The ‘TWIN PEAKS’ Episode Guide: ‘NORTHWEST PASSAGE’ — The Pilot Episode

0HZEb_9GWMw2xiy9V

It all starts here…

Welcome to the first installment of the weekly column BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, formerly known as Twin Peaks Tuesdays. This week I’m launching my complete TWIN PEAKS episode guide, a 31-week trip into the series and its prequel film in preparation for the long-awaited season three, set to premiere next spring on Showtime. Hopefully you’re watching along with us, but if not, be ye warned, there are nothing but spoilers from here on out. Ready? Here we go:

PILOT
“NORTHWEST PASSAGE”
Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch, Directed by David Lynch
Original Airdate April 8th, 1990

When the murdered body of 17 year-old homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found washed ashore a rocky beach on the morning of February 24th, 1989, naked and wrapped in plastic, it send ripples all throughout the citizenry of Twin Peaks, a small logging town in Washington State just shy of the Canadian border to the north and the Idaho border to the east. It’s not only Laura’s parents Leland and Sarah who bear the weight of this tragedy, but also folks like Pete Martell, who found Laura while going out to fish, his sister Catherine and sister-in-law Josie who run the town’s saw mill; Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Deputies Andy Brennan and Tommy “Hawk” Hill who are the investigating officers; Bobby Briggs, Laura’s boyfriend, and Shelly Johnson, the diner waitress he’s cheating with who’s married to Leo, an abusive trucker; Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend, and her lughead boyfriend and Bobby-BFF Mike Nelson; James Hurley, Laura’s secret lover and his uncle Big Ed, who’s carrying on an affair with diner owner Norma Jennings; Ben Horne, owner of The Great Northern Hotel, all-around magnate and client of Leland, as well as father to Audrey and Johnny, Laura’s classmate and tutee, respectively; and more, so many, many more.

pilot 1 (1)

Of particular note in these opening scenes when the word of Laura’s death is spreading around town is the way her parents, Leland and Sarah, are informed. That morning, Sarah is already aware Laura is missing, and calls Leland out of a meeting with Ben and potential investors for the Ghostwood Estates development to share her concerns. It is at this moment that Sheriff Truman arrives with a dour expression, and Leland knows without being told – Truman simply says “I’m sorry” – that his worst fears have come true: his daughter is dead. He reacts by dropping the phone, which tells Sarah on the
other end all she needs to know. Her screams of grief are as unnerving as they are heartbreaking, and the way Lynch lingers on them is downright uncomfortable. In the indispensable REFLECTIONS: AN ORAL HISTORY OF TWIN PEAKS by Brad Dukes, actress Grace Zabriskie, who played Sarah, reveals she thought Lynch was leading her in an over-the-top direction with the reaction, especially as she had never worked with him before. But the end result convinced her he was a trustworthy leader, allowing her to give of herself more fully.

pilot 2 (1)

Back to the narrative: Bobby, being Laura’s boyfriend and the last known person to see her, has his cocky ass dragged in by Truman and his deputies and deposited in a holding cell while they go to the Palmer house and make a cursory search of the place. In Laura’s bedroom, Hawk discovers the girl’s diary and a videotape that might be of interest. Downstairs the case intensifies when Andy informs Truman that another local high school girl, Ronette Pulaski, is also missing. At that very moment Ronette is wandering across the Idaho border disoriented, dressed only in a dirty, blood-stained slip, and with ropes dangling from her wrists. She’s discovered by a railworker. This crossing of state lines requires Truman to call in the FBI, who sends Special Agent Dale Cooper, a man of simple pleasures and particular investigative insight who arrives in town knowing exactly what he’s looking for. He asks to see Ronette first, and though she’s in a coma from the shock and can’t help them verbally, Cooper is more interested in her fingernails, which he examines, finds nothing, then asks to see the body of Laura Palmer. There he finds what he was trepidatiously seeking: a typed letter ‘R’ inserted under the fingernail of her left ring finger – the wedding finger, if you will – which connects her to the murder of another girl, Teresa Banks, one year earlier in nearby Deer Meadow, Washington. That victim was discovered with a ‘T’ under her fingernail. This connection makes these murders the work of a serial killer.

