Twin Peaks (Episode 2): Zen, or the skill to catch a killer

Twin-Peaks-title copy

This post is part of The Favourite TV Episode blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Read about some great small-screen classics here.

*Note: there’s a bit of confusion about if this is episode 2 or 3, depending on if you want to count the pilot as an ‘episode’. To avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to it by name: ‘Zen, or the skill to catch a killer’.

Generally, Twin Peaks is the Marmite of TV shows – it’s impossible to be on the fence about this part soap-opera, part-screwball, part-horror series that defied – and continues to defy – definition. When the series was first aired in April 1990, it generated a whole community of committed fans who remained loyal to the end – despite the peculiarities (even by TP standards) that characterised the second series.

But there’s one episode that stands out above all the others. One episode that truly captures so much about what Twin Peaks was ‘about’. This episode concludes with an extraordinary, surreal dream sequence quite unlike anything that had previously been shown on mainstream TV. Snippets of weirdness had been glimpsed – Special Agent Dale Cooper hanging upside down in his hotel room musing on the links between JFK and Marilyn Monroe; the fish-in-the-percolator mystery… but these quirks were just the frameworks for something much bigger. Let’s break down (and appreciate) all the weird-ness that was Zen.

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Weird # 1: Jerry’s Brie and butter baguettes

The episode opens on the Horne’s dining room. Benjamin Horne, hotel and local business owner sits at the head of the table. The peace is shattered by the arrival of his brother Jerry, recently returned from Paris and full of enthusiasm for Brie and butter baguettes, which he unpacks from his suitcases and entreats Ben to try. Cue an enthusiastic inhale and gorge of the aforementioned speciality, while the rest of the family looks on in dismay.

From damn fine cups of coffee to glazed doughnuts, slices of cherry pie and maple syrup and ham drizzled pancakes (“nothing beats the taste sensation!”), there’s a peculiar food fetish that runs through Twin Peaks. As the series continues, the need for a cup of joe becomes an in-joke, helping to keep the characters real – in spite of all the oddness that’s going on around them. The fetish might have come from Lynch – an affirmed coffee aficionado – but the idea that this is consumption for consumption’s sake works against the ‘small town’ lifestyle of Twin Peaks. Or perhaps all that fresh air just makes everyone hungry.

Weird rating: ☕☕

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Weird # 2: Cooper’s Tibetan technique

Special Agent Dale Cooper assembles Sheriff Harry Truman and his team in the woods to participate in a ‘subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination’. The technique, which is a foreshadow of the ‘weirdness’ to come and came to Coop during a dream about Tibet, sees the agent narrow down a list of suspects by throwing rocks at a glass bottle balanced on a tree trunk. Exactly how you imagine all police work to be conducted. But Coop’s controversial deductive technique is just one example of how the woods surrounding the town is integrated, and central, to the story. It’s also testament to how persuasive Coop is – both characters and audience go along with his unconventional, borderline absurd ideas, because he’s able to deliver them so earnestly.

Cooper might be the ‘hero’ of Twin Peaks, but he’s responsible for so much of its oddity. His belief in his mission and his vocation steers the audience (and indeed, many of the characters) through strange and unexplainable events. Somehow, he’s always one step ahead (see weird # 5 for more). Central to his character is his relationship with Harry, a dependable cop who’s surprisingly open minded and displays little of the provincialism attitudes so commonly associated with local law enforcement. This old school meets new wave mentality allows Cooper to explore some of the metaphysical aspects of a murder investigation without completely confusing the narrative (such as it is, apparently Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost made up quite a lot of it as they went along). As supporting characters go, Harry is up there with the best.

Weird rating: ☕☕☕

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Weird # 3: Audrey’s interpretive dance

Audrey Horne (daughter of Benjamin) and Donna Hayward (best friend to Laura Palmer, now kind of dating the deceased’s secret boyfriend) enjoy a – what do you know! – cup of coffee at Norma’s diner. As Audrey enters she selects a song on the jukebox that’s very similar to Angelo Badalamenti’s distinctive score – so much so that it’s surprising that she gets up to dance to it – although none of the other diners seem remotely perturbed. The score exists in our understanding of the show but we don’t expect it to feature in the character’s experience of it, Audrey’s acknowledgement of its existence reveals how the show blends back into itself and blurs of the line between what’s real and what’s fiction.

Weird rating: ☕

Weird # 4: Cooper pinches Truman’s nose

A wonderful scene that encapsulates Cooper and Truman’s fond relationship and was surely ad-libbed – it’s too natural not to be. Occurring just before FBI forensics specialist Albert is introduced, Coop’s playfulness exaggerates the newcomer’s snootiness and his disdain for the ‘backwards’ sheriff’s office. In the context of Twin Peaks this isn’t exactly weird, but it’s certainly not the sort of behaviour you expect from two established officers leading a murder investigation. It forces the audience to consider the type of show they’re watching. Is this a comedy? A melodrama? A soap opera? A murder mystery? At this point, it could really be any of those – and more.

