Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.7: David Lynch's Twin Peaks (season 2)

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

“May the Giant Be With You/Coma” Grades: A-
Early Season 2 Grade: B+
“Lonely Souls” Grade: A
Mid season 2 Grade: C-
Final Episode “Beyond Life and Death” Grade: A
Season 2 overall Grade: 86 (A-)

NOTE: I'd highly recommend you read about season 1 before this.

Twin Peaks was a runaway hit in its first season, but as America tuned in week-after-week to find out who killed Laura Palmer, many viewers lost patience with the show. Some were put off by its surrealistic rhythms. Some cited a decline in quality in season 2. Some were just sick and tired of waiting to find out just who the hell killed Laura Palmer. That ABC changed the show’s timeslot certainly didn’t help matters. Twin Peaks’ second season turned out to be its last, as ABC canceled it shortly after its finale aired. But as up and down as the season was, its best moments rank among the finest in Lynch’s work.

The two opening episodes, “May the Giant Be With You” and “Coma”, pick up where the numerous cliffhangers of the first season’s finale left off. Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) was shot after attempting to kill both his wife Shelly (Madchen Amick) and her lover Bobby (Dana Ashbrook). Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is playing amateur sleuth, and her antics have gotten her stuck at brothel One-Eyed Jacks, where the owner, her father Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) wants to sleep with the new girl…Audrey (yech). James Hurley’s own amateur detective work has sent him to jail and Dr. Jacobi (Russ Beymer) to the hospital. Thinking him responsible for his daughter’s death, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) has murdered Jacques Renaut, and his hair turned white overnight. The mill burned down: Shelly and Pete (Jack Nance) survived, but Catharine (Piper Laurie) is missing. And our hero Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was shot, and as he lays wounded on his hotel room floor, he receives a strange visitor known only as the Giant (Carl Struycken).

There’s a slight difference in the opening credits of Twin Peaks’ season 2 premiere- the final moments go on a bit longer as Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous theme is overcome by more disturbing tones. It’s a sign of things to come, as season 2 is less about the police procedural and noir elements that dominated the first season and more about absolute horror and inexplicable weirdness. This is going to be a creepy season, and premiere kicks things into high gear with the famous Giant introduction. Lynch drags out the tension to unbearable lengths as Cooper lies helplessly on the floor. Help arrives in the oldest waiter in the world, who’s cheeriness is bested only by his seeming obliviousness to Cooper’s condition (“How ya doin’ down there? I heard about you!”). It’s the classic example of a long joke that’s at first funny, then not funny, and then funny again as the old man keeps coming back to give Coop thumbs up, wink, and generally be old and doddering. And then the Giant appears in the room. We don’t yet know where he’s from or what his connection is to the other supernatural elements of Twin Peaks, but his warm (if creepy) disposition and cryptic clues are in keeping with the stranger moments of season 1. This isn’t out of left field weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and the show isn’t unmoored yet- Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were still guiding the show along quite nicely.

Lynch directed the first two episodes of season 2, and it shows. The extended bits of comedy (Andy hitting himself in the head with a board, Cooper having trouble adjusting a chair, the return of Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield) and suspense wouldn’t have worked as well or have been as memorable with another director. There’s plenty of Lynchian tropes still at work here- Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) is still playing amateur detective in her investigation of Harold Smith (Lenny von Dohlen); Audrey is in way over her head at One-Eyed Jacks, where illicit sexuality gets more disturbing as she’s almost forced to sleep with her father; and the love triangle between Donna, James (James Marshall), and Maddy (Sheryl Lee) is a portrait of idealized, naïve teen love that’s about to come crashing down. And of course, it’s still a pleasure to see Kyle MacLachlan as the perfect Lynch surrogate Dale Cooper as he investigates clues, tries to explain the Giant (“any relation to the dwarf?”, Albert quips), and remains fascinated by small town life.

