David Lynch Week: Twin Peaks (TV pilot,1990)
THE TWIN PEAKS PILOT EPISODE: Or, You Didn’t Know Laura Palmer
by Elizabeth Wilcox
April 8, 1820: A peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas discovers a strange piece of marble buried in the ancient city ruins of Milos. The marble is excavated (in two pieces), cleaned and nearly sold to Turkey—when a French ambassador, recognizing the importance of the discovery, stops the statue from being loaded onto a boat bound for Constantinople. The marble is then taken to the Louvre. People wonder what happened to its arms. They call it the Venus de Milo.
April 8, 1990: Pete Martell, an aging man out for a morning fishing trip, hears the blow of a foghorn. He sees something white peeking out from behind a large mass of petrified wood. It is a figure wrapped in white plastic. A figure with hair, with flesh-colored shoulders. It is Laura Palmer, a lovely 17-year-old resident of sleepy Twin Peaks, Washington, now dead.
What does the unearthing of a famous Greek sculpture have to do with the opening scene of David Lynch’s relatively short-lived TV series? Well, a lot, I think. Both of these events have something primal to do with the human capacity to discover—and with the human inability to understand those discoveries. Both are shrouded in mystery (that Lynchian buzzword), in accident, in those elements that make mankind immortal—art, confusion, death, fear. The terrifying moment of recognition when some tiny round thing that may be yourself is suddenly reflected in a blank face.
Though 30 episodes of Twin Peaks aired, only six were directed by Lynch himself, including the two-hour pilot episode. I think it’s interesting to watch the pilot as a self-contained event, almost as a feature film in its own right. Okay, sure, it’s not self-contained at all if you think of “self-contained” as meaning “having closure.” But it is, in some sense, “complete in itself” (as Merriam-Webster would have it). After all, Lynch himself said that agreeing to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer during the second season was one of his greatest professional regrets. In his mind, the purpose of the series was the mystery (not the solution). There ought to be no teleology applied to Twin Peaks, no drive towards a concrete goal. Instead, the closer you seem to get to something, the more fragmented and sprawling and un-goal-like it ought to seem.
The pilot episode is also self-contained in the way it answers the question: How do you build a Lynchian world?
First: industry. Something loud and clanging and piston-y. Machines almost violent, violating, in their raw power, their disregard for the people who built them. Next, add Kyle MacLachlan (seen here as FBI Agent Cooper). Insert body parts or bodies themselves lying on the ground. Fold in a somewhat upsetting singer on a somewhat upsetting stage in a room that’s darker than it ought to be. Now, a sprinkle of dangling telephones—interrupted communications. Stop lights that only ever turn red. Back it all with music that may seem ridiculously melodramatic until you start to doubt yourself and what you’re seeing, at which point it just becomes frightening.
Perhaps my favorite part of the pilot episode (though really, there are so many favorite parts that it’s hard to choose) is when Agent Cooper and the local sheriff (just a regular guy named Harry S. Truman) walk into a conference room in a bank. In the foreground, a severed deer head lies menacingly on the table. Its eyes, though blank, bleat distress. Something is off, we feel. Something dangerous is coming. Something primal and gut-wrenchingly I-didn’t-want-to-know. But as Kyle MacLachlan’s face registers a hint of mild disturbance, the bank employee blurts matter-of-factly, “Oh, it fell down.” A sigh of relief, perhaps even an appreciative laugh, escapes our lips—thank god! Just a visual sight gag. After all, there’s nothing at all menacing about an accidental failure of wall-mounting—is there?
Or is the knowledge that the silly, accidental things around us will always appear more scary than the things we actually ought to be frightened of—which will, all too often, look dignified and wood-paneled and polished—is that knowledge in and of itself enough to drive us crazy?
The Twin Peaks pilot also produces a strangely heady sense of repetition and unthinking motion: a going forward even in the stopping, a denial of the relief that comes when an answer is reached. The lights may turn red, but the cars are still going through them. Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) is still staring hugely and mournfully with those eyes, Mrs. Palmer is still making strangled grief noises, Agent Cooper is still dictating to an unseen and unknown “Diane,” the mill is still spewing smoke and noise, Lucy is still describing to which phone she’s going to transfer the call, the Log Lady is still holding her log. Laura Palmer is still dead. Nadine Hurley is still opening and closing her drapes, staring defiantly out from behind her eyepatch.
In fact, though it may be these repetitions that prompt people to call Lynch’s films “surreal,” it is precisely these repetitions that make his work hit so close to home. Because that isn’t surreal at all. That’s how we live. Things do repeat over and over, there is no end in sight beyond the false ends we create for ourselves—to-do lists, parties celebrating the completion of projects, calendar years. It’s the concept of closure that’s dream-like and surreal, not the concept of mystery. Mystery is all too realistic and common.
Some people believe Lynch’s work exposes a seedy underbelly in quaint suburban communities or small towns, which proves that evil lurks everywhere, not just in those “dangerous” big cities. However, it seems to me that Lynch is saying that these small towns can actually be more dangerous than big cities. That a greater proliferation of opportunities to connect to your neighbors—to know their faces and their dogs’ faces and their favorite records to play on Friday nights—actually breeds something more terrifying and visceral than anonymous interactions on a subway in a large metropolis ever could.
That truly knowing each other is frightening and inhuman.
“Mr. Cooper, you didn’t know Laura Palmer,” says Sheriff Truman. But who DID know Laura Palmer? What does it mean to know anyone? Looking into their eyes, all you see is the reflection of yourself. Or perhaps, if you’re lucky, the reflection of a telltale motorcycle, which may or may not be carrying the man who holds the other half of your broken heart. Who may or may not be responsible for the stillness of your body when it is wrapped in plastic, lovely and white like a buried statue.
Elizabeth Wilcox is a writer and graduate student living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here.
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