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Written by Harley Peyton
Directed by Caleb Deschanel


Airdate: 17 May, 1990

Twin Peaks is a show that wouldn't exist without film noir, of course. But it's in Episode 6 that this really hits me, in part because it's in episode 6 where the references come to a head. We've already learned that a mynah bird named Waldo has been treated by a veterinarian named Dr. Lydecker, which is more of an in-jokey nod than a real thematic reference to Waldo Lydecker, the supercilious aesthete/psychopath at the heart of the 1944 Otto Preminger film Laura. Although there you have it: references to the story of a square-jawed cop investigating the murder of a woman named Laura, who seems so sweet and true at the start and is revealed to have complexities as we go along. The application for Twin Peaks is as obvious as it gets.

It's no accident, I'm sure, that it's while this is all bubbling along that we get to meet the one-scene character Mr. Neff (Mark Lowenthal), a grinning, more-clever-than-he-lets-on insurance agent who mostly through accident opens the door to a squirming nest of noir-esque betrayals. It's thanks to his nosiness that Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie, smartly playing the scene with a sense of amusement rather than anger, in the best possible Piper Lauire fashion) discovers that her lover Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) is trying to kill her and make it look like an accident; more upsettingly, and even more noir-like, it's what makes us realise, even more than the inky silhouettes in Episode 5, that Josie Packard (Joan Chen) isn't the sweet, soft-spoken innocent we took her for, but a calculating would-be murderer. "All the people I thought were nice turn out to be evil" is a mission statement of Twin Peaks and film noir alike, but of course the important thing here is that an insurance agent named Neff and a plan to collect insurance on a staged accident are both straight out of Double Indemnity, that classic noir to end all classic noirs.

I offer none of this as a bold discovery, but simply to acknowledge the show's own acknowledgement of what it's been up to this whole time. It's obvious that Twin Peaks is an exaggerated soap opera, but it's an exaggerated film noir in most of the same ways, and it becomes very hard to ignore in this episode that it has seen fit to combine those two genres into one nasty, curdled package. It might be possible to make something out of the stereotype that soap operas are a predominately feminine genre and film noir predominately masculine, but I'll leave it to somebody else to explore that. I think what I find more interesting is what Twin Peaks's collapse of these two pulpy genres suggests about how we like our entertainment: sordid, and full of sex and murder. It won't become clear for a while yet just how much Twin Peaks acts as a critical commentary on that impulse, but it's clearly already pointing to the idea that like our pop culture dripping with depravity, and maybe there's something weird about that? (This, in turn, plays into the known fact that Mark Frost & David Lynch didn't want to reveal Laura Palmer's killer, not ever, but I'll save that for when we get to Episode 14).

The classic movie connections don't stop: we've already met Maddy Ferguson (Sheryl Lee), whose name is only a slightly less obvious reference to Vertigo than Waldo and Lydecker are to Laura (Madeleine Elster is the name of a tragic woman who dies and then somehow comes back; Scottie Ferguson is the man who grows erotically obsessed with her). That connection has already been worked a bit, too: the brown-haired doppelgΓ€nger of a dead blonde who causes some level of confused longing in a man who loved the dead woman angle was being played in Maddy's very first appearance. But this is where it goes for broke, as in the episode's final minutes, Maddy is made-up to look and act like Laura, and to do so with the specific action of facilitating a crime (a "noble" crime & much less serious than murder, but a crime nonetheless).

Admittedly, all of these references are somewhat inside-baseball; I don't know that the audiences devouring Twin Peaks in 1990 cared all that much about which '40s and '50s films were being specifically referenced. But I do think there's a little bit more we can do with it than simply write it off as pandering to cinephiles. The three particular films the show is drawing from are all about the confluence of murder and eroticism, even more than those things are already connected in the generally horny world of film noir. And this is a particularly sexual episode of Twin Peaks, if only for the scene of Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) proudly forging the rΓ©sumΓ© of a career whore in order to play detective, an excellent marriage of the chipper can-do innocence of a Nancy Drew, Girl Scout type, with the filthy atmosphere of premium cable soft-core sex in the '80s. But it's not only that: sexuality hangs over this episode as much as it has over any episode of the show thus far, concluding with literally using Maddy-as-Laura as a sexual trap, and similarly to the Audrey scene, watching a two-layered performance as the Twin Peaks actor playing a character prone to girlishness (for all Audrey's worldliness, the episode goes out of its way to desexualise her in the opening scene; she never seems more "just a kid" than sitting naked in a man's bed) who is performing a parodic version of sexuality.

If most of the episode is about sex, whether elliptically or directly, it stands to reason that we need to have some death in theree, and it comes via one of the most high-impact scenes of the first season, and the one point at which episode director Caleb Deschanel really cranks up the style (it is otherwise a fairly generic-looking episode by the standards of Twin Peaks, one of television's least generic-looking shows prior to the 2010s). I refer to the execution of poor Waldo the mynah bird, which comes to us with all the noir tropes attached: a thunderstorm, the shadow of rain on the wall, the death itself shown through synecdoche, as the camera lingers and LINGERS on a photograph on the wall, until a bullet shatters the glass. Then the show goes to a level that I don't think any film noir would have dared, showing the bird's blood dripping onto a platter of donuts. It's haunting and creepy - as haunting and creepy as the mechanical, shrilly high-pitched voice of the bird's mimicry of human speech just before the shooting. It's a hell of a thing to make the killing of a bird who was the key witness in a police procedural come across like something out of Italian horror, but that's what Twin Peaks is so good at. And while I'll admit at this point that I don't really have very much fondness for Episode 6 as a whole - the plot drags for the first half, and its with this episode that I start to grow bored of Eric Da Re's "angry forehead" approach to playing an abusive, jealous husband - Waldo's death is certainly enough to give it classic status.

Grade: A-