Twin Peaks: what did I just watch?

by Louis Calvert

Twin Peaks: what did I just watch?
October 22, 2020 Louis Calvert

The legacy of Twin Peaks has echoed across the past 30 years so pervasively that someone watching it today for the first time is likely to find it hauntingly familiar. But is it still good in 2020? Warning: contains spoilers.

Twin Peaks was so iconic during the early 1990s that its visual and storytelling influence spread into other media even in the slower-moving pre-internet age. Contemporary TV shows such as The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Northern Exposure, Beverly Hills 90210, Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live (to name but a few) all featured subtle or not-so-subtle homages and references to the weirdness of Twin Peaks. Even today, 30 years after it first aired, it’s still being cited as either a direct or indirect influence on a huge number of modern TV shows, films, music, and video games — especially those that delve into eerie, surreal and weird themes.

At the time there was nothing else like Twin Peaks. It broke conventions, defied genres and created a buzz amongst audiences that had a life of its own. TV in the 90s was limited to a relatively small number of channels, and there was no ‘on-demand’ viewing, no streaming, no personalised viewing preferences. Major studios ruled the networks and it was a risky business breaking from established patterns, leading to a culture of conservatism that discouraged experimental creators. Writer/Director David Lynch (Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead) and writer Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues) stepped into this arena with an idea for a TV detective drama series with a twist. Lynch was already an established Hollywood filmmaker known for his experimental and often innovative approach to writing and directing. Frost came from the critically acclaimed police procedural Hill Street Blues, and it’s likely that this creative combination reassured the executives at ABC that making something a little bit different was a risk worth taking.

In 1990 viewers sat in front of the TV to meet FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), called in to assist local Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) investigating the murder of teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Cooper discovers clues that lead him to belive that this murder is linked to a case from the year before, and that he believes the killer lives in the town of Twin Peaks. Cooper takes a hotel room in the town to investigate further… and this formed the main narrative pillar that kept people tuning in week after week, to ask: who killed Laura Palmer?

The filming locations for Twin Peaks evoke both grand-scale isolation and a small-town community feel. Cooper, and by extension the viewer, are isolated from the real world almost immediately and sucked into the interwoven lives of the peculiar residents of Twin Peaks. Sweeping visuals of hundreds of miles of forest, vast waterfalls and the eponymous mountains, combined with the haunting soundtrack composed by Angelo Badalamenti, impose a mysterious, unsettling and otherworldly vibe. All this starkly contrasts with the down-to-earth progression of a standard police investigation into a grisly murder. None of this was accidental: the show was deliberately designed to be off-key and took delight in disorienting the audience, subverting expectations and unapologetically breaking the mould of established police procedurals.

In 2020 the ideas behind Twin Peaks may not seem that extraordinary, but that’s mostly because Twin Peaks paved the way for things like The X-Files, Riverdale, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Dark, Stranger Things, Haven, Fringe, and so many more. Many of these shows have and will influence other media, and so the bloodline of Twin Peaks remains strong. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks is the direct spiritual forerunner of modern TV, Lynch and Frost’s work on the series undoubtedly helped create the ecosystem that our modern media exists within.

Despite this overwhelming cultural success many people, both then and now, find Twin Peaks to be a dense, odd, and confusing mess of a TV series — particularly the second season.

 

The owls are not what they seem

From the very first episode viewers picked up on the famed weirdness of Twin Peaks, even before it became explicit in season two. Agent Cooper is the viewer’s surrogate as he meets the townsfolk, and through his witty, charming and unswervingly process-oriented approach to investigation we ride along as he peels back the layers of Twin Peaks.

The frame is established as a police procedural. Cooper starts questioning Laura’s friends, family, her boyfriend — all the usual suspects. By episode three it’s clear that this town isn’t quite normal, and that there’s a curious mix of oddities piling up. Episode three is known as ‘Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer’, and contains a scene that cemented Twin Peaks’ place in history: Cooper’s Dream.

