Twin Peaks at 30
Updated: Jul 4
In a pleasant surprise earlier this year, 74 year old David Lynch released a 17 minute short film on Netflix called What Did Jack Do? The brief description accompanying the film reads: “A detective interrogates a monkey who is suspected of murder.” I remember laughing at that description when I first read it. How silly and strange it seems at first blush, right? The description also happens to be quite literally accurate. Almost the whole of the film is David Lynch, playing a detective, interrogating a capuchin monkey, named Jack Cruz, about the murder of Max, a possible rival of Jack’s for the affections of a chicken named, Toototabon.
I did laugh a bit when I first saw the monkey talk, and there is a weird, jarring quality to the deliberately cliched dialogue throughout, but I also became fully engrossed by the brief tale. I was tense throughout; I was genuinely moved by Jack’s tortured affection for Toototabon. And there was a brief musical interlude we got from Jack that felt magical when it happened. Despite the bizarre setting and content, all the emotional moments resonated as I imagine they were intended to. What Did Jack Do? is a little silly and weird, but not just for the sake of being weird, and the difference seems to rest with how fully Lynch commits to the worlds and characters he creates.
Lynch’s most well known work, Twin Peaks, turns 30 this year. It has long been parodied as an example of weird and aimless pretentiousness. There’s no shortage of YouTube clips of different comic takes set in the show’s iconic red curtained room with zigzag floor. However, Twin Peaks - when it worked - and What Did Jack Do? are both bolstered by Lynch’s commitment to following an idea wherever it might take him, and his characters, in service of the story he’s telling, however silly or weird it might seem at first blush.
That said, it would go a bit too far to say that Twin Peaks was wholly undeserving of that reputation for aimless and strange pretension. Somewhat infamously to the fans of the show, Lynch, and his co-creator Mark Frost, largely stepped away from Twin Peaks for most of the second season over demands about content being made by executives at ABC, the network running the show. Lynch directed the seventh episode of the second season, but then didn’t direct again until the season finale. The 14 episode interregnum where Lynch’s influence and input waned, where the writers room was left to do their best impression of David Lynch, is unambiguously aimless, often trafficking in weirdness for its own sake.
In the beginning, the basic narrative idea of the pilot for Twin Peaks was straightforward: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) came to the small Northwestern town of Twin Peaks, WA to try to help local law enforcement solve the murder of widely beloved high school prom queen, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). As a description of the pilot, this is fairly accurate. As a description meant to capture how the story of Twin Peaks has evolved through its various incarnations over the past thirty years, it is comically spare. While the murder of Laura Palmer always remains the central touchstone of the story, the story of Twin Peaks evolved into a cosmic story of good versus evil with a complex mythology all its own.
That mythology wanders pretty far afield from the way the world seems in the show’s pilot, but it gets there organically. Through a famous accident, Lynch inadvertently caught set dresser Frank Silva in a reflection in a scene he was shooting, which inspired Lynch to work him into the show as what would because a malevolent spirit named Bob that haunted Laura as a manifestation of the sexual assault she suffered throughout her childhood. Another actor, Al Strobel, appeared in the show initially as a one-armed man, serving as little more than an allusion to the classic TV show, The Fugitive. That brief appearance as a red herring evolved into his character being another spirit, named Mike, that served as a counterpoint to Bob, that played an increasingly important role in the show all the way through the 2017 season three revival. Michael J. Anderson’s iconic role as The Man from Another Place, the small red-suited man in the red curtained room with the zigzag floor, first appears in a dream that Agent Cooper has. The device of having him perform his dialogue backwards so that it could be understood while the film is played in reverse happened because speaking backwards was something that Anderson happened to be able to do. The theme throughout here is Lynch getting an idea from something small and then following that idea wherever it happened to lead him.
The writers room for Twin Peaks can be forgiven a bit for losing the plot in season two because of just how bad a hand they were dealt by circumstances. Season one of Twin Peaks was a phenomenon. Over the course of a tight eight episode season, the creative team made the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” one of international importance. There is a well trod story of Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev asking U.S. President George H.W. Bush to find out from Lynch who the murderer was.
Lynch and Frost understood that the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s death was the engine for the show. Lynch referred to the mystery as the golden goose. They had a firm idea in their mind from the beginning who Laura’s killer was, independent of where the mythology of the show eventually went, but they had no timeline for revealing that information. Lynch would have been fine if the killer was never revealed. From the beginning of the show, though, they were both under pressure from the network to resolve Laura’s murder and move on to other stories. In the seventh episode of the second season they relented, and that proved to be the beginning of the end of the show.
With the central mystery solved, Lynch’s interest in the show waned, leaving Frost and the remaining writers to figure out what the show was about now. Further complicating matters, one of the central romances of the show, the one between Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper and Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne, fell apart due to behind the scenes tension between Fenn and MacLachlan’s then girlfriend, Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Donna Hayward. Having lost Lynch, as well as the central premise of the show, and their main character’s love interests, all at the same time, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the show lost its way.
