This article is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
We’re standing outside a bar on Franklin St. when Louie, the Frenchman, pulls the pack of cigarettes from a jacket pocket. My friend and I take one, and in our best and bumbling French, ask him for a light. We’re juniors in college. Our complex turns of phrase – “As-tu une lumiere?” – adorn our ignorance. We proffer our cigarettes towards him, wide-eyed, even though his English is perfect.
“No, no,” he says finally, laughing. “No. It’s ‘Du feu?’”
On Tequila Tuesday, it takes a moment to sink in. It’s the sort of night when we pretend that we smoke regularly, envisioning darker, sexier selves next to sophisticated men. When we get it, we laugh at the simplicity while Louie nods.
Fire, it means. Do you have fire?
That was the year that I opened the door to darkness – my own and others’ -- like welcoming a guest to a house party. Darkness did come bearing gifts, in a way: cocaine off a car key in a warehouse bathroom, walks home so late that the sky was purple, inviting strangers to bed, seeking abandon on Tequila Tuesdays or all weekend long. I wouldn’t be content until I reached some outer limit. Things were more interesting at night. I had lots of questions.
As senior year began, the Frenchman long gone, my folks ran out of money. I lived on peanut butter sandwiches. I fought with my female roommates and their chore charts, took long drives in the wee hours of the morning, and got caught thinking hard enough about killing myself that I spent a night in the hospital psych ward. It was as if I had looked into a locked room, and every bad thing I’d been ignoring was waiting for me there. I felt haunted by the things I’d been too afraid to face – my own moral ambiguity, the things I’d done or had been done to me. I acted worse and did more drugs. I graduated with Honors in Creative Writing. I was grappling through whatever I had thought I was, and hoping to find the truth like a light switch in a dark room.
And then I found her on a VHS. My double, my twin, my doppelganger. Laura Palmer.
In the first summer of my adulthood, after graduation, I would insert a VHS tape, already vintage, and inhale Twin Peaks like life support, transfixed and terrified. Its moral map was uncannily close to the one I’d begun to travel, in those years when the novelty of college had worn off and realities both financial and personal had hit me like a bullet through a chainmail vest (as Dale Cooper says after he’s shot in Season 2, Episode 8, “If you can imagine the impact on your chest of three bowling balls dropped from the height of about nine feet, you might begin to approximate the sensation.”).
I had fled my college town for a smaller one just down the road, within walking distance to all of the bars I hated myself for visiting the year before. There were a few students, the ones who favored piercings and LPs, but most of us who lived there, working service jobs and loaning money from our parents, had either skipped school altogether or run screaming away from it like we were on fire, pretending the specter of the bell tower didn’t loom above us still, a short walk away.
There were older ones, too, who tended bars, played in bands, and draped their arms around you in corner booths. On the bar’s patio one night, when I was several beers in, the 30-year-old singer of a local band turned to me and said, “I’m leaving now. If you want to come, let’s go.” He was out the door, on the sidewalk, when I found my friend to tell her goodbye. I caught up, trotting like a dog, and we walked several dark blocks to his house, the kind cobbled together from disparate rooms that feels empty even when it’s full. Even now, there is a turning in my gut when I remember, when I try to will my past self out of running down the sidewalk, knowing how disposable I was.
It was a summer of warnings I didn’t heed, friends leaning towards me on the porch with deep, saucer eyes, asking me to reconsider. “He’s bad news,” they’d say, or “Steer clear of her.” Instead, I reset my compass. I was drawn towards the things that happened when the bars closed. Waking up with bruises meant that I was feeling something besides heat and the loss of an old self. I didn’t miss her at all.
In Twin Peaks, the Black Lodge is a dreamlike place accessible by deep forest or deep sleep where Agent Dale Cooper finds Laura after her death, speech distorted, whispering incomprehensible clues and pausing to laugh or scream. In Season 2, psycho bad guy Windom Earle attempts to find it, believing it’s a source of dark and prodigious power. There are those who enter willingly, and then those who are dragged inside, who cross the threshold accidentally or against their will.
