The Ultimate Struggle of Good Vs. Evil Right In Your Own Backyard:
A Mythological Look At Twin Peaks
The world of television and the immense area of myth collided together
on the ABC drama series Twin Peaks. Through the blending of elements
from movies and television shows from the last 50 years Twin Peaks was
able to capture the attention of audiences everywhere. It's innovative
style created a whole new genre of television. But most importantly it
became a contemporary myth for the American public. Through Twin Peaks
people were able to watch the ultimate struggle of good vs. evil unfold
in a small town that was in many cases very similar to their own.
The year was 1990. Although people had their favorite shows such as
Cheers and L.A Law these shows were nothing new. They followed the same
format as the shows that had come before it and weren't known for their
innovation. (Stempel) People were looking for something new. On April
8 1990 David Lynch and Mark Frost first asked the question "Who Killed
Laura Palmer?" and television was never the same again.
Although the basic genre of the show seemed simple and straightforward
it was unlike anything the public had ever seen on Television. David
Lynch acclaimed director of movies such as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man,
and Blue Velvet came up with a very simple concept for a television
show. "The project was to mix a police investigation with a soap opera.
We had drawn a map of the city. We knew where everything was located
and that helped us determine the prevailing atmosphere and what might
happen there." (Chion, 103) Lynch's main collaborator on this project
was Mark Frost who was knows for his "eccentric contributions...to shows
such as Hill Street Blues." (Rodley, 155) They were both attracted to
the idea of a never ending story format that television could offer.
The basic idea of the show came with the image of the dead body of a
small town's homecoming queen washing up on the shore of the lake.
Lynch told ABC at the time, "The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was
the foreground, but this would recede slightly as you got to know the
other people in the town and the problems they were having" (Chion).
With 29 episodes, a two hour pilot, and full length motion picture
prequel it's difficult to give a summary of all of the show's 40 main
characters and its many plots and subplots that it contained. Here is a
very basic outline. Twin Peaks is small quiet town where everyone knows
eachother's name (a reason the show Cheers was so popular) (Stempel).
The town is shocked when the body of the homecoming queen is washed
ashore. Harry Truman (the allusion to the president is no coincidence
as Harry is supposed to embody the idea of an 'All American' loyal man
of the law) is the town's sheriff who is shocked when he finds the body
and realizes that another girl almost suffered the same fate when she is
found in a state of shock across the state line. It is the small detail
of Ronnette Pulaski's being found across the state line which requires
FBI agent Dale Cooper to be called in on the case. From there, the two
lawmen spend their time trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer.
Some of the characters under suspicion are Laura's boyfriend Bobby
Briggs, Laura's secret boyfriend James Hurley, Laura's drug source Leo
Johnson, and the local business tycoon Benjamin Horne. Following
cryptic clues, dreams, and psychic intuition FBI agent Dale cooper
discovers that the killer is someone named Bob. Yet only a few people
have only seen Bob and only in visions or dreams. Over the course of
the next sixteen episodes Special Agent Cooper is shot, visited by a
giant, and discovers who the killer is in a dream only to forget it in
the morning. The killer claims one more victim, Laura Palmer's
identical cousin Madeline Ferguson. In episode 16 Cooper figures out
that the killer is Laura's father Leland Palmer taken over by a demonic
force of evil known as Bob. Although Leland dies Cooper and Sheriff
Truman believe that Bob is still present in Twin Peaks. The second
major story arc involves Cooper's insane former partner, Windom Earle,
coming to Twin Peaks with two purposes. A) To get revenge on Cooper for
falling in love with his now deceased wife and B) To utilize Twin Peaks'
nexus point found in the woods to enter something known as the Black
Lodge; an ultimate source of evil (the place where Bob comes from).
Likewise Cooper begins to search for the White Lodge which is conversely
a source of good. In the final episode Cooper follows Windom Earle into
the Black Lodge to save Annie Blackburn, Cooper's new love. Although
more of the story was written the last episode ends with Cooper being
taken over by the evil force of Bob. Some of the other subplots involve
an irritable FBI evidence expert who constantly mocks the small town, a
scandal involving the town's wood mill, and about a half dozen love
affairs (Episodes 1 - 29).
When Twin Peaks was first introduced there was already heavy promotion
which created a massive hype. The promotion and the uniqueness of the
program quickly created a "frenzied cult about it" (Stempel, 244). For
the next year it was one of the highest rated shows on television.
