When the World Spins – Connections Between Twin Peaks: The Return and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

The following is a guest post from Karla Lončar! I really enjoyed this and I hope you do as well! A brief bio for Karla is included at the end of the article. – Andrew

When asked about his favorite films, David Lynch often mentions Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo.[1] Lots of people have seen it, or at least heard about it, especially because critics frequently refer to it as one of the best films of all time. Vertigo is a complex murder mystery inspired by the Boileau-Narcejac’s 1954 novel D’entre les morts, about a detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), whose fear of heights gets triggered after seeing his former police partner fall from a rooftop, and about his obsession with the enigmatic beauty Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), whom he has seen commit suicide by jumping from the convent’s bell-tower. The story’s climax occurs after Scottie starts a romantic relationship with Madeleine’s doppelgänger, Judy Barton (also Novak), only to find out that she was the one playing the role of Madeleine he thought he knew, in a scheme organized by the real Madeleine’s husband, who killed his wife in order to receive her inheritance.

One can imagine why Lynch loves this film: it is as head spinning as the motif of vertigo itself, transporting the audience into the leading character’s personal world of fears and misjudgments. Lynch’s films draw us into surreal vortices of his creation too. Although traces of Vertigo can be found in much of Lynch’s work, the universe of Twin Peaks particularly stands out. In Season One, by naming Laura Palmer’s look-alike cousin Madeleine “Maddy” Ferguson, Lynch and Mark Frost paid an obvious tribute to the names of Hitchcock’s main characters. Also, there has been speculation that the mysterious Judy, an entity whose name is firstly mentioned in Lynch’s 1992 film, Fire Walk With Me, and further renamed Jouday/Jowday in the show’s third season, represents some sort of reference to Hitchcock’s Judy. However, besides this intertextual name-play, the series’ Return suggests that there is perhaps a deeper connection between those two audiovisual works.

As some fans and critics have noted, certain elements of the new season’s plot uncannily resemble the narrative structure of Vertigo. In other words, the trajectory of the series’ protagonist, sensitive FBI agent Dale Cooper, seems somehow similar to that of the retired policeman, Scottie Ferguson. Both are haunted by the alluring figure of a woman, and both repeat the same mistakes while forming some sort of a relationship with their double. Scottie witnessed the horrifying death of his lover Madeleine, who was supposedly so tormented by the ghost of certain Carlotta Valdes that she jumped – while screaming – off a bell-tower, reminding him of his police partner’s mortal fall. What he didn’t know is that it was all a scheme orchestrated by Judy and the real Madeleine’s husband, who took advantage of Scottie’s fear of heights. However, Judy really fell in love with him during their staged encounters, and, after they had met again, was eager to start a romantic relationship with him. He, on the other hand, was happy to find a woman whom he could turn into the fantasy image of his deceased beloved. However, after finding out about the conspiracy, he angrily took Judy to where the murder had taken place, where she got scared of a nun and fell – while screaming – from the same bell-tower. After seeing her dead, Scottie seemed cured of his phobia, and willing to finally take control of his weakness-laden life.

Dale Cooper in the red room

Agent Cooper, too, is somehow fixated on the woman frequently referred to as The One. As we all know, Laura, a beloved Homecoming Queen, was adored by many people of Twin Peaks, but also sexually abused and killed by her own father, Leland, who was possessed by the demon BOB. Her death drew Cooper to the town, and set off a chain of events that ultimately caused the murder of Laura’s cousin Maddy, as well as the abduction of his girlfriend Annie, which was organized by his ex-FBI partner who killed his former lover, Caroline. All of that caused the splitting of Cooper’s psyche in the otherworldly realm of the Black Lodge, and forced him to embark on an odyssey to find his evil doppelgänger, Mr. C, 25 years later. After confronting Mr. C, Cooper went on to change the course of history and save Laura from her death. However, after he showed her the way out of peril, she somehow disappeared – while screaming – from his sight. Desperate to find her, he traced her, or her doppelgänger, living by the name of Carrie Page in Odessa, Texas, and took her back to the original scene of the crime – the Palmer’s household, where Laura was continually raped all of her teenage life. In this scene, Carrie doesn’t seem to react to the house or its new owners; however, when she hears the off-screen voice of Laura’s mother, she screams so powerfully she creates a short circuit in Laura’s former home. One is then taken back to the Black Lodge, where the spirit of Laura can be seen whispering yet another message to Cooper, who, according to his facial expression, is rather displeased by its content.

Laura whispers in Dales ear

The White Knight Syndrome

As one can see, these storylines bear a certain resemblance, inviting us to interpret them in a similar fashion. It seems that Cooper, just like Scottie, wanted to turn Carrie into something that she’s maybe not: a sort of a “stranger’s dream,” as the lyrics of one of the show’s closing song, “Shadow”, indicate. Carrie, just like Judy, is depicted as a working class woman (she works as a waitress at the diner called Judy’s!), passive enough to succumb her to the drive (literally!) of a man. Like the women of Vertigo in the presence of Scottie, Laura and Carrie also ended several encounters with Cooper screaming and disappearing from the course of the narrative. Of course, there are certain differences. The most significant one is that Dale, unlike Scottie and his obsession with Madeleine, has never been in love with Laura, at least not in a romantic sense. Not in the way he loved Caroline, or Annie. However, if we perceive Laura as a symptom of his internal weaknesses, which led to the death or near-death experience of his beloveds, Cooper’s trajectory can be convincingly explained by consulting some of the psychoanalytic and feminist readings of Vertigo.

According to Slavoj Žižek, every fictional work with a circular narrative matches the circularity of the psychoanalytic process of acknowledging one’s trauma.[2] In other words, all series or films that deal with time loops and time travel reflect the evolution of one’s mind, in which the person finally succeeds in recognizing the source of their emotional misery. To validate this statement, Žižek thoroughly analyzed Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, another one of Lynch’s Hitchcockian films about a man’s obsessional relationship with a woman, in this case his wife. Twin Peaks: The Return consists of many circular narratives too, the main one being Cooper’s search for personal unification, which ends up with time travel. Although not apparent from the start, the underlying aim of Cooper’s journey was actually to “find Laura,” as her father’s spirit asks of him in the Black Lodge. In other words, saving Laura was Cooper’s greatest concern of the season.

“Find Laura”

Of course, one can interpret the show’s third season in many ways. But if one chooses to read its central plot as a reflection of Cooper’s internal struggles, which are connected to his relationship with Laura Palmer, one can safely assume that she represents some sort of force that triggers his fears. But what kind of fears? Since he has always been portrayed as a noble FBI agent, at least in the previous installments of Twin Peaks, it’s not that nonsensical to conclude that, especially after Annie’s tragic escape from the Lodge, Cooper could not cope with the fact he cannot protect women from the “evil that men do.” First Caroline and then Annie, they were both tormented by demonic men, just like Laura. There’s a clear pattern in Cooper’s romantic relationships  – one could even say that he was especially drawn to suffering women. For this reason, one paragraph in Frost’s new book, The Final Dossier, particularly resonates. In it, while commenting on Cooper’s relationship with Caroline, the book’s narrator, FBI agent Tammy Preston, notes:

“Cooper never could resist a bird with a broken wing – you know as well as I do by now that it’s a central part of his makeup: white knight syndrome, the irresistible urge to rescue every damsel in distress he came across.”[3]

Along these lines, there seems to be a hidden reason why Cooper is so intent on saving Laura and changing the familiar narrative of Twin Peaks. In the series’ third season, appropriately named The Return, all he wants to do is go back “home” – to return to his whole self, as well as to the past he desires to reshape. However, it is indicative that in the very moment in which he loses the newly-saved Laura, we actually hear Julee Cruise’s song, “The World Spins.” As a dreamy piece from the second season of Twin Peaks, it is surely the score which evokes every fan’s nostalgia, but also reminds us of a very traumatic event – the scene of Maddy’s murder, another woman Cooper failed to protect, which was juxtaposed with Cruise’s performance of the same song. To Cooper, home is not where the heart is, it is a place which hurts the most.

