White Knight Syndrome

The FBI Agent as moral crusader, from James Comey to Dale Cooper . . .

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On Sunday morning, in what appeared to be a prose poem submitted to a literary magazine whose only aim is to destabilize the usage of quotation marks, President @realDonaldTrump critiqued the FBI by way of three separate tweets:

Tainted (no, very dishonest?) FBI ‘agent’s role in Clinton probe under review.’ Led Clinton Email probe. @foxandfriends Clinton money going to wife of another FBI agent in charge. After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness. Report: ‘ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE’ Now it all starts to make sense!

Trump was of course referring to news that Robert Mueller removed top agent Peter Strzok from the Russia investigation this summer over concerns that some possibly anti-Trump texts in Strzok’s phone demonstrated bias against the president. That’s a stark shift from little more than a year ago. In October of 2016, on the day the FBI announced the probe of Hillary Clinton’s email, Trump referred to the Bureau’s “great reputation” and lauded the agency as a force for good, projecting optimism onto former FBI director James Comey and his administration. “What happened today, starting with the FBI, maybe the system will become a little less rigged. Beautiful.” Trump’s public appraisal of the FBI in the year-plus since he campaigned (until Sunday’s tweetstorm) has gone from criticism (of what he perceived as the Bureau’s early inaction on the email scandal) to praise (during the investigation’s incipient days), and now back to remonstration. As it happens, Trump’s love-hate affair with the Bureau is a portrait in miniature of the seesawing public perception of the FBI in real-life and on TV since the 2016 election.

In May, after Comey told the Senate that the thought of his investigation being election-altering made him “mildly nauseous,” Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke of reconciliatory measures: “We need to hear how the F.B.I. will regain that faith and trust.” This clearly suggested a lack of both, at least on the part of Democratic Party members. Last month, after the leak of an FBI memo that labeled progressive black political organizations “black identity extremists,” writers for the New York Times called the Bureau’s perspective “dangerous” and linked it with historical programs like COINTELPRO, a notoriously vicious scheme that targeted black political groups as part of J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous project to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify”—this was Hoover’s loose definition of the black nationalist movement.

The shift in our perception of the FBI agent can be seen in popular TV shows like Twin Peaks: The Return and Mindhunter.

On television, the reappraisal of the FBI is filtered through its own messianic figure: the virtuous special agent. Now the Bureau—which, like many American institutions, was once seen as a force for good—is facing a reassessment. This shift can be seen in a number of popular TV shows, including Twin Peaks: The Return and Mindhunter, Netflix’s critical darling. It also finds expression on Must-See TV events like Comey’s congressional hearings.

Which is to say that television has started to interrogate the received wisdom that tells of the FBI’s goodness; meanwhile, in real life, those outside of progressive circles are finally reckoning with it, too. More and more, the Bureau is projected as a symbol of incoherence and mayhem, and this jibes, too, with its public perception after the 2016 election.


In the canon Twin Peaks universe, Dale Cooper has never said “fuck,” or any other curse word, not even in the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or in Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired on cable. This is a testament to his unrelenting pureness, even in the face of fuckworthy hardships. After he’s locked in the Black Lodge for twenty-five years, after his consciousness is splintered through time and space (and then ultimately restored through electrocution), Cooper just rolls out of a hospital bed, gives a thumbs-up, and stans for his employer, saying, “I am the FBI.” He is a kind of plucky goodness personified. His only vices are coffee, cherry pie, and an indefatigable urge to save one-dimensional damsels, who happen to be distressed in multiple metaphysical dimensions. Cooper is so exemplary that even the less-than-stellar parts of his personality are siloed in different men, who are all carbon copies of the original. The audience spends sixteen-and-a-half hours of Twin Peaks: The Return’s eighteen-hour runtime waiting for him to get back to his old self, the subtitle signifying both the audience’s return to the show and namesake town—while also signposting Cooper’s own odyssey.

