Lost in the Movies: TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: S2E9 "Arbitrary Law"

TWIN PEAKS First Time Viewer Companion: S2E9 "Arbitrary Law"

These short Twin Peaks episode responses are spoiler-free for upcoming episodes, presented here for first-time viewers who want to read a veteran viewer's perspective on each entry while remaining in the dark about what's to come. They were first published as comments on a Reddit rewatch in 2016.

This is a misfire in many ways, though I can't help but like it in spite of myself. Not everyone agrees of course. I've seen it ranked among the top Twin Peaks episodes, even the very top one itself. You can see why: it hums with an energy and forward momentum like no other, nearly (or actually) tripping over itself in a race to the finish. There's something both admirable and clumsy in the episode's eagerness to address everything, to touch all the bases and give us a resolution to the mystery. So (aside from maybe the Catherine-Ben jail visit), there's hardly a boring moment. Director Tim Hunter's go-for-broke direction, with his canted angles, warm glow (is there a more California looking episode?), and lip-smacking performances (particularly Ray Wise, who almost deserves co-director credit for his contributions), brings a flavor all his own. If you've seen his 1986 film River's Edge you'll recognize the enthusiastic, cagily compassionate quirk on display here. It isn't exactly Twin Peaks-y, but it kind of works if you go with it.

But it's often hard, for me at least, to go with. As others have noted, the pace feels closer to Law & Order than Twin Peaks. Cooper's "let's all gather in the parlor and announce the killer" routine is surprisingly conventional, with the supernatural decoration more arbitrary than enlightening. The "clever" device of Leland being invited to the station as Ben's attorney makes less sense the more you think about it, Cooper's explanation of the dream clues is both a stretch (Leland's hair is white, not gray) AND disappointingly mundane, and when the big moment comes and Bob is unmasked the show barrels its way past all the uncomfortable implications to emphasize the demonic-possession angle almost exclusively. It's like we've been lost on a road trip, pleasantly lost but worried we might not reach our destination. A new driver takes over and barrels across lawns and around corners and against traffic, banging up the car but finally getting us to where we were going. We've made it, but at what cost?

The appropriately (if unofficially) named "Arbitrary Law" screeches many of the series' promising, teasing directions to a dead halt, while also kicking open a number of doors that we hadn't even known were there. In subtle ways, it enables later developments that initially seem contradictory. It's also a shocking far cry from the mood, texture, and flavor of the pilot. That's what strikes me the most on every rewatch. Yes, Ray Wise is amazing and Cooper's Tibet speech is poignant. Yes, there's an excitement to be had in breathlessly tying everything together. Yes, the giant's appearance in the Road House is iconic, and it's a pleasure to glimpse the Red Room once again in this climactic moment. But when the Log Lady says, in the intro recorded a few years later, "There is a depression after an answer is given," she isn't just speaking generally.

Think back to the quiet, desperate, bittersweet atmosphere of the pilot. The ambiguous certainty that there's some dark force out there (and in here), unnameable but palpable. Picture Leland, the grieving father sitting on his daughter's bed and clutching her pillow; or Sarah growing more nervous as she runs up the stairs and down the hallway, still dark and gloomy, hidden away from the morning light; or Donna gasping in fright and choking on her tears as a banshee-like wail rises from the enclosed courtyard several feet away. And then flash forward to this episode, to not just the comfortable familiarity of the characters and the places, but the blunt discussions of good and evil, demons and insanity, in a sun-dappled woodland. And linger for a moment over Bob's and then Leland's matter-of-fact otherworldly explanations and marvel how something so overtly magical could feel so meager compared to the uncanny unease of the pilot. It IS possible to fulfill the whispered, discomforting promise of that pilot - to explain the mystery without betraying it. Something, I won't yet say what, does just that. But this episode, for all its positive qualities, does not. To my eyes, it makes the mystery feel smaller, more disconnected from its recognizable if heightened beginnings, and leaves me feeling I've woken up from a dream. The dream suddenly seems lackluster and trivial in retrospect, though a part of me knows that it wasn't, that its significance remains buried in sleep, untouched, awaiting its true discovery when night comes again.

"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."

Want more? Here's my other coverage of the episode:

More for first-time viewers (SPOILER-FREE)
(but be careful of video recommendations at the end of YouTube videos)

+ My "Journey Through Twin Peaks" chapter on this episode, from 2014:


My original episode guide for this episode, from 2008 (stop reading at Cooper's quote to avoid spoilers for upcoming material)

For those who've already seen the full series & film

My essay accompanying my ranking of this episode (#16), from 2015 (spoilers for the film's subject and approach, but not its plot details)

The comments section below may contain spoilers.

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