The City of Absurdity TWIN PEAKS

Critique of Twin Peaks

by David Koukal, Cybertek, Inc
with many thanks to John R. Andrews

The moral of "Twin Peaks."
To wax enthusiastic over a television program– for only a long moment: What are we to make of the dark end of Lynch's nightmare vision? An absurdist morality play with an uncanny ability to both entertain and disturb (rare in a medium that usually leaves no lasting intellectual or emotional impressions on its audience), a story that reached the heights of comedy, a TV program that achieved a style never before seen via that medium, a tale rich in metaphor and motif that, in the end, was simply too good for its audience–after all this, how can we conscience its irrevocably terrifying conclusion? "Twin Peaks" was a soap opera with a difference: whereas the average sample of the genre limpidly animates its characters through a variety of motivations, some more admirable than others, Lynch boldly drew large the antithetics of good and evil and made his characters prisoners within the resulting turmoil. This brought a vitality to the story notably missing from the workaday soap. All in all, the violence was more jarringly violent, the erotic more so, not by relying on gratuity but because of superior (and more dramatic) animating agents. The good were more pure, the bad more menacingly sinister when motivated by forces that were by pragmatic, "realistic" standards fundamentally irrational (after all, who is really that good, that bad?). The simple and the complex were thereby combined, creating a relationship which generated both mystical beauty and base, even taboo, tragedy. Lynch spoke compellingly to forces considered superstitious by our supposedly sophisticated secularism, and that he did so in the seemingly "mined out" genre of the soap opera is a testament to his accomplishments not only as a director of great style but also as a satirist, moralist, and social critic. Some would say that such terms are wasted on a director that merely possesses a good eye (not to mention an ear that has elevated the soundtrack to an art form in and of itself), but I would insist on their applicability. Obviously, Lynch was satirizing soap operas. For the most part soaps have pretenses to a glamorous realism but at the same time offer plots that are improbable; in this respect "Twin Peaks" was hardly different. Occasionally soaps test the bounds of credibility, and so did "Twin Peaks"; is there any real difference between the freezing of Port Charles (of "General Hospital" fame) and the UFO's which abducted Major Briggs? Lynch introduced four elements to the genre that distinguished his creation from the rest. First, he chose to emphasize the "unreal" component of soaps by combining metaphor and motif with absurdity and surrealism in order to challenge the sensibilities of his audience. Second, he assumed the intelligence of his audience (a bold assumption) by presenting them with mysteries they could become involved in. (On the whole, the plot of "Twin Peaks" was abnormally cohesive by TV standards; basically, everything "fit," which allowed the audience to play Lynch's game..) Third, by simply applying his genius as a director, he showed his audience how good a soap could look. Last and most important, Lynch presented a moral spectrum that re-acquainted his audience with the almost medieval concepts of good and evil. In the beginning Lynch's characters seemed to be motivated by workaday soap opera vices (greed, jealousy, envy, adultery, lust, etc.). However, as the plot confronted more and more socially taboo subjects (pornography, incest, torture, sado-masochism), the story started to spin away from superficially material explanations of human behavior. It became more and more apparent that his characters were agents of forces beyond themselves, converting human failings to human tragedy. Lynch's metaphysical and at times mystical framework more readily explained switches in character, which in the conventional soap occur mainly to shift the formula of the pseudo drama onto another tack and re-generate a neverending story line. Lynch's characters were not motivated by the producer's need to "spice up" a stale story; nor were they motivated by the allure of material gain. Rather, they were motivated because they inhabited a certain point on Lynch's moral spectrum, and the closer a character came to either end of this spectrum (Cooper at one end, Killer Bob at the other), the more intriguing they became. Simply put, Lynch enticed us with moral extremes, and in so doing revealed the irredeemable shallowness of soaps in general. In satirizing the soap opera (though some would say it is difficult to satirize anything so self- satirizing), Lynch was by extension satirizing American society (one would encounter similar difficulties, I should think); this in turn justifies my appellations of "moralist" and "social critic," for a satirist must be both. Lynch began his critique in the "perfect place" of Rockwellian myth. The town of Twin Peaks was surrounded by the unspoiled natural splendor of the Pacific Northwest, and peopled by persons with almost uniformly WASPish last names. A single Native American and one Oriental woman conspired to spoil their pristine whiteness. True