By the end of The Return, even after his resurrection as Dale Cooper out of the near-catatonic Dougie state, and after the unseemly copy Mr. C is killed in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department, Cooper is still not satisfied. The ultimate duty-bound public servant, he has one final mission, which is indistinguishable from his first one: save Laura Palmer (before she died, he appeared to her in a dream, even though they hadn’t physically met). He travels back in time to undo Palmer’s death, and he ventures to another reality so as to bring her home to Twin Peaks. In doing so, he transforms into yet another incarnation: Richard, an amalgam of all of his other forms. Richard’s got Mr. C’s brusque demeanor, Cooper’s compassion, and both Dale and Dougie’s naïveté. When he arrives at the alternate-world home of Carrie Page, the woman he thinks is Palmer, he mentions the FBI, mansplains her origins, and offers to take her home. Then he discovers a newly dead man on her couch. Still, this murder is less important to Cooper-as-Richard than his mission. He ignores the dead guy, and he and Page take off. Page, in a pinch (because she’s just killed someone!), is both awed and intimidated by Cooper’s authority. In the car she asks him, “Are you really an FBI agent?”  It’s hard to know if Page is suddenly suspicious of her escort, or just shocked by how perfectly he plays the part.

Cooper’s unyielding desire to fix Laura Palmer’s life ends tragically, with Carrie, or Laura’s, curdling shriek. She’s not only unaided by Cooper’s attempt to save her, she’s re-traumatized in a way that ends with the show’s universe as we know it. (Not for nothing, the recurring white horse imagery seen throughout the series, and especially within the final hour, is almost like a warning for Cooper to keep his id in check: the mythic hero always rides in on a white horse.) Cooper’s shift into a more complex version of his disparate inputs rivals the increasingly complicated way that the FBI is perceived these days. Obviously, Twin Peaks was written and conceived far in advance of the 2016 election, but based on the denouements of both the show and America after last November, the two share a parallel teleology. Cooper and Comey are each tragic heroes, ultimately undone by their singular, self-directed, and destructive projects. At the close of his most ambitious job, Cooper/Richard may not have been “mildly nauseous”—as Comey was—but he was seriously disoriented. In The Return’s final scene, Cooper/Richard asks: “What year is this?” It’s hard not to ask this same question when you look at Cooper’s sanctimoniousness—and the vintage men he resembles outside of the show.


Along with the tulpas, or copies—Mr. C, Dougie Jones, and Richard—Cooper has another doppelgänger who took up TV time this year: Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the Type-A FBI agent on Netflix’s 1970s-set Mindhunter , about the Bureau’s study of serial killers in the early days of criminal profiling. Ford, like Cooper, is fastidious to a hilarious degree, oblivious to the world outside of his own head. He bungles a negotiation by presuming to know how a gun-wielding man will respond to being told his wife’s not coming to the scene of the crime. He wants to track criminal minds, but he has no insight into the architects of deviance theory, so the woman who becomes his girlfriend has to explain it to him. Ford’s innocence is at first charming, a refreshing little remix of the know-it-all G-man. Gradually, we see it’s a liability. When teaching “Road School,” a traveling education seminar where Ford and his seasoned partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) teach Bureau tactics to local law enforcement, his ignorance of what kind of rhetoric works best with these cops is mystifying. A prime example: he tries to humanize Charles Manson to a group of cops that are bristling from a grisly local murder, including one who had experience on the Helter Skelter crime scene.

To a larger degree than Tench and their psychologist consultant-turned-boss Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), he is obsessed with plunging ever deeper into the darkness of human behavior, and particularly of the white and male “sequence killers” he interviews. Ultimately he goes rogue, deranged by his own hubris. He rationalizes his bad behavior as a means to justify an end, and he almost pays for it with his life.

