I’m still shocked that David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks aired on a major television network – let alone in primetime. The series heavily influenced a lot of prestige TV that followed its cancellation after its second season back in 1991, but I can’t think of another show that’s ever run the gamut of styles and genres quite the way this one did. The original run of episodes was thrilling because we had absolutely no idea what kind of show it would be from one moment to the next. Twin Peaks was the absolute king of tonal shifts, often whipping from surreal to comedic, from melodramatic to genuinely heartbreaking, from profound to eye-rollingly dumb. This show contained multitudes. But through it all, it remained enigmatic, eccentric, exciting, and distinctly Lynchian – even when Lynch himself scaled back his involvement during the show’s questionable second season.
With the limited series revival heading to Showtime this weekend, now’s a good time for a refresher about what you need to know, some questions left unanswered, and a bit of good old-fashioned speculation about what we might see in the future. Grab a cup of damn fine coffee, a slice of cherry pie, and join me for a whirlwind trip to small town America in the Pacific Northwest.
Brief Recap: A Body Wrapped in Plastic
Warning: I’m giving myself room to spoil everything between the pilot and the season 2 finale, so keep that in mind if you haven’t seen a single episode yet. Proceed at your own risk.
As anyone who’s seen a David Lynch film knows, the filmmaker is fascinated with exploring the seedy underbelly of seemingly-perfect small town America. In Twin Peaks, that idea is represented in the character of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a blonde-haired high school homecoming queen who we soon learn wasn’t the perfect hometown girl she appeared. Laura was into some serious shit, including heavy drug use and working as a prostitute at a gentlemen’s club across the Canadian border called One-Eyed Jacks. We see a lot of this in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch’s prequel film that he made after the show was cancelled.
The show kicks off with Laura’s naked body, wrapped in plastic, washing up on the shore of a local lumber mill. The town’s mild-mannered sheriff, Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is out of his depth, so the FBI is called in to help.
Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), a perpetually optimistic and genius investigator who discovers a hidden letter “R” under Laura’s fingernail that fits the pattern of a killer who murdered another girl the year before. Cooper joins forces with Truman and other Twin Peaks cops – including the goofy, lovable Andy (Harry Goaz) and the strong, quiet Hawk (Michael Horse) – in an attempt to find Laura’s killer, which was the driving force of the narrative throughout its eight-episode first season and into the start of its 22-episode second season.
Cooper’s methods are unorthodox. He’s visited in a dream by an inter-dimensional being named Mike who inhabits the body of a one-armed man named Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel), and Mike tells Cooper that Laura’s killer is a greasy-haired, denim-clad demonic being named Bob (Frank Silva), who also has the ability to inhabit people’s bodies. Cooper’s dream location shifts to a room with a black and white floor and red curtains. This is the Red Room within The Black Lodge, a mystical portal between dimensions. Cooper finds himself 25 years older as he meets a dancing dwarf and a vision of Laura, who whispers something in his ear. When the younger Cooper wakes up, he knows he must analyze the dream in order to figure out who Bob is inhabiting.
The special agent explores a number of leads, including a local drug dealer and a real estate magnate, but they turn out to be dead ends. In season 2, we discover that Bob has actually been inhabiting Laura’s father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), and Bob had been sexually abusing Laura against Leland’s will since childhood. (This is what led to her heavy drug use.) Once that revelation happens, the show begins to lose steam as it stumbles to find a narrative hook as juicy as the one it just resolved. Cooper is framed for smuggling drugs and is suspended from the FBI, although his name is eventually cleared.
The back half of season 2 largely centers around a lengthy confrontation between Cooper and a man named Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Earle was Cooper’s former partner at the bureau. We learn that when Cooper was charged with protecting Earle’s wife, Caroline, the two fell in love, driving Earle so crazy that he murdered Caroline under Cooper’s watch – she died in his arms – and abandoned his job, becoming a maniac obsessed with harnessing the mysterious power of The Black Lodge for himself. Earle comes to Twin Peaks and begins playing a metaphorical chess game with Cooper, using human beings as the pieces and killing someone every time he captures one of Cooper’s pieces.
