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Written by Scott Frost
Directed by Caleb Deschanel

Airdate: 17 November, 1990

Following the extravagant horrors of Episode 14, Twin Peaks had nowhere to go but down. But at least initially, it's a pretty gentle slope. Episode 15 has its rough spots, and there's not all that much in the way of genuine inspiration, but it's a rock-solid episode that allows the show a chance to catch its breath while figuring out what exactly "the show" even means now that we've seen Laura Palmer's killer in the flesh. It's even more impressive given that the episode is almost explicitly an exercise in making sure that nothing happens.

That's exactly where it gets virtually all of its power, in fact: we know that Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) is guilty, and Leland probably knows - it's an open question, I think, whether there's a solitary moment in Episode 15 where we're seeing Leland and not Leland-the-puppet, completely under the control of Bob (Frank Silva) - and absolutely nobody else living knows. This puts us in an enormously uncomfortable position, somewhere halfway between his co-conspirators and his mute victims. Perhaps inevitably, Leland gets more screentime in this episode than he has throughout the entire series. Wise makes the absolute most of this: it's a matter of record that he was disappointed to be leaving, but perhaps in response to that, he gave everything he had as an actor to his last couple of episodes as one of the living. His face is like putty throughout Episode 15, molded into any number of strong emotional states, connected only in that they are all largely unpleasant to think about. Even at his most relaxed, Wise is able to communicate a streak of hungry mania lying just beneath - I am especially thinking of the scene where he sings "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" in a jaunty, jolly mood, while driving like he's three sheets to the wind - and in the moments when the character is actually keyed up, it's a wonderful, stomach-churning spectacle of buggy eyes, a face draped in sweat, and a mouth that looks like it has to be wired into shape.

The perhaps inevitable downside to this is that all of the scenes without Leland in them feel somehow empty. I do not think this is inadvertent, or an error. If Twin Peaks, taken as a whole, is primarily about the great evil that can poison even the nicest places, then this is the point in that show where that theme really blows out into the open. It's always been a show about a dead teenager, but in an abstract way, at the matter of plot. In the wake of the final scenes of Episode 14, the gravity of that kind of murder seems to echo across even the lighter scenes. Shelly (Mädchen Amick) and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) have found out through gross, food-covered pains that their insurance fraud scam was a terrible idea? Yes, but Leland... Lucy's (Kimmy Robertson) mean-spirited sister Gwen (Kathleen Wilhoite, an exemplary bit of casting for Robertson's older, more sophisticated, and nastier clone) is embarrassing Lucy and aggravating Andy (Harry Goaz)? Yes, but Leland... Norma's (Peggy Lipton) charming, awful mother (Jane Greer) has come to passive-aggressively mock and hurt her daughter? Yes, but... but nothing, I'm actually a bit annoyed by that whole plotline, which speaks to an extraordinary lack of imagination in how to best use Lipton. The point, anyway, is that Twin Peaks is still Twin Peaks-ing along, but something about that feels brittle and impossible. Don't they know what happened?

The one contrast to all of this is in the fairly substantial amount of time spent on Ben (Richard Beymer), currently in jail for the proverbial "one crime he didn't commit". It's not being at all clever if I point out that, throughout the episode, Ben and Leland are held as exact opposites: one man didn't kill Laura Palmer, but everyone thinks he did, and he's full of increasingly freaked-out anger at the incomprehensible situation he's been dropped in (it's easy to call this Wise's best episode of acting in the show, but I think it's one of Beymer's best, as well); the other is happy, whistling, smiling the smile of the damned, and guilty as all hell. And in fairly natural order, our recoiling from Leland is matched by the very surprising feeling of being sorry for Ben, who might be a shit, but not this shit, not shitty enough to be trapped in the Kafka world of strange one-armed men barking at him and his absolutely useless brother making things worse by play-acting at lawyer. It's a neat inversion, and neither writer Scott Frost (Mark Frost's brother) nor director Caleb Deschanel over-emphasise it, which lets it bubble up better. (They also give Ben a kind-of sweet, mostly creepy flashback to his days as a horny schoolboy; it's an attempt at Lynchian style, a silhouette in slow-motion, that doesn't feel like it came naturally to Deschanel at all).

All this does mean that our usual lead, Kyle MacLachlan, has very little to do at all throughout the episode (and he has a rare flat scene, bungling his closing two-hander with Sherilyn Fenn - foreshadowing, perhaps, his rejection of their whole love story subplot, which might well have been the largest contributing factor to the show's brutal decline), and even his best scene is much more Michael Ontkean's best scene, as Harry gently but decisively dresses down Cooper's metaphysical approach to crime fighting, as Angelo Badalamenti hangs by on the soundtrack, blurting out that we should find this very troubling - as though we didn't already know that.

All in all, a very low-key, safely simple episode. Besides the flashback, the only particularly aggressive moments of style come from a pair of very well-done POV tracking shots; the gas is eased up on all of the plotlines relative to the rocketing Episode 13; the only real tension and horror mood is courtesy of Ray Wise's body language and facial expressions. It can't help but feel like something of a letdown after David Lynch exploded a bomb in our face, but let us keep in mind that, after all Twin Peaks was a network television for a network television audience, and in that guise, this kind of episode was precisely what it needed. It's a steadying breath that gives us a chance to process where we are, where the show is, and where the characters are. And there's something awfully ingenious about letting the viewer supply atmosphere for the show for a change, rather than the show pressing its atmosphere on the viewer. Not one of my favorites, but there's absolutely no sense that the show has lost its way in the slightest, no matter how drastic the change to its foundations.

Grade: A-