If there is a real-life Black Lodge, I was lounging outside it on the scorched earth, sleeping around and emptying the wine bottles that overflowed in the recycling bins, telling myself that I hadn’t really gone all the way inside, not yet. I told myself I’d know when I lost my wherewithal, that even in a haze of recklessness and depression – I was just beginning to lift myself out – I would know something evil when I saw it. I wasn’t foolish like the rest of them. I could hang with a certain crowd – the Jacques Renaults, the Leo Johnsons, the guy from the band who offered me the kind of drugs you smoke off tin foil -- and still retain my goodness.
In Twin Peaks, as in life, everything has its double, its perfect, mirrored opposite. David Lynch and Mark Frost were not the first to discover that the pendulum always swings both ways.
A roadmap, for the uninitiated: the Twin Peaks pilot begins as Laura Palmer’s body washes ashore, wrapped in plastic. Local kook Pete Martell, who’d gone to the river to fish, summons the sheriff, and the town of Twin Peaks – sleepy and wholesome, or so it seemed – is suddenly something else altogether. Characters are thrown from their usual orbit, and the search for the murderer begins. Through two seasons we follow agent Dale Cooper, whose zen proclivities and golden heart leads him from suspect to suspect until the presence of something more frightening, more evil, and less human begins to make itself known. Twin Peaks is one part mystical horror and one part goofy sitcom. It was (and is) unlike anything else on television.
In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, “[Virtue] is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and choose that which is intermediate.” Twin Peaks explores the excesses and the defects, those who seek too much and those who ask too little.
For every addled and murdered Laura, there is a sensible, homely Maddy. For every unabashedly evil Bob, a repentant Mike. Within themselves, these characters contain multitudes, dualities that emerge only as the show inches ever closer to its final revelation. Twin Peaks is a lesson in extremes, wherein the full spectrum of morality unfurls itself like carpet. We peel away characters like Ben Horne, Audrey’s weird and dastardly father, layer by layer: first, the sleazy businessman. Then, the morally bankrupt brothel owner and philanderer. Finally, a lovelorn, weary soul who bandages the loss of Laura, his secret beloved, with Civil War reenactments in his office at the Great Northern Lodge.
Then there are the simpler personas, whose unquestioning wholesomeness rends them both goodlier and less sage: secretary Lucy Moran, policeman Andy Brennan, mill owner Pete Martell, even the sniveling men’s clothing aficionado Dick Tremayne. These are the people that would draw Nietzsche’s disdain, the ones whose day-to-day concerns lean more towards the soapy show-within-a-show “Invitation to Love” than the human condition. He writes, “To recognize untruth as a condition of life—that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.”
These characters are neither dangerous nor questioning: their basic notions of good and evil are easily sorted, evoked only when something as extreme as a murder shakes the foundations of their sleepy town. These people are not philosophizers or agitators. We love them, but never identify with them. We, the viewers, would always probe further, and be tainted by our knowledge. Blessed are the blissfully ignorant.
Physically, I share enough similarities with Laura Palmer that we could be confused, if you squinted from a few feet away. A round face, still padded with baby fat. Long, lank blonde hair, almost always shampooed and worn at our shoulders. Skin like a glass of buttermilk, pale and wholesome. Her clothes (contemporary, during filming), and mine that looked almost the same, since they’d come from a thrift store down the bike path from my house.
There’s something in our eyes, though, that’s a little harder to place. Maybe it’s the Pavlovian training that young girls of a certain make and model receive as soon as they’re pushed in the grocery store buggy, clad in pink: we’re here to please, pale and all-American as the Coppertone kid. Smile, close-lipped, and widen those eyes until they’re blank enough to be adoring or penitent or charmingly unsure. We can read a face and mirror back the very thing it wants, flirtation or adoration or shyness or deference. We could be anything, as long as it wasn’t ourselves. We could be sexpots or innocents. Before the first episode of Twin Peaks ever aired, the fictional Laura had discovered a power that wasn’t really power. She could charm anyone. She was a slave to expectations; she read them, she brought them to fruition, she shuffled them like a deck of cards. She could play and not be played. She cupped her tiny town inside her palms and she walked with fire, until it burned her.
We have that in common, she and I.
In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Freud describes the titular sensation as “concerned with the idea of a ‘double’ in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike… so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own – in other words, by doubling, dividing, and interchanging the self.”
