Notes on Twin Peaks, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Commercial Art
by Dave Gunton
I recently watched Twin Peaks for the first time, binge-watching the 30 episodes over the course of a month on Netflix. The thought I had 5-10 times each episode was: this was on network television in 1990? The series is so weird, gory, fanciful, disturbing. An apparently familiar murder mystery narrative dissolves into a supernatural fantasia, and the show ends, depending upon interpretation, with the image of our hero--our unwavering companion for 29 plus episodes--in the maniacal possession of a demon, as discouraging an ending as I’ve experienced in narrative art. (Although that ending was only supposed to be a season finale. When ABC declined to pick up Twin Peaks for a third season, it became the series finale.) Mostly I felt disbelief that Twin Peaks ever was made and then broadcast. The highest rated show in the 1990-1991 television season was Cheers. The next season it was 60 Minutes.
Twin Peaks is a parade of quintessentially American themes and archetypes. The town sheriff, Harry S. Truman (great), wears a cowboy hat and recalls countless lawmen who strive to bring order to chaos in American Westerns. Donna, Audrey, and the late Laura Palmer are all femme fatales, good girls on the outside who lure men astray. It is 1990 in the show, but Audrey wears hoop skirts and saddle shoes like it is 1955. In fact it still seems to be the 1950’s--America’s favorite decade to romanticize--throughout much of Twin Peaks. The Double R Diner, where the waitresses wear turquoise dresses, is the town meeting place, and James, riding a motorcycle in his black leather jacket, is Marlon Brando, the scarred boy rebel with the heart of gold. Meanwhile our hero Agent Cooper is the reformed, born again man who now adheres to a strict moral code, part Eliot Ness, part Tom Joad. True to their a story about the dark undercurrents of life, the show’s creators, Mark Frost and David Lynch, reference a decade when America’s mainstream was perhaps most triumphant and those undercurrents were most in the shadows.
Twin Peaks recalls the 1950s but it also recalls the 1850s, or at least the work of a man who was writing at that time. I am not the first (or the second) to make the connection, but the show’s references to the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular “Young Goodman Brown” are striking. In that story the title character, a virtuous young man in a Puritan village who is soon to be married, wanders into the adjacent woods one night to find all of his fellow citizens engaged in devil worship. He is even presented with his bride-to-be, Faith, so they may be indoctrinated into the dark cult together. The town is the place of order and virtue, and the woods are the place of disorder, moral transgression, and evil.
Likewise in Twin Peaks the characters continually meet with violence and horror in the woods. Laura Palmer retreats to the woods for a wild night of sex and drug use, and she does not live to the see the morning. Her friend Ronette barely makes it out alive. The Log Lady lives in the woods and prophesies the spirits that lurk there. One Eyed Jack’s is a casino in the forest over the Canadian border where you can drink, gamble, and pay for sex. The serial killer Windom Earl sets up shop in a log cabin. Major Briggs is abducted by some mysterious force in the forest. There is an evil that lives in these woods, Sheriff Truman says in an early episode. And ultimately the characters discover The Black Lodge, what may be interpreted as a portal in the woods to a netherworld of horrors, with Agent Cooper and his beloved Annie standing in for Young Goodman Brown and Faith.
I wonder though whether this dichotomy of town/forest, order/disorder, resonates in our contemporary culture. The more common experience today seems to be to retreat to the woods as a place of calm and escape the frenzied stimulus overload of the city. Or perhaps these dichotomies look different from the vantage point of New York City, versus the vantage point of rural Washington.
I read about Twin Peaks after I finished I watching it. Apparently it was never the intention of Frost and Lynch to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer. They only did so in season two in response to pressure from ABC, which was concerned about sagging ratings, and believed that the audience needed resolution. A developing love interest between Agent Cooper and Audrey ends rather abruptly in season two, and apparently the cause was the objections of Lara Flynn Boyle, the actress who played Donna, and who off-screen was romantically involved at the time with Kyle MacLachlan, the actor who played Agent Cooper. Ms. Boyle did not care to see Mr. MacLachlan involved with Sherilyn Fenn, the actress who played Audrey, on screen. Enter then, rather suddenly in season two, the actors Billy Zane and Heather Graham, whose characters become the love interests of Audrey and Agent Cooper, respectively. And of course the show’s creators did not intend to end the show with season two, with their hero in the throes of a demon, but that was simply the last episode that was made.
How, then, are we to accept something like Twin Peaks as a work of art, when the artists are not calling all the shots? We are reminded that television shows are fundamentally products, vehicles to sell advertising, and but for that commercial purpose they would not exist. (In 1990 they were used to sell advertising; now they may be used to sell subscriptions instead, but they are always selling something.) So of course in the case of a television show, the network can have a heavy hand in deciding what the show looks like, from plot, to casting, to direction. We as viewers want to think of Twin Peaks as Mark Frost and David Lynch’s pure artistic vision, and interpret it on those grounds. But it is not. It, like many shows, and many works of art, was shaped in part by countless commercial interests.
Is it then still a work of art at all? It is tempting to say that once commercial considerations shape in part a work of art, it is no longer art at all, it is merely product. That seems harsh though. The dream sequence in season one, episode three of Twin Peaks, in the red room with Laura Palmer and The Man From Another Place, one of the most enduring images from the series: nobody at ABC dialed that up, I’m sure. That is pure Frost / Lynch madness. You can’t take that away from us. So what are we talking about here? Was the show 75% art and 25% commerce, and we will just focus our interpretive interest on the artistic part? How can we, when the commercial part had such a profound effect as to force the revelation of the killer, when that was not the creators’ intent (and what Mr. Lynch calls one of his biggest professional regrets).
And these issues are not confined to television shows but surely are present in nearly every artistic form, certainly every popular form. Every book, album, or movie that is distributed by a major publisher, label, or studio is shaped by commercial considerations, to a greater or lesser extent.
No doubt Nathaniel Hawthorne thought about commercial considerations as well. He anonymously self-published his first novel, Fanshawe, and it did not sell at all. The Scarlet Letter has never struck me as a work of marketing, but I imagine Hawthorne gave some thought as to the kind of book readers might like to buy. Hawthorne’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, may not have technically been paid by the word, but he was paid by installment, receiving payment for each 32 pages of text he provided for serialized novels like David Copperfield and Bleak House. Was he selling novels or toasters?
It seems unforgiving to say that art that bears any commercial influence is no longer art. I enjoy many such works of art, like Twin Peaks, finding them not only entertaining but deeply thoughtful and meaningful. Still I find myself increasingly drawn to art forms that are free(r) from commercial influence. Paintings. Early 20th century western swing music: the only consideration there seemed to be what would make people dance (itself a kind of commercial consideration). Low-budget movies. I used to think that criticizing something as “corporate” was just a tired cliche. Now I find anything anti-corporate, anti-commercial to be inherently attractive.
David Lynch for YSL
David Lynch for Armani
David Lynch for Playstation (post twin peaks)
David Lynch PSA (pre twin peaks)
David Lynch for Dior (post)
Dave Gunton lives with his wife and two daughters in Athens, GA. You can find him on Twitter at @DavGun10 and on Tumblr at davgun10.tumblr.com.