Desire and the Twin Peaks Spectator-Subject

Originally written May 18, 1992; shortened for the Web.

The thing is about secrets.

David Lynch
Twin Peaks TV opener

The “thing” is Twin Peaks, and its secrets are multiple. Few television programs have ever garnered the kind of serious critical attention it has. People have examined its cryptic text in search of symbolism, archetypes, and intertextual references, because in Twin Peaks, much lies below the surface.

Where other narratives have gaps, Twin Peaks has large, gaping holes. It begins with an ending, a death; the narrative movement is a backward one, a return to the past in an attempt to explain this end, to quell the desire to know.

Though it is not quite like anything else on commercial television, Twin Peaks is an interesting study in how obsession might be created from lack. People either regularly watch this program, or they do not at all—the text does not allow any middle ground.

Produced by movie director David Lynch and television writer Mark Frost, it combines elements of both media, engaging the gaze as films do yet not offering narrative immersion. “L’errement consiste en cette idée de parler pour que des idiots me comprennent… Je parle à ceux qui s’y connaissent, aux non-idiots, à des analystes supposés” (Jacques Lacan, Télévision).

As with Lacanian theory, Twin Peaks refuses to allow itself to be easily mastered. It is the closest thing to “writerly” television text; much of it seems familiar, but expectations are aroused only to have them subverted. It speaks to supposed analysts who are expected to break the code.

What is it?

The first difficulty with the Twin Peaks text lies in trying to categorize it. It is most likely to first be mistaken for a murder mystery, because it starts with the discovery of a body, and then a detective (actually an FBI Special Agent) comes into town to solve the crime and punish the guilty. This genre’s conventions call for neat resolution in one or two hours: the murderer revealed, the method of killing outlined, the motive explained.

Of course, none of this happens in the Twin Peaks pilot; instead, it ends with puzzling crosscuts between Sheila Palmer screaming and a gloved hand removing Laura’s necklace. The third episode concludes with Cooper claiming to know who killed Laura Palmer. He forgets by morning. In fact, the first season ends with the murderer still not identified, some details of the killing unexplained—the “R” under the fingernail? Fire walk with me?—and motive not even conjectured. Once aroused, however, the desire for narrative resolution does not dissipate.

Then other mysteries add themselves to the murder: Cooper and Leo get shot; Catherine, Shelley, and Pete are in a burning mill; Dr. Jacoby is attacked and lies in hospital… The Twin Peaks text also recalls the soap opera genre in that it features numerous subplots and multiple characters related in various ways.

However, apart from its unusual central mystery, Twin Peaks also lacks the soap’s “universal use of redundancy” (Robert C. Allen, “On Reading Soaps”), the repetition of the same information among many characters, which allows casual viewers to keep up (John Ellis, Visible Fictions), and regular ones to only “half watch” the program.

At the technical level, daytime soaps are characterized by numerous moving shots and constantly changing camera angles and distances. They are never still because they are made for distracted viewers with short attention spans (Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television”).

By contrast, Twin Peaks features many slow, lingering shots, including uncomfortable close-ups of fingernails being probed and thumbs cut. In the first episode, camerawork is foregrounded in long, sustained panning shots and disorienting, oddly angled ones, both rare in television texts (Ellis). The dream sequence is even more startling, with quick, confusing images and sounds followed by very long, special effects shots of Laura, Cooper, and a dwarf.

Twin Peaks is made to be looked at, because viewers need to see all of its traces to understand its whole. There is no question of starting to watch the series midseason or missing several episodes, for even with regular viewing, the metonymic subplots leave much concealed. For example, just who is backstabbing who in the Josie/Ben/Catherine mill takeover? Not only what is going to happen but what is happening now is unclear.

What Lies Beneath

In Twin Peaks, foregrounded signifiers can be much less important than those that lie hidden. For instance, the first episodes centres largely on the necklace Laura wore in the video. Cooper suggests its missing half may lead to the killer; in the next shot, James is shown holding it. Donna overhears Cooper’s suspicions and convinces James to bury the heart, which is then featured in the episode’s dramatic end.

All conventional indications suggest this must be a very important clue. However, it is not. Viewers later find out it is really quite irrelevant to solving the crime.

By contrast, a one-armed man appears in the first episode, seen by Hawk in the hospital. He does little and says nothing, yet he is actually an essential link to the murderer.

And just to make things really interesting, the paradigm of narrative possibility is widened beyond the phenomenal world through the inclusion of fantastic signifiers such as Cooper’s dream, Sheila Palmer’s visions, and BOB. These signifiers are more metaphoric than metonymic, more contiguous than continuous. For example, Cooper’s dream elements somehow represent who killed Laura Palmer—they need only be correctly interpreted.

Further adding to the confusion are the signifiers that are not red herrings or clues of any type, but just “imponderables” that refuse to cohere narratively at all: the elkhead on the table, the man replying “Jim” when asked to leave the room, and the dozens of donuts Lucy leaves out nightly for three officers. Signifiers cannot immediately be signified. Is Sheila Palmer really seeing a hand removing the necklace? Or is she screaming about something else? Is the necklace actually being removed, or is that only a vision?

