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Written by Mark Frost
Directed by David Lynch


Airdate: 10 November, 1990

Episode 14 - by number of episodes, we're now halfway through the original run of Twin Peaks (by number of hours, we arrived there at the end of Episode 13). And now we know who killed Laura Palmer.

I'm not interested in spending a whole lot of time on the who of that reveal, in part because the show itself doesn't really bother. Laura's dad killed her - which means that Laura's dad abused and raped her, for years prior to her death. Alternately, an evil spirit used his body, but that's not likely to have made much of a difference to her. And this sounds like it should be the horror to end all horrors, which it will be, in two years' time, when David Lynch directs the prequel movie Fire Walk with Me, but it's not yet. So we'll dwell on that then, because right now, Twin Peaks the show has too much going on to really appreciate the full gravity of that.

But if the who of the reveal is swallowed up a bit, the how certainly isn't. The revelation that Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) has been possessed by Bob (Frank Silva) comes in the form of one of the most brutal scenes in the history of television. Even all these years later, when extreme violence has become more or less just an arrow in the TV director's quiver, the final sequence of Episode 14 is something beyond. Jets of blood in The Sopranos, casual violence in Breaking Bad, extreme gore in Dexter - these aren't even a shadow of what Lynch perpetrates on his audience in this episode. And I say, yes, his audience, because I think that's what's so supremely effective and upsetting about what happens here.

It's a matter of common knowledge that Lynch and Mark Frost didn't want to reveal what happened to Laura. Not ever. Their hope was that the central mystery of Twin Peaks would remain an ever-receding beacon in the center, still vaguely giving shape to the show as a whole while all the other storylines of the strange and wonderful inhabitants of the town crowded to the forefront, that the audience would eventually be so worked over what's going to happen to next that we would stop caring about what already happened. 15 or 20 years later, I bet they could have even made that show. But in 1990, the expectations of viewers and executives alike were different: this notion of endlessly delayed gratification was foreign to the experience of American television. It was a lesson not lost on the next experiments in serial television storytelling: Steven Bochco's Murder One, in 1995, operated according to rigid "one case per season" rule, and while J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, which ran from 1994-1998, had rather looser storytelling guidelines than that, he loudly declared from the start that it had a strict plan of exactly five seasons, at which point all questions would be answered (as forย Twin Peaks's most obvious heir, The X-Files... let's just not go there).

The point being, Lynch & Frost did not have the freest hand, and there came a point at which ABC informed them that they would be answering that central mystery, and they'd be doing it during sweeps period in November 1990. It's what the audience wanted, they who had been dwindling fairly steadily, with only two ratings upticks across the show's first 14 episodes. It's what the executives wanted. And dammit, but Lynch and Frost gave it to them, good and hard.

It's a great episode, from top to bottom. Let's not pretend that Episode 14 is nothing but its final seven minutes. It's just that those final seven minutes are extremely vivid. My theory - contradicted by what Lynch himself has said, but who trusts that guy in intereviews? And besides, I think it's largely supported by Fire Walk with Me - is that the show's creators were openly disgusted with their audience. Here they were, trying to craft a complex of atmosphere, constant terror, flashes of warm humanity, and the viewers just wanted to be satisfied in their consumption. So in giving us the answer to that question of questions, Lynch goes out of his way to make it unsatisfying. He goes to the utter brink of what 1990 network standards & practices might conceivably allow in reminding us of the truth of the show: this story, which we're treating as a mindless soap opera to be passively enjoyed, began because of the brutal death of a teenage girl. And so, as his short-term farewell to the series, he requires us to remember that fact: that we're all gathered to enjoy the fall out from a violent murder. And he does by staging another violent murder.

