The Story Behind ‘Twin Peaks’

❉ Who killed Laura Palmer? Where IS the Black Lodge?  Suspend your disbelief here…

“It’s like nothing else on television… or on God’s Earth,” noted Time magazine at Twin Peaks’ strange inception. Well, nearly. The mutant offspring of the elegantly diseased minds of auteur misfit David Lynch and ex-Steve Bochco graduate Mark Frost, Twin Peaks was so jubilantly different while being so ecstatically familiar.

Who killed Laura Palmer? Where IS the Black Lodge? These are the questions that Twin Peaks, that most perplexing of cult series, had viewers asking.

Like a Doris Day drama seduced by the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe, Twin Peaks tickled popular culture’s imagination more than most networked shows manage. Like David Lynch’s previous Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks is a world infused with the stylistic touches and visual bric-a-brac of 50s Americana.

It was born of pop culture cliché, from a world of picket fences and syrup-topped ice cream, of pretty-faced, youthful rebellion and blushing-cheeked cheerleaders, but with an altogether darker, sharper, nastier world existing just out of focus. Twin Peaks – a town where the majesty of nature still abounds and simple pleasures like coffee and doughnuts are devoured like they’ve been prepared by God.

“I didn’t try to make Twin Peaks realistic,” reflected David Lynch. “It’s a mythical town and it’s a desire town. It’s where you’d want to go at ten at night to just float and see what was going to happen.” Suspend your disbelief here…

Lynch remembers the series’ eccentric birth: “We were at Du Par’s and, all of a sudden, Mark Frost and I had this image of a body wrapped in plastic washing up on the shore of a lake.”

This was the premise. Ordinary enough, but filtered through the minds of those two it would come to include a glittering assortment of quirky, Lynch-spin-dried soap archetypes and a devastating and disturbing story of abuse within the Bergmanesque mileau of heaven and hell, good and evil, black and white. And a funny dwarf.

That corpse would be Laura Palmer, the golden-haired cheerleader with a Faustian secret life. To investigate, Lynch cast Kyle MacLachlan, a past associate from Dune and Blue Velvet, as FBI agent Dale Cooper.

“The thing I love about Kyle is that he’s obsessed. Not in a bad way – he’s goofy,” said Lynch by way of a tribute. Lynch’s loyalty paid off as MacLachlan imbued the lonesome Fed with a peculiarly old-fashioned integrity and kiddie-like wonder.

“I don’t think anyone involved thought it was going to continue past a one-off,” recalled MacLachlan recently. “David Lynch comes to television? The inmates are going to take over the asylum! The plan was to make a movie of the week and then go home. But then it was screened – and everybody was stunned at how good it was.”

“The owls are not what they seem”

The series – and town – is populated by an menagerie of rural eccentrics, most of whom double up, of course, as murder suspects. There’s Leo, the northwestern Grant Mitchell and his slavish wife, Shelley (who’s having an affair with the floppy-fringed Bobby, mourning boyfriend of Laura Palmer, who two-timed him with the furrowed-browed biker, Mike).

There’s Ben Horne, head of Twin Peaks’ hotel and his kooky, attention-hungry daughter Audrey. There’s Sheriff Harry Truman and his loyal cohorts, the well-meaning, but bubble headed Andy, the stoically wise Hawk and ditzy receptionist Lucy. And besides all those, there’s a swarm of others, such as Catherine Packard, Horne’s bit on the side; her brother Pete; diner owner Norma; Laura’s best friend Donna, as well the myriad of local colour such as the lady with the log (“We call her the Log Lady,” Truman tells Coop).

Twin Peaks walked a fine line between soap opera and murder mystery, two genres that kept themselves to themselves, for the most part. But the question as to who – or what – killed Laura Palmer was never far from the soapy vignettes that comprised each episode. Lynch planted the first series with a variety of clues, and by bringing these to the surface, the appreciation of the series is enhanced rather than demystified.