Andy discovers the crime scene, an abandoned train car deep in the woods. Meanwhile, at the station Coop and Truman examine Laura’s diary – finding among other things her final entry which reads in part “Nervous about meeting J,” and a small key in a baggie that has traces of cocaine – then sit down with Bobby and afterwards Donna, but neither can offer any insight as to who might have killed Laura or who she might have been with late last night. Cooper introduces the videotape found in Laura’s room of her and Donna dancing at a mountainside picnic shot by a mysterious third to try and jog their memories, but neither teenager reveals anything, though they both know the video was shot by James Hurley. Bobby keeps this information to himself for purposes of revenge – seems it’s okay if he steps out on his girlfriend as long as she doesn’t step out on him in return – while Donna does it to protect James, who she secretly loves. Cooper doesn’t really need their help, however, and proves himself more than merely adept at detection when he points out to Truman afterwards that whoever shot the picnic video is a biker, because there’s a motorcycle reflected in the close-up of Laura’s eye. Truman knows that means James, who is instantly catapulted to the top of the suspect list.

pilot 3 (1)

In between these interviews, at The Great Northern Audrey has started to display her willfully disobedient side by intentionally revealing to her father’s foreign investors the circumstances of Laura’s death, namely murder, which Ben was explicitly trying to keep from them. As he feared, the news gives the investors cold feet and they high-tail it out of town. Gorgeous and manipulative: that Audrey Horne is a potent cocktail. And while we’re here, though I don’t usually disparage anything TP-related, the music that plays in this scene is horribly out of place, like the kind of march a calliope might play to accompany the parading of elephants. It’s also worth noting that unlike most of the other musical themes in the pilot, this piece will never be heard again.

Later that afternoon, the crime scene is explored. Cooper and Truman discover in the train car two potentially valuable pieces of evidence – half a heart necklace on a mound of dirt, and a scrap of paper at the base of this mound that reads “Fire Walk With Me” in blood. Cooper makes the assumption that if they find the other half of the necklace, they’ll find the killer. After this, they take the key found in the cocaine baggie taped into Laura’s diary and use it to open her safe deposit box, in which they find 10k in cold hard cash and a copy of Flesh World magazine, a trashy skin rag in which there’s a picture of Ronette Pulaski (and also, unbeknownst to them just now, Leo Johnson’s truck). The plot just thickened like hour-old oatmeal.

That night while trying to unearth James, Cooper and Truman stake out The Road House, Twin Peaks’ local watering hole/art house music venue. Norma and Ed are inside, discussing how their separate marriages are shams – Norma’s married to some Hank character who’s presently in priosn for manslaughter – and it’s time for them to enter the “Tammy Wynette” phase of things, namely “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Donna shows up, having snuck out of her house for a pre-arranged meet with James, but runs into Bobby and Mike, both of whom are drunk, and Mike’s anger at her unavailability to him that day leads to a bar-wide brawl during which Donna escapes with another biker, Joey, who’s been sent to deliver her to James. Cooper and Truman see them fleeing and try to follow, but along the dark and winding backroads by the mill they lose sight of their prey.

When James and Donna reunite, he tells her he’s been hiding out all day because he’s worried, he has no alibi for last night: he was with Laura, but she was manic and addled and scared, she jumped off his bike and ran off into the forest while he was stopped at a red light. Donna reveals the problem is even bigger than that, she overheard her dad – the town doctor – telling her mom about Laura’s half-heart necklace found at the crime scene. She knows James is the one who gave Laura the necklace and has the other half, so they bury it out in the woods to save James further culpability, which is fortunate, because only minutes later he’s apprehended by Cooper and Truman, taken into custody, and given a nice holding cell across the way from Bobby and Mike, who are verrrry happy to see the guy making time with both their ladies.

The pilot’s final sequence happens back in the woods where James and Donna buried his half of Laura’s necklace. A flashlight beam finds the spot then a gloved hand reaches into the soil and plucks the necklace free. Across town at the same exact moment, Sarah Palmer wakes screaming from a troubled sleep of prophetic visions. If you look in the upper right hand corner, you can see one of those visions reflected in the mirror above her: that’s our first glimpse of BOB, ladies and gentlemen.

pilot 5 (1)

Fun Fact: BOB in the mirror is a totally unplanned, happy accident. The character wasn’t even created until shooting on the pilot was underway, and the man who portrayed him, Frank Silva, was hired as a set dresser on the project, not an actor. After Silva inadvertently trapped himself behind a dresser in Laura’s room while a scene was being filmed, Lynch liked his look and decided to craft the character for him and re-shoot the scene intentionally (it shows up as another Sarah vision in Episode 1, “Traces to Nowhere,” also directed by Lynch). Later that same day, after shooting the final scene with Zabriskie, a crew member pointed out the shot was ruined because another crew member had inadvertently been reflected in the mirror behind her. When Lynch saw the footage and who it was, he loved it, tied it into the narrative, and the rest is terrifying history.

