The second season of “Twin Peaks” in unquestionably far more inconsistent than the first, absolutely hitting lower lows. There’s around seven episodes in the middle of the season that are easily the show’s worst, a show running on fumes, spinning its wheels, chasing subplots that are bizarre, but not in the engaging Lynchian way. For all that, I think the first eight episodes of the so of the season work just as well as the first season, and the season gets something of a second wind in the last few episodes, culminating in the brilliant finale, definitely my favourite episode of the show.
[I’ll get into specific spoilers for the season below.]
The beginning of the second season spells its doom in a lot of ways. I love the long, painful interaction between Cooper and the elderly bellhop, but it represented Lynch and Frost’s lack of interest in running the show conventionally, playing to audiences, and they’d tire of that approach soon enough. When a number of reasons led to Lynch and Frost revealing Laura’s killer, interest quickly waned. Some of that is down to the dismal drop in quality that followed, but I think engagement of the show stemming from “who killed Laura Palmer” was always going to hurt it in the end.
I don’t think that’s some case of audiences being too foolish to appreciate Lynch and Frost’s vision or anything either. The show did build off the question of who killed Laura, that’s why it span out so hard and quickly after answering that question. Some of that is down to the showrunners’ other projects at the time (Lynch in particular had been busy with his film “Wild at Heart”), but a lot of it is also down to the fact Lynch and Frost weren’t just aping the format of serialised television, they weren’t just parodying it and subverting it, but on some level they were absolutely following it as well.
When the show was properly building to answering the question of who killed Laura, it worked in a way I don’t think the first season ever did, unifying the dark and surreal Lynchian elements with Frost’s narrative work in a way that felt purposeful and cohesive. The finale of the first season is hugely entertaining, but it doesn’t feel meaningful or powerful the way the second season did in its early stretch. Nothing is truly going anywhere, it’s just the show enjoying itself exploring all its characters and subplots. But moments like “it is happening again”, the way Leland is increasingly positioned as a villain, Maddy’s murder, interactions between Bobby and his father (probably my favourite character of the show), Albert’s earnest declaration of love to Harry, James singing “Just You”, Donna mouthing “Rockin’ Back Inside my Heart” to James, these all electrify me in a way the first season never consistently did, for all its general storytelling consistency.
Ray Wise is a huge part of how well the second season works early on, his change in hair some sort of cue for him to really let loose with his performance, and it works tremendously well. The episode after his murder of Maddy, “Drive with a Dead Girl”, in some ways signifies how the show would begin to run on fumes soon – the whole episode is basically just the dramatic tension of Leland having Maddy’s corpse around – but works so fantastically well thanks to his performance, and the audience knowing the big secret before the town does. Leland as an unwitting host of Bob works, but I prefer the more serious and nuanced way the film “Fire Walk With Me” deals with the horrors of incest and rape.
After Leland’s death, the show goes downhill fast. Some of the subplots having some sort of charm (honestly, I like the Little Nicky and pine weasel subplots, particularly the “weasalcam” footage in the latter), but without a central focus the show feels aimless. Seven or so aimless episodes is pretty disastrous for this sort of show (although they did give us Denise). But the show comes back with some style when the Windom Earle plot starts going. I don’t think that story works great, and it doesn’t even come close to how well the Laura murder mystery did, but it does work, which is a lot more than the episodes preceding it did. The lore aspects get a lot more clunky when they’re conveyed through methods like exposition via Hawk instead of more surreal mysteries and visuals, but the series expanding on that avenue does generally work.
Still, the Windom Earle plot relies on audiences caring about the girls they’ve grown to appreciate from when the show was working well. It’s just as unsustainable as the “who killed Laura Palmer” mystery was. But Annie, as a newly introduced character, works perfectly for me, maybe the only very late-season addition that does. Heather Graham plays well off Kyle MacLachlan (and certainly the characters work better than the frankly unsettling way the planned Cooper and Audrey relationship would have), I think her backstory is compelling, and she doesn’t feel like just a prop in how she’s eventually used in the Windom Earle subplot.
The finale terminates the show permanently (barring the prequel film, and the completely unpredictable revival twenty-six years later) and does so with fantastic style. Lynch rewrote much of the planned script, and in the power of the black lodge scenes it’s easy to forget how he dealt with the other subplots – the deaths at the bank, the revelations around the Haywards, and so on. More so than even the pilot, the finale feels like a proper, unrestrained Lynch film, in that it even ends on an extremely artist-driven and audience-unfriendly way, literally a “sad ending” in that Cooper fails and Bob wins. The rendition of “Sycamore Trees” feels properly weird in a way that the so much of season too didn’t, in its failed attempts to emulate what worked so well about Lynch’s (and surely Frost’s to a degree too) bizarre vision.
Where the pilot felt like a natural evolution from “Blue Velvet”, the finale feels like a natural precedent to the Lynch that made “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive” (which makes me wonder whether “Inland Empire” shall act on some level as a tonal precedent to the 2017 revival series beyond just being filmed on digital – I suspect it will). It’s less concerned with parody the way early Lynch films and early “Twin Peaks” was, and more concerned about playing directly to the subconscious. Rather than showing the evils of a seemingly good world the way early Lynch does, later Lynch questions that whole concept of good and evil within one’s mind in the first place. The finale’s relationship with time and duality feels like the fulfilment of the promise of all the themes of the series – the perils of secrecy and the triumph of communication, each soul’s internal divide between good and evil, the failures of passivity over activity – and the “bad” ending feels like the show finally truly breaking free from being nothing more than its quirks and parodies. Cooper lost, but “Twin Peaks” won.
I give the second season four and a half owl sightings, and a rendition of “Just You”.