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Written & directed by Mark Frost

Airdate: 23 May, 1990

We arrive now at the eighth and final episode of one of the best seasons of American television in history. And what a season finale it is, going ridiculously overboard in the best possible way. The notion of season-ending cliffhangers wasn't as burned into the very DNA of television storytelling in 1990, the way it would become just a few years later (I've always heard The X-Files cited as the series where such cliffhangers well and truly became normalised, though of course what is The X-Files if not a slightly more digestible offspring of Twin Peaks?), so I'm not entirely sure why Mark Frost decided to go all-in on parodying this tendency through sheer excess. But he did, and it's utterly great. One doesn't really realise, in a deep-down visceral way, how many plotlines Twin Peaks was juggling throughout its first season, until this episode comes along to leave ever single damn one of them on a cliffhanger. It's half hilarious, half adrenaline overload, and it results in a fine send-off.

Cliffhangers are always cheats, and have been ever since the first time that somebody was left hanging off the edge of a cliff, leaving the reader horribly uncertain how they would ever survive. Spoiler: by climbing back up the cliff. And so it has been ever since: life-threatening dangers at the end of one matinee episode turn out to be rather dismayingly easy to avoid. So the fun in the Twin Peaks cavalcade of cliffhangers isn't in wondering if Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was actually shot to death, or if Shelley (Mädchen Amick), Pate (Jack Nance), and Catherine (Piper Laurie) are actually going to burn up horribly, if Ben (Richard Beymer) will actually accidentally have sex with his daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) - keeping the show's subdued theme of incest alive and well. Those things will sort themselves out, or they won't. The fun is, instead, in seeing Frost juggling every character and every plotline that the show has dialed up so far, giving something consequential to each and every one of them.

If this is all the perfect summation of the first season of Twin Peaks and the way it plays with the rules of TV melodrama, it's also the perfect summation of the show's twisted sense of tone and mood. The individual chunks of plot that make up Episode 7 run the gamut from played strictly for comedy, however dry (Lucy's (Kimmy Robertson) excitement at hearing how Andy (Harry Goaz) shot a guy, leading into her baby bombshell) to one of the most sincerely sad things that happens anywhere in the show's run: Nadine's (Wendy Robie) sad suicide attempt, wearing a prom dress and carefully setting out a picnic blanket, as the score plucks out a very restrained and lonely version of the show's main theme on solo guitar, and the editing relies on dissolves to a degree that's highly unusual for this show, adding a sense of softness to the scene. No character in this show of caricatured eccentrics is played more as a grotesque gargoyle than Nadine, and for her to be at the center of the most earnest and heartbreaking scene of the finale is its own kind of black comedy.

In between, we have every kind of scene the show has at its disposal, including scenes that blur tones right in the middle - Catherine's annoyed complaint that Shelly has a "thing" in her mouth, delivered with maximum peevished bitichiness by Laurie, as the young woman is about to be burned alive, is a particularly clear-cut example. Frost, who only directed this episode in the show's entire run, doesn't have quite the fearless command of tone that's present in the very best of the best Twin Peaks episodes, but he's pretty great at nearly everything. He even manages to stage one of the only good James (James Marshall) scenes in the series, as he, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Maddy (Sheryl Lee) listen with visible sickness to audio of the dead Laura (Lee) sarcastically deriding him, and speaking in the most sordid tones that a teenager on an American network program in 1990 was going to ever get away with.

Generally, as much as Episode 7 summarises what the show can do, the thing it's best at is horror, in all sorts of iterations: the short moment of Shelly, her eyes covered in soap-suds, reaching for a towel that's crawlinga way from her is exemplary thriller-making, and the confrontation between Cooper and Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) is a superb bit of nauseating psycho-terror, as Renault speaks of horrible things with his mouth in repellent close up, as the footage slows down just a tiny bit (all of the scenes in One-Eyed Jacks feel like they're playing at something like 80% of normal speed, like a thin layer of molasses separates us from the characters). And then there's the more direct matter of the visceral brutality that Twin Peaks likes to dole out: the assault on Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) is a perfect mixture of wacky comedy (Jacoby is inherently a goofy figure), slightly skeevy thrills (his spying on Maddy's fake Laura has an air of voyerism to go with its noir-esque dread, and the raw violence of the attack.

With so much happening, it's hard to say that Episode 7 has a stand-out moment, or any discernible through-line; it's all about overwhelming the audience with melodramatic stuff. Accordingly, not everything lands: the scene between Hank (Chris Mulkey) and Josie (Joan Chen) has shockingly soggy expository writing, of the very worst "let's talk about things we both already know" variety, the worse still since this show is so good at implying backstory. And at least once, during the fight between Leo (Eric Da Re) and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), the score trots out the most horrible synthesizer fight music - we've already heard it in the show's run, and it was bad then, but coming at a major climactic moment in the last episode of the season, it's unspeakably dreadful and distracting. And for all these reasons, Episode 7 fails to reach the heights the show can hit, and has already hit repeatedly. Still, when it lands a moment perfectly - Leland's (Ray Wise) look of psychotic calm when he thinks about his daughter's killer in the hospital, the look of confusion on Cooper's face in the final scene, or Nadine's suicide attempt - it's simply outstanding television, and a deliciously giddy capstone to one of the best runs in the medium's history.

Grade: A