Untimely Reviews: The Greatest Moment in Twin Peaks

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In 1990 something happened to television. Thirty-odd years after the surrealist wave of cinema peaked, some-what fringe director David Lynch was given a green light to do a network show, Twin Peaks, which instantly exploded into a pop culture phenomenon, with coffee and cherry pie sales sky rocketing according to statistics I just made up. The at times quirky, at times horrifying glimpse into small-town America – which really can only be described as Lynchian – won over the public with its cast of bizarre characters and nightmarish imagery revolving around the irresistible mystery hook of a seemingly innocent homecoming queen, washed up on a shore, wrapped in plastic. Through the first season and the early second, the writers became expertly adept at using the mystery as a backdrop upon which to hang a rich tapestry of intricately linked and equally compelling story-lines. Every week there seemed to be another shocking connection exposed between denizens of the town as its seedy underbelly was teased out. The star that burns brightest really does shine shortest however and after a mere two seasons the show was cancelled. Nonetheless, the show itself inspired the tone of countless programs to come. But for that brief period in the early 90’s there was only one question on everyone’s mind – Who Killed Laura Palmer?

The show’s ultimate downfall came when the network executives made an uncharacteristically bad decision and forced Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost to reveal the killer (something they had intended to keep secret possibly indefinitely). While this arguably resulted in the death of the show – both in terms of ratings and creative quality – the episode which revealed Laura Palmer’s killer, quite possibly the most brutal scene of exposition ever televised, remains one of the shows highest points. The scene is confronting, disturbing and its implications stark; and it begins with a record needle scratching on a loop. This is your last warning on major, major spoilers before we go down Lynch’s rabbit hole.

Lonely Souls.

As with anything Lynch does, right out of the gates we find ourselves in strange territory. One of the director’s hallmarks is holding on shots for awkwardly long periods of time. The opening of this episode does exactly this, letting the entire credit sequence play out over a wide proscenium line-up of the primary good-guys, including quirky protagonist Agent Cooper, over a cup of coffee at the police station. They recite expository dialogue in a mechanical manner – interrupted briefly by the other-worldly Frank, reciting ominous poetry – before returning to their donuts. It seems odd, even by Twin Peaks standards, but in retrospect the sequence actually fits into the entire structure of the show perfectly. David Lynch is an avid fan of music (and musician in his own right) and this scene is merely the opening cymbal, setting the tempo for the rest of the band to come in and build to a crescendo.

A nonchalant start to a brutal episode.

A nonchalant start to a brutal episode.

The primary story of the episode revolves around Maddie Ferguson, Laura’s cousin who tells her Uncle Leland and Aunt Sarah that she needs to return home to Missoula, Montana now that the funeral is over with. This scene is accomplished with another single shot, tracking from a vinyl record player to a wide-shot of Maddie on the couch, her family on either side.

Various other events occur around the town as the secondary stories continue, but as with most Lynch directed episodes these take a distant back seat to the main action. Sheriff Truman becomes impatient as evidence seems to be mounting against town businessman and general sleaze Ben Horne and arrests him as a result.

David Lynch is one of few directors who know how to really get the most out of establishing shots, using them to establish tone rather than merely location. Throughout the show we see fir trees blowing in the wind, a suspended traffic light changing colours, a full moon; all given a particular menace by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score. After a shot of dark clouds streaming across the moon we see Cooper and Truman in the police station; they have a visitor. The Log Lady (named for the fact that she cradles a log around with her) tells them that there are owls at the Roadhouse, the bar across town: something is happening.

Cooper takes a seat at the Roadhouse, framed by the Log Lady and Truman. Other familiar faces are around; teen sweethearts Donna and her biker boyfriend James discuss Maddie’s imminent departure in a booth at the corner; at the bar, resident bad-boy Bobby sits eating nuts; an elderly waiter from the Twin Peaks hotel who seems to have some connection to the mysterious supernatural forces in the town sits silently. Julee Cruise is performing on stage.

We cut back to the Palmer house and see a particularly disturbing image. A low-angle shot reveals Sarah Palmer crawling and writhing head-first down the stairs, almost in a state of possession. She looks up to see a white horse appear, illuminated by spotlight, before it vanishes. The record player is skipping in the background.

At the Roadhouse, the music has become more melancholic. Nobody seems to know why they are there or what they are waiting for. Suddenly the Giant appears on stage in place of the band. “It is happening again… it is happening again,” he says with a blank expression and in a tone of voice which sounds like that of someone experiencing panic and urgency but who is incapable of expressing either.

"It is happening again."

“It is happening again.”

