Twin Peaks, Season 1, Episode 3, “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer”
Written by Mark Frost and David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch
Aired April 19, 1990 on ABC
“Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds: Fire… walk with me. We lived among the people. I think you say… convenience store. We lived above it. I mean it like it is, like it sounds. I, too, have been touched by the devilish one. Tattoo on the left shoulder. Oh, but when I saw the face of God, I was changed. I took the entire arm off. My name is MIKE. His name is BOB.” – The One-Armed Man
Throughout his career, David Lynch has always paid tribute to the role of dreams in his art and storytelling. He once described his appreciation of the form as such: “Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I’m quietly sitting in a chair, letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don’t control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I’ve made or discovered; a world I choose … right there is the power of cinema.” Lynch’s best works are the pieces that exist perfectly in an elusive feeling, where you’re unsure if you’re awake or still dreaming. Blue Velvet is a walking nightmare for poor Jeffrey Beaumont that shows him the worst of life, while Mulholland Drive’s narrative defies categorization on what is reality and what is a dream.
Twin Peaks falls into a similar category, and in many ways it’s the best execution of the form that Lynch managed. The show’s aesthetic is already dreamlike in many instances—the strange 1950s Americana aesthetic that permeates the town, the dark unknown of the woods surrounding it—and there’s a feeling to much of the cast that they’ll dwell in their fantasy worlds as long as they’re able. All of that distance is on display in the third episode. If “Traces To Nowhere” showed a more structured approach to the storytelling, “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer” upends logic and reason and forces the viewer to see just how much of this story exists in the space between conscious and unconscious.
Any discussion of the landscape of “Zen” has to begin with the dream that ends the episode, a sequence that Noel Murray of The A.V. Club rightly dubbed the “signature moment in the entirety of Twin Peaks.” An exhausted Cooper goes to sleep in the Great Northern, and a series of flashes and distorted yells begin primetime television’s most memorable stream of consciousness. A one-armed man (Al Strobel) named MIKE speaks oddly prophetic words about the magician and the devilish one. A long-haired man in denim (Frank Silva) named BOB hisses a promise to kill again with his “death bag.” And in a strange room of red curtains and zigzag carpet, a red-suited dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) talks to an aged Cooper about gum coming back in style and how his cousin—who looks “almost exactly” like Laura Palmer—is “filled with secrets.”
Everything about this sequence is instantly iconic, psychologically arresting in its imagery and sounds, and so utterly unique in its framing that “What the hell?” is the only instinctive response. And like the most unsettling of dreams, it’s a compilation of small details of Cooper’s life, elements that seem to hold truth the waking mind can’t understand, and things so random they defy origins. The sighting of MIKE could simply be inspired by Hawk’s report that a one-armed man has been sighted near the morgue, and “Fire walk with me” is such a cryptic phrase it would be strange if Cooper didn’t dwell on it at some point. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, BOB becomes all the more unsettling once you realize he’s the same figure that sent Sarah Palmer into hysterics last week, a figure Cooper couldn’t possibly know about. It inserts a phantasmagoric center into the story, adding exponentially more questions to a story that didn’t lack for them. What matters? What doesn’t? Does any of it?
Cooper’s resulting claim that he knows who killed Laura Palmer as a result of this whole mess is possibly the strangest moment of the whole sequence—or at least it would be, if “Zen” hadn’t already established how seriously he takes his dreams. We’ve seen plenty of evidence that he’s an unorthodox investigator, and it’s a safe bet that he’s the first police officer to ever open a briefing in this manner: “By way of explaining what we’re about to do, I am first going to tell you about the country of Tibet.” From there it’s a combination of milk bottles, a bucket of rocks (held by Deputy Hawk in oven mitts) and names called out to winnow the list of Js in Twin Peaks down to the prime suspects.
This scene is possibly the most ridiculous thing Cooper’s done since arriving in Twin Peaks, which is saying a lot. Even more ridiculous is the way the department is willing to go along with it, with nothing more than a dubious remark from Truman—although the latter might be because their doughnuts and coffee make the journey too. However, the sequence never graduates into unnecessary for several reasons: the reiteration of J characters reminds the viewer of the primary suspects, there’s some tonally appropriate comedy from Andy and Lucy as they play along, and at no point during the sequence does Cooper give the feeling that he believes he’s wasting anyone’s time. Much like the show surrounding him, there is a method to the madness, and the fact that it pans out with two key throws makes you wonder if there is, in fact, something to his talk of a deductive body technique.
That emphasis on mind-body coordination plays throughout much of the episode, chiefly taking the form of dance. Witness Audrey coming to the Double R for a cup of coffee, striking up a conversation with Donna and eventually swaying along with the jukebox in the middle of the diner. The disbelieving reaction of the Haywards to this dance—paired with Ben’s designation of her soft jazzy music as a “racket” in the previous episode—heavily implies that Audrey’s hearing a music vastly different from what everyone else hears. And once again, her almost ethereal attitude comes across like a mask for something deeper, admitting that she “kind of loved” Laura for taking care of her brother and alluding to a connection Laura shared with Ben. She becomes more sensual with every appearance, a suggestive look in her eyes that says she’d love nothing more than for you to step into her world.
