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Teleplay by Mark Frost
Story by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch

Airdate: 30 September, 1990

Despite its reputation as the buzzy show to end all buzzy shows, Twin Peaks was only a genuinely huge Zeitgeist hit for about half of its very short first season. By the time it took its first and only summer hiatus, the show had lost a good half or more of the viewers who'd checked out the pilot, a month and a half earlier. And they never really did come back, though the first episode of the second season saw a definite uptick, whether from viewers who caught up with the show over the summer, or people returning to see if the series was going to start getting serious about solving the murder of Laura Palmer, neither I nor anyone can say with real certainty.

The point being, Mark Frost & David Lynch had their best chance here to reclaim the populist crown that had so briefly been theirs the previous spring, and I am extremely happy to say that they did not take it. Episode 8, the third directed by Lynch himself, opens with what might very well be the most pointedly unappealing 10 minutes of Twin Peaks up till then, almost deliberately challenging the audience to stay tuned in. At the end of the first-season finale, plucky, spiritual, inventive, optimistic FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had been shot in the chest at point blank range, to top off a whole cornucopia of cliffhangers. It's exciting, it's tense, it's clearly going to end fine (MacLachlan's name still heads up the opening credits), but we still want to know exactly how Coop is going to live, and who shot him. And Frost and Lynch, they just do not give a shit.

Instead, they open the show's second season with one of the most pointless imaginable scenes: as Cooper lies bleeding on the floor of his hotel room, hearing Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) squawking in agitation on the phone, the room service he ordered at the end of Episode 7 arrives, brought in by a waiter of enormously advanced age (Hank Worden, a stalwart day player in '40s B-Westerns. I mention this fact not because it matters per se, but because this is the kind of role perfectly designed to give a an actor with a lot of uncredited roles in B-Westerns his last hurrah). The waiter puts the phone back on the hook, and gets confused that he was supposed to call a doctor for Cooper; he is very excited to be in the presence of the FBI man, but completely fails to notice Cooper's wound; he exits and returns twice to give Cooper a big thumbs up. From the first moment he arrives until he finally leaves, more than four-and-a-half minutes of screentime elapse, as we watch the old man shuffle about directionlessly, while MacLachlan speaks in very pleasant, clipped tones.

Twin Peaks is at all points a very slow-paced show, and Episode 8 had a two-hour slot to play with (which translates into about 91 minutes, without the opening and closing credits), so it gets to be even slower. But this is still some kind of record-setting perversion; 4.5 minutes, and there's not even a whisper of plot resolution. And it gets no better when Cooper is visited by what he assumes to be a dying hallucination, of a giant (Carel Struycken) towering over him and very slowly giving him cryptic hints that don't even really make sense once the show is all over and we know what they were referring to. This is, I gather, all very divisive stuff, some people finding it indulgent and needlessly weird for weirdness's sake; the folks who really dislike Season 2 tend to kick off that dislike early on. Some people find this to be completely beguiling, and I am most certainly one of these. It's easy to look at the symbolically laden nightmare imagery that ends Episode 2, the last episode Lynch directed prior to this one, and say "now that is Lynchian". But I think this is no less Lynchian. It's not horrifying, true. But it is sublimely unconcerned with rationality or plotting, simply enjoying the presence of a moment that spins around and around, and to this fanboy who ranks Eraserhead and INLAND EMPIRE as the two best works of the director's career, that detachment from all storytelling logic to simply enjoy the feeling of a scene is more or less exactly what I want from him. So much the better if it's shot through with a vibe of paranormal confusion, as the giant scene is, though it's the old waiter half of the scene that I particularly love.

To judge from later reviews - let's say, those subsequent to the first release of the complete series in one DVD set, the 2007 Gold Box collection - this isn't what a lot of Twin Peaks fans necessarily want; the general reception of this episode seems to hover around "damn fine television, but the seams are starting to show, and the comedy is labored". Chacun son télévision, but I think Episode 8 is on par with the best the series has to offer, and the comedy is part of it. Part of Lynch's summer vacation was premiering his newest movie, Wild at Heart, at Cannes, and winning the Palme d'Or for it, and I think that film is a good point of reference. Whatever one thinks about Wild at Heart - I tend to consider it Lynch's weakest feature that's not a horribly misbegotten sci-fi epic produced by Dino De Laurentiis (but I owe it a re-watch) - it's surely Lynch's loopiest movie, with a weird and baffling sense of humor swirling around its eccentric cast, as the plot struggles and eventually gives up trying to present everything in a nice, neat way. A lot of that exact energy carries over to his work in this episode, particularly the strange comedy that never clearly indicates whether we're supposed to laugh at it or not. It's not classically "enjoyable", even as a weirdo TV murder mystery, but it does have the alienated feel of Lynch as his best, that we're watching a very precise depiction of human emotions and behavior as created by something fundamentally inhuman. I love it very much, and God knows I can understand why somebody wouldn't.