In the 13 episode gap until Lynch returns for the finale, we get a mishmash of tire-spinning subplots, where David Duchovny plays a transgendered DEA Agent friend of Cooper who also happens to be investigating him; Audrey’s father, Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), has a multi-episode storyline where he thinks he’s a civil war general, Kenneth Welsh is introduced as Cooper’s crazed former FBI partner, Windom Earle, out for revenge on Cooper for an uncharacteristic affair that Cooper had with Earle’s wife; Heather Graham and Billy Zane are awkwardly introduced as love interests for Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne to replace the relationship between them that had been torpedoed; there was the misguided Miss Twin Peaks pageant that the writers managed to shoehorn many of our leading women into without much rhyme or reason; and Windom Earle’s interminable game of human chess he plays with Cooper where real people die when pieces are taken. There is a lot I’m skipping because of how involved it would be to try to explain, but the theme here is: throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks as a way to find out what the show about Laura Palmer’s murder is about, once you’ve solve the murder of Laura Palmer.
When Lynch returned for the finale, he threw out as many of the subplots that had emerged since his last episode as he could. He started from a simple point - that Windham Earle had taken Heather Graham’s character, Annie, through a portal in the woods into the red room - now called The Black Lodge - and it was up to Cooper to follow them to rescue her. Everything that follows Cooper entering the Black Lodge is entirely new and strange, but again, in service of the story. Cooper manages to rescue Annie, but we discover in the episode’s final moments that it came at the price of him having to stay in the Black Lodge, while a doppelgänger of him takes his place in the real world. This is how the season ends, and for a time, how the show ended. The final episode of the show was something special, a complete return to form, but it was too late. ABC canceled the show.
Fairly shortly after the cancellation, Lynch was able to get support for a Twin Peaks movie, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, telling the story of Laura Palmer’s final days and her murder. However, he encountered a number of hurdles in getting the movie made. Lara Flynn Boyle declined to return. Sherilyn Fenn wasn’t available. Kyle MacLachlan reluctantly returned, but only for a small role in the film. With those restrictions, Lynch and one of the writers from the show, Robert Engels, were able to put together a movie that was something special. It would go on to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Sheryl Lee’s performance is genuinely something special that might have gotten some mainstream award attention, had it not come in the context of a spin-off movie to a canceled cult TV show. The movie wasn’t what audiences wanted, though. The reception was unfortunately such that Lynch had to abandon a three movie series he had envisioned to complete the story.
Again, for a time, this is where things stood. But thanks to a cryptic line in the series finale, a window was opened to revisit the world. While in the Black Lodge, Laura says to Agent Cooper, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” As we approached 25 years from the finale, Frost and Lynch saw an opportunity, and inspiration, for revisiting the world. Fortunately, they were able to persuade Showtime to fund an 18 episode continuation of the series, giving us 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return. There’s no shortage of recent articles on Twin Peaks: The Return, but in line with what we’ve been discussing, it was a special season of storytelling that radically expanded the world and mythology of Twin Peaks, often in bizarre and hilarious ways, but always in service of telling the story of Agent Cooper’s return from the Black Lodge, his return to Laura Palmer’s murder, and an attempt to return the world to how it was before things went wrong.
Twin Peaks: The Return is inarguably strange. Huge chunks of the initial episodes are almost silent as Agent Cooper works his way through a largely unexplained cosmic landscape as he tries to make his way back to our world. When he returns, he takes the place of one of his doppelgängers, spending the majority of the season nearly mute and without agency, floating through his doppelgänger’s life by happenstance, like a more surreal version of Being There, while his family and coworkers are bizarrely accepting of the change. What makes it all work is that Lynch never winks at the audience. Yes, his premises are bizarre, but he always treats what follows from those premises as genuine, rooting the action in the humanity of his characters, whatever their circumstances might be. It’s this sensibility that explains what makes something like What Did Jack Do? work, while season two of Twin Peaks fell apart as soon as Lynch’s attention was elsewhere.
Looking back at these past 30 years of Twin Peaks, you can see the show’s DNA all over the recent Golden Age of television, particularly in obvious descendants like Lost, Mr. Robot, and The Leftovers. Lynch’s mere presence on TV was also significant in itself, though. Lynch began work on Twin Peaks very much in the prime of his film career. In 1990, Lynch had already made his iconic art house film, Eraserhead, had helmed The Elephant Man to eight Oscar Nominations including Best Director, had received his second Best Director nomination for Blue Velvet, and would go on to win that year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film Wild at Heart. Lynch played a role in opening up television as a medium for serious filmmakers, which we are reaping the benefits of now. And, importantly, with an achievement like Twin Peaks: The Return as a capstone to his career, I’m excited to see the influence I expect him to have on young directors for years to come, pushing the boundaries of what film and television can be.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.