Donuts, Doppelgangers & Dwarfs: A Simple Guide to the Complex Story of Twin Peaks

In a bonus feature for the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) Blu-ray, actor Walter Olkewicz (Jacques Renault) speaks of the time he asked writer-director David Lynch about the meaning of one of his lines, “I’m blank as a fart.”  Lynch replied, “What do you think it means?”  The two ultimately agreed that those who watched the movie could determine their own meaning.  This explains how I feel about the entire Twin Peaks phenomenon.  For a television series (and movie) over which people debate theories and struggle to complete the puzzle, I have recently come to realize that I understand exactly what it means… for me.

This realization comes after re-watching the entire series which ran between April 8, 1990 and June 10, 1991 (30 episodes) and the subsequent theatrical motion picture released 14 months after the series ended. It also comes amid feverish anticipation for Showtime’s revival series that begins Sunday, May 21.  There are several possible explanations for why an experience that left me scratching my head nearly 26 years ago now makes perfect sense.

For one, I’m older, wiser and have endured other attempts to recreate a mystery like the pioneer television experiment that was Twin Peaks, whether on the small screen or the big screen.  Since 1991, I’ve even deciphered what I think is the meaning of another David Lynch masterpiece that is more convoluted, if you can imagine that: Mulholland Drive (2001).  It took multiple viewings and a legal pad full of notes, but I’m convinced that I got into Lynch’s head to figure it out.

For another, Twin Peaks isn’t really as strange as I remembered.  Sure, the elements that stuck with me all these years were the strange ones; however, in retrospect, most of them occurred during only a handful of episodes that David Lynch directed… and they took place during dreams.  In the context of something that’s happening in a character’s mind, or while the character sleeps, backwards talking with subtitles, rooms with red curtains and flashing strobe lights don’t necessarily seem out of place or disruptive to a standard narrative.

Also, if you focus on the simple story being told, you realize Lynch’s surrounding it with these seemingly bizarre, over-the-top moments evokes pure emotion. Even if they don’t seem to make strict narrative sense, these scenes bring to life abstract representations of love, joy, grief and terror.  You can apply the “feelings” of these moments to the characters to clarify the plot points.  In doing so, the inexplicable is explained.

You might think this approach to understanding Twin Peaks would expose its greatest secret, that it’s all style and no substance.  However, nothing could be further than the truth.  Using the style as a way to identify the simple meaning of the story, you can then appreciate its other accomplishments, such as being a meta-before-its time spoof of network prime time soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty that were ending their runs after ruling television for most of the 1980s.

This in turn explains the seemingly erratic nature of Twin Peaks, especially during its second season.  The moments of pure emotion decrease as the scenes of absolute nonsense increase.  At the same time, the lengths of these scenes of nonsense stretch the limits of our patience as the durations of their subplots extend over the course of too many episodes.  Or do they?  This pattern sounds an awful lot like Dallas or Dynasty late in their runs.

In retrospect, Twin Peaks may have benefitted from a broadcast model closer to what we have today with seasons limited to 10 or 13 episodes and the opportunity to binge them on our own schedules.  This is a roundabout way of saying Twin Peaks was ahead of its time.  And we will soon have a way to test that theory, for better or worse, as Showtime experiments with an 18-episode season, a run that lies somewhere between then and now.

Twin Peaks (Season One) – What We Know

Let’s start with three plot points that are not debatable, or are as close to facts as you can get with Twin Peaks.  The series takes place in the northwest town of Twin Peaks.  The event that introduces us to the town is the murder of high school prom queen, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).  The character through whose eyes we meet the town’s residents is Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who is sent by the FBI to investigate the murder.

