METAPHYSICAL DETECTIVES: Guilt, Grace, and Gaze Throughout the World of Twin Peaks – Cam Scott

It is a feat to deliver on more than two decades of anticipation, and a critical warmth attends Twin Peaks: The Return. Then it is uncertain what deliverance requires in this case. Halfway through the third season, the intrigue appears irresolvable, more so for that the series tempts us, tersely and tediously, with the conventions of the detective story, beckoning closure. Fan theories proliferate, each fastidious in its way, no doubt as an indirect response to the incessant thwarting of expectation attendant upon the experience of bearing with the hard-to-bear. To speak of difficulty and duration, The Return commences as though a twenty-five year intervening absence was intended all along, as a late-Lynchian gesture toward the serial format and the semicolon of a cliffhanger that assures our interest in the interim.

Certainly the return of Twin Peaks gifts the long-time viewer a familiar feeling. Nostalgia aside, one might suggest that there is something homely to this world, from which basis a patented uncanny works its way with us. Lynch and Frost are especially masterful where this feeling of estrangement is concerned, brandishing an obtuse symbolism above our heads and before our eyes. Any incidental surrealism, however, appears all the more jarring for how it stalls and intervenes in an all-too-conventional plot, which is to say, the moral economy of the detective story.

The Metaphysical Detective

In a 1948 essay called The Guilty Vicarage, W.H. Auden professes his addiction to the detective novel. However, no sooner does he register a literary disinterest in the genre than he proceeds, in high Freudo-Anglican style, to redeem this vice in manifestly Christological terms:

The interest in the thriller is the ethical and eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them. The interest in the study of a murderer is the observation, by the innocent many, of the sufferings of the guilty one. The interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt.[1]

The standard murder mystery, Auden suggests, may be formalized as an allegory of the Fall. This is true where the format is as follows: a closed community is unspoiled for being so, until a crime occurs that forces its denizens to shed this illusion. Not only is the mythic innocence preceding banished by this irruptive, and as yet unattributable, act, there follows a long moment during which the moral repercussions are everybody’s burden equally. For so long as the identity and motive of the murderer remain unknown, guilt is distributed throughout the populace. Everyone is a probable killer, albeit for their different reasons, all of which must appear plausible. What is required for redemption of the townsfolk, head by head and as a social whole, is the assumption of guilt by an individual. This is not enough on its own, however, as the investigation will have shorn the townsfolk of their collectively professed innocence.

The restoration of tranquility requires a sacrifice. In Christian scripture, Christ dies on behalf of humanity, damned from shortly after creation. A good trinitarian may observe the ultimate identity of accuser and (proxy) accused in this case, but otherwise, the metaphysical detective is a late inquisitor who gifts the township ontic innocence whilst corroborating an ontological guilt. The murder mystery that Auden describes is a miniature that immediately proceeds by totalization; and to this degree it is parochial only in order that every disturbance be distributed absolutely throughout.

Who Killed Laura Palmer?

Twin Peaks is set in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, an avowedly peripheral setting closely akin to Auden’s ideal village. There are intimations of a world beyond: foreign investors pursuing business opportunities, or, as urgently, federal agents investigating a murder. The entire situation of the show crystallizes around this single disturbance, and a corresponding question, Who Killed Laura Palmer? Defying one’s expectations of the procedural, this question looms for a full season and a half, and perhaps longer: the killer’s ontological status remains uncertain even still, but his power is assured to exceed the lifespan of those he possesses. The question ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer’ is the condition of the social link in Twin Peaks as we the viewer are privy to understand. All of the township asks and is accused at once; and the investigation threatens to out any number of minute transgressions, because it threatens each and everyone with the social necessity of being seen.

How then do we see the people of Twin Peaks? “The characters in a detective story [should be] eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical),” Auden reminds us, which does not preclude mischief or malfeasance.[2] The show’s distinction in its initial run is to permit its characters something more precious than innocence, which they are not, as no one is, or ethics would be moot; rather, it affords its characters the dignity of their desires. The soap operatic intensity of scheming feeling is crucial here, and ultimately distinct from the slow-burn bafflers later to be branded Lynchian. The complexity of plot is secondary to a surface affect; Lynch and Frost manage, by rapid juxtaposition, to keep things unbearably, thrillingly light. Sure, there is an infinitely transmutable evil afoot, and yet things grind to a halt over coffee, several times daily.

These notably banal fixtures furnish the show its trademark ambience; that of a dreamlike realism, a total confabulation in which each sign, however asinine, must be presumed articulate as well. There are two categories of object at hand here, which are visually and semantically equal: red herrings and theatrical rifles, though this distinction is only ever established in retrospect. The generalized poignancy and menace that this ambiguity creates is evident from the obsessiveness with which viewers of Twin Peaks still swap trivia; in the truest sense, as trivialities tempting future aggrandizement. (Or, to etymologize for a moment, as object-nodes that are themselves a crossroads, in this case even between worlds.)

