This essay has references to rape, incest, and pedophilia. Needless to say, it also has spoilers for Twin Peaks.
Like many famously strange works of art, Twin Peaks is very simple and its central plank is very easy to express: people are capable of becoming anything, and sometimes that thing is very Good, and sometimes that thing is very Evil, and more often than not it falls on some point inbetween. It’s human nature to reduce a complex topic to its simplest expression, and despite the destruction it causes, this is applied to people as well; I say the words ‘vegan’, ‘incel’, or ‘born-again Christian’, and most people will create an image in their head, with its own appearance, behaviours, and usually some kind of preemptive moral judgement. Twin Peaks reduces people to abstractions, but it knows people are capable of switching from one abstraction to another at a moment’s notice and with no connection between the the old idea and the new one. To put this in specific terms, it’s entirely possible for Leland Palmer to represent a grief-stricken father in one moment and a murderous incestuous pedophile in another and for there to be no contradiction between the two, and he’s able to hide from the viewer in amongst all the other citizens of Twin Peaks because any one of them were capable of being the one to rape and murder Laura Palmer; one of the ways rapists have traditionally hidden is by not looking like anyone’s idea of a rapist (in the time since Leland’s unmasking, society’s image of a rapist has shifted, but this means that rapists, like any other predator, have migrated).
What’s interesting about this on a technical level is that Lynch, unlike so many of his imitators and related wannabe surrealist artists, sees the actual image of that abstraction as entirely arbitrary. Any one image is capable of representing any one idea. Just as Leland can represent Grieving Father and Murderous Incestuous Pedophile, so too can Bobby Briggs represent Drug Dealing Asshole In Over His Head and Loving Boyfriend and Tough Guy and, eventually, Kind And Ordinary Man, or Lucy can represent Childlike Buffoon, Tough Broad In Control Of Her Sexuality and, eventually, Loving Mother (this is also why Lynch can swap out actors for arbitrary objects as they die or take on awful beliefs). In fact, I think he often chooses images specifically for their meaninglessness, or more accurately lack of either iconic or literal power – if the Giant had been a fat black older woman in a maid’s outfit, we’d say she represented America’s racial history coming back in some fashion, and if he’d been the same tall man but in a carnival outfit, we’d say something about how he stood for America’s freaks and underclass, but a tall, gaunt man in a grey shirt, suspenders, and bowtie is an image we have never seen before and can attribute no explanation to. It gives the images an anti-iconic power. We can’t explain. All we can do is feel, and associate that feeling with other times we’ve felt it.
This, of course, is the dream logic so many before me have identified in Lynch’s work. It isn’t just that dreams have a single mood that drives them forward, it’s that any image can represent any concept (“I dreamed about you last night, except you were a two-headed snake and I was Sonic The Hedgehog”). When we dream, we’ll accept any concept as blatantly obvious, no matter how bizarre it seems when we wake up. This is the logic a scene in Twin Peaks works under, and each scene is its own individual dream. This is why, as much as I understand it, I can’t get behind the reaction that much of the third season of the show is dead-ends and filler; aside from the fact that each and every moment of the show aims at a particular feeling with the same intensity and focus that DoppelCööper brings to every action, it aims to bring that fluid sense of dream logic to reality. Every moment of the show is a possibility that has been set in motion, and sometimes it’ll pay off and sometimes it won’t. Strangely enough, the show that most reminds me of season three of Twin Peaks is the Stargate television franchise; SG-1 and Atlantis both have a dreamlike fuzz over their action, but they also have an obsession with alternate universes, possible futures, higher planes of existence, and transhumanist experiences. But they always run in fear from these possibilities, retreating back to the notion that this state of being – a mostly sexless, fairly violent life in a conventional human body shooting and hitting things and then going home to talk and joke about it – is the best and only way of living. Anytime a human body or mind is warped in some fashion, the effects are undone by the end of the episode, sometimes by killing the creature in question. It’s the effect of someone who sees many of the things Lynch sees, but lacks his courage in looking directly at them.
