Note: This being the pilot, I’ll be going in more detail than I will for later episodes.
Prom Queen Laura Palmer is found murdered in the small north-western town of Twin Peaks. Laura’s boyfriend Bobby Briggs is having an affair with Shelley Johnson, who is unhappily married to trucker Leo Johnson. A friend of Laura’s, Ronette Pulaski, who had gone missing the night before, emerges, battered and catatonic. It is strongly suspected she was with Laura. Biker James Hurley is revealed to have been Laura’s secret boyfriend.
The FBI, in the person of Special Agent Dale Cooper, is called in because Ronette “stepped out across the state line”. Cooper examines Laura, and finds the typewritten letter “R” under one of her fingernails. He looks through Laura’s diary, the last entry of which reads, “Nervous about meeting J tonight.” In it he finds residue that he believes is cocaine. At the crime scene, he finds a torn piece of paper bearing the words “fire walk with me” written in blood, and half a heart necklace. In her safety deposit box, he finds $10,000 and a porn magazine featuring a personal ad by Ronette, as well as an ad with a picture of Leo’s truck.
Audrey Horne intentionally sabotages her father Ben Horne’s development deal when she spooks the interested parties by telling them about her murdered classmate. Norma Jennings and Ed Hurley, both married to other people, are secretly in love. James, who has the other half of the heart necklace, meets with Donna Hayward (Laura’s best friend) and they bury the necklace. They kiss, discovering that they love each other. We discover that the Sheriff is romantically involved with Josie Packard, who owns the town mill.
At night, an unseen person finds the buried necklace and takes it. At home, Laura’s mother Sarah seems to be reacting to this as it is happening.
The first season of Twin Peaks aired around the time I was turning 18. I lived in a small, isolated French-Canadian town, hadn’t had much exposure to art films, and had never heard of David Lynch. But the great new magazine I’d started getting in the mail, Entertainment Weekly (trust me, back then, it was great), gave the premiere a rare A+ grade, and critic Ken Tucker’s excitement was contagious.The show is unusual right from the opening credits. A shot of a bird, followed by loving close-ups of a mill saw being sharpened and a slow-motion shot of falls, to the tune of Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy synth score? I’d never seen a credits sequence that revealed so little (story-wise) about the show it was introducing. But that’s appropriate for a director who’s always been more interested in mood than narrative.
Shortly following the credits comes the first, minute element that contributed to hooking me: the long, lonely sound of a foghorn. That, combined with an overcast look that dominates the pilot, gives the show something I wasn’t used to experiencing on tv: atmosphere. You can practically feel the crisp Northwestern air as you hear a clanging sound and Pete Martell’s crunching footsteps in the gravel. Of course in retrospect it’s not a surprise that the director of Eraserhead would be so good at tapping the power of sound.
Deputy Andy’s crying when he sees Laura Palmer’s body on the beach is the first indication of the unvarnished emotion the show would traffic in. As the Sheriff and Dr. Hayward turn the body over, we hear the first example of the counter-intuitive way Lynch uses music, with the romantic-sounding tune accompanying a scene of grim sadness. Pete looking away in dismay is a great touch, too.
The pilot cuts directly from the discovery of the body to the mundane scene of Laura’s mother Sarah calling her daughter to get out of bed, and it feels like a knife being twisted in a wound. This woman has no idea that her everyday routine is about to be shattered in the most cruel way. And why is the close-up shot of that ceiling fan so unnerving?
As the “romantic” theme is cued up again, Sarah calls her husband Leland on the phone to find out if Laura is with him. As we watch him reply, the Sheriff’s SUV screeches to a halt in the background, the sound reflecting the way terrible news is about to disrupt Leland’s life. Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie’s acting is flawlessly real in this scene as they find out their daughter has died (without anyone ever telling them in so many words, an eloquent way to skirt some cliché dialogue). Sarah’s raw cries of grief pierce the heart.
Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost chose to show Laura’s friends finding out she died – just like Leland and Sarah – without being told. An officer comes to Laura’s class looking for Bobby, speaks with the teacher privately, and a girl runs across the courtyard screaming. Donna and James look at Laura’s empty seat, and they know. All the while, the volume of the room tone rises. No one tops Grace Zabriskie’s crying, but Lara Flynn Boyle does a very commendable job of it. As does Troy Evans as the principal, who breaks down as he makes the announcement of Laura’s death. Not even a third of the way through the pilot, and we’ve already seen five people cry uncontrollably.
