Lost in the Movies: Twin Peaks: The One-Armed Man

Twin Peaks: The One-Armed Man

("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Tim Hunter
written by Robert Engels

"Maybe you should run away and join the circus."

This episode, directed by David Lynch's AFI classmate Tim Hunter, throws the previous outing's flaws into perspective. It is the most technically sophisticated of the non-Lynch shows and pulls us furthest into the mystery. In a weird way it's this episode more than any other that best crystallizes the impression people had of "Twin Peaks." Right away, Hunter and writer Robert Engels cut to the chase. Though Laura was buried last week, she didn't really seem to be the focus of the episode, which wandered all over the place. This time we start with a spooky shot of the Palmer house (similar to the one before our first sighting of Bob), followed quickly by Laura's portrait and a pan over to Andy drawing a picture of Bob. Now that Laura's in the ground, the atmosphere thickens and the plot loosens a bit, finding room to grow. The mystery aspect, as opposed to the mysticism and melodrama, will rise to the forefront again over the next 45 minutes.

Hunter and Engels pick up a few threads that have slipped away. One is, ever so briefly, the high school where we see Donna and Audrey discussing Laura's murder in the bathroom. Is it just me, or does their dialogue often play as subtle flirtation? Anyway, it's somehow refreshing to see the show's teenagers back in their element, however briefly. Shows like these can often forget where the younger characters spend most of their days, and after all, the school was such a vital part of the pilot. Also, Donna and James are back in action after almost disappearing from the funeral episode, and Bobby and Shelly are hooking up in a rather hot makeout scene while Leo's on the road. Hunter's direction of Bobby is different than Lynch's, which heightens the bizarre, or Rathborne's, who had him screaming and yelling constantly. This time, he's speaks softly and the mellower feel is more suitable.

However, Agent Cooper still feels somewhat deflated, as he did on the previous episode. So far only Lynch and Dunham have managed to summon the FBI agent's cheerful, boyish quality; Cooper has his moments this time around but he's still more serious than usual, a slightly quirky pro rather than a manic, grinning genius. Meanwhile Andy is becoming more of a dopey dunce, a role which suits him but is a little less nuanced than the heartfelt sap he initially portrayed. Indeed, many characters are finding their groove a few episodes into the series - and some of them are exhibiting new sides. Like Ben, who is suddenly conspiring with murderers and drug dealers. Or especially Josie, who still stumbles adorably with her English around Pete, but takes on a darker, more knowing expression when he's out of the room. She spies on Ben's tryst with Catherine, and receives a phone call from Norma's husband, the paroled convict Hank. Hank is a great new character: he seems likable enough but, like Norma, we get the sense that his pleas for a second chance aren't quite sincere - that look in his eyes is at once vulnerable and cunning. At any rate, Hunter elicits strong performances all around.

And unlike Rathborne, he has a strong sense of mise en scene: the cutting, shot selection, composition, lens choice, use of sound and music - all of it contributes to the sense that what we're seeing is somehow more cinematic than conventional television. Hunter loves idiosyncratic details, especially stuffed animals. He will often start the scene on a detail, like the peculiar goat head and gun rack on the Packard lodge, or sometimes on a close-up, as with Jacoby popping a golf ball out of his mouth. We're into the scene before we even know where we are or why we're there.

Hunter's shots convey the sense of being chosen because they're interesting, rather than simply to provide information. He uses lengthy takes which don't call attention to their duration because he's moving the camera and the actors around, manipulating the space in a way both efficient and intriguing. Hunter is also particularly fond of telephoto shots which hold one actor in foreground close-up with another standing in the background, out of focus. Sometimes, he'll rack focus, shifting the sharpness between the two figures. In one impressive shot, he holds both Ben (in extreme close-up near the lens) and Audrey (standing full-figure on the steps behind him) in focus. If you look closely you can see the area around Ben's head is very soft - either it's a composite shot or it used some special kind of lens which was able to split the focus between the two sides.

All this technique, along with relaxed performances and an intriguing teleplay, contribute to the sense that the mystery is deepening, the world of Twin Peaks is growing richer, and that the series is going to work as an ongoing show, not just a sequence of dazzling and surprising set pieces. As I watched "Twin Peaks" for the first time a couple months ago, this was the episode that really drew me in. The Lynch ones were great, but they mostly just made me want to see what brilliant coup he would come up with next. "The One-Armed Man" doesn't have an overarching storyline (the closest it comes is with the investigation and discovery of the mysterious one-armed man, who turns out to be a harmless shoe salesman) but it does the best job so far of creating and sustaining a mood, which is offbeat enough to draw you in but comfortable enough to relax in. There are distinctive sounds (the woodpecker in the motel parking lot) and music (source music is often playing, be it Muzak in the vet's office or an evocative song in the diner) which add to the lived-in ambiance Hunter concocts.

So ultimately this is the episode which most sets "Twin Peaks" on an even keel. The offbeat tone is amplified, the mystery sustained, and the subplots fleshed out until each of them is compelling in its own right. The episode begins by focusing on Laura and over its course, becomes less about her murder though we keep returning to the investigation - albeit, an investigation already branching off into other directions. In all this we can see what David Lynch meant when he said that the murder was supposed to be "the goose that laid the golden eggs" - that it provided the setup for a story about a town where nothing is what it seems and the mystery keeps deepening as new layers are peeled back. Based on this format, "Twin Peaks" could probably have been a longer-running show and one which kept on giving.

But, aside from all the other reasons it ended up failing, its heart was in a different place: the series needed those flights of fancy which are so rewarding but do spin the show off into something more than a week-by-week mystery. To paraphrase Audrey's advice to Donna, "Twin Peaks" really just wanted to run away and join the circus.

Next: Twin Peaks: Cooper's Dreams (season 1, episode 5)
Previous: Twin Peaks: Rest in Pain (season 1, episode 3)

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

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