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Written by Barry Pullman
Directed by Duwayne Dunham

Airdate: 15 December, 1990

Thank the good Lord up in heaven for DEA Agent Denise (nΓ©e Dennis) Bryson, played with relaxed, good-natured comfort by David Duchovny, in the role that surely led more or less directly to his being cast in The X-Files, and thence to the rest of his career. Because without Bryson, I'm not sure that there'd be anything good to say about Episode 18 of Twin Peaks, the end of the first half of the second season. There's only stuff that's okay-ish and stuff that's plain garbage, and that's pretty much the entire range of quality to be found anywhere in the episode. We're in the weeds now: this is the first of an uninterrupted string of five episodes with absolutely nothing on offer besides the theoretical question as to how it's possible for a nearly unaltered creative team to suddenly start producing such schlocky horseshit.

So yes, three cheers to Ms. Bryson, and to Duchovny's unselfconscious way of playing a shockingly no-big-dealish transgender character by the standards of 1990s television. You can see in a second that he was destined for bigger things than a three-episode stint on a flailing series; the camera soaks him up, and his light sense of private humor makes him profoundly captivating. It's not Twin Peaks's sense of humor, exactly; Denise is just about the most unexceptionally normal, grounded human being to have entered the show thus far, (which is, I'm sure, the whole point). But whatever, the show's badly in need of some grounding, and watching MacLachlan and Duchovny chat is the closest thing to a genuine human pleasure that we're going to get.

I don't know, maybe that's a little unfair. The second scene in the episode, with a calmly unflappable Betty Briggs (Charlotte Stewart) seriously discussing her husband's abrupt disappearance at the end of Episode 17, has a touch of the old Twin Peaks spirit (I'm especially delighted by her delivery of the line "Did this seem work-related?", with a understated, dry pause between "seem" and "work"). And obviously, Ben Horne's (Richard Beymer) winsome viewing of his childhood home movies is a strong scene, the weathered, beat-looking Ben reflecting on the vast gap between the optimistic post-war world in which his family tried to stake their claim, and the broken failures of his present suffering. Like Duchovny's performance, I can't swear in good faith that it's great Twin Peaks (unironically comforting nostalgia has no place in David Lynch'sΒ oeuvre), but it's great television, at least.

Oh, and we get to hear the words "Black Lodge" for the first time, and the show's folk-mystic mythology starts to finally coalesce, though it'll be a while before it actually does anything. But as a fan of that mythology, it tickles me.

These good moments are islands, though. Two of the show's really fucking awful plotlines both kick off in this episode, and they're both bad pretty much right from the start. One of these is Andy (Harry Goaz) and Dick's (Ian Buchanan) travails with the shitty little brat Nicky (Joshua Harris), a horrible intrusion from the stupid, goofy family comedies that were all the rage in 1990. I'd remind you - and I sincerely apologise for doing so - of that summer's sleeper hit Problem Child, to which this plotline feels like a hideous, corrupted sequel; or there's the smash blockbuster Home Alone, still riding high in theaters when this episode aired ten days before Christmas. Though compared to the banal pranks perpetrated in the ghastly diner scene (which manages, not without competition, to be my least-favorite part of the episode), Home Alone plays like a goddamn Buster Keaton film.

The other, of course, is our mopey friend James Hurley (James Marshall), and his sad-sack motorcycle adventures, loudly announced at the very start of the episode in Angelo Badalamenti's spot-on approximation of cheap '50s rock (we've heard the cue before, but now it's been ruined, by inaugurating the show's Worst Plotline Ever). Specifically, James's encounter with the dangerous blonde femme fatale, Evelyn Marsh (Annette McCarthy), who pins him down in a dark, woodsy bar for what appears, at first, to be just a simple car-related favor. But one round of Evelyn's horrible, horrible "hard-boiled" dialogue (and shame on writer Barry Pullman for trying to put that one over on us, it's even worse than the tough-guy banter in Cooper's scene with the FBI's internal affairs man, Roger Hardy (Clarence Williams III), and that's already pretty rough), and it's clear that we're right in the heart of film noir territory, or at least some idiotic, cack-handed parody thereof. Honestly, given Marshall's pouty, broody performance, and McCarthy's flat, expressionless line readings and empty face (it's not just surprising and horrible that she gives a worse performance than Marshall, the show's worst regular cast member; it's how much worse), it feels more like noir-themed porno. It's just the very worst thing, and as a final insult, director Duwayne Dunham - shame on him even more, he actually helmed a genuinely terrific episode the last time he did this - brings back the howling, nightmare-jazz piece that appeared in the pilot, when it felt in keeping with the sense of strange, overwhelming horror that makes that episode such a triumph of quiet horror. Here, it feels cheap and wrong and tonally out-of-nowhere.

It's so fucking dismal that it even makes me grateful for the Super Nadine (Wendy Robie) plot that was so poisonous just last time in Episode 17. Say what one will - and I am not, sadly, done saying it - at least Robie dives into the material and give sit everything she can. It's so misconceived and flat-footed that she never comes close to saving it, but at least she's got an amazing, electric presence as the middle-aged woman who thinks she's a flighty teen. Her scene with Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) early in the episode, nervously feeling her way into asking about Mike (Gary Hershberger) - it is, I think, an unappreciated sign of the show's creative floundering that it elects to bring Mike back in such a big way, after having largely discarded him as a character - is pretty much the best-case scenario for what that plotline is capable of achieving. Between Robie's big-eyed, hormonal nervousness, and Boyle's slightly wary, slightly embarrassed discomfort and confusion, it's at least pleasurable to watch it as an interaction between two dedicated actors.

And when an episode leaves me stranded in "well, the Super Nadine scenes were pretty above-average!", that's when we have definitely run smack into the awful episodes, and at top speed.

Grade: C
(or C+, depending on how much you want to credit Duchovny; he gets more to do later on)