“The most beautiful dream… The most terrible nightmare” – A Post-Modern Reading of Twin Peaks

(Authors Note: This idea comes from a Masters application that I never submitted. It is more of an outline of my argument – I plan on returning at a later date a much more detailed long form approach. I’m particularly keen to see how the idea holds up when the new series is released at the end of this month)

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Is there a single show as significant in the canon of English-language televisual drama as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks? A quarter of a century since the release of the feature length Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the cult series remains relevant within popular culture. It speaks wonders that, despite being born 4 years after the initial run of the show ended in the UK, I have unable to escape references to it in both my social and academic lives; in many ways the “un-missable” event that was Twin Peaks is up there with “who shot JR” and the grunge musical revolution as one of media events through which the 90s is defined. Similarly many outlets are looking towards the release of the third series at the end of this month as the significant cultural event of 2017.

But what is it about Lynch’s work that has allowed it to maintain its relevancy for so long? Whilst there are many reasonable and compelling answers to that question – the writing and score are fantastic for example – I take the view that it comes back to the form and tone of the text. Twin Peaks is a very deliberate piece of post-modern art, and in my opinion it’s enduring legacy stems not only from the post-modern nature of the narrative but how the text exists as a cultural cornerstone in it’s own right within a post-modern world.

In his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard outlined his theory of the simulacra as a means of understanding society as a series of signs and symbols. Simply put a simulacra is a copy that is devoid if the essence of the original, it is a sign without reference. In his 2009 essay, The Precession of Simulacra, Baudrillard uses the example of a map to define his theory. In the past, a map was an object of abstraction so, whilst it existed as a concept in itself, it derived from a physical reality; in other words, the territory precedes the map. However in a post-modern world, simulation as a concept has removed the need for reliance on the literal; where abstraction is a concept capable of existing on it’s own that refers to the real, simulation is an idea that exists on it’s own without reference. So today we do not recognise the physical land being represented in a map, instead we perceive a simulated territory according to the map; “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.” Therefore the copy, or simulacra, not only escapes the meaning of the original (or real) but replaces it as the cultural text. Baudrillard then scales this idea up as a means of understanding the late capitalist Western world. He opens up the idea that society lacks any inherent meaning, as what we perceive as “real” no longer bares any relation to reality — the true meaning has in fact been lost due to the successive phases of the image. Thus post-modern society exists within a form of hyperreality, where the individual is “sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and imaginary” — in other words, the individual is not only unaware of the simulacra, but unable to distinguish reality from the simulation.

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The original Mercator Projection – a distorted map exaggerates the size of European countries. In Baudrillard’s analogy it’s the simulation that destabilises the physical reality.

Both simulacra and hyperreality are means through which we can engage with Twin Peaks at a close narrative level. If we are to accept Baudrillard’s definition of a simulacra as a copy which goes on to mask an absence of meaning, then we must first ask ourselves what meaning does Lynch initially seek to find in his work? What is the question that the text wants to answer? This can be found in the opening scene of the shows pilot episode – where the grey/blue body of prom queen Laura Palmer washes up on the gravelled bank of a sleepy Washington town. The identity of the killer is the inherent “meaning” that the show seeks to find; the investigation into the murder is the initial narrative drive of the text and “who killed Laura Palmer?” was, and continues to be, a significant part of the marketing of Twin Peaks. But when you look at the entirety of the Twin Peaks franchise as one single thirty five hour text, to say it’s about the murder of Laura Palmer would be a reductive argument

Within a traditional story-telling structure, a murder-mystery narrative would introduce its “who done it?” question early on and then set the audience on a journey towards the answer. But as early as it’s third episode (titled Episode 2), Twin Peaks starts to explicitly ignore the questions raised in the pilot. The episode ends with this passage of dialogue from FBI Agent Dale Cooper: “I know who killed Laura Palmer. No it can wait until morning”; the text then cuts to a credit sequence played over footage of a dwarf dancing. Even this early on in the narrative, Lynch deliberately starts to deliberately obfuscate the apparent “meaning” of Twin Peaks. Ultimately the show is compelling within a post-modern world, because the very narrative exists as an example of simulacra. The audience is lead to believe that the purpose, or “meaning”, of the show is to answer the question “who killed Laura Palmer” but as the narrative progresses the very question itself loses it’s significance until it ultimately holds no relevance to the final text. This is shown in the seventh episode of the shows second season – where the killer is finally revealed. Yet there are sixteen more episodes that follow in the shows run – that initial narrative drive initially becomes so insignificant that the majority of the text takes places after the mystery has been sold. Just like Baudrillard’s Map, Lynch’s idea of meaning in Twin Peaks has been lost by the point of it’s finale through the successive phases of the image.

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The first of many dream sequences through which a hyperreality is formed.

Whilst Twin Peaks is explicitly post-modern in its construction, it’s important for remember that it exists as a cultural text in a post-modern society in its own right. I have previously discussed that Lynch’s show is incredibly important within the western canon of television. The list of televisual work that either have been influenced by and/or explicitly reference Twin Peaks since its initial release in 1990 is unbelievable; every culturally significant television show for the last twenty-five years (The X-Files, The Sopranos, Buffy, Hannibal, American Horror Story etc.) owes a debt of gratitude to Lynch’s work. It has even become increasingly common for other writers and directors to openly compare their work to Lynch’s classic: Carlton Cuse has called Bates Motel “a Twin Peaks rip off” whereas Donald Glover’s Atlanta is his attempt at making Twin Peaks but with rappers.

So common is it within modern drama to try and copy parts of what made Twin Peaks such arresting television that it points towards a simulacra within modern society within its own right. In this case the actual text of Twin Peaks exists at the “real”, the original, within our society.  What follows in the next twenty-five years of television is an attempt to simulate this original but the simulacra never quite matches up; as much as I love The X-Files it’s not quite Twin Peaks. Then what Baudrillard called the procession of the simulacra occurs, and thus this copy of a copy is further removed from the original. To use an example to illustrate my point, I would like to turn attention to the 2004 ABC high-concept drama Lost. In this essay I have argued that Twin Peaks is inherently post-modern because of the way it deliberately destabilises, and eventually ignores, the central question is raises within its audience. The entirety of Lost is built around a similar concept – its pilot prompts two basic questions: where and why did the plane crash? But rather than distract from these questions via hyperreality like Twin Peaks, Lost ignores it’s primary questions by asking more questions of the audience. A true simulacra exists as a means of masking an inherent lack of meaning but within Lost the “meaning” is not hidden by the narrative but rather ignored entirely. Within the canon of American television, Lost can very clearly be seen as an attempt to simulate Twin Peaks attempt at creating a “simulacra narrative”, but it collapses under the weight of the questions it asks and thus never truly distracts from the absence of answers; ironically the cultural simulacra working within the canon of television has resulted in the inherent meaning of a post-modern simulacra narrative being lost in it’s own right.

In many ways, I would consider Twin Peaks to be the quintessential post-modern text from the last quarter of a century. At a close textual level, Lynch’s masterpiece inherently grapples with the nature of signs and simulation in a late capitalist world. Through the theory of the simulacra, we can read Twin Peaks as an example of how meaning and reality can be deliberately destabilised through the repeated repetition of the sign; the importance of “who killed Laura Palmer” ultimately loses its significance in a hyperreal narrative where the distinction between dreams and “reality” is blurred. But interestingly, Twin Peaks is arguably post-modern on a meta-textual level too. So enduring is the cultural legacy of the show that questions must be asked about the nature of creativity and within our society. At what point do we stop saying that Twin Peaks is culturally significant and rather say that it is a sign that has been repeatedly been recreated and simulated through other cultural texts like The X-Files and Lost – where do we draw that line between homage and simulacra? Ultimately the enduring success of Twin Peaks forces its audience to engage with our post-modern world by raising questions, both textual and metatextual, about the very nature of creativity.

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