Scottie, another character whose world is oftentimes depicted as spinning, has also been frequently described by film scholars and critics as having the White Knight Syndrome. They have extensively written about Vertigo, and have traced a serious problem in his desperate need to save Madeleine not once, but several times, as the story unfolds in narrative spirals. As Emanuel Berman emphasized in his study,[4] Scottie repeatedly acts like the mythological Orpheus in a futile search for his deceased Eurydice, who, according to the Ancient myth, could only be brought to life if she is led from the Underworld without being looked at. Interestingly enough, the same motif occurred in Part 17 of The Return. The scene in which Cooper is leading Laura out of the woods remarkably resembles Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s painting of the aforementioned mythic figures. Just like in the myth, Cooper could not bring Laura back to life; instead, his gaze made her disappear.

In his interview for Empire magazine, Mark Frost confirmed the validity of this reference:

Cooper feels some sense of duty to undertake this last quest for Laura. He’s driven by it, and goes to great lengths to pursue it. And he encounters truly mortal danger, not just physically, but perhaps metaphysically. There are echoes of classic mythological themes. It’s Orpheus descending into the Underworld. You are playing with deep, profound, mysterious forces that will have unintended consequences. In the old mythology, as a mortal, to cross into the realm of what was thought of as the gods’, meant you risked everything. That’s what we’re seeing happen here.[5]

However, in accordance with psychoanalytic theory, the Orpheus / White Knight’s object of obsession isn’t the woman, but his own sense of impotence and insecurity, a realm of his personal metaphysical (d)anger. Scottie fell in love with Madeleine precisely because she wanted him to rescue her from her fictitious demons. With her he initially felt like a strong man, not a former policeman who let his partner fall from a rooftop. Cooper’s relationship to Laura contains a similar logic – perhaps if he had truly saved her, she would have saved him from his demons, not the other way around.

Facing the fear of impotence

It doesn’t seem coincidental that both Cooper and Scottie are members of law enforcement – although they don’t seem like stereotypical policemen due to their sensitivity, they are an integral part of the male-dominated world of order. “I am the FBI,” Cooper said proudly upon his awakening from the Dougie-stupor he had lived in for a while. So it’s easy to imagine how certain sense of inadequacy could possibly feel for such a man. That’s why he has to find some sort of substitute for the lack he feels.

In patriarchal society, and for a heterosexual man, one of the means of filling this gap is marrying or taking care of a woman. To Laura Mulvey and similar-minded feminist film scholars, cinema has always reflected these tendencies by enacting the male gaze upon attractive female characters.[6] Metaphorically, to most men depicted on screen, especially during the classical Hollywood era, women are fantasy objects to whom they relate in a binary way: they’re either versions of saints or sinners. If they’re somewhere in-between, they have to be changed in order to fit a certain image. Just like Laura, who was perpetually pressured to fit the image of a cheerful Homecoming Queen; or Judy, who was forced to dress up as Madeleine; or Carrie, whom Cooper had taken to Twin Peaks to reunite with “her mother.”

Hitchcock, Frost and Lynch seem very much aware of this issue. By potentially conceiving Vertigo and Twin Peaks: The Return around a complex theme of male fantasies, they showed how desperate a man may feel while searching for the mysterious and ever-fleeting object of his obsession. The truth is, the gap they feel can never be fully filled. No woman can truly fulfill the presupposed idea of her, as much as no man is truly invincible. And that is what these works of art masterfully represent: Scottie and Dale’s fantasy worlds simply have to be shattered. Maybe they were onto that notion by themselves, too, when they engaged in relationships with Judy and Carrie. Namely, both of these women ultimately resisted to become ghosts of the ones they’re supposed to resemble, which made Scottie and Dale ultimately acknowledge the illusory nature of their fixations.

