Phantoms Who killed Laura Palmer?
A Rhetorical Pentadic Analysis of ‘Twin Peaks’ Episode 209, “Arbitrary Law”
At 10:00 pm on December 1, 1990, 12.4 million viewers tuned in to ABC to finally answer the question that had been heard around the water coolers: Who killed Laura Palmer? ( ‘Twin Peaks’, A Cultural Phenomenon ) No subsequent episode in the second season of Twin Peaks reached as many viewers, and the series was cancelled at the end of the season. (TV-aholic) “Arbitrary Law”, the ninth episode in the second season, ends with two confessions and the discovery of a guilty party—the perceived object of this burning question. Using Kenneth Burke’s Dramatic Pentad, this paper will examine the rhetoric of the two confessions that take place during the final act of this episode, and explore the rhetorical implications of the confessions both within the show as well as within Twin Peaks ‘ audience.
Kenneth Burke created the Dramatic Pentad “to formulate the basic stratagems which people employ, in endless variations, and consciously or unconsciously, for the outwitting or cajoling of one another.” ( A Grammar of Motives ) By applying Burke’s pentad to a piece of rhetoric (an artifact), an analyst can discern what specific stratagems, or methods of description, an individual is using in their creation of the artifact. The pentad allows for rhetorical analysis of an artifact because it provides a means for detecting the specific point of view of the individual in his presentation of the artifact. That is to say, by noting what aspects of an artifact the individual categorizes under the separate elements of the pentad, the individual’s motivation is made apparent. In this way, an analyst is able to understand how the individual rhetor perceives and experiences events and situations. This enables an analyst to note the motives for the individual’s actions.
Burke claims that “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).” ( A Grammar of Motives ) In her description of these terms, Sonja K. Foss notes that purpose and motive are not interchangeable. She describes purpose as “the reason for action by the agent that is specified by the rhetor for the agent ,” (italics mine) while motive “is the larger explanation for the rhetor’s action, manifest in the rhetorical artifact as a whole.” ( Rhetorical Criticism ) Purpose, then, is the rhetor’s description of the agent’s expected outcome. Motive belongs to the rhetor, the individual who has created the artifact, and can be perceived after a complete pentadic analysis has been made of the artifact. This is because the motive applies to the artifact, and not the event or situation that the artifact describes.
In order to discern the rhetor’s point of view and therefore motive, an analyst might apply ratios to the five terms described by Burke. When applying a ratio, an analyst seeks to “discover which of the five elements identified dominates or is featured in the rhetoric.” ( Rhetorical Criticism ) The rhetor will perceive one aspect of the artifact to be more important than the others, and the ability to note which aspect that is will allow the analyst to better understand the rhetor’s point of view. Burke’s method for simplifying these points of view is to apply each term to a different philosophical school. ( A Grammar of Motives ) An artifact in which more emphasis is placed on the scene, for example, would be placed in the philosophical school of materialism, “the system that regards all facts and reality as explainable in terms of matter and motion or physical laws”, because a scene is inherently material—the physical backdrop in which the act takes place—even if it is a psychological state or a situation. ( Rhetorical Criticism)
The other four terms, when featured, fall into their own philosophical schools: an emphasis on agent places the artifact in the school of idealism, which places the greatest importance upon the “mind or spirit” of the individual; an emphasis on agency places the artifact in the school of pragmatism, a philosophy concerned with the means or instruments that can be used to reach a goal; when purpose receives the greatest emphasis, the artifact communicates through the school of mysticism, which focuses on identification and unity; finally, an artifact which features act will fall into the philosophical school of realism, which purports that “universal principles” and “abstract concepts” are more real than objects (thus, the act is a principle as opposed to a material object). It is not always necessary to apply these philosophical schools to an analysis of an artifact. However, their inclusion provides greater insight into the functions and appropriate applications of the Dramatic Pentad.
The pentad is particularly useful in analyses of the confessions made at the end of this episode of Twin Peaks because a confessor’s motive in confessing is often a more desirable object to understand than the mere identity of the confessor. David A. Ling’s use of the pentad to analyze Senator Edward Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick speech is an example of this. While this speech was not necessarily a confession, Senator Kennedy did admit to crimes he had committed. By employing a pentadic method of analysis, Ling is able to discern that Kennedy describes himself as a “victim of the scene”, or an agent who was under the power of the scene, rather than in control of it. Thus, the “confession” was made in order to remove the guilty party of the guilt.
