When Twin Peaks premiered April 8, 1990, on ABC, it became a minor pop phenomenon as viewers tuned in to discover Who Killed Laura Palmer. But the series was always more than a mystery; it was a grim, playful, often deliberately infuriating drama that fused the unique sensibilities of executive producers David Lynch and Mark Frost. Lynch was known for his mysterious surrealism, his adoration for Boy Scout values and Americana, and his preoccupation with the darkest aspects of human nature. Frost, a veteran TV producer, had a knack for quirky characters and police procedural elements (he’d previously worked on Hill Street Blues). The show ran ran for just 30 episodes spread out over two seasons, and except for the pilot, it was never a ratings smash, but its effect on TV is still being felt. Peaks’ most prominent successor was The X-Files, which capitalized on Peaks’ weirdness and offbeat humanism, not to mention its cinematic style, which relied on long takes, deep focus, and rich shadows. Northern Exposure capitalized on Peaks’ interest in small town life and cheerfully eccentric characters. The wholly experimental nature of some episodes of The Sopranos, and the entire unexplained and willful mysteriousness of Carnivale and Lost, are indebted to Frost and Lynch.
The series kicked off with a remarkable two-hour pilot directed by Lynch. It was as assured and engaging as any of the filmmaker’s theatrical work, with Cooper seeming like a wiser version of MacLachlan’s Blue Velvet protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont, returning to Small Town America after gaining more life experience and emotional stamina. The town’s atmosphere at first seemed like pure Peyton Place, with good high school girls loving bad boys that drive motorcycles, and local crackpots accidentally boiling fish in percolators. Flushing out the rat’s nest of small town villainy was the corpse of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), an angelic blonde found naked in the river, wrapped in plastic. The investigation of her murder led viewers down a poisoned path of prostitution, drug trafficking, rape and murder.
The first season introduced square-jawed, boyishly enthusiastic F.B.I. Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan). His methods of detection were as verbal as Sherlock Holmes’, but he also relied heavily on the dancing dwarves of his mystical dreams. Rationalists could say he was applying dream logic to police work, but as the series wore on, it became more obvious that Cooper was a strange force of goodness, a white knight in a chess game between good and evil; the playing field was in the realm of the supernatural and the obscure. The Laura Palmer mystery gave Lynch and Frost a way to move the story along while indulging in Lynchian digressions and filling out vivid supporting characters. Among the latter was F.B.I. Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), a forensics expert who treated every Twin Peaks local with his trademark deadpan sarcasm and aggressive hostility. He got punched out more than once for his seemingly misanthropic attitude, but when heatedly confronted by the sheriff, he threw everyone for a loop with a noble monologue, underscored by composer Angelo Badalamenti’s soothing and memorable show theme: “While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and a hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and will gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject, absolutely, revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method…is love. I love you, Sheriff Truman.”
Curveballs of this type are a Lynchian delight. One of the great pleasures of Twin Peaks is its apropos-of-nothing way of starting and ending scenes, many of which seem to exist for their own sake. A diner scene opens with a redneck yokel hollering, “Hot damn, that pie is good!” before tracking over to two girls who are actually engaged in the narrative. A hotel scene opens and closes with sailors in uniform bouncing tennis balls up and down on the wooden floor. There’s a moment in Episode 15 where, for no good reason besides its own poetic beauty, time stops just long enough to let Ben Horne and his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) flash back to a childhood experience in sensual slow-motion: two little boys in spectacles watching in fascination as a teenage girl with a flashlight dances in the dark.
As with most of Lynch’s work, if you tapped into its dreamlike rhythm and stopped trying to engage it logically, it became a richer, more rewarding experience. If, on the other hand, you couldn’t go with the flow, the series could be as vexing as Lynch’s boisterous present-day descriptions of Zen meditation and self-help. Most viewers were not amused. Within a few episodes of season two, the show’s audience, which was never huge to start with, got frustrated that Lynch and Frost had not revealed the identity of the killer and didn’t seem to be in any hurry to do so. All viewers had to go on was talk that an evil spirit named Bob (Frank Silva) had possessed an unidentified resident, and that resident was responsible for Laura’s death.
season two, which finally arrives on DVD this week, begins moments after Dale Cooper has been shot by an unseen suspect, then proceeds at a tortuously slow pace. Our hero lies bleeding on the floor of his hotel room as a ancient, bald, slow moving bellhop delivers a glass of warm milk. Ignoring his requests to call the police, the old man gives Cooper the thumbs up, then makes him sign a receipt before shuffling away. Lynch directed this episode as well; it fixates on the morbid and absurd before drifting into the first dream sequence where a bald, monotonous giant in a pressed shirt and bow-tie appears to Cooper and offers him such clues as, “The owls are not what they seem.”