The town and the show’s driving mystery having been introduced, we finally meet Special Agent Dale Cooper. His serious-goofy-cool eccentricity feels like a refreshing contrast to the heavy emotions of the first half hour. I hadn’t seen a lead character like this on tv before. It’s very entertaining to watch Cooper work. His unusual methods, Holmesian instincts, and odd moments of glee give him a slightly alien quality.
The episode only takes one substantial misstep: a scene in which Audrey, affecting a slutty-innocent voice, throws a wrench into her father’s business plans by telling the Norwegians about Laura’s murder. This is accompanied by playful music that all but pokes you in the ribs, asking you to laugh. It’s a tone-deaf, unfunny attempt at broad humour that feels completely out of place.
The scene with Harry and Josie standing outside in the dark gives me a chill (the foghorn helps). But the episode’s last scene results in full-on goosebumps, in distinctly Lynchian fashion. What makes it so effective?
1. The fact that it comes right after Harry says the murder must’ve taken place around that time the previous night.
2. The disorientation. Why is the show cutting between a shot of a stoplight, the mother of the dead girl, the stairway of her house, and a point-of-view shot of someone walking in the woods?
3. The music – at first darkly foreboding, then matching Sarah’s shocked scream.
4. That scream. What is she screaming at, anyway? How is this connected to someone digging the necklace from its hiding place? You end up feeling unmoored, because the source of your distress is not readily identifiable.
5. The fact that someone badly wanted the necklace, and that they knew exactly where it was buried.
Lynch/Frost credit pops up as the music blares tragedy. THAT’s how you end an episode of television.
I come to the end of my review realizing that I haven’t spent much time on the central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Maybe that’s because the subject of the mystery is less important to Lynch than the mood of mystery. Similarly, I’m less interested in plot than I am in whether the show is effective, and how.
The pilot stands apart from the rest of the show. A unique alchemy took place here that would not occur again. It has a distinctly different, more filmic look than the rest of the series, possibly because everyone was able to spend more time on it. The painting, likely by necessity, would be done in broader strokes for the regular episodes.
- Our introduction to Lynch’s sense of humour: Lucy taking far too long to explain to the Sheriff which phone she’s transferring her call to. (I am aware that David Lynch and Mark Frost were equal creators of the show, and they wrote the pilot together, but this particular “joke” has a very Lynchian flavour.)
- As Shelley and Bobby drive away from the diner, there is a gorgeous shot of the highway with the mountains behind, with a police car speeding towards and past the camera, sirens blaring. We then see it come from Shelly and Bobby’s point of view, and the shot is vertigo-inducing.
- We are introduced to Ronette Pulaski via another beautiful shot, as she ambles across a train bridge in rags, with mountains in the background.
- Dr. Jacoby’s insane giggle upon discussing Laura is… inappropriate, to say the least.
- That shot of tweezers reaching way too far under Laura’s fingernail – argh!
- My favourite line might come from Nadine: “Ed! You waiting for those drapes to hang themselves?”
- The last entry in Laura’s diary reads in part: “I hate asparagus. Does this mean I’ll never grow up?” I’ve seen the pilot about a dozen times, and it was only on my last rewatch that I realized how sad that entry is. Because, of course, she never got the chance to grow up.
- There are a few “oh shit” moments. Cooper and Truman find half of a heart necklace at the scene of the crime. Cut to James, sitting on a cliff, holding the other half. Later, we see a picture of a truck in a porno magazine, which dissolves to a shot of the actual truck, which turns out to be Leo’s.
- Man, Bobby and Mike are such assholes!
- There are some wonderful moments of sweetness. When Dr. Hayward picks up his daughter after she broke the curfew, it looks like he’s going to let her have it. But instead he proves to be the world’s most understanding dad.
- There are forty-four doughnuts laid out on that table when Cooper and the Sheriff return to the station. When Harry says that Lucy sets it up for them every night, all I can think is, They must waste so many doughnuts!