The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
The Detective in 'Twin Peaks'  by Andreas Blassmann

3.4. Finite vs. Infinite Play – Cooper vs. Earle

A distinction that has been mentioned in the comparison of Cooper and the traditional male detective is that between finite and infinite play. I already analyzed some characteristic traits that identify Cooper as an infinite player (his general openness, obliqueness and intuition in his investigation). Now that Coop is confronted with the negative fatherly image Earle, it is time to elaborate further on the differences between infinite and finite play.

I would like to stay with the Cooper Earle antagonism under a point of view that Angela Hague suggests, when she uses the popular philosopher James P. Carse's distinction between finite and infinite players. In a lot of aspects, Earle resembles the traditional detective who, as Cawelti and Day remark, has his roots in the genre of the Gothic. In coining the term 'finite player', James Carse thus not only describes the character of Earle, but in many ways also the classical detective, as I discussed the figure in Chapter 1.2. I hinted at the fact that Poe uses the chess/draughts analogy in his introduction to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", solely to illustrate the theoretical working of analysis. The remarks on the functioning of the games are not grounded on the actual rules of chess. Similarly, in TP the game of chess is merely an excuse to visualize the antagonism between Earle and Cooper, a conflict that carries the overall elements of a game.

With Earle as a finite player, it appears as though the traditional Holmesian figure would return with a vengeance, a combination of Holmes and Moriarty, a shadow in many respects. In the course of the narrative, the serial killer Earle will take the spot of the serial detective Cooper; an important development considering the weakening of Cooper as a leading figure. Earle first occupies the narrative space, in taking over the course of the story, and he threatens to re-introduce the patriarchal order.

However, Earle is only a limited serial killer, as he merely plans to make his terminal moves within the confines of the chess board, in order to beat the king and the queen. According to Carse definition, "evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game" (Carse, 33).

As soon as Cooper accepts to play Earle's finite game, he maneuvers himself into an inferior position, since his own strength as an infinite player cannot help him to win such a game:

Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in 'candor', but an openness as in vulnerability ... The infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but one's own personal past. (Carse, 18)

As Nickerson suggests, Cooper and TP are 'pulled seaward' by Earle's plotting, namely through the establishment of a finite game's rules. Earle is a master player, striving for conclusion. He is prepared against surprise, as he knows the rules and the moves to make. Earle is an offensive, aggressive player, and he expresses his anger in unexpected violent explosions. When Earle realizes that Cooper attempts to achieve a stalemate, Earle states that 'I cannot tolerate people who do not play by the rules, people who shirk the standards' (Lavery, 25.4).

Cooper, as we have seen, is more concerned with infinite play. He is using Pete Martell and other TP characters to help him delay the game; his method is defensive and his strength is his inner preparation for surprise. Cooper sticks to his theories and methods, i.e. concentrating on the moment (as in ZEN meditation), not trying to control the outcome of the game, or to influence past and future. For a while, it seems that Cooper could succeed with his open-minded method.

Carse says that power is a finite commodity that is always limited and directed towards the past, while strength is future-oriented and unmeasurable, an 'opening act' whose outcome is endlessly undetermined. Finite players play to be powerful; infinite players play with strength. Earle's torture chamber in the woods is his power center, while Cooper's unconscious mind is the source of the strength he uses to attempt to understand what is happening around him. (Hague, 135)

Cooper is even more surprised when, towards the end of the game, he realizes that Earle is playing 'off the board', a strategy that has formerly ascribed solely to Cooper, who does not stick to given patterns in his attempts to expand his mind. Earle, the seemingly powerful master player, deliberately (ab)uses Cooper's emotional weakness, trying to control and manipulate future events, thereby relying on his genius mind. For this purpose, he employs his 'power center in the woods', a small cabin on an idyllic clearing, yet filled with computer technology.

It is significant that Earle also occupies the natural space, a space that has been investigated by, and associated with, Cooper before. Both Cooper and Earle come from an urban environment and are strangers to nature. Earle lives in a pastoral hut in the woods, yet he is equipped with highly technological machinery. Where Cooper brought his Tibetan wisdom into the Twin Peaks woods, Earle carries superficial postmodern tools, e.g. his laptop. Earle's costumes and masks help him to disguise his real self. Yet, Earle's dominance can only be temporary, as he lacks an understanding, both for nature and the Lodges. In the course of the story he becomes more and more narrowminded, like a harlequin version of BOB. "Earle's behavior becomes increasingly predictable and childish" (Hague, 135). Earle does not only play the game, he appears to live it, too. For his revenge plot to work, he has to completely rely on his masquerades, his plots and his scheming. Therefore, he lives sealed of and isolated in his own (master) mind, similar to the traditional detective.

