It Is Happening... Again

by Arthur B

Want to be ready for the 2017 return of Twin Peaks? One blu-ray set will get you caught up and Mark Frost's new tie-in book will whet your appetite for more.
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I’ve got good news: that gum you like is going to come back in style. Twin Peaks is returning for a new season after a 25 year gap that seems strangely planned, and I’m tremendously excited about the whole thing. One thing which is particularly gratifying is that show masterminds David Lynch and Mark Frost have remembered that Twin Peaks was an early example of a multimedia event, with tie-in media offering non-essential but sometimes fascinating supplementary material to enrich the experience.

One of the nice things about these items is that they were diegetic to the series, presented as artifacts from its world - sometimes representing significant plot points. Murder victim Laura Palmer’s secret diary, for instance, was a significant clue - and was actually published for us to read. Thus, ahead of the new series, Mark Frost has put out The Secret History of Twin Peaks, representing one supporting character’s idiosyncratic take on the subject that provides a few tantalising hints of what might be coming up, but focuses more on contextualising some of what has come before.

So, how best to catch up with Twin Peaks? The first port of call should probably be the now ironically-named Entire Mystery blu-ray set of the show’s original run, which includes all the episodes of both seasons, extensive extras, the prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, and - to the great delight of fans - a fat stack of cut scenes from Fire Walk With Me, spliced together by Lynch into what almost qualifies as a supplemental movie.

The Core of the Canon, the Heart of the Log


The show itself is, despite being dated in respects you can probably anticipate for something originally filmed in 1989, a true classic - at least at first. Combining Frost’s televisual chops with Lynch’s distinctive directorial vision, it takes us deep into the dirty secrets concealed by the benign facade of a small town in the woods of Washington state. Local high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) has been murdered, and thanks to links existing with a previous case the matter comes onto the radar of the FBI.

Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), whose eccentric and esoteric methods make him a natural fit in the oddball town, arrives to help the local police department investigate the matter, whilst the townsfolk go about their business - some of which is pretty shady in its own right. Throughout it is implied that the affairs of the town have some broader significance, and that the townsfolk - plus Cooper - have come to the attention of powers greater and less human than are immediately apparent, with an enigmatic dream of Cooper’s early on in the series offering up clues to the Laura Palmer killing that seem to emerge from a shadowy space between Cooper’s subconscious and somewhere more transcendent.

This is all amazing, but network television being the snakepit that it is the ball was dropped partway through the show’s original run. The short first season was absolutely incredible, and the second season started out just as strong - however, then the network twisted Lynch and Frost’s arms and forced them to reveal Laura’s killer, something they had intended to do only at the very end. To be fair, this part was pretty well-executed; in particular, the scene in which the killer is revealed to the audience represents one of the most harrowing and powerful sequences I’ve ever seen on a show made for prime time on a major US network.

However, having been bullied into spoiling the fun, Frost and Lynch ended up drifting away from the project, leaving it in the hands of their various underlings. The second chunk of the second season is generally agreed on as being not very good; in particular, the writers and directors who are trying to chug along unsupervised whilst the show-runners go off and have a grump end up handling matters with much less nuance, resulting in clumsy plotlines which often lurched into self-parody and didn't have much thematic cohesiveness. Critically, with the Laura Palmer murder solved the central backbone of the show had been ripped away, and nothing the writers came up with really felt like it had comparable power.

There are also less obvious but no less important problems with this stretch of the show. The first, which I admit I hadn't noticed until someone else pointed it out in conversation but which I now can't unsee, is that there is a curious lack of social fallout from the Laura Palmer investigation. Despite some characters becoming very seriously implicated in some very vile stuff and a nasty tendency of at least some townsfolk to treat the local high school student body as a sexual hunting ground, nobody aside from the murderer quite seems to get the blowback the situation seems to call for.

Perhaps part of this arose from the writers needing to keep around familiar characters so that the audience could still see their favourites and so that the writers themselves could be spared the job of filling in the gap, but still. Another part may arise from the other less immediately evident issue I have with this section of the series, which is that the stopgap writers and directors seem to shy away from addressing the sort of material that Lynch and Frost went gunning for with the Laura Palmer case.

