On April 8, 1990, ABC broadcast the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, cult filmmaker David Lynch’s initial foray into network television. Lynch tapped co-creator Mark Frost, who had made his bones writing teleplays for edgy yet realistic fare like Hill Street Blues, to ensure a sturdy dramatic backbone was securely in place for a series Lynch was wont to describe as “Peyton Place on acid.” Fans of Lynch’s recent Blue Velvet, another nightmarish descent into the sordid underbelly of a postcard-pretty small town, were, if nothing else, already attuned to the proper wavelength. But audiences tuning in to the show expecting another sudsy, essentially anodyne primetime soap along the lines of Dallas or Dynasty were treated in the episode’s opening moments to images of a beautiful young woman, washed ashore on the banks of an idyllic Pacific Northwest river, her corpse “wrapped in plastic,” as memorably described by passerby Pete Martell (Lynch regular Jack Nance).
Stories abound about Lynch and Frost endlessly wrangling with ABC over when and how to resolve Twin Peaks‘s central mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the town’s troubled homecoming queen? Lynch, it’s said, hoped to postpone the revelation indefinitely. Owing to these battles, and other reasons (Lynch went off to direct Wild at Heart, for one), both men stepped back from their involvement with the series over the course of its second, full-length season. As other writers and directors moved to the forefront, they introduced some distractingly tangential subplots (and a couple of narrative cul-de-sacs), setting the season on ungainly footing that was only exacerbated by ABC’s continuing shifts in broadcast night and timeslot.
That said, season two has gotten a bad rap. There are as many moments of unfettered surrealism and sheer horror, if not more, spread across those 22 episodes as there are in the first eight. Indeed, if we simply break season two up, as one recent article suggests, into three “sub-seasons” of seven or eight episodes each, we can get a fairer notion of where its relative strengths and weaknesses reside. Given the serial nature of the storytelling, it stands to reason that, in the course of ranking the episodes from the show’s first two seasons, aggregates or clusters of episodes tend to stick together. So, throughout this list, I’ve often selected a particular episode in which to discuss a story arc that spills over into other episodes.
“The Black Widow,” Season 2, Episode 12
Even amid the dullest of doldrums, there are flashes of brilliance in every episode, mostly owing to the show’s uniformly excellent ensemble cast. “The Black Widow” is a prime example of the second-season tendency to embroil secondary characters in storylines with decidedly mixed results. Real estate tycoon Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) begins his slide into delusion; soon he’ll be reenacting famous Civil War battles while turned out in full Confederate regalia. Meanwhile, retrograde amnesiac Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) joins the high school wrestling team. Ben’s madness seems, at best, like a half-baked commentary on his ruthless will to power. And Nadine’s antics come across as more embarrassing than entertaining, though her storyline does end in an evocative tug of war between duty and desire.
“Masked Ball,” Season 2, Episode 11
“Masked Ball” sets up one of the show’s most exasperatingly lackluster storylines: Having bailed on Twin Peaks in “Arbitrary Law,” motorcycle enthusiast and resident bad boy James Hurley (James Marshall) encounters a beautiful blonde, Evelyn Marsh (Annette McCarthy), who desperately needs his help to repair her expensive automobile. In full femme fatale mode, Evelyn lures James to her home, ensconces him in a room above the garage, and proceeds to lament incessantly about what an unfeeling, abusive brute her husband can be. What ensues over the course of subsequent episodes is small-beer neo-noir, spiced up with as many “erotic-thriller” negligee scenes as the network censors would allow.
“Wounds and Scars,” Season 2, Episode 17
Two words suffice to indicate the near-nadir this episode represents: pine weasel. Ben Horne attempts to halt Catherine Martell’s (Piper Laurie) plan to develop Ghostwood forest by hosting a fashion show cum fundraiser for the aforementioned endangered rodent, hosted by smirking cad Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan), who soon runs afoul of the little bugger’s fondness for shiny objects. Even James Foley’s adept direction can’t redeem this level of utter ridiculousness. At least “Wounds and Scars” introduces convent-fresh Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) as a potential love interest of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), as well as a figure of sizeable importance for the series finale.
“Dispute Between Brothers,” Season 2, Episode 10
The episode opens on Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), in the wake of her husband Leland’s (Ray Wise) passing in “Arbitrary Law.” Another member of Lynch’s repertory company, Zabriskie is routinely called upon for her trademark unnerving reaction shots, and she’s never less than mesmerizing. Nevertheless, this episode marks the onset of the season’s loss of momentum, as the writers scramble to fill the void left by the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murderer, trying on a bewildering variety of subplots. Witness the argument between elderly siblings that breaks out in the middle of Leland’s wake over one’s cradle-robbing engagement to supposedly sultry teenybopper Lana (Robyn Lively). Alas, these characters will figure more prominently throughout the season’s second half than they have any business doing.
“The Condemned Woman,” Season 2, Episode 16
Josie Packard (Joan Chen) always remained a bit of an enigma: Her byzantine business dealings as widow of lumber baron Andrew Packard (Dan O’Herlihy) were cloudy at best, her on-again, off-again relationship with Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) operatically tempestuous, and her internecine rivalry with Catherine Martell perversely sadomasochistic at bottom. Why, then, should her ultimate destiny be any less mysterious? Having finally rid herself of persecutor Thomas Eckhardt (David Warner), Josie succumbs to the influence of BOB (Frank Silva), dropping dead of fright, only to take up spiritual residence in a nearby drawer handle. In the episode’s bizarre final image, Josie’s face, superimposed over the wooden knob, screams in agony as she becomes one with the grain.