Agent Cooper turns off the light in his hotel room and settles into bed after the day’s investigations. The scene fades to an aged dream-Cooper sitting in an armchair, backed by blood-red curtains. The floor is an eye-bending zig-zagging black and white pattern. A man with dwarfism wearing a suit the same colour as the curtains (Michael J. Anderson) twitches oddly with his back to Cooper, who is sitting passively in the chair. The dream flashes through a montage including the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s blue-skinned plastic-wrapped corpse, and fades into a monologue from a man with one arm (Al Strobel) who explains in a slow, resonant voice: 

“The magician longs to see… One chance out between two worlds… Fire, walk with me… We lived among the people… I think you say, convenience store? We lived above it. I mean it like it is, like it sounds… I, too, have been touched by the devilish one. Tattoo on the left shoulder… oh, but when I saw the face of God, I was changed… Took the entire arm off. My name is Mike. His name is Bob.”

All this is cut with strobing lights and odd, otherworldly droning sounds. We then see the denim-wearing Bob (Frank Silva) hamming it up against an industrial backdrop of pipes and valves saying “I promise, I will kill again.” This sequence ends with a ring of candles burning around a pile of dirt, and then fades back into the mysterious Red Room from the start of the dream. Laura Palmer, very much alive, sits smiling at the older Cooper from a chair opposite him. The man in the red suit — later called ‘The Man from Another Place’ and ‘The Arm’ — turns around in a disquieting way, opens his mouth and says “Let’s rock!” in a warped and distorted voice (which is subtitled because it’s so distorted). 

The disquieting speech uttered by The Man from Another Place and Laura Palmer herself was achieved by having them learn their lines backwards. Every word and action was performed in reverse, then played forwards. This lends the entire scene a creepy and unsettling vibe, amped up by the odd pacing, the long silences, and a creepy shadow that passes over the curtains in the background.

 

The man: “Let’s rock!… I’ve got good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.”

(Cooper looks at the woman.)

The Man: “She’s my cousin. But doesn’t she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?”

Cooper: “But it is Laura Palmer. Are you Laura Palmer?”

The Woman: “I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.”

The Man: “She’s filled with secrets… Where we’re from the birds sing a pretty song, and there’s always music in the air.”

 

The Man from Another Place gets up as jazz music begins to play and dances across the floor. The woman approaches Cooper, gently kisses him on the lips, and whispers something in his ear. Back in the real world agent Cooper awakes with a start.

With that, TV history was made. According to Lynch this was an unplanned scene that came to him on the spur of the moment. His trademark surrealism broke the surface like an eldritch beast and Twin Peaks secured its place in the gestalt of media history.

The dream does two things for Twin Peaks: it pushes the investigation in a new direction, and it opens the door for all the weirdness that follows. This surreal overlay exists through the whole first season in direct contrast to the relatively mundane events that take up most of the run-time of each episode. There’s a definite soap-opera vibe to the interactions of the townsfolk, and that’s what makes these occasional blips in reality all the more compelling. Aside from Cooper’s investigation, the townsfolk are going on with their normal, highly convoluted (and often criminal) lives. There’s corruption, bribery, domestic abuse, lies, plots of murder (mostly unrelated to Laura Palmer); there’s a secret brothel, at least one secret society, individuals who are certainly eccentric if not outright unhinged, and much more. These other plots stretch back long before Laura’s murder and essentially form the worldbuilding of Twin Peaks.

Season one’s eight episodes end rather shockingly with Agent Cooper being shot by an unknown assailant in his hotel room. Season two picks up right there with Cooper lying bleeding on the hotel room floor; then seems to metaphorically wink at the audience and say ‘I know what you’re here for’, as a ghostly apparition known as The Giant (Carel Struycken) appears to give Cooper four highly cryptic clues. The Giant’s clues contain the famous line “the owls are not what they seem”, repeated by several characters through the series from here on out. This out-and-out otherworldly being that unapologetically pops into existence in many ways sets the tone for season two: this isn’t going to be a subtle blend of intrigue and oddness, this is turning the weirdness dial up to eleven, then breaking it off.

