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.
30. “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.
29. “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.
28. “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.
27. “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.
26. “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.
25. “Checkmate,” Season 2, Episode 13
“Checkmate” perfectly illustrates the show’s difficulties in successfully navigating tonal shifts when not guided by the hand of Lynch himself. Attempts at lighthearted slapstick, as in the scene where Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and Dick Tremayne infiltrate an adoption agency to ferret out background details about Tremayne’s rambunctious foster son, don’t sit well alongside yet more flatfooted developments in James’s seduction by Evelyn Marsh. Still, the episode does introduce strange, possibly extraterrestrial-related events surrounding Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) that presage The X-Files, which debuted a year later. The comparison is made more intriguing by the involvement of that show’s lead actor, David Duchovny, who turned up in Twin Peaks back in “Masked Ball” as cross-dressing Agent Denise/Dennis Bryson.
24. “Slaves and Masters,” Season 2, Episode 15
Pete Martell reveals new depths to his character when he ably assists Agent Cooper in a deadly serious game of chess against Cooper’s former partner and current nemesis Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Diane Keaton is in the director’s chair for this episode, and she brings a measure of panache with her sinuous camera movements, like the opening shot that tracks around a chessboard and its pieces, followed by a clever match-cut from a close-up of the black queen on the board to a shot that slowly pans up the figure of funereally clad Evelyn Marsh. It’s only a shame that, in general, the episode’s narrative stuff isn’t up to its formal snuff.
23. “Double Play,” Season 2, Episode 14
Director Uli Edel, fresh off Last Exit to Brooklyn, brings a shadowy noir feel to the episode’s two best scenes: In the middle of a power outage, Cooper and Truman discover Earle’s first victim strapped to a chair in the sheriff’s station, a chess pawn stuffed in his mouth. A revived Leo (Eric Da Re) plays a murderous game of cat and mouse with his wife, Shelly (Mädchen Amick), and her lover, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), in the darkened Johnson home. The two storylines intersect at the end of the episode, when, in a moment that echoes James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, Leo stumbles upon Earle’s forest cabin. From Earle’s first on-screen appearance, stereotypically accompanied by florid flashes of lightning and resounding peals of thunder, the series takes on a demented gothic tone whenever the character’s involved that’s matched only by Welsh’s gleefully unhinged performance.
22. “Variations on Relations,” Season 2, Episode 19
“Variations on Relations” is one of a trio of atmospheric episodes that center around Owl Cave, where ancient petroglyphs may yield up some of the secrets related to the Black Lodge. (Incidentally, one of the symbols studied by Cooper and Truman will be replicated on Laura Palmer’s ring, an object featured prominently in the prequel film Fire Walk with Me.) After thrashing about in the mid-season slumps, this episode begins to pick up the pace, laying the puzzling symbolic as well as narrative groundwork for the finale. The episode also wins points for the scene where Windom Earle practices his crossbow skills with a young Ted Raimi as his target.
21. “On the Wings of Love,” Season 2, Episode 18
Packing a measure of irony into its soaring title, “On the Wings of Love” opens with Truman under attack from the woman (Brenda Strong) he just spent the night with. It’s an odd development for Truman’s character, given the fact that he’s still reeling from Josie’s demise in “The Condemned Woman,” but it certainly emphasizes the show’s abiding preoccupation with the intermingling of sex and violence, a theme that reaches its most harrowing expression in “Lonely Souls.” Further point up these notions, Windom Earle adopts a series of disguises in order to slyly menace three of his potential victims: Audrey Horne (Sherlyn Fenn), Shelly Johnson, and Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle).
20. “The Path to the Black Lodge,” Season 2, Episode 20
Puzzles abound in “The Path to the Black Lodge”: Catherine, Pete, and Andrew Packard attempt to crack Eckhardt’s puzzle box; Cooper figures out the significance of the poems sent to prospective Miss Twin Peaks entrants; and, in the episode’s most disturbing scene, Window Earle kidnaps Major Briggs to torture the meaning of the Owl Cave petroglyphs out of him. In the world of Twin Peaks—as, indeed, in Lynch’s altered states of reality in general—puzzles aren’t necessarily meant to be solved. The finality of resolution is all too often equated with death and destruction.