The double is ubiquitous in Twin Peaks, whether self-contained or exterior. The very name evokes duality, and the most terrifying elements of the show are those that subvert our expectations, spectacularly and without warning. We recognize characters and relationships – we see Laura and Donna’s friendship as an idealized, all-American bond – and then we discover beneath them something poisonous and equally true, closer to our real lives than we’d like. When Donna tells homebound orchid enthusiast Harold about the rendezvous she once had with Laura, when they followed a group of 20-something-year-old men into the woods, youth is equal parts rosy and menacing. Until the end of her monologue, we’re not sure in which direction that pendulum will swing – trauma or fond reminiscence, or some uncanny mixture of both.
Laura and I slid easily into Freud’s definition of the uncanny. As she explored the dark underbelly of sex, morality, and adulthood, so did I. As she cleaved herself into two different beings – the full-faced child and the reckless woman, bent on experience – so did I. I saw us as “interchanging selves,” and came back from debauching, stumbling through the door in the wee hours of the morning, drunk enough as to be unfeeling, wondering at how closely our stories might entangle.
Where Aristotle insists that “all human activities aim at some good,” a good we recognize somewhere in our God-given souls, Nietzsche plunges his hand into the murky pool of human thought and pulls up something more sinister. He believes that when we open the door to the Black Lodge, that liminal, red-curtained cavern in which morality becomes almost irrelevant, we’ll find something terrifying and grotesque, but truthful, the unnamable thing at the root of humanity. We’ll see the dancing dwarf. We’ll be better for knowing it, even if it taints us in some way. “…let us clench our teeth,” he writes, “let us open our eyes and keep our hand firm on the helm! We sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage there…”
Like Agent Cooper, he opens the door. He parts the red velvet curtains, and comes back changed.
That’s the thing about that summer, in fiction and reality. Twin Peaks wasn’t simply an inspiration, a disturbing and beautiful mine from which I’d later pull bits of characters and plots. It was a confrontation, a dare to see myself and the world more clearly, as someone and something that would never fully occupy either goodness or badness, if those things even mattered. As many as had hurt me in those critical three months, I had wronged them too. It was impossible to tally that score and come out with any conclusions about whether I needed redeeming, whether I could be redeemed.
Nietzsche writes, “It is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than mere appearance; it is even the worst proved assumption there is in the world… Indeed, what forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false’?” Twin Peaks functions on that axis of being and seeming – as Nietzche points out, the two aren’t often the same. The “truth” takes on forms both mystical (Agent Cooper’s Tibetan experiment throwing stones at glass bottles in Episode 2) and absurd, laughable and awe-inspiring. Perhaps all we have is the gut – the visceral thrill of a rendezvous at One Eyed Jack’s or a baleful song at the Bang Bang Bar with a sweetheart. As hard as we dig for a line, a fixed point between good and evil, true and false, the barrier is murky at best. Those with the best intentions (who seem the goodliest, the first to question their own ethics) fall prey to something darker and more forceful. Those who once murdered with Bob saw their arm off and sell shoes, avoiding what might have been their fate with a choice concoction of antipsychotic drugs.
“Whatever is profound loves masks,” Nietzsche wrote. He might have been describing Twin Peaks, a sitcom that’s bigger than its two seasons, where the owls are not as they seem and a damn good cup of coffee is all we can take for granted. He might have been describing me, as I was that summer, or all of us, as we are at our darkest and brightest.
Twin Peaks is Laura’s story. It’s about being born privileged, in a little white house with a picket fence and an ominous ceiling fan, but still touching evil, and never being able to feel clean again. Or maybe it touches us. Maybe it’s inside us all.
It was an accumulation of events towards the end of the summer, when I was nearing the finale of Season 2 and the air was beginning to feel crisp, that I realized I was no wiser than Laura. It took nonconsensual sex– my second experience with that special brand of agony -- and the explosion of a toxic friendship so violent and terrible that my heart raced for weeks after. I got Twin Peaks’ message then. There aren’t girls like me, who can hang tough, and girls like her, who can’t. There aren’t good ones and bad ones. There are lucky ones and unlucky. There are choices we make with the best of intentions that open up some door we never notice, and before we can turn around and exit, we’ve changed. We’ve passed through a threshold, just like Agent Cooper, and what we see in the mirror might make us want to shatter it into a hundred pieces.
I lived in Twin Peaks that summer. I danced at the Black Lodge, but unlike Laura, I made it out. I came back a little smarter, and a little darker, and a little better able to know something bad when I saw it.