Mad Men is often compared to Twin Peaks. This makes a kind of sense to me, seeing as both shows are about finding something vile under the conventional idealised middle class American image, but otherwise I feel like the two shows have totally parallel aims. If TP is about people who represent a single, simple idea in one scene and a different very simple idea in the next, MM is about people who embody one very complex idea all the way through – people who absolutely refuse to fit a single, simple category. If TP is a dream, MM is about dreamers – people who have entire universes percolating inside them that are barely contained by their bodies and spill out into the clothes they wear, the objects they surround themselves with, and the actions they commit. The images of Mad Men are anything but arbitrary, conveying the entire worldview that went into their construction. And the world of Mad Men works on the consistent logic that Twin Peaks abjectly refuses to. Given enough time, things stop being inexplicable – they can be quantified and understood as possibilities are slowly shaved off, until the final minutes of the story show the characters doing exactly what they were always going to eventually do. Twin Peaks is what Mad Men characters dream about; Mad Men is what fuels the dream of Twin Peaks.
Special Agent Dale Cooper is an idealised protagonist. Even if Lynch didn’t initially realise that Kyle MacLachlan based his performance on Lynch’s mannerisms, he imbued Cooper with the qualities he most admired; in the parlance of our times, he’s a Mary Sue. ‘Mary Sue’ is one of those useful phrases that has been beaten into uselessness; the original Mary Sue was a parody of Star Trek fanfics that used every element of the show to celebrate what was clearly an author insert. Over time, it’s almost become a weapon, as wannabe critics bludgeon popular entertainment they don’t like with accusations of ‘Mary Sue-dom’ and it’s applied to any character with any idealised traits at all, and TV Tropes, as per its idiom, goes into a truly eyebleeding amount of detail in creating subcategories of the term. To me, this is missing the forest for the trees, quibbling over details and missing the broader point. A Mary Sue is like pornography – you know it when you see it. The exact details don’t matter so long as they conform to an abstract principle: being, in beginning, middle, and end, an exercise in vanity as opposed to a story. Whether or not you like the movies, Rey of Star Wars is not a Mary Sue, she’s a heroic figure pushing forward a story about the relationship between current heroism and the ideals of the past. The fact that she’s a little idealised – that she has superpowers and a quick wit – is only a reflection of the fact that people like stories about people doing cool things more than they do stories about people not doing cool things.
In the case of Cooper, I find what he is an idealised representation of interesting. I found myself thinking about Hawkeye and Margaret – Cooper is a man who has nailed down his strengths, instincts, and sense of self so strongly that he can, when necessary, turn them off and be another guy. The first thing one notices about Coop is that he has a heart big enough for the whole world; it’s like he carries joy with him everywhere he goes and hands it out like a treat, and he combines that with the same vision for possibility that Lynch’s camera sees. If every moment has the potential to spin in a million different directions, Coop trusts his heart to lead the way, looking for the possibility that feels the most right even when it doesn’t seem to make much practical sense (like throwing rocks at bottles to decide the next way to solve a case). This makes it all the more shocking when he effortlessly becomes ruthlessly pragmatic in the face of any problem; it’s something visible right from the moment he meets Sheriff Truman, when he casually switches between asking him about the details of the case and asking him what the trees in the area are called and when he conducts interrogations with a cold clarity that never crosses into cruel – though my favourite moment of his pragmatism is when he summarises the details of the case so far with Albert in the season two opener, because it pulls the triple duty of a) recapping events for the weekly audience, b) characterising Coop and Albert as professionals and c) sounding like a typical moment of the team gathering in an episode of Criminal Minds. I know it’s strange to think of this show as a cop show, but it does hit all the right beats of the genre eventually.
