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The forgotten romance of Twin Peaks

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“To lose love is like light and it’s only a problem when there’s an absence of it. ”

David Lynch

A friend of mine once told me that he believed the core idea contained within Tom Waits’ music is that on any evening, you can go to a dive bar, order a whiskey and meet the love of your life. For all Waits’ weirdnesses, his rasping crazy-clown voice, breathy yelping, skeletal glockenspiels and gloomy lyrics, there is a kernel of romance in his body of work – an optimism that most don’t associate him with. For every industrial-clanking spoken word piece in which he impersonates a Doritos salesman-slash-preacher, he has written a rib-shatteringly classic ballad of found and lost love. Every time Waits shambolically growls “sometimes I steal a jackal, suck out all the blood,” he also sings it straight: “Martha, all I had was you and all you had was me.”

I’ve always thought the same of David Lynch, and I’m surprised this hasn’t been remarked upon in all the discussion about the 2017 return of his seminal 1990s television series Twin Peaks, made with Mark Frost. Lynch’s work is most often described as quirky and offbeat, grotesque and bizarre. Journalists reporting on Twin Peaks’ reprise have recounted the shady characters from the Black Lodge and the Red Room – The One Armed Man, evil BOB, Log Lady and the backward-speaking Man From Another Place. We remember Lynch’s stylistic hallmarks of strobe lights and the surrealist, dream-like excursions from the show’s straight-line narrative, the camp performances (Mrs Palmer wailing cartoonishly in terror and grief, poor pirate-eyed Nadine whose silent curtain-pullers are nothing less than phenomenal) and the madhatter throwaway lines (“She’s dead! Wrapped in plastic”). We remember the doppelgangers, mirrors and opposites – Laura’s identical cousin, Maddy; Laura’s double in the Red Room whispering, “I know who killed me”; the giant and the dwarf, both imparting clues from the other side.

A character in twin peaks rubbing their hands together

We remember the laser-eye-observed Americanisms (“Nothing beats the taste sensation when maple syrup collides with ham!”). We remember the synthetic sentimentality of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, and the complete and utter what-the-fuck-ness of much of the goings-on, particularly as the second series moved into increasingly inexplicable (yet I think, defensible) plots of alien messages and mysterious rainbow owls. Perhaps more subconsciously, the unsettling scenes of ostensibly normal suburban spaces marked by the absence of people, implying past and future violence, are lodged somewhere deep and quiet in our minds: the interior of the grieving Palmer house, looking up towards dead Laura’s room, the ceiling fan whirring eerily; the hallway of the high school – as the camera pulls away ever-so-slowly - as bare and bright and empty as a gas chamber. In the story of the media, we know that Twin Peaks marked the beginning of an auteurist approach to televisual, long-form storytelling – the reclamation of a medium more commonly devoted to weeknight trash, and the rejuvenation of the crime and melodrama genres. Mostly, we remember the darkness.

But it’s not the horrific violence, nor the deep oddity of Twin Peaks that I always remember first, but the romance of the show. In the world of Lynch, anyone can walk into a diner, order a hot cup of coffee and a slice of pie, lock eyes with a stranger and feel a change come upon them.

The romance of Twin Peaks announced itself in the show’s pilot, the centre of which was not really Laura’s death but the blooming love story of Donna and James, Laura’s best friend and secret boyfriend. In the episode’s final scenes, Donna and James finally get together, in the woods surrounding the town. Their faces, close together, are lit only by the cool headlights of James’ motorbike. It’s a spine-shivering, Bill Henson moment: the two lovers are so young, their lovely puppy-fat faces coming straight out of the dark in chiaroscuro, and they are perfect – star-crossed. The scene has that kind of hyper-sincerity that Twin Peaks specialised in anchoring itself in alongside the wacky soap opera references and kitsch costuming, and its purity is marred when, only a few moments later, it’s revealed Donna and James are being watched by someone involved in Laura’s murder. The irony was that though they confessed had always felt something for one another, a relationship was impossible while Laura was alive. It says a lot about Lynch’s view of love – that it can come out of tragedy.

This strain of fated romance was picked up by none other than FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Indeterminately youthful, yet seriously adult, Cooper had an earnest, all-American handsomeness. Pristine-skinned and slick-haired, he could appear one moment as nerdy and asexual as any TV law enforcement officer, and the next as classically serene as any Roman statue. Coop stood for justice and integrity somewhere in-between the town’s double-lived youth and their oblivious parents. He was enamoured with the Twin Peaks ’ majestic Douglas Firs, the sweetness of its people and its open spaces, the fact that it’s “a town where a yellow light still means slow down and not speed up”. But he wasn’t an innocent. Cooper’s trust and optimism came from a place of wreckage. As Cooper’s investigation went on, we learned that he was grieving for the loss of the clandestine love of his life, Caroline, who was the wife of FBI-agent-turned-rogue-killer Windom Earle, Coop’s former partner. Coop blamed himself for Caroline’s death, and his investment in the Laura’s case stemmed from a need to prevent any future killings. That same sense of guilt is what inhibited him from pursuing a relationship with beautiful, eccentric, love-hungry Audrey, and what eventually drew him towards Anne. Played by Heather Graham in season two, Anne was another quintessential Lynchian beauty whose plump, wide face and shiny, compassionate eyes belie a grave future. It’s one of the great tragedies of the series that Cooper’s history repeats itself as Anne finds herself sucked into the Black Lodge. We know that Cooper will never be able to forgive himself.

