Warning: this post contains discussions of rape, child sexual abuse, and incest. Spoilers for Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me.
For those of you who don’t know, Twin Peaks is a cult drama that ran for two seasons from 1990-1991. In simple terms, the show is about the ripples created in a small Washington town after homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found dead. FBI agents come to town, secrets are revealed, new secrets are created, and everyone gets involved in at least one or two love triangles. Despite being a crime drama/primetime soap opera, Twin Peaks featured a lot of spiritual or supernatural elements and mysteries that would lay the groundwork for series like LOST, Carnivàle, and even Fringe (in which “science” becomes its own type of spirituality that allows people to share consciousness, speak to the dead, and transport souls). However, Twin Peaks will probably be remembered most for being weird, popularizing the Quirky Town trope through the town of Twin Peaks, and delving into some pretty weird shit in the spiritual realm (i.e., the Black Lodge, the Red Room). How the series creates this aura of quirkiness and weirdness is suspect.
Let’s start with the Quirky Town trope. As anyone knows, Quirky Towns are made up of Eccentric Townsfolk. On Gilmore Girls, Stars Hollow, the quirkiness capital of Connecticut, is home to Kirk (who holds a different job each episode), a troubadour, and Miss Patty (grand dame of dance and frequent name-dropper) just to name a few. Watching Twin Peaks, the purported mecca of Eccentric Townsfolk, I was struck by how very few residents were quirky compared to other Quirky Towns. I admit this is my own perception of the show colored by my own personal experiences. So why did I read Twin Peaks residents as less eccentric than I expected given the show’s hype? I can think of three possible reasons: 1. I grew up watching shows inspired by Twin Peaks‘ Quirky Town-ness that turned the trope up to 11 (e.g., Gilmore Girls). 2. I am weirder than the people of Twin Peaks and therefore find them normal. 3. I don’t find people with disabilities quirky or eccentric just for having disabilities. In my opinion, Twin Peaks tries to create of an aura of quirkiness by having a lot of characters with disabilities. How many? Let’s break it down.
(It’s important to note that within the mythology of the show many of these characters aren’t actually disabled but rather affected by various supernatural woowoo, including possession by residents of the Black Lodge and superpowers. However, they still read as “disabled” to the viewer or draw on popular conceptions of how people with certain disabilities act.)
- Laura Palmer was addicted to cocaine.
- Her mother, Sarah is under Dr. Jacoby’s treatment and receives injections for anxiety–which may be the result of her psychic powers (e.g., being able to see BOB).
- Leland Palmer takes a leave of absence from work after grief causes him to sing and dance compulsively. BOB’s possession of Leland also causes him to act in a manner that makes others believe he has a psychiatric impairment.
- Eileen Hayward (Donna’s mom) uses a wheelchair.
- Ben Horne briefly believes that he is General Robert E. Lee fighting the Civil War.
- His son, Johnny, has an unnamed mental or developmental impairment.
- Nadine Hurley wears an eyepatch, is obsessed with noiseless drape runners, attempts suicide out of a drape-related depression, and spends season 2 believing she is still a teenager.
- Leo Johnson acquires a cognitive impairment after being shot in the season 1 finale. He is catatonic for most of season 2.
- Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, initially comes off as having a psychiatric impairment to Dale Cooper and the audience, but may actually be able to talk to her log–who might be her dead husband.
- Harold Smith has agoraphobia which prevents him from leaving his home.
- Gordon Cole, Coop’s hearing impaired boss at the FBI, doesn’t reside in Twin Peaks but make a few notable visits in season 2.