Auden states that there are five elements to the detective story: “the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives.”[3] The milieu we have discussed and will return upon. Here it is inventoried by the question ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ Laura is the emblem of the show for fulfilling the contradictory requirements of literary victimhood, as put forth by Auden: “He [sic] has to involve everyone in suspicion, which requires that he be a bad character; and he has to make everyone feel guilty, which requires that he be a good character.”[4] Of all the physical doubles that proliferate throughout the show’s run, the most important are those pairs divergent in desire but identical in name and body. The killer must be one who reserves the right of omnipotence, who is willing to transgress the most basic socially constructive prohibitions. It is little wonder that debauched father figures abound behind closed doors, across the border, or beyond curtains. The suspects are “a society consisting of apparently innocent individuals, i.e., their aesthetic interest as individuals does not conflict with their ethical obligations to the universal. The murder is the act of disruption by which innocence is lost, and the individual and the law become opposed to each other.”[5]

The most important detail as it bears on Twin Peaks is the role of the detective, who represents the ethical ideal in contradistinction to the aesthetic turmoil of his or her surroundings. “In either case, the detective must be the total stranger who cannot possibly be involved in the crime; this excludes the local police and should, I think, exclude the detective who is a friend of one of the suspects.” In addition to the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical, a tension is introduced between the salvific figure of the detective and the inertial, perhaps culpable, institution of the local police.

This convention alone is cause for the unimpeachably, implacably wholesome Dale Cooper’s appearance in Twin Peaks, and his gradual integration into the life of the town likely foreshadows his decades-long arrest in nether-regions of ulterior reality. Auden is clear that with the resolution of the crime, innocence is restored and the law is to retire. There is a crucial moment after the close of the initial case, the murder of Laura Palmer, when Cooper is stripped of rank and, having become acclimated to Twin Peaks, planning to stay on as a resident. But again, he is pulled back into darkness, and his retirement plans culminate in his captivity in the room beyond the woods. Much of the action, and the stalemate that fans have endured for the last two-and-a-half decades, proceeds from the false ending of the investigation by familiar standards. Innocence was not restored in customary fashion, and a sacrifice was nonetheless required.

Waiting Rooms

The time of the resurrection, of the event consummating the revelation, is the time of a foreclosed-upon chronology. This time corresponds to an interval between two events, the latter of which will secure the first, the meaning of which is pending. “I’ll see you again in 25 years,” Laura Palmer says to Dale Cooper in the final episode of season two, twenty-six years before the anticipated return. Now that Twin Peaks is back, the popular thought is that we are rewarded by the market for enduring faith. Much, however, remains to be seen.

The most salient differences have to do with pacing. Twin Peaks is no longer economized after the fashion of a television soap. In the first case, resurrectionary time — a time for the kindling of fervent belief in-between two equally impossible events, the time corresponding to the cultivation of fanaticism or fidelity — was regulated from week to week by the serial form. This suspense was only concentric of the climactic break enacted by each jumpcut from subplot to subplot, character to character, intrigue to intrigue.

Twin Peaks: The Return is set in the time of waiting. Or rather, in a space of waiting properly called time. A young man sits in a concrete room watching for something, who knows what, to appear before him, behind glass. Elsewhere, the detective whose return ensures our interest sits placidly in an armchair, receiving counsel from the dead. As has become Lynch’s trademark over the intervening years, long takes and pregnant silence, really all manner of visual and aural static, escalate to near-unbearable intensity on account of a viewer’s excessive interestedness. Nothing becomes something before one’s eyes, and ears, only to recede once more into the doubtful terrain of moot detailing. The clearest example is non-visual, and pertains to the lushly evocative soundscape that enfolds what scant dialogue appears: Angelo Badalamenti’s distinctively schlocky score is not only a character unto itself, but a late arrival to the scene. Instead we endure a feeling of emptiness in repletion, or the opposite: detail signifying lack. Silence doesn’t exist except in relation to stimulation, and Lynch befuddles typically exclusive regimes of formal austerity and sensuous aestheticism by a kind of catalytic juxtaposition that is not, it seems important to insist, not dialectical.

Discoveries and Secrets

Deleuze and Guattari differentiate between literatures of secrecy and discovery, closely associating each of these modes with the novella and the tale respectively. This is a distinction having to do with temporal foreclosure. The time of the novella is suspended in retrospect of a reader’s interest: “Everything is organized around the question, “What happened? Whatever could have happened?”[6] Whereas the tale, however fatalistic (formulaic, even) impels the reader forward: “an altogether different question that the reader asks with bated breath: What is going to happen? Something is always going to happen, come to pass.”[7] One might venture to suggest that the oft-cited seam between seasons one and two of Twin Peaks, to this day divisive of opinion,  has to do with this distinction. Season one is addressed to the town in its pre-established secrecies. Season two, which resolves the initial mystery by episode nine and promptly devolves into a cat-and-mouse game between Dale Cooper and Windom Earle, tempts its viewer with revelation after revelation. Much then has been made of the 1991 finale, directed by David Lynch after a fourteen episode absence, which draws a veil of obtuse symbolism around what was becoming an increasingly corny caper, restoring the plot a place to unbreachable secrecy.

