Lost in the Movies: Harold Smith (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #48)

Harold Smith (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #48)

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys one hundred ten characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91 on ABC and 2017 on Showtime as The Return), the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. The series will be rebooted in 2023 to reflect the third season (and patrons will have immediate access to each entry a month before it goes public), but this entry will remain intact. There will be spoilers.

Harold hides away in a world of books and orchids but his home is an epicenter of Twin Peaks' troubling vibrations, not a refuge.

Thursday, February 16, 1989
Harold Smith, an ex-horticulturalist trapped inside his little house by acute agoraphobia, hears Laura Palmer arrive outside. The teenage volunteer rushes inside, not bearing her Meals on Wheels bounty as usual, but trembling and clenching a little red book. She forces it on Harold, telling him it's her secret diary and she can't keep it anymore because BOB has found out about it. Harold tries to comfort her - "BOB is not real!" - but she sharply corrects him: "BOB is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." She says he wants to be her or he'll kill her. Laura presses herself on Harold and her face turns white and her teeth yellow as she hisses, "Fire...walk...with...me..." She tells Harold to hide the diary, begins kissing him, and then draws away, weeping, "I don't know when I can come back. Maybe never."

Saturday, March 4, 1989
Harold opens his blinds to glimpse a girl walking away from his door after leaving a note beneath it. When she turns to look back, he quickly closes them.

Sunday, March 5, 1989
Harold welcomes Laura's friend Donna into his home. She has adopted Laura's Meals on Wheels route after Laura's brutal murder just over a week ago. Harold introduces himself and asks if she could place an orchid on Laura's grave since he can't leave the house. He notices her grasping at something sticking out from a compartment in his bookshelf, but he doesn't comment on this. He seems smitten with the young woman, telling her about his friendship with Laura and explaining his condition to her. "I'll be back," she tells him. "I'll be here," Harold smiles. That night, she rushes back to his door and he comforts her as she cries about her boyfriend James. He leaves her in the room with a blanket around her shoulders.

Monday, March 6, 1989
Donna joins Harold for lunch as a thunderstorm brews outside. He pours her wine and reads a racy passage from Laura's diary, realizing belatedly that it might be embarrassing for the dead girl's best friend. Donna asks if they should bring the diary to the sheriff - isn't it evidence? Harold denies there's anything important in it and changes the subject to his grand project: "People come to me and tell me their stories about the world, outside. I take their stories and place them in a larger context, a sort of living novel." After noting that "friends" and "lovers" are among his subjects, he suggestively speculates "Maybe someday you will too."

Tuesday, March 7, 1989
Donna tells Harold she'll allow him to record her life story if he allows her to read Laura's diary. He agrees (as long as he can read it to her, and it doesn't leave the room) and asks her to start, but after a few quick statements about her birth and parentage, Donna shifts the focus to him. Harold concedes some biographical details but tries to guide the conversation back in her direction. "There's things you can't get in books," Donna teases, adding, "Maybe our dreams are real." She then grabs Laura's diary and races outside - Harold follows her before his right arm shudders and he quickly collapses at his doorstep. She rushes to his side and cradles him as he trembles on the ground. That night, Donna returns for another session. This time she describes a sensuous memory she shared with Laura as a thirteen-year-old; at a certain point, Harold stops writing and just stares, riveted, as she recalls the adolescent skinny-dipping - "That was the first time I ever fell in love." Harold takes her inside the greenhouse and discusses orchids with her. They kiss, but a nervous Harold breaks away and leaves the room for a few minutes. When he returns, Donna is very uneasy; she keeps trying to distract him from something. He hears a noise in the living room and turns to see another girl, clad in black, rifling through the secret compartment in his bookshelf and clasping Laura's diary. Harold is furious; he's been betrayed. He grabs a trowel and races into the living room, threatening Donna and Maddy although ultimately he seems more interested in hurting himself, scratching the trowel across his face and drawing blood. As he tells them, the "ultimate secret" is "knowing who killed you." He shouts, "You lie, and you betray, and then you laugh about it! You are unclean! You have contaminated me!" Before he can reclaim the diary, a young man rushes into his house and grabs the two girls. Maddy drops the diary and Harold yanks it back before Donna can acquire it. He retreats into his greenhouse, furiously spraying his plants before dissolving into anguished cries.

