A Skeptic’s Guide To Twin Peaks

I never intended to become a Twin Peaks fan. Around sophomore year of college my roommates were watching it and I hesitated to get drawn in. I’m not always a fan of the kind of meta-surrealist narrative David Lynch does. But when I sat down and watched a few minutes I was hooked. TP takes Lynch’s stylistic brilliance and weds it to an engrossing serial narrative about the subject Poe called the most poetical in the world: the death of a beautiful woman. But the story is so much more than that. It succeeds because it takes melodramatic subjects and imbues them with profound mythical and allegorical significance. Mark Frost deserves a lot of credit here for helping guide Lynch’s ideas into such an effective long form story.

Consider the relationship of Sheriff Truman and Agent Cooper, in many ways the core of the show. It’s such a great depiction of a friendship, how it can spring up in the most unlikely of circumstances. The two are opposite types in a similar field of work. Truman is a heartland law enforcement guy. Cooper is a cosmopolitan FBI agent. Truman is practical and by the book. Cooper is driven by Buddhist mysticism and totally unorthodox in his investigative procedures. Their friendship grows because of their differences, because they are fascinated by the way that the other does things. But deep down they have a similar ethical core and that’s the essence of their bond.

Twin Peaks depicts evil and human depravity in a very powerful way. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, there will always be an element of mystery in human sin. We almost never see Laura Palmer, but she’s such a powerful character in the show because of her dual nature. Like Dr. Jekyll she had destructive, base desires which she sought to fulfill in secret, until they ultimately destroyed her. But she is the show’s tragic figure. There is no blame or judgment cast upon her, but sadness and a giant sense of loss. Bobby sums this up at her funeral when he blurts out that the whole town is responsible for her death, because they knew she was hurting and no one gave her the help she needed.

As I’ve re-watched the show I’ve been struck by how relevant its themes are in the current cultural and political climate. Washington is a blue state but Twin Peaks is rural Washington and has cultural aspects we would associate with red America. It’s the mom and pop small town and it’s no accident that pie is such a prominent aesthetic set piece. Of course we learn there are many dark and depraved things going on in this town. But the show is not just another tedious expose on small town hypocrisy. It revels in the good aspects of small towns and the good people who struggle for decency and community amidst real challenges and temptations.

In some ways Twin Peaks is a recasting of the Garden of Eden story in an American setting. BOB is the snake, the malevolent, destructive force striking at Eden and leading its people astray. Certainly Lynch had no intention of making any sort of Christian theological message. Cooper’s Buddhism is the only religion presented in a positive light. But the show has a real grasp of sin and evil, and its supernatural dramatization of how good and evil interact is highly compelling. When the show goes otherworldly it raises goosebumps in the viewer. It shows the reality of evil, but also the persistence of good and the ongoing struggle between the two in both the natural and spiritual realms.

Twin Peaks famously sputtered in season 2 after revealing Laura Palmer’s killer. This crash and lack of narrative direction led to inevitable cancelation. But the show really got its mojo back in the last few episodes and ended with the mother of all cliff hangers. I’m really excited to see what’s in store with season 3. The fact that Lynch and Frost are in charge gives me confidence that we’re in for something special. Given Cooper’s age in the red room, it’s possible that Lynch foresaw this long gap in the narrative all along. Twin Peaks is a mystery with style and heart that always leaves you with something deeper to think about. We need stories like this now more than ever.

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