Lost in the Movies: John Justice Wheeler (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #49)

John Justice Wheeler (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #49)

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.

Jack's smooth confidence wins over two Hornes although it's not entirely clear if he's actually done anything to earn their enthusiasm.

Tuesday, March 21, 1989
John Justice Wheeler, suave international businessman with a rustic fashion sense, approaches the concierge's desk at the Great Northern Hotel. He has arrived back in his hometown of Twin Peaks to help out his mentor, Benjamin Horne (owner of the hotel), who is running into trouble with a big real estate deal. The concierge, whose nametag reads "Audrey," is grouchy and uncooperative and Jack (as he prefers to be called) almost leaves her behind before realizing she's the boss' daughter. He reminds the young Miss Horne that he saw her performing Heidi eight years ago, when she was ten. Later he joins Audrey, Ben, Ben's brother Jerry, and "Bob Briggs," Ben's executive assistant, for a business meeting. Ben proposes a savvy conservationist strategy to salvage the Ghostwood development that his rival Catherine Martell scooped out from under him. An environmental impact report has revealed that the rare pine weasel could be eliminated from the area if Ghostwood goes forward. It's unclear to what extent this is a purely cynical PR stunt, an attempt to incorporate Jack's own environmentalist interests, or a genuine gesture of goodwill on the part of Ben, who claims he is trying to turn over a new leaf. At any rate, Jack seems more interested in Audrey than the pine weasel. That night he has dinner with Ben and Audrey, and Ben must excuse himself to rescue Jerry (who has frustrated the chef so greatly that his life is in danger). With Ben gone, Jack receives the brunt of Audrey's irritation - she thinks his attempt to "save" her family business is arrogant - but he begins to win her over with his worldly romanticism ("I tell you it's glorious out there, Audrey") and his frank pushback: "You don't like me very much, do you?"

Wednesday, March 22, 1989
The next morning both Jack and Audrey are apologetic about their dinner conversation. Jack invites her on a picnic. At the picnic, he serenades her and she confesses that no one sang to her before. She is romantically inexperienced and acknowledges, "There was someone but not anymore. There's no one." Jack seems encouraged. That evening, when she falls off the stage of the disastrous Save Ghostwood Fashion Show (a live pine weasel has escaped into the crowd), Jack is there to catch her. As he holds her in his arms, they kiss.

Thursday, March 23, 1989
Audrey announces herself as "room service" while Jack experiments with a strange steam device in his room. He gets annoyed with Audrey's teasing manner and informs her that she should follow her grandfather's advice: "If you're gonna bring a hammer, better bring nails." Audrey doesn't like his forthright manner and especially disdains his assumptions that she isn't "being herself." Jack apologizes and invites her for a sunset flight in his private jet. Audrey agrees; unfortunately Ben has other ideas and sends her off on a two-night trip to Seattle so she can help coordinate a national campaign to "Save the Pine Weasel." Audrey can't say no, and Jack is left stymied, realizing just how much he likes Audrey as she disappears for a couple days. Ben presses him for advice on how to be "good" - Jack tells him to be honest and then, following his own advice, admits that he's in love with Audrey. Ben is surprised but enthusiastic, sharing a carrot in lieu of a cigar.

Friday, March 24, 1989
Jack takes a seat by the fireplace at the Great Northern (where he seems to have spent almost all his time in Twin Peaks), and blurts out to a complete stranger: "Love is hell." What follows is a heart-to-heart with a hotel guest who shares Jack's same affliction: a burning romance that feels both painful and completely necessary. The newfound friends toast one another, but their camaraderie is interrupted by a telegram. An alarmed Jack must step away; he tells the hotel employee to arrange for his checkout the following morning and shakes his companion's hand, wishing him luck.

Saturday, March 25, 1989
Jack ask Randy, the desk clerk, if Audrey has returned...no luck. He visits Ben in his office, quickly greeting an equally distracted Doc Hayward, and tells his mentor the bad news: he must fly back to South America because his business partner and close friend has been murdered. Ben is distressed - "damn this rainforest business anyway" - but Jack needs to take his courageous friend's place. Jack tries to buck up Ben's confidence and leaves a letter for him to give Audrey. He looks around one last time before leaving and even casts a glance at the runway as his jet gets ready to take off. Fortunately, Audrey arrives at the last minute, running out on the small airfield and waving him down. Jack grins and offers his farewell and Audrey blurts out, "I'm a virgin!" Clarifying that admission, she asks Jack to make love to her. "Right now?" he chuckles. "Well, it is your jet," Audrey reminds him. "Thank God for that," he says, and welcomes her aboard.

