If you are in need of a getaway from the mundane day to day after being stuck at home for far too long, then perhaps the surreal void is calling your name. Venture off the beaten path by paying a visit to Twin Peaks, Washington, population 51,201 according to its welcome sign.
Twin Peaks first began drawing visitors to its dreamscape when the pilot premiered thirty years ago on April 8, 1990. The town exists almost out of time as it makes itself home to nostalgic All-American classics like coffee and cherry pie, saddle shoes and letterman jackets, wilderness lodges and diners, love triangles and teenage romances, and, of course… murders.
Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch and then directed by Lynch, the ninety-four-minute pilot episode, also known as “Northwest Passage,” introduces the world to the strange little town of Twin Peaks, shrouded in Pacific Northwest mist and mystery. The episode begins with the discovery of a body wrapped up in plastic, laying on the pebbly beach. “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic,” says Pete Martell who discovers the body. We do not learn her identity right away, but as soon as police roll her over and unwrap the plastic, the girl is instantly recognized — it’s Laura Palmer.
“Laura Palmer” is a name everyone knows, a girl everyone loves — the news of her sudden death sends everyone from her mother to her best friend to the crime scene photographer to the school principal into heaving sobs. Her murder shatters any illusion that Twin Peaks is a true idyllic slice of nature. Any mythic vision of the great outdoors and the pure American west are supremely disrupted, and Laura becomes almost a myth herself.
Laura Palmer is practically the town’s patron saint, and she and Twin Peaks have images and expectations of pure beauty projected upon them. On the surface, everything shimmers: there are plenty of evergreen trees (Douglas firs, if you must know), logs, birds, waterfalls, and hazy mountains, which are juxtaposed with sparking sawmill machinery and sprawling high schools, an iconography of a wilderness tamed by man and a social environment ruled by girls like Laura. As Ben Horne, owner of the Great Northern Hotel, says to foreign investors as he takes a deep breath of local air, “here in Twin Peaks, health and industry go hand in hand.” Yet the wild nature of the town starts to seem stranger and more untamed as the episode progresses, hinting at the shadowy aspects of the town, the dark underbelly unseen by those passing through.
The pilot only gives us a brief taste of all the town has to offer for unsuspecting visitors, saving plenty for subsequent installments. While Lynch did actually take steps to ensure the pilot would work as a feature film if the series were not picked up, adding additional footage to the international version to make it a more complete narrative, Twin Peaks is perfectly suited to the small screen. It toys with the genre of televised melodramas or soap operas, introducing us to a complex network of townspeople involved in romantic relationships or covert affairs, jumping between romance and crime genres and between plot threads with rapid speed. We head to the Double R Diner and meet its owner Norma Jennings. Shelly Johnson, a married waitress, and Bobby Briggs, a high school football player (and Laura’s boyfriend) share a covert romance and hide from her abusive truck-driver husband. As we watch her unraveling parents Sarah and Leland Palmer, her best friend Donna Hayward who sobs in class, and her secret boyfriend James Hurley who broods on his motorcycle, any natural order of the Twin Peaks world breaks down.
Special Agent Dale Cooper is not introduced until well into the episode, and as he drives to Twin Peaks and recounts everything into a recorder, he remarks with wonder that he’s “never seen so many trees in my life.” Yet something evil lurks in the woods, and eerie energy is pervasive as the Washington fog, manifesting in the ethereal cinematography and surreal soundscape. The principal’s announcement of Laura’s death echoes as the camera meanders down an empty hallway; Sarah Palmer hears footsteps and wonders “Who’s upstairs?” while ominous shots of the Palmer household linger on its staircase and spinning ceiling fan; the light flickers in the morgue as Cooper examines Laura’s body. Twin Peaks has a dark side, filled with doubles and doppelgangers and distorted mirrors, and we are being beckoned in.
The pilot sets up who’s who in Twin Peaks, but not quite what’s what. As it lures viewers into its liminal landscape, the episode blurs the boundary between the real world and the surreal television realm, only hinting at what will eventually become an increasingly bizarre and supernaturally strange series. At one point, the characters watch a phantasmatic home video of Laura before her death, and they, like the show’s viewers, find her on-screen image irresistibly compelling. For Cooper’s extended stay in Twin Peaks, he announces he requires a room with a bed, a bathroom, a telephone, and a television — even a man entirely occupied by a murder investigation cannot shake the obsessive pull of the television screen sometimes. In his meta-commentary on the television medium, Lynch brings repressed secrets and family ghosts into the domestic sphere, leaving us, and the characters, uncertain what is a spectral form and what is a flickering image on the television screen. In this disturbing domestic sphere, there is always a sense of instability, like the rug is always about to be pulled out from under us. A deer head falls off the wall in the police station, Cooper finds a piece of newsprint with the words “Fire Walk With Me” written in blood, and our sense of reality is always on the verge of crumbling.
If the episode does not immediately sell you on settling into Twin Peaks for the long run, perhaps you just need to give it another chance and allow yourself to acclimate to the distinct atmosphere. The pilot is admittedly somewhat of a jarring mishmash of tones and styles, cheesy romantic melodrama mixed with a gruesome murder and a heavy dash of small-town gossip. It introduces a head-spinning number of subplots and supporting characters. But as it concludes with shrieks and gasps from Sarah Palmer, it leaves viewers teetering on the edge of a cliff with only a hint of the dangerous depths below, anxiously awaiting what’s next. There is much more to explore in this town… are you ready for the adventure?
Thirty years after its initial release, and following two seasons, a 1992 prequel film Fire Walk With Me, a cancellation, and a return for a third season limited series in 2017, Twin Peaks has cemented its legacy as a polarizing piece of pop culture weirdness, a boundary-pushing television series that has forced many snobby critics of the medium to start to take it more seriously. Love or hate its uncanny oddness and spooky sensibilities, the pilot is the perfect entry point into the wilds of Lynch’s imagination and the explorations of unchartered territories in television. Twin Peaks may not be everyone’s cup of tea — but that’s no problem at all because the town still has something to suit your tastes: in the immortal words of Cooper, the coffee is “damn fine.”