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Twin Peaks – Northwest Passage (Review)

This is Special Agent Dale Cooper.

Gary Cooper?

Agent Cooper. Agent.

Twin Peaks remains something of a pop cultural oddity.

Despite its trappings and its pedigree, Twin Peaks was not a niche phenomenon. It was an event. The pilot was the most-watched television movie of 1990, and set about a wave of speculation and engagement. The series inspired a whole generation of television copycats, from Picket Fences to The X-Files. It redefined what was possible on television. It was a water-cooler show. This fact is somewhat obscured by the underwhelming ratings of the recent relaunch and even the sharply declining ratings of the original run.

And yet, in spite of all of that, Twin Peaks is undoubtedly the product of David Lynch. Of course, Lynch was working with writer Mark Frost, who deserves a great deal of credit for fashioning Lynch’s surrealist tendencies into something as coherent and accessible as Twin Peaks. Nevertheless, Twin Peaks is very much “of a piece” with the rest of the director’s work. Even beyond its use of familiar faces and its unmistakable tone, there is a clear sense that Twin Peaks belongs alongside Lynch’s films like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

However, the beauty of the original Twin Peaks is the way in which so skillfully distills that illusive and ethereal Lynchian quality into something that is much more conventional than a lot of his cinematic output; something that has the same depth and uncanniness that defines so much of Lynch’s work, while also seeming very much in tune with the popular consciousness. It is a rare quality, a piece of art both universal and specific.

Lynch’s reputation as an “inaccessible” artist is not entirely fair. There is certainly a grain of truth to it, in that it can be extremely difficult to offer a literal answer to the question “… so, what exactly happened?” in relation to most of his films outside of The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. However, Lynch’s work tends to work best when the audience stops fighting it and allows it to wash over them, when they afford themselves an emotional response to the work as a whole, rather than to the linear story being told or the specific individual elements.

Lynch’s imagery tends to work on an instinctual and an emotional level, rather than a purely rational one. This perhaps accounts for his reputation as a “difficult” or “challenging” director. Even the most ardent fan of Lynch’s work would struggle to clearly explain what happens in Wild at Heart or Lost Highway without some supposition or speculation. It is often easier to articulate what Lynch’s work is about more than what it actually is. Indeed, what Lynch’s work is about tends to draw in all manner of abstract nouns; “identity”, “history”, “America.”

Perhaps owing to its nature as a prime time television series, the original Twin Peaks is decidedly more conventional than a lot of Lynch’s contemporary cinematic output. It is possible to offer a fairly straightforward account of each individual episode, with clear character motivations and logical plot development. Of course, Twin Peaks was decidedly more abstract than most contemporary television, but it still could be enjoyed by audiences that would reflexively balk at the more absurdist trappings of Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire.

(Indeed, it could be argued that part of the extreme initial reaction to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was the response of an audience to Lynch throwing off the limitations and expectations of a weekly television series to tell the same story using the language that defined his feature film work. The original Twin Peaks is one of the most striking and ambitious television shows ever made, particularly in the context of the early nineties. However, it is still subject to many of the formal conventions of the medium at that moment in time.)

Of course, Twin Peaks arrived at a time when prime-time television was still seen as something disposable and formulaic. Lynch could never have enjoyed the freedom that he had working on films at the same time – or even on Twin Peaks: The Return almost thirty years later. Mainstream television was still considered something relatively safe and familiar when compared to more experimental dramatic forms like theatre or television.

Twin Peaks had to conform to the expectations of television. Each episode had to have a fixed runtime, to fill the scheduled time slot. Each episode had to have clean act breaks so that commercials could be shown. There were certain restrictions on content and expectations of form that would not have been in place for cinematic releases at the same time. All of these factors seem to impose a recognisable framework on what Lynch is doing. They do not smother or neuter his creative vision, but instead provide something of a familiar shape that make it more palatable to mainstream audiences.

