I loved Twin Peaks during its original broadcast run (1990-91), but somehow I managed to miss the final few episodes. Not because I was busy, but because the show tended to disappear from the TV listings for weeks at a stretch, and with the drumbeat of impending cancellation booming ever louder, I finally assumed the show was dead and gone before it really was.
I revisited the show about a decade later, watching the deluxe DVD release of Season 1’s seven episodes, followed by DVD-Rs of Season 2, which if memory serves were furnished by a guy who had a copy of a Japanese laserdisc release. Somehow I still remained ignorant of those last several episodes. Apparently I gave up on it after the resolution of its central “Who killed Laura Palmer?” narrative, and never got to the end.
I returned to the show this spring, and was delighted to discover those final few episodes, which were not only fresh to me but among the series’ very best. I had been curious to see how well the show would hold up, twenty-plus years after its debut. Well, it holds up well— very well— though there are a few things I liked less this time around, and a few things I liked more.
During the original run, I felt that the whole Laura Palmer mystery was terrific, but that the show sagged badly afterward until it picked up steam again with a new narrative concerning the sociopathic Windom Earle. I felt pretty much the same way this time around. But in spite of that lull, this is one of the greatest shows of all time.
If only creator/producers David Lynch and Mark Frost had had more time to plot the show’s basic trajectory. ABC insisted that they resolve the Laura Palmer mystery, and Lynch didn’t want to. Frost was ambivalent. ABC didn’t own the show, but it got its way. I’ve always felt that the show needed to resolve the mystery— I knew people who were watching it simply to see whodunit, and the last thing Twin Peaks needed was a coyly protracted, irritatingly ever-expanding mystery, a la Lost. Fortunately for viewers, the character who did kill her is played by the best actor in the cast, and the resolution to the mystery is one of the show’s most memorable sequences.
But Lynch and Frost seemed bewildered about where to go from there, and what follows are quite a few episodes dedicated to characters who aren’t very interesting. They had been interesting, back when we thought maybe they killed Laura Palmer. But no more. I believed back in 1991 (and still do) that it was a new story about one character’s awkward involvement with a boring femme fatale that doomed the whole show.
Most of its audience fled about that time, and would never know or care, but Twin Peaks rebounded as strongly as any show ever has. After that mid-season lull, it gets vastly more interesting in its final episodes, though once again the secondary storylines are weaker than the primary narrative about Windom Earle.
If only ABC had had more faith in the show. The network brass was all smiles during the glow of Peaksmania, but once the show’s novelty value wore off and the ratings fell, ABC got skittish. Twin Peaks was moved to the Saturday night programming ghetto, a sure kiss of death for a show whose core audience had a young demographic. Just as fatally, it proceeded only in fits and starts. The resolution of the Laura Palmer story aired on December 1, 1990. After two more new episodes, no more were seen until January 12 and 19, 1991. There were three more in February and then the show was put on hiatus with hideously low ratings. In retrospect, I think that’s when I understood that the show was off the air forever, but four more episodes appeared on Thursdays between March 28 to April 18. Much later, the final two episodes were aired, on Monday, June 10. No wonder I never saw them. I never heard about them.
In its heyday, Twin Peaks was celebrated for certain characteristics— mainly the quirky David Lynch specialties, like the midget in the red suit dancing across the zig-zag-patterned carpet. I remember a great deal of attention was paid to the quantity of coffee and cherry pie consumed on the show, but in fact doughnuts are the staple of the local diet. They’re everywhere, sometimes arranged by director Lynch in appealing visual designs.
Seeing the show now, I’m less impressed with his trademark dreamlike interludes. Maybe that’s just because there are so many of them that they seem almost conventional after a while. Frankly I think there are too many of them— as a practical consideration, they tend to muddy the storyline and interrupt the flow of things. The viewer already has his hands full trying to remember the difference between Jean Renault and Jacques Renault, or figuring out a motive for why Agent Cooper got shot in the Season 1 cliffhanger, to begin pondering the meaning of a hallucinatory vision of a white horse in somebody’s living room.
I’m not wishing that Twin Peaks was less complex, but for a show that can wander a long way down a narrative blind alley, it can suddenly stuff you with details and clues faster than you can digest them. But that’s okay. You have to take Twin Peaks on its own terms. If you demand that it conform to television conventions, you’ll be very frustrated with it very quickly. And that’ll be your limitation, not the show’s.
Anyway, seeing it again made me appreciate the contribution of Mark Frost. While I wouldn’t diminish David Lynch’s contributions, Frost seems to have been better at keeping the show’s different elements in balance. For a purely Lynchian view of Twin Peaks, you need look no further than his 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which certainly has its strengths but is relentlessly, overwhelmingly dreary and cold. Most of the TV cast returned for the film (only to end up on the cutting room floor, in many cases), but somehow they have no chemistry with each other anymore. The lighter side of the show is gone. No humor, no warmth. The narrative is a somber tour through Laura Palmer’s last days, a story that had already been told in the series, which conveyed it implicitly and to greater effect.
Frost had next to no input on the film, whereas he worked very closely on the series, writing a third of its episodes himself. The series has the right ratio of quirky characters to conventional characters, the right balance between tragedy and humor, the right balance between conflict and romance. There are more memorable and fascinating vignettes in Twin Peaks‘ thirty episodes than there are in nearly any other show ever made.
In singling out Frost for praise, I don’t mean to imply that Lynch doesn’t deserve his own accolades. He does. He directed six episodes personally, and they’re absolutely the best of the series. Pacing is a little uneven but they have the best visual appeal (he’s terrific with a wide-angle lens) and the performances are perfectly natural, proving that the unfortunate detachment of Fire Walk With Me was a deliberate creative decision rather than an inability to make the material appealing. Lynch’s episodes feel like short films rather than TV shows.
Knowing that Twin Peaks was almost certainly doomed, Lynch and Frost ended Season 2 with a startling cliffhanger anyway. Even more startling, three or four key characters are apparently killed in that last episode. Needless to say, I’d love to know what Lynch and Frost had in mind for the storyline in Season 3, but maybe it’s best that a show so permeated with mystery rest peacefully enshrouded by one more of them. And anyway, Mark Frost says he doesn’t remember.
Good night, Bambi Sickafoose… wherever you are.