Twin Peaks: The Second Season Review

Through the darkness of futures past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds
"Fire, Walk With Me."

So where were we? FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had travelled to the backwoods town of Twin Peaks on the US/Canadian border to investigate the murder of local high school girl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). During the first week of his investigation, Cooper discovered that the logging town’s sleepy, old-fashioned façade hid a sordid underbelly of vice and corruption, and that the apparently-innocent Laura was leading a double life as a prostitute at One Eyed Jack’s, a cross-border brothel run by local businessman Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer). If Twin Peaks is on the surface a backwater Eden, then Horne is the ostensible serpent lurking in the grass, a spider at the heart of a particularly nasty web of sin which destroys anybody unlucky enough to be ensnared by it. Embroiled in a Machiavellian plot to take over the local logging company by any means necessary and with a nice sideline in smuggling cocaine from across the border and distributing it in the local high school, his seedy empire appears to lie at the heart of the mystery. With the help of a lady who talks to her log, a talking canary, a one-armed man and the victim's own diary, Cooper and local Sheriff Harry S Truman (no relation) uncovered the events of the night leading up to Laura's murder, a night in which she was forced to take part in a drug-fuelled sadomasochistic orgy with two (three?) of Horne’s drugs-runners, the violent Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) and the odious Jacques Renault. Although it seemed that this led directly to the girl's death, Cooper wasn’t sure: he sensed that there was something more at work here, something beyond the physical plane, an elemental Evil which could turn out to be far more dangerous than anything Benjamin Horne was able to achieve. This belief was supported when Truman (played by Michael Ontkean) introduced him to the Bookhouse Boys, an extra-legal group of locals who for generations have been dedicated to keeping at bay an intangible darkness they sense lurking in the woods. As Cooper began receiving visions and the image of a sinister bearded man haunted Laura’s mother, it became increasingly clear that there was more going on than was visible to the naked eye, and that the real killer might be far more otherworldly than they had imagined. As the week ended, Cooper, pondering just what sort of power they might be facing, answered a knock at his hotel room door only to be shot several times at point blank range...

And that’s where Season One of David Lynch and Mark Frost's series ended either, depending on your point of view, in the spring of 1990 after the show's first broadcast or the Christmas of 2001 after its release on DVD. Although it must have seemed an eternity at the time, the long wait through the summer of 1990 for Season Two to come on the air has been nothing compared to the nearly six years fans have had to wait for its release on DVD. Tied up with the usual legal wranglings that delay such things, it has often felt as though it would never appear, so the relief of it finally being here is tempered with a slight disbelief (as well as a conundrum: what do we put at the top of our Most Wanted lists now?) The good news is that, as far as the look of the episodes go, it’s been worth the wait. Normally the form of the reviews on this site is such that we discuss the subject first and only afterwards comment on the visual presentation, but here it’s relevant in the context of the series too. The new transfers (personally overseen by Lynch) look simply beautiful - far better than I can recall seeing the series before and have been used to on VHS, as well as being far clearer than the slightly murky visuals we got on the Season One set. This is important beyond the aesthetics of the thing, because Twin Peaks is that very rare thing: a beautiful television series. Everything about the series, from its very setting (a lush, verdant corner of America virtually untouched by the grimy reality of urban modernity), through to its visual style and its (mostly) good-looking stars, is attractive, reflecting the show’s driving theme of innocence and purity, and the forces that can corrode and degrade such ideals. One of Lynch’s favourite subjects, the series takes as its starting point the debasement of goodness: within each of us, it says, lies the possibility of doing both great good and great evil, but which is the more powerful? What, indeed, is the more natural? Why do we give in to temptation? Are we our own worst enemies? Do we, by our very nature, destroy ourselves? It’s a battle which Man have found fascinating through the ages - nearly all religious systems are based on similar ideas - and the brilliance of Twin Peaks is that it explores these most fundamental questions on all human levels: physically, spiritually and emotionally. It encapsulates and magnifies the struggle everybody faces, the challenges Life itself throws at us in all its insane, funny, tragic, cruel ways.