That was some especially dark territory by the standards of television at the time, with rape and abuse and a sort of quasi-supernatural spin on grooming all in the mix, with Laura’s death being preceded by a descent into increasingly risky behaviour as a result of her struggling to reconcile traumatic events that had happened to her with a powerful nascent sexual appetite which she had no real socially-acceptable outlet for. That's some heavy stuff, and goodness knows Lynch and Frost were sometimes a little problematic in their handling of it (at some points risking becoming a bit sex-negative) they did way better than you'd expect for the era, with a particularly deft balance struck between refusing to present Laura as an absolutely pure and innocent little angel on the one hand and refusing to victim-blame on the other. That balance, I would say, is especially crucial: because Laura was a human being with her own foibles and flaws, she is humanised and her death seems more real.

It is no surprise, then, that when such a carefully-constructed plot gets abruptly shut down and the showrunners have to scramble to replace it, they may not have felt up to the task of going to that same place - especially if they simply didn't have the time necessary to approach it with due care and attention. But without such a thing at its centre the latter part of season 2 feels tame and directionless, a softer and friendlier pastiche of Twin Peaks rather than the real deal. Whereas the earlier sections of the show took a long hard look at something lurking underneath a smiling facade, the latter section effectively ended up just rebuilding the facade. (It also throws in David Duchovny as a transwoman DEA agent, played for laughs.)

That said, the very final episode of the series - directed by Lynch himself - is very much worth it, mostly because it involves Lynch coming back from his long absence and then burning the whole thing down to the waterline, in perhaps one of the most uncompromisingly odd and cruel episodes of television ever broadcast. Whereas the preceding few episodes had attempted to explain and thus demystify the supernatural aspects of the show, Lynch took this and ran it through the mincer, demonstrating that it's all very well to have a cute theory but true mystery will always confound you when you get up close to it.

Lynch evidently found his interest rekindled at this point, because he would soon turn out Fire Walk With Me, a tie-in movie. Since it largely focuses on the last days of Laura Palmer it's often described as a prequel, though I think it would be reductive to see it as one. For one thing, you really shouldn't be watching it before you watch the series itself, because it will spoiler the central mystery and none of the characters will mean anything to you. For another, it actually floats about the timeline a bit, taking in events both before the series began and a little bit after it ended.

On top of that, running time considerations prompted a really vicious editing job, meaning that the final product was missing a lot of material (thankfully now available again in the blu-ray boxed set) and also had some sequences compressed to an uncomfortable extent in the process. (David Bowie’s cameo as Special Agent Phillip Jeffries, for instance, loses much of its potential surrral power as a result of being contracted as much as it is.) In addition, some casting changes happened as a result of some actors being unable to participate, which ends up being quite jarring.

In particular, Moira Kelly replacing Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna Haywood just doesn't quite work, and that’s a rather acute issue given that she’s one of Laura’s best friends and is therefore closely involved in her last days. In addition, Richard Beymer didn’t return to reprise his role as Ben Horne and Sherilyn Fenn didn’t come back to be Audrey Horne, depriving the film of two of the series’ most evocatively memorable characters, one of whom was sufficiently crucial to Laura’s final days that their absence ends up warping matters considerably.

Nonetheless, if you come to it with a decent knowledge of both the series and Lynch’s broader body of work it ends up being an oddly fascinating piece. Aesthetically, it's sort of a missing link between Lynch’s explorations of small-town secrets as represented by Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet on the one hand and his colder and more alienating examinations of the Los Angeles bubble as visited in Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.

Thematically, it revisits the abuse themes of the series and manages to definitively steer away from the potential glossing-over of responsibility for Laura’s victimisation that the supernatural overtones of the series could be interpreted as doing. Specifically, Lynch teases out how the spaces Laura tried to explore sexuality in were controlled by predatory men with their own gratification as their major priority, so it's not so much that sex is had, or even that the particular kinks Laura was into are bad, so much as that bad, predatory people will try to latch onto those scenes and exploit all of that stuff and a scene which does not acknowledge and talk about that fosters an unsafe environment.

