At 10:30 AM on 26th March, I entered Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Britain’s oldest cinema in continuous use. At 19:30 PM on 27th March, I left. I’d just spent 33 hours drinking coffee, eating doughnuts, and watching Twin Peaks. I wouldn’t commit myself to a marathon screening of any other show – in fact, up until this point the longest I’d spent in the cinema was to see Nymphomaniac parts 1 & 2 back-to-back. But Twin Peaks is different.
While it may have stiff competition for favourite TV show, I feel confident in saying it has been the most electrifying and influential – from my tastes in art to my own writing. It also introduced me to its co-creator David Lynch, who has been my favourite director ever since. If you hate season two of Twin Peaks or think Inland Empire is a mess, you might feel the urge to call me a Lynch apologist, because there’s almost nothing he’s made that I don’t love (well, except Dune). And that’s mostly because of the connecting thematic thread I feel between each of his projects. An ongoing storyline based upon an unfolding mystery is perfect for Lynch’s sensibilities, and gave him the opportunity to explore these themes in more detail than he could with individual two-hour experiences. The way these ideas evolved throughout the show, and how they suffered during Lynch’s midseason departure, becomes easier to discern when viewed in a marathon format.
Even today, the way Twin Peaks immediately and playfully engaged with its audience is thrilling. As it lured us to follow the mystery week after week, it poked fun at itself, the viewers, and the genre it inhabited. It embraced soap opera clichés at the same time as it deconstructed the tropes of the medium. The most iconic example of this may still be the end of ‘Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer’. Through an astounding surreal sequence unparalleled in television, except perhaps by itself, Cooper dreams of the Red Room, a dancing, backwards-talking dwarf, and a secret whispered into his ear by Laura Palmer herself. The first two episodes had their strange moments for sure, but the effect of this scene shook the medium and told a generation of viewers that television could become an art form in the same way that cinema had. Not satisfied with turning the table once, the episode ends with the mockery of the serialised format and its cliffhangers. Cooper phones Sheriff Truman to tell him he knows the identity of Laura’s killer, but then remarks – “No, this can wait till morning.”
It’s not surprising that it’s a Lynch-helmed episode, whose five episodes as director would each be a turning point for the show narratively and stylistically. They are also the ones that push the limits of the audience’s patience the most, from black comedy to irritation and back again. The first episode of season two, the follow-up to the cliffhanger of Cooper being shot, begins with a drawn-out scene of him bleeding out as an elderly waiter slowly places a glass of milk on his table, doesn’t understand his call for a doctor, and leaves. It’s dragged out to an excruciating degree, and my audience went through stages of laughter, anxiety and frustration; you could feel it in the room. Twin Peaks had the self-awareness to feature a show within a show, a soap called “Invitation to Love”, and the confidence to let these cutaways reflect, predict, and mock the overarching narrative. After all, this is a show where the director’s voice communicates exposition to the protagonist through speakerphone, before entering the show physically and becoming one of its best characters. The daring subversion at play inspired other programmes like The Simpsons to subvert the airwaves in their own way (a gift that show paid tribute to twice). There is much talk of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire laying the groundwork for television to be seen as art, but Twin Peaks was there, just ten years too early.
While the surrealism and subversion had an impact, a considerable amount of the affection still held for the show over the years comes down to the memorable characters. There wouldn’t be a fanbase if it wasn’t for Kyle Maclachlan’s peculiar Special Agent Dale Cooper. He’s incredibly enthusiastic about everything from the smell of the trees to the taste of the coffee, full of lyricism yet with an alarming disconnect from common human interactions. The glee he takes in finding clues to the violent crime is darkly funny as it’s contrasted with the widespread melodramatic despair of the town. He acts as the audience surrogate in the introduction of the town’s residents, before bringing in concepts of intuition and mysticism into the show. He is a character completed by Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), who is the sex symbol of television as far as I’m concerned. Maclachlan and Fenn’s chemistry is undeniable, and their scenes together are a delight. The way the two were drawn apart in the second season has been said to have been about drama behind the scenes, and the show suffers for it. How the show treats Cooper throughout the show is emblematic of the show’s alternating quality. The dip in quality mid-season two coincides with the period where he is assimilated into the town and becomes one of its most normal residents, driven by plot and little else. When Coop switches out his dark suit for flannel shirts you know something is wrong.