The pentad can also be used to discover inconsistencies in an individual’s description of an artifact, as shown in Kimberly C. Elliot’s pentadic analysis of the CRACK website. Elliot notes that while the website states that the organization’s purpose is to “help the children”, the agency, as described by the website, is preventing the children from being born. Therefore, the purpose of the organization must be something other than helping children, and further pentadic analyses that Elliot makes reveal the true motivation of the organization. These two uses of the pentad to rhetorically analyse artifacts provide insight into the ways the pentad is used in the following discussion of Twin Peaks .
The final episode in the first story-arch told in Twin Peaks involves the hero, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, discovering the identity of a serial murderer, a case that the Agent has been investigating throughout the series. Using a form of intuitive magic Cooper discerns that the killer is Leland Palmer, the father and uncle of the victims. Cooper tricks Leland into coming to the police station and arrests him. Cooper assures the local sheriff that a confession is forthcoming. The lawmen, and the Twin Peaks audience, are treated to not one but two confessions. While the actor who plays Leland, Ray Wise, performs both confessions, both the lawmen and the audience are made to believe that the confessions are given by two different people. The first confession is marked by demented rage, and is given by a spirit named BOB who possesses Palmer. The second confession follows BOB throwing “himself” (Palmer’s body) at the cell door to the point of deadly injury and presumably leaving Palmer’s body. Palmer, now restored to consciousness, finally becomes aware of his crimes and is overcome with remorse.
Burke’s Pentad is most effective in this scenario when applied separately to each confession. In BOB’s confession, the aspects of the Pentad are identified as follows:
Scene: Leland Palmer’s life in Twin Peaks
Act: killing Laura and Maddie
Agency: taking over Leland Palmer’s body
Purpose: to satisfy an impulse
BOB’s confession is straightforward. He appears to confess merely because he wants to strike fear into the hearts of the lawmen; he even makes a direct reference to a troubling and dangerous period of time in Cooper’s past. BOB defines himself as the agent by readily admitting to the act of killing Laura and Maddie. His purpose in doing this is summed up in just a few words: “I have this thing for knives.” BOB’s motive is pleasure and satisfaction, metaphorically the use of knives, which he claims to particularly enjoy. From this statement it can be assumed that he committed the act merely because he has a “thing” for killing and felt like doing so at the time.
As a spirit, however, BOB must possess in order to kill. Therefore his agency, or how he commits the act, lies in removing the agency from Palmer. He makes this clear during the confession. Seemingly speaking to his own body, he mourns, “Oh Leland… you’ve been a good vehicle, and I’ve enjoyed the ride…” Cooper clarifies Palmer’s lack of agency by asking, “Does Leland know what you’ve done?” BOB then describes Palmer as “a babe in the woods,” unknowing and therefore unable to control himself. Because he has removed Palmer’s agency by possessing him, BOB’s agency is possessing Palmer. These statements also describe the scene: by possessing Palmer BOB is acting in the situations available only to Palmer. Thus, the scene must be Palmer’s life in Twin Peaks.
Leland Palmer’s confession is less clear, and so it is also more complexly defined by the pentad. Palmer offers multiple scenes, agents, agencies, and purposes for the act of killing Laura, ultimately providing two pentads, one of which is incomplete.
Scene A: being possessed by BOB
Scene B: Palmer’s life
Agent A: Leland Palmer
Agent B: “they”
Act A: killing Laura
Act B: killing Laura
Agency A: unspecified
Agency B: taking over Palmer’s body
Purpose A: because “they” made him
Purpose B: because Laura refused to be possessed
The first pentad (Pentad A) is defined by Palmer as the agent, and presents him as a victim of the scene, which is Palmer’s possessed life. Were he not possessed, Palmer makes it clear that he would not have committed the act, through the remorseful tone of his confession as well as multiple cries of “Laura!”, “I loved her!”, and “What have I done?”
