Twin Peaks: “Pilot” Review

“Northwest Passage”

By Colin Hart

10 / 10

A man wakes up one morning to tell his wife he’s going fishing. There, washed up on the banks of the rocky shore, he finds a dead body, wrapped in plastic. It belongs to Laura Palmer, homecoming queen, high-school sweetheart, the pride and joy of a small northwestern town.

This discovery naturally turns the lives of the townspeople upside down, and subsequently changed the way we looked at dramatic television forever. All it took was a gruesome murder and a daring gamble by one of cinema’s greatest directors to turn these dreams into reality.

Twin Peaks Pilot

That director, of course, was David Lynch, one of the most renowned vanguards of the modern era. Having already earned critical acclaim through films such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and the Palme D’Or-winning Wild at Heart, Lynch decided to take his talents to the small screen, thereby becoming the first “auteur” to utilize television as an art form.

Like many of Lynch’s projects, Twin Peaks evolved from a singular idea: a mystery series in which the mystery remains unsolved. Lynch and his collaborator, Mark Frost, had no interest in answering the question of “who killed Laura Palmer?” Instead, they wanted to tell the story of a small town and its idiosyncratic inhabitants, while at the same time revealing the seedy underbelly hidden behind the curtains.

As Lynch and Frost continued to refine their vision, Twin Peaks became many things: a self-aware postmodern narrative, a story that stripped away the façade of the American dream, an atonal combination of soap opera and police procedural, etc. The end result was unlike anything ever seen, particularly for ABC’s Thursday night primetime audience.

First off, the subject matter — which revolves around the rape and murder of a teenage girl — was considered far too morbid for network television. On top of that, Lynch’s penchant for outright surrealism, which would only grow more experimental as the series progressed, made for a visual aesthetic that was far from the norm. Needless to say, network executives were initially pessimistic about the show’s chances for success.

But they were quickly proven wrong after the series premiere — an immersive, 90-minute pilot that fully encompassed all the madness and mystery that Twin Peaks had to offer.

Twin Peaks Agent Cooper

Simply put, the series premiere of Twin Peaks is one of the greatest TV episodes of all time. Not only did it expand the limits of what television was capable of; it also told an engrossing story that remains captivating and compelling to this day.

Right from the opening frames, Lynch wastes no time engulfing the viewer in his signature style. The atmosphere is dreamy, yet uneasy. A fog horn drones in the distance as the discovery of the dead body reverberates throughout the town. As a result, the death of Laura Palmer hangs over every scene, indirectly haunting the background for the duration of the episode.

However, Twin Peaks doesn’t completely wallow in doom and gloom as much as the opening scenes might suggest. Even though we’re introduced to several suspicious characters who double down as potential murder suspects, we’re also presented with a sense of humor that stands in sharp contrast to the tragic events at the series’ heart.

Nowhere is this lovable eccentricity more obvious than in Kyle MacLachlan’s portrayal of Dale Cooper, the quirky FBI Agent who is sent from Philadelphia to lead the investigation. He doesn’t even appear until 30-minutes in, but as soon as he does, he immediately embodies the heart and soul of the series, representing all that’s good in a world full of darkness.

Luckily for us, he’s just as fascinated by the world of Twin Peaks as we are.

Agent Cooper coffee and donuts

But just like he did in Blue Velvet, Lynch gradually reveals that everything is not what it seems in this idyllic suburban town. For one, every character seems to be having an affair — Laura’s jock boyfriend, Bobby Briggs, is sleeping with diner waitress Shelly Johnson, who is married to an abusive trucker named Leo, which is only one of several secret love-triangles in Twin Peaks.

Even Laura Palmer herself wasn’t the perfect teenage girl that everyone thought. Not only was she having an affair with fellow classmate James Hurley, but she also led a double life that involved hard drugs and prostitution. This adds a whole new layer of intrigue to Cooper’s investigation, who manages to uncover a year’s worth of clues in the span of only one night.

Typical of Lynch, however, the clues remain cryptic — a tiny “R” discovered under Laura’s fingernail; a heart-shaped locket missing the other half; the message “FIRE WALK WITH ME” spelled out in blood; an abandoned train car where Laura’s murder took place; the identical murder of Teresa Banks one year earlier in Washington state; a catatonic girl named Ronette Pulaski, who somehow managed to escape from the train car, thereby avoiding Laura’s ultimate fate.

