Twin Peaks and Philosophy
A Supernatural Soap Opera
“I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
-Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks
When Twin Peaks first arrived on television in 1990, it signalled a substantial shift in American television, featuring a morass of conflicting techniques and traits, from soap opera-ish theatrics, metafictional comedy, and supernatural elements which would go on to influence other shows such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Slavoj Žižek notes, Twin Peaks was “simultaneously comical, provoking laughter; unbearably naïve; and yet to be taken thoroughly ‘seriously.’” That it exhibited a homelessness of genre won over audiences with its quirky take on a serious subject matter.
The show’s narrative catalyst was the death of prom queen Laura Palmer, found washed up on a rocky beach “wrapped in plastic.” Her untimely and mysterious death sets off a chain of events both bizarre and surreal within the small town, weaving a web of deception in the everyday lives of its citizens.
Jake Hinkson argues: “‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ is just the hook. The deeper mystery, it is becoming clear to me, is really ‘Who Was Laura Palmer?’” By the time the series begins, Laura is already dead, and only appears to the audience in flashbacks, dreams, and photographs. Palmer serves, as Todd McGowan writes, “as a structuring absence that organises the desire of the other characters and the spectator.” Laura’s character remains, as McGowan argues, “a mystery to be solved. Insofar as she exists just outside our grasp, she embodies the impossible object.”
Laura’s emptiness is heightened through her role as friend, lover, daughter, student, volunteer, prom queen, English teacher, and prostitute, exhibiting a kind of postmodern lack of inner-self in which identities are worn to obscure the lack of any stable form within. As is revealed in the once-vilified prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Laura struggles with her shifting identities while suffering as the victim of incest. Yet Laura ultimately decides that she would rather die than have her identity taken over by the sinister force of Killer Bob, who, in response, brutally murders her while in his human host Leland Palmer (Laura’s father).
Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper, the eccentric FBI agent who comes to town to solve the mystery of Laura’s death, and in the process reveals the town’s inner secrets. Slavoj Žižek argues that in Lynch’s work: “the law is enforced through the ridiculous, hyperactive, life-enjoying agent.” This description aptly suits Cooper, whose unorthodox method of tracking Laura’s killer includes, as Cooper himself notes: “Bureau guidelines, deductive technique, Tibetan method, instinct, and luck.” Cooper is also given clues within his dreams, including one of his more notable dreams that takes place within the White Lodge (or the Red Room). Within this space, a backward-talking Laura Palmer whispers the name of her killer in Cooper’s ear. Immediately upon awakening, Cooper calls Sheriff Harry Truman, proclaiming he knows the identity of Laura’s killer, but by morning, he has forgotten.
While Freud’s dubious views on the link between dreams and repressed sexual desires are hardly applicable here, his views on dream censorship are. For Freud, the forgetting of dreams “remains inexplicable until we seek to explain it by the power of psychic censorship.” Importantly, however, Freud notes that “All the dream-content that has been lost by forgetting can often be recovered by analysis.” In Cooper’s case, pain-staking analysis eventually serves to recover what is lost in his dream when he remembers what Laura says to him: “My father killed me.”
Cooper himself becomes the essential philosophical figure whose presence unearths and destroys the evil within the town through his extensive knowledge and power of spirit. As discussed in Plato’s The Republic, specifically through a dialogue of Socrates and Glaucon, it is stated that “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy […] cities will never have rest from their evils.”
Cooper frequently encounters challenges to his authority and method of investigation, and is even suspended from duty in the show’s second season, for unlawfully crossing the American-Canadian border to save Audrey Horne. In position of power is the town’s hard-of-hearing and critical Dwayne Milford, whose continuous rivalry with his brother culminates in his marriage to a young seductress. Cooper’s own moral compass is displayed when he politely declines Audrey’s affections due to her youth (but not before he engages in a relationship with the young Annie Blackburn in the show’s second season).
