Desire Under The Douglas Firs
par Martha P. Nochimson


The dazzled affection that Dale Cooper, hero of "Twin Peaks," inspired in a large television spectatorship can only partly be explained by the appeal of actor Kyle MacLachlan. Nor can it be ascribed merely to the time-tested popularity of the detective figure; on the contrary, Cooper lays waste to a multitude of film and television detective cliches. Since his creators came to the series with distinguished careers in each of the major media, David Lynch and MacLachlan himself in film and Mark Frost in television, some inventive synthesis between the traditions was expected, but Dale Cooper is more than a little juggling of two formulas. "Coop" wears the regulation suit and trench coat but sets a fresh and compelling standard for media detectives and opens a new chapter in the relationship between mystery and desire.

Cooper's eager desire to enter the labyrinths of mystery ties knots in the venerable Hollywood Mystery Tradition (HMT), although the overall narrative line of the series initially suggests that Lynch has brought that tradition with him in his first foray into television. In the HMT, the life of a male protagonist is disrupted by an encounter with his darker side when desire meets the body of a deadly (or dead) woman. In "Twin Peaks," FBI Agent Cooper solves the mystery of who murdered the desirable Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and ends up staring into a mirror at an image of himself so monstrous that none can doubt that his stint on the case has plunged him into darkness. But when I asked David Lynch why Cooper's bridge to self-knowledge is a dead woman, I was greeted with silence. Then: "It isn't her." (note #1)

Lynch asserts that Laura, "Twin Peaks'" femme fatale, is not the point of initiation. As Lynch goes on to point out, his detective's fascination with mystery precedes the particularity of the case. Dale Cooper comes to Twin Peaks already filled with a passion for mystery, and Laura's death offers him a major occasion to indulge it. Readiness by itself, however, does not go to the heart of "Twin Peaks'" innovation. What kind of readiness is the question.

There is a kind of readiness that is standard in the Television Mystery Tradition (TMT). The basic model for the TMT is not the erotically stunned investigator but ever-ready Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, the standard television detective is not seduced into his narratives; he enters them with a passion to dispel any illegibility represented by any body of crime which is not a disruption in his life but rather its raison d'etre. For the Holmesian television detective, lack of clarity is the desirable aspect of mystery, an intellectually aphrodisiac opportunity for orgasmic restoration of clarity. If this seems a contradiction in terms, let doubters observe the quivering of Jeremy Brett as Holmes contemplates a jumble of clues. But again the fit is incomplete. Cooper is Holmesian only in his predisposition for mystery; he is far too sensually stimulated by Douglas firs, among other Twin Peaks delights, to qualify as a man of cerebral lust.

Ironically, Cooper's striking originality is best understood in contrast to what his seemingly different filmic and home-box colleagues share: the disavowal of vulnerability of illegibility in the body of the detective (the fear of castration?). (note #2) In the movies, the disavowal is accomplished through a displacement of anxiety about the body onto a woman. When the detective's body is brought into play, all fraility is transferred to the body of a femme fatale. For example, the obiligatory assaults all Hollywood detectives endure are inevitably contextualized as either directly or indirectly brought about through the unreliability or treachery of a desirable woman's body not theirs. Once attacked, the detective's body demonstrates an eerie dependability under pressure the cinema sleuth is second only to Bugs Bunny in ignoring torn limbs or bullet holes as he struggles to solve the mystery. The shifts and changes associated with the body, so risky in the world of the film detective, are totally feminized. Television's asexual, cerebral Holmesian is even more drastically disembodied. Here, the detective's otherness to body is created by displacing all the vagaries of physicality onto the miasmic body of the world. Involvement causes contamination (crime); by contrast, the detective postures as a detached, virtually fleshless site of cleansing. Accustomed as we are to this contempt for the body in the detective genre, we are slow to question it or its effectiveness. Familiarity makes it seem right.

