By Jim Emerson
Special to MSN Movies
"A path is formed by laying one stone at a time."
-- The Giant
The robin, the mill, the saw blades, the road, the waterfall, the surface of the water. These are the markers down the path to "Twin Peaks," David Lynch's television town full of mysteries, nestled in the deep, dark woods of the Pacific Northwest. From April 8, 1990, to June 10, 1991 -- as the ABC show rapidly metamorphosed from hypnotic oddity to pop-culture phenomenon to baffling shaggy dog story -- these images in the opening credits (accompanied by the twin keyboard scales of Angelo Badalamenti's lush and ghostly score) provided the ritual entrance to Twin Peaks.
This is a territory circumscribed by ritual and repetition -- of daily life and cryptic clues and incantations. These iconic introductory images are Twin Peaks' Stations of the Cross, representing landmarks in the life of Twin Peaks' sacrificial lamb and lioness, Laura Palmer: high school beauty queen by day, tormented naughty girl by night. The Passion of Laura Palmer, murdered during Lent, the penitential season of grief, was lamented, reconstructed and re-enacted ("It is happening again") in one two-hour television pilot, a seven-episode first season, a 22-episode second season and a feature film prequel/coda, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me."
Seven years after the DVD release of the first season of "Twin Peaks," the second and only full-season has at last appeared. (The two-hour pilot, mired in a tangle of rights issues, has never been released on DVD in North America.) Looking back over the series, with a sense of the overall terrain, it's clearer than ever how "Twin Peaks" was meant to be experienced. A hybrid of supernatural murder mystery and soap-operatic melodrama (and, though genuinely terrifying and disturbing, simultaneously a parody of both), "Twin Peaks" was never quite a serial, in that it did not lay its stones, sequentially, one at a time. It dumped pebbles and boulders all over the place. This is Lynchland, after all.
As the titles (and the title) suggest, Twin Peaks (and "Twin Peaks") is a set of geographical and psychological coordinates -- a spatial and temporal map like the one that, in the series' final hours, reveals the entrance to the Black Lodge (containing the red room with the dancing Man From Another Place) in space and in time. "I just know I'm going to get lost in those woods again tonight," a doomed Laura wrote in her diary. And that's the invitation Lynch extended to viewers: "Let's get lost."
Was there ever a network show with such a vivid sense of place? Or that relied on so many, obviously recycled, atmospheric establishing shots (the sheriff's station, the Great Northern Lodge, the Double R Diner, the Palmer house, the old Packard Mill house, Big Ed's Gas Farm) to reorient us in exterior as well as interior space? Or that made such repetitive use of almost abstract, transcendental images (the traffic light changing from green to yellow to red, Douglas firs rustling in the wind, telescopic tilts up or down the cascading falls) to provide ritualistic breathing space between scenes or conjure up a sense of dread and anticipation? Or that so relentlessly reused the same cyclical, quasiliturgical music cues like favorite selections in a miniature jukebox? Or that kept revisiting the same events and self-reflecting images in such obsessive, cyclical detail?
The style and the construction of "Twin Peaks" resembles a mantra, an incantation, a recurring dream in which the same things appear again and again -- sometimes accruing significance, and sometimes just recalling a previous visitation to a state of mind. Its path is labyrinthine and meandering, full of twists and forks and switchbacks and dead ends -- an environment in which nobody -- not the characters, not the viewers, maybe not even the creators -- could ever quite see the forest for the trees.
It's stunning to realize that the mania for "Twin Peaks" was built around the pilot and an initial half-season of only seven episodes, including a two-hour cliffhanger finale. The second season, episodes 8-29 (three times as long as the first), is remembered as the one in which the show itself got lost, at least for a crucial time in the middle of the run, the eerie chemistry dissipated, and Things Fell Apart after the central mystery -- "Who killed Laura Palmer?" -- was solved. Lynch and his collaborator, Mark Frost, never wanted to answer that question. In their minds, Laura Palmer's death would serve as the dark center around which the other lives and stories and mysteries of Twin Peaks would perpetually revolve.
