I. The Pilot
Despite the blu-ray release of Twin Peaks, dubbed “The Entire Mystery,” the television show and movie remain strangely fragmented affairs, made in different years by different people and with wildly differing end results. The first Twin Peaks project, the feature-length (94 minutes) pilot, was shot in 1989 on location in areas of Washington near Seattle. David Lynch and Mark Frost had joined together on the prompting of their mutual agent, though it was only after their feature film ideas fell through that they ended up pitching a TV series to ABC. In their 20-minute pitch meeting, Lynch and Frost detailed their radical new ideas for a prime-time soap opera, combining traditional elements of that genre with those of a police investigation. More than that, they rode on sheer atmosphere, as Lynch stressed abstract concepts like the dread of wind passing through the trees and the image of a girl found dead wrapped in plastic. Given the combination of Lynch’s recent success with the somewhat similar-sounding Blue Velvet and Mark Frost’s experience on Hill Street Blues and The Six Million Dollar Man, it was no surprise that ABC gave the pair a $1.8 million budget to go shoot their idea.
Lynch and Frost hadn’t really thought their pilot would come to anything, but given the money they were going to do their best create something special, even if it never made the air. This sense of “nothing to lose” gave the show its freedom, and with that the result was like nothing else on television. The most important aspect of this, and one that’s frequently overlooked even by admirers of the show, is the sheer size of the Twin Peaks‘ cast from the beginning. Of course, American soap operas require a certain size for their plot mechanics to function, but Lynch and Frost took this to the utmost extreme, introducing more than 30 speaking roles in a move that seemed more like Robert Altman than David Lynch. The murder mystery was the hook that brings the audience into Twin Peaks, but it’s really the sprawl of this cast that had a larger effect on television and the prestige dramas that drew from the series.
There’s a certain seriousness to most of the pilot, certainly the first half, that’s a bit out of character for the show that followed. The proximity to Laura Palmer’s death is the primary cause of this, but for a long time there’s little sign of the strange humor that characterized Twin Peaks just as much as its looming dread. A lot of this comes from one of its other oddities: the star appearance of Kyle MacLachlan about 35 minutes into the show. The perversity of not introducing this character, who became central to the show and exhuming its strange mythology, is part of what set the pilot apart and attracted such immediate attention from critics. Structurally, the pilot refuses to be categorized as television. The refusal to connect all these disparate parts of the cast, or to offer the audience any sort of compass to tell what direction Twin Peaks was headed, went against conventional television wisdom. The moments when Dale Cooper finds letters under the nails of a deceased girl and the barking of teenage boys turning into a subhuman howls showed that whatever else Twin Peaks was interested in, it wasn’t just solving a murder. This was not Hill Street Blues in Lumberton, it was a whole different entity.
“Pilot” was also one of the times that Lynch and Frost most felt in control. Their delegation was at a minimum, and as a result there’s a precision to the pilot that begins missing from the show proper, especially in its second season. Up until the end of the American version, every element feels well-placed. The many campy moments, when Twin Peaks is as much being a soap opera itself as it is sending up the form, are intentionally so, and even the wildly mixed quality of performances (the “high school” students in particular had some problems) was of a piece with the entire project. This first incarnation of Twin Peaks, slow and at times off-putting as it occasionally is, remains one of the strongest things Lynch has ever directed, a miniature masterpiece in and of itself.
II. Season 1
As the first proper episode of Twin Peaks begins, we have Dale Cooper sitting in his hotel room, speaking to “Diane” on his tape recorder, and talking about how “damn fine” the local coffee is. The dialogue is still spot-on Cooper, and the compositions and camera moves are both beautiful and uncharacteristic of televisions, but there’s something different. The two things that continue to trouble Cooper are about John F. Kennedy rather than anything about Laura Palmer, and it’s an odd thing to note because of how singularly focused the pilot was on this homecoming queen’s death.