Cooper collaborates on the investigation with local Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and his deputies Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse) and Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz). Other characters that I would consider to be vital to the primary “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” storyline (as we learn that she led a secret life of drugs, violence and prostitution) include:

  • Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) – the “J.R. Ewing” of Twin Peaks 
  • Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe) – Laura’s drug dealer
  • Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) – Laura’s psychologist
  • Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) – Laura’s father

Equally vital, because through their characters we learn more about Laura Palmer as a person, are fellow high school students and friends:

  • Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) – the very definition of angry, rebellious teen
  • Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) – Laura’s best friend
  • Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) – Benjamin Horne’s daughter
  • James Hurley (James Marshall) – brooding loner who’s in love with Laura
  • Maddy Ferguson (Sheryl Lee) – Laura’s cousin who arrives for Laura’s funeral

Then we get the characters that are peripherally related to the primary storyline (everyone in town is affected by the death of Laura Palmer) and spin-off into their own subplots:

  • Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) – abused wife of Leo Johnson and Bobby Briggs’s secret lover
  • Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) – owner of the Double R Diner and Shelly Johnson’s employer
  • Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) – owner of Big Ed’s Gas Farm and Norma Jennings’s secret lover
  • Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) – sheriff’s receptionist and estranged girlfriend of Deputy Andy
  • Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) – Ed Hurley’s mentally disturbed, eye patch-wearing wife

Then, we get supporting characters with no real subplots of their own, but who appear now and then to offer vital pieces of information or to simply remind us how quirky Twin Peaks (the show and the town) is:

  • The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) – wise resident who carries a log that tells her things
  • Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) – Bobby Briggs’s father and participant in Project Blue Book-type investigations in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks
  • Hank Jennings (Chris Mulkey) – fresh from prison bad guy and Norma Jennings’s husband
  • Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) – Laura Palmer’s crippled-by-grief mother

Finally, we get a trio of characters as part of what is probably the second largest storyline of Twin Peaks. While this is the most straight-forward subplot, it makes less sense to me than anything else in the entire series. Involving business dealings in and around the Great Northern Hotel, the lumber mill, and a proposed real estate deal (Ghostwood Estates), it’s not so much confusing as it is just boring. It distracts from the real story of interest: the death of Laura Palmer. Joining Benjamin Horne in various corporate machinations are:

  • Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) – the “Alexis Carrington Colby” of Twin Peaks and Benjamin Horne’s secret lover
  • Pete Martell (Jack Nance) – Catherine Martell’s husband who discovers Larua’s body “wrapped in plastic”
  • Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen) – owner (by inheritance) of the mill and Sheriff Truman’s secret lover

Twin Peaks (Season Two) – What We Think We Know

One of the criticisms of the second season is that too many characters came and went during its 22 episodes. This is not one of my criticisms; I think most of them served purposes, whether or not these purposes were fully realized.  They added more humor and strangeness to the proceedings, even if they distracted from the central mystery and caused Twin Peaks to lose clarity after the initial mystery was solved in episode nine.  (Besides, I’d rather see new characters than tired old characters like Benjamin Horne, Catherine Martell and Jocelyn Packard.)

Although it will be a surprise only if you’ve never watched Twin Peaks and probably won’t be a surprise going into Showtime’s revival, I’ll issue a spoiler alert!  I’m about to reveal that…

Leland Palmer killed his daughter, Laura… sort of. He was possessed at the time by Bob (Frank Silva) a demon who normally resides in the “Black Lodge,” to which there is a supernatural portal in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks.  Although this is the conclusion I’ve reached about Twin Peaks, I believe it’s a widely-accepted explanation.  The ambiguity comes from everything that surrounds this conclusion, from the clues of weird dreams and cave markings to the appearance of creatures such as one-armed men, elderly waiters, giants and dancing dwarfs.