19. “Rest in Pain,” Season 1, Episode 4
“Rest in Pain” is notable for introducing two significant new characters: Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee), Laura Palmer’s dark-haired cousin, and Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld, played by the late Miguel Ferrer, who steals every scene he’s in with his rapid-fire, no-nonsense delivery. Albert ostensibly swoops into Twin Peaks to offer Cooper forensic assistance on the Palmer case, but this cynical straight-shooter is really there to deliver some hilariously deflationary rundowns of the town and its denizens. Lynch and his co-creators were wise to bring Albert back for season two in an expanded capacity: He offers an essential counterbalance to the show’s far-flung mystical forays, serving as yang to Cooper’s instinctive, stone-lobbing yin.
18. “Realization Ttime,” Season 1, Episode 7
Aside from Leo’s assassination of a mynah bird named Waldo (a nod to Waldo Lydecker in Laura), the highlight of “Realization Time” shows Audrey’s undercover infiltration of One Eyed Jacks, a casino and bordello just over the Canadian border that’s secretly owned by her father. Audrey’s not-to-be-forgotten “audition” for the madam, Blackie (Victoria Catlin), demonstrates her facility for tying a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. Audrey’s tenure at One Eyed Jacks will carry over into season two, but the story arc’s most indelible moment is a scene of pure Freudian delirium from “May the Giant Be with You,” the second opener: Dressed like the Queen of Hearts, Audrey prepares to entertain her first customer, who proves to be her own father, there to field-test the new recruit.
17. “Traces to Nowhere,” Season 1, Episode 2
After the swoony fever-dream perfection of the pilot, the follow-up episode was bound to be somewhat of a comedown. Scripted by Lynch and Frost, “Traces to Nowhere” gets its unenviable heavy lifting done with brisk efficiency, setting the ball rolling on numerous subplots, as well as fleshing out characters that were only barely glimpsed in the first episode. Among these, the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) was bound to be a fan favorite from the moment she uttered the wonderfully eccentric line “My log saw something that night” with absolute sincerity and even solemnity.
16. “The One-Armed Man,” Season 1, Episode 5
“The One-Armed Man” calls our attention to an aspect of Twin Peaks that’s used sparingly by Lynch and Frost: active engagement with the “mythology” of another TV series. There are enough film-noir references in the show to fuel entire shelves’ full of critical analysis, but shout-outs to television programs are few and far between. So when Cooper and Truman finally corner the one-armed man (Al Strobel) Cooper first saw in a dream, he calls himself Phillip Gerard. The name’s lifted from the unrelenting lawman in the 1960s series The Fugitive, which also featured a one-armed man as its primary antagonist. Twin Peak’s Phillip Gerard thus unites within himself the classic opposition between good and evil, confirmed by the fact that he once partnered with, but now seeks to defy, Killer BOB.
15. “The Man Behind the Glass,” Season 2, Episode 3
Adroitly directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, who contributed a total of four episodes to the series, “The Man Behind the Glass” still feels a little slack when compared to the two standout Lynch-directed episodes that preceded it. But there are a lot of small, telling moments strewn throughout the episode like a breadcrumb trail into the dark heart of the woods, particularly Leland Palmer’s eerie visit to the sheriff’s station carrying a wanted poster emblazoned with Killer BOB’s face, claiming it’s someone he’s known since childhood. There’s also Albert’s hilariously philosophical monologue, culminating in his platonic declaration of love for Sheriff Truman, which should’ve singlehandedly won Miguel Ferrer an Emmy that year.
14. “The Orchid’s Curse,” Season 2, Episode 5
Agoraphobic amateur botanist and Meals on Wheels recipient Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen) takes center stage in this episode. Bookish Harold’s a fascinatingly ambiguous character who blends Von Dohlen’s baby-faced vulnerability with an off-kilter (and faintly menacing) weirdness that’s pure Twin Peaks. “The Orchid’s Curse” spotlights both aspects of his personality: When Donna taunts housebound Harold from the safety of his front lawn with the copy of Laura’s secret diary she’s just snatched out of his hands, he suffers a panic attack, collapsing in a heap. Later, Donna and Maddy break in to ransack his apartment, and Harold appears, lit from below in true horror-movie fashion, railing at them and mauling his face with a garden rake.
13. “Laura’s Secret Diary,” Season 2, Episode 4
Episode director Todd Holland (also responsible for “Checkmate”) concocts a particularly expressive opening shot: The camera slowly tracks along what appears to be a darkened tunnel, while off screen a girl’s voice screams, “Daddy!” The tunnel then resolves into a tile lining the ceiling of the room where Sheriff Truman interrogates Leland Palmer about the murder of Jacques Renault (Walter Olkiewicz). Ray Wise’s impassioned delivery of Leland’s spurious confession is second only to the scene in “Arbitrary Law” where he breaks down completely upon realizing the enormity of what he did to Laura. This scene rather disturbingly links to the later one where Harold reads an extract from Laura’s diary describing her fantasies about “big, big men” and the hold they have over her.