Viewers had to make their way through a multi-tiered path, strewn red herrings and sly, pop culture references. Many film-literate viewers pointed to Otto Preminger’s 1944 movie, Laura, for example, as a possible explanation to the mystery. Laura is a film where the lead character fakes her own murder, a theory given more credence when Sheryl Lee – who played Laura in those opening moments – returned to the series as Laura’s cousin, Maddie.

There were tantalising moments that dangled the carrot of whodidit. At the end of episode three, Cooper – in a dream – visits the Black Lodge, a red-curtain-draped nowhere place, in which he meets Laura and a dancing dwarf who talks backwards. On waking up, he phones Truman: “Harry, I know who killed Laura,” he says. And then, “Yes, it CAN wait til morning.” We had to wait a week to find out he’d forgotten. It was the first sign in Twin Peaks of how hostile to the rules of genre Lynch and Frost were.

“Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.”

David Lynch sits with Michael J. Anderson on the set of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks.

Though Lynch’s recurrent themes remained hanging over the series, the day to day running of Twin Peaks was left in the hands of Mark Frost.

“David wasn’t really around for the first season,” remarked Frost. “It was me and Bob Engles and Harley Peyton. We were shooting in an old ball-bearings factory with a skeletal production staff, barely making the shows for the budget we had. It was like guerilla filmmaking.” Lynch directed two episodes of the eight-episode first series, with Tim Hunter (who had wowed the Sundance lot with his bleak, Generation X-anticipating drama River’s Edge) and noted cinematographer (and father of Zooey), Caleb Deschanel, sharing directorial duties for the others.

Peaks was, as they say, an overnight success. According to producer Robert Engels this was because it “was a TV show about free-floating guilt. Something was captured there that people responded to emotionally. We never had fans who were Trekkie types. The guys who liked Twin Peaks were, like, head lobbyists for General Motors.”

Even its critics had to admit to its muscular originality. One writer in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote of the series, “It chokes on its own subplots, wallows in its own jokes and comes to mistake quirkiness for quality. But despite its lows, the majestic peaks of Twin Peaks dwarf 90% of anything else TV has to offer. So before we forget, it’s time to appreciate how wonderfully strange the series really is.”

“I can’t really think of any ideas that David and I considered too ‘out there’ to be included,” Frost said recently. “Most of them ended up in the show. Perhaps there was one idea that threw me for a loop. During the second season we knew that Joan Chen’s character was going to die. David, as he was wont to do, called me up and said: ‘I think she gets stuck in a door handle…’ So we tried to make that work. It didn’t make any sense to me, it still doesn’t…”

“Damn fine coffee…”

Killer Bob – Frank Silva in a break from filming with David Lynch and Michael Ontkean.

Killer Bob, as he was termed by the production team, and who was Twin Peaks’ spectre of evil, had been glimpsed sporadically throughout the first season, usually as a vision of Laura’s exasperatingly hysterical mother. Frank Silva, the denim-clad visage of wickedness, had worked with Lynch on several movies as a prop master and set decorator. After Silva was working on fixing up the set for Laura Palmer’s bedroom in the pilot episode, Lynch filmed a scene in the room and accidentally caught Silva’s reflection in a mirror. After seeing the rushes, Lynch said the image was so eerie, that the idea of Killer Bob started to cook in his head.

The dénouement of the mystery was vintage Lynch. Anyone looking for a conventional resolution was looking in the wrong place. The murderer of Laura Palmer was her father, Leland, though he, since he was young, had been inhabited by the spirit of Killer Bob. It was both a resolution and an anti-resolution to a mystery that gripped popular culture since the series’ debut, and pissed off a chunk of Twin Peaks‘ audience, hungry for a more digestible reveal.

“One day,” said Lynch, “I wrote this thing: ‘Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see. One chant out between two worlds, – Fire, walk with me.’ That sort of created the whole Killer Bob thing.”