The series contrasts these purposefully enigmatic and bizarre sequences with a traditional mystery plot in which Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and his loyal deputies went about aiding Cooper in uncovering clues (such as discovering tiny letters beneath girls’ fingernails). There are also a number of melodramatic subplots. One of season two’s main threads concerns the arrival of Laura’s out-of-town cousin Maddy (Sheryl Lee again), who bears a distinct resemblance to Laura notwithstanding her raven hair; as far as some other characters are concerned, Maddy is Laura. At the same time, James (James Marshall), the brooding boy on the motorcycle who adored but never understood Laura, falls in love with Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), perhaps because Donna is also evolving into another Laura: a Good Girl gone bad, smoking cigarettes and wearing sunglasses while standing next to the jukebox.
Maddy’s arrival sends a wave of confusion through James and Donna; none of the three quite know what to do with their misplaced desire. One of the early highlights of season two is the scene where Donna, Maddy and James sit in Donna’s living room with some recording equipment performing a gentle pop song about a couple’s romance (“Just You And I”), punctuated by furtive glances and followed by a bout of weeping and a tender kiss. (Twin Peaks was always a dark program, yet even in dread-filled sequences such as this one, it also maintained a kind of teenage tenderness.) Meanwhile, Laura’s father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), goes through his own transformation. Having spent the first season weeping and raging, he emerges in the opening episode of season two with his hair turned completely white and caterwauling with energy, singing old show tunes and dancing around town. It becomes increasingly evident that Leland is the werewolf of the series—a smiling predator who, when overtaken by the evil spirit Bob, lashes out against his young female victims.
Leland soon becomes a central figure; some of the drama’s most specific and cinematic shots are devoted exclusively to him. Episode 11 opens with a slow spiraling shot of ceiling tiles pockmarked with holes that gradually pulls back to reveal Leland’s haunted face as the police interrogate him; in the background we hear vaguely muted screams. Leland articulates his feelings as being, “More than grief. It’s deep down inside. Every cell screams. You can hear nothing else.” In Episode 14, there’s a long take where Maddy confesses to her Aunt Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) and Uncle Leland; it begins over photos of Laura on the mantle, drifts over the family seated on the couch far in the distance, then tracks over to a record player in the foreground that is framed to suggest a cage or a trap.
That notorious 14th episode features one of the most brutal scenes ever shown on television, where Leland, unable to let Maddy go, savagely attacks her. The shots are simple, mostly medium wide shots isolating characters in the room with lots of empty space on either side of them. This episode was directed by Lynch; tellingly, the audio track—droning sounds interspersed with strange animal cries—magnifies the horror of the imagery. In that same episode, in the scene at the roadhouse, Lynch juxtaposes Cooper, Sheriff Truman and the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) watching a torch singer perform a love ballad with shots of Donna at a separate table, looking deep into James’ eyes and singing along. Immediately before the murder, the Giant puts in an appearance to Cooper and says (into the chanteuse’s microphone), “It is happening again.” After the murder, Lynch cuts to an aghast Cooper, a tormented Giant, and Donna bursting into hot tears without understanding why. The old man from the hotel makes his second appearance, approaching Cooper and placing a kindly hand on his shoulder whispering, “I’m so sorry,” before shuffling back to the bar.
For all the physical abuse depicted onscreen, and the trickles of blood that run down Maddy’s face—imagery that was more than some viewers could handle at the time—the series finds its emotional center, and its rich humanity, in the faces of those who have seen the horror. Lynch is fascinated by the evil that men do, but that fascination would be meaningless if he also wasn’t captivated by those who are affected by it.