Around this time, Cooper falls in love with a new resident named Annie (Heather Graham), who enters the town’s Miss Twin Peaks contest. When she wins, Earle – who knows about her love affair with Cooper – kidnaps her and takes her into The Black Lodge, where she’s badly injured. Cooper goes in after her, and agrees to give Earle his soul if Earle allows Annie to live. But Bob appears and essentially says Earle doesn’t have the jurisdiction to be able to steal souls, only HE does – so he takes Earle’s soul and kills him. When Cooper emerges in the final episode, it’s revealed that Annie survived but Cooper looks at his reflection and sees Bob mimicking his movements. This either means that the real Cooper is still trapped inside The Black Lodge and the one we’ve seen is a doppelgänger, or that the real Cooper has been inhabited by Bob the same way Leland Palmer was. Either way, it’s a devious ending and makes for a hell of a final image.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of these folks, but the friendship between Cooper and Twin Peaks Sheriff Harry S. Truman is worth singling out for its genuinely heartfelt appeal. Those two were always legitimately great together. Also in the department:
- FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (played by David Lynch himself). He’s Cooper’s boss, and occasionally stops by Twin Peaks to check on his progress. Cole’s primary characteristic is that he’s very hard of hearing, and thus yells everything he ever says. That may sound amusing, but if you’ve seen the show, you know its novelty wears off quickly.
- Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), the police station secretary. She dated the “aw shucks” Deputy Andy and the suave Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan), and when she became pregnant and was unsure which of them was the father, basically held a multi-episode contest between the two men to see which could better handle the role of fatherhood.
- FBI forensic analyst Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer). Cooper calls him in to help with Laura’s autopsy, and his dismissive and abrasive nature rubs many Twin Peaks residents the wrong way – especially Truman. Eventually Albert warms up to the town and its people.
- DEA Special Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny). Formerly known as Dennis Bryson, Denise began wearing women’s clothing during an undercover investigation and felt more comfortable with that identity, so she adopted a new name. Remember that this happened in the early ‘90s, so this was a hugely progressive move for a major television show to make. Denise is called in to aid Cooper in a drug bust and saves his life during a sting operation.
- Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis). A U.S. Air Force officer who has intimate knowledge of both The Black Lodge (which is focused on fear) and The White Lodge (which is focused on love) because of his work with the mysterious Project Blue Book. He often aids Cooper during his investigations involving anything supernatural.
The pilot gives a good look at the town’s high school, but even though its students are ostensibly supposed to be attending classes over the course of the series, we almost never see them there. In any case, here’s the rundown of main characters in that age range:
- A sensitive biker named James (James Marshall), who was secretly dating Laura at the time of her murder. He’s accused of killing her before being proven innocent.
- Laura’s kind-hearted best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), who conducts her own investigation into Laura’s death and falls for James in the process.
- Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee), Laura’s lookalike cousin. She comes into town for Laura’s funeral and gets into a love triangle with James and Donna. But she’s not around for long. Bob – who was still inhabiting Leland Palmer at the time – brutally murders Maddy and shoves her body in a golf bag. Yikes.
- Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), Laura’s classmate. Audrey has a crush on Agent Cooper and spies on potential suspects in order to get make herself valuable to him in the hopes that he’ll reciprocate her feelings. At one point she gets involved with Billy Zane, who drops by in a guest star capacity late in the show’s run.
- Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), a waitress at the town’s Double R Diner who’s trapped in an abusive marriage with a drug dealer. She’s secretly seeing Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), the constantly scheming captain of the school’s football team. When Shelly’s husband goes into a coma, Bobby moves in with her; though the two suffer through some hard times, they ultimately end up together.
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