However, it isn't truly right for television, a medium that by nature deflates the dualism of the orthodox detective through its unorthodox normalization of shifts and slippage and thus its normalization of the vicissitudes of the flesh. (note #3) The popularity of Dale Cooper is a tacit admission that on a visceral level the television audience knows how wrong the traditional detective is in that medium. As we shall see, Cooper made us gasp with delight precisely because he identifies with the vulnerability of his body. Uniting precision of mind with flow of body in his pursuit of mystery, Cooper emerges as the first detective truly appropriate to the medium of television.

David Lynch and Mark Frost point the way toward a television aesthetic through the incorporation of the detective genre into the serial format. Within the serial context, with its mini-closures which suggest partial distinctions rather than absolute divisions, Cooper invites us to see how desire for mystery can produce in the detective an interpretation of mind and body in an ever widening gyre of wonder. The erotically anxious, shadow-haunted milieu of the Hollywood detective is not absent from "Twin Peaks." Nor is the antiseptic Holmesian stance. But Cooper's mystery involes a heretofore unthinkable freedom from the masculine fear of the body that obsessive diavowals traditional to the detective genre suggest.


In "Twin Peaks," Cooper detects through immersion physical indeterminacy, obliqueness, and ambiguity are his primary modes of discovery. Once Cooper has used standard FBI procedures to assemble his suspects, he turns to his preferred means of inquiry, a modus operandi that initiates the town and the television spectator into the sleuthing approach of a mind-body detective. In the third episode, he introduces his unorthodox procedures to the audience and the Twin Peaks constabulary as he sets himself up in a local forest, incongruously situated in front of a blackboard, to expound upon the Tibetan Method.

This Method is not grounded in the pragmatic "realities" of most police dramas: police academy, laboratory, or mean streets. Instead it issues from the most powerful plane of reality in "Twin Peaks": the dream. Cooper narrates a dream about a longing to end the political repression of Tibet that is identified with what amounts to a longing to free the body from the repressiveness of logic. "I awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand in hand with the deepest level of intuition." The mixed, seriocomic tone of Cooper's presentation under the Douglas firs itself challenges us to use Cooper's method, an exercise that pointedly avoids the routine detective apparati of logic, clues, or muscle. Instead, Cooper designs a unique heuristic process which calls for him to throw rocks at a bottle situated on a tree stump at a precisely measured distance as the name of each suspect is read from the blackboard.

As we accustom ourselves to meditating on crime through the sensory experience of natural textures and sounds, the illegibility of the body loses its accustomed code as a site of fear; instead it emerges as the locus of knowledge through play as it was when we were young. However, the result is not a regressive infantilism but a renewal of human desire for a miraculous world.

Lynch/Frost's choice of an FBI agent as the hero of "Twin Peaks" draws attention to the transformation of normal coding. A mass-media FBI agent character ordinarily depends on our understanding of the literal job of the FBI: to intervene in criminal investigations when state or national boundaries are crossed. Television government agents are the sine qua non of television's endless and obsessive restoration of limits, barriers that authorize only the most domesticated form of desire. In"Twin Peaks," the traditions are honored in that, literally, a state boundary is crossed during the murder of Laura Palmer, and that is the conventional reason why Special Agent Cooper is the man for the job. However, as a boundary specialist, Cooper is not the disavower of the body, the purger of bodily fluctuation through the rigid limits of convention, but a specialist in crossing boundaries, a quester capable of moving confidently and productively between the mental clarity of law and the intelligent fluidity of the body.

Such talents are immediately in demand when Laura Palmer is found brutally murdered naked, pallid, blue-lipped, and wrapped in plastic within the first three minutes of the series. This crime is a form of reality testing for Twin Peaks (and television tradition), revealing a town layered into slick, flat planes of cliche through a mind capable of negotiating many layers. Local law (and television tradition) is by nature merely part of the plane of cliche, and thus only capable of partial vision. Local law read common sense is affectionately personified by Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), but his traditional search for "just the facts" has limited application because "Twin Peaks" challenges the constitution of a "fact."