Fire Walk With Me, a feature-length prequel released after the cancellation of the television show,  is split down the middle in an almost precisely analogous fashion. (Like Lost Highway, it is two more or less separate movies, abandoning an established plot mid-course never to return.) The film deepens the mystery for the first third or so of its running time, before abruptly embarking on a lugubriously over-vivid play-by-play of what we already know has transpired, corresponding near-precisely to eyewitness accounts from the pilot episode. This is a retrograde concession to the spectacular in its straightforward representation of sexual violence, which otherwise remains on the side of the properly unrepresentable for much of the series.

This approaches the territory of the degraded television procedural, which often begins with a graphic depiction of the crime, even revealing the identity of the perpetrator at the outset, only to let the detectives in on this already established identity gradually throughout. The viewer is placed on the side of the villain as much as the detective, which idealized conflict pardons the social element enveloping both charismatic actors. Neither is representative. It is a quintessentially reassuring depiction of the ‘mind-your-business’ ethic by which structural innocence is assured its unwilling participants. And again, the appearance of Windom Earle in Twin Peaks is as close as the original series veers to this motionless dualism, where no one’s position in altered over the course of events. It is no coincidence that the series lapses into a metaphor as totally uninteresting as a game of chess for the duration of their mutual antagonism.

What marks a certain kind of detective story apart from your standard tale of good-versus-evil is not that it relativistically dispenses with these judgements; rather, it is that, for a moment commensurate with reading, these identifications are uncertain. It is striking that one of Auden’s requirements of the detective story is its indifference to the reader upon completion, such that he expects to be forgetful of its contents entirely, although mid-course he was enthralled. For in the end all is resolved.

Pending this relief, one may only orientate oneself deductively. “You will never know what just happened, or you will always know what is going to happen: these are the reasons for the reader’s two bated breaths, in the novella and the tale, respectively …. ”[8] For Deleuze and Guattari, the novel integrates the two forms, novella and tale, “into the variation of its perpetual living present.”[9] How novelistic is the world under discussion here? The present of Twin Peaks is belied by all manner of eerie phenomena, which appear to allude to other times and corresponding spaces. In this respect, it thwarts the illusions upon which literary consistency is based; it could be said that Cooper’s divinatory means of detection allude to this extra-literary reality. Deleuze makes a special example out of detective literature:

The detective novel is a particularly hybrid genre in this respect, since most often the something = X that has happened is on the order of a murder or theft, but exactly what it is that has happened remains to be discovered, and in the present determined by the model detective.[10]

The ‘model detective’ is the literary personality par excellence, for as a kind of divine interloper in a closed community, he is more a reader of the book in which he appears than a character. Cooper’s present, however, is coextensive with another reality altogether, which is a crucial intervention in the detective genre and the novel form alike. One could compare D.A. Miller’s work on the nineteenth century novel as an oblique expression of new regimes of governmentality:

Crucially, the novel organizes its world in a way that already restricts the pertinence of the police. Regularly including the topic of the police, the novel no less regularly sets it against other topics of surpassing interest — so that the centrality of what it puts at the center is established by holding the police to their place on the periphery.[11]

This, to adapt Auden’s terms, would be the difference between the fallen world of social realism and the punctured Eden of the detective story. Miller’s nineteenth century novel is panoptic: the ‘closed circuit’ of delinquent society portrayed by Dickens, for example, may be referred to the quotidian intrigue of life in Twin Peaks, or any other Eden. Where the town’s affairs are concerned, the detective is extraneous; his presence disturbs the town little more than the murder he is there to investigate. In fact, what the murder of Laura Palmer threatens to upset is the essentially delinquent character of the town’s social functioning. In the case of detective fiction, where a police investigation may be absolutely central to the plot,

its sheer intrusiveness posits a world whose normality has been hitherto defined as a matter of not needing the police or policelike detectives. The investigation repairs this normality, not only by solving the crime, but also, far more important, by withdrawing from what had been for an aberrant moment, its ‘scene.’[12]

This very clearly complements Auden’s description. This divine role of the detective is part of the reason why police are an otherwise omnipresence throughout the essentially secular bourgeois novel: the limited jurisdiction of the police in such novels attests to “the existence of other domains, formally lawless, outside and beyond its powers of supervision and detection.”[13] One senses that, within the economy of the nineteenth-century novel, the supernatural and the police are already formally allied on account of their transcendent status.

