Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 13, “Checkmate”
Written by Harley Peyton
Directed by Todd Holland
Aired January 19, 1991 on ABC
“Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place. My brothers deal dope to the teenagers and the truck drivers. One-Eyed Jack’s welcomed the businessmen and the tourists. Quiet people a lived quiet life. Then, a pretty girl die, and you arrive, and everything change. My brother Bernard, shot and left to die in the woods. A grieving father smother my surviving brother with a pillow. Kidnapping. Death. Suddenly the quiet people, they’re quiet no more. Suddenly, the simple dream become the nightmare. So if you die, maybe you will be the last to die. Maybe you brought the nightmare with you. And maybe, the nightmare will die with you.” – Jean Renault
One of the early ideas behind Twin Peaks was that the murder of Laura Palmer was never intend to be the central focus of the show for long—in fact, David Lynch and Mark Frost are often cited that if they’d had their way the murderer would never be revealed. Instead, it was meant as a mechanism to introduce us an audience into the world of Twin Peaks, meeting the various eccentrics and peeling back the curtain—red or otherwise—hanging over their secrets. The town would generate stories on its own, and eventually questions of Laura and her death would fade away into the ether.
It’s a noble aspiration for a serialized drama, and one that makes sense in theory. In execution, however, there’s a major problem: not a single story of the people of Twin Peaks without Laura makes you care. Out of every plot featured in “Checkmate,” only the glorious adventures of Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne are worth following, and that’s only because of the campy extremes. Everything else is on the spectrum from uninteresting to poorly executed to excruciating, even with the involvement of Harley Peyton as writer and Todd Holland as director, both of whom were involved with good or even great episodes of the show. Everyone involved is grasping at straws, and while there are some things that work beyond camp value, they work as stepping stones to something better, not so much on their own.
Even the best scene of the episode, wherein Cooper finally confronts Jean Renault in a sting operation turned hostage situation, lacks the impact that any scene of this caliber should. There’s some interesting ideas hinted in Renault’s final monologue to Cooper, the suggestion that the energy and awareness that follows Cooper might make him the equivalent of Batman—or the frequent interpretation that the character’s very presence breeds the disorder he’s sworn to fight—but it doesn’t matter because this whole story stopped mattering some time ago. Renault’s efforts to become Twin Peaks’s evil mastermind worked in the early episodes, but for the last three he’s been only the contrivance to keep Cooper in town. It’s a banal conflict, something designed as a holding pattern until the next stage of Windom Earle’s plot.
Beyond the philosophical questions asked, there’s some competent execution of the police side of things. It’s always good to be reminded how competent the Twin Peaks Police Department—even Andy—actually is, and both the setup of the sting and the way they’re able to pivot when Cooper hands himself over. Holland’s long shots emphasize the distance between the two sides of the standoff, and the close-ups on Renault and Cooper (especially paired with the flashing lights of the police cars) make an effort to create a feeling of intimate conflict. And the way it resolves is both a terrific use of Denise and an illustration of how practical Harry can think on his feet when called for.
Compared to his activity, the bulk of the plots this episode can be interrupted with two simple words: “Who cares?” James is finally seduced by Evelyn to be in cahoots against her abusive husband, yet she’s also in cahoots with the chauffeur Malcolm—who cares? Andy and Dick engage in a bumbling break-in at an adoption agency to investigate Little Nicky and get wrapped up in a “hilarious” misunderstanding with a couple looking to meet their new son—who cares? Bobby and Shelly are frustrated with taking care of invalid Leo—who cares? Nadine finally makes a pass at Mike, and he’s unexpectedly turned on by it—who cares? The plots are flimsy, the performances unengaged, and the delicate Lynchian balance of the surreal, the melodramatic, and the comic is gone. Instead, Twin Peaks is lurching toward the extremes of the three, to the benefit of neither the show or the audience.