The traditional fact loses its hard edge when the crucial clues are discovered in dreams and visions. Cooper's dreams reveal what pragmatic detection will never find: BOB (Frank Silva) and MIKE (Al Strobel), two male energies from another dimension who have crossed the limits of the natural world to inhabit it as parasites of human hosts, as they term their local habitations. BOB, a male Medusa complete with snaky locks and bone-chilling smile, is the young male energy that has used smiling Leland Palmer, Laura's father (Ray Wise), as his host and that impels him to horrifying atrocities against his daughter (and others). MIKE is BOB's former companion in crime, one-armed from ripping off the offending, guilty arm, who now hunts BOB to terminate his reign of terror. The absurdly banal names adopted by these devestating powers once they have crossed into the plane of "ordinary" reality are, according to Frost and Robert Engels, a writer-producer on the series, a primary example of the "Twin Peaks" tone: here, banalities tragicomically mask strange forces. (note #4)

Cooper first meets BOB and MIKE in a dream at the end of the third episode of the series. The meeting between detective and crime within the dream context expands the conventional role of the detective's eye (which traditionally is restricted to controlling through looking), emphasizing the otherness of body. Cooper's eye within the dream is, by contrast, enraptured.

The heart of MIKE's message to Cooper is couched in five rhymed lines:

Through the darkness
The future past
The magician longs to see.
One chance out between two worlds
Fire walk with me.

The magician is Cooper. The heart of detection is the magic of boundary crossing. Cooper's "chance out" will enable him to cross the limits of the ordinary world into the darkness where future and past conflate.

The set design, the refrain elements in the series, as well as the visual and narrative texture of "Twin Peaks," implicate the spectator in both kinds of perception: the more conventional use of the controlling camera eye is disrupted by visual elements compatible with Cooper's Tibetan Method, by an alternate camera eye enraptured by indeterminate visual distinctions. Richard Hoover, the production designer of all the series episodes except the pilot, created a look for the show in which, he says, the concepts of inside and outside were conflated. A massive use of wood gives an outside feeling to the interiors. The interiors burgeon with dead animals and their parts horns, shells and nature drawings that are often photographed as if they were theatrical backdrops for the action. (note #5)

The opening signature montage (my terminology) of "Twin Peaks," designed by David Lynch, prepares us for both visual styles. Its lap dissolves among sharp images to the strains of the slow, mournful, but somewhat romatic theme music (composed by Angelo Badalamenti) suggest, according to Lynch, an enigmatic interpenetration of opposites as robins and cascading waterfalls dissolve into artifacts of an industrialized logging industry which spews thick smoke from its smoke-stacks and generates spearlike golden sparks with its gears. The series is coded to create a rich "cultural compost heap," as Mark Frost calls the unorthodox yoking of elements in "Twin Peaks." With its suggestion of the blending of once discrete entities until they fuse with each other, this phrase suggests the organic reality that calls forth Cooper's mind-body approach.

In this context, the purely Holmesian sleuth seems alarmingly invasive. A synecdoche of the reductive aggressiveness of the Holmesian mind is provided by the redoubtable Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrar), Cooper's favorite FBI forensics specialist, who can virtually reconstruct in his laboratory the molecules of Laura's last minutes. Called into the investigation by Cooper to perform an autopsy, Rosenfeld positions himself over Laura's corpse, sounding a prefatory whir with the handheld drill with which, in the name of science, he intends to bore a hole in her head. He is surprised (and furious) when his state-of-the-art methods are opposed by the Twin Peaks doctor, Doc Hayward (Warren Frost), and Sheriff Harry S. Truman, both of whom knew and loved Laura. Truman is so infuriated by Albert's unfeeling detachment that he punches him, indeed so hard that Rosenfeld lands grotesquely on top of Laura in a position that suggests the perverse necrophilia inherent in the Holmesian passion. Cooper underlines the negative image by supporting Hayward and Truman against Albert's scientific enthusiasm. The body of the crime, the body of flesh, is not to be erased or commodified by logic. Cooper's expression of a belief in mind-body connection is not just theory. In his compassion for body, he is mind-body connection.

