Why Are There So Many Doppelgängers in Pop Culture Right Now?

You’re not seeing double. Photo: FX, HBO

In last Sunday’s penultimate installment of The Leftovers, Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey returned to the netherworld he first entered in last season’s “International Assassin” and came face-to-face with … Kevin Garvey.

The fact that the episode showed us two Kevins — one in an all-white suit who had somehow become president, and a second still working as a purgatorial assassin — was both an outlandish surprise on a series that’s filled with them, and not surprising at all. First of all, the episode was called “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).” You had to assume a twin would make an appearance.

But at the present moment, it makes sense to assume a twin might make an appearance in anything you might be watching. In one of those pop-cultural trends so pervasive it appears purposeful rather than the freak accident it (presumably) actually is, the worlds of film and television are currently riddled with doppelgängers.

In March, the movie Logan gave us a showdown between two Logans, one the real thing, the other a dastardly Wolverine clone. The current season of FX’s Fargo focuses on the conflict between twin brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy, both played by Ewan McGregor. The Prometheus follow-up Alien: Covenant doubled down on its Fassbender, casting the actor (first name Michael) as identical synthetics David, the character he played in Prometheus, and Walter, the newer model. So far, Twin Peaks has shown us at least two Agent Coopers, possibly three if the character Dougie, who looks like Cooper and recently swapped spirits with the real FBI man, can be counted as a separate entity. (Leave it to Twin Peaks to take the doppelgänger craze to a whole other level of mindfuckery.) And in September, when David Simon’s new HBO series The Deuce begins, viewers will be served double the James Franco, as he’ll play real-life twin brothers/porn-industry players Vincent and Frankie Martino.

It’s interesting that thinking-person’s blockbusters and serious dramas are having such a field day with this trope considering that it’s so strongly associated with a genre that isn’t usually afforded the same levels of attention and reverence. I am referring to the soap opera, a genre that has never been shy about randomly revealing that a character has an identical sibling or cousin. (Where do you think the original Twin Peaks got the idea to trot out Laura Palmer’s cousin, Madeline, a dead ringer for a dead teenager?)

Just as it has been in soapier contexts, the presence of a duplicate is often utilized in current films and shows as a form of deceit, a way to fake out other characters and, sometimes, the audience itself. (FYI: Look out for spoilers ahead.)

In Fargo, Ray, the seedier of the two Stussy brothers, shaves off his mustache and dons a curly wig so he can pose as Emmit, an ability that allows him access to Emmit’s bank account and the ability to make a convincing sex tape he can use to blackmail his brother. Unfortunately, Emmit’s wife gets to the tape first and, after witnessing her husband’s adultery, immediately leaves him, the first in a series of increasingly unfortunate events for Emmit. When the visual evidence is undeniable, how can Emmit possibly argue in his own defense?

In Alien: Covenant — and, to repeat: big-time spoiler ahead — both the protagonist and those of us watching get played after believing that Walter, the good synth, killed the more diabolically programmed David and is now helping the remaining members of the Covenant crew resume their journey to the planet Origae-6. In the film’s big twist, we and Branson (Katherine Waterston) simultaneously realize that David has actually pretended to be Walter so he can gain control of the ship, as well as its captain, and rewrite the history of what happened on it.

When considered in this context, the doppelgänger trend seems perfectly right for a political moment when, on a daily basis, it feels appropriate to question whether our eyes are actually seeing what they’re seeing. Before he was president, even Donald Trump himself had alter egos, of a sort. Let’s be honest: If the White House issued a statement saying that “covfefe” was actually the work of Trump’s long-lost, spelling-impaired twin brother, would you even blink at this point?

But the doppelgänger isn’t always invoked purely to pull the wool over our eyes. In the previous examples I noted, as well as on The Leftovers and Twin Peaks, the trope serves another of its traditional functions: to highlight the symbiotic relationship between good and evil. On those latter two series, the presence of carbon copies also point to the existence of other planes of consciousness. The splintering off of Dale Cooper into two Coopers — at least two — is a process that begins in the mysterious red-curtained parallel universe called the Black Lodge. On The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey can’t confront his shadow self — a self he ultimately destroys — until he visits that aforementioned otherworldly limbo place. In different ways, these dramas suggest that coming face-to-face with one’s double may be a crucial step on the path toward peace and enlightenment, or at least a way to unlock some of life’s more crucial mysteries. On both shows, even the worlds themselves have twins: Black Lodge/White Lodge on Twin Peaks, Earth and wherever all those people went when they departed on The Leftovers.

And then there’s the other, much more simple function that doppelgängers can serve: adding a dash of pure absurdity. The Leftovers had some explicit, wink-wink fun with its twin scenario in last week’s episode. When Kevin’s chief-of-staff tells him that the president’s bunker can only be accessed based on Kevin’s “unique biometrics,” he adds: “The door can only be unlocked by you and you alone. Unless you have an identical twin brother. Which would be ridiculous.” Of course, a few scenes later, Kevin’s identical twin does indeed use his unique biometrics (read: his penis) to unlock that door. (Apparently The Leftovers decided not to follow the trademark advice offered by Balki from Perfect Strangers: “Don’t be ridiculous.”)

Then there’s the moment during an otherwise heated discussion in the war room when Secretary of Defense Patti Levin, played by Ann Dowd, bursts into her own version of the theme from The Patty Duke Show, the ’60s comedy about a pair of identical teenage cousins. “They’re Kev-ins,” she sings to the two Kevin Garveys seated before her. “Identical Kev-ins.”

It works as a momentary way to defuse some of the scene’s tension. But it’s also a subtle reminder that popular entertainment has been playing with the notion of twins and doppelgängers for decades. Clearly, based on the current moment, it has absolutely no plans to ever stop.

Doppelgängers Are All Over Pop Culture Right Now