Anyway, it's not all bizarre slapstick and impenetrably long scenes of nothing happening. Episode 8 is also a really damn good episode of television, with some of the most emotionally resonant sequences in the show's run: I am particularly thinking of an act spent in the hospital, cycling between various characters, showing us the adolescent horniness of Shelly (Mädchen Amick) and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), and the cooler, more thoughtful adult love between Ed (Everett McGill) and his comatose wife Nadine (Wendy Robie), made all the more tender given its immediate proximity to a scene that finds a stunned Ed remembering the story of how he fell in love with this strange caricature of a human being in the first place; and it's given a tragic sharpness from the shots of Norma (Peggy Lipton) watching them with understanding sorrow. There's also the incredible juxtaposition, near the end of the episode, with Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) offering up a childlike prayer to her "Special Agent", while surrounded by the trappings of a deranged brothel.

The latter is as good a place to point out that, with Lynch back at the wheel, the episode has a genuinely oppressive sense of menace that even the scarier episodes haven't. For as Audrey offers her prayer, there's just a hint of fuzziness to her dialogue, heard only in her two scenes, giving them a distinct, but almost unnameable feeling of claustrophobic dread. Another inordinately subtle touch: when we arrive at the inevitable scene of Leland (Ray Wise) singing and dancing and having a breakdown, Lynch blocks the scene to put Wise close enough to the lens that he distorts just a little. You feel it more than see it, but it's there.

For the most part, the episode has a free-floating aura of things being awry: any time we see Audrey, any time we see Leland - at one point his entrance into a room triggers an impromptu dance session, like he's spontaneously hypnotised Ben (Richard Beymer) and Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) into making asses of themselves, while the camera turns slightly but otherwise regards them in an impassive high angle, deep focus shot - any time Angelo Badalamenti's score brings out the tuneless beat saxophone melody that signals the grotesque parody of '50s culture that has been part of the show since the beginning, but really comes to the fore here. Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) puts on a pair of Laura's sunglasses, and by all appearances becomes possessed by the dead girl, turning into an overripe parody of villain in a '50s juvenile delinquency melodrama: "I smoke every once in a while; it helps relieve tension," she says to James (James Marshall) in a husky voice. "When did you get so tense?" he replies. "When I started smoking," she answers. It's a corny gag that Boyle sells hard, but it's really the music that pushes it right over the edge: it's a strange and silly moment, but also a hell of an unsettling moment as well, a brief little snippet of personality cracking and breaking and turning into... whatever it's going to turn into.

The most unsettling of all, of a certainty, comes at the end, when Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), in a coma for the last week (for Episode 8 takes place exactly one week after the pilot, and such a very full week it's been), wakes up. What wakes her up, I cannot say: the camera tracks silently and steadily to her room, and that's the thing it's the camera doing it, but the camera feels very definitely and very unpleasantly like some otherworldly Thing stalking the halls of the hospital. And what now follows is a collage of sound (including a laugh that feels like three or four laughs stitched together), distorted video effects, pure horror film imagery (Sheryl Lee bellowing like a feral animal, Frank Silva with bright red lips and strobe lights), creating a purefied blast of terror as cinematic form. It's the closest thing to INLAND EMPIRE that Lynch did anywhere in his career prior to 2006, ripping apart the medium itself to create an effect in the viewer's head. Not bad for network television; not bad for any audio-visual medium, really, and the amazing thing is that it's not even the scariest thing that happens in the first two episodes of the show's second season. But as the capstone to what has certainly been the most tonally diverse, goofiest episode of the show so far, it lands with quite a heavy impact.

Grade: A+

P.S. I've not had much (anything) to say about the Log Lady intros shot for the show's first run on Bravo, in which Catherine Coulson intones weird poetry at us to warm us up for the episode proper, but this one is my favorite, for the record; her weirdly angry discussion of how to properly chew pine resin is both perfectly tied to the episode, in its own way, while being incredibly disorienting.