While all of the above addresses the story of TWIN PEAKS, the emotional atmosphere of the show – which is really its selling point – comes from the actors and the unique ways they have of expressing their characters and interacting with each other. Idiosyncrasies and eccentricities abound, from Cooper’s cassette recorder, which allows for lines like “Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies,” to the lady walking around town carrying a log, or as Truman explains, “We call her the Log Lady.” There’s also a tremendous amount of visual elements reflecting this atmosphere, from the eerie natural environment and settings to more forced and deliberately off-putting gags like the kid breakdancing away from his locker at Twin Peaks High School. The narrative combines the best of both its creators – Mark Frost, who gained renown as a procedural ace for his work on HILL STREET BLUES, and David Lynch, the weird mastermind behind BLUE VELVET, THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, and ERASERHEAD – while the visual aesthetic of the show – it’s other calling card – is all Lynch.

In addition to his moody cinematography, dimly-lit interiors, pitch-black exteriors, and Douglas-Sirk-meets-Dali production design, there are a few technical highlights of the pilot that help establish the world of TWIN PEAKS and bear mentioning. I’ve already noted how Lynch allowed his camera to linger for an uncomfortable amount of time on Sarah’s reaction to the news of her daughter’s death, but she wasn’t the only character to whom this was limited. In fact, as various characters learn of Laura’s death the camera stays with them longer than we think it should, which draws we the audience into their pain, which in turn informs us of the kind of person Laura was, though at this point we know little about her: she was the kind of person for whom an entire community mourns, she was beloved, emblematic, even, of the pristine purity and until-now-unwavering innocence of their idyllic locale. Lynch even applies this lingering to all three shots of Laura in the pilot – as a corpse, in her homecoming photo, and frozen in the picnic video.

Then there’s the scene with Ronette Pulaski crossing the bridge. Her slip is soiled and fluttering in the light morning breeze. The ropes with their frayed, dangling ends are drawn so tight about both her wrists that you can intuit the numbness in her fingers. Her lip is busted and her eyes aren’t focused on anything in this world, she looks like a lost zombie, a dead thing sleepwalking through existence. Until this moment, we knew only that Laura had been murdered. But seeing Ronette, and learning that she was somehow involved, Lynch shows us secondhand the savagery Laura’s murder must have entailed, the premeditation of it, and the twisted sanity of her killer. This isn’t going to be a regular murder case Lynch is showing us, it’s going to be something far more insidious. By removing us from the murder scene itself for the initial revelation of its brutality, we once again are drawn into the pain of our own imaginations: if this is how bad it was for the girl who survived, what must it have been like for the girl who did not?

And the shot Lynch closes with, that of the stoplight at dusk shifting from green to a cautious yellow then into the full-on halt of red. Its lights are eyes on the night, all-seeing, all-knowing, and seemingly warning us about continuing through this place. But red lights turn green eventually, and as such Lynch knows he’s done enough to cause us to throw that caution to the wind and come with him into the darkest of TV territories.

Pilot episodes have a lot of responsibility not just in terms of establishing their world and the people who inhabit it, but also in regards to the narrative thread and the hooks sewn into it meant to snare an audience. TWIN PEAKS does an exceptionally good job of establishing its characters – which is especially difficult because there are so many of them, and all fleshed out with intricate and interweaving backstories – as well as their secrets and indeed their motivations, taken or not taken, for killing Laura, or at least wanting her dead. That’s the best part about this episode, I think: not only does it do what it’s supposed to narratively, its characterization is so well done and well-paced that by the end of the episode, anyone could be a suspect, which means everyone is a suspect. That’s the world ultimately established by the pilot: one like ours but not ours, a perversion of it, of our ideals and social fabric, and a world in which enough people are lying that nothing can seem true. The only thing we know for certain at the end of the pilot is that for all we’ve just learned, ultimately we know nothing, and that’s an intriguing damn spot to start.

Next week – EPISODE ONE: “TRACES TO NOWHERE”
Follow me on Twitter for more TWINS PEAKS tidbits, trivia and assorted ephemera between posts.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist