The 13th Floor

The Mysteries of TWIN PEAKS: Part One

In his new book The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost sets up the return of his groundbreaking series with David Lynch by making a distinction between “secrets” and “mysteries.”  According to Frost, secrets are “the work of human kind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power.”  Mysteries, on the other hand, stimulate wonder and curiosity, and provide “the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are.”

TWIN PEAKS has plenty of both.  The original series was, of course, built around a central mystery: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  David Lynch remembers that this mystery emerged during a casual meeting with Frost at Du-par’s restaurant in Studio City, California.  While eating breakfast, Lynch suddenly had a vision of a dead body washed up on a lake shore.  I don’t think this is a commentary on the food (or the coffee) at Du-par’s, but rather an illustration of the way that Lynch’s imagination works.  Evocative images and ideas seem to come to him out of nowhere, and he trusts them implicitly.  In this particular case, the image of a dead girl wrapped in plastic gave him and Frost the basis for an expansive mythology.

The way former ABC executive Chad Hoffman remembers it, Lynch and Frost pitched a TV series that would be “all about secrets,” a story where “what you see in the foreground is not what’s going on in the background.”  As the murder mystery unravels, viewers learn that the late Laura Palmer was filled with secrets, and that her friends and neighbors also have secrets of their own.  In fact, it seems like everybody in the sleepy town of Twin Peaks has some kind of hidden agenda, for love or money or power.  The essence of the series is that everybody’s guilty of something.

It sounds like a simple idea, but anyone who’s seen TWIN PEAKS knows that nothing in this story is simple.  This series grows from broad range of influences that are hard to pin down.  On the surface, it’s a soap opera, steeped in 1950s melodrama fused with film noir.   On the deeper level—“what’s going on in the background”—it seems to be related to literary movements like English Romanticism and American Transcendentalism, emphasizing the mysteries of the natural world and the significance of dreams.  It also draws heavily on the Puritan tradition, Native American folklore, Jungian psychology, New Age paranormal beliefs (especially demonology and UFOlogy), Arthurian legend, and Tibetan Buddhist mysticism.  Heady stuff for primetime TV, especially in 1990!

Of course, most viewers didn’t see this broader context as the series unfolded week-by-week.  Television had, until then, trained us to ask simpler questions that could be answered in the straightforward way.  Who killed Laura Palmer?  There’s a simple answer to that question… and also a more complicated answer, which leads to a much tougher question: Who or what exactly is BOB?  Once you go down that rabbit hole, you’re confronted with a dazzling litany of related mysteries: Who is MIKE, and what is his relationship to BOB?  What is The Red Room?  Who is The Man from Another Place?  Who is the Giant that appears to Cooper after he’s been shot?  What is the significance of the owls?  What is The White Lodge?  What is The Black Lodge?

I have no desire to minimize the importance of setting, characterizations, acting, music, humor, or even cherry pie to the overall success of the show, but for me these deeper questions were the main reason I kept coming back to TWIN PEAKS.  When Laura Palmer’s murderer was revealed, these subterranean mysteries loomed even larger, haunting my mind.  Now, with the long-delayed arrival of Season Three… it is happening again.  Longtime fans of the series are eager for answers—which will undoubtedly mean new questions.  In the meantime, here’s what we know so far…

Who or what exactly is BOB?

Most fans of TWIN PEAKS know that BOB was created by accident.  While David Lynch was shooting the pilot episode, he caught a glimpse of set dresser Frank Silva in Laura Palmer’s bedroom.  Something about Silva’s presence there captivated him, and Lynch shot a quick pan of the room, ending on an image of Silva crouched at the base of Laura’s bed.  At the time, the director didn’t know what it meant.   Then weird things began to happen…

Who is MIKE, and what is his relationship to BOB?

The pilot featured an homage to the long-running 1960s TV series THE FUGITIVE.  (For younger viewers: THE FUGITIVE revolved around a doctor who is falsely accused of murdering his wife.  The doc says a “one-armed” man did the vile deed, but nobody believes him.)  Since TWIN PEAKS began its life as a murder mystery, the creators planned a shot in which one of the investigators (Hawk) spots a one-armed man in an elevator at the hospital.  Hawk pauses, wonders “what if?”, then moves on.  It was only meant to be a quick sight gag but, Lynch explains, “I happened to get one of the all-time great actors and people for the part.”  The director was so impressed with actor Al Strobel’s voice and mannerisms that he turned the one-armed man into MIKE, a complex character that became vitally important to the series mythology.

There was one other prompt for the creation of MIKE.  When Lynch and Frost signed their contracts for the TWIN PEAKS pilot, they agreed to deliver an extended cut of the show that could be sold internationally as a standalone feature film.  Apparently, the extended scenes were an afterthought—largely improvised during the final days of shooting.  Those improvisations revolved around MIKE, who leads investigators into the basement of the Twin Peaks hospital to meet his old friend BOB, who confesses to the murder of Laura Palmer.  For Lynch, these scenes were not a strong enough ending on their own.  They were only a hint of things to come.

On that note: Tune in tomorrow for a little Q&A session on the mysteries of TWIN PEAKS.