Lost in the Movies: Twin Peaks: Coma

Twin Peaks: Coma

-Episode 9 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Harley Peyton

"Deliver the message."

Though I found the season premiere disappointing in retrospect, this episode still maintains its punch when revisited. It starts off well, sags somewhat in the middle, and regains its power near the end, in one of the best scenes of any "Twin Peaks" episode. It's a little surprising to see Lynch listed as director, since much of the episode is routine and anyway he usually avoided two in a row (plus, the episode rolls credits over Laura's portrait, a no-no for any other Lynch venture). But there are a few scenes here which are vintage Lynch and they highlight a good episode, promising that season two - for a while anyway - will not lose sight of what makes "Twin Peaks" so memorable; it's funny, mysterious, creepy, and at the climactic moment, absolutely terrifying.

Writer Harley Peyton's touch is apparent right away in this episode, as FBI Agent Rosenfield (Peyton's specialty) rattles off hilarious quip after hilarious quip. More surprising is Lynch's presence in the director's chair, given that his episodes tend to be flashy and exceedingly dreamy, while this one is more subdued. Yet if you look closely, it's clear that a master is at the helm. We open with an establishing shot of the Great Northern, typical of many non-Lynch openings, but we linger on it for an unusual length of time. First clue. In that first shot inside the hotel, Rosenfield and Cooper are framed with precise, but not overbearing, care. The angle is wide but not distorted, with just enough room to fit a humming barbershop quartet in the background. As we cut from Cooper to Rosenfield, they are held in medium close-up, tasteful compositions which don't push us right up into the actors' faces. These are little touches, probably recognizable as Lynch (or else another top director) only in retrospect. But then we get a truly Lynchian flourish.

Albert and Cooper finish their conversation and then foreboding music builds up as the camera lifts and slowly pans across the hotel restaurant, finally setting on an Asian man reading the newspaper. He glares at Cooper, and a new mystery is opened up. This man will not play any role in the rest of the episode - his relevance comes later in the season (and is largely a letdown, as are most non-Laura subplots of season two). But for the moment it serves as an unsettling non sequitur, a reminder that anything can happen in Twin Peaks, nobody is who they seem, and the real clues might be off to the side where we're not even looking.

The second scene is even stronger than the first: Donna visits a house on Laura's Meals-on-Wheels route, and has an...unusual encounter. This is really the kickoff to season two's plotlines (the first episode was mostly recap, other than the giant) and it's a great one. Donna enters a house, established in a high angle wide shot, and is greeted by an old woman in bed and a little boy sitting in the corner of the room. The little boy is in fact a pint-size version of David Lynch, to a T (same suit, hair quaff, same satisfied soft-featured expression, same genes - turns out it's Lynch's son). He doesn't say much, except to offer up carefully delivered proclamations ("She seems like a very nice girl.")

The old woman asks Donna if she sees creamed corn on the plate, and Lynch cuts to the plate which indeed contains a pile of steaming creamed corn. A few moments later, the old woman asks Donna the same question, Donna looks...cut to a plate with a big empty spot where the creamed corn was. Donna looks sharply to the corner of the room, where the little boy sits, creamed corn calmly in hand. I may be wrong about this, but I think it's the first overtly supernatural moment in "Twin Peaks," at least aside from anything involving Cooper's or Mrs. Palmer's visions. As such, it's a turning point: no longer are Cooper and Laura's mother the only ones with access to Twin Peaks' subterranean world.

As the episode proceeds we get some humorous moments (Cooper and Sheriff Truman struggle endlessly with hospital stools, finally reading the directions before they sit down beside Ronette Pulaski), some frightening ones (Ronette reacts violently to a sketch of Bob, which Lynch allows to slip into focus, accompanied by ominous rising music), and some goofy character scenes (mostly involving Andy, who's discovered he's impotent and hence not the father of Lucy's child - he also walks around with Scotch tape attached to his head much of the time; Lynch - but not I - loves the dumb-ass version of Andy). Some exposition also floats through, but always with an eccentric touch. The Rosenfield-Cooper dialogue from the first scene mostly sets up what's already happened, but it's delivered amidst one-liners and quirky conversation.

Later Ben and Jerry will muse about destroying a phony ledger to cover up their involvement in the mill fire - this could become dry exposition, except that Jerry is eating a smoked-cheese pig which he brings into the conversation repeatedly. Also, it must be said that David Patrick Kelly, as Jerry Horne, has one of the oddest performing styles I've ever seen. It's either hilarious or extremely annoying depending on your sensibility - I seem to find it both at the same time. Later, when an increasingly erratic Leland Palmer bursts into the room and disrupts a business deal, Jerry will stare at the empty doorway with mock horror and deliver a bizarre line reading of, "Is this real...Ben...or is it some...strange and twisted dream?!"

