Twin Peaks, Ep. 2.09, “Arbitrary Law”: Truth and delusion

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Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 9, “Arbitrary Law”
Written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton & Robert Engels
Directed by Tim Hunter
Originally aired December 1, 1990 on ABC

“If I die, I know he can’t hurt me anymore.”

A lot happens this week. Usually, Twin Peaks is a series that follows its own pace, setting its own rules and moving forward slowly but surely. Last week felt like something of a bizarre stasis, as Leland continued to roam free and everyone else mourned, investigated, meandered. Here, the truth is revealed to everyone, not just us. It comes to Cooper first, of course, in a dream. But this is an overstuffed episode, absolutely fascinating in what it tries to pull off and in its relative failures.

That rushed feeling lasts throughout, never lingering anywhere for too long, erasing the atmosphere established in the last two weeks to replace it with something resembling a slasher flick. Indeed, when Leland creeps up behind Donna and extends his hand, scaring her, a loud sound startles us, a horror cliché that the series had never gone to before. The structure is all over the place, a mess of table-setting, as we end up with some Red Room reminders and various mumbo jumbo. Somehow, it coheres into something affecting, but it’s still a mess. The episode benefits, then, from how momentous everything feels. It seems clear that much of this is quickly being wrapped up so that the show can move onto other, lesser storylines, so a lot of weight is given to these quick minutes.

This is why the scene between Leland and Donna is so disappointing. It is a limp restaging of what happened with Maddy in “Lonely Souls”, hitting the same beats, only this time it feels hollow, rushed, incomplete, clumsy. Sure, we never really fear for Donna because she is such a central character, but the real failure is simply the utter lack of atmosphere or mood. It feels like it comes from another, lesser series. It still manages one or two brief flashes of greatness, like when Leland seems to lunge at her menacingly until the phone rings. A couple scenes later, when James tells Donna that “Nothing we do matters. Nothing’s ever gonna change,” it feels like an unfortunately accurate existential assessment of that sequence.

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“Into the light, Leland. Into the light.”

Elsewhere, things are far more effective. Cooper brings all the key players to the Road House: Harry, Hawk, Ben, Andy, Leland, Leo, Bobby, and Ed. Then, Major Briggs arrives with the old man from the Great Northern. He walks up to Cooper and gives him some gum, a gum which Leland immediately recognizes and comments on. “That’s my most favourite gum in the world,” he says. The old man turns to him. “That gum you like is going to come back in style.” They know each other. Or, at least, they come from the same place. Then, as if all he ever had to do was gather the correct group of people into the same room at the same time, Cooper flashes back to the Red Room, when he is much older and Laura whispers something to him. This time, we can hear: “My father killed me.”

Cooper doesn’t react very noticeably to this surely devastating news. He handles it calmly, planning ahead to how he will capture Leland back at the station. When this happens, Leland freaks out, and BOB has fully taken over. Ray Wise remains terrific here, in his last episode, going completely off the rails but hiding some humanity and a knowing smile behind it. Seeing him isolated, at the centre of the frame, we are forced to confront this man, or this demon, and to consider just how much humanity is there when we look. Who are we really looking at? Or do we bother making a distinction? “Now this BOB,” Harry asks, “he can’t really exist. Leland is just crazy, right?” Though it hurts to believe, it is how Harry’s practical and logical mind naturally works. It is the reasonable explanation. By the look on his face, though, you can see that he’s never been more ready to believe.

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“May we have this dance please?”

See, Harry has always been the practical thinker to Cooper the dreamer. Always supportive of Cooper, but pushing the real world onto him, acknowledging the strange qualities of the town but never fully embracing them. All that changes with the revelation that Laura Palmer’s father is the one who raped and murdered her. Suddenly, the mystical and the obscure feels far more palatable. Suddenly, the idea that a demon named BOB has been possessing Leland since he was a child seems much easier to grasp. Suddenly, Harry is a believer.

After BOB supposedly leaves Leland as a vessel and Leland dies, Cooper, Harry, Briggs, Andy, Hawk and Albert consider and talk about what just happened out in the woods. Words are hard. The clumsy script, though, very clearly spells things out for us. They question whether BOB can be real or not. “Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and kill his own daughter? Any more comforting?” Cooper demands. Of course not. It is only now, faced with the uncomfortable truth, that Harry is ready to give in and believe. “Maybe that’s all BOB is,” Albert offers. “The evil that men do.” This appears to be the subtext made text, rather awkwardly, but still effectively. It somewhat contradicts what everyone else is saying about demons and belief, but Albert is a steadfast pragmatist. BOB is a metaphor. He is a metaphor for the evil that men do, not demons. And that is just what makes him so terrifying.

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Pie crusts and coffee grounds

  • Log Lady intro: So now the sadness comes. The revelation. There is a depression after an answer is given. It was almost fun not knowing. Yes, now we know. At least we know what we sought in the beginning. But there is still the question, why? And this question will go on and on until the final answer comes. Then the knowing is so full there is no room for questions.
  • Ray Wise is excellent right into the last moment, as he lies dying in Cooper’s arms, presumably remembering all he had done while possessed by BOB and giving Cooper some answers, while simultaneously leaving enough room to interpret it as an act—he may very well have known what he was doing all along.
  • James describes his engine as sounding “like 1000 people singing”. Please, James, go away.
  • Donna reading the ripped-out pages of Laura’s diary, with the camera moving into an extreme close-up of her lips so we can imagine it is really Laura speaking, is entirely devastating. “Tonight is the night that I die. I know I have to because its the only way to keep BOB away from me. The only way to tear him out from inside. I know he wants me, I can feel his fire.”
  • The Andy and Lucy stuff, always a fairly uninteresting distraction, feels particularly out of place in this episode. The less we hear Andy talk about his “sperms”, the better.
  • “You’re on the path, you don’t need to know where it leads. Just follow.”
  • “That milk will cool down on you, but it’s getting warmer now.”
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