The end result is harrowing stuff, telling the story of Laura’s demise without the veiling distance the series offered by virtue of examining matters after the fact rather than depicting them as they happened. I am glad that Fire Walk With Me exists, and even gladder that we now have the missing scenes, but it's one of those things which is deeply uncomfortable to watch - interesting and artistically satisfying, when it is at its best, but not lightly entertaining and, especially with the missing scenes gone, largely missing the lighter, quirkier moments that the TV show was so good at. That, plus the fact that it is very spoileriffic and relies a lot on the reader having carefully watched the series, means that my suggested viewing order for things in the boxed set goes like this:

1: Series 1, and series 2 up to the point Laura’s killer meets their final fate.
2: As much of the subsequent episodes of season 2 as you can stand.
3: Online episode guide summaries of the episodes of season 2 you skipped, up to the last one.
4: The last episode of season 2.
5: Fire Walk With Me.
6: Optionally, the missing scenes from Fire Walk With Me.

As far as extras go, my favourite has to be the interview David Lynch does with the Palmer family actors (Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie) - the first segment of which is framed as an interview between David Lynch and the Palmer family themselves.

My discussions of the two spin-off pieces I want to go into here will inevitably be quite spoilery for the series - in particular, I don’t think it’s really possible to sensibly discuss The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer without going into spoilery territory, so if you intend to watch it unspoiled, stop reading here. Here’s some spoiler space to pad things out for you.
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The Best of the Peripheral Canon: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer


Back when the show was originally broadcast, the massive success of season 1 helped spawn a brace of tie-ins published in between the end of that season and the early episodes of season 2. Of these releases, two in particular have a special place in Twin Peaks fandom because of the way they flesh out the two central characters of the series. One of them, The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes, told Cooper’s life story from his early years to the point where he was assigned to the Laura Palmer case, and suggested a more vulnerable side to Cooper (including suggestions that he’d been an abuse victim himself in the past) that provides a foreshadowing for his moment of weakness at the end of season 2 that the TV show himself didn’t get around to showing.

The other one is the first Twin Peaks tie-in to emerge, whose success paved the way for the various other releases. This was The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, penned by David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer (now a fairly accomplished director in her own right), and of all the tie-ins it was the one that was most closely entwined with the series itself - the existence of the secret diary and its location would be a major plot point of season 2, so the book was an actual clue to the central mystery of the murder of Laura Palmer. On top of that, it represented an opportunity for the character of Laura Palmer to actually address us for the first time. This is crucially important, since otherwise she’d only appeared in the show in home movies, on cassette tapes, and in people’s recollections - and as the series wound on it became apparent that in each of those contexts she was playing some kind of role. The secret diary represents the in-depth testimony of the “real” Laura Palmer, a self that Laura didn’t feel able to show to anyone else.

One of the more Lynchian features of Twin Peaks is that Dale Cooper is on some level a psychic or a shaman; very early on in the series he has a prophetic dream in which crucial information about the murder of Laura Palmer is relayed to him in allegorical form, very possibly by a clique of spirits which exist in a mysterious otherworld, dubbed “the Black Lodge” in some legends, which interferes in worldly events thanks to the gate between worlds that exists within the woods around Twin Peaks. How literal you take the existence of these spirits depends on how much weight you give to the very reductionist treatment of this stuff that season 2 of the show got into after David Lynch and Mark Frost drifted away as a result of being strongarmed into revealing the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer. Still, it’s just about viable to interpret the whole Lodge/spirits stuff as an extended metaphor for the various unacknowledged forces within the human psyche, or perhaps a statement about how if we can’t attribute responsibility for abuse or other evils to their perpetrators then we guarantee that that evil will come back in another form later on.

The most terrifying Lodge spirit is BOB, sometimes referred to as “Killer BOB” - though frankly this undersells just how unpleasant his interests are. BOB is the figure that Cooper sees in his dream in the place of the actual murderer of Laura Palmer, and in that context stands in as the idealised perpetrator who exists in the imagination when we can’t put any other face to a crime. BOB is the persona that takes front and centre when the murderer performs his crimes, and in that context he is a symbol of the double life the killer is leading and his inability to take personal responsibility for what he has done. And in the Secret Diary, BOB shows up again, Laura documenting his abuse of her with horrifying clarity; as in Fire Walk With Me, which documents the last days of Laura Palmer in a way which doesn’t quite maintain consistency with the Secret Diary but at the same time riffs on some themes developed in it, BOB here is almost a defence mechanism, a shield Laura puts up so that she doesn’t have to acknowledge who’s really doing all of this to her.