But these television pioneers only got so far in exploring the frontiers of "Twin Peaks." Under pressure from the network, Laura's killer was revealed, and claimed a second victim, in Episode 14 (scripted by Frost and directed by Lynch). The remaining strands of Laura's story were ostensibly tied up in the next two episodes (directed by Caleb Deschanel and Tim Hunter, respectively). In those episodes FBI Agents Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), local Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and Air Force Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) discover the existence of a killer demon known as Bob who haunts the Northwest woods.
After that, the show frequently wandered off the map, especially when ABC kept dislocating its time slot. "Twin Peaks" went into the limbo of "hiatus" for six weeks following Episode 23 in February 1991, came back for four more installments that ran into mid-April and then wound up, almost as an afterthought, with Episodes 28 and 29 in June -- an anticlimactic death for one of the most innovative and influential shows on television. ("The X-Files" and "Lost," just to name a couple, would be unthinkable if "Twin Peaks" hadn't blazed the trail for them.)
But looking at those final 22 episodes today, you may be surprised at how many of the show's most unforgettable frissons -- its peak moments, if you will -- cropped up in Season 2. Episode 8 (written and directed by Frost) begins with a bang, or just after a bang, with Agent Cooper bleeding on the floor of his room at the Great Northern, while the Elderly and Senile Room-Service Waiter, aka "Señor Droolcup" (Hank Worden, who played Mose Harper in John Ford's "The Searchers": "Thank ya. Thank ya kindly!") arrives with a glass of warm milk and then can't seem to leave.
The Giant (Carel Struycken) appears for the first time and gives Cooper three clues: "There's a man in a smiling bag." "The owls are not what they seem." "Without chemicals, he points." This scene, with Cooper immobilized and seen only from cockeyed overhead/under-the-chin angles, while Deputy Brennan (Harry Goaz) hypnotically repeats variations on a mantra heard over the phone ("Agent Cooper! It's Andy! Can you hear me? Are you all right? Agent Cooper!"), goes on for a deliciously excruciating eight minutes before we finally cut away to One Eyed Jack's, the Canadian brothel where Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) is trying to have his way with the new girl -- who is, in fact, his daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), doing some unauthorized undercover work for her beloved Special Agent Cooper.
Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) reappears with his hair turned white overnight -- and an attitude change to match. His musical numbers -- "Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats" in the Palmer living room and Ben's office and "Get Happy" (an homage to Anthony Perkins in "Crimes of Passion") in the Hayword dining room giddily mask his unfathomable agony over the loss of his daughter Laura (Sheryl Lee). This is the central theme of Season 2: Nearly everyone responds to the events of Season 1 by transforming, or attempting to transform, into the opposite of who they were before: Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) tries to become a bad girl like Laura to hang on to sensitive biker-boy James (James Marshall); Albert becomes an apostle of spiritual love; daft ol' Pete Martell (Jack Nance -- "There's a fish in the percolator!") reveals himself to be a brilliant chess whiz; precocious bad girl Audrey turns out to be sweet, tender and innocent; leather delinquent Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) starts wearing a suit and tie and considers a career as a white-collar executive; perpetually enraged wife-beater Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe) becomes a drooling infant; Laura's cousin Maddy (Lee again), who has been acting as a substitute Laura, decides to return to being Maddy again; Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) rekindle their high school romance, while Ed's weak and clingy wife, Nadine (Wendy Robie), emerges from a coma with superhuman strength and hyperactive energy, believing she's a cheerleader.
Yes, it gets a little "American Beauty" schematic at times, and there are too many dead-end paths that weren't worth wandering down in the first place. But if you were to prune out all the deadwood -- everything with Nadine and Mike (Gary Hershberger); Ben's belabored Civil War re-enactments in which he deals with losing the mill to Catherine (Piper Laurie) by imagining that the Confederacy won; the whole tangential subplot with James and the femme fatale who wants to off her husband; the pregnancy of Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and the "Who's the daddy?" contest between Deputy Andy and Horne's Department Store men's fashion salesman Richard "Dick" Tremayne (Ian Buchanan); and a few other ill-formed offshoots -- the structure of the remaining branches is as shapely and majestic as ... you know, those Douglas firs.
Are you excited about "Twin Peaks" Season 2 being on DVD? Write us at email@example.com
Jim Emerson is the former editor of Microsoft's online/CD-ROM movie encyclopedia, Cinemania. He has written a lot over the years, mostly about movies, for many publications and Web sites, and is now the editor of RogerEbert.com.
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