Season two is considerably longer — at 22 episodes — and suffers for that. The murder of Laura Palmer is solved, or at least laid to rest, by episode nine. This functionally ends the core intrigue and mystery that’s kept the series pushing forward. Lynch and Frost say that the intention was for other plotlines to take the foreground and provide the motive force for the series to continue. In reality, season two feels far more disjointed, surreal, and more conscious that it’s being watched by an audience waiting for the next watercooler moment. The oddities and weirdness are much more front and centre. Bit-part characters pop in to deliver cryptic lines and off-beat ‘clues’ that seem to go nowhere and feel like they’re dropped in just to tease the viewers. There’s an undercurrent of desperation as season two progresses, leaving viewers to flounder around in too many disconnected threads and too many strange things, with too few answers. The main cast are left to hold everything together, with a lot of the heart of the show relying on the audience simply caring about Cooper and a few key characters. That’s not to say there aren’t things to enjoy in season two, and there’s still the shadow of what made season one so compelling. It’s more that as a whole, and particularly after the resolution of the Laura Palmer case, the season just doesn’t work — it’s no longer good TV.

ABC chose to shelve Twin Peaks after a staggering drop in ratings during season two, and despite a small but loyal fan-driven letter-writing campaign, it was not renewed for a third season. In a 2017 interview with TVLine David Lynch is quoted as saying:

“The pilot is the only thing I am particularly, extremely proud of. There were great moments along the way… The second season sucked.” 

It’s a surprise then that in 1992 Lynch teamed up with Robert Engels, a writer credited with several episodes of Twin Peaks, mostly in season two. The pair created Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a prequel film. Despite many of the TV series cast reprising their roles, the film didn’t do well at all. 

Fire Walk With Me seemed to be the final nail in the coffin and the end of the Twin Peaks phenomenon, and by 1993 the audience had moved on. Other than the VHS and later DVD release, the occasional reruns, and underground cult following, Twin Peaks seemed to be over. A significant entry into the history of influential media, unlikely ever to be continued.

 

I believe I was visited by a giant last night

Despite repeatedly disowning most of season two for over 20 years and complaining about the direction that the studio, key actors, and maybe the owls ‘forced’ him to take with Twin Peaks, Lynch liked it all enough to double-down on season two and create an even more surrealist season three in 2017, otherwise known as Twin Peaks: The Return.

The 18 episode series — which is, in reality, an 18-hour mind-bending indie art film — received critical acclaim and multiple award nominations. At the time of writing it has an aggregated critical score of 74 on Metacritic and 94 Rotten Tomatoes. Viewers also highly rated the series, giving it 8.6 and 82% respectively. 

Digging a little deeper into the reviews reveals an interesting trend: both critics and viewers tend to be highly polarised. Either it’s rated extremely poorly or exceptionally highly. A lot of the reviews praise the artistic style, the extreme weirdness and the unconventional approach to making a TV series. The negative reviews tend to focus on the storytelling, the themes and narratives, the acting, the characterisation, and the overall entertainment value.

It’s hard not to consider the possibility of Twin Peaks: The Return being something of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. If it’s much-hyped as an amazing return of a cult classic, it must be a modern masterpiece, right? It’s undoubtedly a highly artistic creation, but does that actually make it good TV? If you’re sitting down to enjoy a slightly surreal police-soap-drama, how much surrealism is acceptable? 

Undoubtedly Twin Peaks rightly deserves an honoured place in our consciousness. It deserves periodic rewatching, both for pure enjoyment and also critical analysis. Season one is undeniably brilliant television and the franchise as a whole planted seeds we are still seeing germinate today. Whether or not it deserves to be listed as one of the ‘best’ TV shows of all time, though, is highly debatable.