It's a good question as we near the end of the episode. So far we've generally stuck to a few major storylines. Except for a few asides, our focus has been the Laura Palmer mystery and the growing mysteries surrounding it (including an exchange between the Log Lady and Major Briggs which will lead the soldier to reveal some top-secret code readout to Cooper; see above). No Pete, no Josie, no Big Ed, no Nadine, very little Bobby and Shelly. The atmosphere has been eerie but the strange and twisted dream arrives as we take a moment to listen in on an impromptu recording session with James, Maddie, and Donna (you can see the clip here). For some reason, James' singing voice is a cooing falsetto and as he strums the electric guitar and Donna and Maddie provide a breathless chorus, it's like we've wandered into some innocent but vaguely sad and wistful dream of innocent adolescence.

Sensing a growing connection between Maddie and James, Donna flees the room and when she receives a call from that old woman's neighbor, she sets up a meeting with him - loudly, so that James can hear and perhaps develop his own jealousy to match hers. Meanwhile, Maddie sits alone in the other room. Lynch cuts to one of his trademark, impeccable, creepily empty and quiet "room" shots - a couch in the foreground with the dining room behind it. The shot is perfectly symmetrical, the furniture tidy, the whole scenario unruffled. But something ominous looms, suggested by the heightened room tone pervading the silence and the chilling emptiness of the set. Lynch cuts back to Maddie's face. And then...Well, I posted this once before but apparently that particular clip was deleted from You Tube. So I give you, once again, Maddie's vision (if you haven't seen the episodes after this one, don't watch the clip; the links at the end contain major spoilers...)

It's a great moment, and if it's creepy on a small screen, imagine it on TV or about a foot from your face on a large computer monitor. No matter how many times I've seen it, it still scares me to death. Something about the creatures onscreen coming out to get you...Joseph Campanella at Cinema Fist has a great anecdote about his brother climbing over the couch just like Bob, in order to terrorize him. I can imagine...

Following this scene, we wind up the episode with another Cooper vision. This one's disturbing if not as frightening as what we just saw. Bob's face morphs into an owl and he walks towards the camera laughing uncontrollably, staring at us again.

Earlier in the episode, Leland spots a "wanted" poster with Bob's picture and becomes fascinated with it, stating that he knew this man, that he was a neighbor at his grandparents' cabin when he was a boy. Chilling because, among other things, it suggests that Bob is somehow beyond age - the supernatural promise of the creamed corn is expanded by this and that readout Major Briggs shows Cooper: "the owls are not what they seem..."

All of which promises more mystery and terror in the weeks to come.

Next: Twin Peaks: The Man Behind Glass (season 2, episode 3)
Previous: Twin Peaks: May the Giant Be With You (season 2, episode 1)

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


Tony Dayoub said...

That smoked pig scene reminds me of an even better Ben and Jerry scene. The one where Jerry arrives to TP with the brie baguettes, and Ben says, with his mouth extremely full, "You know what this reminds us of?" The subsequent exchange is classic. I love Richard Beymer's chemistry with his "brother," David Patrick Kelly. Only TP could cast the star of West Side Story and the villain from The Warriors as brothers.

Some of my favorite moments in the series are in this episode. They include the terrifying scene on that YouTube clip, and the hilarious scene of Cooper and Truman reading the instructions on the stool. Maclachlan's broken rib discomfort when the stool locks into place is even funnier.

But back to the BOB scene. I had always been on the hunt for a horror movie that could terrify me on an emotional level. Up to that point in the early nineties, I could never find one. Even The Exorcist only struck me on a strictly intellectual level. This BOB scene was the first that completely terrified me. Part of it was the staging as you mentioned. But a lot of credit must go to the extremely underrated Shery Lee's reaction as well.

Joel Bocko said...


I know exactly what you mean. I can't think of any scenes in any movies that terrify me on a more primordial level that select moments from Lynch: the monster behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive, the Mystery Man holding the curtain back in Lost Highway, Mrs. Palmer seeing Bob behind the bed, Bob climbing over the couch, and Laura Dern's face morphing into that other guy's at the end of Inland Empire. Involuntary shudders everytime...it's uncanny. And then there's a lot of other moments in his work that just fill me with an inexplicable dread.

I sometimes wonder if David Lynch isn't the greatest living director simply based on his ability to evoke these reactions - to tap into the subconscious so well (though, oddly, he does not seem to have this effect on everyone). He's definitely way up there.

Many of the great directors work in a dreamlike way, say, in a way that REMINDS you of dreams, but for me personally Lynch is the only one who, even if for a second or two, is able to duplicate the actual effect of dreaming.

As for the casting, I love the fact that Tony and Riff were cast in the same show too, but it's a pity we don't see them together until that silly Civil War reenactment.

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