Why We Hate James Hurley “God, James is sweet, but he’s so dumb, and right now I can only take so much of sweet.”

"Too bad we can only kill him once." – Bobby Briggs

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

“It really is awful when someone rattles off a poem without any proper feeling.”
– Sei Shonagon

We do hate James, don’t we? Any cursory internet search will bring you to tweets and tags and posts about why, and how, we hate James Hurley. The reasons are as broad as one interdimensional television world would allow. The reasons are as narrow as his “boring, stupid face,” to quote my wife. The reasons span the un/critical, endlessly meme-able distance between. But the point is clear: we hate James. Maybe you do not, but, culturally speaking, we do.

We dread his complete disregard for presence, his fake guitar playing, his ridiculous crush-hopping, and his boring subplots. While there are certainly more unlikable characters on Twin Peaks, they commit neither the sin of having too much screen time nor the sin of squandering what time they have. At each moment, a world of trauma and mourning swirls around James, but his dumb gaze stares through it all: to women, to his bike, to the world beyond the lodges. Riding away, his back remains turned to the deepest depths he could ever face — in himself, and in Twin Peaks. All the while, we’re stuck listening to him pick and strum indecisively. We’re stuck watching him ride into the sunset while all hell breaks loose.

Outlined below are four interrelated reasons why I believe we hate James Hurley. You may ask, “We who?” But if you’re reading this, “we” includes “you.” You may wonder, after the fact, “but this isn’t all about you.” That’s an interesting thought. Please leave disagreements and countertheories in the comments thread after the postlude. I’m eager to engage.

01. James is Boring
“I’m only quiet on the outside.”

Philosophers are often bored, so it’s unsurprising that Heidegger (a bore above most) would dedicate a long lecture to the question of boredom. At the train station, about the empty passage of time, Heidegger asks: “What are we really passing here?” In short, boredom is that fundamental experience that draws us toward our finitude in relation to Time. We wait for the train and, in waiting, discover ourselves; our selves, of course, do not outlast our boredom. Perhaps Heidegger’s greatest cultural critique was his understanding of our need to make ourselves disappear into a language that, by virtue of its apparent stability (and abundance), consoles. So long as we don’t press the foundations of the language any further, we’re good. We pass time, and time passes us for the time being. Still, we wait, and die.

In front of screens, we wait, and die. We watch and wait. If we’re lucky, we become enraptured in the midst of the passage of time. However, with television, we are rarely that lucky. Following the early climax of Twin Peaks’s second season, we especially find that we’ve run out of such luck as new, yet hackneyed, narratives are thrown into the mix. The greatest offender, if perhaps because it’s the longest, concerns James and his new quasi-lover Evelyn. In this narrative, we wait at the end of the station, paradoxically, for the train wreck to pass.

This is where we begin and end our theory of why James is such a bore. James is boring not only because we wait with him while he is waiting to make a move (or not), endlessly. We wait for it all to end, endlessly. This dual waiting could, with great sophistication, become a means of understanding James as one who waits. It could even become a means of understanding ourselves in relation to boring television. But it becomes, through the actual narrative, a diversion from our encounter with the deeper mystery of the series and a largely artless distraction. It is an amalgamation of wasted time, in which our least favorite character fails to act, and we fail to skip forward (believing, stupidly, in some notion of foundational coherency).

In the end, of course, we find that James was being used: to wait, while something more important was happening all along. It’s difficult not to feel similarly. Resentment, sadly, will sit at the station, and pass the time.

02. James is a Reminder
“I changed my mind. I’m not sorry.”

Reminders are invitations. Throughout Twin Peaks, David Lynch is calling us to the background. Inadvertently, it’s there that we first found BOB. It’s through backgrounds that we learn who or what know what or who. Owls, logs, lights. Even more obviously, however, it’s in the background where the televisions are running, and we’re given an Invitation to Love.

In life, it’s believed that people experience varying degrees of freedom. On television, however, characters are developed (and on soap operas, almost never un-developed). It’s increasingly important to make this distinction, as people have a tendency to see themselves as characters and not as people. In life, people are groomed to become characters who act within their lives. People are fated by forces outside of themselves, forces that have the sole purpose of developing certain characteristics. These are, in the end, what we call “reality,” much in the same way in which reality television is understood as “reality.” Coincidentally, we are let down by appearances, our roles, the accidents of our materiality. The logic of television is quite different: characters let us down because we realize things could’ve been otherwise, even with something as simple as a director’s cut.

