The episode that “solves” the murder of Laura Palmer.
EPISODE 16: “ARBITRARY LAW”
Written by Mark Frost & Harley Peyton & Robert Engels, Directed by Tim Hunter
Airdate December 1st, 1990
Brace yourself for a powerful and confounding hour of television, and the climax of the Laura Palmer storyline.
(once again a quick reminder, you’re not losing your mind, this column moved to FSR mid-stream from One Perfect Shot. You can catch up on all the past episodes right here.)
Maddy has been found dead and wrapped in plastic, the same as her cousin Laura in the pilot. The next morning Coop, Truman, Hawk and a returned Albert are going over the details of the crime scene. Based on the typed letter O found under Maddy’s right ringfinger, Albert is convinced this is the work of the same killer as Laura and Teresa Banks. Maddy was also clutching fur in her hand that belonged to a white fox with traces of embalming fluid in the fibers, so then a taxidermied fox. We recall, of course, the stuffed white fox in Ben Horne’s office that so transfixed Leland in episode 13, the fox he tore fur from, though the authorities have not yet discovered this connection. Truman starts to call Leland to get in touch with Maddy’s folks in Montana, but Coop asks him for 24 hours before any calls are made. For what? To finish this, he says, although admittedly he has no idea where to start. “You’re already on the path,” Hawk reminds him, “You don’t need to know where it goes, you just need to follow it.”
Donna and James meet for coffee after an evening of implied coitus. He presents her with a ring that he slips on her left hand. It isn’t an out-and-out proposal, but it isn’t not one, either. Norma serves her mother an omelet and is met with the woman’s typical, nonplussed attitude. Norma calls Vivian on it, but it’s kinda like calling a bear a bear: the bear doesn’t give a shit. Donna and James overhear Andy saying “Je une ame solitaire” over and over again. Donna has heard this before from Mrs. Tremond’s grandson, but Andy tells her he read it in Harold Smith’s suicide note. Donna has to find Cooper immediately, and takes off without explaining why.
Donna takes Coop to Mrs. Tremond’s house and explains to the Special Agent about her and her grandson, how the boy said the same French phrase as the one in Harold’s note. Donna is convinced there’s some eerie connection. When they get there, however, Mrs. Tremond isn’t inside, or rather she is, but she’s not the Mrs. Tremond Donna was expecting. This one is younger and lives alone, her own mother is deceased and she has no children. Coop says Donna’s name aloud, and this Mrs. Tremond recognizes it. She presents a letter addressed to Donna that she found in her mail the day after Harold died. Donna recognizes the handwriting as Harold’s and opens it with Coop. Inside is a page from Laura’s diary dated February 22nd, her penultimate day alive. The passage describes a strange dream Laura had which mirrors exactly the dream Coop had earlier in season 1, where Laura/Not Laura whispered the killer’s name in his ear, the name he forgot upon awakening. Laura describes Coop as an old man she thinks can help her. She further says BOB is only afraid of one man, MIKE, and wonders if Coop is him, but hopes whoever he is, even though it was a dream, that he heard her and will help her. There’s an entry from the 23rd as well: “Tonight is the night I will die. I know I have to because it’s the only way to keep BOB away from me, the only way to tear him out from inside. I know he wants me, I can feel his fire. But if I die he can’t hurt me anymore.” Cooper has to see Phillip Gerard, a.k.a. the one-armed man, a.k.a. MIKE, stat.
At The Great Northern MIKE is feverish without his medicine and in distress but Coop needs him like this, he knows it’s the only way MIKE can sense BOB: “without chemicals.” He tells MIKE that BOB has killed again, and asks MIKE about the dream he and Laura shared, he needs the answers to its mysteries. MIKE cryptically describes his symbiotic relationship with BOB back when they were killing together as a golden circle, like a ring, Cooper’s ring, the one taken by the Giant, who MIKE says “is known to us here,” and thus real, or at least as real as MIKE is. MIKE says the Giant can help find BOB, but you must ask him first. Coop want to know how? “You have all the clues you need,” MIKE says, adding that the answer isn’t in Coop’s head, but his heart. This clears up little.