Make no mistake about it, Twin Peaks Season One is a masterpiece, on just about every level. Indeed, one thing that makes it so rewarding is that it has so many levels: it can be viewed as simply as a straightforward whodunit, or as deeply as an apocalyptic showdown between Good and Evil, read as a critique of American colonisation, a spoof of soap operas, a determinedly quirky comedy, or a hundred other things. It’s all of these things and more. It’s one of the very few television series to transcend its format and achieve great art (to my mind, one of only two things on TV to ever do so, the other being The Sopranos). The problem Lynch and Frost faced at the beginning of Season Two was: how the hell do we follow it up? On the face of it, the story was nearing its end, not just starting, and there seemed to be nowhere else for it to go.

The solution finally arrived at was to take the title and apply it literally. Whereas the first season is purely about the death of Laura Palmer, with everything centred around that one story, Twin Peaks Season Two is far more about Twin Peaks the town, and more specifically the characters who live there. It has been said that this was in fact always the case - that Laura's murder was simply a lynchpin around which to base the series rather than its central purpose - but that's not true: ultimately in Season One the characters were simply pieces on a chessboard, to be moved around in accordance with the Grand Plan, whereas in Season Two they become the Grand Plan themselves, the show’s true raison d’etre. The big themes of Good and Evil are still at its heart, but far more attention is now paid to the other, less important organs of the body. As a solution to their problem, it’s entirely logical, but viewed as a continuation of the first season it can’t help but be a lesser effort. The short story becomes a novel, and, as with many literary examples, the sheer power of that short becomes somewhat dulled by the extra length and extraneous subplots. Put bluntly, the fact Season Two is more than three times the length of Season One dilutes the series.

This widening out of the series has the literal effect of stretching everything out The show literally becomes broader in all senses of the word, something the premiere, feature-length episode makes plainly clear. The implicit becomes explicit, most notably in regards to the ethereal side of the show (something which Lynch makes certain of right from the very first scene in which Cooper is visited by the Giant, played by Carel Struycken.) Characters who before were just sidelines take centre stage, the humour becomes a little outré, far more blood is shed, the wonderful subtly is tempered by some more blunt, in-your-face theatrics. This general widening is actually the result of a difference of opinion between Lynch and Frost as to how the series should proceed. Lynch would have been quite happy for the murderer of Laura never to have been revealed and much preferred going down the road of expanding on the otherworldly aspects of Cooper’s battle, a direction Frost (and the network executives) had qualms about (a show that never answers the questions it raises, as Lost is discovering now, soon alienates its viewers). The resulting disagreement is fully played out on screen, an argument fought before its viewers, with first one side tugging then the other, with the unsurprising result that the series becomes uneven and bumpy in tone, sometimes even self-contradictory. One minute the evil spirit Bob is causing havoc, the next we’re busy worrying which of Lucy’s two boyfriends is the father of her child.

Whether it was Lynch or Frost who had the correct approach is a matter that fans have debated since the show aired. There’s no denying that having Cooper physically facing off against Bob is far less satisfactory than the battle wherein all is open to interpretation of Season One (and, to some extent, the first half of Two), but equally there’s no argument that once Lynch’s touch falls away following the revelation of who Laura's killer is the quality of the show rapidly deteriorates. To be fair, the middle batch of episodes was badly affected when MacLachlan, at very short notice, nixed what was to be a major storyline (Audrey Horne and Cooper becoming romantically involved), leaving the writers scrambling round to find something else to fill the time. The result is a very visible panic for three or four episodes when the show comes dangerously close to crossing the line from being the parody of trashy US soap operas to actually becoming a trashy soap opera itself. Lynch’s overt “weirding” up of a show already pretty strange is, while mildly less satisfactory than what went before, far more rewarding and challenging than watching storylines which go nowhere (literally in a couple of cases) about love triangles and ever-more ludicrous "They're dead!" "No, they're not really!" plots. The writers' uncertainty about what to do is illustrated most graphically by a sudden inrush of new characters - played by, amongst others, David Warner, David Duchovny (famously, in a dress), Billy Zane and Heather Graham - which seems a case of chucking in any ideas that can be thought of and seeing what works. Sadly, none of the new characters really do manage to stay the distance, with only Ian Buchanan's amusing Dick Tremayne creating a lasting impression (although Heather Graham's character shows some promise that is never quite fulfilled).

On a purely analytical level, one of the most interesting things of this second year is seeing which of the Season One characters, who were originally defined purely by their relationship to Laura, manage to shine when put under the spotlight themselves and which wilt under the increased glare. Some do well - the Hornes, of course, poor old Pete up at the mill, even Bobby and Shelly - but others are cruelly exposed as boring, tedious people, most notably James and Donna (James Marshall and Lara Flynn Boyle). Despite being arguably the second most important characters in Season One after Cooper himself, the problem with Laura’s former boyfriend and best friend is just that; their one role in life was being Laura’s boyfriend and best friend, and once they have to strike out on their own we find there’s precious little to them. Once the murder is finally resolved the pair quickly become superfluous to requirements - the nadir of the series comes with the storyline of James and the honey trap, an utter waste of time which, one senses, even the writers themselves didn’t really believe in. It’s little surprise that immediately on the resolution to that James is shipped off, and Donna is left flailing, stuck with a daft story about her parentage. What’s equally interesting - and often surprising - is which secondary characters, who in Season One come across as one-gag wonders, suddenly become alive and thrive in the new exposure: the touching evolution of Don Davies’ character from clichéd military man to a husband and father far richer, warmer and passionate than we hitherto suspected, for example, or Lucy and Andy in their new, odd, ménage a trois with Tremayne.

Spoilers follow

Things only really get back on track when Lynch came back and tried to revive his swiftly dying series in the last six episodes. His efforts still don’t come close to equalling the power of the early episodes, with Cooper’s partner-turned-bad Windom Earle (Kenneth Walsh) nowhere near a substitute for Bob (lurking in his secret layer cackling away with his giant props and dopey sidekicks, he’s more like a villain in Adam West’s Batman than an evil adversary bent on releasing a new apocalypse). Still, there is still far more urgency about the story and, although messy and mildly uncertain in construction, the episodes work again, something the previous half dozen just don’t. The search for the mystical Black Lodge, an otherworldly dimension roughly equivalent to a minor kind of Hell, feels like a logical progression, and the stakes feel real once more - those who disliked Lynch's direction and argued the show should have stayed about the characters have no defence when faced with just how dull things were when that approach was tried. The infamous last episode, in which Cooper crosses over into the Lodge, is astonishing: criticised at the time for going over the top, now it feels like a fitting climax to the series, the final showdown we've been promised all along. Of course it makes no sense - it’s not meant to - but it feels right. It’s a bizarre paradox that even though there are multiple loose ends left hanging (literally in Leo's case!) and that in some ways the show just ends rather than resolves itself, the final episode does work as a final episode. That said, it's a crushingly pessimistic end, with Evil triumphing over even Cooper, but one which fits with the general ethos of the series: ultimately, we can’t fight the darkness that’s out there, it will overwhelm us. Not a sentiment I agree with at all, but a powerful, disturbing coda nonetheless.

End of Spoilers

And, true, it’s occasionally hard work to get to the finale, and the reward is to come away from the show very much on a downer. But boy, what a journey - the path might be occasionally rocky, and you might get lost at times, but nevertheless it's worth it, while along the way there are regular stopping posts featuring those signature Twin Peaks moments that live on in the memory and send a shiver down the spine (always accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti's haunting score.) I've already mentioned the perfect illustration of these, the very first scene of the season, in which Cooper fails to get any help after he's been shot before being visited by the Giant, a sequence that is both hilarious and, in its way, terrifying, and one which sums up perfectly what makes the show so special. There are many other such moments throughout the series - the death of Maddy, the death of Leland, Leo's waking up from his catatonic state, as well as, of course, the finale, scenes which can be humorous, tragic, or a mixture of both - one of the things that Lynch forgot when he made his admittedly underrated prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is that humour is just as important to the success of the show as anything else.