It’s a lot to keep track of, but that’s what makes the pilot so great, so addicting. Under Lynch’s steady direction, the pieces add up to a larger whole that transcends the murder mystery narrative.

By the end of the episode, we’re left with a feature-length film that works on many levels: an emotional family drama, a surreal slice of life and a psychological meditation on trauma, suffering and the nature of duality.

It doesn’t matter that Laura’s murder remains unsolved (and will stay that way until “Episode 14”); the Twin Peaks series premiere is second only to Goodfellas in terms of best cinematic event of 1990. If it weren’t for a final cliffhanger — in which Laura’s mother, Sarah, has a disturbing vision of a hand reaching into the dirt and grabbing James’ missing half of the locket — you’d completely forget you were watching a TV show.

In fact, you might say that this is Twin Peaks’ single greatest episode, which is somewhat disheartening when you consider there are 47 more episodes plus a prequel film still to come. But that shouldn’t deter you from seeing it through.

Even though there’s a noticeable dip in quality in the back half of season two, and the episodes not directed by Lynch tend to pale in comparison to the ones that are, the entirety of Twin Peaks is one of the most satisfying viewing experiences ever created.

It all starts with the pilot, which sets the gold standard for both Twin Peaks itself and every TV show that followed in its wake. A damn good series premiere.


  • After one episode, the prime suspects are as follows, in order of least likely to most likely: James Hurley, Laura’s secret lover; Pete Martell, the lumberjack who discovered Laura’s body; Bobby Briggs, Laura’s jock boyfriend; Leo Johnson, Shelly’s abusive husband, whose truck is pictured in a swingers’ magazine next to pictures of Laura and Ronette; Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, Laura’s drugged-out psychiatrist. Never in a million years would you expect [REDACTED] to be the actual killer.
  • ABC also released an international version of the episode which was broadcast in Europe as a standalone TV movie. It adds 20-minutes of extra footage to the end, and incorporates BOB, the Red Room and Cooper’s dream. In a way, it provides closure to Laura Palmer’s murder, even though the surreal ending is completely unresolved.
  • The opening theme song is so pleasant, so dreamy. It’s a jarring contrast with what comes directly afterward — Laura Palmer’s body is discovered two minutes later. The ever-present background music, courtesy of frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, turns atonal when the episode proper begins. Throughout the episode, Badalamenti’s score amplifies the storyline with jazzy, schmaltzy and occasionally sensual undertones. His contributions cannot be understated.
  • Several memorable moments in the episode were completely unscripted and/or improvised. For example, a doctor at the morgue accidentally breaks character when he mishears Cooper’s question, but Lynch liked the unexpected reaction so much that he decided to keep it in.
  • Ditto for the flickering lamp as Cooper examines Laura’s body, which created an unplanned, disorienting effect (and also carries with it several “electricity” implications).
  • But perhaps the most consequential “mistake” was when set decorator Frank Silva appeared in the mirror during Sarah Palmer’s freakout at the end of the episode (pictured above, top right corner of the frame). Silva would eventually be written in as Killer BOB, the main antagonist of the series.
  • Because of the eventful storyline and large ensemble, it’s hard to believe that the pilot takes place over the course of one day. As Cooper says to Sheriff Harry S. Truman near the end of the episode: “Tomorrow comes early.”
  • Cooper talks into a tape recorder he calls Diane. In season three, it’ll be revealed that Diane is a real person.
  • The most heartbreaking scene is when Leland Palmer finds out about his daughter’s murder, and subsequently breaks down into tears. Great acting from everyone involved.
  • Blue Velvet used the visual metaphor of grotesque insects scurrying beneath a picturesque front lawn to expose the harmless façade of suburbia. Likewise, Twin Peaks shows how domestic abuse takes place right behind closed doors. The scene between Shelly and Leo Johnson is particularly harrowing.
  • “Pilot” was written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and directed by David Lynch

Ceiling Fan in Twin Peaks

Notes from the Black Lodge [SPOILERS]

