The Duality of Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is a show about many dualities. It’s often a dark, sinister and twisted look at evil in the world. However, it’s also about the sweetness and humor of a small town and the many endearing folks in it. The show is caught up in this tension between good and evil. Many characters are sweet and likeable in public, but do terrible things in private.

Therefore, a lot of the show deals with a duality of social being. In the public sphere, people are at their best: outstanding members of the community often in places that are in service to the whole instead of the individual. However, in the private sphere, corporate and personal greed and a number of affairs run counter to the person everyone knows in public. Therefore, there’s a contradiction of the private and public life.

And yet evil in the world does is not exist only in the physical realm. As Twin Peaks peers through the veil and gazes into the supernatural world, it explores how there is a spiritual realm that also has some control over the natural world. The malevolent spirit Bob, the murder of Laura Palmer, inhabits someone to kill, therefore not all evil in the world purely falls into the realm of human agency.

One of the tensions of the show then becomes the physical and spiritual realms and how they interact. While Agent Dale Cooper’s belief in this world is rarely questioned, it is clear that his interest in the spiritual world sets him apart from most characters and sometimes alienates him from others. As Sheriff Harry Truman argues in the middle of season two, he must convict on hard evidence, not supernatural hunches.

Part of this gets into the exploration of the knowable and the unknowable. As Cooper receives visions of the supernatural, they’re presented as borderline incoherent, everyone who talks has their voices distorted, and the rules of the natural world seem to fall apart into something Cooper’s mind cannot fully understand or contemplate even though he is able to accept them as truth despite his lack of knowledge.

While it’s most obvious in the supernatural realm, there are implications beyond the supernatural. In a town full of people with mysteries, it is also about the unknowability of people. The death of Laura Palmer starts a quest into her past, and the deeper one digs, the more of an enigma Laura becomes. She’s caught up in this vast, complex web and even people closest to her feel like they encounter a stranger when digging into her past, suggesting that to a certain extent, other people are unknowable to a certain extent.

And, of course, the show is also about the unknown in the sense that it refuses to give the audience all the answers. One of life’s greatest thrills is the sense of mystery in that the quest for knowledge leads one into the deep recesses of the unknown. Not knowing is what makes knowledge valuable and the mysteries left in Twin Peaks is part of what makes it such an enthralling work in spite some of the massive, dangling cliffhangers left unresolved due to the premature cancellation of the show.

Out of all the characters, Dale Cooper may be the only one who is able to navigate through these dualities, find a sense of peace, one might even call it Tao, in the midst of a world constantly caught in the whirlwind of two extremes. Cooper embraces the duality, accepts the mystery, and is therefore is the only character able to guide the audience and the town through the inherent contradictions and inexplicable supernatural world that comprises Twin Peaks.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing

  • …until the finale of course (I’m reading that piece next). Hen even Cooper can no linger navigate “between two worlds,” we know we’re really in trouble.

    Twin Peaks fascinates me as a pivot point in Lynch’s career. The duality you speak of is present mostly at a metaphorical level in Blue Velvet – while good & bad are intertwined in Lumberton there’s still a pretty sharp divide between the good & the bad guys. In later films like Lost Highway & Mulholland Dr, good and evil, light and dark are usually combined in the same (albeit split) personality. It’s with Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me that we start to see this process take place.

    Incidentally, a couple days ago I posted a big round-up of Twin Peaks commentary which documents the rise and fall of the series’ popularity. It’s interesting to note the extent to which the backlash coincided with the emphasis on the spirit world, the darkening of the plot, and the increasin identification with Laura’s situation. The phenomenon you describe here, in which the private rather than public sphere is identified with danger is what initially drew viewers and critics to the show but it also seems to be what drove them away, at least when the nature and degree of the danger was identified.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Maybe it was because I have seen some of Lynch’s later movies, but I expected that going into the show, and it does seem like the show sets up the idea of the supernatural rather early on. However, I think people today are far too eager to dismiss the sorts of supernatural and paranormal explanations in stories. They want those rational, safe answers to mysteries, not ones that are unnerving and confrontational like the answers we get in Twin Peaks.