Monday, 15 November 2010

Wider Reading | Let's Watch Twin Peaks: Pilot

Good evening, Diane. Find a comfy chair, fetch yourself a present for the day (I recommend a slice of cherry pie or a damn good cup of coffee), and settle in for the pilot episode of the seminal TV series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. We’re going to be commenting on the characters, the themes, and – most importantly of all – those essential recurring elemental symbols, fire, water and glass.

Spoilers are to be expected. Commentary is in order.

1) And here we go. I have the Gold Edition, so every episode comes with a slightly tedious introduction featuring the Log Lady, clearly filmed later on a cheaper budget. This time around, she’s telling us that there are many different kinds of stories. Some are funny, and some are sad. Damn it, Lynch, will you stop tinkering with your opus after the event? Next you’ll release a special edition where Andy doesn’t shoot Jacques first.

2) The titles roll. I could expand upon these almost frame-by-frame, but, for now, here’s a shorter list of the key devices; nature and industry, shot side-by-side to the same gentle, mellifluous soundtrack, as if the two are in total harmony. The theme music belies the darker edge – the logging mill which destroys nature, the bird which is both an innocent witness to murder and a fiend that attacks Laura Palmer’s corpse. And note that opening fiery spark from the mill machinery at the start of the sequence, and the importance of water towards the end, flowing and reflective – pure. If fire is the devil, then what is water?

3) The first shot we see beyond the title credits is a reflection – the reflection of Josie Packard. At first it may seem an odd character to focus on for the very opening of the series, but consider her extremely androgynous beauty, and she’s not a bad poster girl for the duality of Twin Peaks. And, veterans of the show, recall that the last time we’ll ever see Josie will be in a reflection.

The body of Laura Palmer is found. “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.”

4) Worth noting are the psychic, intuitive reactions of Laura’s mother Sarah and her classmates, as the news spreads that she’s been washed-up, murdered. Audrey appears to have no such reaction – or is it simply a lack of empathy?

Audrey reacting to the news of the murder and probable rape of her classmate.

5) FIRE! THERE IT IS! FIRE! And it’s shown for the first time in the Great Northern Hotel as Benjamin Horne, the hotel owner, elects to manipulate his Norwegian guests.

6) The emotional breakdowns of Laura’s parents Leland and Sarah Palmer are intriguing not simply because they are tragic, but because they will repeat themselves over the first series, becoming less tragic to us and closer to soap melodramatics with every time – Sarah’s sob-shrieks and Leland’s screwing up his face and caving in on himself.

7) Another FIRE reference as Shelley, the beaten-down diner waitress, flirts with her illicit boyfriend, Bobby, telling him she’ll “light his fire”. Interestingly, as Bobby, panicking at the realisation that Shelley’s brutal boyfriend Leo has returned home early, turns his car around and speeds away, the noise of the engine is cut with the noise of a saw grinding into wood.

8) Sarah Palmer, being questioned by the police, has a sudden attack of unexplainable horror brought on by *something* upstairs – or, perhaps, just the sight of a ceiling fan.

“Who’s upstairs?”

“Your husband, and one of my men.”

9) Josie and Catherine Martell are arguing; apparently Josie wants to shut down the woodmill because one of the workers has a daughter, Ronette Pulaski, who’s suspected to have gone missing along with Laura. Catherine disagrees – and while Josie’s motives seem odd to us, Catherine’s presented as being so unpleasant that we don’t mind a great deal. The tension between these two characters will be important.

10) And we finally see Ronette Pulaski, staggering in a daze across a bridge, having clearly suffered abuse of some kind. Ronette is key to the entire puzzle – or, at least, she would be key in another show. Here, the characters and creators forget about her to such a great extent in comparison to Laura (she’s even plainer, with a name that’s hard to pronounce and not all-American in the same way as the murdered girl) that a distressed bird will be seen as a more vital witness than her later on.

She looks normal, is what I mean to say. Normal, in a town filled with unrealistically attractive women.

11) And we meet Special Agent Dale Cooper, our de facto hero and iconic character, who, in typical fashion, is dictaphoning obsessively his trivia of the day for the benefit of someone called ‘Diane’. He also gets across an almost hilarious amount of direct plot exposition by the same method.

Cooper, as the show goes on, will become the series’ symbol of goodness – a less worldly Marge Gunderson. Both characters are eccentric and positive in their outlooks when faced with a great evil, to the point that they could be considered naive, even immature, but whose positive energy is hinted to be their most useful quality. (Compare this to Andy, a good man hindered by sorrow at the horrors he has to face, who cries at the sight of Laura’s body and who is later revealed to be very literally impotent – and to that other Coenian cop, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, equally good, equally melancholy and equally powerless.) A great deal of this is suggested by his appearance, boyish, clean-shaven, and often wearing a coat that looks a size or two too for him. He looks like a cool version of one of the Milibands.