to the "small town" myth, everyone knew everyone else (quite a trick considering the population stood at 51,201; Twin Peaks was actually a small city), and one could be sure that they didn't lock their doors at night. The sheriff's name was Harry Truman, bringing to mind a more innocent, commonsensical era; Doc Hayward made house calls; the coffee and the cherry pie at the R & R cafe was revered by all; the women were the picture of luminous purity and wore tight sweaters. Though some were certainly characters, "simple" and "decent" were the adjectives most rightfully applied to the citizens of Twin Peaks, two words that have been elevated to ideals in the American cultural lexicon. In Twin Peaks, as in the lexicon the town embodied, there was no place for tragedy and evil. Enter Dale Cooper, more an agent of good (read "simple" and "decent") than of the F.B.I., in town to investigate the disappearance of the typically overachieving and loved-by-all homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Laura had secrets, and upon her death these were revealed by Cooper and Truman in- between their sporadic celebrations of the American utopia, which consists mainly of strong coffee, fresh air, and good pie. Laura's secrets were a litany of American cultural taboos: vixen, coke freak, prostitute, entry in flesh magazine, hints of sado-masochism, and finally and most dramatically, victim of child abuse and incest, the ultimate affront to the American sensibility of clean optimism. As the investigation continued the secrets of the town were uncovered, and beneath the seemingly pleasant surface of the Rockwellian myth Cooper discovered that no one was innocent; virtually everyone was tainted with secrets as shameful as Laura's. The ever-optimistic Cooper stubbornly pursued the truth; his pure goodness shone in the night, which increasingly exposed twin realities. In the end, these realities created between them a dissonance which could not be reconciled. Ultimately, this optimism was the target of Lynch's critique, and it was an attack worthy of Voltaire's admiration. (Indeed, Lynch's analysis of American optimism was if anything more devastating because there is no formal rationale for such an optimism, such as the Leibnizian philosophy which provided the foundation for the optimism that was the object of Voltaire's venomous assault.) In challenging his audience to reconcile their culturally-imbued optimism with the darkest details of American life (a life we know to be real; our mass media sensationalizes every detail, and we voyeuristically lap up every morsel), Lynch drove home the point that these things cannot be "simply" explained away by "decency"; in point of fact,.they defy most known standards of decency. These things will not go away, proclaimed Lynch, by optimistically wishing them to do so; i.e., American optimism is a chimera, a morality without content. Since this optimistic creed is unable to remedy or even explain these dark details, Lynch suggested another tack. He asked us to entertain the possibility of pure evil, and the tragedy which accompanies it. Lynch was most vulnerable to charges of misogyny, and admittedly "Twin Peaks" was highly sexual (though I do not necessarily equate misogyny with eroticism). Women suffered grievously at his hands. While masculine characters occupied both extremes of the moral spectrum, Lynch's feminine characters resided somewhere in the middle, mere decorative props costumed in the most outrageously revealing outfits, and they were without exception negative, weak, victimized, morally flawed–or all of the above. Women seemed to be the fodder for Lynch's narrative, i.e., they were simply meant to be used. The strongest female character was possibly Norma Jennings, and she was ever victimized by the vacillating memory of her lover's wife and a weakness for her convict husband. Another candidate would be Audrey Horne, who by all accounts was the most independent but also scheming and manipulative. Lucy Moran was appealing, but with her Betty Boop voice and awkward pregnancy she became a figure of fun. The rest were all peripheral, abused, raped, or deceased. One may attempt to excuse this as simply another part of Lynch's satire; after all, sex is half of what soap operas are all about, violence being the other half. By displaying his sexism so blatantly perhaps Lynch was revealing the heavily implied sexism of soaps in general. Yet there was an exhibitionistic cruelty to Lynch's sexism, a meanness that seemed unnecessarily excessive; in the end, he went beyond mere sexism. Perhaps Lynch was elevating his point to social satire and claiming an insight into the American male libido. Perhaps he is claiming that this sexuality is based not on feminist notions of mutuality but on a disturbing notion of misogyny. Whatever its origin, the misogyny of "Twin Peaks" was all the more disturbing in light of the fact that most male viewers which I spoke with tended to find the series highly erotic, while most female viewers found its sexuality abhorrent (which would prove Lynch's point if he was indeed making such a point). In the end, the question of whether Lynch is a misogynist or was merely port in misogyny remains an open one to my mind. on charges of