The rest of the characters are notable for how fully-formed they feel right off the bat, even though most of them are formulated as or at least driven by soap opera archetypes. The two extreme opposites in the series are the pairings of James / Donna, and Shelly / Bobby. The former begin as simply one of the weaker aspects of the story, but become mind-numbingly boring by their final episodes. I actually like a lot of Donna’s story, but James is less of a charisma vacuum than a black hole draining the charm from the scene. He’s another entry into Lynch’s “cool guy in jacket” series alongside Wild at Heart‘s Sailor Ripley and Lost Highway‘s Pete Dayton, but has a greater resemblance to a trout with a hair transplant stuffed into a leather jacket. Some of his scenes were met with widespread laughter from the audience (including me), and are pretty much the only moments of comedy that aren’t intentional to some degree. Twenty-four hours into the marathon, I felt okay to shut my eyes during some of his scenes. On the other side of the spectrum are Bobby and Shelly, one of my favourite on-screen couples. Their arc only really suffers when they are kept apart, as they are one of the most compelling aspects of the show despite their tangential connection to the overarching narrative.
Twin Peaks is masterful in its use of tone. There is no other show that I’ve seen that can blend comedy, melancholy, and horror in the same way. These tonal opposites don’t negate one another, but instead provide contrast and emphasis. Leland (Ray Wise) is the epitome of this, even before he is revealed as the killer. Most of his ridiculous outbursts start out hilarious before becoming sad, and hop back and forth between the two. The humour and sadness of his scenes are in flux, less of a transition than a blurred line. It was fascinating to see an audience’s response to such ambiguity, some burst into laughter then gasped as they were hit with the tragedy of his grief and madness, silenced by the turn.
While the dichotomy between comedy and tragedy is exhibited throughout the show, horror is found in rare doses. However, the way this clashes with the quaint idiosyncrasies of the rest of the show makes it all the brutal and unnerving. It’s an injection of darkness into the soap melodrama landscape that venerates the good while exposing its instability. It’s a common theme running through David Lynch’s projects – that all the idyllic white picket fences of class privilege is tenuously balanced atop an underworld of horror and madness, a world that isn’t as separate from ours as we’d hope. One of my favourite shots in the show is based around a flirtatious conversation in a diner. The camera zooms out from their conversation at a painfully slow pace, only for the scene to play out as normal. It’s a clever way to make even an innocuous conversation feel ominous, as if something awful is about to happen. Of course, it’s a Lynch-directed episode, which are notable for their fixation on the extreme limits of brutal violence and absurdism. As Lynch departed in the middle of season two, due to differences with the studio and the filming of Wild at Heart, this tonal balance was lost. There was an increasing focus on the lighter side of the show, but without the destabilizing effect of the underlying darkness, these scenes began to like they belong in a small-minded sitcom rather than a satire of one.
What always surprises me watching Twin Peaks is how thematically complex it is. Each episode ends with the same photo of Laura Palmer, and each of these themes link back to it. An acceptable description of the show, in its first season at least, is to say it’s about men discovering the complex interior lives of women. The revelations of Laura’s drug use, sexual activity and unorthodox behaviour shocks even the town sheriff, who is reluctant to believe and indignant at the mere suggestion. Laura had become a symbol of purity for the town, and now they have to reconcile what they knew about her with her revealed imperfection; essentially, they have to come to terms with the fact that she was a multifaceted human being with internal struggles not beholden to the public. I’m reminded of an exchange in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me:
Albert: Tell me some other things about her.
Cooper: She’s in high school. She is sexually active. She is using drugs. She’s crying out for help.
Albert: Well damn, Cooper, that really narrows it down. You’re talking about half the high school girls in America!
It took death for Laura to be seen as a subject rather than an object. Meanwhile, Donna reacts to this death by trying to break out of the role of the pure, innocent and perfect daughter. She wears Laura’s sunglasses, starts smoking, and attempts to redefine herself with a new attitude. Josie Packard (Joan Chen) is slowly revealed to be a criminal, and again the men in her life refuse to believe it. She plays the same games as other manipulative villains of Twin Peaks, but is punished for her crimes, ending up as a tragic figure. Sheriff Truman is deeply wounded by this reveal, but set himself up for defeat by repeatedly ignoring the signs that she is not the woman he wants her to be. More broadly speaking, the show deals with public and private lives. If it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to murder one, at least in a town as interconnected as Twin Peaks. Laura’s death is a symptom of a dark world, and the trigger for other characters to create or destroy themselves. Through Ed, Norma and Nadine we see the consequences of a wasted youth, a possible outcome for the younger romances of the show. All the relationships in the show find release in the collective trauma of loss, and are unified in the melancholy. In one scene, Cooper has a vision where he is told, “It is happening again”. The tragedy is repeating itself, and there’s nothing any of them can do about it. Around him others are struck by the same feeling of despair, by coincidence or some sort of physic event.
