TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.1 “The Pilot” (dir by David Lynch)


(In anticipation of the upcoming revival on Showtime, we’re rewatching and reviewing every single episode of the original Twin Peaks all through April!  Enjoy!)

“She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.”

— Pete Martell (Jack Nance) in Twin Peaks 1.1 “The Pilot”

When I was thinking about how I was going to open this review of the pilot episode for David Lynch’s iconic (and soon to be revived television series), Twin Peaks, I thought that I would start with this simple statement:

Twin Peaks opens with tears.

Then I rewatched the pilot on Netflix and I discovered that I was actually very incorrect.  Though I always think of the tears whenever I think of Twin Peaks, the pilot does not open with them.  Instead, it opens in a very David Lynch-like fashion — with signs of normalcy while Angelo Badalmenti’s ominous theme music provides hints that all is not as safe as it seems.

Really, it’s silly to try to talk about the pilot of Twin Peaks without including the opening credits because, in their deceptively simple way, they really do provide a road map of what’s to follow:

The opening credits, with their mix of shrouded atmosphere, man-made machinery and seemingly placid nature, are about as Lynchian as you can get.

Then again, the town of Twin Peaks is about as Lynchian as you can get.  Located only a few miles from the Canadian border in Washington State and surrounded by beautiful mountains and glorious wilderness, Twin Peaks is a town that seems strangely out of time.  Twin Peaks takes place in 1990s but, at times, the town seems to be stuck in the 50s.  Not the real 50s, of course.  Instead, it’s the 1950s of television, movies, and the popular imagination.  It’s a town where soulful loner James Hurley (James Marshall) wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle while teenage vixen Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) dresses like Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause and waits until she’s safely at her locker to slip on a pair of red high heels.  Audrey’s father, ruthless Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), makes plans to sell the town to the Norwegians while, at the local diner, wise Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) wearily watches over her customers.  It’s a world that could only exist in a dream and what a dream it is.

So no, the pilot of Twin Peaks does not open with tears.  Instead, it opens with Pete Martell (played by Jack Nance, the star of Lynch’s Eraserhead) going out to fish.  He tries to get a kiss from his wife, Catherine (Piper Laurie), but is coolly — but not cruelly — rebuffed.  One gets the feeling that this is a ritual that they go through every morning.  It’s only after Pete has stepped outside that he sees the girl on the shore, naked and wrapped in plastic.

That girl, of course, is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).  The high school homecoming queen.  The girl who did volunteer work.  The girlfriend of football player Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook).  The daughter of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Ben Horne’s lawyer.  The best friend of Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and the occasional rival of Audrey Horne.  The secret girlfriend of James Hurley.

It’s after Laura is discovered that the tears begin and those tears dominate the first 30 minutes of this 90-minute pilot.  Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) is the first to cry.  Laura’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) cries when she gets the news.  Leland cries.  Donna cries.  At the high school, a girl runs by a window, screaming.  The school principal announces that Laura has been found dead and breaks down into tears.  Only a few people don’t cry.  Ben doesn’t cry, knowing that a murder could ruin his business deal.  Bobby doesn’t cry, even when he’s arrested under suspicion of having committed murder.  (He was the last person known to have been with Laura.)  Audrey doesn’t cry and instead, appears to faintly smile at the chaos around her.

And Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) doesn’t cry.  However, that’s to be expected.  Harry is the rock on which Twin Peaks is built, both as a show and town.  He’s the least quirky character in the series.  He is law and order.  He’s got a murder to solve and making things even more urgent is that a classmate of Laura’s, Ronette Pulaski, is also missing.

The first 37 minutes of the pilot do a perfect job of establishing both the town and it’s inhabitants.  Everyone has a secret.  Everyone has a motive.  Along with those that I’ve already mentioned, we also meet waitress Shelly (Madchen Amick), who is married to an abusive trucker named Leo (Eric Da Re) and who is having an affair with Bobby.  We meet Bobby’s best friend and fellow football player, a real idiot named Mike (Gary Hershberger).  We meet Donna’s father, Doc Hayward (Warren Frost).  We meet the police dispatcher, the sweetly off-center Lucy (Kimmy Robertson).  We meet Deputy Hawk Hill (Michael Horse) who is as stoic as Andy is emotional.  We meet James’s uncle, Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Ed’s one-eyed, drapery-obsessed wife, Nadine (Wendy Robie).  We meet Josie Packard (Joan Chen), who inherited the mill from her late husband and who is secretly Harry’s lover.

And, after Ronette is discovered wandering, zombie-like on a bridge, we meet FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).  More than anything else, Cooper is who people think of whenever they think of Twin Peaks.  MacLalchlan plays the quirky FBI agent with just the right combination of earnestness and eccentricity.  Speaking into his ever-present tape recorder and praising everything from the trees to the pie to the coffee, Cooper quickly establishes himself as the perfect man to figure out what’s going on in Twin Peaks.

David Lynch once famously described his previous collaboration with MacLachlan, Blue Velvet, as being the “Hardy Boys Go To Hell,” and the same can be said of Twin Peaks.  If the first 37 minutes of the pilot were dominated by sadness and secrets, the final 60 are dominated by Dale Cooper’s enthusiasm and cheerful positivity.  The town may be strange but Dale loves the trees.  Dale may be investigating horrible and brutal crimes but at least he’s found a good slice of pie and damn fine cup of coffee.