Police in the Machine

In his essays on nineteenth century literature, Joachim Kalka relates the fascination of Friedrich Schiller with the supernatural detective story, as well as the theme of the police more generally. Kalka compares two works of Schiller’s, The Ghost-Seer, a supernatural tale of conspiracy, and its proposed counterpart, a fragment entitled The Police. The Ghost-Seer inventories a “vast machinery of deception,” whereas The Police transvaluates the paranoiac feeling attendant upon such deception and offers a romantic view of state bureaucracy, saturating and endorsing the social manifold: “The fascinating thing about Schiller’s Police is that the whole mass of conspiratorial secrecy that in The Ghost-Seer is still on the dark side, the side of evil, has passed to the good apparatus of state order …”[14]

For Kalka, Schiller’s fragment preconfigures the crime novel; which genre, in his words, “tends to deify the detective and denigrate the police.”[15] Twin Peaks certainly plays up this inter-jurisdictional animus throughout its run; the tension is ameliorated in the town of Twin Peaks, by the mutual embrace of local law enforcement and the FBI. Dale Cooper is deputized over the course of a burgeoning friendship; the boorish obstinacy of Albert Rosenfield gives over to a stiff respect. Within the conventions of the genre, this unexpected rapport marks a synthesis of romantic individualism and romantic bureaucracy. Twin Peaks offers a model of ethical life exceeding small-town morality. Fire Walk With Me, on the other hand, is at exaggerated pains to represent the disjunct between outside investigators and local law enforcement, such that when Agent Desmond, who at first appears to be the protagonist of the film, disappears without a trace, it can only represent the suppressive victory of the delinquent milieu over its exterior truth. Here is a portion of Schiller’s outline as it appears in Kalka’s text:

A vast amount of action must be handled, and it must be ensured that the spectator is not confused by the great variety of incidents and the number of characters. There must be a guiding thread that holds everything together … [the characters] must be connected to one another directly or through the surveillance of the police, and finally everything must resolve itself in the audience chamber of the Lieutenant of Police. – The true unity is given by the police …[16]

The vocation of the police in Schiller’s draft is to recuse the populace of complication and to gift them happiness. It is a transcendental institution, tasked with “unifying disparate realities.”[17] Eerily, as accords with these definitions, Twin Peaks: The Return is set in a world without police, and it is far from a utopia. From panoramic shots of the New York skyline to the scrolling titles informing us which would-be suburban desert we are in at a given moment, the coziness of Twin Peaks is blown open unto intimations of a cold globality. As Cooper journeys from the Black Lodge to the terrestrial fold, he faces the barrenness of space: the claustrophobic city interiors of Eraserhead are implied but still too homely by half. Titillating scenes of local intrigue are juxtaposed with the unsettling inexorability of the action that transpires elsewhere, ever further from home.

The police as a benevolent surveillance tool, beholden to a socially concerned narrativist ala Schiller, have been nebulized after the description of D.A. Miller. They are a formal framework for what is to transpire, but only on account of an auspicious absence from the scene. The vertiginous panopsis of late Lynch has to do with the absence of a central character or throughline, much as the violently corrupt institution of the police lacks a subjective or ethical principle apart from ‘power.’

The metaphysical police of Twin Peaks must be understood after this fashion, however difficult to square with the blameworthy and vicious institution of actually existing law enforcement. The relative racial homogeneity of the fictional setting would not be coincidental where this suspension of disbelief is concerned, which is supposed to be accounted for by the village setting.  It is a place of ritualized harmony between the aesthetic and the ethical, individual will and general laws, to follow Auden closely. The symbolic stakes are reduced such that it is more or less impossible to depict salient cultural differences. The allure of Twin Peaks has to do with its depiction of a peaceable relation between the detective and the police, and the police and the township, which is sacrificially secured. These are the suspect utopian desires that Fredric Jameson finds at work in another acclaimed detective serial, The Wire. Jameson praises the collusory culture that evolves within a small team of detectives after the intuitive transgression of one of its ranks:

The lonely private detective or committed police officer offers a familiar plot that goes back to romantic heroes and rebels (beginning, I suppose, with Milton’s Satan). Here, in this increasingly socialized and collective historical space, it slowly becomes clear that genuine revolt and resistance must take the form of a conspiratorial group, of a true collective.[18]

Of course, the fraternal propensity of an actual police to forge evidence, perpetrate violence, and protect their own from outside inquiry is far from a model of utopian life but definitive of an irredeemable institution. Jameson’s example is tone-deaf, but this ‘becoming-detective’ of the police is not unrelated to the dialectic of aesthetic and ethical interest that Auden portrays as structuring the movement of the Miltonic village mystery. The law must learn love, and love must replace the law. As Auden concludes, the detective story relies upon “the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer. The phantasy of escape is the same, whether one explains the guilt in Christian, Freudian, or any other terms.”[19]

Paradise Locked

In Freudian terms too, guilt is the basis for the social contract. Consider Freud’s myth of the Primal Father, whose despotic whims may be referred to the omnipotent delusions of the murders in Auden’s description of the detective novel. Upon the dispatch of this tyrannical figure, an egalitarian society is erected in his stead on the condition that no one will attempt to take his place. If this accords with the Christian description of the ‘lawman’ who must arrive from without to restore innocence to the fold, it even better suits the scenario of Twin Peaks, where so many family patriarchs turn out to be momentary avatars of a collectively repressed figure of depravity. As Joan Copjec writes, “society is installed under the banner of the son who signifies the father’s absence.” This is easy to transpose from a Freudian to a gnostic register.