"Twin Peaks" redefines the detective sensibility as being as much of the body as is the corpse, not to frighten the spectator but instead to encourage him/her to play with the instability of Cooper's physicality during intensely dramatic moments. For example, when Coopers wakes up in the middle of the night with a sudden insight, he presents a ludicrous figure, with his slicked-back hair still neatly plastered together but standing straight up, as a 90-degree angle to his head. Frequently, while sifting evidence, Cooper takes time out to breathe in the aroma of the ubiquitous local Douglas firs, or to savor black coffee, sugar doughnuts, or pie in a way that has the effect of a police car chase coming to a screeching halt to make way for a family of ducks. In "Twin Peaks," the illegibility and orneriness of the body is everywhere "in our face," minus the anxiety with which Hollywood detective films code such occurences. Cooper's persistent sidetrips into sensuality are comic, but not frivolous. They forge a new sensibility, one in which the sensuous loses its conventional coding as a distraction to be scrupulously avoided by the hero.

In "Twin Peaks," mystery conventions that depend on the suspect nature of the sensuous world inevitably tied up in gender issues are transformed. For example, in suspense films the tracking shot down a corridor paralyzes us with anxiety as it suggests an awful crisis of illegibility in the physical world, which is inevitably bound up with a fear of the feminine. (note #6) The long corridor is conventionally shot as if its depths, secrets, and illegibility were completely other to a masculine seeker, stimulating a positivist need for definitive control of a physicality which now seems female, fearful, and illegible. By contrast, on "Twin Peaks," the prevalence of an alternate treatment of this shot weakens both its usual gender implications and its usual definition of the relationship between the detective and the body. Sometimes a stationary camera may look down a long corridor while figures appearing in the distance come toward us as a form of energizing discovery. When Cooper and Truman meet for the first time, they are tiny figures shaking hands at the end of a very long hospital corridor. As they move toward the spectator, the long hallway is no longer claustrophobic but rather a place from which good things emerge. The friendliness of the corridor is a part of a text in which the ideal subject position is Cooper's Tibetan Method.


Unlike most detective screen fiction, "Twin Peaks" does not represent the hidden, the fearful, the illegible, the body, and the feminine as interchangable concepts. Certainly the discovery of Laura's body seems to signal the otherness of woman as a terrifying disturbance for men, one familiar from Hollywood narratives and even from television, since the concept of Body is so super-saturated with feminine associations that femininity permeates even the seemingly neutral television presentation of an unreliable physical world. Yet, on "Twin Peaks," otherness rather quickly loses its gendered aspects. Physical disruption may alert us to difference, but here the difference is not predicated on a binary opposition between male and female, and when a female expresses difference, it is not always either frightening or unfortunate. Similarly, masculinity pointedly does not guarantee reliability, as the murderer turns out to be Laura's father, Leland Palmer. Possessed by BOB, Leland's body is unreliable, veiled, and secretive; at moments he is murderous, at other times compulsively racked by dancing and singing. His ominous difference defies ordinary gender construction. Conversely, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), daughter of Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the richest man in town, who also dances compulsively, is defined as Special Agent Dale Cooper's special agent.

A young girl struggling with inner longings, Audrey is, like Cooper, a seeker who has her own very special mind-body connection. Audrey's off-beat, disruptive presence as body cannot be identified in terms of the conventional distrust of the female body in a text in which Leland Palmer also exists. Moreover, it is worked into the narrative as part of her legitimate desire to participate in a world from which her father's ruthless domination of the town threatens to exclude her. When Audrey uses her body to compel a group of Norwegian businessmen to interrupt their work, she disrupts a fraud her father is perpetrating on them. When she surprises the madam of a brothel owned by her father with her ability to twist a cherry stem into a three-ring pretzel shape using only her tongue, she wins a job and the opportunity to find out more about both Laura's death and what Ben Horne has hidden from her.

Nowhere is difference more fully demystified than in Cooper's heuristic dreams. Indeed, Cooper's dream at the end of the third episode suggests that in order to deal with mystery the detective must move between masculinity and feminity in a way that obviates the whole issue of castration fears. Cooper's dream shows him "a place between two worlds": the Red Room. It is a large enclosure surrounded on all sides by billowing red drapes. Aside from these, it contains only three black art deco upholstered chairs, a torch lamp, and a Grecian white marble statue of a female nude, the floor beneath tiled in an Escher-like geometric pattern. In the dream, an aging Cooper is seated in one of the chairs. Another is occupied by a Little Man (Michael Anderson) about three feet in height wearing a red suit. The other chair is soon filled by Laura, as she was in life, but dressed strangely in an evening gown much like a costume from a 1940s B picture: low-cut, black velvet, deeply slit. Laura and the Little Man speak as though a 78-rpm record were playing at 33 1/3 rpm. Their gestures are enigmatic. This is particularly true of the Little Man, who undulates as he talks, "speaking" a body language at least as meaning-laden as his dialogue, and equally hard to decipher.

Cooper looks attentive during the dream, never rises from the chair, and barely speaks. He watches the Little Man dance to repetitive, rhythmic music with a cool blues melodic line played on a saxophone. Cooper is fascinated (and ultimately tutored) by the Little Man, even though there is a lack of logic to what he says or what he does: dancing, rubbing his hands, or simply turning his back to Cooper and shaking. Similarly, Cooper's eye (and ear) is overwhelmed by a Laura who is barely understandable because of the manipulation of the sound track. She too makes illegible gestures.

At the end of the dream, Laura kisses the aged Cooper sensually and whispers in his ear, unheard by the audience. When Cooper wakes hair standing on end he can only remember that Laura has solved the mystery for him. Until the middle of the second season, Cooper seeks to retrieve what he now knows. The important moment when Cooper "hears" Laura with his conscious mind will be fully discussed below. Here, we must ponder the significance of Cooper's dream for his coding as a man, and as a detective hero.

The Red Room is a place where everything that has always been true of onscreen murder mysteries whether in the movies or on television is inverted. Cooper's site of discovery resembles the site of crime in ordinary detective stories: a place where no action can be identified in terms of pragmatic or logical purpose. Unlike other detectives, however, Cooper discovers more from body than from mind. Rational language and action barely exist in the Red Room. Here body speaks, as it were; Laura, nothing but inert body in the "real world" of Twin Peaks, possesses the solution to her own murder and is willing and able to share it with Cooper in his dream. Unlike the femme fatale, Laura is neither sexualized nor desexualized object. She is another subject. There is pleasure when Cooper gains knowledge through merging with her she tells him the name of her murderer when she kisses him but the desire satisifed in this kiss is a compound of his desire to understand and her desire to communicate. Similarly, the merging of two subjects is suggested later, when we learn through a diary entry that Laura and Cooper have had identical dreams of the Red Room. As Laura is not object, she is not the detective's impediment. Cooper is hampered by his own limits. Her illegibility is not the displacement of his own, but the corollary of his need to understand his body.

In Hollywood, the secrets of femininity are conventionally distinguished from the clarity of masculinity. But, in "Twin Peaks," Laura's secrets identify her with Cooper. Her secrets are presented in tandem with those of the Little Man, whose illegibility creates intimations of masculine murkiness. This small, wiggling, dancing, rosy figure has clear phallic associations, even in being called "the Little Man." To make the association clearer, the Little Man of Cooper's dream frequently undulates in front of a Greek marble female nude such that he is often framed with statue's crotch behind his head. (Her genital identity is emphasized by her hand, which both covers and points to it.) The existence of such a Little Man as Cooper's guide suggests that readiness to seek Laura's killer is identified with Cooper's receptivity both to her (and her ambiguity) and to the complexities of an almost illegible phallic reality.

In the Holmesian detective, the scrutinizing eye and the phallus become one, suggesting that the detective's potency transcends the unreliability of the body. In "Twin Peaks," the phallic energy of Cooper's body is readily distinguished from the logical scrutiny of his detective's eye. As in the Dream of the Red Room, insight is a product of a magic partnership between the eye and the oblique meaning of the phallic image. Cooper's logic must be put on hold in order for him to explore the phallic magic. Cooper's magic phallic helpers take two forms which reflect the anatomical changeability of the male member. After the Little Man, a second phallic helper appears, a Giant (Carel Struycken).

The Giant, identified as a phallic presence in an angle-up shot foregrounding his crotch, appears to Cooper in a vision as the FBI agent lies on the floor of his hotel room, apparently bleeding to death. At the end of the first season, Cooper is shot by an unknown assassin when he opens the door to what he thinks is room service. As the second season begins, the open doorway becomes a frame highly charged with expectation while we wait for someone to enter it and come to the aid of our hero. When at last someone arrives, it is the senile Old Waiter (Hank Worden). For an agonizing but comic eternity, the doddering old man makes irrelevant small talk while Cooper asks him to get a doctor. Surprisingly, the badly wounded Cooper is not annoyed by the old man's senility and politely indulges his caprices. Cooper even returns the old fellow "a thumbs-up" as he leaves and what looks like Cooper's last chance goes out the door. Cooper lies there for a long screen minute, after which a brilliant light floods him and the Giant pays his first call. The Giant's speech is distorted in a way reminiscent of the Red Room. Giving Cooper several oblique clues to the mystery, he takes Cooper's ring, saying that it will be returned when Cooper finds the "things the Giant has told him to be true." We do not understand the significance of the ring until much later.

The phallic incapacity of the waiter in the "real world" plays against the stereotypes in the detective genre. A hiatus in the ordinary male potency and logic seems to be necessary in order for Cooper to cross a boundary and gain access to a part of himself that is impeded by the limitations of the G-Man's organizational code. Being shot, says Cooper to himself as he lies on the floor, is not as bad as people think, as long as "you can keep the fear from your mind." Indeed, he muses, "that's pretty much what life is like. O.K., as long as you can keep the fear from your mind." The vulnerability of the body is here portrayed as an advantage for Coop not one that we would care to see pressed beyond the point of no return, but an opportunity to look at reality from an altered perspective.

Cooper's productive vacations from logic are a significant departure from the oppressive literality of American television (and films) that obsessively emphasizes phallic power to foreclosure any such "lapses in virility." (note #7) The two forms of phallic power in conventional screen fiction are the thrusting mind/eye and the thrusting fist or gun. The idiosyncracy of "Twin Peaks" in this respect is the deferral of that forward thrust, visually emphasized by the literal emptiness of frame left by the open door to Cooper's room. We wait and wait for it to be filled by that male strike force we have been trained to expect. Only after a long hiatus do Harry and his deputies burst in, guns drawn, filling the empty door frame with the usual rescuers. In comparison with the phallic power of the Giant there is something diminished, foolish, and loveable in this conventional rescue.

But phallic onslaught is not alwasy so benign. Indeed, on "Twin Peaks," unlimited by a commitment to law, it is the source of evil. Just before Cooper's path leads him to correctly identify Leland as Laura's murderer, MIKE tells Cooper about the rejected but not forgotten joys of his days as BOB's partner, speaks in a kind of frenzy of his experience with BOB of the Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction. BOB devours life as he closes the Golden Circle to satisfy his boundless appetites. The cannibalistic aspect of this energy is all too clear to us not from Laura's murder, which we never see, but from the death of her cousin, Maddy, which recreates the original atrocity. When we see Leland kill his niece, BOB and Leland dissolve in and out of one another during the act; the bright light common to both BOB's appearances and Cooper's waking visions reveals BOB/Leland both kissing and killing the girl, kissing her as if he were devouring her face, Phallic energy is a continuum with BOB on one end and Cooper on the other.

The Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction described by MIKE to Cooper is an unusual address (possibly unheard-of on American prime-time television) to the phallocentrism that is the unacknowledged motivator of Hollywood fictions. The Golden Circle is an energy that, in returning to itself, seeks the obliteration of the feminine, whose existence threatens the closing of the masculine self-referential circle. When the Giant returns the ring to Cooper as he finally hears Laura's dream voice, the gesture celebrates Cooper's major achievement in solving the murder. Securely on his finger, the small ring indicates that the Golden Circle of Appetite is under control. In solving the mystery, Cooper restrains the energy of phallic onslaught. His reward for doing so is to hear and see once again his dream of Laura, the desirable woman whom phallocentrism has suppressed from the narrative, and to bring back her voice and body, even though this means crossing the boundary between life and death.

Martha P. Nochimson
Film Quarterly, Vol.46, No.2. hiver 1992