This is the Twin Peaks episode where things get weird — David Lynch weird. Which makes sense considering he directed this episode. When people talk about how great and weird Twin Peaks is, this is the number one example. Look at what’s there! You’ve got Audrey’s dance, Tibetan rock throwing, Leland Palmer’s breakdown to the most annoying big band song ever, and Cooper’s dream. Yes, they’re all wonderful. I, myself, remember seeing a commercial for the episode showing the women at One Eyed Jack’s lining up and thinking, “That’s a show I want to watch.”
It’s easy to get lost in the weird stuff. As a first-time viewer all those years ago, I did the same. For many Lynch fans, though, you come for the weird and stay for the dark.
Let’s situate ourselves a bit. When the episode opens, we are still in Saturday night. We don’t know this, of course, until a couple of scenes later when we hear James complement Mrs. Hayward’s huckleberry pie. Until then, we pick up a few clues about Laura and Ronette.
First, there’s the most depressing family dinner ever. After watching this, can you really blame Audrey for acting out? What would you do if, at the one meal of the day where the whole family was gathered, no one spoke? The amount of time the quiet is allowed to play out really adds to the gloom. All we hear is the dim clink of silverware on china and crackles from the fireplace. It’s uncomfortably long. Ben’s brother, Jerry, doesn’t even enter until all of the secondary credits are finished.
Benjamin is happy to see him, but Sylvia, Ben’s wife, is pissed. And for what, we don’t know. All she says is “Benjamin!” Even Audrey seems off-put by his arrival. When he says hello to her, she turns her head away in a way that could be either playful or annoyed.
After insulting his family, Benjamin takes Jerry to a back hallway. “Leland’s daughter was murdered and the Norwegians left.” Jerry is more concerned about the deal falling through. He asks Ben why they left and, interestingly, Ben covers for Audrey. Instead of explaining how she told “those Vikings” about Laura’s murder, he just says no one knows because they took the interpreter with them. So now we’re left wondering if Ben hid the truth because he wants to protect Audrey or because he doesn’t want to appear foolish in front of his admiring brother.
Jerry becomes doubly bummed when he finally comprehends the news about Laura. It doesn’t seem to affect him as much as it has other townspeople, but he’s still down in the dumps because of all the bad news. Ben has the perfect pick-me-up, though: a trip up north to One Eyed Jacks. There’s a new girl, “freshly scented from the perfume counter.” Jerry has a fifty-fifty chance of being first in line. This lifts his spirits enough that he wants to jump in the boat right now.
But wait. What was that about the perfume counter? Didn’t Ronnette and Laura work at the perfume counter? What’s the connection between that and a Canadian brothel/casino? More secrets and more questions.
At the end of the first episode I was left thinking that Bobby knew Laura better than James and Donna. It appears he didn’t.
Hold on. Let me back up.
We get more clarity on Snake and Bobber’s jailhouse convo. Turns out Mike and Bobby are dealing coke for Leo Johnson, the local wife-beating psychopath. Laura was involved somehow, too. How involved, we’re not sure. All we know is the ten thousand in her safety deposit box was supposed to go to Leo for payment. Laura Palmer: worst accounts payable department ever.
This is a terrifying scene, though. The flashlights in the dark woods – reminiscent of Scorpio Rising – creates a claustrophobic setting. What’s out there beyond the light? Mike and Bobby are worried which they should be more afraid of: the dark figure in the woods or Leo in the light.
And, really, this is the conundrum that faces the characters and viewers for the remainder of the show. We learn to be afraid of the dark because we don’t know what’s in there, while safety is found in the light because we think we can trust what we see. How Leo is presented scares us not just because he is a menacing person, but because he uses light to terrify others. In Twin Peaks the bad guys aren’t afraid to be seen.
This flipping of the traditional narrative has been seen other times, too. In the pilot, the Roadhouse is where light plays peekaboo with everyone. The bikers in front have the glow of the stage lights bouncing off of them, Big Ed and Norma are at a side booth in a light all their own, and Mike and Bobby sit in a shaft of light at the bar. Mike, the all-American looking guy, is intimidates and manhandles Donna. Joey, the black leather-clad biker, is the one who helps Donna by ushering through the shadows behind the bar. Later, James and Donna are safe when surrounded by the dark forest; in the brightly lit jail cell, though, James is threatened by a barking Mike and Bobby. Even Leo keeps the lights on when he beats Shelly with a bar of soap in a sock.