The viewers—the spoken subjects—are therefore transformed into analysts of this very split textual subject. They want the mysteries solves, and so driven by the compulsion to repeat—to deliberately place oneself in a distressing situation to master it (Jean Laplanche, The Language of Psychoanalysis)—they hold regular sessions with Twin Peaks, pay close attention to all it “says,” and learn that fuller and deeper meaning lies below its fragmented surface. In Houston’s words, “the ego is kept active in trying to control and organize the many, numbered items into one of a unity.” However, with gaps more in evidence than presences, viewers are kept at an appropriately analytic distance instead of being immersed in narrative plenitude.

In most television programs, for instance, sound—including “mood music”—signals when the set should be looked at, carries the details lacking in the image, and generally anchors meaning (Ellis). On Twin Peaks, “the emotion of the music… doesn’t match the emotion of the visual,” but is instead intended to “act as a digetic” with it (Ron Givens, “Creative Contrasts”). Recall Sheila Palmer screaming in anguish as the “Love Theme” swells, how much of the humour in the scene between Audrey and the Norwegian is created by the nondiegetic music, how Cooper awakens from his dream snapping out of time to it. Nondiegetic music is foregrounded instead of being sutured in for emotional affect.

The Supporting Players

The self-reflexive use of video also reminds viewers of the text’s fictional status: the characters often watch a soap on-screen, and when Leo is shot, this is mirrored by someone being shot on his TV set. Furthermore, viewers are virtually instructed in how to watch Twin Peaks by the characters’ close readings of videotapes. Early on Cooper shows how a motorcycle is reflected in the taped image of Laura’s eye, suggesting some connection between her and biker James Hurley. In the last episode, Dr. Jacoby also finds clues by noting what was not meant to be filmed; seeing the gazebo signals to him where “Laura” has to be, which differs from the address she had given him. Twin Peaks, in fact, is the most videotaped series in prime time and is unusually popular in repeats (Nielsen), because viewers cannot see and remember everything at first; the “desiring,” low-definition, small TV picture (Houston, 188) makes its clues even more hidden.

Imaginary identification with the characters of Twin Peaks is also difficult because they too are marked by unconscious desire and cannot be mistaken for unified, ideal personalities. For example, below his macho surface, Bobby the football player is a sneaky coward, belying his strong sense of self-preservation. Leo is dominated by the aggressive drives of the imaginary stage, vacillating between love and hate for Shelley. Andy cries in sympathy whenever murders are investigated. There is little erotic about Nadine, who fixates on silent drape runners as the solution to all her problems, or the Log Lady, whose objet petit a really has become a part of herself. Sheriff Harry S. Truman seems the most rational and uncorrupted of the subjects of speech, but he is cast as the less skilled sidekick.

For it is Agent Cooper who is the symbolic hero, the moral representative of Law who can bring the murderer to justice. His psychoanalytic competence is evident; he reads people well, able to tell immediately, for example, that Bobby did not commit the crime. As he guides viewers through Twin Peaks, Cooper teaches that to solve this crime, all signifiers must be considered, no matter how bizarre. However, Cooper’s own “bound desire” makes him seem more strange than admirable as he rejects Audrey’s sexual advances and apparently achieves the impossible (Lacan, Ecrits, 854) task of getting total satisfaction from pies (food), coffee (drink), and a good night’s sleep. Nor can Cooper easily be confused with the Speaking Subject; though he always seems one up on Harry, the viewer sees much he does not and thus knows Cooper has gaps in his knowledge.

Dear Laura

More than any other signifier, however, Laura Palmer embodies and reflects lack. First, she is an absent object of desire, able to offer only partial sexual satisfaction through her voice and her image, most Oedipal in her father’s dancing desperately with her photo but also apparent in Dr. Jacoby listening to her describe her “big, bad dreams” on tape. James initially has an object petit a reaction to her death, caressing her necklace, but then he finds a livelier substitute in Donna. “Like cream in coffee, sex beclouds Twin Peaks. We never see it—plain old fornication, that is—but we know it’s there, everywhere, lurking” (Zehme, 68). Alive, Laura was Desire unbound, sexually precocious and promiscuous; at One-Eyed Jacks and through secret affairs—Harry/Josie, Bobby/Shelley, Ben/Catherine, Hank/Norma—the other characters too try to fill their Real lack.

Laura is also symbolically fragmented, a subject who occupies numerous, almost irreconcilable signifying positions. She was a cheerleader, Josie’s tutor, Joey’s therapist, in Meals on Wheels, a clerk at Horne’s department store, a prostitute at One-Eyed Jacks, Bobby’s girlfriend, James’ and Leo’s lover, a nude model, a diarist, Donna’s best friend, a high school student, a prom queen, a psychiatric patient, a cocaine addict… Who was this girl? Who knew her? Absent from the start, she is the focus of the search for coherence and understanding. Through Cooper and Truman, the Law seeks to solve the crime, to restore order and “bind desire,” as it were. Maddie, James, and Donna want to understand Laura’s life so that they might go on with their own; she haunts their unconscious. Audrey investigates the murder to win the love of Agent Cooper and have him take her away from the confinement of Twin Peaks and her overbearing father. Her shock at being threatened with having to sleep with “Daddy” underscores their Oedipal tension.

