It is dawn and a man is going fishing. As he walks along the shore of a lake she’s easy to miss. Our eyes are on the man, on the beauty surrounding him. She is just a small, white shape on the shore. She could be a rock for all we know. But as the man surveys the morning, he sees her. He’s fished this lake for decades and he knows what’s supposed to be there and what isn’t. She isn’t. So he goes closer. And that’s when we see what is blending into the beach.
Missing the little things in Twin Peaks is easy to do. The melodrama of the story, the high camp soap story lines, creates the sleight of hand that makes it so easy to miss details. I’ve watched the pilot, ‘Northwest Passage’, countless times and still discover new things. Like how a body looks like a white rock if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
The same subtlety is placed in the dialogue and acting. When the body is turned over Sheriff Truman says her name, “Laura Palmer”, with an incredulous tone. It tells the viewer that Laura is the last person anyone expected to see murdered, washed up on a rocky beach. And seeing Laura we can understand because, even in death, she is beautiful. Her blue lips and pale skin make her look like a sleeping fairy. The look on her face is so pleasant that you expect her to wake with a smile. She is at peace and now the living are entering Hell.
We don’t learn until much, much later about the horrors Laura faced in her life; and we don’t start learning about her double-life until Agent Cooper arrives in town. Until he does we see two kinds of reactions from those who knew her. Those who loved her, but didn’t know her secrets, take the news hard — most of them crying or wailing in despair. Those who knew her other life, taking part in her or their own corruption, knew better than to cry over her death. Bobby Briggs is the example of these reactions at work. He proclaims to love her, yet, when he hears the news of her murder he’s shocked, but sheds no tears. Even the school principal cried, Bobby.
The arrival of Special Agent Dale Cooper introduces a unique hero. Like Sherlock Homes, he uses observation to understand people. What makes him stand out is his use of intuition to guide the investigation. But this isn’t highlighted in the pilot; instead we mostly see is his perception. After finding a safety deposit key in a small bag in her diary, Cooper knows to test for cocaine. He knows Bobby didn’t kill Laura, even though Bobby didn’t love her. He knows Donna Hayward is lying about the video because he has already discovered the reflection of the motorcycle in Laura’s eye.
The most refreshing thing about Cooper becoming the detective hero is how he treats Laura. How many murder mysteries begin with a beautiful dead body and develop into a detective becoming obsessed with the victim? How many heroes wrap their redemption around solving or avenging the murder? Cooper doesn’t fetishize Laura. He doesn’t objectify her. And he doesn’t judge her. When he sees Laura in the morgue, he’s more concerned about finding evidence than with what she looks like — he leaves the sheet covering her face as he digs under nail for the murderer’s calling card. Upon opening her safety deposit box, Cooper doesn’t tisk when he picks up the copy of Flesh World; he’s excited about where the investigation will next lead them.
If anything, Cooper fetishizes the town of Twin Peaks. He’s obsessed with the trees — Douglas firs — with the region’s cherry pie, and with the local wildlife. He whittles while on a stakeout because “that’s what you do in a town where a yellow light still means slow down instead of speed up.” Even after a high-speed chase, he breaths in deep the night air. Would we find Twin Peaks boring without Agent Cooper? Probably not, but his enthusiasm for the town doesn’t hurt.
Cooper’s focus on the investigation is an important example for the audience. Because the hero doesn’t judge the victim, neither do we. So Laura had sex; lots of other teenagers do, too. She used cocaine, but that doesn’t make her a bad person. Even ten thousand dollars and a copy of ‘Flesh World’ doesn’t dim her in our eyes. We are learning her secrets. Instead of Cooper obsessing over Laura, we are.
Unfortunately, we can’t avoid talking about them so I’ll just get their names out there: Donna Hayward and James Hurley.
In the course of the pilot, Donna is an outlier. Knowing about Laura’s double life, she bawls when the announcement is made at school. By the time she’s watching the video of her and Laura, we already know that most of the town loved a mask Laura projected. So when Donna begins crying again, the viewer wonders which Laura she’s mourning. It’s not until nearly the end of the episode that we learn Donna did know some of Laura’s secrets. She knew and still loved her.
James also seems to know some of Laura’s secrets, especially since he’s one of them. But because his love is private, so is his grief. His tears don’t come until he talks to Donna alone in the middle of a dark forest.
Really the only thing I want to say about James and Donna is that I hate, hate, hate their romance. I just hate it. I would have been fine with them making out and playing detective. They’re teenagers dealing with the loss of a mutual loved one. Hormones and grief make a natural recipe for sex, while it makes sense for their subterfuge and teenage know-it-all-ness turning them into a demented Scooby gang. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So far they’re only grief kissing; there will be plenty of time to rag on their preposterous romance.
What makes the Twin Peaks pilot one of the strongest pilots ever is the creative team. Co-creator/co-writer Mark Frost brought a lot to the story; but his contributions were seen more as the series progressed. For the pilot, the true guiding light was David Lynch.
If Twin Peaks had been a film, as was intended if the pilot hadn’t been picked up, then it would have been one of Lynch’s weaker ones. I’ve seen the alternate version, where the killer is caught at the end, and I can say that it was not plausible. Not only is the discovery of who the killer too random, but the mystery is wrapped up too quickly. Characters are introduced for no reason and aren’t used in the story: Benjamin Horne is only a glad-handing dandy, Josie Packard is just a beautiful woman, and the Log Lady is remains the local kook. It doesn’t really matter how much style brings to the film because the story mangles it.
But as a pilot — as the cornerstone for every episode — Lynch’s aesthetic creates a masterpiece. Take, for instance, when Sheriff Truman is talking to Sarah Palmer. Lynch uses what I call a slow camera, where he uses long takes of close-ups and two shots. We see Sarah, wailing and struggling, and we don’t get a wide shot until she has calmed down. The wide shot is brief, only intending to let us know that we are in the Palmer home, Sarah is being given a sedative, and the Sheriff and his deputies are there. Then we’re back to a close-up of Sarah, talking slowly because of the sedative. Even the reaction shot lingers on Sheriff Truman, giving the actor enough time to show sympathy for her grief. When the camera takes us up to Laura’s bedroom, we’re in a two-shot of Leland Palmer and Deputy Hawk; and it stays this way during their conversation and only becomes a close-up when a significant item is discovered. And we see this camera rationing throughout the pilot. Even today very few shows allow their cameras to sit and observe, allowing actors to move within the frame no matter how long the shot takes.
The end of the episode provides the real glimpse into what’s in store for the viewer. Sarah Palmer lies on her couch, drifting to sleep, when she has a vision of a man taking the other half of Laura’s necklace out of its hiding place. Up to then we had been witnessing a standard, corporeal investigation. Sarah’s vision takes us into the supernatural.
Twin Peaks/Twin Peaks is not what we expected.