As great as the pilot episode was, and as near perfect as those first 15 minutes contained in the pilot were, this is probably the most iconic Twin Peaks episode of them all, the episode that most perfectly established what the show was, and what the show was going to be. It’s the moment that Twin Peaks because TWIN PEAKS. The moment it went from being an odd but still fairly grounded murder mystery to being what in the name of heaven did I just fucking watch?
It’s also maybe the best example (except for maybe the finale) of why David Lynch shouldn’t work as episodic storytelling.
Fans of the show likely know by now that a lot of what made up Twin Peaks – including large chunks of this episode’s iconic, closing dream sequence – weren’t really part of the show originally. And even after they were introduced to the show, Lynch didn’t entirely know what they were about, why they where, or what they meant, if they meant anything.
That’s because, as a filmmaker, Lynch is a lot less interested in traditional, narrative storytelling. A David Lynch film is more like watching a dream. A certain moment might be more about a feeling than about a fact, the quality of an image rather than the detail of it. He’s a filmmaker that follows the whims of his unconscious rather than his conscious.
And it’s allowed him to create some amazing films, but it also shouldn’t work in episodic TV. Because when you’re writing something now that’s going to have an impact on something that might happen weeks or months or even years down the road, it’s good to know where you’re heading. But when you’re pulling dream imagery from your unconscious and putting it on the screen without knowing what it means, it makes that sort of advance planning incredibly difficult.
I think Lynch’s co-creator Mark Frost helped ground Lynch’s sensibilities as much as possible. Frost came from a history of more traditional TV writing, and understood the medium, allowing him to temper some of Lynch’s desires, though just a little. The script might be one thing, but once Lynch got on set in one of the handful of episodes he directed – like this one – anything could happen.
Like the iconic dream sequence that haunt’s Cooper’s sleep at the end of this episode. White and black zig-zag across the floor, red curtains surround a small room containing Agent Cooper, Laura Palmer, and a strange, small man who speaks in a strange, disjointed language. He says things like, “That gum you like is going to come back in style,” and, after pointing to Laura, “This is my cousin, but doesn’t she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?”
None of this makes sense on the surface, of course, and it’s not supposed to. And even though these moments didn’t exist anywhere in Lynch’s mind in the moments that he and Frost wrote the pilot, it would they would haunt not just this episode, but the series as a whole, becoming a central point of the larger Peaks mythology.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re still not entirely sure what it all means, and that it’s more than likely that, upon the conclusion of season three, we still won’t. That’s just how someone like Lynch works. There are no easy answers.
“There’s always music in the air.”
Of course there’s more in this episode than just that dream. The seedy side of Twin Peaks continues to show itself to us as we learn some more details about a drug ring involving Laura, Bobby, Mike, and Leo. We learn about One Eyed Jack’s, a brothel located just to the north, cross the border into Canada, which is visited this episode by Ben Horne and his brother Jerry, and which will become a fairly big part in the unraveling mystery to come. It also bring the first appearance of FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield, perhaps one of the greatest characters to inhabit the world of Twin Peaks.
But if there’s one moment besides that dream that is vital to this episode, I would say it’s Leland Palmer’s tragic attempt at a final dance with his daughter Laura. And before I continue, let me say that spoilers for a 26 year old show follow.
One of the things that really grabs me about Lynch is his ability to show grief in incredibly honest ways. They’re painful to watch because they’re not Hollywood-ized. They’re not simple or necessarily visual. They’re sometimes small, and they’re sometimes sweeping and intense, like Leland’s grief as he dances along to Pennsylvania 6-5000 with a framed photo of his daughter.
The thing with grief is that you never know how it’s going to be expressed. Everyone’s different. And even one person can experience it and reveal it in multiple ways.
But the thing about Leland’s grief in this moment, as most of us by now know, is that he is the man responsible for Laura’s death. Maybe not directly – it was, after all, Killer BOB who was running the show at the time – but it was his hands that did the deed. And even if maybe Lynch didn’t know for sure it was Leland at the time he wrote this episode, there are definite signs of it, again probably from Lynch’s own unconscious. And I’m speaking specifically of the end of his attempted dance.
Laura’s picture frame is broken, Leland’s hand has been cut, and as he strokes the picture of his daughter with that hand, he smears blood all over her face. If there’s a better image to represent someone’s guilt and grief over having committed a violent act I’m having a hard time thinking of one.
“The idea for all this really came from a dream?”
And here we are and I haven’t even said anything about Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or Cooper’s odd investigative techniques involving throwing rocks at glass bottles. Mostly because, as odd as the moment it is, it’s pretty eclipsed in oddity by the dream sequence, and because it didn’t have much to offer the mystery except for the indication that Leo Johnson might have had something pretty serious to do with the case. So I guess we know that now.
More than anything else, this moment felt like an opportunity to get new viewers up to speed. Twin Peaks had been a bit of a surprise success and so I imagine network execs were hopeful that new viewers would be hitting up the show, fresh from the water cooler conversations. The rock throwing bit would let those viewers get a quick glimpse of some of the suspects and how they related to Laura and the investigation. It was like a Cliff’s Notes for those first two episodes, and I imagine it worked pretty well.
Though speaking of those network execs, I’d love to know their initial reaction to that dream sequence.