Twin Peaks: Storytelling in Three Parts

When Twin Peaks first premiered on April 8th of 1990, audiences were simultaneously fascinated and befuddled. Ostensibly, this was a crime drama about the murder of Laura Palmer, a young average American teen with dark secrets, and the attempt by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to uncover her killer. But beneath the surface, there lurked a nightmarish and otherworldly quality few could predict. Now, for film aficionados, this may have come as little surprise, considering co-creator David Lynch’s track record for this type of art; films like Blue Velvet and Eraserhead took audiences down a rabbit hole of terrifying images and surreal symbolism. But this was different. Twin Peaks successfully subverted television as a genre at a time when the medium wasn’t being pushed to any considerable boundaries. This is before character-arc driven shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Six Feet Under would air on premium television channels like HBO, and it would be even longer until shows like Breaking Bad would push these kind of dark stories into the public eye on standard cable channels. But, despite the before-its-time brilliance of the show Lynch and Mark Frost created, it would be over just two seasons later in what many hardcore fans felt was an abrupt and neutered ending.

But this isn’t what I’m going to talk about. I can’t make you, my valuable and patient reader, sit through another 30-something dude’s blathering about how Twin Peaks changed television. I cannot wax poetic about Laura or Dr. Jacobi or BOB or The Man From Another Place (these are all actually characters in the show). What I’m interested in is what happened after the final frozen image of Dale Cooper aired on August 28, 1992, and how Lynch and Frost continued to keep this world of Twin Peaks alive thanks to three separate and very different iterations of storytelling. Of how they were able to tell a story with definite beginning, middle, or end. And how that was told over the course of 25 real-time years, thanks to a goofy and surreal soap opera, an arthouse horror film, and an emotional meditation on science fiction told through a miniseries.

Each of these pieces are wholly and completely different from one another, in tone, in production, and in context. Though they concern many of the same characters and all revolve around the murder of Laura Palmer, each has its own agenda. The original series, the subsequent 1992 film Fire Walk With Me, and its 2017 reboot can be viewed separately from the whole. This isn’t a traditional trilogy the way we might think of Lord of the Rings or the original Star Wars. Yet, each component is complimentary to the other. In fact, I would argue that for people who feel lost by the series that it’s primarily due to not seeing all three of these as interlocking parts of the same story being told.

[Writer’s note] Okay, so I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the original series and how brilliant it was, but I just realized I kind of have to. I’m sorry, I’m an unreliable author, and it will never happen again. Just hear me out.

Twin Peaks: The Original Series

Whether or not you’ve seen it, there’s a strong chance you already know the show. Maybe it’s from its memorable theme song, its vivid imagery of the wooded Pacific Northwest, or its strange cast of inhabitants; maybe you’re even a super fan. Regardless, it’s important to consider the format and medium used to tell the tale of this town. The show is divided into two seasons, the second one being considerably lengthier than the 8-episode opening season. It begins with the discovery of Laura’s body, which has varying impacts on seemingly everyone in the sleepy titular town. After the arrival of Agent Cooper, a series of strange clues begin to reveal themselves, and he’s tasked with discovering who is responsible for the crime.

Each episode is about an hour long, and throughout the series different suspects come and go into our audience view. But as dark as the show could get, with its strange dream sequences and terrifying glimpses of a maniac known only as BOB lurking in the shadows, this was still a show placed firmly in 1990. Though cable had expanded the options for people’s viewing, primetime television was still a three-network game. At the time, other popular shows would have been Cheers, Full House, Roseanne, and Alf. Though there were some crime procedurals, there was nothing that dared to be as dangerous or dark as Twin Peaks. Though this can be attributed to the pioneering spirit of its creators, the show is also a goofy program, filled with sitcom-esque tropes that fit firmly into that timeframe. There are soap opera moments throughout, and while the show descends into strange and scary territories, it still returns to its roots as a traditional ABC drama.