To a certain extent, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer constitutes a massive spoiler for Twin Peaks the show. Primarily, this is because it makes it clear that Laura has been abused from a young age by BOB, and BOB can access her room with trivial ease. Combine this with the basic statistics which most of us now understand about sexual abuse, and there’s a pretty obvious suspect in the frame - and lo and behold, midway through Season 2 that selfsame suspect was exposed as being the killer. To me this raises an interesting question though - would it have been that obvious to viewers and readers back in the day, or has 20-plus years of learning about this stuff made us more willing to consider an awful truth that previous generations of TV viewers might have balked at?

That said, BOB isn’t only riding his usual vessel for the Diary; Jennifer Lynch takes the hints in the series that BOB wanted to emotionally and psychologically hollow out Laura so that she could be possessed by him or another malevolent Lodge spirit and runs with them, with BOB showing up in the very text of the diary itself, denying even that as a safe sanctuary for Laura and suggesting that he was influencing her to some extent even as she wrote it.

The Secret Diary is also interesting independently of its content as an early example of the sort of multi-media branching out of a franchise which to an extent already existed in some genres (such as the nascent expanded universe of Star Wars or the mass of Star Trek supporting material) but which was still fairly new. What is fun about the diary is that it is a diegetic document in the show - rather than being a behind-the-scenes book or a tie-in story presented as a conventional narrative, it's an artifact written by one of the characters and discovered by Cooper in the course of the investigation, which I think was at the time a novel spin on the tie-in idea; I cannot think of a tie-in product as closely associated with the core narrative of its associated franchise preceding this; it is an approach which, as we’re about to see, Mark Frost would take with his new Secret History of Twin Peaks.

Something New Under the Sycamore Trees: The Secret History of Twin Peaks


This volume introduces us to a new character in Twin Peaks lore in the form of Special Agent Tamara Preston. Preston is tasked by her FBI superior Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by David Lynch himself in the series) with looking over a mysterious dossier uncovered at a crime scene in July 2016. On the face of it, Cole wants Preston to see how much of the facts offered in the dossier can be corroborated, and to work out the identity of the author - but knowing what we know about Cole, it could well be he is testing her for her suitability to be brought into the more esoteric investigations Cole oversees.

What we get in the book, then, consists mostly of a magnificently accomplished reproduction of the dossier itself, along with annotations from Tamara. In effect, it is a sort of Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves, with several layers of narrative intertwined - the documentation assembled on the town, the Archivist’s connecting narration, and Preston’s thoughts.

The Archivist is, in fact, a character from the show, and avid fans may guess who it is from the subject matter they choose to focus on well before they reveal their identity to us. In fact, a good chunk of the book involves some rather weird interests, with the Archivist apparently believing that the US government originates in and is the field of an ongoing struggle between the benign forces of Freemasonry and the malevolent Illuminati. From the starting point of the enigmatic fate of Lewis of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Archivist takes us on a wild road through an undercurrent of high weirdness underpinning American culture and with its apparent nexus somewhere in the vicinity of Twin Peaks.

In the process of doing this, Frost cleverly intermingles real incidents (or at least, incidents which people have presented as being real) and invented ones to work in aspects of the show, such that just as in the original series Twin Peaks felt like a microcosm and mirror of small town America, the town now seems like a microcosm of certain strange obsessions of the wider culture. Frost also shows a decent level of depth in the real incidents he works in, and even when his decisions are sometimes a little obvious he pulls them off well - for instance, taking a pop at Scientology is easy, but the well-substantiated story about L. Ron Hubbard and rocket scientist Jack Parsons doing Thelemic sex magick rituals in the desert to invoke a Moonchild is both too fun and too thematically appropriate to ignore. (I mean, it's a story which made Crowley himself go “lolwut” when he heard about it, that kind of says it all.)

