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In a show that is built on the intrigue of mysteries, the nature of MIKE and his significance in Twin Peaks has long been one of its most confounding. Is he a spirit of some kind, like BOB? How is he connected to The Man from Another Place, who is referred to as The Arm? Why do they sometimes appear together, but sometimes separately? What are his motivations - his actions don't obviously help or hinder Cooper (or Laura)? Could trying to understand his true nature be key to other Twin Peaks mysteries, such as the doppelgangers?
Played brilliantly by Al Strobel, MIKE, or rather his physical form Phillip Gerard, first appeared briefly in the original pilot, entering an elevator at the hospital; initially thrown in as reference to the 60's TV show The Fugitive and its one-armed antagonist, David Lynch, so enjoyed Strobel's performance that his part was quickly expanded. The next time we see MIKE is in Cooper's dream in Episode 2, and his first lines of dialogue are the now infamous verse:
"Through the darkness of futures past,
The magician longs to see,
One chants out between two worlds,
Fire Walk With Me"
He then talks somewhat about his time spent with BOB, and something of the nature of their relationship:
"We lived among the people. I think you say, convenience store. We lived above it. I mean it like it is, like it sounds. I too have been touched by the devilish one. Tattoo on the left shoulder ... oh, but when I saw the face of god, I was changed. I took the entire arm off. My name is Mike. His name is Bob."
Season 1, Episode 2
The rest of the dream involves Cooper's talk with 'Laura' and The Man From Another Place, both of whom speak in non-sequiturs that it later becomes apparent are cryptic clues to solving Laura Palmer's murder. We don't see MIKE again until season two, but there are further appearances of his human avatar, Phillip Gerard. Gerard, it transpires, is a meek travelling shoe salesman, with a veterinarian friend called Bob Lydecker, and who did lose an arm with a tattoo on...reading Mom. These unassuming qualities are intended as narrative misdirection in the original, casting doubt on the validity of Coop's dream, but it's easier to see in retrospect that the similarities between MIKE and Gerard, like the same person viewed through a deliberately distorted lens, are more than coincidence.
We next see MIKE in season 2, briefly seeming to inhabit Gerard's body in Episode 11, before Gerard is pulled into the Sheriff's office again in Episode 13 and Coop, Truman, Gordon and Hawk are witness to the first conversation with the spirit itself, during which some of the strongest suggestions to his true nature are given:
"Who are you?"
"My name is Mike."
"What are you?"
"I am an inhabiting spirit."
"Who is Phillip Gerard?"
"He is host to me."
"You spoke to me in my dream. Do you remember?
(a neutral response)
Do you know Bob?"
"He ... was my familiar."
Season 2, Episode 13
Whilst MIKE identifies himself as an 'inhabiting spirit', which describes his current form, I don't believe he started out this way. There are many hints that, for me, add up to one thing - that MIKE was once a human 'magician', a metaphysical conjurer, who sought dark power and found it in the form of BOB. The first lines MIKE has in the series are the 'Fire Walk With Me' poem, which can easily be interpreted as an incantation or spell. The use of the word 'magician' in it clearly doesn't refer to the Western cultural stereotype of someone performing slight-of-hand illusions, but rather some who practices ceremonial magic and holds beliefs likely based on Western esoteric or hermetic ideas. As a human, MIKE likely practised some form of Dark Arts - the fact that he was 'touched by the devilish one' and removed the left arm seems indicative, as in Western esotericism the Left-Hand Path is used to describe the pursuit of Black Magic. MIKE is also frequently seen with the Owl Ring; made from gold and jade, two materials with significant magical properties, although I'm unsure of its exact purpose.
(N.B. There are a number of references and allusion to different forms of magic/esoteric beliefs from a variety of cultures in Twin Peaks; I don't believe any one version informs the definition of magic in the show, but a deliberately anachronistic mix of many.)
Perhaps the strongest indicator of this, and key to understanding MIKE's relationship with BOB, is what MIKE says about it when first asked by Coop - "He...was my familiar". A familiar is commonly defined as a supernatural being that assists witches, sorcerers and fairie folk in their practice of magic, with those assisting in Black Magic often thought of as demons. French esotericism expert Pierre A. Riffard describes the nature of the familiar as such:
"A familiar spirit (alter ego, doppelganger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual."
–Dictionary of Esotericism, 1983
This description lends credence to the idea that MIKE and BOB are separate in nature, that MIKE was a human mage connected with BOB to increase his magical power, and that because of this, they are permanently linked in some way. But if BOB and MIKE are linked, and MIKE looked like Phillip Gerard, who is The Arm? And why are MIKE's motivations seemingly all over the place?
The revelation that Cooper is not 'possessed' by BOB in the conventional body snatcher sense, but rather that Coop's shadow self (Mr. C) is a separate being who shares a connection with BOB, sheds new light on how to interpret the relationship between MIKE and the Arm. When MIKE first joined with BOB, it stands to reason that, like Coop, it would have been MIKE's shadow self, and a 'good' version of MIKE would have become trapped in the Lodge (also probably for a set time period). MIKE's statement that he 'saw the face of God' is very vague, but for the sake of this argument, we can probably interpret this as Good MIKE making contact with denizens of the White Lodge. Once this happened, the Good MIKE resolved to end his relationship with BOB, and when the time came for Evil MIKE to go back the Lodge they swapped out, with Good MIKE ending back up in Phillip Gerard. Good MIKE then likely sliced off his left arm (the tattooed arm) to prevent the Evil MIKE for possessing Gerard again, with Evil MIKE morphing into The Arm.
This, for me, also explains why Evil MIKE's appearance changed - without a human vessel, he could no longer take on the visage of Gerard. Instead, he assumes a form that more closely resembles his true nature, dressed all in red, a colour associated with danger and fire, with MIKE at one point describing himself and BOB as such:
"Bob is a fire spirit. So are we both, both creatures of
Season 2, Episode 16
The Arm is also heard using the phrases 'Let's Rock' and 'Fire Walk With Me', both of which may be incantations (seriously freaky stuff happens in the Lodge when spoken), fitting with his life as a Black Magic sorcerer. The duality of MIKE's nature is made more apparent in Fire Walk With Me and The Return, with both being seen more frequently in The Lodge - what's worth noting, though, is when we see Coop on what is thought as of neutral ground (often referred to as the Waiting Room), MIKE is seen as both Gerard (Good MIKE) and The Arm (Evil MIKE) together. But in scenes that seem to be the Black Lodge specifically, only The Arm is there, and often more aggressive and disturbing.
To some extent, this helps to understand why MIKE seems to have conflicting motivations, seeming to desire & feed on Garmonbozia (pain & suffering) in Fire Walk With Me, but in the original series appearing distressed by the idea of BOB being loose, and trying to help Coop stop him. Maybe the Good & Evil sides to MIKE are in permanent conflict, as opposite forces that nonetheless require each other's sustenance to exist. And if so, what would this then say about the nature of Mr. C (Evil Coop) & Dougie (Good Coop)? One theory is that Good MIKE should have destroyed Evil MIKE at the crucial point when they switched places again - instead, Good MIKE just removed the arm. Maybe MIKE's knowledge of the magic he was dealing with wasn't sufficient at the time and he missed his chance to transcend, and as result he is stuck with the constantly duelling nature of his form forever; perhaps this is the biggest signifier that MIKE is, or was, human after all.