Cooper, in fact, is Lynch’s greatest hero because, more than any other Lynch protagonist, he actively tries to be the opposite of evil. He’s clean-cut and respectful, he waxes rhapsodic about Tibet and a damn fine cup of coffee, and he doggedly pursues demons in whatever shape they take. It’s telling that even when the authorities capture Leland in Episode 16 and the villain lays dying in a prison cell with emergency sprinklers drenching them, Cooper holds his hand and takes his confession, verbally leading him into the light.
There is savage darkness in Twin Peaks, the likes of which television had never seen before; the series got away with it because, like so many B-movies, it cloaked its larger concerns in the guise of genre. Only by making Leland Palmer a lost soul possessed by the demonic Bob could Lynch and Frost deal with the real monsters that lurk in the heart of America. After Leland has been laid to rest, a handful of the series’s more philosophical characters stand in a grove of pine trees pondering these mysteries. The sheriff pragmatically states he is having a hard time believing in these demons and curses, and Cooper pointedly asks whether it’s easier to accept a father raping and murdering his own daughter.
Episode 16 was the turning point for Twin Peaks. With Laura’s murder solved and her spirit released, Dale Cooper could have gone back home. The series had to find new ways to jump-start its material, so Lynch and Frost tried to develop B-stories not directly related to Laura: Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) dealing with his wife Nadine (Wendy Robie), who has emerged from a coma thinking she’s a high school cheerleader; police station receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) wondering whether she was impregnated by dumb lug Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) or foppish men’s fashion designer Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan); abused wife Shelley Johnson (Madchen Amick) and army brat/juvenile delinquent Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) flounder as they try to care for Shelley’s brain-damaged husband, Leo (Eric Da Re). But most of season two’s subplots were dead ends. Laura was the sun around which these satellite characters orbited—the source of all their secrets. The unscrupulous business deals of Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) are more intriguing because Horne loved Laura and owned the brothel, One Eyed Jack’s, where he seduced her. Donna and Maddy’s transformations are compelling because each of them wanted to become Laura, and Lynch has always been a sucker for transformations. “For a while I got to be someone else,” Maddy says to James before kissing him goodbye, “but now I’m me again.”
Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) tells Cooper in Episode 17, “You know, there’s only one problem with you. You’re perfect.” Aside from his eccentric methods of crime investigation and maybe drinking too much coffee, she was right. Without the Laura Palmer mystery to obsess and propel him, such a crusader isn’t interesting. The second half of the season attempted to bring Cooper down to the earthly realm by giving him a troubled past where the love of his life, Caroline, was murdered by his former partner, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Right before Windom Earle became the main villain on Twin Peaks, Cooper had to clear his name from an elaborate drug frame-up by minor villain Jean Renault (Michael Parks, smooth as silk). The plot mechanics were hokey, to be sure, but the tense sequence where Renault has Cooper at gunpoint as the police are closing in echoes High Sierra, with a queasy metaphysical twist. “Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place…Then, a pretty girl die and you arrive and everything change…Suddenly, the quiet people, they quiet no more. Suddenly, the simple dream become [sic] the nightmare. So…maybe you brought the nightmare with you, and maybe the nightmare will die with you.” It’s a memorable exchange that ends in bullets and bloodshed, but also a precursor for the show’s ultimate resolution.
In the meantime, Earle minces around town causing trouble for everyone. This mad genius with a passion for chess blames Cooper for destrying his life and longs to avenge himself; the chess game spirals off into an elaborate and often confusing philosophical tug-of-war between the powers of good and evil, represented by the White and Black Lodge. Instead of dreams used as methods of deduction, the dialogue turns to the crypto-zoological, referencing UFOs and Native American folklore, giant owls and top secret military conspiracies. If it sounds a little like The X-Files, it’s worth noting that David Duchovny is around to lighten the mood a little bit as one of Coop’s allies, a cross-dressing DEA agent named Denise Bryson.