Contrast her movements with that of Leland Palmer, whose facade of keeping it together has now fallen apart in the safety of his own home. He puts on a record, picks up Laura’s portrait, and begins swaying with it clenched tightly in his hands as increasingly primal wails emanate from his lips. If Audrey’s dance is an escape from reality, Leland’s is a desperate attempt to reclaim what he’s lost, to simulate the father-daughter dance at a wedding Laura will never get to have. It’s a wholly tragic moment that segues into tragicomic territory with the music choice, the swing jazz hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000” even more tonally out of place than Audrey’s theme playing on the diner jukebox.
Even the moments in the episode that are more grounded are played with a heightened sense of disconnect. Bobby and Mike’s forest rendezvous with Leo is every bit as nightmarish as Jeff Beaumont’s adventures with Frank Booth, full of Blair Witch Project-style shaky camera angles and shadowy figures in the forest. The two, so cocky as they literally barked threats to James in prison, are nothing more than scared kids against Leo’s menace—even more so given Bobby knows exactly who Shelly is stepping out with. If BOB is the smiling creature of nightmare, Leo is the threat when you wake up, his shotgun racked up and football hurled from the dark.
A more comedic sequence, but no less strange, is the introduction of Ben’s brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) at the start of the episode. What starts out as awkward silence takes on dimensions of the absurd when Jerry storms in from Paris like some sort of beaming trickster, his arms heavy with baguette sandwiches. Ben’s method of devouring the sandwich, and his inability to stop talking as he wolfs it down, transforms the whole affair into a satire of a family dinner, a scene that explains entirely why Audrey sees fit to hide inside the music of the spheres. And in the brothers’ trip to One-Eyed Jack’s, where girls are literally dealt to them like a handful of cards, the blurring of real and fantasy only grows thicker. Who’s to say that when Ben and his new girl walk through the red curtains, wearing their respective expressions of lust and fear, there’s not a dancing dwarf and a Venus De Milo statue on the other side?
The simple answer is that we don’t know if that’s the case, because after this episode, nothing can be ruled out as a possibility. “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer” is the zenith of the unique Twin Peaks worldview, a surrealist painting translated to broadcast television, the episode that confirms, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is something no one has ever seen before.
Pie crusts and coffee grounds:
- Log Lady intro: “Sometime ideas, like men, jump up and say ‘hello’. They introduce themselves, these ideas, with words. Are they words? These ideas speak so strangely. All that we see in this world is based on someone’s ideas. Some ideas are destructive, some are constructive. Some ideas can arrive in the form of a dream. I can say it again: some ideas arrive in the form of a dream.”
- Who killed Laura Palmer? Leo’s still the prime suspect, between his inside knowledge of how “wild” Laura was and Cooper shattering the bottle on his name. However, given Ben Horne’s behavior at One-Eyed Jack’s and Audrey’s revelation that he used to sing to Laura, the lack of a “J” in his name shouldn’t rule him out right away.
- This episode marks the first appearance of Invitation To Love, the soap opera within a soap opera. “Each day brings a new beginning and every hour holds the promise of an invitation to love.” A bruised and battered Shelly is unconvinced. (Plus, the title card is bordered with blue velvet. We see what you did there, David Lynch.)
- “Zen” also introduces FBI forensic investigator Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer), who Cooper introduces as “lacking in some of the social niceties.” Understatement of the century, as he insults every aspect of the Twin Peaks police station and dismisses their work as pure amateur hour, all of which Ferrer enunciates gloriously. This is a move that makes it clear how lucky Harry and company are that it was Cooper who garnered this assignment, someone who’s happier to be a collaborator than an interloper—and who reacts to Truman threatening said interloper with a cheery thumbs-up.
- Speaking of, this episode is packed with wonderful physical comedy by Kyle MacLachlan: his triumphant grin when he realizes how successful his whittling was, his “got-your-nose” gesture to Harry before meeting Albert, and the priceless visual gag of his Brylcreem-thick hair straight on end the minute he wakes up.
- Nadine’s perfected those silent drape runners! And not a moment too soon for Big Ed, given what she was able to do to the arms of her rowing machine.
- Also this week: Josie learns that there are two sets of ledgers for her sawmill, and James and Donna make out on the Hayward couch.
- Yes, the Horne brothers are named Ben and Jerry.
- “We had those vikings by the horns!”
- “Leo needs a new pair of shoes!”
- “I didn’t want to get mink oil on my bedspread.” Twin Peaks spinoff idea: a multi-cam sitcom about the trials and tribulations of the Martell marriage.
- “Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song, and there’s always music in the air.”
- “No… it can wait until morning.”
Next week: “Rest In Pain” sees the town of Twin Peaks bury its favorite daughter, the Palmers get a disturbingly familiar houseguest, and Harry lays out the old rustic sucker-punch and some truth about what’s really going on in the woods.