Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 19, “Variations And Relations”: Only pawn in game of life
Written by Mark Frost and Harley Peyton
Directed by Jonathan Sanger
Aired April 11, 1991 on ABC
“Think of all the hapless sinners, wondering where their soul’s destination lies. For what? To gain the answer to a simple question. Where will my spirit awake? What life am I given after this life? This grave question has plagued man’s sorry conscience for eons. And now you, you lucky boy, have the answer… now!” – Windom Earle
One of the secrets to the success of Twin Peaks is that it’s a show that’s equally about the heart and the mind. David Lynch and company are interested in asking many questions about the nature of good and evil, the soul, and the universe, discussions that play out in Cooper’s interest in Tibetan philosophy and the ambiguity of what BOB truly represents. Yet it’s also a show with a deep romantic streak, full of relationships that have a doomed undercurrent—Cooper and Audrey, Hank and Norma, Harry and Josie, even Pete and Catherine—but never cheapening the desire for connection that leads these people to begin these relationships in the first place. Season two’s dip in quality owes as much to getting away from those themes as it does to solving Laura Palmer’s murder, the show emphasizing its tics and twists as opposed to being about something.
“Variations and Relations” is an episode that does a lot of work recalibrating Twin Peaks’s interest in its deeper themes. In terms of plot there’s not a lot that happens—most things are at the same place they were after “On the Wings of Love”—and the movement that does happen is oriented around characters having lofty conversations or finding a next step as opposed to a solution. Yet that slowness is encouraging, because none of the attendant frustrations from previous episodes are present. This is Twin Peaks realizing it’s back in its groove, and can afford to spend time musing on favorite subjects.
A large part of that musing comes out in the interactions between Cooper and Annie, whose relationship has now escalated to boat rides and kisses in the shadow of the gazebo. Once again, the chemistry between Cooper and Annie is a pale imitation of the platonic chemistry that Cooper and Audrey shared, but it’s better this episode than it was in the first two. (The absence of Sherilyn Fenn this week probably helps matters by removing the immediate comparison.) What Annie does is bring out the human side in Cooper, the wounds hidden by his normal chipperness and excitability. It’s visible both in the boat, and in the conversation he has with John Justice Wheeler—though both men are unaware of their Audrey-based connection—as he admits to a life lived defensively post-Caroline.
Others in Twin Peaks are carrying around similar scars from their relationships. Truman turns to Catherine Martell of all places for clarity, and even winds up getting some as they discuss Josie’s motivations and provide an explanation that makes a sad amount of sense: “They may not have seemed untrue to her. What she needed to believe was always shifting to suit the moment.” Similarly, while Gordon’s courtship of Shelly feels out of place for both—coming across uncomfortably as an excuse for David Lynch to kiss Madchen Amick—there’s something oddly touching in his sincerity, both for his joy at hearing again and hers at getting attention from someone who’s Bobby, increasingly Leo-esque in bearing this week. It’s a lonely world filled with tragedies, and everyone is striving to make some form of connection.
“Connection” is the key word here, as Cooper’s newfound romance and restoration of FBI status has buoyed his investigative capabilities. The big picture still eludes him (“Complimentary verses of the same song. I cannot hear it, but I can feel it”), but the disparate elements of the last few episodes are becoming much clearer. It’s a return to vintage Coop, black suit and all, as he identifies Earle’s poem and ties the missing Leo into the investigation. It creates a valuable sense of unity for the show, that even if some of these things were constructed in the post-Laura vacuum and may not have been thought out at the time, Frost and Peyton are putting in the effort to make sure they can at least be retroactively tied into each other.
A similar sort of unity is provided with the rise of the Miss Twin Peaks competition. Making a beauty pageant a central plot point of this season is a move you could only get away with on a show as strange as Twin Peaks, where anything that isn’t a Civil War reenactment or a backwards-speaking dwarf is on the level of “normal,” yet it still creates a legitimate excuse for people to be drawn together. Shelly’s there to make some money and to validate Gordon’s belief in her beauty, Donna’s there for reasons tied to the mystery with her mother and Ben Horne—seen sweet-talking the judges to make Ghostwood a talking point—and Nadine’s there to continue living out her high school delusions. (Far less welcome is the return of femme fatale Lana Milford, one of the lesser Twin Peaks plots we all hoped they’d forgotten about.) This is still a small town after all, and events like this are what makes it feel like a community.