Thursday, March 9, 1989
Deputy Hawk Hill arrives at Harold's house and looks around: pages of the diary are scattered across the floor, along with dirt and mangled flowers. He spots Harold through the glass window of his greenhouse: his legs and lower torso are dangling above the ground. Harold has hanged himself. As the secluded home becomes a crime scene, Sheriff Harry Truman and FBI Agent Dale Cooper remove a suicide note from Harold's shirt and read it aloud: "J'ai une âme solitaire," Cooper reads, quickly translating it: "I am a lonely soul." "Poor guy," Harry mutters.

Characters Harold interacts with onscreen…

Laura Palmer

Donna Hayward

Maddy Ferguson

James Hurley

Characters who encounter Harold's corpse

Deputy Hawk

Harry Truman & Agent Cooper

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Harold
There are characters who seem more tangential to the "essence" of Twin Peaks and characters who tap right into its core. For me at least, Harold is one of the latter. There are several reasons for this centrality, the primary being his connection to Laura. As the guardian of her secret diary he is in many ways the character closest to her in spirit - even her best friend Donna comes to him for knowledge of who she "really was." Harold's plot also keeps the Laura story alive at a time when other characters and subplots are drifting away from that hub; while Audrey lingers at One Eyed Jack's, Leo's condition is debated, and M.T. Wentz's arrival is anticipated, the Donna/Harold arc prevents early season two from falling too far and too fast from season one's heights. In many ways, it entails an intensification of the mystery: we're drawing closer to Laura as the revelation of her killer looms. But Harold isn't simply a venue toward Laura - he reminds us why she's such a brilliant device to flesh out the surrounding characters. There's no question in my mind that Donna, a frequently difficult character who doesn't always get the material she deserves, is at her peak when interacting with Harold. Watching them play together, possibly manipulating and/or being manipulated by each other, reminds us that Twin Peaks succeeds when Laura's tragedy serves as a focalization of the whole town's troubles. In this case, the characters' loneliness and uncertainty, not quite pitched to Laura's level and all the more sweetly melancholy for it, is amplified by her presence lingering in the humid air around them...even as they themselves refract and express her own pathos.

Harold’s journey
Harold is a character who benefits both from Laura's presence and her absence. If we observe his scenes in chronological order (and maybe read Jennifer Lynch's The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer beforehand, as it introduced Harold ahead of season two), we see what an impact Laura left on him and understand why he clings so tightly to her memory. On the other hand, Harold was initially constructed as a figure waving us toward an essentially unknowable Laura, long before the prequel was ever conceived. Harold, his intensity contained within walls he can't transgress, is the perfect embodiment of early season two, a period of the show which sustains the aura of intangibility around Laura's ghost while coaxing us into a revelation of her deepest, darkest secrets. His sensitivity dooms him, and yet it isn't Laura who ultimately does Harold in - it's Donna. There is ambiguity in Harold's arc (one of my favorite analyses of the character astutely compares him to Norman Bates). It's present from the earliest episodes (especially when Donna discovers Laura's diary in his possession) but especially sharp near the end of their story, when he threatens Donna and Maddy and mentions "the secret of knowing who killed you!" Many suspect that he is the killer, a suspicion only put to rest when his body is found in the episode that actually reveals the killer. In this order, the film is a postscript; now that we know Harold's innocence, his relationship to Laura becomes purely poignant, and we see them both as victims who depend upon and possibly take advantage of one another. Their nearly violent separation at the end of the scene underlines how wounded Harold is, and how his wounds echo Laura's.

Actor: Lenny Von Dohlen
Von Dohlen is an eloquent exponent of his craft who grew up dreaming of being a jockey (his dreams were dashed when he sprouted up to 6'1" in adolescence). As a Texan worried about being tyepcast, he studied John Gielgud's recordings and resolutely erased his accent, only to get cast in his first major feature, Tender Mercies...which required a Texan accent! Von Dohlen went on to star in the cult classic Electric Dreams, a Cyrano de Bergerac-like sci-fi romcom in which a man's sentient computer (imbued with intelligence when he douses it in champagne to extinguish a fire) creates a musical duet with a beautiful neighbor whom the man also loves. A strange triangle emerges between man, woman, and computer. (The film's love interest, Virginia Madsen, definitely preferred the man: "I had a mad, crazy crush on Lenny Von Dohlen..." she acknowledges. "I wanted it to happen.") Von Dohlen relishes the alchemy of performance, describing his scene with Sheryl Lee (a close friend) in Fire Walk With Me as "almost like lava ... when it came together, it was supercharged." He has acted in over sixty films and TV shows, including the Twin Peaks pastiche episode of Psych, "Dual Spires," in which he plays the town's sheriff, reuniting with Lee under quite different circumstances. He currently has eight projects in various stages of production. (film pictured: Electric Dreams, 1984)