American as Cherry Pie
Prior to Twin Peaks, David Lynch explored the “veneer of civilisation” in his film Blue Velvet. Characters Jeffrey and Sandy ponder the existence of evil in the world, with Sandy recounting a dream she had:
“…in the dream the world was dark because there weren’t any robins. You know, birds. Robins stood for love. And all of a sudden thousands of robins flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it felt like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. I guess. Until the robins come there is trouble.”
By the end of Blue Velvet, Michael Atkinson writes that: “Jeffrey and Sandy enjoy the recovered suburban paradise of Lynch’s dreams, complete with a beetle-chewing clockwork robin.” Shaun Mir argues that the robin “marks the end of the surreal and nightmarish events experienced by those small town characters.” The end scene of Blue Velvet can be seen to act as a prophetic clue for Twin Peaks four years later, and the Bewick’s wren that appears in the very first scene of the opening credits to the show’s haunting score.
Where the robin acts as the hope for humanity and the dream emerging from chaos in Blue Velvet, the wren in Twin Peaks appears to signal the reappearance of the dark side of reality, as epitomised in the quaint small town, which is no longer Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, but now the Twin Peaks Lumber Mill, signalling the importance of the woods. Viewers will remember that amongst the show’s many enigmatic lines is the cautionary line delivered by Sheriff Truman: “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods.”
Lynch’s avian interests are rife with symbolic undertones of the dream/nightmare binary, from the dreamlike robin to the suspicious wren and the threatening owl. As we are told in Twin Peaks: “the owls are not what they seem.” We are meant to disregard much of what we initially learn, lest we come to the wrong conclusions.
Also of interest is the presence of lumber. Willa Brown argues in The Atlantic that the lumberjack “looms large in the American imagination” and acts as “a symbol of American manhood” something which is greatly at stake in Lynch’s work, where the men struggle to sustain and defend their manhood (such as Andy in Twin Peaks, Fred in Lost Highway, and Frank in Blue Velvet).
The lumberjack, for Brown, was a romantic hero in America in times of financial and economic crisis. This re-contextualisation of well-known American tropes and identities is common with Lynch, seen with the presence of the strange cowboy in Mulholland Drive, who possesses an unusual but threatening sense of authority. Lynch takes these icons of the American landscape and imagination and subverts them, makes them strange, and places them within an alternate context. The normality and innocence with which these icons are usually associated is abruptly challenged and distorted, the idea of American society suddenly made unstable.
J. Hoberman describes this as Lynch’s “continuous subversion of apple-pie normalacy,” which should bring as no surprise the image of the immensely popular cherry pie with which Twin Peaks fans will no doubt be endearingly familiar. Dale Cooper is gastronomically enamoured with the cherry pie, seemingly representing the opposite of the “American as apple pie” rhetoric that goes along with the normalised, innocent, “America-next-door” concept. Cult fans will remember early in the series Cooper’s exclamation: “They got a cherry pie here that’ll kill ya!” delivered almost with the voice and face of a smiling addict. The substitution of the apple pie with cherry pie, then, appears significant in its symbolising of the darker elements of the all-American life.
Pleasures such as food, sex, and beauty all become focal elements in the overarching discussion of civilisation within Twin Peaks. Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents becomes useful and relevant here; for Freud, civilisation is a veneer that obscures our inner most drives and desires. Each inhabitant of the town of Twin Peaks has a secret that revolves around their hidden desire, whether they are drugs mules, murderers, adulterers, or all of the above. It isn’t until Laura’s death that these secrets, one by one, are revealed to the viewers and to the unnervingly perceptive Cooper.
In contrast to Freudian notions of repression are Friedrich Nietzsche’s views on embracing passions as essentially human. In The Dawn, Nietzsche puts forth the argument that “The passions become evil and malicious if they are regarded as evil and malicious.” We are therefore left to distinguish between positive and destructive passions within the series. Elements of “positive passion” can be seen in the salacious trysts between the characters Shelley and Bobby, and Hank and Norma, while instances of “destructive passion” are observable in Laura’s dalliances with the likes of Ben Horne and, of course, in Killer Bob’s sexual obsession with Laura.
