Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law


SEASON 2, EPISODE 9
-Episode 16 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Tim Hunter
written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels


"So now the sadness comes. The revelation. There is a depression after an answer is given. It was almost fun not knowing. Yes, now we know. At least we know what we sought in the beginning. But there is still the question, why? And this question will go on and on until the final answer comes. Then the knowing is so full, there is no room for questions."

Since this is effectively the end of "Twin Peaks" as we know it, I've decided to break one of my rules. The above quote is not derived from the show proper, but rather from the Log Lady's introductions, which accompany each episode on the DVD. Usually these intros are so shrouded in obscurity as to be senseless. This one's fairly clear, but the "final answer" it promises doesn't quite arrive. Nonetheless, this is a decent conclusion to a story which has already reached its climax, a relatively satisfying denouement for the characters we've come to know and love. It is definitely flawed - its attempts to tie everything together are forced and a bit too pat, and the style is sometimes too far over-the-top. But it closes the book, and there's only so much it can to do to alleviate the definite truth of the Log Lady's third and fourth sentences.


Need more evidence that the reveal of Laura's killer (rather than his capture) was the true culmination of "Twin Peaks"? David Lynch is nowhere to be found on Episode 16. Mark Frost joins Robert Engels and Harley Peyton, the show's favorite writers, to wrap things up, and Tim Hunter (whose vision was second only to Lynch's in season one) turns in an overly stylized effort which lacks Lynch's grace and wit. The episode is constantly dredging up totems of "Peaks" past - the giant, the waiter, Bob in the mirror (he's not nearly as frightening now that he's not an abstract ghoul), and even the infamous dream footage from season one. None of this feels especially fresh and when the old gang gathers at the road house it has a vaguely obligatory and self-inflated air. Bobby and Ben overplay their parts, the lighting is showy (in that flamboyant, slightly embarrassing early 90s fashion), and the not-so-impromptu reunion only serves to remind us of how far we've come since the realistically textured beginning, not always for the better.

When I saw this episode for the first time a few months ago, it felt like a disappointment. For a while, I took it on faith that the show's increasingly wacky developments were going somewhere and very early on, around the time of the pilot, I even thought all roads would lead to Rome (by which I mean that even subplots like the mill burning and the drug deals would tie into Laura's death and whatever was haunting those woods). But by Episode 16, it was clear that, to take just one example, Bobby Briggs not only had nothing to do with Laura's death, but had forgotten, in rough order, being Laura's ex-boyfriend, a high school student, a teenager, and eventually even a drug dealer. In other words, many of Twin Peaks' characters and stories turned out to be dead ends.

This begins to become apparent with season two (though as early as halfway through season one, interest in the various subplots and characters is not evenly distributed). However, Laura's murder and the town's supernatural aura (and, to a lesser extent, the pathos of the teenage romances and intrigues) remain the glue which holds the show's different strands together. So even though this episode is not altogether satisfactory, it'll do. Leland is still a compelling villain, Cooper is still a unique protagonist, and there are some intriguing scenes to chew on. Among them, Donna and James' romantic breakfast at the RR, lit in completely different fashion than the rest of the restaurant (in fact, you wouldn't even know they were there if they didn't show up later in RR scenes). Also, Donna's visit to Leland, who terrorizes her by dancing too close (at this point, Leland has become a more frightening character than Bob). And Cooper's final conversation with a feverish Phillip Gerard/Mike/the one-armed man, which initiates his final push to discover the killer.

Yet as Keith Phipps observes in his series rundown, "this is the first episode that feels really rushed, even tacked on." Lynch's trancelike focus would be welcome here, particularly as one absurd deus ex machina after another swoops in on the wings of an owl to propel the desperate plot along. To wit: Cooper decides to gather a random grouping (Big Ed? Really?) at the road house for some "magic" intervention. The waiter tells Leland, "that gum you like is going to come back in style." The giant appears to return Cooper's ring. Cooper recalls Laura's whisper from the dream: "My father killed me." Cooper pretends to re-arrest Ben, invites Leland to be the defense attorney for his daughter's alleged killer (this is the episode's - maybe the first fifteen episodes' - single most ludicrous conceit) as a ruse to get him in the station, and then locks him in the cell where he suffers a complete breakdown. Finally, Cooper explains every detail of the dream, every cryptic quote, everything that Lynch and other writes inserted as stimulating ephemera being given some concrete symbolism. It's like the scene at the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist explains all of Norman Bates' complexes for the literalists in the audience.

(On top of this, despite being mercifully reprieved of any attention paid to Bobby and Shelly's money problems, Jean Renault's attempts to run One-Eyed Jack's, or Super Nadine's adolescent illusions, we're forced to endure several sequences of a plot more tiresome than any of these: pregnant Lucy's menage a trois with doltish Andy and dapper Dick. Isn't there something kind of offensive about cutting from Leland's momentous confession to a dopey paternity pissfest? Does this really belong here - if it belongs anywhere at all?)