That said, not all of Lynch’s decisions work this time around. Donna turns into a bad girl for absolutely no reason whatsoever for the season premiere, with Boyle acting like an unpleasant bitch towards everyone for no reason (her later career more or less reflected this, unfortunately). The “Audrey stuck at One-Eyed Jacks” plot remains unresolved for several episodes, a big mistake that makes one of the show’s characters less active and more of a damsel in distress; she really should have returned home so we could see more scenes of smoldering flirtation between her and Cooper. And then there’s a scene that really is just Lynch being weird for the sake of being weird- “Coma” features a moment where Boyle visits and old woman (the great character actress Frances Bay) and her odd grandson (Lynch’s son), who magically removes the creamed corn from his grandmother’s plate. Lynch directs the scene about as well as anyone could, but it feels like a time waster, considering it’s complete lack of purpose for the rest of the season (the characters, and the creamed corn, would make an unwelcome appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me).

But for the most part, the season starts off well, particularly when Lynch’s surrealistic instincts gravitate towards mystery (the Giant’s clues), a mixture of comedy and tragedy (Leland’s white hair, uncontrollable dancing/singing), and all-out horror (Maddy’s visions of Bob). Best of all is the dream sequence that ends the season premiere, a Hitchcockian nightmare that makes great use of Lynch’s fascination with strobe lights, dark shadows, and distorted sound. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and the ugliest side of Twin Peaks has begun to rear its head.

The next four episodes of season 2 are a bit more mixed in quality. There’s a number of strong new plotlines introduced: creepy but sweet shut-in Harold Smith turns out to be the keeper of Laura’s greatest secrets as Donna and Maddy get mixed up with more dangerous amateur sleuthing. Leland’s murder of Jacques Renaut almost unmoors the lives of his remaining family, Sarah and Maddy. Best of all is the stuff dealing with Cooper and company as they realize that Bob’s origins are supernatural- he’s an “inhabiting spirit” who has taken over a major pillar of the Twin Peaks community.

There’s plenty of great character moments as well: Maddy deals with being Laura’s double despite being nothing like Laura- a sweet girl-next-door who needs to be everything to everybody. Cooper’s deaf, constantly shouting superior officer Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) shows up to deliver bizarre lines of praise (“You remind me today of a small Mexican Chihuahua!”). We learn of Ben’s relationship with Laura, and there’s a great moment of deep shame on his face as he realizes that unknowingly lusted after his own daughter. And of course, there’s the ever-cynical Albert, who we learn isn’t such a jerk deep down inside (“the foundation is love…I love you, sheriff Truman”).

But starting in early season 2, a number of idiotic plotlines show up. Nadine comes back from a coma with super strength and under the impression that she’s a teenager. Everyone starts obsessing over M.T. Wentz, the anonymous food/hotel critic that’s apparently supposed to fascinate everyone. We learn more about the dark past of Josie Packard (Joan Chen), but it’s not terribly interesting. Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) aren’t sure whether the pregnant Lucy’s baby is Andy’s or Dick Tremayne’s (Ian Buchanan). The comedy grows uneven, new characters are either wasted (an effectively sinister Michael Parks as Jean Renaut) or feel dropped in from another show (Buchanan’s Tremayne, not a bad character by himself).  There’s a lot of wheel-spinning as episodes seem padded just so the information related to Laura Palmer’s murder can be dealt out sparingly. It’s easy to see why people were growing impatient, and so ABC gave Lynch and Frost an ultimatum to reveal Laura’s killer. Reluctantly, they agreed.

Lynch and Frost have gone on the record that revealing Laura’s killer was a mistake, and that the mystery should have lasted as long as the show. They’re not entirely wrong: “Lonely Souls”, which finally tells us whodunit, is possibly the finest episode of the series. Lynch is back as a director with Frost as the primary writer, and they craft what stands as the single most haunting moment in Lynch’s body of work.