It arrived hot on the heels of popular prime-time soap operas like Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest, and that heightened melodrama provides a framework through which viewers might understand a lot of the plotting within Twin Peaks; the abusive relationship between Leo and Shelly, the sinister plot by Benjamin Horne to wrest control of the local saw mill from Josie Packard, the teenage angst of characters like Bobby Briggs and Donna Hayward. On top of that, the basic set-up of a small-town murder provides an obvious hook for viewer interest. Everybody loves a murder mystery.

However, Twin Peaks remains a David Lynch production through and through. It looked and felt like nothing that had ever aired on television in April 1990, and it still looks unlike anything else in the history of the medium. (Twin Peaks: The Return is an obvious relative, but even it seems more closely aligned with Lynch’s theatrical work than the original Twin Peaks.) Part of this was merely sheer technical craft. In some ways, Twin Peaks stands out as a rare example of twentieth-century television where the auteur voice was that of a director rather than a writer or producer.

Twin Peaks was not entirely unique in this respect. There were earlier examples of television shows that had been shaped by directors rather than writers; the Master of Suspense had taken charge of Alfred Hitchcock Presents…, while Michael Mann had been a defining visual influence on Miami Vice. However, Lynch’s visual style lends Twin Peaks an impressive visual style. The direction on Twin Peaks, the framing and composition, is a lot more confident and assertive than contemporary television. There is an impressive artistry to Twin Peaks largely lacking from surrounding television.

The style and tone of Twin Peaks were always decidedly retro, harking back to a popular memory of an imaginary fifties America populated by long-haul truck drivers and diner waitresses alongside high-school greasers and men of industry. However, this retro feel is only enhanced by the combination of Lynch’s steady directorial hand and the formal restrictions of early nineties television. Television’s traditional 4:3 aspect ratio evokes the classic “Academy Ratio” that was employed by cinema until the mid-fifties. (Ironically, cinema only went widescreen in response to television.)

Northwest Passage undoubtedly unfolds in the present day, or in something as closely aligned to the present day as Lynch might allow. With its rich colours and its stylised nostalgia, coupled with an aspect ratio that evokes mid-twentieth century cinema and the sure hand of a veteran film director, Twin Peaks looks and feels quite like a lost piece of Americana. Northwest Passage could be a lost film by Ford, or perhaps an mid-career work by Hitchcock, or an early project of Kubrick. Northwest Passage even repeatedly uses one point perspective, a favoured composition of Kubrick.

It is tempting to argue that Twin Peaks looks like “film on television”, but that is overly simplistic and reductive. More than that, it plays into the popular critical cliché that film is inherently superior to television, and provides a model to which the medium should aspire. This is part of the barely-concealed subtext of the larger “is Twin Peaks: The Return really an eighteen-hour movie?” debate that would rage almost three decades later, and reflects the sense in which television has never quite moved past its reputation as a “vast wasteland” in certain quarters.

However, there is certainly an argument that Twin Peaks pushed the technical boundaries of television, demonstrating that television could be produced with the same sort of love and attention that directors lavished upon film. For most of its life time, television was treated as grubby and disposable younger sibling of cinema, art produced through the churn of a conveyor belt with its form and content dictated by budget and scheduling demands in a manner that recalled the production line of early cinema rather than the artistic and visionary freedom associated with the big screen in the second half of the twentieth century.

Much like Miami Vice had done in the mid-eighties and like The X-Files would do in the mid-nineties, Twin Peaks proved that it was possible to produce scripted television drama that was constructed as artfully as most mainstream cinema releases, and that it could be done under the creative constraints of network television. It was breath of fresh air, exhilarating and striking. It is no surprise that Lynch toured with Northwest Passage to film festivals like Telluride or Miami, nor that the pilot was repackaged as a feature film for international markets.

Of course, Twin Peaks was undeniably a piece of television, even if the style and craft was atypical for contemporaneous series. Twin Peaks was designed as a fusion of soap opera and murder mystery, two genres of story ideally suited to television’s long-form serialisation more than cinema’s finite narrative space. Twin Peaks was designed to reel viewers in and to keep them suspended for an indefinite period. In fact, Lynch and Frost had originally planned that the central mystery driving the series would never be resolved, the set-up providing a framework for limitless stories about the townsfolk.