Book three of Paradise Lost — it can’t be coincidental that the most heretical material where the identity of the trinity is concerned appears in a book numbered three — begins with the follow argument:

God sitting on his Throne sees Satan flying towards this world, then newly created; shews him to the Son who sat at his right hand foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind; clears his own Justice and Wisdom from all imputation, having created Man free and able enough to have withstood his Tempter; yet declares his purpose of grace towards him, in regard he fell not of his own malice, as did Satan, but by him seduc’t …[20]

In spite of the free will of the offenders, the eventuality of the offense is still known by God in his omniscience at the time of the creation. Even in humanity’s infancy, before Satan has alighted upon earth, the free choice of sin is foreseeable, such that “the Son of God freely offers himself a Ransome for Man” almost in advance of humanity’s appearance. At the time of Twin Peaks: The Return, Cooper is in the space between two worlds, and a “false dissembler” is at large in his stead. This is not to suggest that Dale Cooper is on a hero’s journey; rather, we may observe the resurrectionary temporality that obtains here, according to which one is implicitly accused and pardoned at once; such that, as said above,  there is an ontological debt preceding any ontic intrigue whatsoever. The a priori damnation of any Eden is a condition of being seen, therein or anywhere. The great corroborator of humankind’s agency would be the romantic hero Satan, who in a sense already in the garden at the time of God’s creation.

We could refer to Copjec’s description of a staple of detective fiction, the locked-room scenario, where a corpse appears somewhere thought unassailable, a space to which no one has access, foreshadowing or following breached Eden. Copjec uses Alfred Hitchcock’s example of a scene where two men are examining an automobile assembly line, marvelling at the perfection of its products, when suddenly a car door opens and a body drops out.

Once the complete process of the car’s production has been witnessed, “once the measures of the real are made tight, once a perimeter, a volume, is defined once and for all, there is nothing to lead one to suspect that when all is said and done,” some object will have completely escaped attention only later to be extracted from this space. So, if no hand on the assembly line has placed the corpse in the car, how is it possible for another hand to pull it out?[21]

Twin Peaks: The Return begins with at least three such scenarios juxtaposed, from very different viewpoints. A solitary young man sits in a secure loft above the New York City skyline, watching a glass box for something, he knows not what, to appear. In South Dakota, an inscrutable crime scene materializes like a puzzle in a locked apartment, covered in the fingerprints of a man who wasn’t there. Most strikingly, the Cooper-Jones body swap depicts the locked-room scenario from an unexpected vantage. Dougie Jones, meat decoy, responds to his materialization in the Black Lodge as though the corpse on the assembly line itself: “That’s weird.”

Furthermore, the architecture of Twin Peaks: The Return may be described after the manner of what Copjec calls the ‘lonely room’: “office buildings late at night, in the early hours of the morning; abandoned warehouses; hotels mysteriously untrafficked; eerily empty corridors; these are the spaces that supplant the locked room.”[22] Something is in the room that shouldn’t be, but that something is the room itself.  Evacuated of desire, merely haunted, these are also the chambers of irremediable secrecy that characterize the forerunner to detective fiction, supernatural horror, and a morally ambivalent descendent, noir. Kalka makes this case where Schiller’s fiction is concerned, but with Auden in mind we may repeat that the detective story is a secular counterpart to the supernatural tale, insofar as both secure normalcy by reference to an excess, a paranormalcy or impossible irruption.

Plotting Democracy

For Auden, the detective story narrates a dialectical remediation of an individual and their society after such time as the two become opposed to one another. In this respect, though the detective story must be counterposed to the police narrative, Schiller appears to insist that the latter (non)genre is absolutely prior, as it constitutes (negatively) the order to be disturbed. D.A. Miller’s seeming agreement is logical, not genealogical:  “Historically, it would be absurd to derive the novel from the detective story, whose ‘classical’ period of development neither precedes nor even … coincides with the novel’s own. More accurately, the detective story first emerges as an aborted function within the novel,” one that exceptionalizes the role of the detective in order to establish lateral relations of allegedly guiltless scrutiny.[23]

