The unbearable whiteness of being: Twin Peak's Laura Palmer

White by Northwest: ‘Twin Peaks’ and American Mortality

"White" and "weird" series such as Twin Peaks and Wayward Pines speak to an American history haunted by colonialism and racism.

In retrospect, Frost and Lynch’s Twin Peaks is the nexus of a formative genre: the weird white town (aka, “town with a secret”, although that term itself seems white-normative, speaking of Hollywood television). As usual, a new genre telescopes back in time; in this case, touching soap opera, folk horror, conspiracy, and film noir. The weird white town might be noir’s adaptation to color film and suburbia.

These shows arguably exist mostly as therapy for feelings surrounding the decline of white dominance. Some have little patience for talk of white anxieties or grief; while understandable, I believe this is misguided. Appreciating all viewpoints is important, whether to understand pop culture or to build a more equitable society. Of course, a broader relevance helps draw diverse viewers; a show aimed specifically at white viewers is increasingly impractical.

While I’m viewing US television specifically, I must be selective, for example; I’ll ignore many episodes of The Twilight Zone and similar anthologies. Another branching, from the more hedonistic ’60s and ’70s, offers sitcoms (The Addams Family, Bewitched) and parody (Soap and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman); this branch fell, because however odd or reflexive, the town is based in ongoing national melodrama.

These shows tend to be soaps with speculative elements, so one expects an ensemble of quirky, deceitful characters, a high crime rate, aliens (space or human), young sleuths, brainwashing or similar, literary references, and soundtrack dissonance. There are secret societies, probably including a brothel or other sexual exploitation, with echoes of historical crimes (recent vampire series, for example, tend to reference slavery and the Civil War). Nevertheless, the protagonists tend to be better than (say) Tony Soprano: they make moral compromises to survive a wicked world.

Thus, I’ll be drawing mostly on the premiere seasons of four series: The Invaders, Twin Peaks, Bates Motel, and Wayward Pines. The Invaders (1967-68) isn’t confined to one town, but it’s a primitive instance that pre-dates the Barnabas Collins arc on ABC’s daytime Dark Shadows, as the gothic sensibility returned to a US shocked by civil unrest and the Vietnam War (compare Britain’s The Prisoner, from the same year). Like Twin Peaks, The Invaders was on ABC — they have a wild streak, even today — both were influenced by ABC hits The Fugitive (1963-67) and Peyton Place (1964-69). Invaders creator Larry Cohen initially proposed a three-times-per-week half-hour series, more of a primetime soap than the series actually produced as Cohen was elbowed aside by Quinn Martin.

As with the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), this alien invasion is a hook for a critique of the republic falling to con artists. Most episodes have “architect David Vincent” (Roy Thinnes) at a private work site — a factory, a farm — lately sold or otherwise co-opted. The locals include an attractive woman, usually lonely or resentful, but Vincent is wedded to his mission, and she turns traitor. If the series isn’t misogynist, it’s because the men aren’t much better. Like the body-snatchers remake The Invasion (2007), this two-year series is about loners mustering a half-hearted resistance.


Roy Thinnes as David Vincent in The Invaders

A selective viewing is best (especially the first four episodes); the Invaders premise is ill-suited to standalone plots, and it gets monotonous. Still, it’s pretty good for a series about a paranoid architect. The subtext is something an architect would be privy to: the selling of homeland to absent interests. Despite favoring small towns, The Invaders tapped dawning horror over “urban planning”, the utopian, sadistic demolishing of neighborhoods (usually low-income) in American cities as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

In the pilot and opening credits, Vincent pulls off a bypassed “blue highway” (to sleep in his car) beside an abandoned diner: symbols of disappearing local cultures. The diner was “Bud’s”, but when Vincent returns to the site of his initial close encounter, the sign says “Kelly’s”. The aliens have little reason to change the sign, but this strikes a chord, because corporate authority demands control of facts. Thus, football’s Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, but they’re (also) still in Cleveland.

Rapine real estate practices are a trope of the subgenre: the upper-class of Twin Peaks (1990-91) will sell the town by pieces, if they ever find buyers ignorant of the local crime wave. On Bates Motel (2013-17), no one tells Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) about highway construction rendering the motel a white elephant, thus dealing another blow to her family’s mental health. The title community of Wayward Pines (debuted 2015) is built on the site of a destroyed town; it was designed by architect Rebecca Yedlin (Nimrat Kaur) and populated through abduction.

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Yedlin represents another trope: a non-white character in a position of power. Twin Peaks revels in clichés, including a deceptive Asian-American woman: Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the scheming, swanning heir to the town lumber mill. On the first season of Wayward Pines, Terrence Howard plays the baleful sheriff — “This is my town” he insists, expropriating the new family’s ice cream — until Matt Dillon replaces him, violently. A similar revanchism plays out on the third season of Bates Motel: a black lawman from Missouri has local support for sheriff, until a fateful encounter with Sheriff Romero (Latino actor Nestor Carbonell).


