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Written by Tricia Brock
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter

Airdate: 16 February, 1991

We made it! With Episode 23, we re-enter "bad by Twin Peaks standards", instead of "just plain bad", and Twin Peaks standards are high enough for that to still qualify as pretty damn good. And this is where we'll stay for the whole rest of the show, secure in the knowledge that nothing can be that bad. Not "Little Nicky" bad. Not "sexpot fucks old men to death" bad. Certainly not "James has a wooden affair with a dead-eyed femme fatale" bad. There are bad spots coming, but that's all they are: spots. Not endless streaks.

The hell of it is, it very nearly didn't matter. After holding steady, for the most part, throught the first half of Season 2, Twin Peaks started bleeding viewers at an alarming rate as soon as 1991 started. Given that 1991 started with a strong contender for the show's single worst episode, that's not exactly a inexplicable or unjustified slump. What it did mean, though, was that ABC was losing patience in what had been, ten months earlier, the Zeitgeistiest show on American television, and this third episode of February 1991 (which received the show's worst ratings to that point, and which would only be surpassed by one episode of the remaining six) might very well have been the accidental finale, as Twin Peaks was placed into that grim purgatory for network underachievers, "indefinite hiatus".

A real pity that the show's momentum should be snapped right as it was finding its footing back again: Episode 23 has flaws, certainly, but it also has a lot of strengths. More to the point, it has that Twin Peaks feeling that's been missing since Leland Palmer was planted in the cold ground. Part of that, no doubt, is that for the first time since then, David Lynch re-emerged to have some concrete interest in the show that bore his name again (he supplied the idea for the controversial ending - personally, I love the idea, and I'm sorry for the execution). And let us not begrudge some credit to the episode's actual director, Lesli Linka Glatter, helming her final Twin Peaks episode. It's with no little sadness that I bid farewell to her, she's firmly ensconced herself as my second-favorite Twin Peaks director, and the only one other than Lynch who I'd contend was able to put something like a personal stamp on the material.

It's an episode that probably starts better than it middles or ends. The first two scenes are ribboned with little touches that feel more alive and alert than the show has in ages. Cooper's (Kyle MacLachlan) delivery of the sad little line "She was the love of my life, Lucy", like he's trying to force it out of his body before he runs out of breath; Catherine's (Piper Laurie) annoyed glower at her husband Pete (Jack Nance) and her brother Andrew (Dan O'Herlihy) laughing like idiot children over the smiley face Pete assembled out of breakfast food; the graceful, direct dolly shots across the kitchen table, bringing back some of the fluid, all-encompassing camera movement that has been Glatter's best gift to the series. I'll be honest, that camera move alone is sufficient to make me feel more forgiving of a lot of what follows than anything in the last five episodes.

And sure, there's plenty to forgive. This is not, as far as the story being told, a very interesting moment in Twin Peaks's life. Episode 22, bless it, did a good job of clearing out the deadwood that remained, but that has a dark side to it: there wasn't really very much going on. Cooper have been reduced to the status of glorified bystander, and most of the plots have been nothing but transparent time-wasting efforts so many of them ending with damp squibs of scenes that do little more than just tie up loose ends, nothing resembling real catharsis or any kind of takeaway beyond "so, that happened" - see, for instance, this very episode's half-assed farewell to Chris Mulkey's Hank Jennings, never a great character, but more consequential than this. But there's no denying that "I'd rather be his whore than your wife" is a tremendously good line, and Peggy Lipton delivers it with operatic fire. Anyway, Twin Peaks was at this point a serial drama without a story. And so, Episode 23 sets itself to the task of starting one: Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), for reasons of his own, has decided to stalk three of the loveliest girls in town: Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick). And as much fun as it is to see these three show up in a scene together for, I believe, the first time in the show's run, it has a distinctly contrived feeling to it.