The show loses its focus and edge after the main storyline is concluded with Leland’s death. It starts to lose sight of what it was about – it doesn’t need to directly relate to Laura Palmer, but it does thematically. The show starts with the strange intruding on the normal, and ends up becoming a fantasy adventure, while the world begins to feel smaller and more limited. The literal workings of the Black Lodge, BOB and The Man From Another Place are less interesting than what their immateriality signifies. The elusive allegorical roles they play speaks to the complicated nature of good and evil. They are the surreal and unimaginable trying to find embodiment through the ordinary – coffee, familiar faces, a “waiting room” – while on a metafictional level Lynch is trying to communicate these abstract ideas through a visual medium. The show, and Lynch himself, have a reputation for being weird – but there’s nothing pointless about what unfolds. There is always meaning behind these strange occurrences, and even its absence the atmosphere alone is worth the ride.
Every single thing is completely planned […] My perspective is that he honors every single person’s story, every presence in every moment. He just knows how to be grateful for the present, and he knows how to see the magic in the seemingly mundane. Some people are like, “Oh, no, just do it quick, we have to shoot the lead,” but for him, that’s not finding the truth. – Sherilyn Fenn
The ending of the show is controversial to say the least. We are effectively left with a series of cliffhangers, with most of the cast left in a place of physical danger or emotional turmoil. As Cooper enters the Black Lodge we are treated to the most surreal and frightening sequence ever to grace the small screen. But he escapes, and all seems to be well. Cooper appears to be exhausted, not revelling in his success but beaten down by it. He goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, before smashing his face into it. We see in his reflection that BOB has taken over, and Cooper mocks his own comment “How’s Annie?”, laughing as blood streams down his face. It’s understandable that people were frustrated with this as the ending of the show. It’s a depressing, traumatic, and cruel place to leave the characters we love. But for me, Twin Peaks had to end this way – or never end at all. I say that knowing that Lynch himself never intended it to be the ending of the whole show, but a cliffhanger for them to follow up on in season three. The reason the creators wanted to keep the murder mystery going was because the mystery itself was what was important, rather than the specific answers. It’s an excuse to explore the lives of these characters, and tap into a surreal dreamscape at the root of it all. The final episode leaves all of its characters in the midst of traumatic events, and while it’s not satisfying in a traditional cathartic sense, as an ending it completes the overall arc and redefines it. The battle between good and evil is the subject of most of Lynch’s films to some degree, and this debate extends to the lessons of the texts themselves. Most of my conversations about his films come down to, “Does the director agree with this cynical statement?” or “is this happy ending sincere?” At its core, I believe Twin Peaks is an expression of love, passion, spirituality, and fear. And like Major Briggs, its greatest fear is “the possibility that love is not enough.”
Watching all of Twin Peaks in one marathon session was an exhausting experience, and a little overwhelming when you’re eight coffees in, but it offered the chance to see it from a new perspective. Even with the arrival of binge-watching with streaming services, we rarely have the chance to see exactly how a show evolves over its run. The more cinematic scenes of the first season were captivating to see in a movie theatre. Audrey’s dancing scene in the diner blew me away, while the surreal heights of the Red Room had an even greater effect. We have become so accustomed to watching films or brilliantly crafted shows like Breaking Bad in our living rooms, it’s easy to forget the spectacle cinemas offer. With such a strange show, the specificity of the humour and horror, and the blurred line in between, worried me. How would an audience react to this? Would they laugh when I laugh, fall into silence when I do? I wasn’t let down, because a 35-hour period spent in the cinema is for the mad and the devoted, and Twin Peaks has enough of the former for all of us. It may have ruined my sleeping pattern for a few days, and guaranteed my nights be full of bizarre dreams, but it was worth it. The red curtains are a stable image of the series, and much of Lynch’s work, so it felt right to see the theatre curtains part at the beginning of each episode. In Twin Peaks they are present at the boundary between worlds, or, as the director describes:
Curtains are both hiding and revealing. Sometimes it’s so beautiful that they’re hiding, it gets your imagination going. But in the theatre, when the curtains open, you have this fantastic euphoria, that you’re going to see something new, something will be revealed.
Editor’s Note: Originally published on April 19, 2016.
Featured Image: ABC