The romance of Cooper’s backstory finds a parallel with lovely Norma Jennings, the owner of Twin Peaks ’ Double R Diner. Her one-true-love, Big Ed Hurley, a gas station proprietor, ended up married Nadine, despite the fact that Norma and Ed had been in love since their high school sweetheart days. Twenty years (twenty years!) on, and they find themselves regretting their decision to part, but remain in love in their own two-person world. Ed can’t leave Nadine, who’s now clinically insane and dependent on him, so he does the noble thing – he stays. Norma accepts the situation with grace, but their relationship begins again nonetheless, illicitly. Like Donna and James, it is a romance that would have been impossible without Laura’s death. And like Donna and James, it shows Lynch’s commitment to showing love stories in all their confusing, turning, difficult forms.

Decades-delayed love and suppression of feelings – all of this seems uniquely suited to the rhythms and thematic concerns of the soap opera. It’s no wonder all the characters are hooked on their own soap-opera called – naturally – An Invitation to Love, playing in the background of many interior scenes particularly at the beginning of season one. In Australia, we tend to dismissively gloss over sitcoms and soap operas, but in the USA, critical attention is poured onto such everyday formats. Many see Twin Peaks as a satirical scoop on the soapie, but I’m more inclined to think it’s a rightful reclamation of the form.

How did we forget all this romance, which upon tallying up its instances, is such an obvious and major thematic stream within the Twin Peaks world? Perhaps because Twin Peaks’ romance depends on a hyper-sincerity so at odds with today’s ironic mode of living. Beneath the po-mo, dream-strange references and easily lampooned kitsch, Twin Peaks is dead serious about the inner lives and love lives of its characters. That’s a hard message to stomach from the vantage point of 2017, where we wear daggy slogan t-shirts and Mom jeans, find stock photo images on Google for Facebook birthday posts, offer joke gifts of photo-print mugs at Christmas and say things like ‘holy moly!’ to get an easy laugh from our friends. It’s like shockingly passé and unfathomably uncool to wear, watch or quote anything that doesn’t come from a place of craft-brewed, tie-died nostalgia. We winkingly drop super-niche cultural references from 1980s TV and use hyper-verbal cleverness to be honest without being honest, to screen against real engagement. The art of now is much the same – detached, academically rather than emotionally motivated, and sectioned away in clinical white cube galleries (or “spaces”) that forestall any gut-level impact. Once I actually selected a photo of Shane Warne getting hair-replacement therapy as my social-media profile picture. Why did I do that?!. Now, writing this essay, I’ve wondered if I’m verging on being too earnest (what will people think?!). Maybe part of our amnesia about Twin Peaks’ straight-up romantic streak is a case of too much truth.

Or was the romance lost in the violence? People think of Twin Peaks as being violent for the sake of violence. But it was violent in a way that a story about the rape and murder of a prom queen by her own father had to be. The world of Twin Peaks, like the worlds of Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, is congruous with the world we live in, where women are more likely to be targeted with aggression and abuse by the men who say they love them; where violence against women is most often in the home and in the family. The violence takes place in a closed circuit. Twin Peaks’ brutality was never arbitrary or gratuitous, nor was it unmodulated: the show was necessarily dark because being a woman in the world demands constantly negotiating and avoiding violence. Twin Peaks’ violence rang true. Laura Palmer’s fate was not freakily weird for the sake of it, just unbearably sad, and at odds with the private inner life she maintained to get herself through the years of familial abuse and drug addiction. Perhaps the fact that Lynch threw his ideas about pure love and light up against such domestic disturbance threw viewers off course.

If you’re still in doubt about all this fluffy ‘pure love’ stuff, let me offer you this final piece of evidence. Season one ends with a cliffhanger: Cooper shot in his hotel room, presumably by Laura’s masked killer. Season two opens with Coop lying on the floor of the lodge, his torso punctured and energy waning, he realises his trusty voice recorder’s automatic function is on, and he leaves a final message to his faraway, never-seen assistant, Diane (what I would give to glimpse Diane). The speech is classic Coop - words to live by.

“At a time like this, curiously, you begin to think of the things you regret or the things you might miss. I would like in general to treat people with much more care and respect. I would like to climb a tall hill. Not too tall. Sit in the cool grass. Not too cool. And feel the sun on my face. I wished I could have cracked the Lindburg kidnapping case. I would very much like to make love to a beautiful woman who I had genuine affection for. And of course, it goes without saying, that I would like to visit Tibet. I wish they could get their country back and the Dalai Lama could return. Oh, I would like that very much.”

Cooper! Even his regrets are hopeful! What he delivers here is no less than the core message of Twin Peaks, a small manifesto on how to live, drenched in humanism and optimism. True romance.

- Lauren Carroll Harris