That isn’t to say that the first season of Twin Peaks isn’t obsessed with Laura Palmer, or that it’s not as thematically concerned with death, evil, and violence against women as what came before, but this is now leavened by humor and diffused by a growing network of side stories. Where the pilot had a fun time teasing connections between various groups of characters and setting the groundwork for future stories, the first season needs to actually show us these and begin putting together a show proper. There’s no closed ending here, the stories need to proliferate in order for Twin Peaks to fulfill the goal of every television program, which is to say being picked up for another season, but it’s the question of how the show goes about this that defines the different periods of Twin Peaks.
Already, Twin Peaks is a soap opera. There’s hardly any character without at least one extra love interest, and these triangles become only more tangled as things move forward. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as throughout the first season all of these stories are also tangled up with Laura Palmer, whose presence haunts the show in more ways than one with the arrival of Maddy. What’s more, the soap operas have a thematic unity to them that keeps the show tight. With Shelly and Leo, for instance, it’s difficult early on to see how they connect to the series of rapes and murders, but the beatings Shelly receives from her husband offer their story the same level of stakes. Violence against women is ubiquitous in this season, and every subplot concerns the possibility of its return. Laura and Ronnette’s tragedies were the first, but the intimation is the with or without BOB’s assistance, the Twin Peaks area is infected with an angry misogyny that’s just waiting to kill any of its female citizens.
One of the odd things about Twin Peaks is that while the show trades in the surrealism of the banal, actual strangeness isn’t nearly as frequent as its reputation suggests. It’s noteworthy that the highlight of the season is also the only time where the truly inexplicable occurs—it’s also no coincidence that this is also the only episode that Lynch himself also directed (although he maintained close oversight with Frost over the entire season, especially with regard to the sound mixes, it seems). Lynch reuses elements from the pilot that were shot for a closed European ending of the show and with this introduces the mythology to Twin Peaks. Even now, the Red Room, BOB, MIKE, The Man From Another Place and all of these other strange dream elements of the show are startling and original. They haven’t aged, and where other aspects that were overlooked at the time it aired look creaky in the age of dime-a-dozen “prestige” television shows, nothing is quite as bold or strange as this initial sequence.
As the season’s stories branch, and the actual investigation into Laura’s death becomes increasingly muddled, it doesn’t affect the quality of the show. As Lynch pointed out later, Palmer’s death really was needed to center things, to draw out the connections and create compelling stories. But even within the most dull of sideplots, it’s the constant threat of violence that keeps the quirks in check. The oddness never feels unnecessary here, or forced. Rather, it’s matter-of-fact, the surface counterpart that signals the rippling beneath the pond that is the area’s many deaths. This lack of subtlety is often what’s so jarring about the show’s content. In the world of Twin Peaks, an obvious doubling of a dead girl or a character breaking down into tears while dancing to himself in public aren’t just odd, they’re necessary, symptoms of a town and world gone awry.
As the season comes to an end, we’re left with one woman nearly burned to death and the threat of incest looming in another’s horizon. It’s easy to see how these stories loop back to Laura’s Palmer’s death, even as the route from there to this point is strange beyond recognition (as Cooper says, in this sort of case the closest path between two points is not always a line). Then Dale Cooper is shot, ending the season on a cliffhanger that’s both very real and a commentary on soap operas and serialization as a form of storytelling. This episode essentially begs the audience and, more importantly, network, to keep the show around for another season so we can see what will happen. The ending, like the show itself, manages to have it both ways, and the sheer audacity of both the writing and the directing (though, unfortunately, not always the acting) manages to pull this feat off.
Part III: Season 2 – Episodes 1 – 7
Twin Peaks has a reputation for staying good all the way up through when Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, in the seventh episode of the second season. Unfortunately, that isn’t entirely true, and the cracks began to show long before then. The second season began with a double-length episode directed by Lynch, and while there’s always an obvious rise in directorial quality whenever he’s behind the camera (his episodes could’ve aired without a credit and it would be easy to tell it was him), as far as plotting goes the opening episode is a big letdown.
