Twin Peaks and the Three C’s: Continuity, Consistency, and Canon
The most recent episode of Twin Peaks contains an exciting revelation, one which many fans have been awaiting for 25 years: Laura really did write Annie’s message in her diary, and the pages were subsequently hidden in a bathroom stall at the sheriff’s station (ostensibly by Leland). Turns out these are the pages that were missing from Laura’s secret diary way back when. This development is exciting, and satisfying . . . and it also doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense.
To recap: on the original series, the missing pages from Laura’s secret diary were found by deputy Hawk not far from the train car where Laura was murdered. In the final episode, he reveals that he discovered them at Glastonbury Grove, along with a bloody towel. Meanwhile, shortly before Leland is revealed as the murderer, Donna reads a page from Laura’s diary given to her by Harold Smith and dated the day of Laura’s death. So the timeline indicated here is that Leland/Bob had ripped out pages from the diary, and Laura turned the book over to Harold on her last day alive.
But in Fire Walk With Me, Laura is shown discovering that her diary is missing pages and then turning the book over to Harold an entire week before her murder. A couple of days later, she has her dream where she sees Annie, who implores her to write a message (“the good Dale is in the Lodge, and he can’t leave”) in her diary. Obviously, Laura has no secret diary in which to write the message at this point. She does have her public diary, but we never see her write anything about her dream, so it’s not clear either way. (As to how Harold ever got hold of the entry which Donna reads, I always figured that Laura had either mailed it to him or dropped it off the day that she died. It’s a little bit of a stretch but works well enough).
However, much of this is blasted to bits by the new episodes, which have made it clear that the pages Hawk recently found are specifically those missing from the secret diary, and that these are the pages which Leland tore out. This works neither with what was established in the original series nor the movie, as it would require Leland to have ripped out the pages with Annie’s message before Laura even had her dream, and the final entry (seemingly from Laura’s last day) sounds nothing like what was heard on the show.
It’s tempting to provide a fansplanation here, and say that Laura either wrote these passages a la carte (similar to what Donna reads, which is itself a fansplanation) or she jotted the message down in her non-secret diary. However, the episode resists both explanations as, again, Hawk specifies that these are the pages removed by Leland, and that they are from the diary which was recovered at Harold’s. At the very least this considerably muddies the timeline around Laura’s journal, but moreso it heavily rewrites the previously established continuity. (Hawk has now discovered the missing pieces of Laura’s diary twice. He is very, very good at this).
This issue really began with David Lynch and Robert Engels not fully following what was revealed on the series when they wrote FWWM. They also created a dilemma: Lynch wanted to eventually show that Laura transcribed Annie’s message, but in his own movie he had Laura give up her diary way early in the proceedings. It would make sense here if Laura was originally supposed to give her diary to Harold on her last day but it was moved to earlier in the film during editing — similar to the scene with Phillip Jeffries — but alas, the script for FWWM has this moment in the exact same place as the final cut.
What Lynch and Mark Frost have done with the new Twin Peaks is to take bits and pieces of what we previously saw and weave it into a new continuity. Perhaps this is not even intentional and is merely a mistake — that’s very likely, in fact — but deliberate or no, the canon has been altered in this aspect of the story.
(For what it’s worth, I suspect that Lynch and Frost’s basic train of thought might be that not all of the original pages had been found 25 years ago. According to the new series, there’s still a page missing, and this could easily be the note that Donna reads. But I think they’re also not particularly worried about conforming to what came before; they just wanted to use the “write it in your diary” idea and this was their way of doing it. Hawk coming across pieces of the diary near the crime scene in the original series may or may not have been overridden).
An inconsistency like this seems odd for Twin Peaks, a show that asks (even demands) that viewers pay attention to details. Why be so detail-focused if you’re going to play with the continuity willy nilly? On the other hand, is this m.o. really that foreign to Twin Peaks?
A closer look at the continuity of the series, movie, and tie-in novels strongly points to no. There have always been a handful of problems. The year on the show switches from 1990 to 1989. The AB-negative blood sample is first attributed to Jacques but somehow later becomes Leland’s blood. Laura’s final phone call is from her dad on the series and James in the movie. James sends a postcard from San Francisco to Donna even though he only left Washington State on his motorcycle a few days before.
Some elements from the show and FWWM are derived from the Laura and Cooper books but altered, and other details are discarded entirely. In fact, trying to force the events of the ancillary materials to fit with the series at large is virtually impossible, as they are frequently outright contradicted. Mark Frost’s new novel seems to take pleasure in rewriting the continuity of Twin Peaks, completely jettisoning certain characters and events and heavily revising others. And Laura’s diary isn’t the only bit of confusion in the new episodes: the character of Toad has apparently been merged with the RR cook, and Carl’s Fat Trout Trailer Park looks to have teleported from one part of the Northwest to another. (To be fair, there are some possible explanations that are within reason, such as Toad the cook being Toad Sr. and the fact that Carl’s trailer park is now called the New Fat Trout, indicating he left behind the old one).
To fans who pay close attention to these things, oversights like this can feel maddening. You want to trust the creators of what you love, but when it comes across that they are either unfamiliar with or simply don’t care about what’s already been established in the world they created, that trust can begin slipping away.
