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The Politics of Twin Peaks

The Politics Of Twin Peaks

In the pilot of Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper leaves no room for misunderstanding regarding who oversees the investigation of who killed Laura Palmer. After meeting sheriff Harry S. Truman at the hospital to examine the body of Ronette Pulaski, the FBI agent raises his hand and stops Truman mid-sentence. “There’s a few things that we gotta get straight right off the bat,” Cooper says authoritatively, and in a tone that would not be heard from him many times throughout the original run of the series. “I’ve learned about this the hard way; it’s best to talk about it up front. When the Bureau gets called in, the Bureau’s in charge. Now, you’re going to be working for me. Sometimes local law enforcement has a problem with that. I hope you understand,” he explains (1.Pilot). While Harry has no problem with the FBI’s presence in Twin Peaks, the scene sets the stage for how power dynamics and politics are involved within the narratives and relationships explored in Twin Peaks. The political doesn’t stop with the exploration of law enforcement tropes. From female representation (both regarding their abuse and empowerment) to the economics and representations of small-town America, there is something inherently political about Twin Peaks. The series invites its audience to think critically about these representations and what they signify in American culture.

With a plot of investigating the murder of a teenage girl, the series is equal parts murder mystery and soap opera. In 1990, David Lynch and Mark Frost created a land that embodies American society where patriotism, pie, and secrets run rampant. Artful, surreal and at times mythological, political is one adjective that often has eluded the academic work conducted on Lynch’s film and television projects. Commentators have indicated that Lynch stays away from the political, declining to enter the realm of social commentary.[1] Lynch himself seems to back this position, claiming to know nothing about politics and by noting that he doesn’t think about his work politically.[2] There are signs to the contrary, however. Lynch is a noted fan of Ronald Reagan, drawn to the 40th president because of his “cowboy image.” He is an avid proponent of individual freedom, believing that liberty has been limited by societal constructs with its “rules and regulations.”[3] But there are contradictions here as well; Lynch may be a believer in the rhetoric of individual freedom but he also, sometimes inadvertently, points to the hypocrisy of the Reagan- and subsequent political era policies and the effects they would have on a community like Twin Peaks. These, and other, political ideals are avidly expressed throughout the narrative of Twin Peaks.

As an example, consider the character of Audrey Horne. The audience sees Audrey as someone pigeonholed into something she does not want to be, where small acts of rebellion are the only way for her to regain her individuality and freedom that has been stifled by her father specifically, but also society at large. From her introductory scenes in the pilot where she performs a school-locker wardrobe change from the 1950s saddle shoes to red high heels to telling a group of would-be investors about the murder of Laura to ruin a business deal for her father, Audrey’s acts of rebellion, both big and small, illustrates a yearning for freedom that alludes her (1.Pilot). While Audrey can certainly be read as a victim of patriarchal conventions with the male gaze and the damsel in need of rescuing, Lynch and Frost paint a portrait of someone who is more complex. Audrey is often in control. She breaks away from being just the object of the male gaze through her attempts to place herself in the action to assert her individuality and freedom. In the second episode of season 2, Audrey, masquerading as an escort at One-Eyed Jack’s, forces Emory Battis to tell her everything he knows about Laura and Ronette.  “I’m Audrey Horne, and I get what I want,” she says to Battis, store manager of Horne’s Department Store, as she strangles him waiting for the answers she seeks (2.2). Just as Audrey gains the relevant information, she is caught and in need of help. She has been restrained, bringing her back to the conventional trope as the princess who awaits her prince, Agent Cooper. Despite the obvious attraction between the two, Agent Cooper denies Audrey because of her age. Societal rules and regulations hold her back. The liberty and control Audrey sought, in the end, would elude her. From the bank vault she had chained herself to in protest of her father in the original series finale, to awakening in part 16 of The Return in what appeared to be some sort of health-care facility, Audrey’s attempts at gaining freedom and liberty failed. In looking at Audrey through an ideologically conservative lens, Lynch’s Twin Peaks offers a commentary on the futility of yearning for individuality. Audrey’s character narrative prompts the audience to consider how the societal rules and regulations Lynch is so suspicious of constrain freedom and individuality in the context of the time. What effect has the generational change between the airing of the series in 1990 and again in 2017 had on individuality and freedom of choice? What kind of individuality and choice? And freedom for who? Considering the conclusion of Audrey’s story arc, for Lynch, the passage of time has not amounted to greater freedom, but rather more societal constraints.

