In Praise of Twin Peaks‘ Sheriff Harry Truman

With the news that Twin Peaks is returning after twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about what, to me, made the show so great. It wasn’t the mysteries: like so many shows based around secrets, once they were revealed, they were kind of anticlimactic. But the characters embroiled in them never grow trite or dull, even after a quarter century.

FBI Agent Dale Cooper is our point man in Twin Peaks, the outsider through whose eyes we learn about this strange little town. He’s also his own kind of crazy, so it’s as much fun to watch them meet him as it is vice-versa. But he’s only half the story, and half the leading men. The other is Sheriff Harry S. Truman, played by Michael Ontkean.

I don’t remember, if I ever knew, why the character was given that name. Since it’s from David Lynch, it’s as likely to be heavily symbolic as it is to be a completely flippant bit of nonsense, and really, either is okay. But what’s important is the way that Harry balances Cooper, because without him, Twin Peaks would be little more than a more vicious version of its contemporary, Northern Exposure.

It’s easy to miss what Harry brings to the show, because he’s essentially the straightest of straight men. Whereas even our POV character Agent Cooper is exaggerated, Sheriff Truman is just exactly who he appears to be. Ontkean plays him with a deliberate flatness that echoes the plain ways of Gary Cooper in his greatest Westerns, which is appropriate for a man comfortable in a cowboy hat. It’s also easy to mistake this flatness for simply bad acting, or at least for thin characterization. But that’s very much not the case.

Sheriff Truman is diligent, intelligent and above all patient with his fellow lawmen, and incorruptibly courageous with the villains. The only time he loses his temper is with Cooper’s insufferable FBI forensics expert Albert, and both the audience and Cooper are clearly on Harry’s side. In fact, part of the joke is that Albert is such a tool, he even pisses off Harry. Truman’s flatness is a manifestation of simple, total confidence.

And the first time that flatness truly breaks, when his girlfriend Josie is about to leave town for good, it’s both shocking and highlights what lurks beneath that placid surface. For years I missed how subtly devastating that moment was, until I got the latest blu-ray set. Its greater detail shows just how close to tears—tears!—Harry really is at that moment.

Dale Cooper Harry Truman Twin Peaks

So, yes, I’m delighted that MacLachlan and the rest of the regulars are returning. I’m curious to see what they plan to do with Sheryl Lee, who played two murder victims on the show and is also listed as a returnee. But truthfully, until I see a confirmation that Michael Ontkean is stepping back into Sheriff Truman’s black hat, it won’t really feel like Twin Peaks.


Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel, and He Drank, and Saw the Spider), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing).

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