“When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first and the wind rises and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”
-The Log Lady to Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992.
A profound nostalgia for an imagined past and an invisible but omnipresent force control and shape the small town of Twin Peaks. It is a place where contemporary life fuses seamlessly with an idealized mid-century sensibility. The notion of mid-century normalcy has been exposed as a fraud, but the myth is persistent, as is this town’s insistence on preserving its particular brand of pristine Norman Rockwell-style Americana. But what the town refuses to admit is that when you give yourself over to nostalgia, a darkness borne of unresolved conflict and trauma often thrives. In an early episode of Twin Peaks, whose original two seasons aired from 1990-1991, Sheriff Harry S. Truman explains to FBI agent Dale Cooper, an outsider, that there is some unknown but powerful force that lurks in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks and that it is the necessary price for the town’s very specific eccentricities, it’s idealism and quaintness. Inherent in this is the notion that for something to be perfect, there has to be a darker truth that is obscured, that we sacrifice a very real knowledge of ourselves and of the larger world in order to keep the simplicity of a different time. But it is this dichotomy on which the show’s aesthetics are built; the beauty and simplicity of nostalgia, of the American mid-century suburban dream in contrast with the darkness that comes of such an intense and self-imposed blindness in a drive towards normalcy. The show is aware of this dichotomy and exploits it, marking the suburban home as a place of horror, not comfort. Throughout the original run of the series, we are shown the disintegration of this very specific, very stylized American dream, but it is in other Twin Peaks-related media that David Lynch, without trepidation or restraint, explores the true human expense of such saccharine dreams.
The nostalgic aesthetic of Twin Peaks is nowhere more evident than with the styling and characterization of the women. In their saddle shoes, calf-length tartan skirts, and houndstooth suits, they seem to reference a mid-century simplicity and austerity along with a notion of 1950s young womanhood that prides itself on innocence and virtue, a young womanhood both exemplified by and condemned in the figure of Laura Palmer. It is a town steeped in a past dominated by the image of the white picket fence, but as we now know, the white picket fence did little to protect those who erected it from deep-seated discontent and rampant emotional and physical violence. Similarly, the inhabitants of Twin Peaks, who yearn for the days of the white picket fence, find themselves contending with the failures of such an ideal, finding themselves with only a useless fence with which to trap themselves alongside these very real dangers. It is a nostalgia that hides the realities of adultery, rampant drug use, domestic abuse, and sexual violence.
The price of this false ideal is interrogated further in two pieces of media created in relation to Twin Peaks. The feature-length film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the novelization The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) explore in stark terms the human expense of the world that Lynch and Mark Frost created without the benefit of quirky, endearing characters. These works explore a more nuanced world in which pervasive Lynchian dream logic crashes menacingly into the all too real trauma of a world so hell bent on revering the empty symbols of Americana that it leads to the suffering of those who spend their lives in service to such illusions. The film and book are an exploration of what Americana really means; what it stands for and what it obscures. Without the trappings of nostalgia, we are left with the discomfiting presence of the overwhelmingly impoverished, the unwanted, the decrepit, and their suffering. We are forced to face the senseless violence that is America and we are forced to accept that Twin Peaks is, without a doubt, a part of this America. In Fire Walk With Me, a kind of prequel to the series, we are shown Twin Peaks as a claustrophobic world from which Laura Palmer cannot escape. It is a complex and frightening world, where she is forced to face an ever-present violence. She, in turn, becomes as frightening and erratic as she possibly can be in an attempt to challenge danger, to challenge death. She channels her grief into her own self-destruction, craving it as much as she fears it. Her grief and her anger is so immense it pours out of her, threatening to destroy her and those around her. These are very human explorations of trauma and their every manifestation, and Lynch offers us no reprieve, no moment of levity in which to turn away from this young woman’s suffocating pain. We are drawn into this claustrophobic world with Laura, her pain surrounds us. The film gives us Laura Palmer not as symbol, but as human being; her image is no longer a blank slate onto which all of the other characters project their own needs and desires. We are shown a girl with a complex and troubling inner life. We see her suffering plainly in the routine that is her daily existence. She is never able to escape herself. Forever banished is the notion of Laura as the symbol of the sweet, beautiful blonde, the girl next door, the homecoming queen. She is no longer the uncomplicated face staring out of a picture frame, a frame which, within the series, serves to highlight the confines of her life and her story. This indelible image, with its literal framing, bars anyone from truly seeing her trauma. They are instead dazzled by the seemingly sincere smile that emanates from the photograph, by the facade. These are the confines under which she herself struggles as she strives to find a sense of safety in herself, in her life, and in those around her, a sense of safety that she is ultimately never able to find.Twin Peaks allows us a glimpse into the dream of America, a dream that offers so much and continuously fails to deliver, a dream which, contrary to its image, serves to hide deep wells of horror. With the companion piece, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see the suburban dream opening up into a vision of hell, a destructive force rendered in powerful imagery. In this film, Lynch appears to be saying, in as strident a way as he possibly can, that your particular brand of nostalgia will not protect you, it will not save you, and may very well kill you.