Carse defines the finite game as theatrical, in contrast to infinite play, which is supposed to be dramatic:

Because finite players are trained to prevent the future from altering the past, they must hide their future moves... Finite players must appear to be something other than what they are. Everything about their appearance must be concealing. To appear is not to appear. All the moves of a finite player must be deceptive, feints, distractions, falsifications, misdirections, mystifications. (Carse, 18)

This definition clearly fits Earle's constant costuming and masquerading, which is contrasted with Cooper's almost never changing outfit, i.e. his black suit, which could indeed associate him with a "tarnished and vanquished knight in shining armor" (Umlands, 8). It is not until the last two episodes that Earle puts on his correct costume and appears in his original FBI uniform. At this point, he has located the Black Lodge, which seems to be his final destination. In contrast to Cooper, Earle is not interested in the Black Lodge's counterpart, the White Lodge. He is merely attempting to locate and understand evil, thus showing the finite player's one-track mind, and the sole will to finish the game. Earle wishes to find entrance to another power center, which will lead him to a higher level in his vicious game.

It may be that the whole Earle revenge plot was just another misleading narrative maneuver, in order to distract the viewer from what turned out to be the center of mystery in TP: BOB and the Lodges. Maria Carrion states that "the chess game (apparently played between Cooper and the Master) was just a trick from BOB, the until-then-ultimate-evil-character, to attract both of them to his ground of action, that hellish dreamland that Cooper dares to visit taking us inside of his mind" (Carrion, 245).

Earle, as a finite player creating his own rules and universe, has to fail in two respects: first, he appears inferior to Cooper's infinity, which is (at least on the surface) struggling for something bigger; and second, as a villain he cannot compete with BOB, the archaic spirit from the woods who is superior to a character like Earle. Yet, Earle's superficial evil mind games are enough to weaken Cooper for his final quest within the Lodges:

[In the Lodge]Earle is almost immediately dispatched by a laughing BOB in a puff of flame and smoke... Earle's stereotypical scenarios are properly subordinate problems in the world of TP; the real problem is that Earle has brought forth in Cooper a part of himself that is literal rather than visionary, divorced from rather than in league with the body'. (Nochimson, 33)

Despite the differences of Cooper and Earle as infinite and finite players, one could conclude that they are both essentially postmodern creations; at least regarding their potential as 'split personality'.30 I observed Cooper's Bi-Part Soul in chapter 1.4 and hinted at the odd connection between consumerism and ZEN buddhism. Earle, of course, mocks these traits in Cooper, ridiculing the belief in the Tibetan method. Nevertheless, Earle is an even more superficial postmodern figure, a trickster who combines various identities, both within the narrative (e.g. masquerades and costumes), as well as on a paradigmatic level (i.e. he combines elements of the serial killer, the Moriarty figure and, of course, the mad gothic villain).

I will observe the fatal consequences of the shift in character and plot in chapter four, with Cooper's entrance into the Black Lodge. Cooper's quest in this realm turns out as an entrance into another Gothic orb, where Cooper functions as a Gothic hero.

I hinted at the intertwining of inner and outer, a spatial confusion that has been noted in the first two chapters; for example during Cooper's demonstration of the Tibetan method, where the inside of the sheriff's office and the nature of the woods were conflated. In addition to this spatial conflation, we are also confronted with a temporal (con)fusion in TP. Past, present and future events cannot be neatly separated anymore. The traditional detective observes facts from the (narrative) past, in order to get to a solution in the present. As I have demonstrated in the analysis of Cooper's Red Room dream, TP works towards a confusing fusion of different time layers. The interconnection between these temporal levels will play a more crucial role towards the end of the TP plot, when both Cooper and Earle will physically enter the Black Lodge. The introduction of past events into the story is not only crucial for the Earle-Cooper plot, more so, it will bring the plot development back into the 'supernatural' sphere, where the initial murder mystery (Leland = the father as killer, Laura = the revived dead body) and the second season's revenge plot (Earle = the mad serial killer, Caroline/Annie the passive 'femme fatale' victim) are brought together, with Agent Cooper as the connecting principle.

We concluded that the Earle-Caroline-Cooper plotline replaces the murder mystery plot and repeats a personal tragedy from the detective's past. Thus, the new open-minded detective hero Cooper is equipped with an inferior position, unable to apply his methods and his philosophy effectively.

Although the infinite player Cooper might still be superior to the increasingly childish and regressive finite player Earle, Cooper's character loses its edge and seems to be transformed into a conventional serial hero (in the Gothic tradition). His final testing quest into the supernatural sphere of the Black Lodge will thus have fatal consequences.

I shall examine Cooper's final quest in the next chapter, drawing parallels to Cooper's initial supernatural encounters in Chapter 2.2, his encounter with the female victim, but also with the other entities from the Lodge. When we followed Cooper's slippage into what I coined the Gothic Soap Opera, we will have to witness an even deeper regress into Gothic layers with Cooper entering the Lodge. The Gothic Soap Opera plot mainly functions to attack the detective's emotions with a return of the past. In the labyrinthine Gothic mode of the Lodge, Cooper will encounter more elements from the Gothic formula, e.g. a transformance of the object of desire (the female) into an object of fear; an uncanny physical imbalance; pain as a possible entrance of evil instead of an opening for a higher truth; a return of the repressed that turns Cooper's initial schizoid split into an evil doppelganger.

back top next


30 At this point, I want to recall Frederic Jameson's essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society", once more. There, he identifies 'schizophrenia' as an essential trait of a postmodern sensibility.


The Detective in 'Twin Peaks' - Content
David Lynch main page

© Mike Hartmann
mhartman@mail.uni-freiburg.de