To share all my conclusions about Twin Peaks would be to deny you the opportunity to draw conclusions of your own.  If you’re stumped about something, let me know and I’ll tell you what I think.  Even if you have no intention of watching the revival, I have a feeling the questions of the original series will be intertwined with the new series, so you might want to explore them yourselves.  Regardless, you’d be better served right now by a recap of where the story left us on June 10, 1991, within the filter of my interpretation…

  • Agent Cooper enters the Black Lodge through its portal in the woods. He’s chasing former partner-gone-bad, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), who kidnapped his love interest (since episode seventeen), the younger sister of Norma Jennings, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham).  Inside the Black Lodge, Cooper reunites with old “friends,” such as Laura Palmer, Maddy Ferguson and Leland Palmer, as well as encounters his demonic doppelganger.
  • Bob denies Earle the act of killing Cooper and sends Cooper and Annie back to the woods. In the closing scene of the season two (original series) finale, Cooper sees Bob in the mirror and proceeds to bash his head against it, repeating, “How’s Annie… how’s Annie…” while bleeding and giggling maniacally.  (I initially thought Bob had possessed Cooper, but I now believe this is actually Cooper’s demonic doppelganger and that the real Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge.)

Meanwhile, in other more regular (and predictable), prime time soap opera cliffhangers…

  • Nadine Hurley, who had regressed to the mental state of a high school student after a suicide attempt in season one, regains her memory, interfering with Ed’s plans to divorce her and marry Norma Jennings.
  • In an act of civil disobedience, Audrey Horne handcuffs herself to the door of a bank vault just as the once-thought-dead Andrew Packard (Dan O’Herlihy) and Pete Martell open a safety deposit box containing a bomb. Bank goes boom!
  • Donna Hayward learns that Dr. Will Hayward (Warren Frost) is not her biological father. Apparently Benjamin Horne was a former lover of her mother, Eileen Hayward (Mary Jo Deschanel), and is her real father.
  • Bobby Briggs proposes to Shelly Johnson, but she declines because she is still married to Leo Johnson, who, for most of season two, was kept in an electric collar by, and made a servant to, Windom Earle, in his hidden cabin in the woods.
  • After a season-long competition between Deputy Andy and Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan), Lucy Moran finally chooses the man who will become the father of her child when it’s born: Deputy Andy.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – What It Adds

On one hand, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a prequel to the television series.  In simplest terms, for most of the movie we witness, day by day, the final week of Laura Palmer’s life.  We see clues from the show brought to life as they happened chronologically in its narrative.  For example, in the movie, we watch Laura discover pages torn from her secret diary and visit homebound Meals on Wheels customer, Harold Smith (Lenny von Dohlen).  In the series, we watched Donna Hayward locate and steal the diary from Harold Smith.

On the other hand, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a sequel to the television series, based on a theory I have about it.  One of the confounding things about the movie is that Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer exist at the same time in the Black Lodge.  In fact, the movie ends after Laura’s murder with Cooper standing beside her as they watch an angel floating above them.  I believe this takes place after the TV show, while the good Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge.  We know that he met Laura while he was there, so I think she’s telling him her story via a disguised flashback.

However, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is also its own beast, telling a standalone story while commenting on the phenomenon of the television series.  The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that the flashing blue light of the opening credits is actually the static of a TV screen.  Then, an axe swings down to destroy the TV.  I don’t think there’s any doubt that this represents the cancellation (axing) of Twin Peaks while also adding Lynch’s sentiment about it.  Perhaps he feels it was sudden and that ABC was angry about the show, or he feels angry himself that the show was cancelled before its time.

The standalone story is about the investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) by two characters we’ve never seen before, Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his protégée, San Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland). For more than 30 minutes, we get no mention of Twin Peaks or Laura Palmer.  Then, this prologue abruptly ends and we finally see the familiar sign at the town’s entrance and hear Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting music.  Much has been made of this seemingly disconnected beginning.  Since Agent Cooper’s first appearance is him rushing into Gordon Cole’s office to tell him he’s had a dream, some speculate that the entire opening segment is Cooper’s dream.

