1.1: Northwest Passage (Pilot)
It’s unlikely that the first thing one thinks of, when one thinks of Twin Peaks, is intricate plotting. This, despite the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook that heralded its first (truncated) season and just short of the first half of the second. No, it’s a safe bet that the David Lynch trademarks of mood, atmosphere, surrealism and eccentricity will be front and centre of one’s thoughts. And what the hell befell Agent Cooper after his encounter in the Black Lodge, of course. Those aspects have not diminished in the 25 years since, despite the dramatic changes in the television landscape. The series is every bit as vital, unusual, and uneven, as it ever was.
Which makes its imminent rebirth all the more welcome. Twin Peaks arrived at a formative time for me, showing during my first year at university. My prior experience of Lynch had been restricted to his less “pure” Lynchian efforts (The Elephant Man, Dune). This unleashed his sensibilities, quirks and general weirdness onto a much wider audience, some unprepared for it but through the strange alchemy of the show ready and willing to go with it, for a while at least. A blend of procedural, absurd soap opera melodramatics, small town drama and horror, it picks up on the theme of the seething underbelly beneath the homely exterior of Lynch’s (best film) Blue Velvet.
Even now it seems amazing that his and Mark Frost’s (ex of Hill Street Blues) idea ever made it beyond pilot stage (it was touch and go), as it flies in the face of the kind of simple categorisation that makes execs comfortable. It also – for a non-soap, despite what I just said about it containing soap elements – bucked all trends in presenting a continuing storyline. This, and the accompanying visual sheen of a feature film, ensures its place as a precursor to the current golden age of US TV drama.
Agent Cooper: Man, smell the trees. Smell those Douglas firs.
That said, it was clear that ABC (who would later score another offbeat hit with Lost) was never wholly comfortable with what they had. Fearful of a dip in the ratings (it was up against Cheers), they decreed that Laura’s murderer should be revealed early in the second season (Laura’s death was only ever a MacGuffin, but Lynch being Lynch it became potent in its own right). After which, the series struggled to find its feet, only really rallying in the later stages as the threat of new villain Wyndam Earle became more concrete.
Lynch said he and Frost had never intended to resolve who killed Laura Palmer, and doing so “killed the goose that laid the golden egg”. Maybe so, but we’ve also seen how audience baiting, without a satisfying reward, can turn sour (Lost). Indeed, they’re actually to be congratulated for making the reveal, when it came, such a powerful one. There was no Agatha Christie sense of let-down (it could have been anyone!) The real failing was not having the replacement plotline bedded in until too late, which Frost acknowledges (when I last watched the show, I found the final episodes as good as anything in the early run; I’ll have to see if that holds true on this occasion).
Lynch’s curiously timeless landscape, a blend of the 1950s (the selection of actors who made their names during that period, the stylistic accomplishment of Audrey Horne’s tight sweaters) and late-80s (the haircuts of Sheriff Truman and Andy Brennan are mullet heaven) ensured it seemed like a show in a (one saliva) bubble then, and so it is now. In other respects, it now seems a prescient precursor to the FBI procedural films and shows that followed. A particularly odd one this, as within the next couple of years The Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files would deliver earnest depictions of the agency. Yet Lynch had got in their first with an idiosyncratic semi-send-up. The FBI is full of oddballs and eccentrics, cross-dressers, the deaf, the rude, and the cheerfully Aspergic (Cooper’s obsession with obscure details is a delight).
Depending on what he said when, Kyle MacLachlan appeared to undergo a breakneck version of the kind of fatigue David Duchovny suffered in that other fantasy-fuelled FBI show. This led to his reluctance to appear in Fire Walk with Me, although he had no such concerns about typecasting when it came to advertising potato snacks (“These Ruffles are damn fine crisps”). The alternative version is that he was nonplussed at the manner in which Frost and Lynch had absented themselves during the second season, and wished to make this clear by limiting his involvement (at one point it was doubtful if he would appear at all). The main problem with Fire Walk with Me was a typically Lynchian one; he failed to address the narrative concerns of the series’ cliffhanger, which was what everyone wanted, and, even worse, he made a prequel (the death knell of a franchise, one to which studios tend to make the mistake of succumbing to, desperate for a franchise lifeline). That Lynch has returned to the series 25 years on, just as in Cooper’s Red Room dream, may seem like acute intent, but assumption of any such method or design will surely leave those expecting satisfying answers wanting.
Twin Peaks rode the crest of a wave of mini-mania, which would be seen again on a larger scale (X-Files, Lost) with other cult shows. I well remember the publication of The Diary of Laura Palmer (I didn’t buy it, or read it, I hasten to add) and the “movie” release of the pilot (with added Bob, one-armed man, and Red Room). In retrospect, the show also marked the zenith of Lynch’s career, success-wise. Wild at Heart came out in the same year (greeted rapturously, it now seems like something of a stir-and-repeat package), and Fire Walk with Me would mark the critics turning against him en masse (despite a vocal minority acclaiming it as a masterful horror movie in its own right).
What’s striking about the pilot is that this isn’t a show struggling to find its feet. It comes fully formed. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, what with this being Lynch, but he failed to hit the ground running with later attempts to traverse into television. There are the attractive, and not at all disturbing titles (birdies and sawmills), but they’re layered and twisted by Angelo Badalamenti’s lush, gorgeous, but not quite right theme. The music is vital to the series, overlaid and underplayed to unsettle or lighten as may be required. There’s a mournful, wistful quality to the theme but also that elusive sense that one is being transported to another realm, where nothing is quite as it seems.
The first life we see in Twin Peaks, following the titles, are ducks. And the first character we see is Joan Chen’s mostly rather tepidly-used Josie Packard (a character originally earmarked for Isabella Rossellini). Lynch regular Jack Nance, as bumbling Pete Martell, finds Laura’s body. Pete is amiably inconsequential, but, revisiting this episode, it’s easy to identify the plotlines and characters that don’t really stick. Most of these are the “straight” parts, where more routine interactions flounder. Lynch most likely wouldn’t have his heart in such matters, and too frequently the chance to twist a traditional role off-kilter is missed.
That said, I recall finding Michael Ontkean’s Sheriff Harry S Truman a bit of a chore, but he makes a great complement for MacLachlan in the opener. At least with Harry, the writers knew how to position him as a foil for eccentrics (notably Albert). The problem comes when his own plotlines are serviced. The reveal here of his romance with Josie is a reminder of that, since it’s entirely banal.
And, with a couple of exceptions, the young leads don’t have a great deal of memorable qualities. Lynch’s bevvy of babes (Madchen Amick as Shelly Johnson, Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna Hayward, and Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne) made a huge and instant splash across magazine photo shoots. But, Audrey aside there, is little to beyond their natural lure to mark them out.
Norwegian Dude: Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?
Audrey, with her tight sweaters and boundless upholstery, is a walking innuendo. Even her surname, Horne, is an announcement of intent. In Lynch’s accentuated world, it’s completely fine to lust after a selection of promenading schoolgirls, particularly with the comfort zone that they’re played by twenty-something actresses. Fenn, previously known for Two Moon Junction, and after for very little (Ray Donovan aside), ensures Audrey is lusty of frame and loopy of mind. Here she manages to freak out some guests (“The Norwegians are leaving!”) and make a mess of reception (“Trudy? What would happen if I pulled this out?” she asks naughtily of a pencil poked into a coffee cup, able to do what she likes in daddy’s hotel).
I hadn’t realised that Boyle, who was seeing MacLachlan at the time, vetoed the intended romance between Coop and Audrey. Rather silly, but given how intoxicating Audrey was to the show, it’s no wonder she blanched.
James: She was the one.
James Hurley (James Marshall) is by far the series most boring character. The sensitive, pouting biker who causes the girls to swoon. Most of the young cast are types, little more than cyphers, jocks and cheerleaders. They work in small doses and as contrasts, but Lynch and Frost have little for them to do in their own right. It isn’t as if there’s no awareness of their inertness, but it is a mistake later on to treat them as if they merit substantial plotlines.
An actor like Ashbrook really grasps the mettle of performing the preening poseur and complete tool, but his character is nothing special. It isn’t impossible to make high schoolers interesting and humorous – look at the then recent Heathers – but Lynch’s approach underlines that they are near redundant. Their own plotlines tend to be the least essential, and later – James’ Season Two road trip – contribute to derailing the entire show, so listless are they. Still, Badalementi’s Cool Jazz, that accompanies the boys’ strutting activity, gives an upwards momentum they otherwise lack.
There are others who make a mark too. Laura (Shery Lee) will go on to reveal a compelling contrasting between the wholesome and the corrupted. This is the series’ most shocking and powerful aspect, easy to forget amid the engaging quirk. Her character embodies those dark secrets beneath an unimpeachable exterior (Harry’s dismissive response when Coop suggests the bag in her diary will contain traces of cocaine).
Lynch and Frost will deliver a sobering reminder that most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, when we discover the abusive father was responsible. In Leland’s case, he is oblivious to his crimes, a metaphor for self-denial. Even with the benefit of hindsight, watching Leland here provides little added resonance, simply because there’s no undercurrent to be fathomed. The actor doesn’t know.
Eric DaRae is another exception among the younger actors, as fully-fledged psycho Leo Johnson. Lynch establishes that he’s someone to be afraid of before we even see him. Bobby’s reaction to his rig is palpable enough (the same rig that appears in Flesh World). Then we meet him, and his obsession with a clean home, and instruction that wife Shelly smokes only one brand of cigarettes (“or I’ll snap your neck like a twig”).
Generally, the longueurs in the series are tolerable because you know another great scene, comic or disturbing, will be just around the corner. The danger comes from indulging characters that are one-joke types. The relationship between Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) is amusing and likeable at this point. She’s like something out of Moonlighting (a reminder that all things ’80s weren’t simple formula). He’s the most unlikely deputy imaginable, breaking down over a dead body (“It’s horrible!”) Later, they will begin to try the patience.
So too, the Ed (Everett McGill), Nadine (Wendy Robie), Norma (Peggy Lipton) triangle. At this point, insane, dominating Nadine (“I want those drapes up by nightfall”) with her eye patch, is still a whacko winner, Ed the hopelessly upright and long-suffering spouse.
Agent Cooper: Who’s the glad-handing dandy?
Richard Beymer (Benjamine Horne) and Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) are just great, the latter especially. Wise had made an impression in Robocop a couple of years before (as had Miguel Ferrer, who would play Albert) and he relishes the opportunity to play it BIG (although he’s positively restrained in these early stages; “My daughter’s dead”). Beymer gets to insult the French (“Cheese eaters”) and master eccentric dialogue (“My air sacks have never felt so good!”) His plotlines will later be variable, but he’s a appealingly nefarious presence.
Then there’s Russ Tamblyn as a crazy shrink, which is a classic Lynch (and a set-up of potential culpability, her parents “didn’t know she was seeing me”); in terms of a former child actor reborn as a complete weirdo, he’s the equivalent of Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet.
The pilot is fairly light on the more disturbing aspects of the show, but what there is mostly revolves around Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer. Hers is an mesmerising portrait of uncontrollable grief and collapse. Her hysteria when she first realises that her daughter is dead (the uncanniness added to by Lynch remaining on Leland’s dropped receiver), and later when the police arrive. Everything about her house has become ominous and disturbing, from shots of ceiling fans to her query, “Who’s upstairs?” (that it’s “only” Leland is a queasy harbinger). This is, after all, where Bob lives, and she has been oblivious. Bob can be seen briefly in the televised version, in a mirror, but he’s mainly saved for later. Her vision at the end, with the buried bracelet unearthed, compounds the unease.
Elsewhere, the murder investigation is more traditional, with survivor Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) walking bloodied along rail tracks. There’s the nugget that this is part of a wider case (Teresa Banks was murdered almost a year previously to the day), and the letters (clues!) are discovered under fingernails. The latter suggests later unspeakable antics of the rash of ’90s serial-killer movies, as well as being informed by the forensic study of psychos found in early Thomas Harris.
The scene of the crime (a darkened train carriage), with its shocking evidence (bloody hammer, rags, bracelet) precedes the grimy milieu of Seven. Even here, Lynch conjures the boundaries of the real world; the phrase “FIRE WALK WITH ME” had the incantatory suggestiveness of a demonic anthem. This goes part and parcel with the untamed and malignant world of the woods, one that snatches its prey away at night. The sound of the trees at night in Twin Peaks isn’t a soothing one; it’s a signal of dark forces at work. As Coop comments, “These crimes occurred at night”.
Agent Cooper: Who’s the lady with the log?
Sheriff Truman: We call her the log lady.
There are abundant incidental pleasures here, of course. Blink and you will miss them moments. A student breaking into dance across a school corridor. A girl seen through a classroom window, running screaming across the forecourt. The giggling German waitress. Audrey’s brother Johnny, dressed in Native American headdress (Michael Horse’s Deputy is another missed opportunity, a Native American actor rendered with unerring dullness).
There’s the one-armed man coming out of a lift (inspired by The Fugitive) and a stag head on a table (“Oh, it fell down”). The fight to Julie Cruse’ Nightingale is typically bizarre. The principal breaking down as he announces Laura’s death (emotional outbursts skirt between genuine grief and parodies thereof). And then there’s the Log Lady. And the obsession with food; a table of donuts (“A policeman’s dream”); Coop talking about cherry pie and tuna on wheat (“Damn good food”); and even, “Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies”).
Agent Cooper: I’ve never seen so many trees in my life. As W C Fields would say, I’d rather be here than Philadelphia.
Mainly, though, there’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. MacLachlan is just marvellous, delivering with boundless enthusiasm lines Lynch wrote as the kind of thing he would say. His upbeat energy, flashes of genius, monologues to Diane (“That’s what I need, a clean place. Reasonably priced”). His genial honesty (tactfully taking charge, making pals with the Sheriff Harry; “You’re all right”). He’s ahead of the game, realising Bobby isn’t the culprit very quickly (“HE DID NOT DO IT”) and anticipating they are looking for a biker before being told by Lucy (the laughably unlikely eyeball reflection!) Matters arboreal engage him (“Sheriff, what kind of fantastic trees have you got growing round here?”), perhaps as a subtle rebuke to a town obsessed with felling them. We also first hear Albert’s name (he’s a little more on the ball than Sam, who will be played by Keifer Sutherland in the prequel). And he hasn’t even met Audrey yet. Or waxed lyrical about coffee!
Events begin on Friday, February 24 1989; Laura’s last diary entry was February 23 (Robert Anton Wilson would have been pleased, or at least sceptically approving). It’s Lynch all over that, amid a clue (a red herring really, since dopey James isn’t responsible), Coop recites the mundane scribblings of a teenage girl (“Asparagus for dinner again. I hate asparagus. Does this mean I’ll never grow up?”)
It’s curious that Lynch, on the one hand ready and willing to take accident and inspiration by the horns (the flickering fluorescent light during Coop’s examination of Laura’s body wasn’t intended but he kept it in, Frank Silva getting into shot resulted in most of the most terrifying villains in screen history), should have been so willing to pay attention to such continuity as bringing the Sam into the prequel.
This goes to the comment that they would never have revealed Laura’s murderer; Ray Wise was interviewed soon after his last appearance and said Lynch and Frost had assured him they knew it was Leland right from the start. We can never be too certain of just what is intended and what is inspired in Twin Peaks, but that flexibility is definitely to the show’s benefit (if Sheryl Lee hadn’t proved a great actress, the character might have remained only in this introductory episode).
Mike: Through the darkness of the past,
The magician longs to see,
One chants out between two worlds,
Fire walk with me.
This extends to the extended European pilot, with its contractually obliged ending. It’s non-canon, of course, featuring Mike, the one-armed man, shooting Bob dead in the hospital basement. A readily conversational Bob isn’t nearly as intimidating as one crouched at the bottom of the bed. Much of these twenty minutes are “can’t be bothered” filler; Lucy on the phone, talking to first Leland, then Harry, then Coop. But the bits that matter really matter. Lynch’s ability to elicit dread through sound is never more so than Sarah Palmer’s reaction to Bob. Bits of Bob’s speech (“I promise I will kill again” “catch you with my death bag”) prove relevant in the show proper. And then there’s Cooper’s holistic approach (one must always pay attention to two simultaneous events pertaining to the same object). Most of all, there’s the 25 years later dream that ends it all, parts of which would be used in Coop’s dream in Episode Three. The Man from Another Place (Michael J Anderson), “The gum you like is coming back in style”, Laura’s cousin (“I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back”, “She’s filled with secrets”).
So there’s little that can be criticised in this pilot episode. It establishes the themes and tone of the series with sureness and wit. It’s every bit as marvellous as it ever was. That it also brings to mind those characters and situations that don’t pay off is hardly its fault. Lynch and Frost ensure that Twin Peaks starts as it means to go on. Ostensibly a murder mystery, with dashes of corporate intrigue (Horne attempting to get the Packer saw mill for a song), it’s instantly clear that anyone hoping such plot heavy elements unfold with precision and certitude would be very disappointed. Network Lynch may not explore the excesses of his big screen self, but his personality travels completely. It will only be when the series drifts from that personality, unsure of quite what to do with itself next, that Twin Peaks begins to go awry.