My point here, if there is one, is that the show works because of the time in which it was created. When many newcomers first watch the show, it can feel extremely dated and at times veer on emotional corniness. When the original series is described, critics tend to refer to it with blanket terms like “weird.” But throughout the show, there are very traditional television storytelling elements. By welcoming these recycled moves and then occasionally turning things on its head, the original series acts as a kind of timeless testament to its making, as well as an introduction to the world of Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

After the show’s abrupt ending in 1992, especially with its cliffhanger ending, many fans were clamoring for resolution to unresolved answers. Lynch’s response was Fire Walk With Me, the title being taken from an unsettling poem uttered throughout the original series. The movie actually acts as a prequel to the show, detailing the final days of Laura Palmer’s life and ends in her death. Now unbound by the restraints of primetime TV, Lynch really takes the time to explore the space and freedom of film. The movie oftentimes dives into horrifying and disturbing moments that serve to confound the viewer. The tone is decidedly darker, much of the jokey small town moments are missing. David Bowie shows up at one point. What I’m getting at is that this film, though telling the same story with the same characters, is extremely different from the original show.

For many years, this has been considered a maligned moment in Lynch’s filmmaking history. It received middling reviews, and caused a schism between Lynch and Frost. One review from the New York Times said, “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be,” he wrote. Quentin Tarrintino offered up a slightly different take, saying, that David Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie.”

I would offer a different view. Though the show had its funny moments, and crowd pleasing cherry pie, the subject matter is indisputably upsetting. This is a tale about a murdered teenage girl, one who was sexually assaulted, and the attempts to make sense of it all. The television show sometimes let us off the hook by allowing viewers to relax and enjoy the ride. Television is about pleasing crowds; Fire Walk With Me has no interest in the like. Instead, we’re forced to follow Laura into her final days, as things become frightening and furious. The movie centers around subtexts of incest and rage and leaves audiences deeply unsettled. It sets out to retell a tale in its own way, with its own rules.

Twin Peaks: The Return

I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers throughout this post, but this is going to take a bit of backstory. In the original series, Agent Cooper has a dream in which he meets someone who looks exactly like Laura. After some odd conversation, she leans in and whispers in his ear that she would see him again in 25 years. Though fans had theories regarding this, most were shocked when it was announced that Twin Peaks would be returning to television in 2017 – 25 years after the show ended. While this could be construed as a marketing ploy by Frost and Lynch (who eventually made up) or its parent channel Showtime, after several viewings of the 18-part miniseries I truly believe this was artistic intention.

The Return covers a lot of ground, with several concurrent story lines that seem to have no connection until they do. It picks up with Agent Cooper trapped in an ethereal world known as the White Lodge, as well as a strange murder in South Dakota that features a similar set of mysteries as the original iteration. However, it quickly explodes, moving forward and back between familiar faces and new characters. The tone is hard to pin down, sometimes extremely serious and grim, other times dipping its toes into genuinely hilarious waters. One episode in particular (“Episode 8”) is a hallucinatory masterpiece exploring the birth of BOB and the evil spirits haunting the Twin Peaks woods; it’s perhaps Lynch’s greatest visual showing to date.

But overall, this is a show about time. It features many of the same actors from the television show, some of whom have aged significantly. In the miniseries, characters pass away, or have strange visions of how things have changed over the years. It is breathtaking, and can be emotionally devastating at times. One show favorite, Margaret Lanterman – aka “The Log Lady” – was often shown providing mysterious clues to the agents. However, Lanterman fell ill during the filming of the final show. In her last days, she filmed this soliloquy, in which she bids goodbye to her friend Detective Hawk, both in the show and in real life.

“Every meeting between friends must end with a parting, and so, my friends, today we take our leave. This is life. None of us profits from ignoring or hiding from the facts, so why should we bother? Life is what it is, a gift that is given to us for a time—like a library book—that must eventually be returned. How should we treat this book? If we are able to remember that it is not ours to begin with—one that we’re entrusted with, to care for, to study and learn from—perhaps it would change the way we treat it while it’s in our possession.

We are born into this world, not the other one. It’s not perfect, but it is what it is. This world presents some simple, certain truths. It helps us grow if we accept them, but many of these truths seem to trouble or frighten us. For instance, there is no light without darkness–and this troubles many of us–but without it, how else would we tell one from the other? We spend half of every day in darkness; surely we should make our peace with this. You may decide to see this as a metaphor. Many people do. I see it as a fact. Metaphors are beautiful ways of speaking about truths. So are facts. Both tell us that time–and light, and darkness–moves in cycles. We move through them, too, often as passengers, but if our eyes are open, there is much to be learned along the way. A traveler learns to be brave, for they know the light will return. Anyone who’s spent a night alone in the woods learns this.”

As a 90s television show, a surreal arthouse flick, or a massive meditation on time and existence, Twin Peaks works. However, it truly works best when all three of these pieces are combined into one. View them in whatever order you want. But take the trip. I promise that it’s worth it.

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