Said community retains an interloper in Windom Earle, and “Variations and Relations” does contain one major seismic plot shift in that it reveals Earle’s true intentions. He’s not just here to torment Cooper, scare a few girls, and kill off a drifter or two: he’s after the power of the Black Lodge. It graduates him from figure of vengeance to a super-villain, complete with the attendant monologuing as he outlines to an enraptured Leo and a confused hired goon the source of “a power so vast that its bearer might reorder the earth itself to his liking.” Kenneth Welsh digs into Earle’s philosophizing with gusto, narrowly outrunning Richard Beymer’s speech to the judges in terms of slimy commitment, and unlike the newly “reformed” Ben backs up his talk with ruthless violence.
The final scene of the chess pawn is a reveal in keeping with most of Earle’s dramatic twists—the corpse on Truman’s desk in “Checkmate,” the death mask on Cooper’s pillow in “Slaves and Masters”—and as such loses some of its efficacy, distinguished by the audacity of the display and the sight of Cooper once again using a rock to solve his problem. What’s truly interesting about it is the location that Earle chooses for it: the Twin Peaks gazebo. It’s the gazebo where Donna and James resolved to solve Laura’s murder, where Maddie stood in the guise of her cousin as Dr. Jacoby watched from the bushes, and where just the day before Cooper and Annie shared a tender kiss. Earle’s moves are increasing in their intensity and their chaos, and each one now has the feeling of striking at Twin Peaks itself.
Pie crusts and coffee grounds:
- Log Lady intro: “Whoever invented the pie? Here was a great person. In Twin Peaks, we specialize in cherry pie and huckleberry pie. We do have many other types of pie, and at the Double R Diner, Norma knows how to make them all better than anyone I have ever known. I hope Norma likes me. I know I like her and respect her. I have spit my pitch gum out of my mouth onto her walls and floors and sometimes onto her booths. Sometimes I get angry and do things I’m not proud of. I do love Norma’s pies. I love pie with coffee.”
- The wine tasting at the Great Northern is a largely comic aside amidst the more serious elements of the episode, between Dick constantly dipping his bandaged nose into the wine and Andy’s efforts to fit in. (“There are also white wines and sparkling wines!”) But it does make clear two things: Dick Tremayne is a much better part of Twin Peaks when he’s being treated as a wholly ridiculous character, and Lucy’s at the end of her rope with his wandering eyes.
- Pete, in trying to open the puzzle box, goes off on a tangent about Guam and the Doolittle brothers that Abe Simpson would be proud of. He probably even had an onion on his belt, as that was the style at the time.
- Vintage Dana Ashbrook overreactions this week, from his response to Mike’s account of his relationship with Nadine to the dumbfounded look on his face when Gordon kisses Shelly. “YOU ARE WITNESSING A FRONT THREE-QUARTER VIEW OF TWO ADULTS SHARING A TENDER MOMENT. TAKE ANOTHER LOOK, SONNY. IT’S GONNA HAPPEN AGAIN!”
- The “Donuts Donuts” label on the box that Cooper picks up from the Double R is so obviously a repurposed Dunkin Donuts box that it’s laughable.
- Mike and Bobby’s first lines to each other of “Long time, no see,” are accurate given the two haven’t interacted since all the way back in episode three.
- Lara Flynn Boyle gives an excellent stink-eye to both Ben and her prevaricating mother.
- “The secret to success: beautiful people get everything they want. When was the last time you saw a beautiful blonde in the electric chair?”
- “When I talk to you, I get a tingling sensation in my toes and my stomach.”
- “Beauty has taken on a wider definition.”
- “Do you have any idea what a combination of sexual maturity and superhuman strength can result in?” Mike is, of everyone in Twin Peaks, the happiest in his current relationship status.
- “Why don’t we just skip the wine and have a banana split?”