Characters Jack interacts with onscreen…

Audrey Horne

Ben Horne

Jerry Horne & Bobby Briggs

Agent Cooper

Randy St. Croix

Doc Hayward

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Jack
Jack's arrival serves two functions: to reinforce Ben's ambiguous conversion to "goodness" and, primarily of course, to finally give Audrey a love interest after certain real-world concerns intervened in the planned fictional narrative. Like Sternwood, Jack is an quasi-outsider (though his roots are in Twin Peaks) who affects a western/cowboy style, reinforcing the town's frontier vibe without fully belonging to it himself. Even as he conveys an all-American vibe (he even sings a classic campfire ballad), Jack arrives in the midst of a lot of other outside characters - Windom Earle, Thomas Eckhardt, Annie Blackburn (who, like him, straddles the line between local and foreigner) - and he makes much of his globetrotting persona. He sticks mostly to the Great Northern, but his few excursions, especially the picnic, provide some nice exterior footage. Jack's most problematic attribute is, frankly, his conventionality. He is a thoroughly expected romantic lead, and as such he reinforces the idea that Twin Peaks, for all its quirks, is an ordinary TV show, unafraid to follow formula in order to hit its story beats. The first time I watched the series, I kept expecting a mind-bending twist. Was Jack a sinister double agent? Was he an ally of Windom Earle? Did he have dangerous intentions for Audrey? Nope, he's just a serviceable love interest played by a popular young actor of the time, swooping in to deflower Audrey and depart like Poochie on The Itchy and Scratchy Show ("Poochie died on the way back to his home planet" - unfortunately I can't claim credit for this observation).

Jack’s journey
Well, I don't think Jack really has much of an arc in this romance. I guess he's slightly humbled by Audrey's ability to win him over, but it feels like he's in charge for most of the romance (and his mature sense of authority makes it a little odd that "Cooper's too old for Audrey" was the objection to their romance; to add another level of irony, of course, the actress was actually a year older than the actor). To the extent he develops over his four episodes, it's a combination of falling for Audrey and discovering that his partner has died; both events demonstrate the vulnerability of a character who introduces himself as the dashing, unflappable type. But trying to eke a deep character out of this plot contrivance is a stretch so I'll use this space to expand on another topic: Billy Zane's performance. It's both the most annoying and the most accomplished part of the John Justice Wheeler phenomenon. On the one hand, Zane's offhand, mumbling delivery can be grating (there are three or four lines I can't make heads or tails of after multiple viewings); his naturalistic affectation seems all the more silly given the triviality of this character...this isn't exactly Terry Malloy he's playing (indeed, if we're being generous, Jack is much closer to a classic Clark Gable archetype). There's a deliberate smugness to the whole endeavor that only rubs Jack's uselessness in more. On the other hand...Zane does have some charm, and if the character is fairly useless at least his easygoing persona lends him a pleasant sheen. Given the fairly flat material, Zane's nonchalant style may be the best possible approach to the material, helping it go down smoothly even as we roll our eyes.

Actor: Billy Zane
Zane was one of the casting surprises when I watched Twin Peaks in 2008. Many of the actors on the show were unknown to me - though Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, and Sheryl Lee should have achieved stardom (and have plenty of work to be proud of in any event), their fame remains mostly tied to Twin Peaks. Zane, like Heather Graham (who shows up around the same time), was a very familiar nineties face whom I hadn't expected to see in town. Zane got his start in the eighties as one of Biff's henchmen in a couple Back to the Future movies but his big breakthrough was as a psychopath in Dead Calm (based on a novel which inspired one of Orson Welles' many uncompleted films). For a time in the nineties, Zane hovered on the brink of becoming a mainstream leading man, but ultimately he may have been a bit too archetypally slick and good-looking. In an era given to irony and offbeat indie cred, Zane found himself best employed as a villain or eccentric. Even his one attempt to be a superhero, The Phantom, was an unconventional thirties pop culture choice (a bit like another nineties flop, Alec Baldwin's The Shadow). I actually never saw the film, but still have a few trading cards hanging around my childhood home. Zane's massive blockbuster arrived the following year, though he was the antagonist instead of the hero: he was perfectly cast as the priggish snob Cal Hockley in Titanic. Much has been made of the fact that David Warner, Twin Peaks' Thomas Eckhardt, plays Zane's butler and the film includes a line lifted straight from Twin Peaks: "I'd rather be his whore than your wife!" (from the episode that introduces Zane to boot). Zane has kept busy over the past thirty years, with seven films in various stages of production at the moment. (film pictured: tie-in advertisement for The Phantom, 1996)