This corresponds to Joan Copjec’s observation that the suppression or dispatch of the primal father inaugurates a culture of benign surveillance, such as describes the closed society of the novel in Miller’s Foucauldian study. Problems of political modernity, which is to say, of constitutive enumeration, resound throughout the genre of detective fiction “which, classically, begins with an amorphous and diverse collection of characters and ends with a fully constituted group.”[24] Political identity, says Jacques-Alain Miller, that is, the formal self-identity of the citizen, is necessarily sutured by reference to an excluded element, which is formally without content. Likewise, writes Copjec,

the group forming around the corpse in detective fiction is of this modern sort; it is logically ‘sustained through nothing but itself.’ The best proof of this, the most telling sign, is the fiction’s foregrounding display of the performative: in classical detective fiction it is the narrative of the investigation that produces the narrative of the crime.[25]

This remark is especially useful as a description of Twin Peaks, as a notably self-reflexive instance of the detective story. The question Who Killed Laura Palmer? is the condition of the social in Twin Peaks; the show is only ostensibly about a murder, but it very quickly becomes clear that the mischief of the townspeople is of far greater interest. What conveys so many isolated trysts and transgressions to one another, however, is their possible relation to a master signifier that at no point appears. ‘Laura,’ one whispers furtively, another screams grief stricken. This invocation binds the whole, in the absence of what it names. “But if the relations among the suspects are differential, what then is their relation to the corpse?” Copjec asks.[26]

This is the point at which structure winds up being inculpated in manifest content. Twin Peaks, like Blue Velvet before, is prurient and appears to relish its depictions of violence against women. The structure is paradigmatically one of cynical reason, or jouissance. By depicting violence against women, an author lazily conveys to the viewer that the perpetrator is irredeemable, thus may be sacrificed with unseemly relish and impunity. Leo Johnson is a version of this type; so is Frank Booth, and more recently, Richard Horne. The moralizing double transgression of the revenge motif can’t but operate within an economy of pleasure. One must take responsibility for the depiction which is in any case totally original to the fictional world: “it is the narrative of the investigation that produces the narrative of the crime.”

In Twin Peaks as in Lacan as elsewhere, the group is consolidated by interpretation because a final signifier is missing; this, writes Copjec, is the condition that underwrites detective fiction as well as romantic devotional, seeing as the absence of this final signifier, securing all that came before it, is (according to Lacan) also the cause for which there is no sexual relationship:

This signifier, if it existed, would be the signifier for woman. As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the genre knows, the absence of this signifier is evident in detective fiction not only in the nontotalizable space that produces the paradox of the locked room but also in the unfailing exclusion of the sexual relation. The detective is structurally forbidden any involvement with a woman.[27]

This is heavy-handedly rendered throughout the courtly soap opera of Twin Peaks; the chaste ascetic Cooper’s undoing has to do with his self-described lapses of judgement in love. He is lured to the Dark Lodge in pursuit of Annie, more or less immediately after counseling the hard-boiled Sheriff Truman back from the brink of madness; Truman having compromised one set of instincts for another by falling in love with Josie, a murderer and conspirator against him. In the fraternal narrative economy of the detective story, love inculpates the detective in the delinquent element from which he must be subtracted in order for the plot to hold together.

From a different angle, Jacqueline Rose discusses a certain anxiety attendant upon the appearance of the female detective, whose process of deduction produces a paranoid excess of criminal conspirators, in spite of that there is only one villain in the story. This comes about where the self-consciousness of the cinematic apparatus is reduced to heightened awareness of the body of a woman, “reduced to the question of … what is at stake in constituting her as the object (and subject) of the look.”[28]

The plot twist concluding season two, from which we are only slowly recovering over the course of The Return, appears reactionary, but could it have been otherwise? The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer cannot properly be solved as it is coextensive with an entire world, a condition of the social link. Cooper’s love, like his reluctance to leave the town of Twin Peaks, is fatal to his vocation as detective, which also happens to name the genre that Twin Peaks surpasses and perfects. The more-or-less hackneyed antagonism between Windom Earle and Dale Cooper, Moriarty and Holmes, is compressed into and foreshadows an important structural coincidence more typical of noir; the ultimate identity of the detective and his or her quarry. Copjec describes how, as a function of the forbidden signifier binding the plot and fixing people in their proper places, its pace is regulated by a ‘revolving door’ dynamic, such that the detective and his other cannot occupy the same space. This structures the noir subgenre, wherein detection proceeds on the basis of identification: “it is argued that the detective comes to identify more and more closely with his criminal adversary until, at the end of the noir cycle, he has become the criminal himself.”[29]

There is No Double of the Double

This is the fate that befalls Dale Cooper, whose blameless integrity as a character is visually secured by a physical double: if two Coopers, good and evil, might appear simplistic, let it be said that Lynch knows when more is better. Good Cooper re-enters the world in the stead of Dougie Jones, a third likeness and hapless cipher. This ridiculous figure triangulates the good-evil dualism implicit in the doppelgänger motif. What, after all, might it mean for so illogical an excrescence as a “third double” to appear? By conducting our sympathies in Dougie’s direction, Lynch affirms that it is only the physical aspect in which one may be multiplied, the spirit is elsewhere intact; thus giving the lie to the spontaneous visual morality, or ideology, of the double and Twin Peaks more generally.