12. “Demons,” Season 2, Episode 6
In a wry bit of slapstick surrealism, Shelly and Bobby throw a welcome-home party for vegetative Leo, complete with balloons, streamers, and party hats. To cap it off, they proceed to make love right under Leo’s nose. As so often with Twin Peaks’s most memorable moments, it’s the imaginative strength of the images, and not necessarily that of their representative storyline, that leaves an indelible mark. This episode points the way to the astonishing “Lonely Souls” with a touching farewell scene between Maddy and James that indicates with sly psychological acuity the different ways she’s served as a substitute for Laura—and, as it will develop, not just for the purposes of James’s amorous advances.
11. “Drive with a Dead Girl,” Season 2, Episode 8
“Drive with a Dead Girl” depicts the aftermath of Maddy Ferguson’s murder in “Lonely Souls,” and it’s another episode dominated by Leland Palmer, now firmly in thrall to the baleful influence of Killer BOB. Ray Wise’s ability to shift from sham innocence to full-throttle malice in the space of a heartbeat is nothing short of uncanny, and Wise gets to showcase both qualities, whether it’s fending off James and Donna’s oblivious enquiries after Maddy, or preparing to nonchalantly clock Cooper over the head with one of his brand new golf clubs. There’s a ghoulish, blackly comic tone to Leland’s scenes, yet the episode caps with a haunting, even despairing shot that echoes the opening moments of “Northwest Passage.”
10. “Miss Twin Peaks,” Season 2, Episode 21
Often denigrated in general, and always in comparison with the spectacular season finale that originally aired immediately following it back in 1991, “Miss Twin Peaks” ranks as high as it does on this list for two very simple reasons: The pageant itself is a masterstroke of satirical cheesiness with its garish costuming, lamely “impassioned” speeches, and hideous dance choreography—save for Lucy’s (Kimmy Robertson) bravura solo dance routine, which is actually kind of impressive. Then there’s the fact that director Tim Hunter stages the ensuing pandemonium with explicit reference to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, down to conking Nadine on the head with a sandbag, and even throws in a nod to Dressed to Kill with Windom Earle in drag “doubling” for the Log Lady.
9. “Cooper’s Dreams,” Season 1, Episode 6
Written by Mark Frost and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, this episode contains several exceptional moments of characters in crisis. Bobby Briggs, not usually drawn with finer shadings of motivation, unexpectedly breaks down while in therapy with Doctor Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn). Their conversation hints at the previously unexplored depths of sadomasochism and mutual self-hatred that dominated the relationship between Bobby and Laura. Later, during a party for some Icelandic guests at the Great Northern Lodge, Leland hears a bit of big-band music that sends him into freefall on the dance floor, alternately swaying to the rhythms and sobbing uncontrollably. In a cruel twist of fate, the Icelanders take his posture of bereavement for a new dance step, and emulate him accordingly.
8. “Coma,” Season 2, Episode 2
“Coma” provides an object lesson in how sudden shifts in tonal register, when orchestrated by a master like Lynch, can work wonders when it comes to bewildering and downright disturbing an audience—a lesson some of the later episodes might’ve done well to study more thoroughly. Lynch sets us up with a moment of prepackaged cheese: Broody James strums his guitar and croons “Just You” just for Donna and Maddy, leaving some doubt as to which of them he’s really addressing. Donna’s subsequent tempest-in-a-teacup tantrum leaves the room open for Lynch’s follow through as Maddy has a chilling vision of BOB. Lynch shoots it in one take: BOB sidles into the kitchen, proceeds to clamber over the living room furniture, and ends up shoving his face into the camera lens.
7. “The Last Evening,” Season 1, Episode 8
The only episode both written and directed by Mark Frost, “The Last Evening” deals from the bottom of a deck stacked thick with cliffhangers. There are so many, in fact, that you begin to suspect Frost just might be parodying the very notion of ending a season in medias res. Or maybe it was all just a ploy to ensure the show got picked up for another season, as Frost claimed. Whatever the rationale, you’re left with a barnburner—or is that a sawmill-burner?—of an episode. The most emotionally resonant among the various denouements has Big Ed (Everett McGill) stumbling across Nadine’s baroque attempt at suicide: This scene and his speech in the season-two opener about their tangled romantic history represent some of McGill’s best work in the entire series.