Palmer describes himself as the agent by crying out, “I killed my daughter!” but this statement is soon followed with a disclosure. After describing the process by which he became possessed, he tells the lawmen, “When he [BOB] was inside I didn’t know, and when he was gone I couldn’t remember.” As discussed in the analysis of BOB’s confession, Palmer describes himself as stripped of agency; he didn’t know that he was doing anything when he was killing Laura, and once the act had been committed and control of his body was returned to Palmer, he could not remember committing the act. Thus, he had no agency, rendering Pentad A incomplete. However, the final aspect of Pentad A, purpose, shines more light on the second pentad (Pentad B). Palmer claims that he acted because “they made me kill her,” which furthers his description of himself as an agent who has fallen victim to a scene.
Pentad B is defined by another, more elusive agent, whom Palmer terms “they”. BOB, it can be assumed, is one of “them” or is at least working with “them”. What “they” want is “lives,” Palmer says, or more people “they could use like they used” him. Specifically, “They wanted Laura, but she was strong… She wouldn’t let them in… Then they made me kill her.” This analysis provides a more clear purpose for the act of murder than either BOB’s confession or Pentad A did, although it speaks only to the murder of Laura and not of her cousin Maddie. In all other ways, it closely resembles BOB’s confession.
These confessions, particularly the second one, are not necessary in order for the audience to understand the story line. The second one is also not necessary for the lawmen to complete their investigation of the murders of Laura Palmer and Maddie Ferguson. Rather, they assist both the audience and the lawmen in removing the blame and therefore the guilt for the murders from Palmer, an upstanding citizen and “ideal” father figure. Having applied the pentad to each confession, it is apparent that they both describe a situation where Leland Palmer had no agency, even when he describes himself as the agent. The confessions therefore remove the blame for the murders, and thus the guilt, from Palmer.
This effect is proven successful within the diegesis of Twin Peaks . After the second confession Cooper carefully and caringly caresses Leland, administering an improvised last rights. Afterwards, the lawmen (Cooper, the sheriff Truman, an FBI associate of Cooper’s named Albert, and an Air Force Major named Briggs) walk in the woods, philosophizing about BOB. While Sheriff Truman remains unconvinced that a spirit truly was possessing Leland Palmer, it is clear that Cooper has absolved Palmer of all guilt. “Harry [Truman], is it easier to believe that a man would rape and murder his own daughter?” Cooper asks incredulously—a rhetorical question to be sure, but one that echoes Cooper’s own refusal to believe that Palmer truly committed the acts for which BOB used his body. In response to this, Major Briggs asks if it matters what causes “an evil that great in our beautiful world.” Cooper’s answer has a tone of finality: “Yes, because it’s our job to stop it.” In this statement he concedes that the evil has not been stopped. However, Leland Palmer is dead. Therefore, if Palmer is the root of the evil, or the “cause”, his death would have stopped the evil. Because Cooper does not perceive the evil to be stopped, he cannot perceive Palmer as evil. Palmer’s agency has been removed, and so his guilt must be removed as well.
Cooper is the protagonist of Twin Peaks , the crucial character who embodies the audience’s curiosities about the murder and the town of Twin Peaks in general. While Twin Peaks has a massive cast which offers many diverse points of identification for the audience, in this particular situation (and in most involving Cooper) the audience is left with virtually no other choices for identification; throughout the episode, Cooper remains the pinnacle of knowledge, navigating the final steps of the case with more accuracy and understanding than any of the other lawmen. Because he has been the most correct regarding all other questions brought up in this episode, he must be the most correct in this instance. The audience is left with little choice but to forget the atrocities committed by the body of Leland Palmer, and prepare for the next story-arch, which is more overtly concerned with BOB’s activities. In forgetting Palmer, the audience should absolve him of his guilt.
A pentadic analysis of the confessions in “Arbitrary Law” provides a shared motive for both of them: to remove the guilt from Leland Palmer. This is rhetorically significant because it allows the audience (both the lawmen and the real-life audience of Twin Peaks ) an opportunity to transition smoothly from one story to the next, in succinctly wrapping up the first story and leaving only loose ends that will be followed up in the next story. However, it is unclear if the confessions were successful in this way. In circles around the figurative water cooler I’ve heard suppositions that this succinct wrap was the reason for the eventual cancellation of Twin Peaks . In the end, we didn’t care really care about who killed Laura Palmer. We just wanted to talk about it with each other. On the other hand, Twin Peaks is returning to our screens this May. And now the question around the water cooler is much more broad: What’s next?
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