By this point, the show’s original characters seem stuck in ruts: Benjamin Horne has lapsed into madness with civil war reenactments inside his office, James Hurley has gotten embroiled in a film noir romance with a married woman outside of town, and Donna and Audrey have all but disappeared from the narrative except as occasional window dressing. Great character actors like Daniel O’Herlihy and David Warner appear as heavies, both trying to impose themselves on the sheriff’s crooked girlfriend, Josie Packard (Joan Chen), but it feels like a lot of huffing and puffing after the sickening horrors earlier in the season. The courtship between Big Ed and Double R Diner owner Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) is genuinely warm, and it’s nice to see a slow romance between grown-ups for a change. And even Coop finds time for a little romance with Double R waitress Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), who endears herself to Cooper by saying to him with a smile, “You must think I’m really strange!”
Alas, by then all hope for the show was lost. The ratings had gone into the toilet, and most of the final episodes were a chore to get through. The quality of the writing had lapsed (inconsistent characters include Sheriff Truman, who recovers from his lover Josie’s fatal disappearance after sitting around for one episode nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels). The directors (including Diane Keaton) tried to spice up banal situations with off-kilter visual motifs or Dutch camera angles; the result wasn’t so much surreal or absurd as it was kooky. Windom Earle would set up potential traps (stalking Audrey, Donna and Shelly as his “three Queens”) only to conveniently drop that scheme and move on to something else (planning an elaborate bit of nastiness during the Miss Twin Peaks Contest). Even the final episode, directed by David Lynch, which tidily wraps up most of the major subplots (often by killing off main characters) and functions as a surrealist exercise as Cooper enters the red curtained rooms of the Black Lodge, feels unsatisfying. Lynch, by this point, had become so self-aware of himself as David Lynch, art house guru, that his eccentric visions have become familiar. The dwarf, the giant, Laura and Leland Palmer, Maddy, Bob, and even the decrepit old hotel clerk show up in the red room as Cooper passively observes. We leave Dale Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, with a smiling shadow self doppelganger returning to the real world. Our final glimpse of this false Cooper is after he has smashed his face into his bathroom mirror, gouts of blood dripping down his face, laughing maniacally.
I watched the finale with a cousin who greeted this image by standing up and howling, “FUCK YOU!” at the screen. This unfair cliffhanger ending to a series destined never to be renewed may have frustrated, but it is also a scary image that’s difficult to forget, and it’s evidence of either uncompromising artistic license or a filmmaker throwing his hands in the air and refusing to cooperate. After Lynch made his feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which shows the last week in the life of Laura Palmer but willfully ignored the maddening lack of resolution in the series, he said in interviews that the series “is dead as a doornail,” and maybe he was right. Laura promises Cooper in a vision that they will see each other again in 25 years, a line that suggests maybe Lynch will return to Twin Peaks someday, but there wouldn’t be much point. The show accomplished what it set out to do: it expanded the artistic horizons of television. Thus, the nightmare ends.
Incidentally, whenever I think of Lynch’s body of work, I think of my granddad. He’s a tough old guy, reminiscent of John Huston or John Ford. He has no time for most postmodern art, which he thinks is worthless garbage. Yet Lynch is his favorite contemporary filmmaker, and he considers him one of the most “realistic” directors of our time. Years before Lost Highway came out, gramps told me of a recurring dream he had of a pale man in black walking up to him at a party, following him around, and saying they have met before. He says Blue Velvet reminds him of his teenage years more than any other movie, and he identifies completely with Jeffrey Beaumont. (Armond White won me over after I shared this with him, and he declared, “Anyone who sees the realism in Lynch truly understands poetry!”)
When Twin Peaks began, he watched it fairly regularly. Literally five seconds after Leland showed up in season one, gramps said, “HE KILLED HER!!!” He stopped watching the show when it implied that Bob was the killer, thinking the series was coasting on artsy-fartsy pretensions, only returning during season two when it showed Bob as Leland’s alter ego. “That’s more like it,” he muttered. He lost interest again once Leland was removed from the storyline, but although he rarely references films in everyday conversation, he will from time to time bring up images from the work of David Lynch. Most TV series and films show a fake version of life, devoid of the contradictory strangeness that happens all around us, all the time. Lynch plugs right into those aspects of reality. Some may complain that his work is too esoteric, but it’s unsettling, because it it’s more familiar than we’d like to admit.