Dougie Jones is a fleshly medium, shorn of guilt and awareness alike, and this childlike innocence may be precisely what the double is intended to protect. Otto Rank speculates that the double as a psychic postulate originates from a desire for immortality. As for the later bearing of this omnipotent yet fleshly double upon its mortal likeness, Freud remarks upon the irony that a figure intended to secure one’s life will more likely be greeted as a deathlike omen.

The proliferation of doppelgängers throughout Lynch’s filmography, and Twin Peaks especially, certainly corroborates this feeling of dread. Furthermore, twenty-five years after a beloved television series, every character is in a certain sense an uncanny double of their past self. But the recurrence of familiar faces must be read alongside the repetition of any number of other details: “Finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing, the repetition of the same facial features, the same characters, the same destinies, the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations.”[30]

Freud’s description of the uncanny double seems particularly apt to capture Lynch’s intervention in the detective genre. As above, the nightmarish return of the same is preconfigured by the sort of constricting lineages constitutive of a too-familial small-town milieu. Furthermore, the structure of the detective story depends upon everybody being possibly other than they seem: for as long as the crime remains unsolved, every person must be regarded as an unreliable double of their criminal equivalent. Early in Twin Peaks: The Return, Bill Hastings, a mild-mannered school principal, is not only unable to convince his wife that he is innocent of a grisly murder; he appears unable to entirely convince himself. Hastings sees himself as we see him, as an object of suspicion.

Lynch’s entire filmography is conjoined on the basis of eerie resemblances. Visual quotations accrue to an obsessional insistence; in addition to the inanimate cameos comprising his mise-en-scène, Lynch keeps the same stable of actors on retainer, exploiting the overdetermination of this or that favourite face with a relish that surely hearkens back to an uncanny specifically attendant upon an old Hollywood and the credulity of its postulated consumer. All it takes to occasion pangs of betrayal in a viewer is to place a face typecast ‘heroic’ in seedy straits. (Film noir specifically exploits this to ghoulish results.) This narcissistic insistence on constancy is in contradiction with the economy of theatre and film in general; but Lynch revels in the discomfort of attachment developed over the course of a career.

The northwestern “vicarage” of Twin Peaks is situated as a kind of precious diorama in a fictional America, as readily encompassing the California of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire as it does the New York and South Dakota of The Return. As the affairs of a township are counterposed to those of a country far exceeding any panoramic overview, we are forced to concede the genre of detective story to its fallen equivalent, noir; which is to say, we must completely disabuse ourselves of any belief whatsoever in innocence, the formal requirement of which is, here as always, the integrity of a garden or a correspondingly benign civic.

Private Gardens

Of course this innocence could only ever have been fantasmatically secured. For Twin Peaks, in its mythology and symbolism alike, is chock full of appropriated and misplaced imagery associated with indigenous North American culture, as Geoff Bil points out in an essential piece of recent criticism, and the metaphysical underpinnings of the show are heavily reliant upon neocolonial cinematic tropes.[31] As Bil emphasizes, Annie Blackburn’s impassioned environmentalist speech against the Ghostwood development at the Miss Twin Peaks Pageant from season two quotes Chief Seeathl’s much-paraphrased and apocryphal address. Then it is not only that the Ghostwood development stands in violent contradiction to Annie’s holistic worldview, but that the entire town in its placement would be transcendentally suppressive. There is no pending re-unity, no ameliorative intimation of localizable guilt, because the garden society is, in its fictive unity, itself a kind of violent culprit. The trope of the ‘Indian burial ground’ as a revengeful topography is obliquely active in Twin Peaks, Bil will observe, to the degree that the show does tend to moralize on the basis of its poor representations.

Where the relation of Twin Peaks to coloniality is concerned, it is noted that Lynch hijacks many venerable Western tropes alongside those of the detective story. And although he metaphysicalizes the frontiers upon which the genre depends, the normative values of the genre are intact: the peripheral setting of the Western depends upon a contrastive threshold also, that a romantic (Satanic) outlier may pursue his own redemptive purposes. In this respect, the western tends to be the structural inverse of the detective story: rather than a romantic detective-interloper redeeming a closed society, we see a prodigal figure prove the disunity of an uneasily ad hoc social unity. The western presumes hypocrisy of its mercenary actors, and the colonial bad faith of the genre consists as much in the evenness of the exile (or fallenness) that it depicts as in its racist caricatures.

There is much to unpack in the relationship between Deputy Hawk and Sheriff Truman’s offices where these conventions are concerned, more than this essay may approach with any sensitivity, but it seems fair to suggest that the ‘metaphysical police’ of Twin Peaks, particularly where their company accords with the pan-shamanic calling of Dale Cooper, are again supposed to represent a kind of harmony between agencies or cultures that are otherwise in narrative, and political, contradiction.

