The original two seasons of Twin Peaks changed television forever with their cinematic storytelling. Now a new generation has found this show on Netflix, and more than two decades after its first release, a fresh iteration has pushed the bounds of television even further. Twin Peaks: The Return, released by Showtime, kept fans glued to their sofas every Sunday night this summer. These viewers wrapped up the final episode in September knowing they had witnessed TV history.
In Twin Peaks, the central event of Laura’s murder functions as a perverse, inverted image of the gospel.You’ll have to see Twin Peaks for yourself to really know what it is. A crime drama? A hometown soap opera? An existential horror serial? A spiritual odyssey? Yes.
The original Twin Peaks begins with a body on a beach. The victim is Laura Palmer, a secret-filled homecoming queen played by Cheryl Lee. Lovable, admirable, truly good FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) motors into her town of Twin Peaks, Washington, to crack the murder mystery. The viewer gets wrapped up in the small-town drama of characters directly or tangentially connected to Laura. For a moment, Twin Peaks is just a soapy show about TV town staples: good policemen, stuck waitresses, high school love triangles, and a soon-to-be-resolved whodunnit killing. But before long, logic devolves into the surreal. We enter a world of angels, demons, giants, midgets, doppelgängers, and tulpas. The follow-up prequel/sequel film, Fire Walk with Me, cranks the weird up to 11 and braces us for The Return.
It’s an artistic experience that makes no sense until you dive into it yourself. You may want to keep a thumb on the fast forward for a few scenes of nudity, and brace for some incredibly raw violence. But you’ll walk away with a gift. You will understand with your body and nerves things you may have before known only in your head—the profoundly Christian truths that the spiritual exists in the physical, that victims have voices, and that violence has a cosmic cause.
Bring Your Negative Capability
Twin Peaks newcomers will require a rare piece of mental furniture: negative capability. Romantic poet John Keats defined this virtue: “When man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Twin Peaks is not for formula people who get cranky when things don’t make strict sense. In The Return, especially, you feel the temptation to reach after fact and reason. Here cinematic genius David Lynch, who created the show with writer Mark Frost, has complete final cut say. And if you’re familiar with his previous works (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive), you know things are about to get inscrutable.
Twin Peaks is ripe for theorizing, guessing, conjecturing, and patience. But not for irritability. Bickering over one interpretation would be absurd. We garner our evidence and choose theories. But we still feel a slight dissatisfaction, and will until the laconic Lynch spills—that is, probably never.
Negative capability should be a virtue already familiar to the Christian. It’s a lot like faith. We need to be okay without understanding the intricacies of the trinity or God’s sovereignty. Sometimes the best theological theories still leave us thirsty. But we pick the paradigm that seems to fit best, that helps us somehow fit something so much bigger than us into our finite brains and hearts. We have faith through uncertainty because we have faith in the master creator, God. In an obviously lesser way, we forebear—and enjoy—the conundrums of Twin Peaks because its creators have proved themselves masters.
Put Away Your Detective Gear
Most of us have been trained by Hollywood and television to disdain dangling plot points and extraneous scenes. If we can’t account for every element, we cry sloppy filmmaking. Our ingrained mode of story-consumption is perfect for tight storytelling clockwork of directors like Christopher Nolan. He lays out the mechanics of his story, each element fits neatly, and no spare parts stay on the table. But we’re much less accustomed to the genius of David Lynch.
Twin Peaks gives us a plethora of plot points that never resolve or connect in any objective way. They seem to exist for themselves, to create striking moods and moments and to immerse us in the realm of mystery. High school hotheads Bobby and Mike have the same names as a pair of inhabiting spirits. This is acknowledged, but nothing comes of it. Two men hoist a girl out of her booth at the Roadhouse bar. She crawls through the dancing crowd and lets out a piercing shriek. We don’t know who she is. We never meet her again.
Viewers expecting a paint-by-number murder mystery would be tempted to view such strange diversions as clues. They would assume they lead to some rational explanation or build to some denouement. But in Twin Peaks, we find no such satisfaction. We do find some clues, but we should not put much stock in them. Attempts to follow the small details of the show in hopes of discovering the killer will surely be foiled. At any moment, the spiritual forces at work may send our heroes down a different path, change the rules of the game, and dash our theories.
By refusing to let every plot point resolve . . . the story itself comes alive.The show subverts the concept of “clue” and gives us “motif.” This is less Sherlock Holmes and more Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The artist builds a repertoire of aesthetic signals, a language of sight and sound associations. If you have the negative capability to trade clue for motif, the show rewards you richly. Its aesthetic language turns simple moments into a storytelling feast.
All this builds on the fundamental myth of Twin Peaks: the story of Laura Palmer, her earth-shattering trauma and brutal death. This singular event populates the show’s past and future, carried through motifs even down to the sound design for which Lynch himself is credited.
Christians should already be familiar with the idea of a single event rippling through time. C. S. Lewis speaks of Christ as the myth that became fact, spiraling out into the past and the future. We see Christ reflected in Moses leading his people from Egypt. We see the same imperfect reflection in the flawed examples of Jonah and Samson. We even see it in pagan myths. The gospel makes “motif” a spiritual and physical reality.
In Twin Peaks, the central event of Laura’s murder functions as a perverse, inverted image of the gospel. It bursts into the past, present, and even into ambiguous outside-of-time spaces. The original series functions as a sort of Old Testament, as the clues to Laura’s murder slowly form a whole. Fire Walk with Me reads like the gospels: we finally witness Laura’s murder, the central event at the end of all the clues. Then we receive our New Testament, The Return, in which the pain of Laura’s death radiates even further into the future, extending not only to the chosen people of Twin Peaks but to the Gentiles of places like Las Vegas and South Dakota.
