Sunday, November 18, 2012

Murdering Mystery: An Analysis of Twin Peaks

         Television has been called a “site of cultural representation” (Butler) that creates conflict to bring conversation. This proxy for living is often both sensational and forgettable when viewed through the soap opera genre (Mittell p241). Twin Peaks broke theses traditions through interlinking its presentational styles while remaining firmly rooted in the soap opera genre. It was quite successful, capturing a quarter million of its available television audience (Lavery). It also managed to kill off it's viewership after one season and resulted in cancellation by it's much hyped second season. While Twin Peaks succeeded in grabbing the coveted commodity audience by creating America's first night time soap opera with a serial narrative, it also murdered its own mystery by letting network executives control it's story.
         Twin Peaks relies on two major elements to create it's interest that break tradition. The first is the Midwest setting, reminiscent of daytime soap operas; usually the commodity audience relates most with shows set in an urban environment, with the Midwest being for the stay at home mothers and fathers or older audiences. By creating engaging storyline about prostitution and drug abuse in a nontraditional setting the producers of Twin Peaks were able to represent small towns in a titillating fashion. The second element that breaks tradition is the casting of Twin Peaks' victim, a pretty, white, teenage girl named Laura Palmer. This character shows the representation of hegemony; the death of a ruling class citizen, the ultimate fear, the one thing that should be protected in modern society. In this way Laura symbolizes the national identity of America at the time.
         The world of Twin Peaks is initially presented as a safe community with simple and hard working people. The burning question is revealed within minutes of the Pilot episode: who killed Laura Palmer? This question brings out stories within the show as elements of Laura Palmer's personality are revealed. In episode 1 “Traces to Nowhere” we discover that Laura is a regular cocaine user. This brings many conflicts: did her parents know? Who supplied her? Was she using the drugs, selling them or holding onto them? Adding to the stories confusion is the interlinking forms of representation.
         The storyline continue and traverse multiple episodes (Mittell p231) but Twin Peaks follows the ritual of genre cycles by always having the same style mise-en-scene: the atmosphere feels like a soap opera with repeating sets, soft and fuzzy camera filters and quick shots between characters. There's also a large emphasis of color. This is of many ways Twin Peaks breaks the soap opera style so that it becomes memorable: the show is scandal focused but presented in such a well crafted and creative manner that it's images and storyline become quite memorable but still true to the soap opera genre.
         There are other factors for the shows success: the series has a interlinked representational style in multiple aspects of the text. While the camera filters and establishing shots are like soap operas there are many static shots, no zoom and red is over saturated in post production. The strange color scheme makes the somewhat familiar unfamiliar, with a traditional soap opera representation using a different chromatic scheme. The development of the story also shows aspects of multiple presentational styles, both in how the text is presented and in how it was constructed.
         The clues throughout the series mostly make sense within the realm of a crime drama, such as finding DNA on the crime scene, developing characters, showing emotional reactions and building mystery. This is a contrast to the other side of the series which features doppelgangers, interpretations of the Native American afterlife (the White Lodge and Black Lodge), visions of giants and a continually repeating image of a white horse that has no apparent meaning. Therefore one can see how Twin Peaks is a hybrid, presenting realistic world with one or two unrealistic characters that the audience views unrealistic images through. While characters are continually quirky, they are never beyond realistic: a one armed man, a lady with an eye patch and a FBI agent hard of hearing who always screams his orders (played by Lynch himself) are all within the realm of believable characters, just not all as inhabitants of the same small town. Agent Cooper is the medium for which all the unrealistic elements of Twin Peaks manifest. This can be noted in as early as the Pilot episode.
         Agent Dale Cooper often monologues into his tape recorder to a off screen character named Diane. When first visiting Twin Peaks Cooper mentions how beautiful the trees “look and smell” and how he must find out the name of the trees. What's interesting here is how the monologues develop character, another nontraditional way of representation; Agent Cooper seems to be revealing things to Diane as if she is a family member or friend, telling quirky details along with important ones. But Diane is never revealed at all in the entire series with no character ever confirming or denying her existence. The fact that she is only referenced by Cooper adds a complex layer to the story of the character to Dale Cooper. Is he insane? Is Diane real? This also helps merge the representational styles; if Cooper is insane perhaps the visions the audience sees are just the images of an insane man and nothing more.
         The first sight of extreme supernatural storytelling is with Episode 2, Season 1, titled “Zen or the Skill to Catch a Killer”. This scene is the first of the many famous “Red Room” scenes. Dale Cooper dreams in a montage that shows Killer BOB, the victim Laura Palmer, his nemesis, gives cryptic clues (such as the often talked about poem “Fire Walk With Me”) and then is transported to a avant-garde set with a backwards talking dwarf. This scene helps show some of the similarities between the story and development; the method of production is equally as absurd as the scene itself.        
        Twin Peaks' story was often times ad-libbed, with characters being created on the spot or accidentally. In this first Red Room scene in Episode 2 the audience finally hears more from Killer BOB as he delivers some rare speaking roles. Whats interesting is that his character was introduced into the series completely on accident only to become a main villain  .Lynch revealed that the idea for Killer BOB came when Frank Silva, a grip boy, was accidentally filmed in the mirror of a shot in the pilot episode (Dunham).
         Most of the visions and supernatural representation in Twin Peaks are confusing and left to interpretation. Consider this conversation during the Red Room scene in episode 2:

“I have good news. That gum you like is coming back in style. (looks at Doppleganger, then Cooper) She's my cousin. But doesn't she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?
Cooper: “But it is Laura Palmer. Are you Laura Palmer?
Doppelganger:” I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.”
Dwarf: “She's filled with secrets. Where we're from, the birds play a pretty song and there's always music in the air.”

         This scene is ironic because it is very unsettling and confusing visually but a upbeat jazz song plays, making a small joke of the moment. Part of the confusion is due to what is familiar and unfamiliar to the viewer, more of the mixed forms of representation that break genre conventions. All speech is spoken backwards then played forwards giving the vocals a haunting and unsettling effect. The viewer knows Laura Palmer is both dead and underage but she kisses the apparent hero of the story. The dwarf has never made an appearance in the show and it is unsure if he is a symbol or a real person. These elements are what make Twin Peaks sensational in a memorable way but sadly it was unable to continue with its strong, but never to be revealed, series story arc. The series was quite successful because it had one large mystery with other mysteries built upon it. This gave new seriousness to the serial format; even if sensational conflicts arose or were solved over short arcs the major arc would remain unsolved indefinitely. No one was to know who killed Laura Palmer.
         The second season of Twin Peaks faced a strange cycle. Interest waned shortly after Episode 14, “Lonely Souls” which revealed the killer of Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks was continually moved from time slot to time slot in a bid to gain interest in the show. While reception of the episode was overall positive it still faced some criticism: for drawing out the death of Laura Palmer. What's ironic with this is that as soon as the killer is revealed viewership drops. Episode 15, “Drive with a Dead Girl”, showed a steep decline in ratings.         Mark Frost and David Lynch both say on the Twin Peaks special edition DVD that they never wanted to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer's killer but felt pressure to do so by network executives who claimed they were responding to fans demands (Jenson). This revelation actually ended up hurting the franchise. Other shows have used this format since, most notable AMC's The Killing, a show quite popular in its fist season. The Killing also revealed it's killer in it's second season and was then canceled.
         One wonders what would happen if the mystery that started Twin Peaks wasn't murdered through the revelation of episode 14. Despite this Twin Peaks changed traditional genre conventions by making the soap opera serial a nontraditional but successful “nipple gate” for the commodity audience of the 1990's, creating a genuine cultural representation through settings not thought possible and surprisingly realistic story's and characters mixed in a bizarre landscape. While it's hard to pinpoint a overall ideology from the shows main story arcs, their characters reveal many conflicts that are still relatable today.

Works Cited

Mittell, Jason. Television and American Culture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Web.

Butler, Jeremy. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Web.

Dunham, Duwayne (2002). Audio commentary for the pilot episode (DVD). Universal Home Entertainment.

Lynch, David, dir. Twin Peaks. Prod. Mark Frost. 1990. Television.

 Jensen, Jeff (October 26, 2007)."David Lynch: Climbing the Peaks".Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved March 10, 2010.

Lavery, David (1995). Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Wayne State University Press.

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