At its very core, Twin Peaks is about the politics of American culture. With its focus on small-town politics and life outside urban centers, rural and suburban values play a big part in the overall Twin Peaks narrative. Showcasing the anxiety of both the end of the Cold War and the uncertainty of today, the series becomes a metaphor for the political years in which it is set. Moreover, subtle aspects of what Lynch and Frost are trying to do with their work can illustrate how identity politics permeate the political landscape, allowing scholars to explore Twin Peaks through different lenses, looking at the show from female and queer perspectives. As Theresa Geller notes, Twin Peaks “offers a rich postmodern critique of the metanarratives of race, gender, history, psychology, law, science, realism, patriarchy and the mastery of the centered subject implied in each.”[4] This illustrates one of the reasons why Twin Peaks continues to resonate with viewers.  Lynch and Frost have weaved a mythology of Twin Peaks that is so rich and open to analysis, it leaves a lot to interpretation. As such, reading the political subtlety can be interpreted in a variety of ways and through a variety of disciplinary lenses.

There have been many books and articles about Twin Peaks over the last 28 years, and more no doubt will be on their way.  With their focus on the surreal, cultural, sociological, and literary impact of the program, these volumes all add something valuable to the scholarly discussion of Twin Peaks. From David Lavery’s Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks examining the various aspects of the show through a multitude of interdisciplinary lenses[5] to Jeffrey Andrew and Catherine Spooner’s edited volume of essays examining the cultural impact of the show, its legacy, and its future,[6] analyzing the impact Twin Peaks has had on television and culture has been a popular take for scholars. These texts, and many others,[7] offer rich perspectives on the show. This volume adds to this ongoing discussion by examining the politics of Twin Peaks with 10 new essays focusing on a different element of the political within the landscape that the series has to offer. By doing so, this volume continues the already broad discussion of the series and opens it up by considering areas of focus through a political lens previous unexplored. By examining both the original run of Twin Peaks as well as Twin Peaks: The Return, this edited collection of essays seeks to draw out some common elements with respect to two broad themes: American politics and identity politics.  With a close relationship between the two, we conclude that Twin Peaks is the rare cultural landmark in both film and television whose timelessness is defined by the fact that it can constantly be reinterpreted. Yes, even using a political lens. That quality has made Twin Peaks a cultural standard.

Chapter Outline

This edited collection of essays seeks to draw out political themes that, when examined closely, can be expressed through Lynch’s longing for a version of 1950s America that appears safe and welcoming, but that is corrupt. With that as the starting point, the authors of the following essays interpret the political within the episodes, drawing out themes, patterns and in some cases subtle or vaguely implied contexts that either Lynch and Frost consciously included or less consciously kept in the final cut but purposely left unfocused or unclear.

We divide the collection into four parts with each part featuring essays devoted to a broad political theme highlighted throughout the series. The four parts attempts to weave together an image of Twin Peaks that is inherently political in nature. What becomes apparent in the analysis and interpretation is that Lynch is political without being political, using supernatural and even horror and science fiction genre tropes as lenses through which he shows America as it really is. In other words, by being purposefully non-political, Lynch accentuates the political because he does not use it as a blunt object or as an ideological or philosophical device.  He is not an Aaron Sorkin but he is also not an Ayn Rand.  Like other film auteurs, especially French New Wave directors, he challenges audiences to interpret his films for themselves.  And that of course leads to a lot of interpretation, which in many respects is his overall point.     

Innocence, Nostalgia and the Political

There is something about the past that attracts us to it. Nostalgia and innocence are used in narrative as plot devices in fiction, film, and television to create a sense of longing for characters that find themselves in predicaments later in life.  But it is also a useful political tool used frequently in elections, in asking an electorate to evaluate life based on past interpretations.  For every generation, that longing for innocence and nostalgic retrospective interpretation of the past can be used to bring out people’s resentment and anger at modern life.  Lynch and Frost are intuitively aware of how powerful these forces are in Twin Peaks.

In “The Nuclear Anxiety of Twin Peaks: The Return” Ashlee Joyce looks at Twin Peaks: The Return as an expression of nuclear anxieties that persist far beyond the end of the Cold War as well as the perceived loss of an American “age of innocence.” Joyce examines part 8 of The Return using nuclear criticism and literary trauma theory to suggest that Lynch’s focus on the nuclear bomb connects the Cold War with our present era, marking a sharp break with seasons one and two of Twin Peaks by dropping its nostalgic 1950s feel, but maintaining all the nuclear anxiety of the time. The imagery and symbolism of the bomb in part 8, Joyce posits, allows The Return to become a mediation on the evils of WWII that ushered in the modern era.