That’s only natural, given how many cliffhangers and huge events we just ended with, but with its agonizingly slow opening Lynch wants to tell us that we’re not going to keep up that fevered pace. This is unfortunate, and the large number of viewers who stopped watching after this episode makes sense. The first season’s finale signaled the beginning of the end, but Lynch restarts things, with more cryptic clues but no resolution. This is television, so the stories need to keep spinning, even if it doesn’t make for ideal storytelling. There’s plenty of strangeness still, and with Lynch’s deft hand here and in the next episode the show keeps afloat, but the problem of plotting remains. At the end of the first season, everything came together in the best possible way for a networks-based show (as in, based around a network of characters like The Wire or Altman’s Nashville). Each story also still circled Laura Palmer, though, and there were in fact three separate investigations into her death going on, all of which seemed to be getting somewhere. Right away these hopes are dashed.
What the second season leaves us with, instead, are the less interesting stories of the mill, the hotel, Super Nadine (who only Lynch himself could make anything but terrible), and a pregnancy scandal. Twin Peaks was always interested in infusing soap operas with real pathos, but these stories, while tinged with a little something extra, rarely rise above the realm of pure soap. They lack the tinge of real danger, the threat at the heart of the city, and at the same time they begin making the world’s mythology and magic banal. Before, the weirdness was very isolated, a rare and interesting occurrence with dark implications, but with things like Super Nadine it becomes commonplace.
The middle of this run of episodes become bogged down in new characters who, unlike the ones set up in the pilot or first episode of the show, seem to be all quirk, with no depth behind them. The agoraphobic gardener, for instance, manages to take the show to a screeching halt whenever he hits the screen, introduces a nonsensical “secret diary,” and through his very existence calls into question the quality of the entire investigation thus far. This isn’t a bad run of episodes, but unlike the first season it’s creaky and filled with just as much dead air as it is excitement. It’s the part of Twin Peaks that turns one of its most well-developed and acted characters, Audrey Horn, into a mere plot device, and while that’s in some sense the thematic point, it still doesn’t make for compelling television.
While signs of the show’s forthcoming decline are readily available, because Laura Palmer’s mystery remains central to the show it’s still able to dig out of this hole. Lynch returns for his penultimate directorial work on Twin Peaks in the seventh episod,e and this in and of itself is likely why these episodes are so fondly remembered. One of Lynch’s strongest pieces of work, period, “Lonely Souls” finally reveals to us Laura’s killer in a shocking sequence that, like the best of Lynch, would be camp if it weren’t so horrifying. It’s not just the end of the episode, though, that’s powerful, as once again the story heats up and a few of the less interesting parts of the season have been thrown out. The mystical scenes in the Roadhouse and the Palmer home are haunting, beautiful, creepy and more than else dreamlike. It’s a tour de force that also ties bows in the show thematically, drawing depth rather than quirk from Twin Peaks‘ doubling and renewing the show’s commitment to exploring violence against women. It’s a last hurrah for what made the show special, which at this point drifts on for a few episodes to the capture of Leland but otherwise loses steam and direction until the very end.
Part IV: Season 2 – Episodes 8-22
There’s a reason why True Detective ends after its central mystery of the Yellow King is unveiled. While Twin Peaks isn’t titled “the mystery of Laura Palmer’s Murder” because Lynch and Frost had ambitions of doing other groundbreaking things with the show’s structure, it might as well have been. The importance of everyone else in the city was essentially equal to their proximity to the murder, and it’s no surprise that the least interesting stories of the show until then were those surrounding Ghostwood and the mill because their influence on the Palmer investigation was so minor. Twin Peaks at its best is always about violence, specifically against women, and when that’s removed from the show so is any degree of momentum or pathos for its characters.
After episode seven, Twin Peaks‘ second season is able to coast for a couple of episodes on the suspense of when will Leland Palmer be caught and what will happen to BOB when that happens, and mostly this is due to the unhinged performance offered by Ray Wise. Once this problem is gone, Twin Peaks is left with the quirks, but little else. To fill this hole, the show’s creators (whoever they might have been at this moment) filled the show with guest appearances and go-nowhere stories. The real problem, however, was where exactly was a story supposed to go? Laura’s murder was was solved, and although a new threat arrives to take its place in the form of Windom Earle, his presence feels both contrived and comparatively neutered due to Earle’s ridiculousness (his predilection for the unbearably terrible disguises completely undercut the fact that he’s a serial killer).
