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“Television provides the opportunity for an ongoing story – the opportunity to meld the cast and the characters and a world, and to spend more time there.” – David Lynch
Television three decades ago was a very bland landscape. Nothing cut deep into the senses and formats were followed to the T when it came to crime thrillers and dramas. Thankfully, director David Lynch had a different idea for his influential series Twin Peaks.
By the time Twin Peaks aired on April 8, 1990, Lynch was already an auteur with a distinct style. This started with the experimental body horror Eraserhead in 1977, followed by acclaim with biopic The Elephant Man in 1980, and a critical hammering in 1984 with sci-fi epic Dune. However, his polarising 1986 neo-noir Blue Velvet introduced the world to Kyle MacLachlan, and also created the foundations for where Lynch would take audiences with Twin Peaks. Like the filmmaker’s TV series, Blue Velvet’s setting was a town trapped in a vacuum of 50s American chic with dark secrets looming under its shiny surface.
On the surface, the plot of Twin Peaks is straightforward. It is the show’s strange atmosphere and surrealist touches which elevate it. The whodunit is set in the title sleepy, fictional Washington town near the Canadian-US border. The tranquility of the place is rocked by the murder of the town’s homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).
Sent to investigate the murder is Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan). Already quite idiosyncratic, the character is thrown into the arms of a town filled with further eccentric individuals. The further the FBI agent probes into the community of Twin Peaks, he discovers a world of horror and a doorway to the supernatural.
Every episode the dreamy eerie score from Angelo Badalamenti brought to life the atmospheric setting perfectly, as if the very music itself acted as a portal into Twin Peaks. Meanwhile, the always closing credit image of the victim reminded viewers of the basis of what they had just watched.
Travelling deeper into the series, the plot evolves from the who-killed-Laura-Palmer mystery, becoming increasingly complicated and alluring. The inhabitants of the town are all in some way involved in crime, either directly to Laura or part of some tangential scheme.
The entrance of supernatural elements begins slowly in the first series. This is when Agent Cooper is visited by apparitions of ‘The Tall Man’ (Carel Struycken), and ‘The Man from Another Place’ (Michael J. Anderson). These figments of Cooper’s dreams or subconscious provide clues to the true murderer Killer BOB (Frank Silva), a demonic entity which may or may not be a manifestation of the darkness already lurking in Twin Peaks. Into series two, these supernatural entities become more frequent, as does the limbo-styled Black Lodge from where they originate, a realm of pure evil on an alternate plane of reality. Thanks to its serialised form, David Lynch was able to push his esoteric ideals to their limit.
The Black Lodge holds the iconic Red Room, featuring stark imagery of red drapes and zig-zaging floors, that becomes a prison for Agent Cooper who eventually finds a secret entrance in the hope of finding answers. The previously encountered entities dwell inside along with Laura Palmer, who communicates in a distorted, time-lapsed style.
There are many explanations for what the Black Lodge actually symbolised. My own theory is that this place is the actual mind of the killer, that Agent Cooper ventured too far and became trapped in a metaphysical realm where Laura Palmer still existed. At the same time, however, the character of BOB became attached to the mind of Agent Cooper – a more metaphorical version of the detective/killer dynamic recently probed in Mindhunter.
To me, the presences of ‘The Tall Man’, and ‘The Man from Another Place’ within the Black Lodge act as parts of Killer Bob’s subconscious, the remaining pieces of his humanity that wanted the murders to end. Whilst opposite in stature to each other they are also the polar opposite of the evil that consumes the mind. This idea is explored further in the closing scenes of the second series as Agent Cooper and BOB become one and the same.
Twin Peaks initially ran for only two series due to declining ratings. Lynch took his vision further though on the big screen with the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While the cinematic outing released in 1992 bombed at the box office, it did explain the story of Laura Palmer’s last days and added to the series.
Since Twin Peaks aired three decades ago its influence has caused a chain reaction through television. Following in Lynch’s footsteps, directors and producers took risks, pushed boundaries further and even retained some of the series’ bizarre style. Popular programming such as The X-Files, The Sopranos, The Killing and even Breaking Bad owe a debt to what David Lynch pioneered. Similarly, cult movie favourites like Black Swan and Donnie Darko retain the reality testing qualities of Twin Peaks.
In 2017, Lynch released a third series of Twin Peaks titled Twin Peaks: The Return. Taking place 25 years later, it shows Agent Cooper finally escaping the Black Lodge. Hunkered down somewhere between cinema and television – unlike in its 90s run, Lynch directed the whole season which was constructed as an 18-hour movie – it received rave reviews. In fact, Cahiers du Cinema – rather controversially – named it the best film of its decade.
Like the original two seasons, Twin Peaks: The Return is visually stunning. This time, however, Lynch ventured outside the locations of the title town, opening up the show’s world to the adventures of Agent Cooper as he tries to reclaim his identity. That said though, the plot at its source is a journey, one that takes the character back to Twin Peaks where it all began.
While a different beast to its original 90s run, Twin Peaks: The Return stayed true to what made Lynch’s series such a cult hit. It took risks and asked more of its audience than any TV series before it and even since.