However, the heart of the story remains positively Lynchian, reflecting the director and writer’s interests and ideas, his pet fascinations and his core themes. Twin Peaks is a story about America, specifically the popular idea of America, the notion of a landscape that exists as much in the popular imagination as it does on detailed maps. Over the course of his career, Lynch has engaged with various facets of the American dream, of the way in which the country thinks of itself and the shared consciousness that shapes both the nation and its people.

Lynch is very much preoccupied with the American consciousness, and with the imagery and iconography that defines the nation. Blue Velvet explored the darkness lurking beyond suburbia’s white picket fences. This is most obvious in the way that Lynch structures so many of his films as “road movies.” Wild at Heart blends the archetypal American road movie with the distinctly American fairytale of The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, Lost Highway thinks of the vast American continent as an infinite stretch of interconnecting and crisscrossing motorways and lives. Even The Straight Story is a road movie on a lawnmower. Northwest Passage even returns repeated to head-on shots of pairs of characters conversing in cars, watching and waiting.

The road movie is a quintessentially American genre, arguably just a western with an engine. It is telling that Northwest Passage introduces its hero as a wandering law man in the tradition of the cowboy. Even before Lawrence Jacoby misidentifies Dale Cooper as archetypal western hero “Gary Cooper”, the episode has established the FBI agent’s wandering ways. He is an pioneer as much as a law enforcement official. He offers advice on potential pit-stops to future travelers, inquires about the local “Douglas Firs” and takes great pleasure in sampling the local cuisine.

Northwest Passage very firmly establishes Twin Peaks as an exploration of the American psyche. The eponymous community is based in Washington, at once among the west-most states of the Union and also the name given to its eastern capitol. Northwest Passage emphasises the frontier imagery at the heart of the story, conjuring up images of the most archetypal American myth. There is some suggestion that even in the twentieth century, the settlers in Twin Peaks are trying to carve something resembling civilisation from the wilderness.

This motif plays through the story. The opening credits juxtapose a singing bird with a mechanical saw, the natural surroundings giving way to industrial civilisation. Everything in Twin Peaks suggests a community that is still trying to establish itself in this small corner of the country; the unfinished extension that Leo and Shelly are building on their house, the lonely gas pumps manned by Ed Hurley, the shiny cab owned by Leo and parked in his driveway, the lodge that suggests a transient population and the diner which suggests meals eaten hastily on the road.

Even the title of the pilot, Northwest Passage, evokes the settlement of the North American continent, and the relationship that exists between the European settlers who believed it to be their divine right to colonise that landmass and the anxiety felt within its impossible vastness. American popular culture remains intrigued by the frontier, at once enticed and terrified by it. There is a nostalgia for the limitless expanse of land from that initial push westwards, but also a fear that the country might swallow them whole. Twin Peaks is many things, but it is especially a western.

However, Northwest Passage most effectively evokes this frontier aesthetic through the revelation of where Laura Palmer was murdered and where Ronette Pulaski was assaulted. Trains hold a special place in the American popular consciousness, serving as a literal embodiment of manifest destiny, of the industrial push westward. In westerns, trains are shorthand for capitalist expansion and exploitation, often tied to the violence and bloodshed that the settlers brought in them on their great migration.

The X-Files would use train imagery to evoke both the industrial horrors of the Holocaust and the original sin of European settlement. In episodes like Anasazi, Nisei and 731, trains became a way of moving secrets across the countryside and even burying them. Twin Peaks suggests something as Cooper and Truman inspect the decaying and rotting old train car where Laura Palmer spent her last few hours. Northwest Passage ties the death of Laura Palmer to this frontier imagery, to this legacy of violence and brutality.

After all, it should be noted that the biggest industries in Twin Peaks are both the Packard Sawmill and the Great Northern Hotel. The Packard Sawmill is a great American industry, providing blue collar jobs for the local community, and providing a stereotypical ideal of rugged American masculinity. It is a job that requires strength and ingenuity, and one which serves to not only bend nature to the will of men, but also to exploit it for financial gain. The frontier is tied to the most primal form of capitalism; the settlers seeking not just to subdue nature, but to profit from it.