My point here being that Cooper is the idealised Strange Person, as written from the perspective of a Strange Person (point of comparison: Dr Gregory House is a Strange Person, lovingly written by fairly ordinary people). Every Strange Person, whether they were neurodiverse or otherwise, has had at least a moment where they wished they could just flick a switch and be able to do all the things you’re supposed to do for a little while; Cooper presents the fantasy of a Strange Person who can do exactly that. There are several things that make this more than a mixture of cheap wish fulfillment and freak show for normal people to gawk at. Firstly, Cooper really is that Good and interesting a person. He’s unfailingly kind, Maclachlan’s performance conveys his joy at every human being and object he comes across, and his insights are both genuinely odd and genuinely noble, and many of the things he says either warm my heart or cut to the core (I am unable to listen to his monologue summarising the case of Laura Palmer in “Arbitrary Law” without crying). Secondly, Cooper has no more energy put into him than any other character in the series. I love watching Cooper do what he does; I also love watching Ben Horne, Shelly Johnson, Lucy Moran, and all the other assorted characters. Cooper is our trustworthy window into Twin Peaks, a literal guide for us as much as he acts as a spiritual guide for everyone else. One of the reasons Windom Earle irritates me just on conception is that he gives history to a character we’re supposed to identify with, which has the effect of making him less relatable and less fun to empathise with.
It’s Season Three that finds something really, really fascinating to do with Cooper: give us the most esoteric Origin Story for him imaginable. When he returns to Earth from the Black Lodge, he’s reduced to an almost infantile state, unable to take action without some kind of direction and mindlessly parroting the last few words of the sentences of others. Meanwhile, his evil doppelgänger has been ruthlessly murdering and fucking his way across America for twenty-five years. You can probably see where I’m going with this – Cooper is heart with no competence to back it up, and DoppelCööper is ruthless competence with no heart guiding it. The only thing that drives Cooper into taking action independent of what someone pushes him into is his visions (and also, amusingly, his taste for coffee); the most haunting image of the series, to the point of bringing me to tears, is the sight of Cooper using visions of the red room to pick winning slot machines, leaning back and intoning “Hellooooooo!” in imitation of a man he saw doing the same thing. This is the genius of Dale Cooper, an ability to combine visions of a world beyond this one with a memory for the tics of human behaviour, and not only is he using it for one of the pettiest and most useless activities imaginable (personally speaking, I find slot machines vile), he doesn’t even seem to have the capacity to realise what he’s doing. This feeling is mitigated slightly by the reveal very late in the show that Cooper was aware of and at peace with what was happening to him on some level, and much moreso by the direction it goes in.
The unfortunate thing about Strange People is that they’re not usually born with an understanding of their gifts. A Normal Person, by definition, immediately picks up the things you’re supposed to do, and that makes sense because there’s no way the human race would become the dominant species on the planet if everyone was going in different directions. But a Strange Person has a crowd of people going in one direction and their instincts pushing them to go in another, and it can be very hard to truly believe in yourself when the whole world is telling you you’re wrong. At first, Cooper looks incompetent to the point that the only real reason nobody carts him off to a mental facility is because this is the Twin Peaks universe, and it’s morbidly depressing to watch, but over time, his instinctive chasing of his visions and feelings and habit of repeating the right fragments at the right time keep creating Goodness. He uncovers a conspiracy, repairs a broken marriage, saves a man’s soul, and saves a woman from homelessness, amongst other things. This is the story all Strange People go through over a long enough period, learning to trust and chase their instincts and build up a toolkit until one day they wake up in their bed and they’re Special Agent Dale Cooper.
I trust my dreams as much as David Lynch trusts his. I found much resonance in Major Briggs’ monologue differentiating a dream, which is the mind cataloging information, from a vision, in which someone, somewhere, is trying to tell you something, even if I think it’s repressed emotion or information as opposed to a message from another plane of existence. I have often found that what’s significant about a dream isn’t the content or imagery, but the feeling underlying it. Earlier this year, I had the only recurring dream I’ve ever had in my life, in which I kept finding a shopping mall in which there was the largest pop culture store I had ever seen in my life, and as I walked down the aisles looking at DVDs and board games and books and comics I had never even heard of, I was filled with a sense of contentment I hadn’t felt in reality in some time. Each iteration of the dream would end with me vowing to try to remember where the mall was, only to forget as I woke up (of course, once I hit reality fully, I’d remember the mall doesn’t exist at all). What I took from this was that the repetitive drudgery of living in a small town was affecting me even worse than I realised and I was occupying myself with reconsuming old pop culture when it would feel a lot better to put something novel in my head (which was what lead to watching season three of Twin Peaks in the first place; strange how I was turned into a character from the show before even watching it).