In his discussion of civilisation, Freud notes that “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilisation could not do without it.” The civilisation within Twin Peaks is bound up, seemingly, in Laura’s beauty, embodiment as she is of the American dream. For McGowan, Laura “embodies the idea of contemporary American female beauty,” and in her destruction the American dream falters, as the town descends into nightmarish antics. An attempt to restore their faith in beauty alone is seen in the show’s second season when the annual “Miss Twin Peaks” contest is held, but this, too, ends in tragedy and horror.
As in all of Lynch’s works, the use of the double is especially important in Twin Peaks, with the dual forces of good and evil, light and dark, and dream and reality functioning as a broader metaphor on morality.
In Twin Peaks, the double is exhibited in several incidents, both for unnerving and comedic effect. In the first episode of the series, Cooper has a dream that he is in the White Lodge, where he sees a girl who, according to the “Man from Another Place,” looks “exactly like Laura Palmer.” We are told, however, that the girl is in fact the Man’s cousin. Not long after Laura is killed, her cousin Madeline Ferguson arrives in Twin Peaks (played by the same actress, Sheryl Lee), and the stark similarities between her and Laura are observed by many including James Hurley, Donna Hayward, and notably Leland Palmer.
The characters Mike and Bobby (the ex-boyfriends of Donna and Laura respectively) are doubled in Mike and Bob, the evil but opposing forces in the town, their names adding to the confusion in the investigation. Another, more humorous double, occurs with Nadine Hurley, when she attempts to kill herself by overdosing on pills, and eventually wakes up from a coma with the personality of her teenage self and a new, powerful level of strength.
Lynch’s particular use of the double, in these instances, functions by avoiding the necessary but altogether troubling space between good and evil that is often too confronting to accept. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, for instance, the two are not juxtaposed in any concrete sense but are fundamentally part of the same matrix of humanity. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche asks: “Where does that synthesis of god and billy goat in the satyr point?” Discussing the opposing forces of Dionysus and Apollo, Nietzsche claims:
“We are therefore to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself […] In this existence as a dismembered god, Dionysus possesses the dual nature of a cruel, barbarized demon and a mild, gentle ruler.”
Viewers can therefore observe the subtleties of humanity and the ambiguity of good and evil inherent in Twin Peaks (the television format more easily able to flesh out this fusion of characteristics within its characters), that more closely conforms to Nietzsche’s views on the necessary evil within good (and by extension the potential good within evil). We see a number of characters who lead double lives, many of whom ultimately come to seek redemption, such as Catherine Martell and Benjamin Horne, two characters who take on alternate identities (Mr Tojamura and a Civil War general respectively).
By the end of the series we also see possible redemption in the abusive Leo Johnson when he is contrasted with a “greater evil” in Windom Earle, while characters considered formerly “good,” such as Josie Packard, are overwhelmed by their more destructive impulses. Yet even in Josie’s femme fatale can we locate an inherent conflict of impulse, leading us to speculate, along with Nietzsche: “Under what conditions did man devise the value-judgements good and evil? And what value do they themselves possess? Have they hitherto hindered or furthered prosperity?”
Twin Peaks acts as a treatise on morality but is wary of making any conclusive judgements regarding human impulses, considering the extent to which morally questionable acts are viewed favourably within the show (the relationship between Hank and Norma, Catherine Martell’s blackmailing of Ben Horne, and the unrealised romantic union between Cooper and Audrey despite their age difference). Like the mist that surrounds the town of Twin Peaks itself, the show remains foggy in its stance on human behaviour, but ultimately supports those instances in which passion leads to a place both wonderful and strange.
Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar and tutor at Macquarie University, completing her PhD in media and cultural studies. Her philosophical work has appeared in Philosophy Now and Philosophical Approaches to the Devil (Routledge), and she has published in a number of journals and magazines including PopMatters, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Conversation, The Washington Post, and Continuum, among others.
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