The value of Cooper’s ‘straight talk’ in Twin Peaks
When we talk about ‘television language’ — what’s special to a particular series — we usually focus on words or catchphrases or grammatical patterns highlighted, if not invented, on the show. We’re attracted to the verbal antics of The Simpsons, the yadda yadda yadda playfulness of Seinfeld, the zippy slang of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how the characters on Friends speak in ways that are so ‘us’.
On 8 April, David Lynch’s weird and wonderful series Twin Peaks celebrates its 25th anniversary. Although Twin Peaks did yield an occasionally useful catchphrase — Damn fine cup of coffee — and inject something enduringly meme-like into the name Diane, the series is not remembered for its invention of new words or terms. Instead, the language of the show is remembered for its examination of ‘straight talk’ and its virtues over other modes of speech.
A damn fine cup of coffee
Let’s start by looking at Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), possibly the most likable character in the series. We like Cooper partly for his earnestness, which is part and parcel of his language. When Cooper says to the waitress at the Great Northern Hotel, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. You know, this is, excuse me, a damn fine cup of coffee. I’ve had I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee in my life and this — this is one of the best’, that’s just what he says, and that’s just what he means. Cooper is a straight talker. In terms of speech act theory, his locutionary acts — the things he says — are the same as his illocutionary acts — the meanings underlying what he says. Most of the time, Cooper talks in what linguists would refer to as ‘direct speech acts’. For most people, speaking so directly isn’t normal; typically, speech acts are at least a smidgen indirect.
Let’s look at another example of one of these speech acts. Early in the series, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) wants Agent Cooper, her straight-talking white knight, to deflower her. In the way of straight-talking white knights, Cooper refuses, but he also very tenderly offers his friendship instead of romance. ‘Friendship’, Cooper insists, ‘is the foundation of any lasting relationship’. Later, Audrey uses the line and Cooper responds, ‘Well, it’s nice to be quoted accurately’. Again, Cooper said what he said and meant what he said. Better than that, Audrey understood him to mean what he said, not some other, illocutionary meaning. Her act there is the third component of any speech act, the perlocutionary act, the one that registers a response to a speaker’s intended meaning. In this case, the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts align perfectly. Such alignment is rare enough in speech that not only do we hear Cooper as different from other characters in the show, but as different from even ourselves.
Straight talk and crooked talk
When Agent Cooper arrives in Twin Peaks, he seems eccentric and mildly implausible among all the apparently nice people who live there. But soon we realize that, though straight-talking sounds strange, it is the only way for us to orient ourselves in the labyrinth of Twin Peaks’ endless prevarications. (Anyone who has seen Twin Peaks can list the lies and deceits; they are too many and too complicated to enumerate here.)
In Twin Peaks, crooked talk is the norm; it is only the members of law enforcement who talk straight. The straight-talking characters hold up a truth standard by which we can evaluate everyone else. The FBI agents in particular have a penchant for direct speech acts, including agent Gordon Cole (David Lynch), who is Cooper’s supervisor. Somewhat deaf, Cole shouts all of his conversation, which is usually so factual and loud that it defies indirection. For instance, Cole falls in love with Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) at first sight. When Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Shelly’s extramarital lover, objects, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Gordon explains, ‘YOU ARE WITNESSING A FRONT THREE-QUARTER VIEW OF TWO ADULTS SHARING A TENDER MOMENT’. Cole is guileless, but what’s so revealing is that he interprets Bobby’s question literally. Those for whom speech is always and only a direct act expect the same from others.
Another straight-talking FBI agent is Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), a forensics specialist who appears in Twin Peaks to assist Cooper. Albert also says what he means, but unlike Cooper, there’s no kindness in what he means. When Albert insists on keeping Laura Palmer’s body in the morgue for further forensic testing, Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) asks, ‘Have you no compassion?’ Albert responds, ‘I have compassion running out of my nose, pal. I’m the Sultan of Sentiment. Dr. Hayward, I have traveled thousands of miles, and apparently several centuries, to this forgotten sinkhole in order to perform a series of tests. Now I do not expect you to understand these tests — I am not a cruel man — I just ask you to get the hell out of my way so I can do my work, is that clear?’ We laugh at what sounds like sarcasm, but that’s not exactly what it is — it is just straightforwardly, directly mean. It’s sarcasm in the interest of direction rather than indirection.
Finally, Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) can stand no more of Albert’s direct, insulting language and punches him. ‘He hit me!’ Albert complains, and Cooper evaluates the situation according to his own expectations of straight-forwardness, verbal and otherwise: ‘Well, I’m sure he meant to do that’. Meaning what you say and do returns order to a system that has lost it, or at least it brings truth and falsehood into equilibrium in a topsy-turvy moral universe. Even though that equilibrium is lost at the end of the original series, for an episode or two it seems as though verbal directness and the morality it upholds will triumph.
Relationships realized by straighter talk
When Cooper and Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) fall in love towards the end of the second season, she has just returned to Twin Peaks after a few years in a convent. Given her absence from the town and her odd manner, it’s easy to assume that she’s naive, but she’s not. Instead, she’s direct in the ways Cooper is direct, which makes their conversation surreal, in the sense that they challenge the supposed reality around them, a reality spun into a tissue of deception and indirection, in speech as well as everything else. When Annie tells Cooper, ‘I want more than your kisses…but when you hold me, when we kiss, I feel safe and eager, I’m not afraid of anything that you make me feel or want’, one can’t help but think, Why don’t I ever speak to those I love as directly as that? Twin Peaks seems to propose that we should.
Annie says this in Episode 28 — the antepenultimate (third from last) episode — and while we root for Annie and Cooper in that episode, we also see other relationships realized by straighter talk. Bobby Briggs, forced to reconsider his own speech and conduct after watching Gordon Cole, addresses Shelly Johnson in straightforward terms for the first time. Audrey Horne has fallen in love with the adventurer/businessman John Justice Wheeler (Billy Zane). He is about to leave her, and though she is given to peering through holes in walls and coy flirtation and other forms of indirection, she has learned some lessons from Cooper, and deals very directly with how she feels about him. Things are looking up for truth and justice in Twin Peaks (or so we think) in Episode 28.
But with two episodes left in the series, there is plenty of time left for things to fall apart, which they certainly do. The show’s arch-villain Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) ends up taking Annie captive in the Black Lodge, the spiritual place from which evil emanates in Twin Peaks, and Cooper risks himself to save her, only to apparently succumb to the evil in the show’s final moments. Thus the original series ends as a tragedy of classical proportions. By the end, the speech act theory isn’t very sophisticated, although neither are the story’s moral dimensions — good and evil, direct and indirect, truth and deception, Black and White Lodges. After such a deft experiment in how straight talk sounds, in how persuasive it can be, can it really be overwhelmed so easily? Is straight talk inevitably made crooked, or can it straighten what’s crooked in the end? The original series left us with no answer, which is why we still need a sequel, Mr. Lynch!