Speaking of Nadine, Big Ed and Norma break through the distance that’s been over them since Hank’s release, Norma sneaking away from the diner for a little afternoon delight at the Jennings residence. Here’s where the toxic effects of Twin Peaks‘s downward slide are laid bare, as while once upon a time we did care about the couple’s happiness, Ed’s amnesiac wife and Norma’s restaurant critic mother have tainted those characters’ arcs to the degree that the (still strong) chemistry between Everett McGill and Peggy Lipton is the only thing keeping the story afloat. And while the confrontation between Hank and Ed over the latter’s cuckolding has been anticipated since the middle of season one, having it broken up by Nadine’s super-strength isn’t a satisfying resolution. It takes away Ed’s agency, and it’s not the same Nadine from season one who has far more right to be engaged with this matter. (Though it’s redeemed by some fun camera work from Holland in the brawl, switching between Nadine and Hank.)
As stated above, the only non-Cooper sideplot in this episode that works is Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne. Part of it is again the zeal with which Richard Beymer commits to Ben’s psychotic break, but the other part of it is it’s the way other characters in this world are reacting to it. Audrey’s forced maturity is being tried heavily in these circumstances, Bobby’s cleverly laid plan to secure employment crashes against the older man viewing him as General Meade, and Catherine’s appearance coaxes some lucidity as the two snap at each other with a nastiness only former lovers can command. (Angelo Badalamenti’s score adds a lot to the latter scene, the old-fashioned military march giving way to a heavier, more ominous track the longer they talk and the more their mutual hate and lust continue to blend.) This plot is nonsensical, but it’s eminently watchable nonsense, a marriage of goofiness and tragedy that feels more tonally competent.
The prevalent awfulness of most of “Checkmate” is made worse by the fact that the episode is bracketed with scenes that hint at far more interesting material all this dreck has kept us from. Major Briggs’s opening scene has lots of creepy imagery associated with it—a spinning symbol of three triangles, Don S. Davis’s inimitable tones reciting his experience—and brings the question of the White Lodge to the forefront again. And signs of a malevolence far greater than anything Jean Renault could provide enrich the last few minutes of the episode, undercutting the forced quirkiness of earlier scenes. Leo’s finally on his feet looking like some garish escapee from an asylum birthday party, Earle’s made his next move with a body trussed up in Harry’s office, and the owl that’s not what it seems looms over the town again, clouding the major’s mind and experiences. It’s a series of images that inspire hope Twin Peaks may get better, but the longer season two goes on, it’s inching closer to the point where it can’t possibly get worse.
Pie crusts and coffee grounds:
- Log Lady intro: “My husband died in a fire. No one can know my sorrow. My love is gone. My dearest friend is gone. Yet, I feel him near me. Sometimes I can almost see him. At night when the wind blows, I think of what he might have been. Again I wonder: why? When I see a fire, I feel my anger rising. This was not a friendly fire. This was not a forest fire. It was a fire in the woods. This is all I am permitted to say.”
- This Week On Invitation To Love: Snippets of the show and its theme can be heard over Shelly and Bobby bickering, a sad reminder of when Twin Peaks was a show that was so much smarter and nuanced about what it was doing. However, its use here in conjunction with arguments about feeding Leo and Bobby’s job do show how these former teenage rebels have been reduced to a state of domestic anti-bliss.
- The look of joy on Cooper’s face when Harry makes him a Twin Peaks deputy is wonderful. He’s like a kid getting his first merit badge.
- Denise switches back to a suit for the stakeout, as it feels “more appropriate.” A move that makes the reveal of her in the waitress outfit all the more effective.
- “Everything known to me, and somehow beyond my reach.”
- “Oh, Ed. The things we do for love.”
- “I’ll get back to you on this whole ‘surrender’ thing.”
- “You have defeated me, as I have defeated General Meade.”
- “To handsome strangers and rebuilt engines.”
- “Great thinking, Denise.” “It was just my legs.”