End of spoilers

Twin Peaks was genuinely one of the most influential television series that has ever been made. As well as its obvious legacy - a raft of “quirky” shows which have slowly but surely infiltrated the mainstream, up to and including titles as diverse in style as Carnivale and Desperate Housewives - it was also one of the first series to treat its audience as intelligent beings, capable of following plot strands and ideas without being led by the hand. Subtly replaced brute force (especially in the first season) leading to an increased appreciation by networks that people were quite willing to engage their brains. Admittedly it was a lesson learnt but slowly - although in genre terms The X Files was swift to follow up on the idea (just one of many debt Chris Carter’s series owes the show) it’s only been at the end of the century that we began to get more stretching material more regularly, mainly from HBO. Six Feet Under is the most obvious example, but every series with a bit of nous to it, even such things as The Wire and The Sopranos, owes something to Twin Peaks, while its productions values, at the time revolutionary for breaking out of the confines of the studio, are now relatively normal. Very few of its offspring, however, have ever come close to coming close to equalling the show’s achievement, and now, nearly twenty years on, it still feels as vital and powerful as it ever did. True, it’s a little slower than most modern stuff, and as said the quality of this season swings wildly from genius to ghastly and back again, but that’s just one example of the paradoxes this series throws up: at times bewitching, bewildering, hilarious, horrifying, magical, moribund, uplifting, depressing, inspirational, desperate, sensual and sadistic, it’s a very special thing indeed, and will remain one of the greatest television shows of all time. Indeed, a review is largely pointless. If you've already seen it you know what I'm talking about, if you haven't do yourself a favour and get a hold of Season One. Now, if you'll excuse me, I can hear a saxophone playing in the distance. I might go back to the woods again tonight…

The DVDs
All twenty-two episodes of Season Two are presented on six single-sided dual-layered discs, with four episodes per disc bar Disc One, which has the ninety minute premiere and the next two. The cover artwork, as you can see up at the top of this page, is extremely evocative, but the three slimline cases for the six discs held within have a minimalist design that for me seemed a little incomplete - each case has a blueish image of one of the characters, plus the episode numbers of those held within and nothing more.

After getting past the studio logo, Disc One offers the option of watching a Preview of Inland Empire or heading straight for the Main Menu, which the other discs do automatically. The Menus themselves are very different from those of Season One; a close-up of the hieroglyphics showing the way to the Black Lodge are set against a black background running vague, shadowy clips from the series, interspersed with the odd bit of static. The options are to watch each episode on that disc (delineated only by their number), look at the Special Features or enter the Setup Menu. Each Episode has a submenu with the option to view them with or without the Log Lady’s Introductions.

Each episode is divided into six chapters, but not evenly: the opening sequence is a chapter stop on its own which is useful for skipping past, but then the stops occur at very infrequent intervals. All episodes and extras are subtitled with the exception of the Inland Empire trailer mentioned above.

As noted in the main body of the review, the Video is far clearer than in the Season One set. Of course, given its age, it’s not perfect: there’s a softness at times, and a little haze, but the colours are far more vivid and crisp and overall this is a joy to watch. The Audio is nicely evocative too, the musical score having a richness to it, while the dialogue is always clear - again, an improvement over the Season One set in which lines were occasionally muffled to quite a significant degree.

Sadly, given the amount of time we’ve had to wait, the Extras are disappointing. Once again The Log Lady Introductions are included; these were recorded when the series was syndicated on Bravo by Lynch himself but, while serving as effective teasers for the episodes, are actually a load of meaningless guff. There are no commentaries but each disc has includes a three or four minute Director’s Interview featuring one of those who worked on the second series. These are too short to be substantial and, although they offer an occasionally interesting insight (Steven Gyllenhaal’s short piece is particularly good), are a poor substitute for a commentary (it doesn’t help that each director seems to have been contractually obliged to mention David Lynch’s “vision” which eats into the already slender running time). The other interviews on Disc Six are a little better, featuring newly-recorded interviews with some of the leading actors including MacLachlan himself. Each actor speaks on the same three subjects - Origin, Production and Legacy - and you can pick and mix which segments you wish to watch via the Interactive Grid, a vaguely amusing arrangement of the material. Watched all together, these interviews run to 38:54.

So, it’s finally here, what do we get? A presentation of episodes superior in look but not content to that of Season One, coupled with a group of extras that, while not bad, are not especially substantial and compare unfavourably to the larger, superior collection we got on the first set.

8 out of 10
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