Harold Smith is dead- having committed suicide after Donna betrayed him. He leaves a suicide note reading “I am a lonely soul”, a phrase that could easily apply to Laura as well. Bobby and Shelly are dealing with taking care of a catatonic Leo, and the costs are piling up. Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) has to deal with Nadine (Wendy Robie), whose attachment to Ed keeps him from pursuing a meaningful relationship with his true love Norma (Peggy Lipton).  Maddy is going back to her hometown, and her absence will leave a big hole in Leland and Sarah Palmer’s lives. The one-armed man Philip Gerard (Al Strobel) is possessed by Mike, a spirit that can point Cooper and Truman (Michael Ontkean) towards Bob and his human host. But the truth is far too shocking for anyone to believe.

“Lonely Souls” is perhaps the most aptly titled episode of the series, as every single character turns out to be a lonely soul by the end of the episode. Norma’s maternal sweetness towards Shelly as she reluctantly quits her job can’t mask the fact that Shelly knows she’ll be living a lonely life having to deal with Leo. Norma and Ed can’t be together because of the Nadine situation. Bobby finds a cassette that will ostensibly save him and Shelly, but deep down he knows his life is about to get complicated. Maddy leaves James and Donna to be together, but their relationship is visibly strained.

The episode doesn’t feature as much off-the-wall weirdness as the first two episodes of the season, but Lynch throws in plenty of surreal situations to great effect, both comedic (Tojamura isn’t revealed to be Catharine until after he/she kisses Pete) and creepy (Mike flipping out when Ben walks near). Cooper and company confidently arrest Ben Horne for Laura’s murder, but there’s still a strong sense of uneasiness in the air. It’s particularly strange whenever Lynch cuts back to the Palmer’s home. Maddy informs her aunt and uncle that she’s leaving as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays. The ideal home has been perverted somehow, as the uneasy look on Sarah’s face shows us, and Lynch’s slow pan across the room makes us pay attention. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but something important is coming later in the episode. Sarah sees a vision of a white horse before passing out, Leland obliviously adjusts his tie in the mirror with a big smile on his face, and the unnerving sound of a record skipping clues us into the fact that something isn’t right. “It is happening again”, as the Giant tells Coop. Cut to Leland smiling in the mirror…and Bob is the reflection. Holy Christ.

Leland, a portrait of all-American goodness, has been taken over by absolute evil. We know he raped and murdered his own daughter, and Lynch’s obsession with doubles in his film brings Laura’s own double Maddy into the scene. Her violent murder at the hands of her uncle is perhaps the most disturbing scene in Lynch’s work, not to mention the most disturbing thing ever aired on network television (I’m genuinely shocked this passed the censors, because it’s fucking brutal). Ben’s not the killer, and the look on Cooper’s face shows that he somehow knows it. But it’s too late. Lynch’s films all feature the death of innocence, but here it’s literally the death of an innocent young woman. Donna and James know their relationship is doomed, Bobby is alone in the world, and the old waiter is sorry. Julee Cruise returns to perform another song, the haunting “The World Spins”, and the episode ends with a sense of deep sadness that, for better or worse, the rest of season 2 could never quite top.

That’s not to say that the show went straight to hell right away. The next two episodes close the Laura Palmer chapter of the series rather well- Leland grows increasingly unhinged until he’s finally unmasked. It’s a development that highlights Ray Wise’s talent as an actor (seriously, this guy needs more work), both when he’s trying (and mostly failing) to keep his sinister instincts at bay and when Bob finally takes over his body after he’s caught. Bob’s supernatural origins are at their creepiest with a handful of disturbing comments (including a reference to Cooper being knifed in Pittsburg). Bob abandons Leland and leaves him for dead, and Leland gets a final moment of redemption before the sweet release of death (another Lynch trope).

