Stream of the Day: Making Sense of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ Saga 30 Years After Its Premiere

"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," now streaming on The Criterion Channel, holds the key to understanding the angel of David Lynch's life.
"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"
"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"
Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

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In the pilot episode of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” (airdate April 8, 1990), the body of high school senior Laura Palmer washes up alongside a riverbank, prompting an FBI investigation into her murder. The rest is history. Or in David Lynch’s case, the rest is a never-ending cycle detailing the battle between good and evil as played out across multiple planes of existence. Sound complicated? It is and it isn’t.

“Twin Peaks” fans have spent the last 30 years obsessing over Lynch’s narrative, which has played out across three chapters, all of which are easy to revisit: The original ABC series (now streaming on Netflix), the prequel film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (now streaming on The Criterion Channel), and the limited Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return” (now streaming on Showtime Anytime). The “Twin Peaks” saga is a dense one to parse, and yet it also serves as Lynch’s clearest meditation on existence. The easiest way to make sense of “Twin Peaks” is to view it as Lynch’s Biblical epic, a mind-bending treatise on the creation and co-existence of good and evil.

The essence of “Twin Peaks” can be boiled down to Laura Palmer, which makes “Fire Walk With Me” a key to understanding Lynch’s grand vision. At the film’s center is a tour-de-force sequence set at the Bang Bang Bar that encapsulates the core of the saga. Laura enters the bar as singer Julee Cruise appears onstage performing “Questions in a World of Blue.” Cruise’s angelic voice creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is matched by Lynch’s slow and unnatural pacing. Everyone in the bar moves as if they are suspended out of time. Laura, bathed in competing red and blue lights, sits down at a tabletop and begins to sob, as if overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment.

Lynch’s mastery comes from projecting his characters’ interior lives into their surroundings. The Bang Bang Bar starts out as heavenly and pure, then turns corrupt and sour when Laura breaks down and invites a man into the infamous Pink Room. Lynch once said, “I was in in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside.” The Bang Bang Bar is the visual essence of this contradiction. Lynch utilizes a disorienting red strobe light in the Pink Room as his once-languid camera movements become off-kilter and chaotic. The dancing bodies writhe around as if possessed. Suddenly, the camera collapses every which way. Gone are the soothing vocals of Cruise, replaced by old-time rock n’ roll. There’s a reason Lynch begins the entire sequence with Laura looking at her reflection in the bar window, capturing a woman fractured in two and caught in the pull between her opposing sides.

The Bang Bang Bar sequence provides a sensation of what it’s like to be Laura Palmer, and her internalized conflict is matched by a much larger battle playing out across time and space. In the eighth chapter of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” Lynch goes back to 1945 New Mexico to show the detonation of the first atomic bomb. This manmade destruction heralds the appearance of a malevolent humanoid creature known among “Twin Peaks” fans as Judy. The creature spews ooze from her mouth and one piece has the face of Killer BOB, the entity who possess Laura’s father, Leeland, in “Fire Walk With Me” and causes her death.

Why target Laura? In the same episode of “The Return,” Lynch shows The Giant, a heavenly figure of good, sending an orb to earth with the face of Laura Palmer. This is where the Biblical reading comes in handy: Man creates the atomic bomb, inadvertently unleashing Lynch’s ultimate source of evil. Heaven sends down Laura Palmer, Lynch’s ultimate source of good. She’s a fallen angel, doomed to be corrupted by human forces The Giant couldn’t foresee, like her parents and her classmates. Humanity’s ability to create Judy with the atomic bomb and corrupt a fallen angel like Laura tells you everything you need to know about Lynch’s thoughts on mankind. On the grandest scale, “Twin Peaks” is the dance between these forces of good and evil and the characters caught up in its path.

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee, “Twin Peaks: The Return”Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Cut to the final episode of “Twin Peaks,” in which Agent Cooper travels back in time to events depicted in “Fire Walk With Me.” Cooper stops Laura Palmer from making it to the eventual site of her murder — but in doing so, he triggers a rip in the spacetime continuum that sends him to an alternative timeline where he’s now an FBI Agent named Richard, and Laura is a Texas waitress named Carrie Page. Did Judy sense Cooper meddling in the past and send him to another plane? Fans continue to theorize, but such answers don’t concern Lynch. Richard and Carrie are lured back to her childhood home. The wind calls out “Laura” in the show’s final moments and Carrie screams, seemingly remembering both timelines at once. Lynch cuts to black.

Some “Twin Pinks” fans view this ending as a cliffhanger that demands resolution, but in many ways it’s the only ending “Twin Peaks” can have. Laura was doomed in the original “Twin Peaks” narrative. Carrie is doomed in an alternate one. Evil wins no matter the timeline. And yet, Lynch seems to be saying through “Twin Peaks” that what matters most is the fight to beat that evil — not the victor. The Giant fights Judy by sending Laura’s soul to earth. Laura fights her own demons as her family and classmates reject her and she’s left powerless to her dark side. Cooper fights to save Laura, then fights to save Carrie. Evil is an inevitable force for Lynch, but the choice to serve the good side is the choice Lynch wants us all to make. May “Twin Peaks” continue to teach Lynch’s virtues for another 30 years and beyond.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel. The first two season of “Twin Peaks” are streaming on Netflix. “Twin Peaks: The Return” is currently streaming on Showtime Anytime.

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