In “Is it future or is it past: Nostalgia in Twin Peaks,” Amanda DiPaolo compliments chapter one by examining the use of nostalgia in both Twin Peaks and in American culture more broadly. DiPaolo argues that nostalgia is both a political tool to maintain a cultural identity when the present is perceived to be in crisis and a coping mechanism used in response to pain or distress. Using Leland Palmer and Benjamin Horne as examples, she points out that it is the villains of the original series that truly highlight the uses of nostalgia. In The Return, nostalgia is rejected with most original cast members of Twin Peaks being stagnant, repeating past mistakes, and irrelevant to moving the plot.  As such, The Return shows the dangers of remaining in the past.

America and the Political

The original series that aired in 1990 depicted a rural part of Washington state showcasing the differences and disconnections of rural America to more urban places.  In Twin Peaks: The Return, suburban Las Vegas is depicted rather strikingly after the 2007 and 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and the details of life in suburbs where home values declined dramatically offers a vivid take on life after the Obama years. The set of essays in this section look at the more obvious political elements in Twin Peaks, aspects of the show that are a metaphor for the political years in which they are set, showcasing the anxiety and uncertainty of today.

In “Rural and Suburban Lynch: Characterizations of Hard Times in Reagan’s and  Trump’s America,” Jamie Gillies considers the American economic disparities of two different eras that subtly interact with the characters in the show. Gillies considers the first two seasons as depictions of Reagan-era economic and class politics. Often without explicit dialogue, the greed decade and the forces that would consume the American economy following the 1980s play themselves out, from milltown narratives and the lines between the wealthy and townspeople who work for them.  In The Return, Lynch adds the suburban experience into the narrative as well, with a suburban subdivision in Las Vegas acting as a backdrop to the other existential challenges rooted in the concept of the American community on the precipice of the Trump era.  That anxiety, showcased especially in the insurance office in The Return, parallels the undercurrents in American politics where nationalism and populism became an organizational tool and rallying cry.

In “Dirty bearded men in a room!” Twin Peaks: The Return and the Politics of Lynchian Comedy,” Martin Fradley and John A. Riley do what other Lynchian scholars have yet to do – focus specifically on the comedy of Twin Peaks and its greater meaning. They suggest that The Return is the most political of Lynch’s work, using laughter to say something meaningful about the socio-economic realities of the time. Fradley and Riley argue the grotesque, the ironic, the absurd, the uncanny, and the repetitious are carefully employed by Lynch to shine a light on the state of society today.

Identity, Representation and the Political

Twin Peaks has been criticized for its portrayal of women in both Twin Peaks and its return in 2017. Similarly, the series is not known for its diversity in casting. In The Return, the one indigenous character, Hawk, has been elevated from deputy to deputy chief. But his role in The Return, while at times touching and emotional, is mostly used as a pawn to help show the white protagonists the way—the magical negro trope.  So Twin Peaks can be interpreted by critically considering Lynch’s and Frost’s heteronormative and predominantly white perspectives.  At the same time, the conventionality Twin Peaks presents is in many respects Lynch’s point; that the town and characters themselves are inherently white, racist, sexist, homophobic or at the very least ignorant, gendered and unequal; a reflection of what a town like that might have been in the 1980s and how many rural towns still are in the second decade of the 21st century. These two essays consider identity politics as the show is explored through female and queer perspectives.

In “Violence, Representation, and Girl Power: Twin Peaks’ Female Characters and Third Wave Feminism,” Stacy Rusnak situates the women of Twin Peaks in third wave feminist theory. More than victims, Rusnak demonstrates the agency of Laura, Maddy, and Shelly, the women who suffer excessive violence at the hand of their male oppressors. Rusnak argues that these memorable roles mark the beginning of third wave feminism challenging patriarchal authority as well as traditionalist values. Additionally, by looking at Lucy, Nadine, and Norma, Rusnak shows how those who would be held back by society’s patriarchal institutions also challenge the traditional view of femininity through sexual freedom, economic independence, entrepreneurial aspirations, and physical strength.

In “The Owls are Not What They Seem: Retaking Queer Meaning in Twin Peaks,” Benjamin Kruger-Robbins offers reconstructions of queerly coded relationships in Twin Peaks, interpreted through fan fiction entries. Kruger-Robbins argues that these fan fiction entries act as corrective measures to how the show was framed by the media as a masculine-oriented precursor to the current golden age of television.  Kruger-Robbins largely places focus on the second season, arguing that erasure and limitation of queerness are in fact a defining attribute of the second season of Twin Peaks both in its narrative as well as the critical response to it.