Soaps are notoriously uncut. But it is cuts that bring us to the core of Twin Peaks. With cuts, Laura’s body washed to shore. At dawn, the town of Twin Peaks came to us: first, a meadowlark, then an interstate, then the downtown, then artifacts of a town asleep, the diner, the Great Northern, the sawmill, a kitchen at breakfast. Cut to a woman’s body “face down, lying on the log raft, cut, bruised, broken and lifeless.” The small town is subsumed within her death, and her body becomes the locus of mourning for the small town. It’s a story that we’ve known for 25 years and from time immemorial. It is an originary cut from which we’ve been in mourning ever since. (Who killed Laura Palmer? We anticipate the answer and suspect everyone in the meantime.)

We hate James, in the midst of this, because he is a reminder of what else is happening: that is, what is happening on television. If the cut is an opening, the continuity of the closure is that which tries to hide reality — even reality, as in the case of Twin Peaks, at its most metaphysical. It almost goes without saying that James is a character lifted from a soap, as though occupying the empty space of a television’s glow. Insidiously, like a character, he is a reminder of our need to escape from reality, to “aberrate” mourning rather than inaugurate it, in the words of Gillian Rose. He is the barrier we must cross in order for ourselves to descend into the Black Lodge. His melodrama, meanwhile, scuttles in the foreground, cutting us off at every meaningful step for which he is present.

03. James is a Cipher
“Laura said a lot of nutty stuff.” (Animation: Korey Daunhauer)

What does a doppelgänger see when they look through their mirror? The mythology is wont to tell us, and unsurprisingly unconcerned. (It’s a scarier question, a scarier answer. David Lynch is, no doubt, the filmic master of repression.) But everyone, even a double, has their story to tell. Twin Peaks is, above all, a show about dual identities showing themselves in mirrors. Every significant character has its double, and each confrontation becomes a locus, eye to eye, of one terrible revelation: you are not who you think you are. (You are, in fact, who we are… or were.)

Who does James see when he looks through his mirror? Like Narcissus, I can’t imagine he even saw that far. He certainly wasn’t written, as a character, to see that deeply. It’s questionable as to whether or not he saw himself. James’s identity is put into play from the beginning, having neither home nor parents nor girlfriend nor personality. He carries his last name like a curse. He’s a void, a mirror, all unto himself. The mirror-play becomes a theater of refraction for Lynch’s ideal teenage masculinity. It becomes a theater for how to play the role as a man, without having the foundations necessary to actually be one. When you can’t be who you are, you dress the part instead — and hope to God no one catches on.

In television, as in life, we hate frauds. More profound than our hatred of frauds is the hatred of the de-frauded, themselves, when they know we’ve caught on. They pick up the shattered pieces and hope the bits of reflections will still fool someone — and take quick swipes at those for whom it doesn’t. But how does a mirror hold itself, broken?

This is the cipher theory: we hate James because he can’t mirror what, or who, he is supposed to mirror. James Dean can flaunt his pointless rebellion with a glint of sincerity, but in pieces, mourning his mutilated crush while flirting with the next (and the next), all we can see is Hurley’s eyes roaming the room in search of a sight of himself. All the while, his Echoes lie in wait, ready to follow and flee.

04. James Left
Image: Séamus Gallagher

In our lives, we have far too few moments in which to make sense of our most profound losses.

In our lives, we rarely have the opportunity to truly descend into the depths of truth.

In our lives, we have as many opportunities to run as to stay, and yet.

James was keen to crush and quick to leave.

Worse yet, James, who connected, if tangentially, deeply with his place, who knew the ins and outs, who knew the superficial secrets, chose to “see the world,” instead. He chose to get on his bike and ride.

But what in the world can you see if you don’t even look into the dark corners of your home?

Cooper went in. James rode away.

He rode beyond the episodes, beyond the finale. Does the ocean have the same appeal when you’re headed nowhere?

Cooper came out transmogrified. James disappeared into the station, the glow, the mirror itself.

James is a bore, a projection, a vessel. As with everything, or everyone, else that we hate, James is a dumpster into which we can dump our own emptiness.

Worse still, James is the emptiness that we’re left with after the fact.

We hate James because we can’t bear it, either.

A Musical Postlude (Without Comment)

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

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