That being said, there is a difference between creators and the audience. Fans like to assume that the writers and producers of their favorite shows possess the same type of encyclopedic knowledge, but oftentimes that’s not the case, because these folks are too busy making the actual show. It’s amazing anyone can remember anything while trying to hammer out the logistics of filming a movie or a series. In addition, Lynch doesn’t care for most of the second season, and while I don’t think he would steamroll fans by saying “never happened doesn’t count season 2 sux, nerds!!” he’s also probably in no rush to closely follow everything that happened.
Lastly, Lynch and Frost have both admitted they didn’t rewatch the series or FWWM before writing the new Twin Peaks, which means they’re operating on memory from things that were produced almost three decades ago. Some continuity errors, conflated details, and retcons are pretty much inevitable. (Given that this is Twin Peaks, it’s also entirely possible that the new series is not set in the same exact world as the original series, though so far it’s stuck to an only-occasionally bungled interpretation of the original show’s continuity. But Frost’s book hints at a different timeline, and Lynch even told the actors they might not be playing quite the same characters as they did on the old Twin Peaks).
However, there’s another factor at play, one which isn’t discussed as often. Mark Frost has alluded to it recently, where he’s tried to remind fans that an overreliance on canon can be creatively stifling, and that issues like continuity are often more tenuous and slippery than people realize. There’s not an actual term for it, but essentially, creators sometimes need room to play it fast and loose with their creation.
Probably one of the best examples of this in the history of television is the 80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere. That series, along with Hill Street Blues (Frost’s alma mater), helped to wrest the idea of continuing storylines away from the province of the soap opera and bring it to prime time drama. Until then, serialized elements were seen as anathema, because they prevented potential new viewers from following what was going on in any given episode. St. Elsewhere helped to break all the rules in that regard. Stories could continue over multiple episodes and even whole seasons, and the series made a habit of doing callbacks to old storylines. A guest character who hadn’t been seen since early in the first season might randomly play a prominent role in an episode years later. Any past subplot or character could be revisited or referenced at any time. All of this is par for the course now in both televised drama and comedy, but at the time it was daring. It demanded that viewers pay attention if they wanted to follow along. This wasn’t “turn off your brain” entertainment.
But St. Elsewhere also didn’t take its own mythology too seriously, and the writers of the show would occasionally embrace the artificiality of the fictional world they created by making changes to that world whenever they felt like. In other words, St. Elsewhere often had impeccable continuity, until it didn’t.
Probably the best example involves Father McCabe, the founder of St. Eligius hospital. Throughout the series, he experiences the following transformation: he goes from being dead and having never met main character Dr. Westphall, to having played an integral part in Dr. Westphall’s life, to actually still being alive himself and visiting the hospital. This storyline was very unapologetically reworked and revised several times, and there is no way to reconcile the contradictions.
Why did the writing team do this instead of adhering to what they’d established? Because they had an idea that worked better. (It’s almost like the writers rewarded themselves for their uncommonly strong sense of consistency by allowing one area where they could fuck up as much as they wanted). One of the show’s greatest episodes — the two-parter “Time Heals” — is set over the course of several decades of the hospital’s history, jumping around through various time periods with Father McCabe as a key character. “Time Heals” would not have been possible had the writers of St. Elsewhere rigidly stuck to some brief dialogue from prior seasons.
The series also had a habit of unceremoniously writing off actors by having their characters disappear; several prominent doctors in the series simply vanished during the show’s run. Two of them caught spring colds in their final scenes, and their names weren’t uttered again until a surprise reference in the very last episode. And that final episode itself very famously revealed that the show had been a dream in the mind of an autistic boy. While it’s open for debate exactly how literal that revelation is meant to be, what’s clear is that the writers had embraced the fictional-ness of their TV world. They were indulging in the joys of writing television. To them, saying “it’s just a TV show” was freeing, not dismissive.
I think Lynch and Frost are up to something similar with Twin Peaks. From the beginning, Peaks has been a collision of so many different influences and sensibilities, that at this point it can be anything it wants to be. While it might be annoying at times to see the series reframe past events or skip over certain things, at the same time it feels within the show’s creative toolbox to do so. This issue with Laura’s diary, where it doesn’t add up with what came before, kind of doesn’t matter because it still WORKS. Maybe the revelation is flawed in terms of narrative coherence, but it still pays off. How chilling is it to see the series finally make good on Annie’s message? It works on an intuitive, instinctual level more than an intellectual one. The series always has carried the feeling that it might just completely give over to dream logic, where facts are no longer set in stone. Things like continuity issues actually play right into that feeling. (And St. Elsewhere’s ending isn’t too far away from this territory, given how one of the most memorable lines from Twin Peaks is “we live inside a dream”).
To be sure, I’m not saying that continuity and canon don’t matter. There’s nothing like being rewarded for paying attention to a story and catching the connections big and small. It’s one of my favorite parts of a viewing experience. And Twin Peaks is a show that wants you to be deeply invested in its world, to pay attention to clues, and to feel like that investment was worthwhile. It is by no means a bad thing to point out errors, or things that don’t jibe with past episodes. Hell, Mark Frost’s book is so full of incongruities both intentional and otherwise that it demands the reader take note. But this is also a fictional world where reality is fluid and time nonlinear, and getting too hung up on inconsistencies can make you lose sight of the bigger picture.
Twin Peaks will never totally make sense, nor should it. There’s something beautiful about that. Just ask Father McCabe.