Here Mindhunter shows that the doggedness and moral fervor of the special, special agent has remained the same; still, TV now relies on the idea that this fervor comes off as pernicious instead of admirable. In Mindhunter, Ford starts off as the idealized Mary Sue character—full of good intentions and a bunch of cute quirks. Over the course of the season, his character undergoes a subtle obscuring, like a file that starts off legible and yet, as you read it, becomes progressively redacted.


On the other hand, there’s the redemption of the quintessential “open book.” Cooper and Ford’s aesthetic and moral affect is embodied by the cornfed cuss of James Comey, who, when asked during a televised hearing before Congress if there were recordings of Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice, famously gulped, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” I don’t know if Comey’s by-golly behavior is strategic, but it meshes well with his whistleblowing narrative. His dogged pursuit of Hillary Clinton via the email scandal that dominated the news cycle in the days and months before the 2016 election is a typical reenactment of the crusading, high-minded Fed.

Cooper, Ford, Comey, and their ilk are not just conventional G-men, they’re “gee,” “darnit,” “aw shucks” men, imbued with a milk-drinking wholesomeness that is hard to reconcile with their dastardly behavior—and the current and historical violence their Bureau is responsible for. Physically built like Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, and with the guilelessness of their most famous on-screen characters, Comey is a scion of a simpler time, if you’ve ever thought of U.S. domestic policy as “simple.” He’s a shot-for-shot remake of Stewart’s Chip Hardesty in 1959’s The FBI Story, an elder statesman of U.S. civil service, narrating the story, cagey about his own subjectivity.

Is it present, or is it past? These men, both the fictional and nonfictional ones, are throwback icons. They are well-dressed and handsome; they have toothy, magnanimous smiles. They are old-guard matinee idols in a surprisingly steampunk 2017, with its anachronistic pairing of white power marches and phablets. For their part, as much as they are into authority, Peaks co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost show the pratfalls of what Frost calls, in the new Twin Peaks book The Final Dossier, Cooper’s “white knight syndrome.” It’s a term you might extend to Comey’s too-earnest performative intervention in the 2016 election. Though in his case, Comey’s aim is not Cooper’s “moral conviction, if not obligation toward ‘saving’ women in jeopardy”; based on his Congressional testimony, it’s clear that Comey fancied himself Captain Save-America, or the savior of the Justice Department’s reputation after the Loretta Lynch plane gaffe, or a savior of his own ass. After his firing in May, and testimony in June, Comey became a professor at Howard University, donating his salary to create a scholarship fund. I’m not questioning his generosity, or the usefulness of his gift. It’s just that it feels a lot like a gesture meant to make up for something.

What we’re seeing this year, in the aftermath of whitelashes, white horses, and federal white knights, is a profound disappointment the failure of this manic righteousness.

What we’re seeing this year, in the aftermath of whitelashes, white horses, and federal white knights, is a profound disappointment that goodness, or the superficial appearance of it, does not ameliorate our social ills. Refracted through Comey’s idyllic trips into America’s golden hour via smartphone photography of West Point kayaking and heartland roads is the former FBI director’s domestic dream—a dream that is at once more legible and just as abstract as one of Dale Cooper’s Season One visions. (Comey still refers to us as a City-On-A-Hill.) And seen through the scrim of Iowa corn stalks and the goody-goody veneer of Comey’s affectionate references to upright twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (on Twitter), is the Lynchian severed ear beneath the soil. That ear looks an awful lot like the last election if you, like Kyle MacLachlan’s Blue Velvet character, bend down and inspect it.

In 1919, Colorado congressman William N. Vaile described a young J. Edgar Hoover as a “slender bundle of high-charged electric wire.” Electricity is also a prevalent metaphor in Twin Peaks: The Return. That this symbol, or idea, abounds in the real and fictional presences of FBI agents is not a coincidence. For electricity, at its most basic, is just a particular kind of energy. For their part, Cooper, Ford, Hoover, and Comey are all conduits of a manic righteousness, though its one that plays much differently now than it did in the past.

Niela Orr is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. More of her work can be found at www.nielaorr.com.

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