Episode 9 (German title: "Coma")

*Episode 10 (German title: "The Man Behind Glass" - best episode)

Episode 11 (German title: "Laura's Secret Diary")

Episode 12 (German title: "The Orchid's Curse")

Episode 13 (German title: "Demons")

Episode 14 (German title: "Lonely Souls")

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (feature film)

Harold was conceived by Harley Peyton; not every character can be traced back to a single writer but Peyton has acknowledged that this one was inspired by his interest in The Inman Diaries. Arthur Crew Inman was an Atlanta heir and frustrated poet who moved to Brookline and bought several apartments around his own to shield himself from surrounding noise. Imagining many of his conditions while also possibly suffering from a few real ones (some have speculated frontal-lobe epilepsy), Inman maintained a diary for forty-three years, stretching from the year after World War I ended to the year that Kennedy was killed. This included extensive interviews with various guests, many of whom he would sleep with (Inman had a wife who likely knew of and tolerated his numerous affairs). Inman was also a paranoic right-winger who loathed "Jews, Italians, and Roosevelt while admiring Hitler" according to Time Magazine (which also memorably described him as a "megalomaniacal bigot misogynist Peeping Tom hypochondriac" and "one of the most bizarre Americans in the history of the Republic.") He was killed by the Prudential Building, whose audible construction agitated him so much that he shot himself in his apartment. His diary was unpublished during his life and was only released a few years before Twin Peaks, when his elderly widow finally passed away in 1985. The work was widely celebrated for the social portraits of twentieth-century America reported within its pages.

In what must be a nod to Harold's origin, writer Barry Pullman (who wrote the most Harold material) traces Harold's origin back to Boston ("well, actually," Harold confesses, "I grew up in books"). Harold was also written in a solo Robert Engels script; ironically, aside from showing Harold's hand quickly lifting a blind, Peyton only had the opportunity to collaborate on two Harold scenes, once with Engels, and once with Engels, Jerry Stahl, and Mark Frost (Frost also wrote the discovery of Harold's body). Harold's first and last episodes as a living, present character were directed by Lesli Linka Glatter; in between he was directed by Todd Holland and especially Graeme Clifford, who handled his big episode. Lynch directed the introduction to and conclusion for Harold, but since the first was a brief shot of his hands and the second was his corpse (depicted by a double or a mannequin), Von Dohlen was disappointed never to work with the filmmaker he admired. Fortunately, Fire Walk With Me (written by Lynch and Engels and directed by Lynch) came to the rescue. Though his scene was brief, the actor was impressed by the extent to which Lynch went out of his way to express its importance beforehand - and afterwards. "When it was over," Von Dohlen recalls, "I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. David was dancing a jig. I thought, 'Wow. That's what it should be about'. He was celebrating the exploration. He acknowledged the moment. And that is very, very rare."

Harold is onscreen for roughly twenty-five minutes. He is in twelve scenes in six episodes plus the feature film, taking place over three weeks (but mostly within three days). He's featured the most in episode 12, when he is betrayed by Donna after an evening together. His only location - surprise! - is his house. He shares the most screentime with Donna - in fact he's with her in every scene aside from Fire Walk With Me and the discovery of his corpse. He is one of the top five characters in episodes 10 and 12. In fact, he registers more than ten minutes of screentime in episode 12, a first for any of the characters we've studied so far (and an achievement matched by only a dozen of the upcoming thirty-five, some in episodes that were twice as long).

Best Scene
Episode 13: Donna and Harold are drawn to one another over a clipped orchid despite their tangled motivations and complicated baggage; to quote myself in Journey Through Twin Peaks: "Somehow the stakes here seem higher than at One Eyed Jack's, a reminder that Twin Peaks' darkest secrets are found not in public dens of sin but in quiet homes concealing broken hearts and lonely souls."

Best Line
“There are things you can't get anywhere. But we dream they can be found in other people.”

Harold Offscreen

Episode 8: Harold himself is not mentioned in this episode, but Donna receives a note from Norma which reads "Look into the Meals on Wheels." She follows its advice and calls Norma that evening to set up her route for the following day. Though there has been some speculation about who wrote this message (some guess Norma, or even the Log Lady), Harold seems to acknowledge its authorship when Donna later says "Why did you write that letter?" (which he answers as if he did).