Don't tell me you can't see it.

12) And, as he encounters his local liaison, Sheriff Harry Truman, we get a bit of playfulness; Cooper starts out giving a generic ball-busting speech about how the FBI is in charge now...but his own charm and enthusiasm burst through in the form of an excited query about the wonderful pines he saw on the road.

13) Ronette Pulaski, from her comatose state, whispers a warning to Cooper – “Don’t go there.”

14) More complicated soap-ish shenanigans with a sly twist; teenage douchebag Mike yells at his girlfriend Donna, but he’s warned off by the apparently benevolent gas station owner Ed Hurley...who is then yelled at by his own eye-patch wearing wife Nadine.

15) After some FBI interrogations, we return to Audrey, who is causing precisely calculated trouble in the hotel, poking a hole in a coffee cup and spilling the liquid across a secretary’s work, bursting into the Norwegians’ meeting and announcing that her best friend had been found’s a little annoying, especially with the sit-com-ish music, but it performs a valuable task. While all of the other lying citizens of Twin Peaks only get found out gradually, Audrey’s malicious streak is on full display from the start.

16) A double-theme whammy; the reflection of a motorbike in the reflection of Laura Palmer’s eye in a home video is an important clue. And then Cooper discovers that important, sinister message; a heart broken exactly in two, and four scrawled words - Fire Walk With Me.

17) We get to meet Shelley’s beau Leo, who is appropriately, near-absurdly loathsome, threatening her with death for having more than one cigarette brand in her ash-tray. Sure, he’s completely on the money that she’s having an affair, but he’s still a suspicious dickhead.

18) Cooper’s town meeting provides some more exposition and gives us the first real sighting of the Log Lady. It’s often been said that she’s one of the series’ worst/best examples of weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but I don’t know. Logs burn. Burn in FIRE.

19) In between shots of the youngsters drinking and getting angry, we see an oddly-shaped red light in the pitch black. Is it James’ motorcycle, or something else? We also seem to hear owls hooting. It will appear again.

20) As Donna sneaks out to meet James, her younger sister Harriet asks for her advice on a poetic question – “blossom of the evening”, or “full flower of the evening”? Only one of them’s a correct metaphor – but, all the same, adolescent or adult?

21) A barfight breaks out at the Roadhouse; James and Donna escape. James gives a long monologue about Laura’s sexual desires – he mentions almost thinking that she was possessed.

22) Interestingly, all four of the ‘young’ male characters – Mike, Leo, James and Bobby – seem to be playing variations on two stereotypes defined by their womenfolk. Mike and Leo are abusive and controlling; Bobby and James are freedom-embracing ‘rebels’.

23) As James is arrested, Donna’s adorable old father picks her up from the Sheriff’s office. He instantly forgives her for breaking Cooper’s curfew and makes a detour to pick up her sister’s bicycle. Unlike most of the characters, his decency is apparently not a cover for dark secrets. Meanwhile, Mike and Bobby, also incarcerated for their part in the barfight, taunt James by barking like dogs.

24) Okay, so it’s been a perfectly ordinary, if very slightly odd mystery-soap-drama so far. And then, just like that, the tone changes completely. Sarah Palmer is sitting alone in her living room when – oh, shit, she’s just caught sight of that evil ceiling fan, and – AAAGH!

I remain torn about BOB. For those of you who don’t know the story, that frightening, straggly-haired man was a set-dresser who was caught on camera accidentally. Lynch decided to incorporate the figure into the series – and thus, BOB (and presumably all of the overtly supernatural details of the series) were born. Is this brilliant creativity or just the hackery of a show that was – like many soaps – altered and twisted on the fly?

And so we end the first episode, appropriately, a little freaked-out and very little wiser.


  1. you wrote "if fire is devil, what is water?"
    in my opinion fire denotes love/empathy and is neutral. fire ultimatively works on its own death, for burnt stuff doesn't burn. "fire do with me as you please" would be the good thing, "fire walk with me" the evil. it is: to use knowledge gained by empathy for inferior human ends (walk with me).

    and i guess audrey just freezes in what she was doing before, like everyone else would, i assume. and what she did before was putting on an annoyed expression for having to sit in class with all those ignoble children and dreaming of not having to sit there.

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