfather veering off to Las Vegas to explore the travails of the Frank Sinatra character (which the Puzo book actually does!!). Yes, a lot of the characters are still the same (although many aren’t, and that’s its own problem) and – other than the Evelyn stuff - the setting remains, but the premise of Twin Peaks wasn’t about characters or setting, it was about a particular traumatic event and its effect on the characters. To abandon the centrality of this event feels like a violation to a lot of us. For others, due perhaps to a greater fondness for TV than film, or a general affinity to a Frost-like narrative conception, or simply some inclination difficult to articulate/pin down, the other aspect of the pilot – its world-creation and fondness for character sketches – outstrips the impact of the narrative device, and is enough to sustain the show on its own.

I think all Twin Peaks fans, wherever they fall in terms of their preferences, should recognize that the show exists in the tension between these two poles. Eventually, it seems, Lynch did win the tug-of-war by changing the final script, creating the feature film without Frost, and even writing the Log Lady intros which frame the show as a single, cohesive work in a way the episodes themselves do not. Now that Frost is involved again, will the show shift back toward his conception (of a universe of stories that needn’t fall within one single frame)? I have my doubts for a few reasons: a) as director, Lynch has a sort of final say, no matter how collaborative he and Frost are as writers and producers; b) the new season was shot in a fashion far more similar to film than TV, suggesting a cohesive, bounded story, however sprawling; c) Frost himself has given statements over the years that place him much closer to the “filmic” type of storytelling than he used to be. We’ll see. For the show as it exists now [prior to the release of season three], questions of quality/execution aside, whether one fundamentally accepts the mid-season episodes will depend on how much that viewer desires an overarching sense of purpose, and how much they are willing to accept that a storyline or event “matters” and “goes somewhere” even if it doesn’t bring us any closer to a dramatic conclusion.

Here is a chapter of "Journey Through Twin Peaks" in which I traced the effect of Twin Peaks on David Lynch's later work (spoiler for Blue Velvet):

Here is the final "Journey Through Twin Peaks" chapter on the original series/film before season three:

I also created a preview for the whole video series with clips from all the chapters:

Want more?

Here's one of the last comments I left on the Reddit rewatch, linking many of my pieces on the series. Since then I have also begun a character series

Having shared my previous work relevant to each step of Twin Peaks, I've left out a lot of material that approached the show/film as a whole entity. (I also have some work treating Lynch's entire filmography the same way but I'll save those for the film threads this sub will hopefully tackle.)
Here are some highlights...
If you are a fan of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (and the film The End of Evangelion) or don't mind spoilers for it, here is my side by side video comparison with Twin Peaks. These shows are very different on the surface yet they have a striking relationship.
Just before work on my Journey videos began, I created a screencap visual tribute to Laura & Cooper featuring all the moments they share or in which one is coming into contact with traces of the other:
Last year I made a meme/set of memes to clarify who contributed to the creation of Laura Palmer and how they contributed, as best I know:
On the 25th anniversary of Twin Peaks I shared some thoughts on why Twin Peaks was both influential and misunderstood:
Round-ups of other writers
Two years ago, while preparing for a conversation about Fire Walk With Me, I underwent massive research into the show and film and ended up gathering over 100 pieces of commentary from newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, blogs, and videos from 1989 to 2014. I organized quotes chronologically and included links wherever possible. This is a good ground zero for anyone hoping to expand their understanding of how Twin Peaks has been discussed over the years:
Later I revisited the Usenet forums of 1990-92 to recover some of my favorite pieces of Twin Peaks commentary from the time it aired. This is a great look at how viewers responded in real time:
Finally, I went to fans today (on the dugpa forum) and asked them to recall how they had reacted to key moments on the first run-through:
In addition to all of this I have conducted several interviews with authors of Twin Peaks/David Lynch publications or documentaries, only one of which has been linked so far. If you want to explore more, I have created a massive list of every Twin Peaks post - or even fleeting mention - on my blog, from podcast appearances to news updates to image round-ups. Enjoy.

The comments section below may contain spoilers for season 3.

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