Interpreting Twin Peaks that way, then, I would say it’s the dream of a man haunted by the death of Laura Palmer. She is the most solid idea in the story; literally and emotionally solving her death provides climax to the point that it completely kills the energy in a way the show never really recovers from. There’s a cliche called Dead White Girl Syndrome, in which news media will be sent into a frenzy over an image of a, uh, dead white girl while black children die every day without so much as a headline, and Twin Peaks lives and dies on the inherent sadness of the dead body of a blonde, white, smiling homecoming queen. Looking over my notes, I found myself wondering if the reason Lynch was so moved by the death of Laura Palmer is because all her possibilities have now been cut off, and she’s forever trapped in the image of the Dead White Girl just as surely as she’s trapped in the Black Lodge. What’s hinted at in the show and eventually revealed in Fire Walk With Me is that Laura plays a different role for each person in her life, not out of the joyful enthusiasm that Cooper displays, but as a survival technique because her sense of self has been completely shattered by trauma. A man who sees possibility and change everywhere must surely feel for a girl who sees no way out. The end of the penultimate episode of season three shows Cooper travelling back in time to try and undo Laura’s death, and the reverse-Orpheus image of him leading her through the forest, constantly looking back to make she’s still there, feels like the show’s anxiety over her death in a nutshell.
Going in, I knew episode eight of season three was widely interpreted as the origin of BOB, with many finding his association with the atomic bomb to be strangely trite. But I think something a little more interesting is going on: this isn’t just the origin of BOB, it’s the origin of Laura Palmer and of the whole world of Twin Peaks. Lynch grew up in the Fifties, and so much of his work draws on it in one fashion or another (it’s what makes it so surprising and delightful that he’s one of the few older directors who has adapted so well to cell phones and Skype), and I think he’s drawing a connection not just between the atomic bomb and evil, but between the atomic bomb and the image of the Dead White Girl. One of the reasons that people criticise BOB = atomic bomb is that it’s not exactly as if humanity was innocent before they were dropped, but I do think think it’s reasonable to say that the bombs had an effect on American culture; after the bombs drop, MIKE, BOB, and hobos that represent them take residence in an all-American image, and in response, the Fireman takes all the Goodness he can find and puts it into an image that resembles Laura Palmer. An egg lands on Earth and a cute creature emerges from it, and enters the mouth of a sleeping teenage girl. My read on this is that Lynch is saying the atomic bombs created a specific kind of anxiety in the American people, and they channeled that anxiety into creating and then protecting the image of a blonde, white, smiling Homecoming Queen. So long as one of those exists, the American tells himself, everything is fine. Of course, as we know from the rest of the series, evil cannot be contained by a single image.
I freely admit this all completely contradicts what I opened with, but then, episode eight is very strange, and its of note that the final episode carries the weight of closure in a completely different way. After denying us two conventional happy endings (“DoppelCööper and BOB are destroyed, Cooper gives a happy final summation” and “Cooper travels back in time to save Laura Palmer before all this happens”), Lynch presents us with the most dream-like part of the narrative. After his strongest romantic relationship literally vanishes, Cooper finds himself pulled back to saving Laura Palmer, only for her to keep slipping from his grasp as if she never really existed – there’s a woman who looks like her, but she has the wrong hair and wrong accent and wrong life story, and when he takes her home, she absolutely doesn’t belong there, leaving him reeling in confusion. I think this is Lynch saying exactly what I said at the start of this essay, with a strong and precise emotional point: evil happens, and the fact that it can never really be stopped or undone makes us feel horrified, confused, frightened, and powerless. He’s not looking to understand why or how that happens – what compels people to rape and murder their children, amongst other things. He’s just thinking about what a shitty situation it is.