Twin Peaks, Ep. 1.02: “Traces To Nowhere” establishes oddly effective beats of investigation

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Twin Peaks, Season 1, Episode 2, “Traces To Nowhere”
Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch
Directed by Duwayne Dunham
Aired April 12, 1990 on ABC

Wait a minute, wait a minute. You know, this is—excuse me—a damn fine cup of coffee. I’ve had I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee in my life and this, this is one of the best.” – Dale Cooper

After the tour de force performance that was the pilot of Twin Peaks, the most important of the many questions raised was how on earth this would be able to sustain a weekly series. Its vision was so unique and its oddness so carefully calibrated that it was easy to understand why so many of the critics who first reviewed it and loved it gave it zero chance of mainstream success, even while you could also understand why ABC would take a chance on its vision.

In that regard, the most unexpected thing about “Traces To Nowhere” is the degree of control it exerts over the show’s narrative. After the raw expressions of grief and tonal oddities of “Northwest Passage,” the feeling of the second episode is that David Lynch and Mark Frost do in fact have an idea of how to make this work on a weekly basis. The action still retains its disconnect and depth of mood—Donna’s early observation, “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once,” is particularly fitting—but from a story perspective, it goes down as smooth as the morning coffee at the Great Northern.

Once again, the avatar of this dichotomy is that coffee’s number one fan Dale Cooper, who continues to confound expectations at every turn. Introduced once again dictating to his tape recorder—hanging upside down in his underwear from special metal braces no less—he comes across as random and scattered, more attention paid to the structure of his breakfast than the order of the day. And yet the minute he strides into the police station, he’s all business, outlining the day’s routine out so efficiently that poor Truman doesn’t even have time to swallow his morning doughnut. (And so observant that he’s able to pick up on Truman’s affair with Josie Packard on the basis of body language alone.) His established love of food and coffee fades away from quirk to become a necessity, the fuel for an incredible mind to complete the work of the day.

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Indeed, Cooper’s energy is the key element driving the narrative forward, as his push for clues into Laura Palmer’s murder keeps turning up new sides to Laura and the town. On one hand she’s still the town’s golden girl, who helped Norma organize a Meals-on-Wheels program and tutored Josie in English; and on the other, she’s the cocaine addict who according to her autopsy, had sex with at least three men before she died. And the sense of mystery is heightened by the ghostly echoes of Laura that flirt around the edges of the story: a flashback from James, a hallucination by her mother, a tape recording that literally lets her speak from beyond the grave. It creates a desire to progress further, not only to learn who the killer is but to learn just who it was they killed.

Laura’s own double life is reflected in the tonal shifts of “Traces To Nowhere,” where the split between the funny and the horrifying is more sharply realized than in the pilot. The comic beats of the episode have a broader comedic sensibility, starting out right away with upside-down Cooper and continuing through the meeting with Josie. The latter in particular shatters any feeling of solemnity, Pete breaking a moment of silence with a horrifying non sequitur: “There was a fish in the percolator!” Both Jack Nance’s diction and the expressions on Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean’s faces are remarkably inimitable in that moment, and the look of disgust from the lawmen is so distinct one wonders if Lynch really did slip a trout into the prop coffee before the first take.

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Those moments give Twin Peaks the feeling of being more of a parody of murder mysteries than an actual mystery, which makes it all the more jarring when something truly dark happens. There’s nothing funny about Leo Johnson having a bloody shirt, and still less funny about him taking out his frustrations on Shelly via a sock-wrapped bar of soap. And even less funny is Sarah Palmer’s grief-shattered state, or the screams that tear through her when she glimpses a mysterious denim-clad figure no one else seems to see. The action becomes genuinely upsetting, so much so that it’s remarkable Twin Peaks can still feel like the same show from scene to scene.

Falling in the middle of those tonal extremes are some of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a conventional soap opera, most of which work to cement the connections alluded to in the previous episode. Some of them are effective—the reveal of Ben Horne and Catherine Martell’s long-standing affair and scheme to bankrupt Josie provides narrative context, and Major Briggs’s articulate dinner speech to Bobby shows where his son’s extreme outbursts stem from. Others fall flat, particularly when Donna and James are involved: the two of them are so sincere and wholesome in their feelings that they commit the cardinal sin of being boring, and in a world this layered, there’s no tolerance for boring.

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James and Donna may be boring, but their classmate Audrey is anything but. Audrey’s role in the pilot was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, serving as an impish agent of chaos in her father’s business deals and injecting a sultry vibe when she swapped saddle shoes for ruby-red heels. Her actions in “Traces To Nowhere” reveal considerably more depth to the character, as she invites herself to Cooper’s table to offer thinly disguised flirtation and then offhandedly exposes her dealings to her father. Her allusion to her family’s “emotional problems” gives the impression of deeply rooted instabilities, something she only lets out in small doses. It’s a feeling further emphasized by Sherilyn Fenn’s facial expressions—particularly once Ben admits he considers her long gone—giving her the impression of someone that retreats behind dreaminess when she feels threatened.

Indeed, the greatest achievement of “Traces To Nowhere” is how it forces reevaluation of the show’s oddballs. Doctor Jacoby is even more esoteric this time around (his apartment a shrine to Hawaiian culture) and more serious, because it turns out he’s the one who dug up James’s half of the necklace. And while the Log Lady is still carrying around her log, she alludes to also carrying around a key piece of evidence in the murder—a piece that remains secret because talking to a log is too farfetched even for Cooper. The weirdness of Twin Peaks continues to obscure its secrets, and both only become more intriguing as the show progresses.

Pie crusts and coffee grounds:

  • Log Lady intro: “I carry a log, yes. Is it funny to you? It is not to me. Behind all things are reasons. Reasons can even explain the absurd. Do we have the time to learn the reasons behind the human being’s varied behavior? I think not. Some take the time. Are they called detectives? Watch, and see what life teaches.”
  • Who killed Laura Palmer? Leo’s the prime suspect this week with his bloody shirt and the reaction when it goes missing, but Jacoby’s weeping and possession of the necklace make him look fairly guilty too.
  • While the second episode lacks Lynch’s distinct hand on the camera, his longtime editor Duwayne Dunham keeps the episode steady as he takes over the director’s chair. Cutting away from Shelly before the blows fall multiplies how uncomfortable that scene is, and while it’s fairly obvious that Catherine’s partner is Ben Horne, the framing keeps him off-screen just long enough to build a sense of intrigue.
  • Dale Cooper’s breakfast of champions: Eggs, over hard—hard as how old habits die. Bacon, super-crispy, almost cremated. Grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed. And coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night. (Pete: “Pretty black.”)
  • Another wonderful instance of Cooper’s competence: he can offer up a dictionary-level definition of “shenanigans” without missing a beat.
  • Audrey’s swaying to the Badalamenti score is a clever use of diegetic music, and Ben designating such quietly offbeat music as a “racket” is gloriously incongruous.
  • “Diane, it struck me again this morning. There are two things that continue to trouble me, and I’m speaking not as an agent of the Bureau but as a human being. What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?”
  • “Say it to somebody else. I’m no pea-brained chambermaid looking for a tumble in the closet.”
  • “Man, oh man, you must have the metabolism of a bumblebee!”

Next week: That gum you like is going to come back in style for “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer,” as we come to the most iconic scene in the entire run of Twin Peaks. Let’s rock! There’s always music in the air.




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