Episode 23 (German title: "The Condemned Woman" - best episode)

Episode 24 (German title: "Wounds and Scars")

Episode 25 (German title: "On the Wings of Love")

Episode 26 (German title: "Variations on Relations")

Episode 27 (German title: "The Path to the Black Lodge")

Jack is written in solo scripts by Tricia Brock and Barry Pullman, two collaborations between Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, and one collaboration between Mark Frost and Peyton. He is directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, James Foley, Duwayne Dunham, Jonathan Sanger, and Stephen Gyllenhaal.

Jack is onscreen for roughly twenty-three minutes. He is in fifteen scenes in five episodes, taking place over five consecutive days. He's featured the most in episode 23, when he arrives in Twin Peaks. His primary location is the Great Northern. He shares the most screentime with Audrey. He is one of the top three characters in episode 23 - in fact, he is one of only four or five characters to have more episodic screentime than Cooper in the entire series (although it should be noted this includes time where he's present for the action but we don't see his face). He is also one of the top ten characters in episodes 25 and 27.

Best Scene
Episode 26: Jack and Cooper discover a common bond through the intensity of their love.

Best Line
“Tell the hardest truth first, though.”

Additional Observations

• In some deleted dialogue from episode 23, Jack exhibits his idealistic (or, alternatively, conveniently glib) interpretation of Ben's talking points: "What Ben's talking about is quality of life, something we don't consider much in the business world. It's my experience that a corporation like Horne Industries is not just a vehicle for making money, but for expressing values too." Jack's later deleted dialogue (from the dinner with Audrey) is a bit more interesting, fleshing out the performance of Heidi he nostalgically recalled in an earlier scene:
"Somehow, Ben convinced Pete Martell to play the Goat. He had these horns on, and you know Pete, he'd bleat and baah to wake the dead, loud enough that we couldn't hear poor Heidi's lines. So you kicked him. Hard. Right where he lives, as I recall ... Pete started yowling even louder, for real this time, and precious, innocent little Heidi turned to the audience, pigtails and deep dark eyes...and smiled. Ten years old and you made it very clear: don't tread on me.
• In deleted dialogue from episode 24, Jack rhapsodizes about his flight to Twin Peaks: "Flying out here, I took a big northern swing. It's beautiful. The air and light up toward the pole is like nothing you've ever seen. You sort of float while the earth turns underneath. And the northern light gets trapped on the horizon, in this bright blue band. Frozen light. Frozen color."

• In a deleted scene referenced in the Tim Pinkle entry, Jack is driven to the airfield by Tim and Tom's Taxi-Dermy, brothers who both stuff animals and drive cabs - and the brother who drives is blind.

• There isn't enough material to justify an "Offscreen" section but Jack comes up a couple times after his character departs. First when Pete (who drove Audrey to the airfield) sees the plane depart and then Audrey appears beside his side, remarking, "What a gyp. I finally meet the man of my dreams and the next thing you know he's flying to Brazil." Pete assures her that Jack will return. In the following episode, Ben tries to comfort a forlorn Audrey. She remarks, in an (I think) unintended double entendre, "I hope it doesn't hurt this much in a week." Ben assures her that Jack is a man of his word, and will return.

• Update 2023: This entry was written in 2017, before the third season, and did not need to be revised as JJW did not re-appear. Only the description/intro at the top and the ranking were updated. In the original character series, JJW was ranked #38, between Eileen and Gordon.

SHOWTIME: No, Zane is not on the cast list for 2017. So apparently Jack is not a man of his word. Or else he met the same fate as his former partner (and Poochie, for that matter). Did he leave behind any legacy? There's been speculation that perhaps Audrey will have a twentysomething child; but how would any potential pregnancy have been affected by the bank explosion that, according to Mark Frost's book, sent her into a coma? Jack's South American adventures may present a possible venue for material given Phillip Jeffries' experiences in nearby Argentina; on the other hand, the character may ultimately turn out to be a grand non sequitur.

Next (available now): Harold Smith
Previous (active on Friday, April 7, 2023 at 8am): Anthony Sinclair

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