The Political as it Relates to Philosophical, Theoretical and Spiritual Ways of Knowing 

This final section of the volume looks more closely at the theoretical political, and the not so inherent philosophical theories at play in both the writing and plot.

In Chapter 7, Darci Doll approaches Twin Peaks from the spiritual and political especially regarding Agent Cooper’s fascination with Tibetan Buddhism, mysticism, and Daoist belief systems.  Doll points to how Cooper’s deductive method is guided by Eastern philosophies and religion in both his relentless focus on figuring out the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer and in how Cooper’s doppelgängers and tulpas play out in The Return, where part of the real Agent Dale Cooper is still part of both other Cooper spirits, Mr. C and Dougie Jones.

In the penultimate chapter, Jean-Philippe Ranger considers Twin Peaks from a political philosophy perspective, considering Plato’s myths of reincarnation and theory of recollection as it relates to Cooper’s return from being trapped in the Red Room of the Black Lodge and his reincarnation as Douglas Jones, and metamorphosis back into Special Agent Cooper.  Ranger links Plato and the philosophical concept of Meno’s paradox to clues sprinkled throughout the show, from the Log Lady to Laura Palmer’s diary.

In the ninth and final chapter, Shai Biderman, Ronen Gil and Ido Lewit explore Twin Peaks in terms of how viewership and generational audiences have shifted, suggesting that the ways in which we watch television have shifted fundamentally.  Twin Peaks in its original inception really was ahead of its time but in the era of television’s golden age, it is now more the norm.  In considering a media viewership as generational politics motif, the authors incorporate long standing media theories to provide an important linkage to the politics of television programming.  In connecting Twin Peaks to the technological changes that have occurred since its first airing, they provide key insights into how and why the show was such cutting edge and avant garde television.

 

References

Burns, Andy. Wrapped in plastic: Twin Peaks. Toronto: ECW Press, 2015.

Geller, Laura. “Deconstructing postmodern television in Twin Peaks,” Spectator, Vol. 12, 2

(Spring 1992): 64–71.

Halskov, Andreas. TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama, Odense: University

Press of Southern Denmark, 2015.

Hoffman, Eric and Dominick Grace, eds. Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the

Original Series. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017.

Lavery, David, ed. Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Michigan: Wayne State

Univ. Press, 2009.

Lim, Dennis. “Donald Trump’s America and the Visions of David Lynch.” The New Yorker.

Last modified June 29, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/donald-

trumps-america-and-the-visions-of-david-lynch.

Powers, John. “Getting Lost is Beautiful.” LAWeekly. Last modified, October 17, 2001.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Bad ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks.” In Full of secrets:

Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery, 22­–29. Detroit: Wayne State

University Press, 1995.

Thorne, John. The Essential Wrapped in Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks. Dallas, Texas: John

Thorne, 2016.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew and Catherine Spooner. Return to Twin Peaks: New Approaches to Materiality, Theory, and Genre on Television. United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

 

Notes

[1]. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Bad ideas: The art and politics of Twin Peaks,” in Full of secrets: Critical approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 25.

[2]. Dennis Lim, “Donald Trump’s America and the visions of David Lynch,” The New Yorker, last modified June 29, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/donald-trumps-america-and-the-visions-of-david-lynch.

[3]. John Powers, “Getting Lost is Beautiful,” LAWeekly, last modified, October 17, 2001, https://www.laweekly.com/news/getting-lost-is-beautiful-2133916.

[4]. Laura Geller, “Deconstructing postmodern television in Twin PeaksSpectator 12, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 65.

[5]. David Lavery, Full of secrets: critical approaches to Twin Peaks, (Michigan: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2009).

[6]. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, and Catherine Spooner, Return to Twin Peaks: new approaches to materiality, theory, and genre on television (United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

[7]. This list is by no means exhaustive. See Andreas Halskov, TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama, (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2015);

Andy Burns, Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks, (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015); Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace, eds. Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series. (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017); John Thorne, The Essential Wrapped in Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks. (Dallas, Texas: John Thorne, 2016).

 

This excerpt is from The Politics of Twin Peaks. Our review of the book is here.

Amanda DiPaolo and Jamie GilliesAmanda DiPaolo and Jamie Gillies

Amanda DiPaolo and Jamie Gillies

Amanda DiPaolo is an Associate Professor of Human rRghts at St. Thomas University; Jamie Gillies is an Associate Professor of Communications and Public Policy at St. Thomas University. They are editors of The Politics of Twin Peaks (Lexington, 2019).

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