Recalled Ray Wise, the actor behind Leland Palmer: “Mark Frost explained to me my last show and the meaning of my last show. And they also filled me in on some of the background that I hadn’t been aware of, that Bob had been inside me. Leland is a true innocent, in a sense, because he was totally possessed by this evil spirit, Bob. So when they told me that, I was able to respect it a lot better.”

“I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.”

The discovery of the culprit and Leland’s subsequent death robbed the series of its primary raison d’etre. “Once it got solved, something beautiful was lost,” Lynch said later. “The murder of Laura Palmer was the centre of the story, the thing around which all the show’s other elements revolved. It was not supposed to get solved. The idea was for it to recede into the background, that the foreground would be that week’s show. As soon as that was over, it was basically the end. There were a couple of moments later when the wind of that mystery – a wind from that other world – would come blowing back in, but it just wasn’t the same. I loved Twin Peaks, but after that, it kind of drifted for me.”

After the unveiling, the series seemed lost without the dramatic symbolism of Killer Bob. Storylines meandered through standard (albeit moderately warped) soap fare, and the new Big Story, with Coop’s former partner, the nutzoid Windom Earle, turning up in Twin Peaks, failed to sizzle in the same way. It seemed like a series scrambling around for a new identity.

Lynch was absent for much of the second series, working on his psycho road movie, Wild At Heart, and returned with misgivings at the direction the series was taking. “If Mark and I had been working together, it would have been different,” he said.

The show’s ponderous death was first indicated by ABC’s decision to move the show to a Saturday night at 10pm slot, a broadcasting black hole. Ratings had evaporated since the whodunnit was solved, and after only a few weeks in the dead zone of weekend TV, the network yanked the plug. “Ever since we learned who killed Laura Palmer, the series has been twisting and flopping like a doomed fish on deck,” wrote one newspaper. Unfortunately, the timing of ABC’s announcement meant there was little time for Lynch and Frost to wrap the series up neatly.

“He is Bob, eager for fun. He wears a smile. Everybody run.”

The final episodes had begun to reintroduce the Black Lodge, the Vegas-meets-Cocteau-like hangout for the series’ other-worldly spirits. It’s here that Bob resides, where Laura still lurks, where dwarves talk backwards and waltz and where Earthly logic and physics have no place.

The final episode, which saw Lynch return to the director’s chair, was Twin Peaks’ most willingly opaque instalment. The series ended on a cliffhanger, with Cooper apparently surviving his ordeal in the Lodge and going into the bathroom where we see Bob’s cruel-teethed reflection looking back at him. The dramatic possibilities involving Bob inhabiting Dale Cooper were juicy, but the top floor suits obliterated any plans Lynch and Frost may have harboured.

Twin Peaks‘ legacy lived on and lives on. From The X-Files to Six Feet Under to Lost, there are hints of Peaks’ subversive DNA in all those shows. And there was, of course, the glorious folly of Lynch’s big-screen version, a prequel focusing on the last days of Laura Palmer’s life that made much of the series’ weirder moments seem as prosiac as a Ken Loach flick.

“I think there were shows that came along afterwards that owed a debt to what we’d done,” reflected Mark Frost a few years ago. “The one that meant the most to me was David Chase saying that The Sopranos had been influenced by the show. He felt it had given him the freedom to go places narratively that he hadn’t really considered before (a dream sequence, say) and the notion that he could have a sprawling cast and still be able to service them all. His was the last show I watched with enduring interest. I don’t watch network television any more.”

Ultimately, Twin Peaks was a show that, for two-thirds of its run, was one of the most jaw-slackeningly original series ever produced. And it is the only whodunnit which proved wrong that old dictum “the solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself.”

❉ The first two parts of the 18-part series Twin Peaks, the upcoming revival and sequel series to the original 1990-1991 Twin Peaks television series and 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me are set to air on Showtime on May 21, 2017. Immediately following this airing, the third and fourth parts will be available on-demand for Showtime subscribers, then subsequently air on May 28. In subsequent weeks, one part will air per week.

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