Another important lesson that’s been learned by prestige television in the decades that followed Twin Peaks is that the intensity of this format has difficulty sustaining seasons for more than a dozen episodes. In the latter episodes of the second season Frost was busy working on pre-production for his feature film Storyville while Lynch was off doing… well, it’s hard to guess exactly (many claim he was busy working on Wild at Heart, but in fact that movie was shot before Twin Peaks‘ first season using several of the same cast members and premiered long before Twin Peaks‘ second season began airing) except to say that it wasn’t running Twin Peaks. In any case, neither of them seemed to be fully interested in the show, while at the same time the story that was going to feature centrally after Leland’s death—a romance between Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne—was removed due to an off-camera romance between Kyle MacLachlan and an apparently jealous Lara Flynn Boyle. Ultimately, both Frost and Lynch had other ambitions than just sticking with Twin Peaks and making it as good as possible. If they’d only needed to push out another short series, it’s likely Twin Peaks would’ve continued at least at a comparable level of quality. Instead, with both its creators no longer directly interested in the show, Twin Peaks got bad.
The drop in quality was almost instantaneous from the moment Cooper is reprimanded by the FBI’s internal investigation, though handily enough this offers up a pretty good tell for whether or not an episode is worth watching (if Cooper’s wearing flannel, it’s not worth your time). It’s impossible to pinpoint what the worst storyline Twin Peaks went into is, as everyone’s likely to have their own least favorite. Super Nadine gets into a relationship with Mike. Ben Horne goes crazy and pretends he’s a Civil War general. Josie gets turned into the knob on a drawer in some rather embarrassingly dated CGI. My nominee for the worst would be James riding around on his motorcycle until he reaches another town with no links into Twin Peaks whatsoever before abruptly leaving the show entirely, but there’s plenty to pick from and very little to show during this period.
What’s worse, Twin Peaks begins re-writing its characters to fit these terrible stories. When it began, the show acted as a puzzle and all of these characters’ personalities were pieces that needed to fit together just right in order for Cooper and the audience to find out who killed Laura Palmer. Once she’s gone, though, their personalities begin leaving. Ben Horne is no longer an evil corporate hotel owner, now he cares only for nature. His daughter is no longer a sultry femme fatale, she’s now an almost personality-free good girl committed to her father’s business. Albert is no longer a cynical agent with a hatred of everything outside of cities but an unrequiting conscience, now he’s just another agent hoping to help out. The cast is good enough to make these transitions believable, but these transitions still fail to make any sense and detract from the show. The criticism always levelled about Twin Peaks was that it was weird for the sake of being weird, and while that was patently false at the beginning, by the middle of the second season there’s no denying it, as quirk became more important than character or drama.
The other tragedy of the latter half of the second season is that although only the last episode is ever as good as early Twin Peaks, quite a few of the latter episodes are interesting enough to keep watching. While still liable to go into annoying digressions about Andy’s sperm, the show does eventually get interesting again, which is almost a pity. Twin Peaks has the odd distinction of being a show that completely jumps the shark, to the point that it sullies many of its best elements, yet manages to once again become not only watchable but in fact exceptional. Frost and Lynch returned to the show and managed to dig their way out of a very dark pit, and eventually death, drama, and a compelling world returned with them.
That being said, nothing could compare with the show’s final episode, in which David Lynch largely disregarded Frost’s script and instead improvised a sequence that makes most nightmares seem tame. Not only that, this collaboration between the two of them simultaneously resolves nearly all of the show’s other storylines (it only took 20 episodes or so for Andy and Lucy to remember that they love each other) as well as setting up a handful of huge cliffhangers. It’s the scenes inside the red room (now revealed to be at least linked with the Black Lode), though, that steal the show, with its series of doppelgangers and strobe lights and the unforgettable return of BOB. Once again, it’s material that in the hands of almost anyone else, including the many other directors who tried their luck at similar material along Twin Peaks‘ bumpy ride, would have been laughable. Instead, it’s haunting and through dream-logic manages to simultaneously make no sense and completely ties together all of the show’s mythology and themes. For those unwilling to stick through the show’s lesser episodes, it’s still worth skipping to the finale, as it remains unlike almost anything else ever filmed.