Cooper is confounded. He strolls into the corridor where he sees the same elderly bellboy who brought him hot milk the night he was shot. The waiter repeats what he said that night about the milk getting cool, but adds that it’s getting warmer now. Coop – and the audience – catches his drift.
In Ben Horne’s office, all clues are still pointing his direction. Phone records indicate he called Laura the night she died, and a stuffed white fox in the room seems to indicate that Maddy was there at some point before she died. Truman theorizes that Ben killed Maddy in the office then took her body to the waterfall below the hotel where it was found. Albert confirms that the time of death fits this timeline as Maddy was killed sometime before midnight, the time at which Ben was arrested. Furthermore, Albert has the results of Ben’s blood test. They are read by Coop and Truman, but not revealed to the audience.
At the station, the sprinklers are getting tweaked up to code. Andy wants to talk to Lucy about their baby but Lucy isn’t sure it is their baby, seeing as how Dick Tremayne was in the mix as well. She gauges the odds at 50/50. Andy goes right to the phone and calls Dick, says they need to have a talk. Meanwhile Ben is still sweating it out in a holding cell when he is visited by Tojamura. Tojamura has the Ghostwood Estates contracts ready for Ben to sign, but Ben says he can’t right now. In that case, Tojamura concedes, Ben can just return the $5 million check he was given. But as he’s already signed that over to Josie, Ben has to stall, and tries using his current predicament as an excuse. Tojamura takes this moment to reveal himself as Catherine in disguise. In the end, a few painted toenails is all it takes. Ben begs her to tell Truman about their night together, the night Laura died. She’s happy to, as long as he signs the mill and Ghostwood Estates over to her. He does, thrilled by the prospect of freedom. Problem is, she’s still not sure she’s going to do it. She leaves Ben with even less than he had when she entered.
Donna is at the Palmers’. She has a tape of the song she and James and Maddy recorded, and wants Leland to mail it to her in Montana. He says he will but then gets distracted when he recognizes the sunglasses Donna is wearing. They were Laura’s. She asks if he’s heard that the cops found Laura’s secret diary. Of course, they took it from her room. Nope, Donna says, wrong diary, this was a secret one given to Harold Smith for safekeeping. Leland is alarmed by this, he had no idea of its existence. He moves in close to Donna, too close given what we now know about him, but then the phone rings. It’s Maddy’s mom, Sarah’s sister. She says Maddy hasn’t arrived home yet and she’s concerned. He says he’ll look into it and gets off the phone. As he straightens his tie in the mirror before re-entering the living room, BOB is looking back. Donna is in real danger now, Maddy-danger, Laura-danger. Leland gives her a glass of lemonade and tries to calm her frazzled nerves by putting on a record. This is a terrible sign, and even Donna can sense it and is starting to feel a little nervous. Leland is fully BOB now, and moves to dance with Donna. She for some reason accepts his invitation. Already creepy in any context, in this one it’s a blatantly-predatory gesture. Leland grabs Donna and pulls her to him. She’s afraid, but gets saved by the doorbell. It’s Sheriff Truman, thank god. He needs Leland’s help, but all he can say is that there’s been another murder. They leave without paying Donna another moment’s notice.
As she’s walking home, Donna knows between the phone call from Maddy’s mom and the Sheriff’s announcement that Maddy is dead. She calls James to meet her and breaks the news to him. This is the straw that breaks the back of what James can emotionally withstand. He won’t even discuss it with Donna, it doesn’t matter, the world will go to hell no matter their happiness, he says. He peels out on his motorcycle, leaving Donna alone and crying.