And so we arrive at our destination. The moment that changed the tone of Twin Peaks from that point on and seemed to retrospectively make a mockery of how light-hearted and charming this town was supposed to be. We are now back at the Palmer’s. The record is still skipping and will continue to do so for the remainder of the scene. Sarah is on the floor unconscious while Leland casually steps past her to a mirror. We have a direct front-on shot of his face grinning contentedly. This isn’t the same Leland that was wrought with grief over the death of his little girl, nor is it the look of a man coming to terms with loss. Something is very, very wrong here. In the mirror we suddenly see confirmation of what that uncomfortable feeling in our gut had been hinting at. Leland’s reflection is the demonic creature BOB. Leland slips on silicon gloves with a carefree attitude. Maddie runs downstairs, yelling that she smells something burning. She sees Leland standing there staring at her gleefully; Leland then momentarily dissolves into BOB. She screams. Then it really begins.

A spotlight prevents us from escaping the violence.

A spotlight prevents us from escaping the violence.

A bright spotlight shines on Maddie but it is different from the one that appears on the giant or the white horse; this one is wildly over-lit and gives you the sense that something is indeed incinerating. Maddie is about to play with fire – she is about to play with BOB. She tries to run up the stairs, out of frame, as Leland gives chase; for a moment we feel we might be spared the agony of having to watch, but this is David Lynch, so we should know there is no escape for the audience. Leland drags her back into the room, back into the spotlight screaming. She tries to run but he corners her, throws her on the couch and punches her in the face. Her nose is broken, her face covered in blood. He picks her up and begins to hold and sway with her – throughout this entire segment the character of Leland is interchanged with BOB. The former sobs and repeats Laura’s name as if he has suffered a complete psychotic break, the latter sniffs her, snarls like a beast and licks her skin. Ultimately, Leland pulls back, grabs Maddie by the hair and screams “Leland says, you’re going back to Missoula, Montana!” In any other circumstances would be considered comedic, but in this case simply seems disturbing. This is the kind of thing Lynch excels at, making an audience severely uncomfortable at not knowing how to process multiple contradictory emotional stimuli at once. Leland smashes Maddie’s head against a framed painting and she falls to the floor, gasping her last breaths. The record still skips. It has happened again.

Back at the Roadhouse, despite not knowing what has just happened, the sadness overwhelms the room. Donna cries uncontrollably, rocking back and forth. Bobby has tears rolling down his face. The elderly waiter hobbles over to Cooper and simply says in a sombre and sincere voice, “I’m so sorry,” before walking away. The music continues but now just the instrumental, a sad loop over the sequence. Cooper stares up, wondering. The red curtains of the Lodge composite over Cooper and the episode fades to black.

Wow, BOB, wow.

There are numerous observations to make here. The themes of pattern and repetition occur throughout the episode; Maddy herself is a doppelgänger of Laura who is also killed by Leland; the record player is constantly operating at the Palmer house and skips throughout the entire murder scene and the episode closes with a looping outro to the song. There are numerous other connections and call-backs as well as instances of blurred identity and cycles throughout the series: the killer places a letter under the Maddy’s  fingernail, as before. The demonic spirit BOB and his lodge-mate Mike share their names with local teenagers Mike and Bobby. In Coopers first dream he meets a woman who looks just like Laura Palmer, though sometimes her arms bend backwards. Even the elderly waiter is a doppelgänger of the Giant. Hell, the finale even has a sequence where the Man From Another Place repeatedly says “doppelgänger” before doubles of Laura and Cooper appear. Most importantly for Lonely Souls, the red curtains on the stage of the Roadhouse appear superimposed over Cooper as the episode ends, echoing the red curtains in the lodge where he first met Laura. This is the real connection. As lost and unempowered as he was when he first arrived in Twin Peaks, once again he finds himself helpless, another victim claimed with no way to save or protect them.

There are many memorable moments in Twin Peaks. Hell, half the show is made of them; Cooper’s dream, the “Leland Shuffle”, the fish in the percolator, Gordon Cole’s advances on waitress Shelly, the series finale in the Lodge. So, why single this one out?

This moment is the most important because it hits the audience with what it didn’t even know it was most afraid of, and it hit it hard and brutally. Up until now, Laura Palmer’s death was a plot-line – we never knew her first-hand as a character, only through clues, the memories of her loved ones and notes in a diary. After 15 episodes of red herrings, viable suspects and what seemed to be a conventional (in set up, if not in tone) murder mystery, we are finally confronted by the horrific consequence of the idealistic paradise of small-town America with which Lynch had presented us. That, just as there are doppelgangers for the characters in the world of Twin Peaks, for all that is good and serene there also is horror. A father had raped his own daughter since she was a child and then brutally murdered her. Maybe one of the most significant observations is to note that this made it onto prime-time network television in the 90’s in the first place.

Later episodes and the follow-up movie Fire Walk With Me deal more in depth with whether BOB was actually a literal entity of evil or symbolism for desire and pathology, but for the episode Lonely Souls, all we are left with is emptiness. It happened again. Like Cooper, in our enchantment with all that is wonderful about the world of Twin Peaks, we were utterly blinded and failed to see it coming. It had happened again. It had happened again.

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