excessive violence Lynch fares better, but make no mistake: in my opinion "Twin Peaks" was the most violent program ever to be seen on prime time television. The scenes depicting the deaths of Laura and her cousin Maddy were the most devastating portrayals of violence I have ever seen on the small screen. Even the death of Ben Horne, while containing an element of slapstick, communicated an even greater element of horror, and the incidents of violence that produced a weeping Deputy Andy conveyed a lasting feeling of pathos to the audience. These scenes of violence were among Lynch's most impressive accomplishments. They were effective not because of their clinical realism (people bled in "Twin Peaks," but not excessively so); rather, Lynch invested these scenes with an emotional energy that was disorienting and ultimately terrifying. This energy accounted for and justified the violence (in terms of the plot), and at the same time acted as the medium through which the horror was passed on to the audience. Lynch's situations of impending violence seemed close, claustrophobic, emotionally taut. This overlaying fabric of tension was stretched tighter and tighter until it was inevitably torn to shreds by the participants in the scene. The horrifying emotional din that resulted exposed the inherent irrationality that surrounds and produces acts of violence. That this violence was explicitly linked to pure evil only contributed to its horror. All of this involved little blood, and no exposure of internal organs; if we were revolted by Lynch's violence it was an emotional, not a physical, revulsion. Any nightmares experienced in our sleep were due not to the realism of any physical wounds we may have seen, but to the realism of the emotional wounds Lynch left on the psyche of his characters–and by extension, on the psyche of his audience. Ultimately, Lynch's tonic to the pseudoviolence that predominates the visual mediums was to remind us that we should not be immune to the terror of the idea of violence, as opposed to the mere spectacle of violence. Rather than banalize violent acts through the clinical repetition of a supposed realism, Lynch made violence emotionally real in all of its corrosive ugliness–our visual arts need more of this kind of violence. The story of "Twin Peaks" was flawed in minor ways, but generally these flaws sprung from the ambition of Lynch's project; Lynch actually had something to say, whereas most in television are content to simply spoof the more superficial aspects of reality. Though flawed itself, "Twin Peaks" implicitly revealed the greatest flaw intrinsic to the genre (and the society) it was satirizing, namely, that successful soap operas never end, which ultimately renders their content meaningless. A story ever-unfolding with no conclusion becomes something other than a story–it becomes a chaotic collection of sensate fragments only marginally related to one another, a confusing plethora of words and details unrooted in a forgotten beginning and never seeming to advance towards any known end. Deprived of these touchstones the audience is abandoned to find its own way, and of course it never will. All narrative must end, or else it means nothing. The metaphor of the narrative is perfectly applicable to society, history, metaphysics. Detached from all philosophical, cosmological, and theological "ends," the audience of mankind is concerned only with "means." In the absence of any projected conclusions, meaningful advances are no longer possible. Indeed, the soap opera is the perfect analogy for mass society: a clamoring aggregation ignorant of both its past and its future but enamored with a dynamically stultified present. Obligingly, Lynch broke with the genre and brought his narrative to an end, disturbing in itself but doubly so in its content. In this end Lynch delivered the fatal blow to our mindless optimism and made a distressing statement about the natures of both good and evil, namely: The naive logic of the good is no match for the irrational genius of evil. Ben and Audrey Horne's sincere conversions to altruism were for naught as their lives ended through the machinations of evil, and Cooper, for all his brilliance and mystical insight, could not consistently triumph evil; he was overwhelmed by its many forms. Cooper's ultimate absorption by evil may have seemed ambiguous to the hopeful; after all, he had traded his soul for Annie's life. But the hopeful ignore the fact that Annie would now surely be a victim of the evil within Cooper–the supreme irony. Make no mistake, pure good was irrevocably vanquished; in this Lynch broke an unstated rule of the medium when he allowed pure evil this triumph. In creating these portraits of good and evil and their respective mediums of love and fear (correlatives to the traditional formula of sex and violence), Lynch seemed to be stating that fear held a decisive edge over love, both in sheer coercive power and in its ability to deceive. Whether we agree with this disturbing assessment or not, one thing beyond dispute is that this conclusion had no place on television, the oracle of the cult of clean happiness. Ultimately, this ending would sell no soap.

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© Mike Hartmann