Let me preface this section by linking to my “Unified Theory of Twin Peaks.” Please read that before reading any further. I hope that my theory makes sense, because I’ll be spending every Notes from the Black Lodge section trying to prove it. Let’s rock …

  • The episode begins with an ominous feeling, almost like the characters know something terrible is going to happen. The first person we see is Josie Packard, anxiously looking behind her in the mirror. Then we see Pete Martell, who nervously tells his wife he’s going fishing. The characters begin the series in a daze, or a dream. A few minutes after that, Pete discovers Laura’s body on the shore.
  • When Pete calls Sheriff Truman, the first thing he says is “She’s dead … wrapped in plastic.” Truman’s response isn’t “who?” but “where?” Later on, time seems to stand still when Laura’s best friends, Donna Hayward and James Hurley, find out about her death. Donna bursts out in tears while everyone else in the class stares blankly. It’s like they already know what they’re getting into, as if they’ve done it all before — a lost highway without beginning or end.
  • And maybe that’s why Sarah’s wake-up call to Laura is echoed in the final scene of “The Return: Part 18.” Carrie Page lets out a bloodcurdling scream because she realizes that, yes, indeed, it is happening again.
  • Early in the episode, Bobby Briggs playfully tells Norma Jennings, “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
  • Who’s the crying girl running through the schoolyard, shown before Donna and James find out about Laura’s death? The motif bears similarities to the crying girl in Inland Empire.
  • A student in the hallway does a goofy dance in the background, showcasing the random humor of Twin Peaks, but also foreshadowing the Man From Another Place in “Episode 2” and Mrs. Tremond’s grandson in Fire Walk with Me. Notice also how the design on the hallway resembles the symmetrical patterns in the Red Room.
  • Lynch’s camera is frequently drawn to the ceiling fan on the second floor of the Palmer house. Sarah looks at it with dread, the incessant droning giving off an otherworldly vibe. That’s because, as Fire Walk with Me will show, the Black Lodge entities travel by electricity. And Leland happened to be the one who was possessed by BOB. And the room upstairs is where he would commit his heinous crimes.
  • The electricity motif is also why that flickering light (in the scene where Cooper examines Laura’s dead body) fits in so perfectly.
  • Cooper finds the letter ‘R’ under Laura’s fingernail, the calling card of a killer who also murdered a young prostitute named Teresa Banks one year earlier (the perpetrator was Leland Palmer in Fire Walk with Me). The letter ‘T’ was found under Teresa’s fingernail.
  • Ronette Pulaski, who managed to escape the train car where Laura was murdered, is later found in a fugue-like state. Hey, maybe Ronnette’s the dreamer of Twin Peaks. She briefly wakes up in the hospital, pleading “Don’t go there. Don’t go there.” This is in reference to Laura, who accepted death at the end of Fire Walk with Me by putting on the Owl Cave ring.
  • We briefly see Philip Gerard, the one-armed man, in the hospital elevator with Cooper and Truman. Just as Leland was possessed by BOB, Philip Gerard was possessed by his partner-in-crime, Mike. No doubt he’s scoping out Laura at the morgue to see if he can pick up some fresh garmonbozia, a sentence that only makes sense if you’ve seen Fire Walk with Me.
  • James confesses to Donna that Laura “was a different person last night.” He’s talking about her erratic behavior in Fire Walk with Me, in which she seemed to carry dual personas. James also implies that Bobby Briggs killed someone.
  • Sarah Palmer, having grown up with abuse her whole life, has a penchant for premonitions. After all, she’s married to Leland, and an insect-frog monster crawled into her mouth when she was just a child (see: “The Return: Part 8). She envisions Dr. Jacoby recovering James’ buried locket at the end of the episode, but she’s also there to witness BOB’s reflection (accidentally) show up in the mirror.
  • On the DVD box set of Twin Peaks, each episode contains a “Log Lady intro” that you can choose to play or skip. It’s usually just fun, cryptic nonsense, but sometimes the Log happens to be smarter than we think. In the very first “Log Lady intro,” she tells how Twin Peaks is “a story of many, but it begins with one.” She then goes on to say that “Laura is the one,” an oft-repeated line that could imply that Twin Peaks is all Laura Palmer’s dream.
Twin Peaks: “Pilot” Review

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