The meaning of the opening segment does not concern me greatly because, according to the television series, Teresa Banks was another victim of the serial killer who murdered Laura Palmer. Further, we see later in the movie that it was indeed Leland Palmer/Bob who also killed Teresa Banks.  I’m not sure there’s much to be deciphered from all this.  If it’s the fact that Agent Cooper is not part of the investigation, it could be because Kyle MacLachlan was originally not going to participate in the movie at all.  He joined the cast after it began production.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me also re-focuses the television show’s meta-commentary on prime time soap operas to a meta-commentary on detective movies.  For example, when Agents Desmond and Stanley meet Gordon Cole at an airport where their boss assigns them to the Teresa Banks case, a colorfully-dressed woman dances in front of them.  Instead of verbally telling the agents the details of the case, they are to glean the facts from this woman’s attire and performance.  David Lynch is spoofing the standard, talky scene in detective movies where everything is explained.  (Then, as only Lynch would do, proceeds to tell us everything anyway in the very next scene.)

What I don’t know about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is how well it works as a completely independent movie.  If you’ve never seen the television show, how well would the movie work?  That’s a bell that can’t be un-rung for me; to answer that question, I’ll have to watch it several years from now when the other material isn’t as fresh in my mind.  I have a feeling it would work pretty well on its own.  With an opening that provides historical perspective, a middle that enacts scenes only discussed in Twin Peaks, and an ending that could be interpreted differently than I describe above, it is a uniquely horrifying experience.

Twin Peaks (Revival) – What Is Coming

Since the tagline for the new series is, “It’s Happening Again,” it’s probably safe to say that Showtime’s revival is going to feature a mystery similar to the original series and the return of a supernatural force of evil. Not many plot details have been revealed, and you can assume only a little from the brief commercials that have aired.  In the latest, we see some familiar faces and locations:

  • What appears to be the stairs from inside Laura Palmer’s house
  • Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) removing a picnic basked from a station wagon in the parking lot of the sheriff’s station
  • A trailer last seen before it vanished during the opening segment of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me 
  • Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) sitting behind the reception desk
  • The Bang Bang bar
  • Gordon Cole (David Lynch) touching Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) on the shoulder as the two men rise from their seats at a conference table
  • Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), driving at night with a grim look on his face

Besides the basic fact that we’ve previously witnessed Laura Palmer telling Agent Cooper in the Black Lodge that she’ll see him in 25 years, and that Sheryl Lee is listed in the cast of the Twin Peaks revival, I’m going to hope at least part of the story will use plot points with which we’re familiar. But how much of it is going to be “Twin Peaks: The Next Generation?” The latest commercial also shows beautiful young characters who have yet to be identified. (IMDb is no help, as the roles of most of the new actors are not listed.) We see:

  • A doe-eyed teenage boy sitting on a black couch (possibly in front of a camera)
  • A pretty teenage girl telling someone (perhaps the doe-eyed teenage boy), “Try me.”
  • Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) sitting inside the Bang Bang Bar with at least two dark-haired teenage girls. (Are they her daughters?)
  • A scantily-clad young brunette sitting on a hotel bed talking on the telephone, “He’s coming. I have to get off the phone.”

Nearly the entire original cast returns for the revival, but we don’t know yet in what capacity. Will their characters be vital to major storylines or simply provide introductions to new ones? What are their relationships now?  What happened to them after we last saw them (see above)? If it’s accurate, IMDb does indicate that some appear in all 18 episodes, while some appear in only one. IMDb also reveals a few actors/characters that don’t appear in the revival:

  • Michael Ontkean (Sheriff Harry S. Truman)
  • Eric DaRe (Leo Johnson)
  • Lara Flynn Boyle or Moira Kelly (Donna Hayward)
  • Chris Mulkey (Hank Jennings)

Performing this modest amount of research is more than I’d like to have done before Twin Peaks returns. I’m as curious as can be; however, I also want to be surprised as much as possible on Sunday night. Come Monday, though, all bets are off! I invite you to join me right here every week while I dissect each episode. Hopefully, we’ll discover together that the revival is as “damn fine” as a cup o’ joe and slice of cherry pie from the Double R Diner…