Leland killing Maddy (Sheryl Lee) is one of the most horrible, grueling, affecting death scenes I've ever encountered in filmed media. It's not very explicit - it couldn't be - but it suggestive as hell. I've mentioned in this retrospective that I think one of the things Twin Peaks does best - it is also one of the things David Lynch does best - is to attempt to break the medium containing it.ย  There's plenty of that crammed into the murder scene. Lynch has trotted out a secret weapon, y'see. Episode 14 is the only credit in the series for editor Mary Sweeney, who had been involved in Lynch's features starting with Blue Velvet, and she would become his primary editor around the time the two of them became a romantic couple in 1991, cutting all of his movies through Mulholland Dr. (they married and divorced in the span of a few months in 2006 while he was working on INLAND EMPIRE, on which Sweeney has a producer credit). She is the "Lynchiest" of editors, and the murder scene is where she trots it all out: the scene cross-cuts with itself, moving from footage in which Leland is played by Wise, played in normal speed and lighting, and footage in which Leland is played by Silva as Bob, in stuttering slo-motion, overlit to the point that it looks almost filthy with floating dust and film grain. The sound mix follows suit, with the slow-motion sequences matched with Lee's screams slowed down to sound like the most awful, stretched-out groans, like an elephant is being butchered alive, while Silva's shrieks have the harsh metallic clang of, I don't even know what. I have "T-rex" in my notes. Meanwhile, the Bob footage involves grotesque close-ups of Silva running his mouth on Lee's face. But the Leland footage is only slightly less repulsive; in a couple shots, we see Maddy's face still for long enough that we get a good look at the slick of blood covering her teeth, and that is somehow the thing that hits me the hardest.

All of this goes on for what feels like forever: it's not actually a very long sequence. But it is profoundly draining. It's also mean, as though Lynch is poking us in the ribs, angrily demanding to know if we're enjoying his show, if we're happy to be getting the answer to the mystery. No, we're not happy at all, at least I hope to Christ we're not; this murder is one of the most exhausting scenes I can name in all of audio-visual media, horrible and dispiriting. I tend to find myself needing to gasp for air when it's all done, because it leaves me feeling choked off. And the hell of it is, the show leaves us that way: the episode's coda is mostly fixated on Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) sitting with a dumbfounded look on his face, knowing that something just went terribly wrong, that he has failed. And when we're not looking at MacLachlan's perfect expression of confused misery, we're looking at Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) being sad and lonely, or Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) messily crying. And through all of it, there's this soft, spacey Julee Cruise song that's refusing to give us any catharsis, its very gentleness forcing us to bottle up all that negative feeling, instead of the emetic quality that Angelo Badalamenti's droning score is good at. It's one of the most stunned, slapped-in-the-face experiences I've had watching anything, and it is with this sickened, lost feeling that Lynch dumps us out on the side of the road as the conclusion to his show. Because whatever is going to follow, it's not his.

Now, there are 39 whole minutes of television that get us up to this point, and they are all terrific. Lynch is downplaying the comedy this time around, treating all of the various plotlines with some level of sadness and gravity - this is the one and only time that the essential tragedy of the bullshit plotline where Nadine (Wendy Robie) thinks she's a teenager comes to the fore, as Ed's (Everett McGill) humiliation and Norma's (Peggy Lipton) very subdued disappointment and anger gnaw at her, and Nadine in her pathetic childish innocence notices none of it. Making this plot feel so enormously sad is a major artistic achievement in and of itself. And there's the great, bleak scene in which Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) is arrested, marked especially by Michael Ontkean's repulsed intonation the line "You're wanted for questioning in the murder of Laura Palmer", and the wide-angel lens that pans to the right with Ben, turning the entire room into a chamber of horrors as it distorts and twists.

The closest that we come to a light moment is when Tojamura finally reveals that he's been Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) all along; her big beaming happy expression under all of that yellowface, and Jack Nance's sweetly dazzled reaction, are the tenderest moment ever shared by those characters, and it ought to be a relief from the gravity of the episode. But Badalamenti comes along with a heavy, plunking piano melody to instill the scene with an ominous feeling all around (the composer was on fire with this episode: he introduces at least four brand-new themes, all of them dark and brooding in very different ways, and the freshness of this week's score adds considerably to the feeling that this is a major shift in attitude for the series). The only other moment that even registers as a joke is a sardonic bit of meta-humor: Mike (Al Strobel) darkly repeats his glowering dialogue from the end of Episode 13, the music droning along with him, only to crisply cut off as Cooper blithely returns the characters to the matter at hand. And perhaps the poised, perfect tableau-style composition of the first shot counts as a joke; a dry one, but a joke.

Anyway, it's a great episode from head to tail and top to bottom, without a single clunker of a scene (even the annoying Bobbby/Shelly (Mรคdchen Amick)/Leo (Eric Da Re) subplot is on its best behavior, with Da Re's infantile delivery of "new shoes" coming off as haunting and unnatural as anything in the show); this would be a top-tier Twin Peaks episode even without the apocalyptic force of that final sequence. But add in that, that unyielding attack on the audience, that most repellent and upsetting depiction of murder and the bottomless cruelty of human beings, and this becomes one of the greatest moments in the history of screen violence ever.

Grade: A+