(This theme of capitalist endeavour runs through Northwest Passage. Benjamin Horne already has his eye on the Packard Sawmill, seeking to establish a monopoly over the entire community. The scenes in which Laura’s body is discovered and identified are juxtaposed against Horne’s efforts to literally sell the community of Twin Peaks to a collection of eager Scandanavia investors. There is an ironic juxtaposition of the lie that Horne is selling and the truth that Truman is uncovering, but there is also a sense of how fundamental the act of commerce is to Twin Peaks.)

However, while Lynch and Frost make a conscious effort to tie Twin Peaks back to America’s frontier mythology, a theme that they will develop further in the season ahead, Northwest Passage also consciously evokes nostalgia for mid-twentieth century Americana. Cannily playing into the restrictions that broadcast networks imposed upon vulgarity, Bobby Briggs and James Hurley look and sound like no eighties or nineties teenagers. They probably look and sound like no teenager ever actually existed.

However, they evoke the memory of fifties teen idols, with their leather jackets and their motorbikes. This fifties Americana permeates Twin Peaks; the reference to “Gary Cooper”, the fact that Dale Cooper looks like he might have stepped out of Dragnet, the emphasis on the small-town diner, a biker bar where the town’s toughest punks listen to Julee Cruise’s dream pop, late night curfew and the kids sneaking out past it, the sheriff named “Harry S. Truman.” Cooper quips into his tape recorder, “Shouldn’t be too hard to remember that.”

This is all material that interest Lynch, a reflection of the same preoccupations that informed Blue Velvet. Lynch is very much engaged with memory of an idealised fifties, and juxtaposing that romantic fantasy against the horrors that were taking place beneath the surface. “You know why I’m whittling?” Cooper asks Truman at one point, as the two sit on an idle stake out. “Because that’s what you do in a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.”

Over the course of the next two seasons, Cooper inevitably discovers that Twin Peaks is not as idyllic as it appears. Northwest Passage is an episode of television that has aged remarkably well, one that captures an intriguing and compelling contradictory dynamic within the American psyche. In American popular culture, the small town is valourised and idealised, romanticised and immortalised. The town of Twin Peaks feels like the type of community evoked in Norman Rockwell paintings or in Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” It is a fantasy, conjured from collective nostalgia.

However, this yearning is complicated by a deep-seated fear. There is always an anxiety that something dark and warped lurks at the heart of this idylised small-town image, buried beneath the beautiful facade. The opening scenes of Twin Peaks juxtapose Josie Packard putting on her make-up with the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body. “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” These opening scenes cut to the heart of Twin Peaks, the fear that there is something dead and rotting beneath a plastic facade, something decaying and corrosive and festering.

Like so much of American pop culture, Twin Peaks is in love with the small American town. It is also afraid of what might be lurking at its core.

8 Responses

  1. This essay is awesome. As a relative newcomer to David Lynch, I’ve sort of become a bit obsessed with Peaks and his other works. I think with small-town dramas it’s so easy to feel like you know all the characters and gossip and truly immerse yourself in it. Anyway, keep up the good work!​

    • Lynch was born to do a small town soap opera. Very often these shows focus on a “seedy underbelly” in some coastal town. In the first series, it was drug dealing and sex trafficking.

      In The Return, it was blight, depression….that sort of thing. It’s not a celebration of America (like TP was) so much as a lament.

      • Haven’t seen all of The Return yet. Rewatching the original show as a way to kinda “ramp up” to it, if that makes sense. But really looking forward to it.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoy. The piece was something of a once-off. I had a gap in the schedule and needed to fill it. Unless there’s a huge demand for them, I wouldn’t expect Twin Peaks essays any time soon.

  2. An excellent and thought-provoking essay on my favourite television show of all time. Just such an amazing series which was only enhanced by the newest season in 2017, giving us so much more to think about; layers upon layers.

  3. Hello. Thank you very much for this review of Twin Peaks – Northwest Passage. I like the way you have written it. It is not boring to read as it might be full-detailed but I find it interesting to flip through it.

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