White by Northwest: 'Twin Peaks' and American Mortality

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

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

Twin Peaks

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Madchen Amick
Network: ABC

The Invaders

Cast: Roy Thinnes, Kent Smith, Max Kleven
Network: ABC

Wayward Pines

Cast: Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Toby Jones, Shannyn Sossamon
Network: Fox

Bates Motel

Cast: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thierot
Network: A & E

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.

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