Part V: Fire Walk with Me
Barely a month after Twin Peaks was officially cancelled, David Lynch announced plans to create a Twin Peaks movie. With funding from French arthouse production company CIBY-2000, Fire Walk with Me was turned around in just a year, but fans were apprehensive due to Lynch’s decision to make the movie a prequel rather than a sequel. This was, it turns out, only the first of many ways Lynch planned on subverting his own television series, and Fire Walk with Me ended up yet one more mirroring in a series that made doubling one of its most essential motifs.
Fire Walk with Me seems to take an almost perverse glee in disregarding everything that was beloved about the television series and offering us its dark mirror instead. This begins with the movie’s 35-minute prologue, in which a new pair of FBI investigators takes on the case of Teresa Banks in a city that in no way resembles Twin Peaks. Where Gordon is affable and gregarious, his replacement (played by Chris Isaak) Chet Desmond is silent and moody. Where Twin Peaks’ law enforcement is friendly and committed, Deer Meadows’ is surly and corrupt. One city is affluent and the other poor, one victim is beloved and the other essentially forgotten. The doubling is an early signal that, aside from the frustratingly quirky appearance of sour-faced Lil, this movie will have little to do tonally with the show that came before it.
The essential question of the Twin Peaks television show is, of course, “who killed Laura Palmer?” Fire Walk with Me asks the linked but far more uncomfortable question, “who was Laura Palmer?” and although we know many details about her life, the people she consorted with and her problems with drug use, it’s striking how hollow she is even by the end of the television show. She remains a cypher throughout the show, whereas in Fire Walk with Me she’s right there in flesh and blood. All of the contradictions are embodied, and the other hour and a half of the picture is devoted to the last week of her life.
This makes for a terribly serious picture, and despite the abounding presence of the “quirky” ghosts, demons and whatever else lurks in the Black Lodge, there isn’t a note of humor. As Twin Peaks became goofier and less substantive, the movie rectifies this problem by being grim and focusing on the most complex character in its universe. The story could no longer be told peripherally, through characters mediating our experience of these drugs, sex, and violence with their investigations. Instead, Fire Walk with Me tackles these problems head on. It’s no surprise that few people wanted to see this, as despite the same settings and characters, even the same themes, the movie almost went out of its way to not only remove the joys of the television show but to in fact complicate and sully them for the audience.
Most important of all, Fire Walk with Me gives a realism to the story of incest and rape that always was at the heart of Twin Peaks but that the show was never willing to delve into. The television version of Leland/BOB was split into two entities, which made this incest effectively safe. BOB was the ones committing these crimes and he was a supernatural entity—the fact of what was really happening never needed to be confronted. Fire removes that, not only by being explicit about what occurred but also by showing us that Leland/BOB were always both father and rapist. Here the doubling is removed, shown to be a false mediation, and what results is the portrait of a girl’s nightmarish life and the monster who tormented her. While Lynch shot enough material that the original cut of Fire was roughly five hours, it’s difficult to imagine putting the rest of the town and its goofy characters back into a story that’s ultimately this bleak. Lynch never seemed to regret their removal, and I suspect it’s because he realized that when Andy and Nadine were put side-by-side with this violence the resulting tonal shifts were impossible to make work.
Given everything it did to alienate fans of the show, it’s little surprise Fire did so poorly, and it’s difficult to blame audiences for avoiding the film. Much of the movie is more difficult to watch than a Michael Haneke picture, but also much weirder, with its assortment of the supernatural and structural complexity that remains avant-garde even today. That being said, like all of Lynch’s best works there are several completely unforgettable scenes, from David Bowie’s odd disappearance to Leland sneaking over the windowsill to the tour de force Pink Room bar orgy. It also ultimately feels a bit more honest than the television series, which couched its explorations of violence in such humor and gentility that a lot of the time the reality of the situation could be lost. Fire Walk with Me ends up the Black Lodge to Twin Peaks‘ white, a world in which even spiritual rescue results in death. The movie will never be as beloved as the television show, but that’s because it’s not trying to draw in an audience in the same way. Instead, it’s a much needed corrective on many of the show’s ethical missteps (or at least shortcuts), and an absolutely essential part of the entire Twin Peaks experience.