Books, t-shirts, and coffee mugs soon appeared in stores and were
quickly bought by fans. David Lynch was even put on the cover of Time
magazine for his "innovative new drama" (Corliss). There are two basic
ideas about why the show declined in popularity and eventually canceled
in 1991. David Lynch explains "All I know is that they [ABC Executives]
killed it by changing nights and then forcing the solving of 'who killed
Laura Palmer'....then the ratings were bad...but the ratings were bad
because Laura Palmer's killer was found!" (Rodley, 183) The other idea
held by critics and casual viewers of the show is just the opposite.
Many people were angered and annoyed that it was taking so long to
reveal the killer. Another complaint was that "while the investigation
is continuing, they were not creating other stories...." (Stempel,
244). Yet fans of the show could cite at least a dozen other stories
that were developed. Despite the different opinions the one thing that
is clear is that the show definitely had a major impact on the American
public and the television industry; an impact that can still be clearly
Long lasting and popular shows such as The X-Files and Northern
Exposure first aired on Television because of the creative doors that
Twin Peaks opened. Northern Exposure's setting was inspired by Twin
Peaks' setting and the creators have acknowledged this and even made a
comical reference to Twin Peaks in an episode where the main characters
see a woman carrying a log (a well known Twin Peaks character) and begin
to talk about cherry pie and coffee (an obsession that was a trade mark
of Twin Peaks) (Rodley). And the X-Files strange story lines would
have never interested FOX if Twin Peaks had not been so successful.
Creator Chris Carter has cited Twin Peaks as a major influence and
casted many Twin Peaks actors and actresses in his show. The biggest
homage of all was hiring David Duchovony to play the lead role on The X
Files because of his role as a transvestite FBI agent in later episodes
of Twin Peaks (Wild).
"It is like nothing else on television. Or maybe it is like everything
else on television, but with a twist that makes it seem completely
new." (Pond) Ironically, to show why the show was so different it's
necessary to examine the shows and movies that came before which had an
influence on Twin Peaks. The most visible genre of the show is that of
a soap opera. Lynch and Frost made no effort to hide this fact and even
made jokes about it within the show. "When the Sheriff walks into his
office and asks his secretary what has happened she replies by updating
him on the plot of the soap opera she's watching oblivious to a series
of "real" dramatic events which have occurred in his absence."
(Fontana) This is a satire of how many Americans seem to be more
concerned with what's on television than what is going on in their own
lives. The American preoccupation with soap operas is very similar to
the reason that people enjoy a ridiculous event such as wrestling; it's
a spectacle for all to see. Ronald Barthes explains, "As soon as the
adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the
obviousness of those roles." (17) In Twin Peaks, and other soap
operas, it is apparent which characters are good and which characters
are bad as soon as they appear on the screen. Cooper, a good character,
is immediately shown doing things to help people while an evil
character, business tycoon Ben Horne, is immediately shown plotting and
scheming. As Himmelstein pointed out in his book Television Myth and
the American Mind "Heroes are praised....Villains are....to be feared
and hated and eventually eradicated by the hero" (159) This last part
of the Himmelstein's point is a way Twin Peaks differs from all other
dramas before it. The villain is not eradicated by the hero in the end
and actually seems to win in a way. This came to a shock to viewers who
were so used to the accepted television conventions.
There have been many specific allusions to television shows that came
before Twin Peaks in several episodes. These allusions are placed there
to acknowledge that the show is a amalgam of the programs that came
before it and also to remind viewers that it's somehow drastically
different from these shows. When season one ends with Cooper being shot
and his fate left unknown viewers were immediately reminded of the
popular show Dallas. Dallas's most popular character J.R was shot at
the end of the season and left its viewers guessing all summer just who
had shot JR. But instead of appeasing audiences and revealing the
shooter in the beginning of the next season, Twin Peaks added it to the
list of mysteries they were leaving unsolved with no resolution in
sight. Television critic Joyce Millman explained why audiences were so
unnerved by this choice in storytelling. "Well, what did you
expect--some neat "Who Shot J.R."-style wrap-up? Haven't you learned by
now that "Twin Peaks" isn't "Dallas"? That even some "Peaks" diehards
were confused and frustrated by the episode's lack of closure only
proves how accustomed we are to TV conventions, how enormous the
obstacles are for shows that seek to break free from familiar formulas.