Episode 9: Donna is directed to Harold's house by the strange Mrs. Tremond, an old woman on the Meals on Wheels route, who advises Donna, "Young lady, you might ask Mr. Smith next door. He was Laura's friend." Her young grandson, sitting across the room in a tuxedo intersperses, "J'ai une âme solitaire." Mrs. Tremond then further expands: "Mr. Smith does not leave his house." That night, Doc Will Hayward shouts downstairs to his daughter that she has a phone call from a "Mr. Smith." (Harold's lines are scripted but in the episode we only hear Donna's side of the conversation.) Donna says "I received yours," implying that Harold sent her that note. James watches, uncertain about what's going on, and she (already upset with him) refuses to say more.

Episode 10: Donna runs into James holding hands with Maddy in the diner; rather vengefully, she informs James that "I met someone from Meals on Wheels ... Someone real interesting." James refers to "old folks," and Donna corrects him: "This was a young man." "What's wrong with him?" James asks. "Hard to say," Donna answers. "Other than that he's intelligent and charming and completely different from anyone I know." Later, she is shown placing the orchid on Laura's grave. She then talks to her dead friend (in a scene many have cringed at, but I think it's great; I'll save my Lara Flynn Boyle apologetics for a later entry). "This is from Harold Smith," she acknowledges, leading up to, "So were you sleeping with this guy Harold or what? He seems pretty nice. Kind of an oddball. Although I guess anyone can start to seem like that when you look close enough."

Episode 11: When Hank Jennings hands Donna her Meals on Wheels tray at the diner, he notes her appearance and remarks, "You're looking real pretty today, Donna." She acknowledges she's going to have "Lunch with...someone I met on my route." Mockingly, Hank chuckles, "Bed pans and shut-ins. Who's to meet?" And ("as if to defend the absent Harold Smith" the teleplay tells us) she replies, "You wouldn't understand." That evening, back at the diner, Donna is on the offensive against Harold rather than defending him; she informs Maddy that he has Laura's diary and demands her help in stealing it.

Episode 12: With Maddy on board, Donna draws a map of Harold's apartment and shows her where to find Laura's diary. "I thought you liked this guy," a confused Maddy observes. Donna pauses, a bit confused herself, and admits, "I do." At Harold's house she signals Maddy with a flashlight when Harold leaves the greenhouse, which draws her in to check the bookshelf.

Episode 13: As they race from Harold's house, Donna tells James to stop: "He's not coming. He won't. He's afraid." She tells James he didn't hurt her, but her infatuation seems to have ended. She is horrified that Maddy was in danger, and acknowledges, "He has Laura's secret diary, he could've killed her!" James says he could have killed Donna too, and she admits her actions of the past few days were stupid. She visits the sheriff during the day and tries to tell him about the diary at Harold's house but he seems skeptical.

Episode 14: Hawk is asked about his warrant for Harold's "apartment" (as it is repeatedly described although it appears to be a standalone building; perhaps because it's part of a complex, a bit like the residential units explored in Mulholland Drive?). At the crime scene, Hawk finds Laura's diary amidst the wreckage and Cooper declares, "Pay dirt!" That evening at the Road House, Donna asks James if he's heard about Harold. "It wasn't anybody's fault," James insists. "He was a sick man." Donna persists: "I think he was hurt inside in a way I couldn't figure out." James, unimpressed, tells her, "Everybody's hurt inside." "His whole life was in that house," Donna recognizes. "And I violated that." "You were just trying to find out about Laura," James counters. "James," Donna presses, "he's dead. He didn't deserve that."

Episode 16: When Andy repeats Harold's suicide note at the diner, a shocked Donna presses him for more (she recognizes the French phrase from her visit to the Tremonds). She then takes Cooper to the Tremond house, hoping Harold's neighbors can provide more information. "Harold's world was in his words," Donna tells the agent. "The suicide note has to be a message." Instead, she is confronted by an entirely different Mrs. Tremond, who says that she lives in the house and that her mother died years ago. However, she has an envelope from Harold addressed to Donna. Cooper and Donna open it to discover a page from Laura's diary which describes Laura's dream, the same dream that Cooper experienced. For some reason, Harold - even in his distressed state - knew this was important to share. When Donna visits Leland Palmer later that day, she tells him that Laura left a secret diary with Harold. Leland seems shocked and peculiarly disturbed by this revelation.

