Who killed Laura Palmer?
It’s hard to write about a show like Twin Peaks. After finally making it through both seasons and the film (Fire Walk with Me) I was left feeling disturbed, fascinated, exhausted, and (most of all) bewildered. My mind was a haze of characters, plotlines, and motifs; I had seen so much, and yet at the same time I felt like so little had happened, and so very slowly. When I looked to the Internet for clarification, I found only more confusion. In the end, I gave up on understanding this series. Watching Twin Peaks is like dreaming: at the time you are caught up, hypnotized by moments and images. But upon waking the experience is difficult to recall, and what remains is a feeling – vaguely nostalgic, vaguely haunting.
Twin Peaks is an American television series that first aired in 1990. Much of the show’s appeal at the time came from the fact that it defied categorization: part supernatural mystery (Twin Peaks set the stage for later paranormal successes such as The X-Files), part crime drama, part self-conscious melodramatic soap opera. Set in a fictional town in Washington State, Twin Peaks begins with the discovery of a dead body – a young girl named Laura Palmer, played by Sheryl Lee (the image of Lee’s pale face in the rain, along with the show’s tagline ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’, became an iconic moment in television history). Laura Palmer’s death leads to a murder investigation headed by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). The story quickly expands to include an enormous cast of characters and plotlines, and by the beginning of the second season the death of Laura Palmer becomes almost secondary to the lives of the inhabitants of Twin Peaks. A drop in ratings and subsequent pressure from the network forced creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer midway through season two. Many fans of Twin Peaks felt that this decision changed the nature of the show and led to its cancellation.
Twin Peaks was popular, it seems, largely because it was unlike anything else on television at the time (I’m struggling to think of any shows since that can really be compared to it). The series is at once surreal, creepy, sexy, romantic, cheesy, dramatic, and funny. The inciting incident of Laura Palmer’s death is used as an entry point into endless other stories. Mark Frost admits in this interview that he was interested in telling “a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually”, and David Lynch (who went on to direct Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway) never intended to solve the murder at all. For Frost and Lynch, it seems, plot came second to character and theme. The strength of Twin Peaks lies in its images and ideas, in creepy visions in mirrors, cryptic clues, and dream sequences. At its core this series is investigating much more than a murder; inherent in the tone of Twin Peaks are universal questions about good and evil, sanity and madness, the nature of reality and our own minds. I’m not sure, however, if a TV series can sustain itself on questions alone, without any resolutions. Twin Peaks, at least, could not.
For me, Twin Peaks became too convoluted early in season two. I found myself feeling dragged through unnecessarily long scenes and storylines. Something about the series, however, has stayed with me: an impression of something unifying and indescribable running beneath the surface, a sense of mystery that piqued my curiosity. Twin Peaks has been compared to the recent series True Detective because of its similar surreal and sinister elements. While True Detective was criticised for tying things up too neatly at the end, Twin Peaks was ultimately cancelled for being too vague. I wonder which is better, and if – in the future of television – there will come a show that achieves the perfect balance of existential weirdness and narrative clarity.
Twin Peaks was created in 1990 by Mark Frost and David Lynch. The film Fire Walk with Me – a prequel to the series – was released in 1992.