"Twin Peaks" is a constantly evolving show, one that refuses to lay all
its cards on the table at once." She points out that the reason Twin
Peaks was so ground breaking was that it took accepted television
conventions, introduced them, let people get used to them, and then
break them as many ways as possible. And the public seems to have
gotten more used to this rule breaking as The X Files utilizes it all
the time and is successfully entering it's fifth season.
Twin Peaks also pays homage to the classic television series The
Fugitive which aired from 1963 to 1967 (Himmelstein, 165). The
Fugitive was a melodrama about a man named Richard Kimbell who was
constantly "searching for a one armed man named Philip Gerard who had
framed Kimbell for his [Kimbell's'] wife's murder." (Platt) Kimbell's
search went on for years without ever being resolved. As soon as Kimbell
would come close to finding the one armed man he would disappear. The
town of Twin Peaks also had a resident one armed citizen and by an
amazing coincidence (note the sarcasm) his name was also Philip Gerard.
The reason Lynch and Frost made this obvious reference to The Fugitive
was because they wanted to allude to an extremely popular show that was
based on one single mystery that was not solved for years. This is
exactly what they had planned to do with the mystery of Laura Palmer
until ABC executives forced them to solve it. Perhaps the executives
weren't fans of The Fugitive.
A search for the unknown has always been a major element of myth. It
comes from a desire to "make sense out of things" according to Marina
Warner. (87) Twin Peaks was also about a search; a search for the
truth. So it makes sense for an allusion to one of the most influential
films based solely on a search to appear within the show. John Ford's
The Searchers is the tale of Ethan, a man with a mysterious and dubious
past, and his search for his niece Debbie. Lynch paid homage to the
movie by casting Hank Worden (Chion, 202) ,who played Moes Harper in
The Searchers as the decrepit waiter at the Great Northern Hotel in
Twin Peaks. And to eliminate any doubt as to why he cast Worden for the
role he has him act out lines that come directly from The Searchers.
Worden appears in a scene that would drive the most patient person
insane. FBI agent Cooper has just been shot and lies helpless on the
hotel floor. Worden slowly enters the room with the warm milk Cooper
ordered; oblivious to the fact that he has just been shot. The scene
moves at an excrutiatingly slow pace and it ends with Worden saying
"Thank Ya Kindly" and wooping like an Indian as he did in The
One of the most prevalent and reoccurring allusions found in Twin Peaks
is that of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Laura Palmer's cousin comes to
Twin Peaks to attend her funeral. Laura Palmer and Madeline Ferguson
look identical except that Laura was blonde while Madeline has jet black
hair. Madeline Ferguson is a compound of characters name's from
Vertigo. Vertigo also features two identical women who's "only
discernible difference is their hair color" (Platt). Madeline even
dresses up like Laura in attempt to catch the killer just as Scottie
from Vertigo tries to dress up Judy like his dead lover Madeline
(Martin). And finally when Madeline becomes the next victim of Bob he
grabs her and spins her around and around just as a confused Scottie
spins around with Judy "in a fit of madness" in Vertigo (Martin). Lynch
and Frost obviously found this element of doubles very important to Twin
Peaks. There are dozens of examples of doubles or pairs in Twin Peaks.
Many characters have a partner that is very similar or the complete
opposite of their character. There are two diaries, two parts of a
locket, two major story arcs, and most obvious the mention of "Twin"
directly in the title of the show. The Vertigo references are the
strongest and used to really accent the point. Claude Levi-Strauss
explained the importance of doubles and twins within myths in his essay
entitled "Harelips and Twins: The Splitting of a Myth". Levi-Strauss
points out that "this division between two individuals who are at the
beginning presented as twins...is a basic characteristic of all myths in
South America or North America." A specific example of this happening
in Twin Peaks would be the storyline of Madeline Ferguson. She is first
treated strangely because the characters are treating her as if she was
Laura's exact double and just an extension of the homecoming queen who
is now dead. Madeline fights against this and eventually becomes known
for her own unique characteristics.