To the extent this episode is successful, its success derives from Leland's death. In the end, we see Laura's murderer soaked, bleeding (after bashing his head into a wall), and - stripped of Bob's spirit - suddenly, painfully aware of what he's done. And Cooper is at his absolute finest. We already know that this cheerful individual isn't just some idiot savant who doesn't understand what he's involved with. Somewhere under that untroubled smile and childlike enthusiasm is a soul which grapples with the mysteries of the universe. As he cradles the murderer's head in his lap, both of them drenched from the overhead sprinklers, guiding the dying Leland as he approaches the afterlife ("Into the light, Leland, into the light...") he has reached the height of his calling. The ending is treated with utter sincerity and is worthy of what has come before.

The final scene brings us outside, on the outskirts of the woods, in broad daylight (a storm has swept through town, but now it is passed). Major Briggs joins Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman, weary and overwhelmed, as they ponder the mysteries of the universe and their own little corner of it. Truman still has trouble accepting that Bob was actually a spirit, but as Cooper points out, "Is it easier to believe that Leland Palmer raped and murdered his own daughter? Is that anymore comforting?" The eventual movie will dwell on the implications of this troubling statement - indeed, this statement will become Fire Walk With Me's raison d'etre. But for now the darkness is offscreen, mysterious, out there somewhere.

In other words, as the Log Lady suggested, one mystery has been solved but a bigger mystery remains. When I first saw this episode a few months ago (seems like longer, doesn't it?) I was excited to know what came next. It seemed that the resolution of Laura's murder only opened the door to larger, even more intriguing mysteries. I looked forward to their exploration - the question, "What next?" seemed thrilling rather than depressing - but I was to be quickly disappointed. The following episode opens with Leland's funeral and everyone is acting sort of strangely like...I don't know, like they've moved on. The mayor and his newly-introduced brother get into a silly fight. New, unnecessary elements are introduced into the story - Cooper (who suddenly loses the suit and goes native) is suspended from the FBI, James flees town on his motorcycle, Ben becomes a Civil War-enacting recluse - and within an episode or two it's clear that the writers have dropped the ball.

If it feels like "Twin Peaks" has jumped the shark, that's not entirely the case. Eventually, it will inch towards some more compelling themes, mostly revolving around the Black Lodge out in the woods (or else another dimension). Still, to my way of thinking, only the final episode (the first directed by Lynch since Maddy's murder) is on the same level as the first sixteen. With it, the show finally shakes off its sophomore torpor and heads in the direction it should have headed in to start with: deeper and deeper into those mysterious woods.

Consequently, I will be skipping the rest of season two and wrapping up my series with that final episode, which is as good as anything else in "Twin Peaks" and a reminder of the show's powerful potential.

Next: Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death (season 2, episode 22)
Previous: Twin Peaks: Drive With a Dead Girl (season 2, episode 8)


For more on Twin Peaks:
Jim Emerson
Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club

On this site:
That gum you like is going to come back in style...
Twin Peaks in context
Twin Peaks (the pilot)
Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere
Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer
Twin Peaks: Rest in Pain
Twin Peaks: The One-Armed Man
Twin Peaks: Cooper's Dreams
Twin Peaks: Realization Time
Twin Peaks: The Last Evening
Twin Peaks: May the Giant Be With You
Twin Peaks: Coma
Twin Peaks: The Man Behind Glass
Twin Peaks: Laura's Secret Diary
Twin Peaks: The Orchid's Curse
Twin Peaks: Demons
Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls
Twin Peaks: Drive With a Dead Girl
*Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law
Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (the movie)
Critical idiocy vis a vis Fire Walk With Me

2 comments:

C. Jerry Kutner said...

"It's like the scene at the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist explains all of Norman Bates' complexes for the literalists in the audience."

Exactly.

I just rewatched this episode last night, and it turned out to be far weaker than I remembered - mainly, because I only remembered the best parts: Leland's prison cell freakout and demise; that final tableau with Coop, Albert, Major Briggs and Sheriff Truman, Guardians of Order united in their stand against that Lovecraftian evil that lurks beyond the known.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, I definitely think it's telling that Lynch had little to do with this episode...I wonder what he thought of it. Around the time I started this story, I perused a book of Lynch interviews which included some telling insights. It seems like he reserves most of his criticism for the execs, while trying to tread lightly on the subject of the previously accomplished writers and directors (even Frost, to a certain extent) whose work marred much of the second season. Even discussing the original conception of the Black Lodge, which was basically a joke (especially in light of what Lynch did in the season finale), he tries to be somewhat gentle in his criticism.

I'd love to read a behind-the-scenes account of the show, particularly the second season. The special features on the DVD are great, but you still get the sense there's some stuff left unsaid. I remember hearing somewhere that Frost & Lynch had a falling-out, but I'm not sure if that's true...and for what it's worth, Lynch goes out of his way to compliment (an absent) Frost on the bonus DVD.