“You know why I’m whittling?” Dale asks Harry at one point.  “Because that’s what you do in a town where a yellow light means slow down instead of speed up.”  Dale smiles after he says it.  It doesn’t take him long to fall in love with Twin Peaks.

Throughout the rest of the pilot, we get more hints of a world that’s threatening to spin off of its axis.  Dale and Harry run into Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn, who co-starred with Richard Beymer in West Side Story), who was Laura’s psychiatrist and appears to be in need of some therapy himself.  When they look at Laura’s body in the morgue, the lights flicker on and off.  When Dale finds a scrap of newspaper — featuring the letter “R” — underneath Laura’s fingernail, he grins as if he’s just made it through his first Communion.  When Harry and Dale go to the local bank, a moose’s head just happens to be lying on the table in the conference room.  It fell, they’re told.  Despite all the strangeness, they go about their business.  They’ve got a murder to solve.

“Mr. Cooper,” Harry says, at one point, “you didn’t know Laura Palmer.”  But, as quickly becomes obvious, no one knew Laura Palmer.  No one, for instance, knew that she was doing cocaine.  And Bobby didn’t know that she was seeing James, or at least he doesn’t until he watches a video that Donna, James, and Laura shot inn the mountains over looking the town.  Laura, who we’ve previously just seen as a dead body, is so happily alive in that video that it’s a bit jarring to see her.  You half expect her to come out of the TV, like the girl in The Ring.  The video ends with her smiling, as if she’s daring both Cooper and the show’s viewers to try to figure out who she actually was.  Only later is it revealed that, in a plot twist reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, James’s motorcycle is reflected in Laura’s eye.

Life goes on in Twin Peaks.  Audrey, the character to whom I most relate whenever I watch this show, sits in her father’s hotel and penetrates a styrofoam cup of coffee with a pencil.  “What would happen if I pulled this out?” she asks before doing just that.  Audrey walks into the hotel’s conference room and tells the Norwegians that she’s feeling sad because her best friend was just brutally murdered, destroying her father’s business deal.  (“The Norwegians are leaving!  The Norwegians are leaving!” a hotel concierge vainly yells.)

(Perhaps not coincidentally, Norway was also the home of Henrik Ibsen, whose theatrical melodramas often dealt with many of the same themes — greed, infidelity, the corruption that comes with progress — that are present in Twin Peaks.  An Enemy of the People could have just just as easily taken place in the American Northwest.)

Meanwhile, the local police come across the abandoned railroad car where Laura was murdered and Ronnette raped.  Andy calls the sheriff’s office, in tears.  “Tell Harry I didn’t cry,” he begs Lucy, “but it’s so horrible!”  It’s a moment of very real humanity in the middle of this odd and disturbing mystery.  When Andy begs Lucy not to reveal his very human reaction, it’s more than just shame on his part.  It’s an indication that perhaps the only way to solve this mystery is to sacrifice one’s emotions.

And, as Andy said, it is horrible.  When Dale and Harry walk through that railway car, we are reminded that, as quirky at the show may be, a very disturbing crime is still at heart of it.  Among other things, they find a half-heart necklace (the other half is with James) and, written in blood in the debris, a message: “Fire Walk With Me.”  As disturbing as this is in the pilot (and this scene really is Lynch at his best), it’s even more disturbing if you know who will ultimately be revealed to have been Laura’s murderer.  But that information will have to wait for a later review.

It easy to believe that arrogant Bobby Briggs killed Laura but Cooper only has to talk to him for a few minutes to realize that he didn’t do it.  Bobby may be a jerk and a drug dealer.  And Cooper is surely correct when he says that Bobby never loved Laura.  But Bobby is a bully, not a murderer.  When Bobby is released, he and Mike go looking for James.  As unlikable as Bobby is, Mike — with his blonde hair and all-American looks — is somehow even worse.  At least Bobby is open about being an bad guy.  Mike hides his darker instincts behind a carefully cultivated facade of blandness.  Looking at Mike in his red letterman jacket, you really do want someone to claw his eyes out.

Mike and Bobby look for James at the Roadhouse, one of the most important locations in Twin Peaks.  It’s a place where illicit lovers (like Norma and Ed) meet and where Julee Cruise sings haunting songs.  Bobby and Mike may not find James but they do find a fight with Ed.  This leads to Bobby and Mike spending the night in jail, which, ironically, is where they eventually find James.  James has been arrested as a suspect in the death of Laura Palmer.  In their cell, Bobby and Mike start to bark like wild dogs.

And so, a pilot that started with the humanity of tears ends with animalistic howls of anger, hate, and jealousy.

And so, Twin Peaks begins.

If I haven’t already made it clear, I am huge fan of the pilot for Twin Peaks.  Say what you will about where the series eventually went, the pilot was and remains an absolutely brilliant dream of dark and disturbing things.  Having rewatched the pilot, I am definitely looking forward to rewatching the rest of the series for this site and I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of our reviews!

Previous Entries in The TSL’s Look At Twin Peaks:

  1. Twin Peaks: In the Beginning by Jedadiah Leland
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27 responses to “TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.1 “The Pilot” (dir by David Lynch)

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