Besides combining elements of other shows and films and their mythic
functions, Twin Peaks eventually created a unique mythic function of its
own. By the time Lynch filmed Fire Walk With Me, the Twin Peaks prequel
which followed Laura Palmer through her last seven days of life, the
main character of the series, Special Agent Dale Cooper, had been fully
developed. Michel Chion had an interesting description of Cooper in
that final Twin Peaks installment. Chion writes that Cooper has an "all
together stunning" presence and that his role in the film is truly
"mythical" (151). It's interesting how this television character
developed over several years and storylines into a myth.
An early scene in Twin Peaks can easily be compared to one of the
oldest recorded myths that we know of, Gilgamesh. In the tale of
Gilgamesh, Enkidu is sent to challenge Gilgamesh in a "contest"
(Kovacs, 17) "They grappled with eachother...they attacked each
other..." (18) After a brief struggle Gilgamesh wins and the two men
become good friends and are even referred to as brothers. This seems to
be a common ritual that men go through when they first meet in myths.
In the first scene where special agent Dale Cooper meets Sheriff Harry
S. Truman there is a similar struggle. It is not physical but rather a
verbal conflict. Cooper quickly explains that when the FBI is called
they are in charge "and sometimes local law enforcement has a problem
with that" (Pilot Episode). Truman allows this lowering of his status
saying "Like I said we're glad that you're here" (Pilot Episode). After
this the two men become very close and their relationship even seems to
mirror Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's. Both Gilgamesh and Cooper have
important dreams in relation to their life and they each confide in
their respective friend for the meaning of these dreams. Gilgamesh says
"Enkidu, my friend, I have had a dream...." (32) and looks to Enkidu
for his interpretation. Similarly Cooper has an important dream that he
believes will reveal the killer of Laura Palmer. He asks for Truman's
help and says "Crack the code. Solve the crime" (Episode 4). Finally
there is the mysterious female that helps each hero on his way. In
Gilgamesh he reports his dreams to his mother and asks her for help in
deciphering them (11). Cooper has a mysterious contact known only as
Diane. Cooper reports everything to Diane by speaking into a small
dictaphone recorder. He informs her on everything from the details of
the case he is working on to how much his lunch cost. "Diane....Lunch
was six dollars and thirty seven cents at the Lamp Lighter Inn...damn
good pie they got there" (Pilot Episode). He also requests help from
her by asking her to take certain actions with evidence he is sending
her. These women have a omnipresent quality to them and are very
important to the story.
But the biggest myth that Twin Peaks created was the idea that the
ultimate struggle of good verses evil could be acted in out in small
every town in America. It's useful to look at Marina Warner's
explanation of the function of a myth to further explain. She defines
some of a myth's multiple functions as "defining the forbidden and the
alluring .... conjuring demons and heroes, saying who we are and what we
want, telling a story which makes sense of things" (87). Twin Peaks
accomplishes all of these things. The most important aspect is a story
which makes sense of things. In Twin Peaks' case it attempts to make
sense of why there is evil in this world. Instead of rationalizing how
a father could ever rape and kill his own daughter the show explains
that this man was taken over by a demonic force of evil and did not act
with his own will. Cooper stands by this theory stating "Is it any
easier to believe that a father would rape and murder his own
daughter?" (Episode 16). But unlike myths like Gilgamesh and The
Searchers which take place in uncommon and fantasy like settings, Twin
Peaks takes places in a small suburb. It's got locations that are most
likely found in every town. There's the diner, the sheriff's station,
the local hotel, and most common the town high school. This is how Twin
Peaks created it's own mythic function. This localization of the oldest
conflict, ultimate good versus ultimate evil, had never been explored so
thoroughly as it did in Twin Peaks. The mysterious woods was the
entrance point for both the black and white lodge. This is where the
sources for evil and good respectively originate. The idea that such
power could originate in your own home town is a fascinating and
alluring idea. This idea could be a reason for the show's immense
popularity. It could also be an idea that many did not wish to think
about and therefore the show was canceled.
I believe that the world of Twin Peaks still exists somewhere
continuing it's myth and stories, trying to resolve them but never quite
accomplishing their goal. But because of the impatience and resistance
to rule/genre breaking that is embedded in the public's mind we'll never
get to see these stories. It's no coincidence that Lynch chose to begin
Fire Walk With Me, the last installment of Twin Peaks, with a metal pole
being thrust into a television; demolishing it. He's finished. A
storyteller will only tell his story for a certain amount of time before
he realizes that no one is really listening.
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