Another storyline also revs into life: the newly restored Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), ready to wreak vengeance on Catherine, concocts a plan involving his former protégé John Justice Wheeler (Billy Zane), which mostly is just about starting up a romantic arc for Audrey. It doesn't do much, but I'll give it this much: as thoroughly bland sexpots go, Zane has far more onscreen charisma than Annette McCarthy ever dreamed of having as the late, unlamented Evelyn. I'm rather more into the offbeat comedy of the piece - Beymer, once again, commits so hard to what he's doing that it genuinely elevates whiffy material - and the way Angelo Badalementi pulls out the smooth jazzy finger-snapping motif that has been floating around all series as a way of adding a sardonic, wry sense of dry mockery to Ben's big pine weasel reveal.

The biggest thing that happens, though, is that the show clings like a mad dog to the one big plotline it still has: whatever the hell is happening with Catherine, Andrew, Thomas Eckhardt (David Warner), and poor little traitor Josie (Joan Chen). It occurred to me only when watching this episode with the knowledge that I could no longer put off finally talking about it (ever since Catherine gave up the Tojamura disguise, the whole thing has bored me silly), that despite having now watched my way through the entire series four times, I actually have no clue what's going on here. I mean, I do on the micro-level: Catherine  and Andrew are forcing Josie to confront the treacherous Eckhardt, hoping that she'll kill him, but not really caring as long as one of them ends up dead, and Pete is uncharacteristically okay with this (possibly because he's off being a chess genius, a plot development from last time that should be more charming than it is, though Nance is still one of the most captivating figures on the show). But why? Why did Eckhardt come to Twin Peaks, why did Josie come back to Twin Peaks, why isn't Andrew dead, and why did the show act like it was a shocking reveal that he wasn't, when we've had no reason to care about him.

Regardless of all those whys, it turns into a pretty damn solid, if by no means exceptional or revelatory, hour for Josie's character. Of all the main title leads of Twin Peaks, she's the one who has remained the most stubbornly opaque ever since she was the first human we saw in the pilot (a shot Glatter re-stages with care to make it more about Josie's barely-hidden terror rather than her mystery). And now this episode - Chen's last - I have to wonder why we couldn't have gotten any of this sooner. Writer Tricia Brock (whose only other credit was for Episode 17, the last one before the sucking started - how's that for symmetry) gives her material that's fairly straightforward noir material: the guilty woman turned into a sympathetic victim, the mortal terror of a figure who always stayed one step ahead of dangerous people now finding that she just ran in a big circle right back to them. But it works, and Chen's performance carries real emotional weight for the first time in the whole show.

It's mostly for that reason that I'm inclined to pass gently over the final scene. It's weird, for sure. The idea for it came directly from Lynch, returning in some more director administrative capacity to the show he'd left to dangle, and it's clear from the way she executes things that Glatter didn't really understand what Lynch had in mind. It seems simple enough in retrospect: the emissaries of the Black Lodge coming along to taunt Cooper by flinging another dead woman at his feet, and we learn for the first time, concretely, that the trees of Twin Peaks, and the wood hewn from them, act a prison for lost souls (which is no new idea for the series: the Log Lady's log has been around since the start after all, and we've been hearing the name of Ben's "Ghostwood" development for a good long time as well). Basically, I think "Josie becomes a drawer knob" makes sense if you take in the show's mythology that we don't have any context for yet. And if you don't have that context, it becomes the damned goofy thing we get here, goofy for reasons far beyond the 1991 TV-quality CGI. But the more the show leans into its mysticism and mythology, the happier it makes me, and since this is the scene where that really sets in as a major plot strand that never lets up, I look more fondly on this material than it strictly deserves. Plus, as the culmination of the one good Josie episode in the show's run, her terror and panic in this scene - and the beautiful way that Glatter stages Eckhardt's death, to reveal Josie curled up with a gun behind his body - are enough to sell me. The moodiness and atmosphere of vintage first-season Twin Peaks aren't back, but the show is obviously thinking of them for the first time since Episode 16, and frankly, that's enough for me to feel like things are back on track, even if they're not technically rolling just yet.

Oh, and James (James Marshall) is gone and he's not coming back. And isn't that a good feeling?

Grade: B