Retrospective: David Lynch Part Three: A Gorgeous Nightmare by Donald McCarthy

Twin Peaks made television what it is today.

If you’ve never seen Twin Peaks then you’re missing out. Not only is Twin Peaks incredibly important to the history of television, but it also has some of the best moments to ever appear on screen.

Lynch began to mull over a television show shortly after the release of Blue Velvet. He teamed up with Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost and together they began spitballing ideas. One centered on the life of Marilyn Monroe and eventually morphed into Twin Peaks. The inciting incident of the show revolved around the murder of Laura Palmer, a girl who had more than a few similarities to Marilyn Monroe, and the investigation that followed. Lynch and Frost hoped to examine the secrets and corruption of the town of Twin Peaks by using the murder as a gateway before expanding their point of view, with the murder becoming less and less important. However, the murder of Laura Palmer engaged audiences right off the bat and Twin Peaks rocketed to the top of the ratings chart. The question of who killed Laura Palmer became the main concern of television viewers in the spring of 1991. The cast made the cover of TV Guide and by the end of the first season the show was, without a doubt, a true phenomenon.

But the audience didn’t have the patience Lynch hoped they would. Lynch and Frost still wanted the investigation into Laura Palmer to fade and let the other tales of intrigue in the town take over. This led to two problems: one, the audience would have to be convinced that it was okay not to learn who Laura’s killer was; two, they’d have to develop stories interesting enough to rival the incredibly engaging murder mystery. Neither occurred and ABC ordered Lynch and Frost to reveal who the killer was. In one of the show’s best episodes, they did just that.

This led to a new question: what next?

The show didn’t really have a satisfying answer. Perhaps there could never have been one. Audiences loved the mystery of Laura Palmer but wanted an answer as soon as possible. The show could’ve immediately followed up with another murder but it’d likely end up being a lesser rehash. Lynch began to pull back from the show, losing interest now that the network was getting more involved, and the rest of the writers came up with a former FBI agent, Windom Earle, who was on a hunt for Agent Dale Cooper, the show’s protagonist (once again we have Kyle MacLachlan in the lead role). This plot had its ups and downs, never coming close to the depth of Laura’s murder, but the other plots fared much, much worse, often coming across as rejected soap opera stories. For a good eight episodes, Twin Peaks came across as a disaster. Frost and the other writers began to right the ship but far too late. Not surprisingly, viewers had already tuned out. ABC kept rescheduling the airtime and eventually decided to cancel it and the last two episodes aired on June 10th, two months after the previous episode.

For those who came to see the end of Twin Peaks they probably did not expect to see what aired. I’d imagine no one did.

Lynch returned to direct the finale and ended up tossing away half the script, reimagining entire scenes and the last hour was a surreal nightmare. Every dark aspect of Twin Peaks came to the forefront and the last moments of the episode showed us the absolute darkest moment in the show’s run. For a David Lynch story, what better a place to end?

To be honest, I think Twin Peaks did end at the right time. I adore the show, don’t get me wrong; it’s one of my absolute favorites. I can still remember first watching it in my senior year of high school. I rented the DVDs from the local library and watched the first season in one afternoon (it was only six episodes but still!). At that time, there was no version of the pilot available in America other than the European cut which differed massively and had an ending. Not wanting to spend money on a pilot to a show I didn’t know if I’d like, I instead printed out the original pilot script which was very close to the actual pilot barring some name changes. The script itself was a haunting read and it took only a few pages for me to know this show would be for me.

I devoured the second season in a matter of days over my Easter break. I loved it despite the many flaws in the back half of the season. At the time I wanted more but now I think the series ended right where it should have. The network wouldn’t let episodes like the second season finale air on a regular basis, no way. So for the show to go out on such a high point and in a way that expressed all of its positive qualities is stellar, even if we are left with a nasty, downbeat ending. There’s no way what happened next would match the beauty and horror of the second season finale. When Lynch went on to make the Twin Peaks film he was hit with a lot of flak for not continuing the storyline and instead doing a prequel (although he did touch on elements of the finale and gave something of a conclusion). I think Lynch made the right choice and I think the Twin Peaks film is all the stronger for it.

We’ll get to the film in due time, though. Let’s first talk about what made the show work as well as it did for as long as it did.

The foremost reason for Twin Peaks’ success is Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. As riveting as the central mystery was, if the audience didn’t follow Cooper investigating it then they would’ve been much less involved. Cooper’s optimism and odd tactics nicely complemented the darkness of Laura Palmer’s murder and the revelations about her past. What could’ve been a show too mired in misery became nicely dualistic, with the optimism and bravery of Cooper combating the evil that lurked in the town. From his random thumbs up gesture to his friendliness towards almost all members of the town, Cooper acted as a truly heroic character. If you read up on Lynch or watch him interviewed, you can see some of Cooper’s mannerisms in him and the two share similar interests, such as the wellbeing of the people of Tibet. Most amusingly, Lynch referred to Kyle MacLachlan as “Cooper” during shoots while he referred to everyone else by their actual name.