6. “Northwest Passage,” Season 1, Episode 1
From the mournful opening notes of Angelo Badalamenti’s mesmerizing score to the image of a black-gloved hand digging up one half of Laura Palmer’s shattered-heart locket, “Northwest Passage” remains the most pitch-perfect pilot in television history. The episode is particularly canny in its first half hour, as it lets the news of Laura’s murder trickle through the community, tracking responses from a sprawling cast of characters whose exact interrelations the series will be in no hurry to pin down. Instead, it’s all about mood. Weeping schoolgirls, anguished glances furtively exchanged, and a hauntingly empty desk tell the tale long before the announcement finally comes over the PA.
5. “May the Giant Be with You,” Season 2, Episode 1
Lynch slows things way down at the top of the feature-length season-two premiere. Cooper lies bleeding on his hotel room floor. An elderly room service waiter (Hank Worden) arrives with a glass of milk. The sequence unspools for a full five minutes with the unhelpful old man shambling around, repeatedly giving Coop the thumbs up, then scuffling off, only to return to render more mute approbation. Narrative time has always been inherently pliable for Lynch, but, even considering how hilariously it plays in retrospect, it’s hard not to read this scene as a gleefully thumbed nose to audience expectations. Almost as an apology, then, Lynch ends the episode on a note of pure terror with Ronette Pulaski’s (Phoebe Augustine) scarifying flashback to the scene of Laura’s murder.
4. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” Season 1, Episode 3
Cooper’s elaborate “ritual” intended to identify Laura’s murderer introduces an element of Eastern mysticism into the series that echoes Lynch’s own longstanding interest in transcendental meditation, but this episode is most remarkable for its last 10 minutes. We get our first surreal glimpse into the Red Room and its inhabitants: the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) and some otherworldly iteration of Laura Palmer. Dream logic and non-rational modes of thought have always been at the heart of Lynch’s creative process, so that anyone who sat through this episode, and still expected the show to deliver a simple solution to a standard whodunit, quite obviously had another think coming.
3. “Arbitrary Law,” Season 2, Episode 9
Directed by Tim Hunter and written by Frost, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engels (who would go on to script Fire Walk with Me alongside Lynch), “Arbitrary Law” is a team effort in which the owls come home to roost, you might say, with stunning impact. The high-water mark of the episode isn’t the revelation of the double murderer so much as his eventual fate: Leland Palmer gazes into the abyss of his own being, confronting an unendurable legacy of corruption and destruction. Leland’s anguish is disquietingly palpable as, in his final moments, he beseeches forgiveness from those he harmed most. “Arbitrary Law” broods over issues of culpability: Does “the evil that men do” stem from without or within? Rather than tendering any straightforward answer, the series can only offer a benediction, a possibly angelic vision of forgiveness.
2. “Lonely Souls,” Season 2, Episode 7
It happens again. Years before Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, “Lonely Souls” stages a murder as an extravagant act of performance art. The scene shifts from actual performance, with Julee Cruise on stage at the Roadhouse dolorously crooning “The World Spins,” to Leland preparing for his act of savagery, fastidiously snapping on some latex gloves. Leland dispatches Maddy by smashing her face into a bucolic landscape painting, a patently ridiculous method for murder, unless, like Leland, you really want to stress the point that you can’t go home again. Lynch again slows things down, image and sound oozing along slow as molasses, which endows Leland’s actions with a terrifying aura of dread and ineluctability that’s felt as far away as the rapt audience back at the Roadhouse.
1. “Beyond Life and Death,” Season 2, Episode 22
In this day and age (another golden age of television, so we’ve been told), with our outsized flatscreens awash in cinema-quality audiovisuals, it’s probably impossible to effectively recreate the impact the series finale had on viewers back in 1991. For the episode’s final 20 minutes, as Cooper trails Windom Earle into the Black Lodge, Lynch doubles down on the unhinged surrealism glimpsed in “Zen, Or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” delivering an unadulterated, double-barreled blast of nightmare imagery. The densely imbricated textures Lynch weaves in this sequence are as close to the realm of pure abstraction as network television has ever dared venture. Beyond that, “Beyond Life and Death” culminates with perhaps the bleakest final image in any format: our square-jawed hero possessed by an inhuman entity of pure malevolence, and the last sound we hear, before Badalamenti’s elegiac theme music fades up over the end credits, are his peals of mocking laughter.