Peak peak Rumination 15: Verses of the same song

The #TwinPeaksRewatch schedule is at the bottom of the post! You can catch up, but it’d take a bit of serious binge watching…

This week we hit episodes 25 and 26. This one is by me (curator of this series of articles), Morgan Davie, and it’s at least partly inspired by last week’s great post by Emma Cameron. What the heck happened to this show, anyway?

We are graced once again with the lovely illustrative work of Grant Buist (@fitz_bunny), check out his strip Jitterati, and also his tweet-by-tweet reactions to watching these episodes, linked after the essay.

As per usual, you’ll also find below the details of the original NZ screening of these episodes, courtesy Paul Scoones.

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Consider the murder at the end of episode 26.

The victim: a party-hungry youth, good-natured and fancifully oblivious, the kind of stoner hero who could have walked off the set of an unspeakably broad teen comedy.

His fate: encased in the giant papier-mâché chess piece, then shot fatally by a well-placed hunting arrow, then encased in a giant wooden box with a pull-to-open ribbon, then placed in a gazebo adorned with threatening messages in elaborate calligraphy. Murder as craft project.

What even is this? What the hell am I watching?

Even the most die-hard Twin Peaks partisan will accept the show drifted in its second season. The Laura Palmer mystery was solved and co-creator David Lynch had moved on to other projects, and without him it lost its way. That’s the story you hear, at least. I think there’s more going on here than that.

As I see it, Twin Peaks is not actually a sustainable television show premise in the first place. Beyond the initial murder mystery, the show offers only a set of oddball characters and an expectation of tonal clashes, and that’s all. No fundamental conflicts, no external or internal pressures, no core story. That is not a recipe for a TV series. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There had been, at least, a thematic structure. The action of the show was investigating Laura’s death, but the core of the show was exploring secrets, especially the dark secrets behind the front doors of ordinary homes. Laura wasn’t just a victim, she was a key to opening those doors and shining light on what was hidden within. Now that’s a premise you could work with – a town full of secrets. A town made of secrets. A town whose secrets killed a girl.

But this throughline had been long forgotten by season two. Whoever was steering the ship by this point (accounts differ) either didn’t remember to follow this theme, or didn’t know how, and although the identity of Laura’s murderer lasted a little while, the rest of the show’s secrets ran out early, if they ever existed at all. Case in point: Harold Smith, he of the orchids and the agoraphobia – his dark secret was… that Laura talked to him sometimes? The show earnestly ran an investigation narrative with Harold as its focus, but there was nothing there to merit it. The main throughline of the show, FBI Agent Cooper’s investigations, stalled out not far into season two because he ran out of secrets to uncover and was left with nothing to do. It was only the intervention of supernatural beings that pushed the investigation to a close.

The question, then: how do you make the show go after its initial setup runs out? Sadly, instead of coming up with new answers, the writers seem to start treading water in a state of desperate panic.

Drama runs on characters with goals to pursue, but character after character is thrown into bizarre holding patterns that do not reveal or challenge them, and in fact isolate them from others – Catherine in hiding, Audrey at One-Eyed Jacks, Ben’s civil war episode, James on the road, Shelley nursing Leo, Major Briggs’s disappearance. (Say what you will about the Little Nicky plotline, at least it was driven by characters who wanted something.)

Drama thrives on choice and consequence, but the show keeps resolving storylines without either – most egregiously, Nadine’s attempted suicide which ends up fixing everything for Ed and Norma without either of them needing to do anything, including taking Hank off the board entirely. It even brings back Mike just to end his story contribution as a small-scale antagonist. See also: Josie meekly submitting to the manipulations of others and then dying herself with literally no cause at all, Ben Horne’s breakdown resolved by everyone sitting and watching for a few episodes, Leo’s catatonia resolved by him just randomly waking up one day, Major Briggs’ disappearance resolved by his simply reappearing again, Cooper’s suspension resolved by waiting around for a while, and on and on and on.

Instead of the building blocks of drama, the show filled its episodes with incident, increasingly hanging the whole show on the oddball characters and the tonal shifts as an end in themselves. There’s no better evidence than in the way the show – which had been so haunted by Laura Palmer’s murder – enters an unseemly rush of brutal death to keep things approximately interesting.

(The loss of a structural premise wasn’t the only problem the writers faced here – an unwise commitment to season one’s one-day-an-episode structure trapped the show in molasses-slow plot development, prevented it from giving one particular storyline or character a narrative focus, and forced plenty of busywork to keep the sprawling cast occupied for a scene or two each episode. As a not-insignificant side effect, it made the show impenetrable to outsiders, which one might consider a small problem in the era of broadcast television.)

And so we reach these episodes, 25 and 26, near the end. Conventional wisdom has it that the show found its feet again right around these episodes. I am unconvinced.

There are two major threads through these eps, and the first is the sudden emergence of multiple romance plotlines. Unfortunately, they are composed more of incident than drama. The only conflict in the Audrey/Wheeler romance is an inconviently-timed business trip. Given Wheeler flies his own plane around, it’s hard to see this is as much of a problem. Elsewhere, Cooper and Annie fall in beaming love with each other, and the dramatic obstacle they face is… Annie doesn’t want to rush things? Again, no risk, no stakes, and therefore no satisfaction.