Albert is one of the show’s best peripheral characters. Insulting and uncompromising, he so angers the laid-back Harry that the latter eventually punches him on the nose. Albert’s left in a compromising position on top of a body in the mortuary, in a moment that perfectly encapsulates the show’s ability to move between black comedy and genuine emotion.

Weird rating: ☕

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Weird # 5: Cooper’s Red Room dream

The episode concludes with an extraordinary dream scene that sees an aged Cooper enter a surreal world, bordered with red curtains and a chevron patterned floor, populated by a backwards speaking dwarf, a beguiling Laura Palmer and two supernatural characters named Bob and Mike. But what does it all mean? If the scene is confusing to modern-day audiences, imagine how contemporary viewers struggled. Nothing of this kind had been seen on TV before. This bizarre pastiche of ideas that weren’t really grounded in any of Twin Peaks’ previous narrative asked so many more questions than it answered. Generally, TV audiences like their shows to be tied up with a bow, where they could be left on the shelf, forgotten. The episode might end with Cooper claiming he knows the identity of Laura’s killer, but the overriding impression is that it’s not going to be that simple. Lynch is toying with his viewers.

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Cooper’s six-minute dream is scary because it hints at familiar ideas about good and evil but, at the same time, sits just outside the realm of the viewer’s understanding. It’s both frustrating and intriguing – in fact, one of the show’s major flaws is that the more it tries to make sense of it all, the less interesting it becomes. There’s a direct line from Lynch’s feature filmmaking to Twin Peaks, particularly Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The TV show was just an opportunity to bring his brand of originality to a much wider audience.

According to the director, the idea for the scene came while he was leaning against a warm car and ‘free associating’ – the resultant disquieting and original piece of filmmaking came to encapsulate what Twin Peaks stands for. The pilot episode originally incorporated elements of the dream sequence, but these were dropped to make the initial episode feel more like a standalone movie: crucial if the TV network didn’t commission the full series. Waiting to introduce the supernatural elements actually makes all the other TP oddness look comparatively ‘normal’ and heightens the nostalgic and dreamy qualities that are embedded into the small town.

Weird rating:☕☕☕☕☕☕☕☕☕☕ (basically, off the scale)

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Today, the are-they-aren’t-they discussion surrounding series three of Twin Peaks might has put the show firmly back in the spotlight, but the truth is that, for many viewers (myself included), the appeal of David Lynch’s surrealist soap opera was never far away. Yes, some of the absurdities in the second season challenge even the most ardent fan, but at the back of their mind is Zen, a reminder of how game-changing the series was and how influential it remains – just look at anything from Lost to Desperate Housewives.

Twin Peaks - Zen or the skill to catch a killer

Further reading: Lynch on Lynch by David Lynch / A.V. Club episode analysis

8 thoughts on “Twin Peaks (Episode 2): Zen, or the skill to catch a killer

  1. “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer” is essentially the episode that sold me on Twin Peaks. I was a huge David Lynch fan (actually, I still am), so naturally I tuned into watch the show when it debuted, but this was the episode where I knew Twin Peaks would be something truly special and not simply a side project for Mr. Lynch

    Thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

    1. I’m on the fence. I love the original so much that the thought of spending more time in Twin Peaks makes me giddy… but what if it’s not the same? Will that forever ruin Coop and co? Part of me wonders if it’s not worth the gamble. There’s always Fire, Walk With Me for when you you need an extra TP fix… right? 😉

      1. I’m very ambivalent too. On the other hand, it fits so well with the ’25 years later’ thing from the Lodge, and I was that person saying for years “25 years later – the time is right!”. And if Lynch is at the helm … I hope he goes balls-to-the-walls weird and creates something new and strange, rather than trying to tie up loose ends.
        At least it’ll almost certainly be better than season 2! Which had its moments – the ending was mostly strong, and it was pretty solid up to the killer reveal. But there were so many terrible subplots … Civil War Ben, James and the blonde lady, Andy and the demon child, superstrength Nadine, the irresistible Lana, etc etc.
        Ah! I’m apprehensive and intrigued.

  2. When I was younger (maybe 4 or 5 years ago) there was a Twin Peaks rerun, but I didn’t watch it. I think, now reading your post, that I would never truly appreciate the bizarre genius of the series. Maybe next time it airs again, huh?
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  3. Without a doubt my favorite TV show..ever. The episode answering the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” question is one of the best individual episodes of any show before or since. I’ve watched it a number of times and continue to be amazed at how it was done and the acting. The Zen episode is also another favorite. I’m also a FANatic about the soundtrack. The two TV CD’s and the movie one are never far from my CD player.

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