The Road House. A stormy night. Ben Horne has been taken there by Coop and Albert. They are the only three in the place until Truman arrives with Leland. Leland wants to know why they’ve all gathered there. Coop says they’re waiting for someone, possibly the killer but he doesn’t know for sure. All is very hush-hush and baited. Ed shows up too. Coop has them clear a large space in the center of the room. Lightning flashes outside. Hawk and Bobby arrive with Leo. Coop brings everyone up to speed on Maddy’s murder, how it was perpetrated by the same killer, and how he believes that killer is in this room. He says he’s exhausted every deductive method he knows from the practical to the metaphysical, and all that’s left is to rely on magic. He’s not sure what comes next, he says someone is missing. That’s when Major Briggs walks in escorting the elderly bellboy. Briggs says he found the old man walking here and gave him a ride. The old man offers Coop a stick of gum. Leland recognizes it, it’s a kind he used to chew when he was a kid, his favorite brand. The old man tells Leland that gum he likes is going to come back in style, which is also what the Man From Another Place said to Cooper in his dream. Like an incantation, this takes Coop back in memory to the red room and finally he hears what is whispered to him by Laura/Not Laura: “My father killed me.” In The Road House, the Giant appears to Coop and returns his ring. Coop chews the gum, picks up the ring, then tells Ben he’s taking him back to the station, and that he might want to bring along Leland as his attorney. They depart, but not before Coop thanks the old man with a hearty thumbs up. Then the dénouement begins…
Back at the station they take Ben down to an interrogation room. Leland asks if Ben’s going to be charged. Coop says he is, but as Leland follows his client – who apparently he still intends to represent despite the crime he’s accused of being the murder of Leland’s own daughter – Coop whispers something to Truman, who only nods wide-eyed in response. They open the door and instead of leading Ben in, they bum-rush Leland, push him inside and lock the door. This is all it takes. BOB is loosed in an insane frenzy. Harry is dumbfounded and wants to know how Coop found out. He says Laura told him in a dream. Truman, however, is going to need harder evidence than that, so Coop suggests a confession.
Leland is bound and kept under the gun of Hawk. He’s being read his rights. He’s laughing, grinning madly. He admits to killing Laura and Maddy and says he has a thing for knives, “like that thing that happened to you in Pittsburgh that time, eh, Coop?” Coop’s taken aback but holds his calm. BOB praises Leland as a good host but says he’s just about all used up. Coop wants to know if Leland is aware of what BOB has done? Not yet, but when BOB leaves him, he will become aware, and it will be exquisitely horrible. This is enough solid proof for Truman. They leave BOB/Leland to his insane self.
Meanwhile Dick Tremayne has shown up for his conversation with Andy, but Lucy steps in and takes control. She tells them she’s going to keep the baby, and that they will take a paternity test after the baby is born. She expects complete cooperation from them both until then. Dick lights a cigarette; its smoke drifts towards the smoke alarm. This is a startlingly out-of-place scene in the midst of arguably the series’ most dramatic moment. Why it’s there can only be speculated as comic relief, albeit unnecessary.
Outside Leland’s cell, Coop is explaining to Albert, Hawk and Truman how his dream makes sense now: the little man danced, and so did Leland, compulsively so, after killing Laura; Cooper was told BOB was a gray haired man, and after killing Jacques Renault, Leland’s hair turned white; Leland said the name of the man who looked like BOB who lived next to his grandparents’ place in Pearl Lakes was Robertson, while MIKE said the people BOB inhabited were his children – Robertson, son of Robert, Robert BOB; and the letters under the fingernails of Teresa, Laura, Ronette Pulaski and Maddy were R, O, B, and T, which likely means BOB was spelling his name. Truman wants to know why Leland/BOB would kill Laura? Because she was onto him, Coop says, she wrote about his true identity in her diary. Leland found it and ripped out the pages, and Leland was the one who called Laura from Ben’s office the night she died. Leland was also the third man outside Jacques’ cabin that fateful night. It was he who took the girls to the train car, and it was his blood found outside that car, not Ben’s. This is what Albert’s report revealed. Truman isn’t done questioning, though: if Laura was dead and BOB’s secret was safe, then why kill Maddy? Any number of reasons, Coop posits, none of which are good. Truman just can’t believe it, it can’t be real, this possession, surely Leland’s just crazy? As if refuting this, Leland/BOB starts reciting the “Fire Walk With Me” poem. That’s when the smoke alarm goes off, triggering the newly-attuned sprinklers, and BOB’s exodus from Leland begins. He starts to smash his head into the wall over and over again, trying to kill himself. When they finally get into the interrogation room, Truman, Albert and Coop can only comfort Leland beneath the torrent from the sprinklers as he comes back to himself and remembers the horrible things BOB made him do, from the sexual abuse to the murders. He is as distraught as a human can be as he reveals how BOB came to him in a dream when he was just a boy and asked if he wanted to play. That was all it took: Leland said yes and just like that BOB was inside him. For decades this went on, and whenever BOB would relinquish control, Leland could never remember what had happened. He says BOB wanted lives to use like he had used Leland’s, especially Laura’s, but she was too strong, she wouldn’t let them in. So BOB made him kill her. Or rather, she made BOB make Leland kill her because she would have rather died than let BOB have her soul. This is an anguishing scene drowning in regret, the last chance at penance for a dying man. Albert and Truman rise and step away as Cooper leads Leland’s soul towards its afterlife. He tells Leland in this moment to know himself and abide in that state, to look to the light, find it, and enter it. Leland’s last words are of seeing Laura there in the light, beautiful and safe, then he dies in Coop’s grip. The sprinklers cease. The mystery, at least in this realm, is over.