Toby Jones as Dr. Jenkins in Wayward Pines

Although produced at a time of lily-white TV, even The Invaders baits viewers. “The Experiment” has veteran oddball Dabbs Greer as a priest who’s really an alien, as the script repeatedly drops “Maryland” to stir papist anxieties. Vincent’s standby for identifying aliens is their “withered fourth finger”. If the series avoids the word “pinky”, it’s to veil an all-purpose symbol of “the other” circa 1967: spoken or implied, “pink” codes the aliens as feminist, Communist (“pinkos”), or homosexual, with the limp finger evoking a limp wrist (a focal point for homophobia). Finally, “Pinky” was a nickname for a lighter-skinned black person who could pass as white, as in the 1949 film of that title. (In season two’s “The Vise”, the sheepish production probably makes matters worse by giving aliens posing as African-Americans normal fingers but black palms.)

Multiple coding was common in an era of rapid change; for example, the treacherous Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) on Lost in Space. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, as the shows (also) engaged our guilt over bigotry; when anyone suggests abandoning Smith to the monster-of-the-week, mother Maureen (June Lockhart) plants her feet and says “he is a human being“. The passivity of most of the (white) characters on The Invaders can be read as an unspoken, “who are we to judge?”

Many weird-white-town shows are set in the Pacific Northwest, long removed from the Great Migration and Latino immigration. On screen, at least, the Pacific Northwest is a crucible of whiteness. Or it’s the Heart of Paleness, with Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) a singing, dancing Colonel Kurtz. Consider the racially suggestive Twilight franchise is set in Forks, Washington. “Bella Swan” can be translated as “pretty white girl”, and since her father is chief of police, she’s a princess choosing her prince. The Dexter finalé leaves the alpha serial-killer in lumberjack country, perhaps following some tribal call.

Wrestling the Demons of Privilege

White Americans are probably the last group in need of a dedicated homeland, but they need an imaginary one.

In series such as The Wire, American racism lurks as explanation for dysfunction: white viewers can blame black people or blame our own historical detour into white supremacy. These excuses are foreclosed by the northwest setting. In the northwestern weird town, white Americans have what they always wanted, yet still they tear at each other.

Yes, Hollywood likes Canada’s financial incentives (and it likes white casts), but this doesn’t obscure the psychic undercurrents of a popular setting. The region raises white guilt and anxiety by mocking American exceptionalism: it has rain forest, fjords, glaciers, and a volcano. It’s also the only US border (lower 48) that’s neither body of water nor territory of non-English-speakers; thus, crossing into Canada is barely noticeable (Twin Peaks soothes by having the northwest seemingly abut Quebec). The territory also crosses the Continental Divide, source of much of America’s fresh water (remember Dr. Strangelove and precious bodily fluids). Such anxiety-triggers might help explain the militia groups associated with the Northwest.

White Americans are probably the last group in need of a dedicated homeland, but they need an imaginary one: the terrain surveyed here. The weird-white-towns of the Pacific Northwest are hermitic retreat, if guiltily and loosely held. The Invaders roams the US, but Bates Motel is set in Oregon, as are Eureka and Grimm. Dead Like Me and iZombie (featuring grim reapers and zombies, respectively) are set in Seattle. Twin Peaks doesn’t specify a state, but some assume Washington, the filming location. Wayward Pines is in Idaho, Fargo and Warehouse 13 in North and South Dakota, respectively, and Picket Fences in Wisconsin.

Elsewhere in the northern tier US, Northern Exposure and Men in Trees are set in Alaska. Once Upon a Time is set in Maine, as are the Stephen King-derived Haven and Under the Dome. All of these are more-or-less border towns, which may explain a cluster in the lower Hudson Valley (The Ghost Whisperer, Sleepy Hollow), once a political and cultural borderland, as referenced in the short-lived New Amsterdam, as well as the recently cancelled Sleepy Hollow, which blends fantasy, magic, and colonial history, and envisions the eponymous town as a mystical convergence on the level of Sunnydale’s hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Each of the four shows discussed here teams a controversial creative with a Hollywood veteran, for example, M. Night Shyamalan executive produces Wayward Pines for Chad Hodge (season one), working from the novels by Blake Crouch. Watching Shyamalan’s The Village, some guessed it was set in the future, and that’s the case here: the town squats behind an electrified fence after most of humanity’s devolved to carnivorous aberrations (“abbies”). This weird-white-town is definitively isolated, as in Under the Dome. It’s the brain child of wealthy David Pilcher (Toby Jones), who wants to save the human race (much like the scientists in Helix), so he freezes a viable population to revive them centuries later. Is Pilcher a murderous crackpot or a savior of the human race? They’re not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps reflecting viewer ambivalence, this subgenre struggles to earn a major-network berth. Both The Invaders and the original Twin Peaks snagged on a structural flaw: they posit an existential threat, then ask support for a rolling stalemate (then again, so does US foreign policy since World War II). Even long-running shows of the greater subgenre are tough to conclude (The X-Files, Lost) — being both noir and apocalyptic, they suggest (white) oblivion, which wouldn’t go over well. While non-supernatural, The Killing otherwise fits the genre, and stepped in the same trap.


Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel

Despite being from the wrong side of the cable-TV tracks, the crime-horror-satire Bates Motel is superior to The Killing, if only because its honest about its position (The Killing is on AMC, Bates Motel is on A&E, home of Duck Dynasty and Billy the Exterminator). Like Wayward Pines, Bates Motel is an unapologetic gothic potboiler: the perils of Norma. Whereas Wayward Pines literalizes the territoriality and cyclical history, Bates Motel foregrounds the self-medicating: White Pine Bay has a marijuana economy. Twin Peaks, of course, is the profoundly trippy series, with its non-sequiturs, dreams, and visitations, and a love of coffee and munchies. (Maybe it’s coincidence, but in The Invaders pilot “Beachhead”, a cop describes Vincent as seeing the flying saucer at “approximately 4:20” that morning.)

Names deliver meaning, sometimes obvious (Ghostwood Forest on Twin Peaks; White Pine Bay on Bates Motel). As with the many native-derived place names in the US, “Wayward Pines” as town name nods to guilt. “Pilcher” combines “pilfer” and “filch”, which connects to Leland Palmer. Given both Leland’s real-estate interests and the presence of French-speaking characters, his name suggests “land thief”. Laura Palmer would be the lore (religion) of (a tribe of) thieves (wild Laura has an angelic side). Like recent TV antiheroes, Leland Palmer combines biological father with founding father: like the founders, Leland’s done the unforgivable, but without him (them) we’re not having this discussion.

On Twin Peaks, Native Americans are frequently referenced, as with Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) and the décor of the Great Northern Hotel. Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) description of China’s conquest of Tibet pings back to the Pacific Northwest. The difference is that Tibet is next to China, whereas white Americans migrated so far from point-of-origin that centuries later, they’ve become (a type of) native Americans. Despite Agent Cooper’s keen anthropological interest, the weird-white tribe has everything but a viable culture and spirituality.

Colin Woodard’s American Nations describes 11 culturally distinct regions, with variable reactions to diversity. Cooper is from Philadelphia, per Woodard in “The Midlands”, the region truest to the reputed tolerance of the US:

“[G]roups settling in the Midlands zone may have disliked and disagreed with one another, (but) none sought to rule or assimilate the others beyond the town or neighborhood level. All rejected the Yankee efforts to do so” (p. 187).

In addition to being tolerant, Cooper is naïve. Like the other Bookhouse Boys, he seems insufficiently aware that something is wrong beyond murder: the same evil-in-the-woods white Americans have feared since Jamestown and Salem. (In part, we feared our own lack of cultural boundaries, and with good reason.)

Prophets can predict the future because they have a sense for it, supernatural or not, and Twin Peaks predicted a tabloid era and the splintering of moral authority. The ’90s were a Northwest decade: Seattle and grunge, the rise of Silicon Valley and (damn fine) Starbucks. Twin Peaks was ahead-of the curve with cross-dressing characters: season two’s Agent Bryson (David Duchovny) and Catherine Martell/Tojamura (Piper Laurie). Most remarkably: Laura Palmer promised she’d see Cooper (see us?) in 25 years.

As this article indicates, the two-season series has been surprisingly influential: it announced the era of serial-killer films, but the more current trope is the missing female, as in such movies as Killer Joe, Prisoners, and Gone Girl, and much television, including The Killing, The Bridge, Blindspot, The OA, Stranger Things, and more. In The X-Files, a partial update of The Invaders, Mulder (David Duchovny) rues the disappearance of his sister; on Supernatural, the Winchesters grieve their mother.

“Who killed Laura Palmer?” forecast the white-female victim as media bonanza, especially the blonde: Nicole Brown Simpson, Jonbenet Ramsay, Princess Diana, Natalee Holloway, Amanda Knox, and the (other) “missing white women” essential to TV morning shows. Such a woman is a relief because she is particular; thus, she might be found safe and sound (or at least, avenged). She’s therefore in opposition to the white-American future, given the patterns of history. (After crushing Carthage in the Third Punic War, Scipio wept, because reminded his beloved Rome would someday fall.)

Race is central to the American psyche, not just because of our history of racism, but because we have no other history. Most nations have a cultural memory of solitude, while Americans have always known their origin myths are lies. We try to compensate with a crazy-making paradox: we haven’t lived up to our values, so we’re all the more certain we will live up to them at some future date. Like the lumber mill, and like Laura Palmer, we keep two sets of books. This disturbing truth is most accessible as pulp fiction, including the weird-white-town. That metaphor reflects an inverted perspective: little-white-towns were once the epitome of normal, but today, few consider such a town without mixed feelings. Of course, this is why these fictional towns are besieged, haunted, or cursed.

America may yet become a new kind of republic, one not dominated by a particular ethnicity. This would require the (partial) eclipse of the ill-defined tribe that founded the republic: white Americans. Even without science fiction, they’re in a causal loop: to the extent they let go of racism, they disappear in a blended society. They may wonder if the future holds place for them. Conceivably, it helps to imagine such a place, if only removal to some far corner, where they wrestle their demons in a weird white town.