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Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

In the course of ranking the episodes from Twin Peaks’s first two seasons, aggregates or clusters of episodes tend to stick together.

Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked
Photo: ABC

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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.


Twin Peaks: Every Episode Ranked

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).

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