With one month to go until Twin Peaks returns for all-new episodes, we look back at the second season of David Lynch’s classic show. Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2. Not seen either? Read our guide to why you should catch up on Twin Peaks.
“Who shot FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper?” was the early 1990s equivalent to Dallas’ “Who shot JR?” Well, that’s how I imagine it in my head. I was knee high to a grasshopper when Twin Peaks originally ran, and obviously never saw it then. The first season’s shocking cliffhanger, however, is nothing compared to the second season’s. To quote Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Whitfield in Pulp Fiction: “It ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.” But before we get to that bit, let’s settle a matter. Twin Peaks S2 is not terrible. Its latter stages offer a mixed bag but, taken overall, Season 2 features some of the show’s funniest and most insane moments.
With its first season, Twin Peaks had proven an unlikely runaway success. It quickly became water cooler television and the actors found themselves the centre of fevered media and public attention. It was a time when David Lynch’s brand of Surrealism Americana was all the rage. He’d also just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart, a film chock full of Twin Peaks alumni.
When the series returned in the summer of 1990, for its ultimately doomed run (the penultimate episode and controversial finale were aired together as a two-hour special), Coop was lying on the floor of his hotel room at the Great Northern. In bad shape, bleeding out, the FBI man is visited, first, by an old coot bringing a tray of milk and cookies, and, second, by the iconic giant, who informs the stricken J Edgar about three clues he will need to solve in order to find the culprit who slayed Laura Palmer and attacked Ronette Pulaski.
As openers go, it’s Lynch at his comic finest. The whole scene is played out in extended absurdity; deliberately slowed down (painfully slow, actually), the lack of urgency in either the old porter’s demeanour and concern – his extreme old age heightening the humour of the situation – and Coop’s own casual, albeit weakened, responses aid the surreal tone. It’s all beautifully contrarian, in its response to a major character in peril.
Lynch has since spoken out about how TV executives forced him and co-creator, Mark Frost, to wrap up the Laura Palmer plot. He described Laura’s murder as the goose that laid little golden eggs and when it stopped laying those eggs, the show changed and was never able to recover. There is definitely some truth to it: Laura’s death was intended as a springboard and channel into the world of Twin Peaks. Viewers lost interest after the big reveal and you can see the show momentarily lose its purpose, almost asking itself aloud what to do now. Lynch and Frost and their writing team sure came a cropper.
The pair’s offbeat sensibilities (Twin Peaks is not The David Lynch Show) produced one of the greatest television shows of all time, but they were always going to meet fierce resistance, when they attempted to change the structure of mystery plot storytelling and subvert genre tradition. (They can’t have been so gullible as to believe they could set up a murder mystery and just leave it hanging and unsolved? In 2017, thanks to the legacy of the show and Lynch being deemed one of the greatest directors ever in world cinema, Showtime has given him and Frost full creative control over Season 3. They’ve written every new episode together and Lynch has directed the whole shebang. They have described it as an 18-hour movie cut up into episodes.)
The Laura Palmer storyline is perfect storytelling and pretty much perfect TV. Ray Wise’s performance, in Leland’s final moments, is heart-breaking and wholly disturbing. Before the reveal, Leland was a grief-stricken father slowly going nuts. His hair turned white and he began to sing and dance in public. In the aftermath of his exit, he is both a villain and tragic figure who spent his dying breathes confronting what he’d done. It’s an extraordinarily transgressive scene, really. A terrible man’s soul laid bare, Coop guiding him toward the light and some form of redemption. Maddie’s murder at Leland’s hands is another memorable Season 2 event. What Lynch shot was deemed too freaky for telly, so he cut it down. Even in truncated form, it’s scary and violent, deploying weird sound design and slow motion. It’s all very Lynchian.
In general, folk are too down on Season 2. According to the cast, Lynch and Frost were hardly around during filming, despite the fact Lynch directed more episodes in S2 and appeared on screen as one of the show’s most memorable supporting characters – Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, Coop’s deaf-as-a-post boss. His scenes with Shelly Johnson – “That’s the kind of girl who makes you wish you spoke a little French” – are adorably goofy and plum sweet. But the cast spoke in the intervening years as if they were abandoned children, left to work with inferior imitators of Lynch. It’s fair comment. Some episodes ape Lynchian beats and scuff them.
Let’s be clear: Twin Peaks S2 does lose its way a bit in between Laura Palmer and the introduction of Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). James’ soap opera subplot with a femme fatale is boring. Audrey’s romance with John Wheeler is Snoozeville. Josie and Catherine’s continued fighting gets tired and very silly. Ben Horne’s grief manifesting as a Civil War reenactment is too daft. But the five- or six-episode lull doesn’t wreck things beyond the point of no return. You are witness to a hit show momentarily finding itself stuck in a rut, before clawing its way out. There’s the introduction of the bickering Milford brothers, the siren-like Lana bewitching every man in town (including Dougie and Dwayne Milford), Leo getting his comeuppance, Dick and Andy fighting over pregnant Lucy, Audrey Horne as a southern belle (no complaints there), Nadine’s high school escapades, Norma and Big Ed’s enduring love affair, the Miss Twin Peaks contest, the Coop and Major Briggs bromance and Donna finding out Ben Horne is really her dad and that she and Audrey are sisters. All of this is great.
It builds to a jaw-dropping final episode. Lynch threw out the script prepared by Frost, Robert Engels and Harley Peyton and did his own thing, improvising on the set and, in doing so, crafts one of the most remarkable finales ever broadcast. What makes the Red Room sequence so stunning is that mainstream audiences are exposed to a full-force Lynchian hurricane of bonkers. Even as a Lynch super-fan well used to his surrealist provocations and moods, I still find myself in awe and asking: ‘This aired on mainstream network telly?”
Having lured Coop into the black lodge by kidnapping Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), dastardly Windom Earle wishes to take possession of his former partner’s soul. But the spirits have other plans. Earle thinks like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that in opening the gate, he will get all the power. Wrong! BOB kills him and then possesses Coop, who has been split into two separate versions – a Good Coop and a Bad Coop. We also get ghostly visions of Laura, Maddie and Leland. It is here, too, that Lynch drops in one of his most astounding bits of creativity, one that allows Frost and Lynch a way forward.. We already glimpsed old Coop in the Red Room, in Season 1’s third episode dream scene, but it never really made much sense. In the last episode, Laura cryptically tells Dale: “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” Dale’s dream in Episode 3 is what you call a bit of dramatic foreshadowing and also, now, something of a Season 3 preview.
Was it the big game plan all along? Clearly not. Lynch himself said that Twin Peaks was “dead as a doornail” in the early 2000s. But the director never could bring himself to close it down definitively. He loved the world and the characters too much to do that. Lynch and Frost left behind just enough breadcrumbs, in case the pair ever made it back into town. Social media went nuts in October 2014, when Lynch and Frost each tweeted from their Twitter accounts: “That gum you like is going to come back in style!’”
The return to Twin Peaks kicks off at 2am on 22nd May on Sky Atlantic. To quote the Giant, it is happening again.
Twin Peaks Season 1 and 2 are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can stream them both on-demand through NOW TV, which costs £6.99 a month, no contract.