Twin Peaks Rewatch Project - The Pilot
The staff of the Talk Film Society takes you on a journey back to Twin Peaks, episode by episode. All leading up to the premiere of the new season in May.
Title: “Pilot aka Northwest Passage”
Original Air Date: April 8, 1990
Directed by David Lynch
Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Before its premiere in 1990, Twin Peaks co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost each had their own share of success. Lynch was coming off the earth-shattering Blue Velvet, while Frost had television writing credits, such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Equalizer, and Hill Street Blues. They became friends after collaborating on some failed film productions; they were eventually convinced to pitch a TV show together. The idea they came up with had, on one hand, the warped viewpoint of the old fashioned American “slice of pie” lifestyle, synonymous with Lynch. While Frost brought in the concept of a small town filled with colorful characters. The hook for the show, they envisioned, was the dead body of a young girl, wrapped in plastic, washed up on the shore of a lake. A mystery to find the girl’s killer would follow.
The pilot episode of Twin Peaks, directed by Lynch, begins with that powerful image — the body of the young Laura Palmer, dead, bound in plastic, and washed ashore. You get an immediate sense of what you’re in store for with this series. Twin Peaks is all about shifting imagery. Even before we see Pete Martell (Jack Nance) discover Laura’s body, we’re witness to the opening titles, a montage of the mechanical sharpening of sawmill blades cut against mountainous scenic views with the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign in the foreground, set to longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s score. It’s the dangerous and the beautiful, residing together ominously in Small Town, U.S.A. Before Pete stumbles onto Laura’s body, we see a glimpse of the beautiful Josie Packard (Joan Chen), dolling herself up in front of her vanity mirror. Right after that, things get morbid. It's all about shifts in imagery.
A visibly shaken Pete calls Sheriff Harry S. Truman’s (Michael Ontkean) office to report the body. The ditzy receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) forwards the call to Truman in a comedic scene that in any other TV show or film would seem odd, but that tonal shift is distinctly Lynch; like its imagery, the show’s tone is just as prone to turn on a dime. Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), and Dr. William Hayward (Warren Frost), led by Sheriff Truman, make their way to the crime scene. Even here the shifts continue; in a poignant and pivotal moment in the series, when the men approach the body, we see Deputy Andy sobbing hysterically like a child, much to the chagrin of Truman.
Once Sheriff Truman and Dr. Hayward find out the body is that of Laura Palmer, the news quickly spreads through the small Washington state town. It’s in these early moments that the series makes its mark on television and the murder-mystery genre, influencing shows for decades to come. No other TV show expertly handles the epidemic-like spreading of grief like Twin Peaks, but they sure have tried. The news of Laura’s death reaches her family and friends like a wave; few words are spoken as everyone presumes and is reassured of the worst quickly. Laura’s mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) searches for Laura at home, worried of her absence on a school morning. She frantically makes phone calls, eventually calling her husband Leland (Ray Wise) almost exactly when Truman finds Leland himself to break the worst news you could give ever give to a father. Leland drops the phone, with Sarah screaming on the line. Lynch lingers on a shot of the phone, turned aside, cord and headset dangling, an image no doubt calling to mind the body of Laura Palmer, lifeless.
News spreads to Laura’s school, and in another haunting moment, Laura’s friend Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) puts the pieces together before anyone else. Donna sees Laura’s empty seat in class, a Deputy walks in to give the teacher the news, and to top it all off, a girl sobering and running is seen outside the class window. Donna quietly whimpers, "Laura" as the truth sets in. We then meet Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), who, by the way, has a secret affair ongoing with Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), who’s married to the abusive Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re). We also meet James Hurley (James Marshall), who had a secret affair with Laura before her death. There’s actually a lot of that going around in Twin Peaks — infidelity and secret affairs. It’s typical for a soap opera melodrama, which the series manages to lift itself up from, thanks to the murder mystery element and Lynch and Frost’s warped view on small town Americana.
Nearly 40 minutes into the 90-minute pilot, once Laura’s death has hit everyone in town, we’re introduced to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). He comes in to take over the murder case, which he reveals is possibly connected to another murder the Bureau is investigating. As if the series needed another quirky character, Cooper is the epitome of eccentric. He is obsessed with solving the murder, yes, but he's also anxious to learn what type of trees are growing around Twin Peaks. Cooper is also seemingly two steps ahead of those in town, including Sheriff Truman, gathering clues and scratching off names of potential suspects. The most grotesque clue is found underneath the fingernail of Laura. It's a tiny piece of paper with the letter "R" typed on it.
The evidence begins to pile up, all of which is wiping away the squeaky-clean persona of Laura Palmer. A videotape and Laura’s diary lead Cooper and Truman to try and find a mysterious character simply known as “J.” Another victim, Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), turns up alive, but in a coma. Laura’s safety deposit box is found, which is filled with cash and a porno magazine with a profile of Pulaski circled. The crime scene is then found at the town’s trainyard, and there, Cooper and Truman find one half of heart-shaped necklace and a torn piece of paper with the words “Fire Walk with Me” written on it in blood.
While the pilot does serve some exceptional work from MacLachlan and Boyle, there are questionable performances in the cast, like Ashbrook as Bobby or Marshall as James, who chew up the scenery maybe a little too much. Also, if there was ever a complaint you could toss at the series, holy as it may be, it’s that there are perhaps one too many characters. Time will tell on that end, though, especially when we reach Season 2 territory.
In the closing moments of the pilot, Donna meets with James in the woods where they share a passionate kiss. For his sake, she tells him to hide the other half of the heart-shaped necklace which he has in his possession. They bury it together, and moments later he’s arrested. Is James the “J.” that Cooper and Truman have been looking for?
Finally, on the long list of iconic Twin Peaks moments, we’re left with one of the big ones. Laura’s mother, Sarah, is startled by a vision in her living room and screams in terror; we, the audience, see a figure in the mirror behind her. We also cut back to the woods to see a hand dig up James’ half of the necklace, but we’re left with that indelible image of Sarah’s face and the man in the mirror. This final moment in the pilot was actually a mistake, Lynch didn’t intend to catch a face in the mirror. It turned out it was a crew member who got into the shot and Lynch liked the image so much that he made that crew member part of the show.
Within the 90-minute pilot, there’s plenty here to hook the audience and to consider sticking around to see who killed Laura Palmer. Lynch and Frost bring their own unique sense of dread mixed with humor, which has essentially become its own TV genre. The question remains, beyond the initial mystery, can these characters carry the show and make it at all watchable? We will most definitely see.
And, for those who don’t know, there is an international cut of the pilot, adding 20 minutes that solves Laura Palmer’s murder mystery in its own unique way. It’s worth a watch, but only when you’ve already experienced all of Twin Peaks.