Outside, Coop, Truman and Albert are trying to make any sense they can out of what just happened. Truman is still sticking to the insanity defense, but Albert points out that other people actually saw BOB, Coop among them. Briggs interjects with the old Shakespeare line about how there’s more to heaven and earth than what figures into our philosophy. Coop agrees with him, but Truman still isn’t able to believe it. Coop asks if it’s any more comforting to believe that a man for no reason whatsoever would rape and murder his own daughter. It most certainly is not. Briggs isn’t sure the nature of evil is ever worth lingering over, as it exists regardless to our opinions of it, but Coop says knowing the nature of evil helps to stop it, which is their job. Briggs can’t argue with this. Albert suggests maybe that’s all BOB is, the evil men do personified. Then Truman closes things with the scariest question yet: if BOB can’t be killed, if he was really here in their world and they had him in the body of Leland but now he’s gone, where exactly did he go?
A red-tinted, frenetic and clumsy perspective rushing through the woods would seem to answer this. It comes to a sudden stop at a white glowing portal from which an owl escapes.
As was the last episode, this episode is anchored by an unbelievably powerful performance by Ray Wise. I have seen his death scene a dozen times and I am always – always – covered in goosebumps by its conclusion. It’s more than the connotation of what Leland is saying, it’s how he says it, with a potent mixture of limitless shame, disbelieving terror, and unbridled anguish. Kyle MacLachlan is a great actor and perfectly deserving to carry the mantle for TWIN PEAKS, but for my money, and again, this is as the biggest Kyle MacLachlan fan it the world, Ray Wise is the strongest member of the cast and this episode right here illustrates how and why. He completely loses himself in both halves of his dual roles and takes us with him down deep into the pits of their despair/sadism.
Frost, Peyton and Engels scripted the episode, as evident by the taut storytelling and adherence to the series’ mythology. Tim Hunter directs for the second time, and his aesthetic is marked with low-angle character shots, tilted frames, P.O.V. shots and even a freeze frame. For an episode so reliant on narrative, Hunter balances his visuals accordingly, making them separately interesting and ominously foreboding.
Overall, this episode is another of the series’ finest hours, the episode that brings to a total conclusion the murder of Laura Palmer, if not a total resolution to the question of what or who is BOB? The effect of the last 15 minutes are so complete and engulfing that we’re not left wondering what happens next – maybe for the first time – because wrapping our heads around all the revelations in this episode occupies our minds fully. This story has resolved itself, as it were, darker and weirder and more chaotically than I think anyone could have expected, and while it doesn’t offer a lot of light as to where things are going, once again the show has passed another sign post from which it can’t double back. This is the new starting point, the new atmosphere, the new city where our show is set. Nothing was ever safe here, but now nothing is sacred either, not even a father’s love for his daughter. Everything in Twin Peaks can be corrupted, everything can be controlled. There are no limits, there is no safety, and not even the natural law of the universe as you understand it can protect you. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than what figure into our philosophy, and apparently they all live in Twin Peaks.
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