I can’t say if this was a conscious choice or not. Lynch is well-known for making decisions on the fly. He’ll deviate from the script because of budget constraints or because the image of a set dresser hiding from view startled him. So, while there’s no way to tell if he and Mark Frost intended to change the traditional dynamic of light and dark, I think they saw what was happening and went with it.
For a show about a dead girl, we sure haven’t seen a lot of her parents. A lot of what we’ve seen is Sarah Palmer’s reaction. Her wails have been uncomfortable to watch; while she cries for her daughter, no tears come out. Tears are also absent from Leland, although his grief doesn’t become awkward until this episode.
I’m just going to say it: the timing and the extent of Leland’s grief is unexpected.
As viewers, we’re used to tidy narratives that go denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Because neither parent’s reaction fits that list, their grief becomes more realistic than other depictions. Both actors project the mash-up of feelings everyone feels when they have a major loss. Leland, however, is showing signs of a psychotic break rather than grief. Finger snapping, focused attention, and spinning appear more like a manic episode (in my totally untrained opinion.) He certainly wouldn’t be the first parent, with or without a mental illness, to lose touch with reality after a child’s death.
It’s unexpected, though, because there’s just no build up to his breakdown. Yes, it’s only the second episode so there’s a very short history at the viewer’s disposal. But Frost and Lynch have already shown that they can provide plot set-up in the briefest of moments. One such example is in episode one when Big Ed picks up James at the Sheriff’s station. Deputy Hawk and Ed make the same gesture towards each other — an unexplained secret signal. James asks Ed if his mother is still out of town and then says he’s going to need help from the Bookhouse Boys. It’s a thirty second scene that pays off in later episodes, but there isn’t time to see Leland get triggered? The viewer is left demanding the same thing as Sarah: what is going on?
When people talk about Twin Peaks they always talk about Cooper’s dream. And who can blame them? It’s visually and aurally stunning. And, frankly, I don’t think I have anything new to say about it. Others have written much better analysis than I could attempt. Instead, Cooper’s dream spotlights a David Lynch specialty: the ability to capture dreams and their logic.
Long before I learned about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, I knew the power of interpreting dreams. My grandmother had a very old illustrated children’s Bible and the only story I enjoyed reading was Joseph in Egypt. For those who haven’t read the story or seen the musical, Joseph was the most loved son of Jacob who was given a coat of many colors. His brothers, jealous of him, sold Joseph to nomad slavers. He becomes a servant in the house of the Captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and is released because he interprets the Pharaoh’s dream about an oncoming famine. Joseph is released from prison, put in charge of famine prep, reunites with his family, and encourages them to move to Egypt (and perhaps dooming Judaism to hundreds of years of slavery).
As kid who regularly sleepwalked and woke up from nightmares, the idea that the things in our dreams meant something else held value. As I grew older and less afraid, I became curious of what my sleeping mind wanted me to know. The unconscious stories and how they were told became fascinating. So, Cooper’s dream was the first time I had seen someone execute dream storytelling accurately.
This kind of storytelling is a specialty of Lynch’s. A majority of his films are filled with dream logic. They’re also some of the most realistic depictions of dreams ever captured on screen. In Cooper’s dream, before we come to the red room, we see the one-armed man, BOB, and Sarah Palmer. Cooper’s mind is trying to organize the information, but just like in actual dreams, he cannot stay to ask questions because the unconscious has already moved onto the next part of the dream. By the time he arrives in the red room, his mind has calmed enough to make him an observer. The thing that so many people admire about the sequence — weirdness of the dream — is normal in all dreams. We appreciate someone depicting the unexplainable that occurs every night.
Lynch could be called a magician. He’s so good at distracting the viewer with visuals that it’s easy to miss the heavy subject matter they represent. In 1990, though, a series did not have only one writer or director. The darkness of Twin Peaks will be guided by others for the rest of season one. Sometimes it will feel like we’re holding mommy or daddy’s hand through a haunted house ride, while other times we’ll feel a big kid on the ride. For now, the terror only comes when Lynch is behind the camera.