In the process of all this the Archivist reminds us that the “two worlds” that we float between when we visit Twin Peaks are those of outer reality and the interior life, and that there is a distinction between mysteries - enigmas available to all that may forever remain inexplicable but are enriching thanks precisely to that - and secrets, which are facts concealed by their keepers, which if hidden with bad intent can be corrosive. These seem to be guiding principles of the series which Frost and Lynch both in their own ways want to bring back to the heart of the thing after the late season 2 drift.

The idea that whatever is out there around Twin Peaks is a mirror to the seeker is backed up somewhat by Frost nudging the reader towards - without stating or referencing it directly - the “Magonia theory”, named for offbeat French UFOlogist Jacques Vallée’s book Passport to Magonia which promoted the idea. The theory suggests that the aliens of UFO lore, fairies of medieval legend, entities of classical myth and so on were all the same extradimensional thingamiebobs, with the way they are perceived by us being shaped by our cultural expectations.

The impression I get from the book is that this is true of the Lodge entities, and that furthermore the nature of the entities encountered in the Lodge may depend on the nature of the person encountering them. This means that if anything they are the intermediaries between the outer and inner worlds, since what you find when you go and encounter them is essentially based on what’s going on inside you when you do so.

This can allow for Laura's killer being simultaneously possessed and still fully guilty - BOB may have been riding them, but BOB was also taking his cues from his host and couldn't have done what he did had the capacity for it not been found in his chosen vessel. It also accounts for the contradictory sometimes-helpful sometimes-perilous behaviour of the entities, and gives meat to the longstanding implications that BOB abuses and hurts people so as to carve out a space inside them he can inhabit. At the same time, despite this secret being explicable, it means there is always going to be a twist of mystery to the entities because there is intrinsic mystery inside people. (And if the entities were somewhat benign protector spirits in the experience of the local First Nations people, before Federal troops ran them off, but the entities are now murderous, sadistic tricksters, what does that say about the town’s culture?)

One thing which tickles me about the book is that, far from shying away from the sprawling mess of ideas and plotlines and characters that untidily cluttered up the show late in season 2 and which were left hanging in Fire Walk With Me, Frost latches onto them and exploits them as much as he can, reworking them so as to fit better into the whole. A comedy throwaway character becomes a significant running plot element, the mysterious ring that was so prominent in Fire Walk With Me likewise, and there's even nods to Ben Horne’s ridiculous Civil War delusions and David Bowie’s character. Not everything is included, mind - James Hurley’s awful subplot where he ended up carrying on with utterly irrelevant side character Evelyn Marsh doesn't get a mention, but that subplot was very obviously thrown in because the writers had literally no idea what to do with James once the Laura Palmer plot was done so that makes sense.

The book also gives us a few nods here and there as to what may have happened after the end of the show. A few characters are confirmed dead - generally those whose actors died before the new season - and both the ultimate fate of the Archivists and some of the early movements of Dale Cooper after the end of season 2 are alluded to. (I think there's even a strong clue as to what the “crime scene” the dossier was recovered from is.) As for Special Agent Preston, perhaps we will see more of her on the show, perhaps not - though she would provide a great character to ask all the questions new viewers would be naturally asking.

Now all that's left is for the new season to actually air, and thanks to this book I’m ready for it. OK, Frost and Lynch... !kcor s’teL…
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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2016-12-15
the very final episode of the series - directed by Lynch himself - is very much worth it, mostly because it involves Lynch coming back from his long absence and then burning the whole thing down to the waterline, in perhaps one of the most uncompromisingly odd and cruel episodes of television ever broadcast. Whereas the preceding few episodes had attempted to explain and thus demystify the supernatural aspects of the show, Lynch took this and ran it through the mincer, demonstrating that it's all very well to have a cute theory but true mystery will always confound you when you get up close to it.

Reading this article in close proximity to the Epic Lovecraft Analysis series got me thinking: do you suppose this violates Lovecraft’s maxim that the writer (or director, in this case) should always know what’s really going on, even if they don’t divulge that information with the audience?

I ask because, if there is a straightforward answer which is known to the director, doesn’t that undermine the message that the mystery is unexplained because at it’s core it’s inexplicable?
Arthur B at 21:32 on 2016-12-15
No; I think David Lynch more or less always knows what is going on with his stuff, but it may be only on an intuitive level that is lost when you try to translate it to language.

Also, Lovecraft's maxim was never that there should be a straightforward answer.
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