It’s a shame that Kyle MacLachlan never became as popular as he was during his tenure on Twin Peaks because the man can sure act. He’s recurred in other popular shows such as Sex & the City and Desperate Housewives but never received the chance to be the lead on another hit show. Our loss, I think.

Another contributing factor to Twin Peaks’ success came from the mood and it’s the mood that came to be Twin Peaks’ lasting legacy. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, once described his show as being “Twin Peaks set in New Jersey” and you can spot that easily in the show. The Sopranos had the haunting dream sequences, the humor, the use of nature to set atmosphere, and the feeling that it could all fall apart at any moment even if there wasn’t an obvious threat. It’s right out of Twin Peaks’ playbook.

Shots of leaves blowing in the wind cropped up in almost every episode of Twin Peaks, warning the viewer that a terrible occurrence might soon happen, a storm might soon move in. In the final episode, the song “Sycamore Trees” is played and it contains the lyric “slowly, slowly, in the wind” as if the show is acknowledging one of its more disturbing images. Even simple electronics, like the ceiling fan in the Palmer household, become recurring, eerie motifs. The common shot of a traffic light acted as a foreboding warning. Lynch brought this up in the book Lynch on Lynch edited by Chris Rodley (pg.170):

“And these traffic lights are there. Snow and different temperatures mean that they have to be fluid. So they blow in the wind. And these traffic lights became kind of important. They were used again where Cooper says, ‘All those murders took place at night.’ So when you see this red light, or a light turning to red, and it’s moving, it gives you a feeling. And then it becomes like the fan in the hall outside Laura’s room. It makes you wonder. And it gives you the willies!”

Lights also play a key part. Lynch has a particular affinity for malfunctioning lights, ones that zap and blink. This sense of malfunction carries over to everything else in the scene and we suddenly worry that something, anything, could pop up on screen.

I also appreciate (and fear) Lynch’s penchant for showing scenes without people in frame. In the premiere of the second season Lynch uses this to phenomenal effect. At the end of the episode he shows us empty halls, pushing forward as if we’re seeing through someone’s eyes yet there’s no one in front of this person. We’re alone. We’re alone and horrible creatures are on the loose. When we see these creatures, and we sure do in the premiere, it’s all the more terrifying because of this touch.

Adding to the mood is the sound of the production. Lynch has always had a talent for sound and we hear it on Twin Peaks, be it from the quiet ruffle of the fan to the whistle of the wind, the sounds of Twin Peaks are just as important as the imagery and dialogue.

Part of the sound comes from Angelo Badalamenti’s brilliant score. Of specific note, is the sharp electronic screech that plays during some of the more supernatural scenes, further driving home the horror of what is on the screen.

While not the most important aspect of Twin Peaks’ success, what I remember it for is what it made me feel, something few movies or television shows have been able to: terror. Horror films can manage to scare me but what Twin Peaks had wasn’t horror but terror. The ability to disturbed you enough that it carried on even once the show was over.

I remember watching the second episode of season two in my bedroom in April of 2007, back when I was a senior in high school, broadening my interests by trying all sorts of books, movies, and television shows. It was night and the lights were off. The episode featured a few of the teenage characters singing in their living room. Two of them excuse themselves and the one who remains, Maddie, Laura Palmer’s cousin, sits on the floor, calm as can be. She looks across the room and we see from her perspective the supernatural figure of BOB walk into the room. He turns, slowly, and begins approaching, crawling over the couch, and right up to the screen.

He might as well have crawled out of the TV for the fear I felt. I mean, Jesus Christ. If the scene lasted another few seconds I probably would’ve fast forwarded (as I had to do during a certain scene in Fire, Walk With Me but… we’ll get to that). After the initial scare wore off, it amazed me that this aired on television in the early 90s. Nothing like this appeared on TV before, not to my knowledge, and the fact that a network allowed this on air is a surprise. The phenomenon of Twin Peaks was at its height at this point so ABC appeared willing to let Lynch and Frost do whatever they please but I’m still shocked with what they get away with.