For various reasons, these characters are all trying to reenact the original trauma, investigate Laura, demystify her mystery, and show her punishment to be deserved—the second means Laura Mulvey described of suturing over feminine lack (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 13). Laura Palmer’s incoherent actions can be psychoanalytically explained, making them less frightening. Her therapy tapes reveal she tried to be good but was overwhelmed at times by her drives. Freud argued such behaviour was evidence of a death instinct (The Language of Psychoanalysis, 260); it seems the guilty object got her wish.

We, the people

So the spoken subjects can at least identify with the subjects of speech’s attempts to solve the mystery of Laura’s life and death; the Speaking Subject alone seeks to delay resolution. This Subject is never in the text but is suggested by its nature (Fine, 5). Twin Peaks’ meandering narrative belies the Law of Broadcast Television that produced it, the Symbolic Father who wishes to maximize suspense so the series’ “demographically desirable” (Nielsen) viewers keep returning. While some refuse continued submission:

I draw the line at soap operas that coyly make you guess when they are going to reveal a major plot turn. Specifically I refer to ABC’s Twin Peaks… Now they’re not sure when the killer’s going to be unmasked… Meanwhile, I’ll be watching Carole & Company.

(Carter, 7)

Many others keep watching, denying the castrating effects:

Who killed Laura Palmer? Many viewers, tired of the hype, are saying, Who cares? I say it too, but as praise. Plot is irrelevant; moments are everything. Lynch and Frost have mastered a way to make a weekly series endlessly interesting.

(Tucker, 7)

For despite its narrative absences, many of Twin Peaks manifest signifiers are libidinally appealing. First, it offers the general voyeuristic pleasure of overlooking these Lilliputian “people” from a privileged vantage point (Stam, “Television News and its Spectator,” 27). Nor is the text devoid of fetishist female images; in fact, the first character viewers see is the beautiful Josie, close-up, looking at herself in the mirror. Audrey, Shelley, and the girls at One-Eyed Jacks are also coded for erotic appeal. The program’s setting is unusually beautiful for a television series, full of phallic trees. Sonic pleasures (pulsion invocante to Lacan) are offered in the quirky dialogue, the best-selling music, and Lucy’s voice.

But the strongest appeal, perhaps, is that, in separating viewers into those who watch and those who do not,Twin Peaks offers adherents the always-sought-after sense of connection to other people, as evidenced by Twin Peaks parties (Schindehette, 23). Media attention also assures them they are not alone in this.

So some plenitude lies between the gaps, making desire supportable—for some—as the pieces slowly fill in.


This was an analysis of the first season of Twin Peaks, which emphasized the metaphoric and metonymic nature it shares with all narratives instead of suturing in its gaps. It inspired an obsessive need to return by promising to demystify its absences and make them full. Certain phallic signifiers and a sense of community compensated for the lengthy disclosure time demanded by Law. Now in its second season, the big gaps have been filled in: who killed Laura Palmer, what Cooper’s dream meant, even how Laura became what she was. Still under the aegis of the Law of Broadcast TV, however, Twin Peaks continues, even though it “more and more resembles a freak-show version of Dynasty” (Martel, 28). Its editing has become much more conventional, its characters familiar and so no longer startling. It still has unresolved subplots, pretty scenery, and eerie music, but without its central absent lure, it has become an entirely different subject.

Works cited

Allen, Robert C. “On Reading Sopas: A Semiotic Primer”. Regarding Television. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1983. 97–108.

Carter, Alan. “Picks and Pans: Tube”. People. 13 Aug. 1990: 7.

David Lynch quote in Tucker, Ken. “Television: Twin Peaks”. Entertainment Weekly. 6 Apr. 1990: 6.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. “Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television”. Ed. Robert C. Allen. Channels of Discourse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 172–210.

Givens, Ron. “Creative Contrasts: Making Moody Music”. Entertainment Weekly. 6 Apr. 1990: 42.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Editions du Seuil: 1966.

Lacan, Jacques. Télévision. Paris: Editions du Seuil: 1974.

Laplanche, Jean and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Mulvey, Laura. “VisuaI Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen 16.3: 1975, 6–18.

Nielsen Ratings and Billboard Charts. Entertainment Weekly. Various issues (1990).

Stam, Robert. “Television News and Its Spectator”. Regarding Television. Ed.. E. Ann Kaplan. Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1983. 23–43.

Susan Schindehette, et al. “Cryptic Dreams, A Dead Prom Queen, Dwarf Back Talk—Here, at last, is a Guide to what Twin Peaks is all About”. People. 14 May 1990: 83.

Tucker, Ken. “Twin Peaks”. Entertainment Weekly. 26 Oct. 1990: 7.