However, there’s a difference between Judy and Carrie. The first one had to be punished for revealing to Scottie the painful truth about himself. Not only did he project his demons onto her, but he himself became a sadistic demon while he was dragging her back to the bell-tower. But unfortunately, for Scottie to gain this insight and accept the impotence of his gaze, Judy had to be removed from the story: her scream sounded like a cry of defeat, not a force of true change. Carrie’s scream, on the other hand, was something completely different. The power of her cry actually destroyed the power of Laura’s former household. By cutting off the electricity, she metaphorically switched off not only the lights, but also the ceiling fan from Laura’s hallway, which – as one remembers – has always been the source of demonic evil.

Carrie Page screams

In other words, Carrie is the one who stopped the continuation of this particular storyline and probably enacted another one. This was hinted by the scene in which one sees Laura’s spirit causing an anxious response in Cooper. Even if we interpret her character as a projection of Cooper, her resistance to his desires could indicate that there’s a part of him willing to let go of simplified conceptions of women, as well as to accept himself in a much more forgiving manner. Whether he will pursue these thoughts  or not, remains an open question. However, he is the one making the choice.

If this interpretation makes any sense – why make an audiovisual work about one character’s journey to recognize his shortcomings? One way to view it is that it provides a certain social commentary: we live in a time when certain male power over women and other less powerful groups of people needs to be addressed again and again. It’s very important to think about these issues. But also, the new season takes us beyond this notion. By focusing on the problem of gazing at and idealizing certain images, the show provokes us to do the same. For most of the 18 hours, we have all been sharing Cooper’s perspective. In a way – his uncertainties and frustration are ours, as well. Weren’t we all somehow disappointed when the new season didn’t quite fulfill our idea of Twin Peaks? And haven’t we all realized by the end that there is no easy way back? Just like Cooper in his relation to Laura, we had presupposed ideas about this show. And not just the show. Are we viewing our loved ones like Dale or Scottie? Or obsessing too much over certain issues? Our minds are filled with images which we believe to be true, even if they aren’t. Or at least, not completely.

If Cooper can recognize his weaknesses, so can we. By not forcing imaginary viewpoints on people or things we are freeing ourselves to feel and think in new ways, as well as freeing other people from the violence we are imposing on them. But to do so we need to accept the ever-fleeting nature of mystery that makes us so uncomfortable. David Lynch perfectly encapsulates this feeling: in the aforementioned film Lost Highway one scene particularly illustrates this issue. Fred (Bill Pullman) / Pete (Balthazar Getty) wakes up from his hallucination when his dreamy lover Alice (Patricia Arquette) – or the fantasy doppelgänger of his wife Renee (also Arquette) – abruptly leaves him during sexual intercourse while whispering to him: “You will never have me.” Maybe something uncannily similar happens to Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return – Laura, the object of his obsession, also whispers something to him at the end that makes him feel severely anxious. In my mind, she says, “You will never save me.” Because, if we keep on treating her as an alluring, framed image from the closing credits of the original series, we most certainly never will.

[1] The author wishes to thank Ethan Spigland, Chris Vitale, Kwame Heshimu, Boris Postnikov, Maša Grdešić, Ivana Sekol and Ines Čulo, whose help and cooperation aided in the completion of this article.

[2]See Žižek, Slavoj. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

[3] Frost, Mark. The Final Dossier. New York: Flatiron Books, 2017. 57.

[4]Berman, Emanuel. “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: The Collapse of a Rescue Fantasy.” Psychoanalysis and Film. Ed. Glenn O. Gabbard. London: H. Karnac (Books) Ltd., 2001. 29-62.

[5]Frost, Mark. Interview. Empire Magazine. December 2017.

[6]Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Ed. Sue Thornham, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 58-69.  

Karla Lončar is a Croatian film scholar and a critic who is enrolled at the PhD program of Literature, Performance Studies, Film and Culture at the University of Zagreb. She works as a Co-Editor of the “Croatian Film Chronicle” journal and as an Expert Associate at the Miroslav Krleza Institute of Lexicography in Zagreb. She currently lives in new York City where she is writing her dissertation at Pratt Institute, dedicated to the world of Twin Peaks, for which she was awarded the Fulbright scholarship.

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