There are a number of other moments that burrowed under my skin but the other most terrorizing moment happened in the surreal series finale I keep mentioning. Agent Dale Cooper’s odyssey in the red room/black lodge/white lodge was a master class in surrealism and terror. ABC knew the show wouldn’t be back in the fall and couldn’t give a shit what Lynch and Frost aired. Lynch took advantage of this with the finale that defied both expectations and television rules. We have characters looking into the screen, acknowledging the audience, a performance of the song “Sycamore Trees,” high pitched screaming that goes on and on, speech that needs to be subtitled, multiple doppelgangers, unexplained images, strobe lights, and an incredibly depressing ending.

The terror and surrealism isn’t what brought audiences to the couch in the 1990s but I do think it’s a large part of what has made Twin Peaks such a lasting program. The influences of it are seen in multiple successful dramas like The SopranosBreaking BadLostMad Men, and more. Near the end of this series we’ll take time to examine these influences more closely but it’s important to note just how influential Twin Peaks ended up being despite being on television for only two seasons, one of which was only seven episodes!

So, yes, in some ways Twin Peaks became a catastrophe. It went off the rails on multiple occasions, blew storylines, and sometimes featured unconvincing character developments. But that’s okay. Because when it got the drama right it got it right in a way nothing else has. The best of Twin Peaksrivals not just every other television show, but also every other movie. At the time, posters for Twin Peaks contained the phrase “TV that’s too good for TV.” While I’d argue that TV is just as legitimate an art form as other mediums, the intent behind the message is true. Twin Peaks stands up as a work of art when it’s at its best.

Due to the dark ending of the show, the fans clamored for some sort of wrap-up. I’d argue that the series finale does act as a wrap-up; it’s just a very dark wrap-up but Twin Peaks has always been a dark show when you cut to the heart of it. Copper being stuck in the Black Lodge and BOB appearing as him in the real world, asking where Cooper’s girlfriend Annie is, continues the cycle of abuse that BOB has represented for the town of Twin Peaks. One of the initial goals of the show was to examine the secrets of the town and few of those secrets are positive. Domestic and sexual abuse is rampant in the town but no one is ready to confront it and tries to ignore such problems by throwing themselves into their jobs or their (often adulterous) relationships. The most heinous abuse is Leland Palmer’s continuous raping of his daughter and the eventual murder of her which kicks the series off. Leland was possessed by BOB and, before Leland dies, he reveals that someone named Bob entered him as a child, showing that Leland’s sexual abuse as a child led him to become a sexual abuser in turn. It’s not an excuse, of course, but it is indicative of a trend.

Even outside of what goes on in the Palmer household there’s constant emotional and physical abuse that goes ignored. Shelly Johnson is physically abused by her drug dealer husband Leo. Pete Martell is emotionally abused by his wife Catherine Martell. Audrey Horne is neglected by her corrupt businessman father.

The town itself has its own type of abusive relationship with its residents as it harbors the Red Room and the Black Lodge where seemingly demonic creatures lay, ready to use and abuse the people of Twin Peaks.

The theme of abuse becomes even more prevalent in the Twin Peaks film Fire, Walk With Me. After the cancellation of the show, Lynch decided to use some of the backing he’d earned thanks to Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart to fund a film that continued the Twin Peaks story.

Well, sort of. The film doesn’t exactly continue the story so much as it illuminates aspects of the tale. The bulk of Fire, Walk With Me takes place during the last days of Laura Palmer’s life; in other words, before the show actually began. It was a controversial decision and his writing partner Mark Frost, who must be credited with keeping the show grounded enough that it could survive, decided not to work on the screenplay. Instead, Twin Peaks script supervisor and recurring writer for the show Robert Engels. A number of stars from the show, such as Sheriyln Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Richard Beymer, declined to come back for the film as they were let down by Lynch because he stepped back from the show during the latter period of the show (until the finale, that is). Initially, Kyle MacLachlan was among those who didn’t want to return and the film’s future looked bleak because of his lack of participation. Eventually, MacLachlan agreed to appear in the film albeit in a reduced role. This resulted in the beginning of the film introducing two FBI agents previously unknown to the audience: Agents Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley. Their inclusion in the film likely irked some fans at the time, fans who wanted more Cooper, but I think the film gets off to a brilliantly unsettling start. We follow the two agents as they investigate the murder of Teresa Banks and end up in a town that is on the surface what Twin Peaks is under the surface: violent, unfriendly, and scary. In the trailer park nearby, itself a warped version of Twin Peaks’ suburbs, Desmond and Stanley disappear but not before we hear the familiar electric cords we heard in the show, the electric cords that signify the coming of something evil.

Their vanishing leads to Cooper’s return as he goes to the trailer park to investigate after receiving a vision of a missing FBI agent played inexplicably by David Bowie. Cooper interacts with the manager of the trailer park played by Harry Dean Stanton. In one of Twin Peaks’ most hilarious moments, Stanton’s character, totally baffled by Cooper, angrily declares, “God damn, these people are confusing!” I have a feeling he spoke for a large part of the audience.