After that, though, it’s seven episodes of no man’s land as the show almost instantly goes from brilliance to complete garbage. Lynch and Frost focused on a number of other projects while the show languished without direction. Twin Peaks was about more than just a murder mystery, but without the mystery it lost a sense of purpose. As such, the show struggled to find a hook for several episodes. Cooper needs to stay or there’s no show, but the “Cooper is framed for drug trafficking” plotline is idiotic, and Jean Renaut is further wasted as an antagonist before being mercifully killed off. The teenage characters lose their sense of purpose as Donna has nothing to do and James goes off to the series’ much-hated “James gets stuck in a shitty noir” subplot. Josie Packard is killed off in the most idiotic fashion imaginable (think of the dumbest thing ever and you’re still not even close).

MacLachlan flinched at the idea of Cooper consummating his relationship with Audrey, so the writers more or less killed it, and with it any purpose Audrey had. Instead, the two get a pair of uninteresting new love interests played by Billy Zane and Heather Graham, two likable actors given bland characters. New characters like Josie’s not-really-dead husband Andrew Packard (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy) and benefactor Thomas Eckhardt (always welcome character actor David Warner) are given nothing to do. The Lucy-Andy-Dick love triangle and the Super Nadine plotlines lurch into painfully broad comedy. For a while, it looks like a show that’s outlived its usefulness and was rightfully canceled.

But then, in the final few episodes, the show found its hook. New antagonist Window Earle (Kenneth Welsh), the crazy former partner of Cooper, is established as a sinister Professor Moriarty to Cooper’s Sherlock Holmes. Earle takes a while to establish himself as a worthy villain, but as soon as we learn that he seeks the Black Lodge (home to Bob, Mike, the Giant, and The Man from Another Place), the show reestablishes its interest. It all leads up to the terrific season finale “Beyond Life and Death”. The final episode can be seen either as a strong season finale for a pair of creators hopeful for a third season or as a “fuck you” to anyone who sought a sense of closure at the end of the series. No matter what, however, it ranks as one of the most memorable hours the show ever had.

Frost packs in as many cliffhangers as possible into the final episode- we get closure as Andy and Lucy end up together, but everyone else’s fate is up in the air. Ben Horne is likely Donna’s real father, and when Doc Hayward loses control and attacks him, he smashes his head, leaving Ben either seriously injured or dead. Leo is stranded in the woods, with Windom Earle’s trap hovering above him. An explosion in the Twin Peaks bank leaves the fates of Andrew Packard, Pete, and Audrey unknown (although it’s safe to guess that Audrey would survive). The last bit is a particularly effective piece of directing as Lynch drags out the tension as long as possible with an agonizing long take, gets us to sit up and pay attention, and then throws us a curveball at us.

And then there’s Cooper’s journey into the Black Lodge, one of Lynch’s strongest and strangest set-pieces. Up to this point in his filmography, Lynch had often depicted polarized worlds (Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet), but the Black Lodge’s twisted alternate reality paves the way for Lynch’s later work in films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Angelo Badalamenti’s spare music and Lynch’s surreal touches (strobe, coffee turning into sludge, more backwards talk/action) come together in what’s well-described by Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club as “an impressionistic depiction of the struggle between good and evil”, with Cooper as our hero in a strange land. We see many of the strange Black Lodge inhabitants (The Giant, the Man from Another Place) and subverted versions of Leland, Maddy, and Laura, whose creepy backwards wink and severe screaming is the stuff of nightmares. Cooper can’t quite understand or top the bizarre dream logic of the Black Lodge. He saves the day, but he also pays an enormous price as he’s trapped in the lodge and an evil doppelganger possessed by Bob escapes and takes his place.

The final image of the series- evil Dale smashing his head on a mirror and revealing that he’s possessed by Bob- gives a good idea of where the show would have gone had it been renewed for a third season, with Cooper’s friends trying to get him out of the Black Lodge, but on its own it’s a memorably surreal and offbeat ending for a memorably surreal and offbeat series. What’s that you say? He made a movie? Oh, great, we might find out just what happened after…oh, it’s a prequel? Well…ok…how bad could it be?

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment