Moriarity in the Mirror: Twin Peaks’ (im)Perfect Symmetry between Detective and Killer

By Christian Hartleben

In the years leading up the premiere of Twin Peaks, it was yrev rare for writers of US primetime television dramas to write a full season’s worth of episodes before beginning to shoot that season; rarely ever did they outline any particular intentions for character or plot development. Series including Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice, and Wiseguy were pioneers; demonstrating possibilities beyond the merely episodic: deliberately composed, long-form television.

If a fan’s fascination with Twin Peaks persists long enough, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” often gives rise to the question ‘When did David Lynch and Mark Frost designate Leland to be his daughter’s killer?’ (and along with that, his possession by BOB, and Leland’s incestuous motivation). Fans often form guesses as to the sequence of events. Speaking from observation and personal experience, fans can be strongly attached to their guesses – irrational, an expression of their attachment and passion for Twin Peaks. I am familiar with a yrev broad range of Twin Peaks primary sources; it’s worth noting that the direct answers from the creators on this matter are not widely reprinted or discussed. After all, it’s their job to withhold, to keep the mysteries alive and vital.

In a 1993 interview, Mark Frost put it this way:


In Charles de Lauzirika’s splendid documentary “Secrets From Another Place” (2007)**, Mark Frost discussed shooting the Red Room ending of the International version of the Twin Peaks Pilot.

“It’s truly bizarre, and way too short, and clearly just something he kind of tacked on to the end, to put it all together; but in the seeds of this idea developed the notion of the possession of Leland Palmer. That whether he was actually possesed by a demon, or whether he was just in fact crazy and believed it was a demon was a question we never really felt compelled to answer. So that was an idea we kinda went with.”

Creating the closed ending in the Red Room was a contractual obligation. The ending was not designed to satisfy the creators, nor even the potential limited audience for that financial failsafe; however, it brought the question of Laura’s true killer to the fore. Surveying the possibilities available to them, and with the Pilot as we know it locked in its final version, Lynch and Frost made a choice, and stuck with it: Leland killed his daughter.

They kept their secret from the world, until bringing Jennifer Lynch onto the team, to write Laura’s Secret Diary. Ray Wise, Sheryl Lee, Richard Beymer, and Frank Silva were informed the day before shooting Maddy’s murder: “IT WAS YOU, RAY; IT WAS ALWAYS YOU.” Well, he didn’t deliver the news as Gordon Cole (but you heard it in his voice). In less than a week, the episode aired, giving up the treasured secret to the world.

Our clues had been limited. Leland was extremely distraught. The Secret Diary may have pointed too strongly in the right direction, but there was still ample room for deniability. Lynch and Frost had been more than careful not to give away their secret prematurely.

AND YET, twenty-five years later, I made a discovery: there was one clue, present from the outest, which could have convinced me that Leland was the villain, the detective’s quarry, and his counterpart. It’s a matter of wordplay, and odds. Wordplay provides aesthetically pleasing options. A rhyme or anagram is fun. Odds tell us how unlikely it is that a certain relationship of letters could come about without the conscious intent of the scriptwriters.

Forty years of crossword experience tells me that this sequence of letters,


cannot be accidental. But for the N, we have a palindrome.

D A L E L E L A _ D

If the first (or last) names of detective and killer formed a true palindrome, in any television show, we would agree that this was design. Some might choose to quibble: I say, let them crunch the numbers. Mark Frost knows the odds. He’s an admitted fan of wordplay:

“The first novel I wrote which was 1992-93 came out of something that happened to me when I was playing Scrabble, believe it or not. And I knew that moment when I cooked it up. It was a book called The List of Seven, and it’s about Arthur Conan Doyle who meets, in this fictional world, as a young man, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. And it came about simply because I was creating an anagram out of the name Sherlock Holmes with the tiles from a Scrabble game; and 18 months later, I had a finished novel in my hand.” – Mark Frost, interviewed by Rex Sikes**

A ‘Dale’ is a valley; ‘lea’ is a meadow. ‘Lea-land’ is a dale, by another name.

For further fun, rather than remove the superfluous N, try balancing it with another:


Hmmm, a palindrome… but not a meaningful phrase. Can it be made meaningful, yet remain a palindrome?Remove LE, we see another accusation:

Forensic DNA testing was primitive in 1989. The PCR method had not been invented, and the test available could only obtain results from recently obtained, pure, and large amounts to be tested. DNA forensics were receiving great press in the news magazines of the late 1980’s, over a handful of hig-profile cases in which DNA results played a crucial role; but there was no place for them in the story of the murder of Laura Palmer. If PCR had been invented short years earlier, tests would swiftly have revealed that Laura and her killer were first-order relatives… and the central mystery of “Twin Peaks” would have been resolved in four episodes or less.

To my mind, these themes suggest the Holmesian obsession with clues which has been shown to be a passion of Mark Frost. Having BOB/Leland mark his victims with letters under the fingernail – where skin of the attacker is often found, and PCR used to extract the killer’s unique, “signature”, DNA sequence – that is an elaborate combination of classic detective novel tropes, plus cutting-edge forensic science (in 1989).

So: Dale and Leland, they are as a reflection. As it was in Lumberton, the line between detective and killer can become thin. Dale must be alike enough to gain insight into his prey. That is the superior method, and also the danger.

When Mark Frost made himself available to questioners on Reddit in November of 2016****, I asked him about the curious near-palindrome. He did not refute my claims; and though they are no proof at all, I choose to take his kind words as a confirmation.

Dale or Leland: Who do you think was named first? It’s a mystery to me. As we have seen, Frost and Lynch had not made up their minds until early April 1989; and yet their subconscious choice was etched into the script when they wrote it four months earlier. Perhaps one of them had not fully committed, and the other chose to name Leland? That’s my guess, for now.

– Christian Hartleben, 12/13/2019
————————————* Wrapped In Plastic #9, Mark Frost interviewed by John Thorne
** (Entire Mystery, disc 8)

One thought on “Moriarity in the Mirror: Twin Peaks’ (im)Perfect Symmetry between Detective and Killer

  1. Matt Miller says:

    So interesting. I appreciate you taking the time to explain this idea more thoroughly than in your original FB comment. As long as we are playing with the concept, I would add that if you attempt pronounce this variation out loud, “DNALE LELAND,” it sounds a lot like “Denial Leland,” which also provides food for thought, given how the theme of denial plays out in this context.


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