Cooper finds the words “Let’s Rock!” written in red on Agent Desmond’s car, the very same words that the Man From Another Place spoke in Cooper’s dream in episode three (a dream he’s yet to have). Lynch is pretty much laying down the gauntlet here; if you liked Twin Peaks for its irreverent humor and quirky aspects then you’re not going to be happy because Fire, Walk With Me embraces the horror, surrealism, and ambiguity that lurked on the edges of the television show.

The horror is not just found in the return appearances of the denizens of the Red Room but also in the repeated rapes of Laura Palmer by her father, Leland. Leland is still possessed by BOB as he was in the series but here the film makes Leland a little more complicit, hinting that BOB is merely allowing Leland to act out on his fantasies; the urges do not come entirely from BOB. Laura’s mother, Sarah Palmer, is also made more complicit. She clearly knows what Leland does to her daughter but chooses to live in denial, allowing herself to be drugged whenever Leland rapes Laura. At one point BOB/Leland craws through Laura’s window in a scene reminiscent of the one featuring Maddie that I talked about above. I had trouble watching it, to be honest, which is a testament to how involved Lynch got me as a viewer.

The abuse Laura’s father enacts on her drives Laura to extremes, both emotionally and physically. She’s erratic around her friends from school, especially her boyfriend, Bobby. She’s a prostitute some nights, earning money at One-Eyed Jack’s, and almost participates in an orgy in one of the seediest clubs ever put on film. Her love life and sex life have been incredibly warped due to the abuse she faces from her father and the film gives us the feeling that had Laura continued to live she would’ve gone down a very, very dark road. It’s not surprising that Laura looks truly happy at the end of the film, when she’s in the Red Room, after she’s dead, with Agent Cooper (who is in turn still trapped in there from the series finale; time works oddly in the Red Room).

The original cut of the film came in at well over three hours but Lynch cut out a lot of extraneous material that touched on other characters from the television show. As a fan, I’d love to have seen those scenes in the movie but I think Lynch made the right choice with sticking by Laura’s side throughout most of the moments in Twin Peaks because it really brought the theme of circular abuse home. The scenes outside of Twin Peaks, revolving around the FBI, may at first seem out of place but they expand the scope of the film, building heavily on the mythology from the show and drive home just how far-reaching abuse can be as it’s clear the beings from the Red Room have infected the lives of many people. Harry Dean Stanton’s character even makes mention of this by saying that he was at one point brought somewhere and just wants to stay where he is. The horrors that we’ve seen in Twin Peaks are not special to just that town, Lynch is telling us. BOB may be near even you and me.

Sadly, Fire, Walk With Me did not do well commercially nor critically. Reviewers panned it and fans of the show were turned off because it didn’t wrap up the plot strands from the show and eliminated most of the lighter elements of the show. However, the film has undergone a reevaluation over the past decade, with both fans and critics coming around, viewing it as a very worthy Lynch film. I, for one, adore Fire, Walk With Me and think it’s the scariest film I’ve seen, edging out Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Lynch’s own Lost Highway, and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. The supernatural elements of the show are cranked up to eleven in Fire, Walk With Me. BOB is as terrifying as ever but the other characters from the Red Room, some of whom appeared friendly or at least neutral in the show, now have a much, much darker edge to them. In one scene, we see The Man From Another Place cackle as he sits at a table across from BOB. The Man From Another Place came across as unnerving in the show but here there’s an element of cruelness to him, as if he enjoys the violence that BOB commits as much as BOB does.

Also cranked up is the sound. The electric cords I mentioned earlier are sharper and nastier than before. I dare you not to get a chill when a screeching comes when the beings from the Red Room are near.

While the film is now praised, its failure at the time assured that there’d be no more Twin Peaks films on the horizon. As a fan of the show, I’m sad. As a fan of Lynch, however, I think it’s best that he moves on. Lynch is a master of ambiguity and if he stuck around too long in the world of Twin Peaks he’d risk making its horrors too literal. The questions that remain at the end of the film only make sure it has a better impact and lingers in the mind.

I have a feeling that when Lynch’s career is done it will be Twin Peaks that he’s best remembered for. It showed what television could do, just try and find an article on television’s Golden Age that doesn’t point to Twin Peaks as a massive influence, and it created a very loyal fanbase that still has a convention every year. I count myself as part of that fanbase and always will. I’ll never forget Cooper giving thumbs up, Gordon Cole shouting loudly, BOB stalking the edges of the screen, the mysteries of the Red Room, or the Log Lady’s simultaneously hilarious and creepy prophecies. And I wouldn’t want to forget any of it either, as scary as some of it may be.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.