The cruelty and discomfort of The Return has everything to do with that it is set in an atonal world, a world without a master signifier. And this signifier is strikingly not Laura Palmer in this case, but the detective Dale Cooper himself. For the avid viewer, his disappearance is a traumatic rend in a familiar setting. Cooper’s bodily multiplication, and physical alteration in each case illustrates as much, and the expanded geography of the television show mirrors this vertiginous worldlessness. Quite literally, it seems, and as accords with the above description, Cooper has been established as both an object of sacrifice qua criminal excrescence and the agent of deliverance qua detective, who is always, and necessarily, newly arrived on the scene. For the residents of present-day Twin Peaks, the mention of Cooper’s name is greeted with slow or stoical recollection. They do not know what has befallen him, but something is felt to be wrong. The Log Lady contacts Hawk to say as much: “something is missing and you have to find it.” That something is perhaps less purloined than misplaced, such that we are those dupes whose theories prevent us from discovering a message already in receipt.

The Guilty Vicarage

Many of Auden’s observations from The Guilty Vicarage are echoed in a passage from New Year’s Letter, to reiterate briefly in rhyme:

Delayed in the democracies

By departmental vanities,

The rival sergeants run about

But more to squabble than find out,

Yet where the Force has been cut down

To one inspector dressed in brown,

He makes the murderer whom he pleases

And all investigation ceases.

Yet our equipment all the time

Extends the area of the crime

Until the guilt is everywhere,

And more and more we are aware,

However miserable may be

Our parish of immediacy,

How small it is, how, far beyond,

Ubiquitous within the bond

Of an impoverishing sky,

Vast spiritual disorders lie.[32]

The organization of Twin Peaks, however, as a mystery that mustn’t be solved, accords with a more famous and considerably less anxious poem of Auden’s, Musée des Beaux Arts. The poem is a commentary on Pieter Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, in which the “human position” of suffering is affirmed: it is horizonal, and no cause to skip one’s morning coffee. If Brueghel’s propensity to embed catastrophic narrative detail in a teeming and indifferent landscape is pertinent – one thinks of the opening credits to Twin Peaks, surveying a natural sublime which dwarfs the human scale of melodrama – it is precisely because the landscape gathers around such an integral detail. In Twin Peaks, “everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster,” because the disaster is the condition of indifference itself.[33] It is this barely perceptible rend, occasioning the morbidity of the gaze, that Lynch directs over and over again.

But in the very first case this composition has a name, one that the trees whisper, one from which everything proceeds; and the failure of this binding detail to appear is both a limit to interpretation, let alone enjoyment, and the enabling condition of both. As Lynch withholds this term in order to set a world in motion, it seems only appropriate to consider the cosmology of fallenness that underwrites any fantasy of repair. Then, until that indefinitely delayed reunion, our idle viewership may continue to attend to Sunday nights as though it were a kind of church; which is to acknowledge a certain guilty interest in the first place.

CAM SCOTT is a poet, essayist, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. His writing has appeared in The Believer, 3:AM, Tripwire, and other venues. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn.


  • [1] W.H. Auden, ‘The Guilty Vicarage,’ in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose Volume II:1939-1948. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, 262.
  • [2] Ibid, 264
  • [3] Ibid
  • [4] Ibid
  • [5] Ibid, 266
  • [6]  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, translated by Brian Massumi. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum, 2004, 212.
  • [7] Ibid
  • [8] Ibid
  • [9] Ibid
  • [10] Ibid, 213
  • [11] D.A.Miller,The Novel and the Police. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, 2
  • [12] Ibid, 3
  • [13] Ibid
  • [14] Joachim Kalka. Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York Review of Books, 2017, 13.
  • [15] Ibid, 15
  • [16] Ibid, 9
  • [17] Ibid, 15
  • [18] Fredric Jameson, ‘Realism and Utopia in The Wire,’ in Criticism Vol 52, No. 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010, 359-372.
  • [19] Auden, 269
  • [20]  John Milton, Paradise Lost. London: Penguin, 2000, 52.
  • [21] Joan Copjec. Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. New York and London: Verso Books, 2015, 169.
  • [22] Ibid, 191
  • [23] Miller, 51
  • [24] Copjec, 172
  • [25] Ibid, 174
  • [26]  Ibid
  • [27]  Ibid, 179
  • [28] Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision. New York and London: Verso Books, 2005, 220.
  • [29] Copjec, 180
  • [30] Sigmund Freud, translated by David Mclintock. The Uncanny. New York and London: Penguin Books, 142.
  • [31] Geoff Bil. ‘Tensions in the World of Moon: Twin Peaks, Indigeneity and Territoriality.’ Senses of Cinema. July 2016. http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/twin-peaks/twin-peaks-indigeneity-territoriality. Accessed July 14 2017.
  • [32]  W.H. Auden. Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 203.
  • [33] Ibid, 179
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