The most satisfying romantic play in these episodes is the unlikely subplot where FBI supervisor Gordon Cole pitches woo at Shelley Johnson. His response to being interrupted mid-kiss by Shelley’s boyfriend – “Take another look sonny, it’s going to happen again” – is great, and Madchen Amick completely sells Shelley’s enjoyment at some positive reinforcement for once. It’s a relationship with some stakes and conflict at last, and offers the potential for much-needed character development for Shelley. (Buuut, there’s an oddly uncomfortable aftertaste – the show is written to indicate Cole is only faking poor hearing as a misdirect, which would make his miraculous ability to hear Shelley just another manipulation.)

Also worth mentioning is another minor thread – the mysterious relationship between Donna’s mother and Ben Horne – which threatens to give Lara Flynn Boyle something to do, and even follows through on the original promise of the show to uncover the secrets hidden at home. But it’s a struggle to invest much energy into a mystery whose dramatic high point is the delivery of a bunch of anonymous flowers.

So the weight of these episodes has to fall on the second major thread, which is Windom Earle. And again, I am unconvinced. Earle is supposedly trying to get some obscure revenge on Cooper, but no-one has the foggiest idea what he’s trying to achieve. His behaviour is close to motiveless and therefore impossible to care about. Not to mention how far he strains credulity – an escaped murderous criminal mastermind ex-FBI agent who almost immediately kills several people and embarks on an elaborate game with Cooper promising more death, and the only whisper of support from the wider world is Cooper being given back his badge and gun?

Earle conveys little threat. He enjoys walking past beloved characters with his eyes twinkling, then going home and killing unnamed day players. The danger to any of the young women he fixates on seems abstract and distant, if not absent entirely.

(And as a side note, it is nothing short of astonishing that the show makes two of its major second season plotlines hinge on elaborate disguises. Whoever in Twin Peaks is selling the glue for fake moustaches must be so pleased they stocked up in advance for some reason.)

There is, however, a turning point in these episodes. There had been another fundamental source of structure for the show, an underlying central mystery: what is out in the woods? The mythology of the show pits the small town of Twin Peaks against the encompassing darkness of the woods all around, but thanks to budget limitations, we have ended up with a show that takes place almost entirely in a half-dozen interiors. In these episodes, that finally starts to change. Out of nowhere, Earle starts talking about the White and Black Lodges, previously mentioned by Hawk and Major Briggs, and supposedly tied to the mysteries of the woods. Earle’s interest in the woods mystery gives him an agenda at last, and it is one that ties in with Cooper’s in some fascinating ways. Potential, at last!

But as soon as that potential is introduced, it is thrown away with the giant chess piece move. Why would Earle do that? Why would anyone do something so floridly elaborate? (Why because he’s mad, yes, yes.) And in a world where forensic investigation has been shown to be a crucial, to the point of having a beloved supporting character whose entire role is to deliver forensic discoveries, how could this move not reveal enough to track Earle’s cabin down in short order? (Why because he’s a mastermind, yes, yes.)

For me, then, this is the low point of Twin Peaks, the farthest point from the unsettling horror pinnacle of Maddie’s death just half a season earlier. The show may have a dramatic engine again, but it has completely lost its way. With three episodes left, can anything be salvaged from this mess? Can anyone figure out what Twin Peaks might actually be for, and put it on screen?

Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is an emphatic yes, delivered by David Lynch himself. Soon.

Morgan Davie is a writer and content creator who writes and creates content. He wrote a book-length deconstruction of the high school years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so if you like thinking about television, go read that, it’s pretty good.

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Enjoy Grant Buist’s livetweets of these episodes (click on a tweet and scroll down to read the whole sequence):

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Listener magazine listings for the original NZ screenings, thanks to ace researcher Paul Scoones:

Episode 25: ‘On the Wings of Love’
NZ: 18 November 1991; Monday 11:05-12:05 (US: 4 April 1991)

Cooper investigates caves at midnight, Truman wakes up to a murderous embrace and Audrey Horne and Donna Hayward witness a strange meeting.
(Notes: this info was used incorrectly the previous week; noted on the billing as rescheduled from 11 Nov)

Episode 26: ‘Variations on Relations’
NZ: 25 November 1991; Monday 11:05-12:05 (US: 11 April 1991)

Cooper and Truman try to understand the hieroglyph found in Owl Cave, and the local beauty competition draws hot competition.

(See Paul’s full post for more information on Twin Peaks in New Zealand.)

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Rewatch Schedule:
Join the hashtag #TwinPeaksRewatch
15 Jan: Pilot: Starting at the start
22 Jan: Eps 1 and 2: Damn fine cup of coffee
27 Jan: Eps 3 and 4: Laughing at prayers
5 Feb: Eps 5 and 6: Invitation to Love
12 Feb: Ep 7*: Biting the bullet
19 Feb: Ep 8: We want to help you
26 Feb: Eps 9 and 10: Bury her deep enough
5 Mar: Eps 11 and 12: Sometimes the Can-Do Girls Can’t
12 Mar: Eps 13 and 14: Missoula, Montana
19 Mar: Eps 15 and 16: That gum you like
26 Mar: Eps 17 and 18: Blessed with certain gifts
2 Apr: Eps 19 and 20: Halfway through living it
9 Apr: Eps 21 and 22: And the hippie too
16 Apr: Eps 23 and 24: It’s a pretty simple town
23 Apr: Eps 25 and 26
30 Apr: Eps 27 and 28
7 May: Ep 29**
14 May: Fire Walk With Me***
21 May: NEW TWIN PEAKS!

* optional: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and The Autobiography of Dale Cooper books
** optional: The Secret History of Twin Peaks book
*** optional: The Missing Pieces

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