This cosmic impact lends compelling voice to the victims in Twin Peaks. These days, corpses of raped and murdered girls are piled neck-deep on network TV. But Laura’s case is special. She’s a not a one-episode mystery in some humdrum procedural. Her abuse and death have echoed for two and a half decades because a master storyteller has connected them to a cosmic cause—a realm of evil spirits lusting for pain and sorrow. Far from closeting the shame and pain, Lynch has given the evil its proper, hideous dignity. This kind of evil isn’t excised by therapy or expunged by prison time, and he will not minimize it. He will prolong Laura’s shattering scream over a quarter century, and then leave it ringing in the viewer’s ears forever. He finally tells the truth.
And Laura isn’t the only one in trouble. We find the themes of her murder in all the dirty corners of Twin Peaks. We find it in misogynistic husbands, drug dealers, addicts, and greedy business owners who run secret brothels. All these evils combine into a sense of sickness in the town itself, which thematically bursts like a boil in Laura’s murder. As one character proclaims: “You wanna know who killed Laura? You did! We all did.”
One thing is for sure: The smallest-seeming evils, like a pornographic magazine hidden in the ceiling, trickle into something blatantly demonic. We see this even in visual motifs: A brothel just over the Canadian border boasts the same wallpaper as a dark dimension just over the border of reality. The show resonates with biblical truth. No sin is small.
But no good is small, either.
Twin Peaks subverts the cliched tension of small-town-police versus big-city-FBI with the introduction of Special Agent Dale Cooper. In his first meeting with the sheriff, he stops abruptly to ask about trees:
“Sheriff,” he asks, “What kind of fantastic trees have you got growing around here? Big, majestic.”
The Sheriff looks skeptical. What kind of straight-shooting FBI suit asks a question like that? “Douglas firs,” answers the Sheriff.
Wonder fills Cooper’s voice. “Douglas firs,” he repeats.
In this short exchange, we encounter simple goodness that signals a deeper goodness. Cooper delights in little things. He assigns dignity to even the quirkiest denizens of Twin Peaks the town, and in doing so invites us to respect the quirks of Twin Peaks the show. The simple rituals of pie, coffee and donuts function as a sort of sacrament in the show’s language. Their presence belies a good place. If a character refuses coffee, heads up: something’s seriously wrong.
This should resonate with Christians. We believe the spiritual may animate the ordinary. We believe God’s goodness literally shines through creation—even in a cup of black coffee. We believe that we love our neighbors and fulfill God’s purpose by doing our ordinary, earthly vocations—even answering phones at a tiny sheriff station. And we believe true acts of goodness flow from a deeper spiritual good. In Twin Peaks, we come to know a cast of heroes whose simple goodness makes them instruments of cosmic purpose. Ordinary acts of honor and respect are not ordinary at all, but hints of an undefined joy that insistently breaks through the darkness of the show.
All these motifs and repetitions rise above mere plot usefulness and enter the realm of intrinsic benefit. They bring the story to life.
When plot points have an obvious purpose (“this bit was a clue, this bit was just a red herring”), they become dead. When the story ends and every puzzle piece finds its place, those pieces dissolve into the bigger picture. They no longer have a life of their own. They no longer light the same fire in our minds. They no longer invite us to mine for meaning, because we know their meaning. The puzzle sits still on the table. We have the “correct” interpretation. We know why each element exists.
But every iteration of Twin Peaks has left us with extra puzzle pieces. We assume these disparate moments have some meaning. We ask, “What was the point?” Which leads us to a second question: Does there have to be a point? Does a cinematic moment only have value insofar as it is useful? Or can it exist to resonate with the text on an intuitive level, to create its own feeling, its own meaning, even its own beauty? Can it exist for itself?
By refusing to let every plot point resolve (Lynch and Frost didn’t even want to reveal the killer until the network forced their hand), the story itself comes alive. You can’t pin it down for dissection. So what if you’ve already seen it? So what if you know who killed Laura Palmer? Dig into the mystery again. Come out with new ideas and insights. You won’t feel like you’re watching something you’ve already seen. You will feel that, to borrow the words of the show’s mysterious giant, “It’s happening again.”
That’s how a show from the early ’90s holds up in the golden age of television. That’s how you keep people talking for twenty-five years.
Finding Christ in Twin Peaks
David Lynch follows Hinduism. This not only informs the dream-like nature of the show, but colors his portrayal of the spiritual realm. Yet, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity, “If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions . . . contain at least some hint of the truth” (36).
Twin Peaks doesn’t give us many blatantly Christian elements: A girl encounters an angelic presence, a boy becomes strangely focused on a crucifix, a family goes to church, a woman recites a psalm, and that’s about it. But we find glimpses of Christ elsewhere. We see him in the good spiritual forces at work, in the kindness of our heroes, and in the dignification of community. But we can also learn from Christ’s absence in the show.
Christian viewers know what all the pie and coffee is really about. We know that good things emanate with the glory of their creator. We know that our spiritual being can be sustained by physical bread and wine because of the one who left heaven to become physical.
But Twin Peaks does not know these things. We enter a realm of obscure spiritual forces devoid of any mediator. The mysteries, both good and bad, might ultimately go beyond our comprehension. Pie and coffee might not be enough to sustain our heroes. We may find ourselves lost in mystery forever.
We believe that all mysteries will one day be solved. But we also know the soul-ache of mystery. We wrestle with God’s plans, with God’s nature, with the problem of evil, and with our own lack of agency. For now, we live in the mystery. So does Twin Peaks.