None of these characters do much that’s quirky that isn’t related to their (perceived) impairments. Donna’s mom, for instance, doesn’t wear funny hats or teach Pig Latin classes to local children. Now, I’m not saying David Lynch sat down one day and said, “Let’s make this town quirky by jam packing it with a bunch of cripples!” There are plenty of eccentric, able-bodied characters (e.g., Dick Tremayne, Jacoby) proving that the writers employed a diversity of tactics to create the show’s famous quirkiness. I’d argue that many of these tactics didn’t generate genuine quirkiness (which at its best is completely random), but rather leaned a little too heavily on familiar patterns of othering. In other words, the show got it’s quirky characters by making them members of groups that society at large devalues as “weird” or “different.” I’m not saying this is all bad. Certainly, marginalized populations need greater and more meaningful representation in television. Twin Peaks also managed to tell some interesting stories about oppressed people. However, the use of marginalized groups as signifiers for quirkiness can reinforce the oppressions that inclusion and good story-telling seek to undo.
We can observe this at work with everyone’s favorite coffee-loving FBI agent, Dale Cooper. I gotta say I was pretty psyched about Coop’s crime-fighting methods. Most case-solving on TV today relies heavily on Western science with microscopes, “enhanced” security footage, and DNA. Coop solves murders by dreaming and throwing stuff. And no one seems to question him. Coop and Twin Peaks champion the belief that there are other ways of knowing beyond science, which has long privileged the perspective of the white, Western, heterosexual, middle class, secular, able-bodied, cis male. Unfortunately, Twin Peaks reinforces the white, Western, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied, cis male’s designation as expert (if you doubt that’s a thing, watch who does talking heads in History Channel shows produced before the channel was overtaken by reality TV) by having Coop, the white, Western, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied, cis male protagonist, act as expert and teacher in all matters spiritual. Buddhism becomes the white man’s domain of expertise while being portrayed as something that makes him a little quirky or weird. This is Orientalism, yo. And not the only instance of Orientalism on the show. Josie Packard is a mix of the perpetually passive victim and the Asian seductress. Catherine Martell spends the beginning of season 2 in yellowface drag.
In town, difference and disability might be used to denote quirkiness, but in the Black Lodge disability is deployed to create a sense of unease or to simply creep you the fuck out. Let’s break it down by character.
- MIKE cut off his own arm to get rid of a tattoo that tied him to his old murdering buddy, BOB.
- As MIKE’s host, Philip Gerard also has an amputated arm. In order to keep MIKE from taking over his body, Gerard injects medication–sometimes in public bathroom stalls, which gives him the metaphorical presence of a drug addict shooting up to self-medicate/cope with psychological issues.
- Fire Walk with Me implies that The Man From Another Place is MIKE’s severed arm, which unfortunately implies that The Man From Another Place, who is a person of short stature with a limp, is not a complete person.
- Laura Palmer resides in the Black Lodge for a time and, as mentioned earlier, is a cocaine addict.
- The Giant is portrayed by Carel Struycken (AKA Mr. Homm), who has acromegaly.
- Jimmy Scott, the Black Lodge’s Singer in Residence, has Kallmann’s syndrome.
Interestingly, BOB is not portrayed as insane or deranged. He hurts people not because he has a mental illness, but because pain and suffering is food for Black Lodge residents. (Hey, if you could only eat creamed corn, you’d turn evil, too.) However, just because BOB doesn’t fall into the “crazed killer” trope, that doesn’t mean BOB’s characterization is without problems. BOB is portrayed by Frank Silva, who was Native American. So, we’ve got one of two Native actors on the show playing a spirit who goes around raping white women. We could argue that Leland, through BOB’s possession, has “gone native,” abandoning whiteness and the morality that comes with it.
In the Black Lodge, difference (particularly difference in ability and race) is used to establish other-worldliness–a threatening other-worldliness that preys upon pretty white women (i.e., Laura Palmer, Maddy, Annie) and corrupts the souls and bodies of upstanding, middle-class white men (i.e., Philip Gerard, Leland Palmer, and Coop).
Of course, Twin Peaks‘ handling of disability is not all bad. When looking at characters with disabilities on an individual basis, there are moments of transgression and rebellion against ableist stereotypes, but when looking at the disabled populations of Twin Peaks and Black Lodge as a whole, the mass of disabled bodies is used to create a mood of quirkiness and unease. Much like one would use lighting, sound, costuming, or set dressing.