The Twin Peaks of Twin Peaks

Image result for laura palmer

The first run of Twin Peaks (1989-1991) was obsessed with a certain kind of doubleness in American life – call it the doubleness within. The show was haunted by the idea that people are not what they appear to be  – that everybody hides a dark and damaging secret life. In the prehistory of the series (i.e. during the period dramatised in Fire Walk With Me [1992]), Laura Palmer veered between two lives: in her daylight life, she was the popular Homecoming Queen who delivered Meals on Wheels; in her nocturnal existence, she was  addicted to cocaine and worked as a prostitute for the small-time pimp and drug dealer Jacques Renault. At the end of most episodes of the original run, the credits rolled over the iconic picture of Laura in her Homecoming Queen dress and crown. Looking at this picture, we were meant to meditate on the secret darkness it concealed. A similar doubleness shaped almost every character in the show: the other key example is Laura’s father Leland. Superficially a successful businessman, Leland was actually possessed by an evil spirit named Bob, under whose influence he sexually abused Laura and eventually killed her.

Twin Peaks was therefore a show about how a secret doubleness persists beneath the official narrative of small-town America – and therefore beneath the official narrative of America itself. This is why it was called Twin Peaks: there were two Lauras, and two Lelands, and two of almost every other character – and there were also two versions of Twin Peaks itself. In one version, the town was so bucolic and banal that it presented as a kind of parody of soap-opera ordinariness; in the other, Twin Peaks was the site of supernatural horror and criminal depravity. The story of Twin Peaks was the story of how we – with Special Agent Dale Cooper as our proxy – gradually tunnelled beneath the official version of the town to find the dark truth within. This doubleness was codified in the mythology of the Black Lodge and its opposite number, the White Lodge, but really, the idea of doubleness runs right through every aspect of the original Twin Peaks: the show, in its first incarnation, is driven by a dialectic of the open and the hidden, and this dialectic was one of the things that made the show so distinctive and rich.

This obsession with a hidden doubleness in American life pops up in a lot of popular art from the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was, I think, a response to the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who each propounded an upbeat national narrative (synecdochized in Reagan’s “Morning in America,” his “we shall be a city on a hill,” and in Bush’s “kindler, gentler nation“), beneath which lurked rising income inequality and a sense that America had become a dangerous imperial force on the world stage. 1989 – the year the first episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC – was also the year Neil Young released “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with its savage lyrics about “a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand”; and in 1991, the year the last episode of the show’s original run went out, Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho, which is, of course, a 400-page essay on the cruelty and indifference that hide behind the glossy facade of the American financial system.

The point of the original Twin Peaks was that doubleness is an interior phenomenon. Within the same individual, extreme contrarieties lurk; we all have our own “twin peaks” of personality and behaviour, and neither or both may tell the full truth about us. This reflected a sense that America contained within itself similar extremes. The sense of genuine tragedy generated by the stories of Laura and Leland Palmer – surely one of the most harrowing stories ever told on network television – derives from a sense that these terrible contrarieties can never be reconciled. (Both Leland and Laura die as a result of their double lives.) If Twin Peaks is a tragedy (and I think it is), it is because of the sense it conveys that doubleness is inescapable – that neither good nor evil can ever finally triumph, but that we must attempt to reconcile these opposed forces within ourselves nevertheless.

In the new episodes of Twin Peaks (Sky Atlantic), this sense of doubleness has been ratcheted up to hysterical levels. The original run of the show ended with Dale Cooper visiting the Black Lodge, where he is possessed by Bob, the very spirit who killed Laura Palmer. This meant that Cooper, the town’s avatar of decency and innocence, was now himself fatally enmeshed in the show’s dialectic of doubleness. The original series thus ended with yet another image of this dialectic, as Cooper/Bob smashed his face against the mirror of his hotel room in the Great Northern and cackled manically (“How’s Annie?”). It was easy to read this as one more statement of the show’s most basic theme.

In the show’s new incarnation, the preoccupation with doubleness has moved from an underlying preoccupation to a formal conceit. In other words, doubleness has moved from being an interior phenomenon to an exterior one. The secret doubleness that drove the original series is now out in the open. And this, I think, is Lynch’s way of mocking the crude way of thinking about doubleness that has taken over American life during the past twenty-five years, and that has become even more central to America’s conception of itself in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

The central thread of Twin Peaks: The Return involves, of course, Dale Cooper. Since the end of the original run, a version of Cooper – the version possessed by Bob – has been travelling the world doing Evil Things. (We know he’s evil because he wears a snakeskin jacket and never smiles; also because he continually murders people in cold blood.) Now, however, the “Good Dale” (as Annie calls him in Fire Walk With Me) has made a botched attempt to escape from the Black Lodge, and has wound up inhabiting the body of Dougie Jones, a loser insurance salesman from Las Vegas. The main thrust of Twin Peaks: The Return seems to be a long-delayed showdown between Good Cooper and Evil Cooper – though this is to radically simplify a preposterously elaborate and possibly even insane set of plotlines that may nor may not actually intersect in any meaningful way later in the season).

Lynch’s method is to go to parodic extremes with his doubling. Just as Evil Cooper is super-Evil, so Good Cooper (Dougie) is super-Good. Good Cooper is, in fact, basically an infant: all he can do is chug down coffee and repeat what people say to him. Despite this, everyone mistakes Dougie for a fully operative adult. Dougie is also guided by a kind of ignis fatuus, a dancing flame that guides him to slot machines that pay out, and that enable him to do such a good job on his insurance paperwork that he uncovers a scam his superiors had missed. Meanwhile, Evil Cooper schemes and plans and murders (in one of the show’s most bewilderingly unnerving moments, he shows a woman he is about to kill a playing card with a weird black lump drawn on it. “THIS IS WHAT I WANT,” he says. This should be stupid, but is actually terrifying).

Cooper has been literally doubled: there are two of him, one ridiculously good, the other ridiculously evil. This, I think, is a very Lynchian joke about how essentially limiting it is to see the world in purely binary terms. I think we can read the Evil Coop/Dougie Jones plotline as a satire of the crude binary valences of much American public discourse – an elaborate gag about polarised thinking. If we don’t negotiate our tragic doubleness internally, Lynch seems to be saying, then we are actually completely useless. Literal doubleness, for Lynch, is an unsustainable predicament; the tragic (because doomed) attempt to achieve internal wholeness is all.

I think Lynch is reflecting – and subverting – contemporary American experience here just as profoundly as he did in the original Twin Peaks. Twenty-five years after it last aired, Twin Peaks returns to an America more than ever riven by – and, crucially, conscious of – a sense of its own doubleness. The election contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump led everybody to decide that America is now a country viciously divided between liberal, educated, wealthy, mostly urban elites, and an underclass of reactionary, poor (and poorly educated), mostly rural workers. In other words, there are now two Americas, each seeing itself as purely good and the other as purely evil. The doubleness of American life is no longer hidden; it is, at least according to the conventional wisdom, now out there for all to see. And between these twin peaks, no one, it seems, can chart a course. America feels, to itself, irreparably split in two; the proper response, surely, is simply to scream.

So, this is to propose one way of reading Twin Peaks: The Return – as an elaborate joke about doubleness, played on a self-consciously doubled America. Of course there are nine episodes still to go, so this particular analysis may fall flat on its face before we’re through. Gotta light?

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