Additional Observations

• In The Secret Diary, Laura's first entry on Harold Smith is obstructed: "Even my new friend Harold Smith" is followed immediately by "PAGE RIPPED OUT." A later entry reveals that Harold, described as "botanist" (i.e. a scientist who studies plants) rather than "horticulturalist" (an artist of gardening), "awoke one morning to find himself agoraphobic. He believes death is just outside his door, and that late at night it calls him from outside like a strange bird." On March 27 a year before she dies, she spends a day with Harold, telling him stories of her sexual escapades. Though they turn him on, he is alarmed by her advances. "I love Harold's tenderness," Laura admits, "and most often feel wonderful when I am with him and when I think about him. But sometimes I hate myself more that you can imagine for the aroused feelings I get when I see Harold's frightened face, which must be the same thing BOB sees when he looks at me. The prey, cornered...so degraded...made a toy."

Their tale grows even darker. In her last recorded visit to Harold, the penultimate entry of the whole diary, Laura admits to raping Harold (although that characterization is complicated, among other considerations, by the fact that she's a minor). "And then, basically because he could not leave his house, forced him to have sex with me. I told Dr. Jacoby that I cried for hours afterwards because I felt so horrible. It took Harold almost an hour to talk to me because I had made him scared, even in his own home, his only refuge. And then I told Dr. Jacoby that half the time I hated it and the rest of the time it made me feel strong and hot between the legs." A few entries later, after stating that she knows who BOB is, she tells her diary "I'm giving you to Harold for safekeeping."

• In Harold's deleted side of the phone conversation from episode 9, he says, "I received your note. ... Yes. ... Tomorrow. ... Here. At noon. The time we meet is critical. ... Tomorrow, Donna. I will show you what Laura gave me."

• When he collapses outside his door in episode 12, the script adds a bit of additional dialogue and action. Harold tells Donna, "I just...I just got too close." Donna asks, "To what?" but instead of answering Harold kisses her for the first time. (Perhaps the director excised this so as to punch up the impact of their later kiss.) That evening, when Donna debriefs Maddy, their dialogue extends beyond where the episode cuts. "Doesn't it make you feel a little weird," Maddy asks, "stealing from him?" Donna says she'll return the diary if there's nothing there and Maddy asks if she'll see Harold again. "Yes," Donna admits. "I like him. A lot." Maddy smiles and suggests, "Why don't I just sneak in when the fireworks start," and they both laugh.

• In the script for episode 14, Hawk, Harry, and Cooper all discover Harold's body together. Cooper brings Gerard to the crime scene, and he declares that "Bob has not visited here" (confirming for the viewer that, just a few minutes into the episode, the killer has not yet been revealed). "We're trying to get ahold of Jacoby in Hawaii," Harry informs Cooper. "Smith was a patient." Cooper asks about agoraphobia and Harry rather dismissively mutters, "He was a class 'A' nutball, that much seems clear." Later, in the sheriff's station, Doc Hayward relays Harold's blood type and Cooper reveals (it's unclear how he knows) that Harold never left his apartment the night of Laura's murder. At the Road House, James' criticism of Harold goes further: "That doesn't mean you can go around trying to knock somebody's brains out." When Donna insists Harold was defending himself, James says, "Donna, are you defending him?" Donna tells him that Harold didn't kill Laura and James stubbornly refuses to cede ground. "You better be clear about this; this was his choice. If he didn't want to live there was nothing you or the police or anybody could do to change that." With this in mind, Donna compares Harold to Laura.

"Harold's Theme" is my favorite piece of music from the show. (There are a couple beautiful variations on that main version; the first is used to brilliant effect in the "'round the town" Atmospherics montage on the blu-ray.)

Update 2023: This entry was written in 2017, before the third season, and did not need to be revised as Harold did not re-appear. Only the description/intro at the top and the ranking were updated. In the original character series, Harold was ranked #36, between Gordon and Evelyn.

SHOWTIME: No, Von Dohlen is not on the cast list for 2017. I suspect Harold haunts Twin Peaks as a restless spirit, wandering the town yet unable to return to the guarded security of the home he hid inside during his short life.

Next (active on Wednesday, April 12, 2023 at 8am): Richard Horne

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(When the series resumes publicly, all new or revised entries will be published at least a month in advance for patrons.)

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