Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sketch-Artists, Alliances, Collusion And A One-Armed Man: Twin Peaks Episode 4 Explodes!

The Good: Great acting, Wonderful character development, Intriguing (if convoluted) plot(s), Mood
The Bad: Impossible to get into on its own - NOT a standalone episode!
The Basics: When Cooper finds the one-armed man, he gets a significant step closer to finding the killer of Laura Palmer as the rest of Twin Peaks continues with their own machinations!

[IMPORTANT NOTE: As I proceed through the episodes of Twin Peaks with reviews, it is absolutely impossible to discuss some of the episodes without revealing some of the surprises I will work hard to keep while reviewing earlier episodes. No matter how careful I am, it is impossible to write about some of the later episodes without letting slip that some of the characters were (ultimately) not the killer of Laura Palmer or killed, etc. I shall do my best to minimize that, but given how serialized Twin Peaks is, it is almost impossible to do even a minimal plot summary without some nuggets slipping out. These reviews may be ideal for fans of the series who are sitting down to watch individual episodes and want to have a guide as to which episode did what, because Twin Peaks episodes do not have names, just episode numbers!]

As the best serialized television shows progress they, by their very nature, become less accessible. What separates episodic and serialized television is that serialized shows build, one episode after another toward a bigger story. Episodic shows simple end and the next episode picks up at a new place and time with little relation to the prior episode, save using (usually, mostly) the same characters. Some series' try to straddle between the two with individual episodes doing one thing, while each episode also contains one piece that leads to the larger story. Recently, I watched Veronica Mars - The Complete First Season (reviewed here!), which balances the two elements well, becoming very accessible with mystery-in-an-episode episodes and a season with an overwhelming mystery (who killed Lily Kane) that has a new clue each episode. That type of balance both rewards fans and continues to make it possible to draw in new viewers. There are very few truly serialized shows out there because at some point, serialized shows say "to hell with you!" to the casual viewers and become committed to rewarding the loyal viewers with complex plot and character developments that leave people tuning in for just one episode lost and confused. Twin Peaks is a true serial and with "Episode 4," it has crossed the point of no return for serialization and from this point forth, it is so insular as to be its own little world. You're either in it by this point or you're lost somewhere else!

Sarah Palmer, a psychic, relays the image of the man she saw in her vision, the man Cooper saw in his dream and who both believe is the man who killed Laura Palmer! In his pursuit of the mysterious One-Armed Man, Deputy Hawk tracks him to a nearby motel and the Twin Peaks law enforcement descends upon it where they find . . . a shoe salesman named Philip Gerard. He confirms what Cooper learned in his earlier dream, that he knew Bob, but much of the rest the dream story does not add up. Indeed, he lacks his arm because he cut it off when he turned to good and rejected his friend Bob, whose name tattooed on his amputated arm! After interrogating Dr. Jacoby and getting some practice in at the firing range, Cooper and Truman begin to suspect that Leo Johnson and his drug-running friends are involved in the death of Laura Palmer.

But this is not the only investigation into the death of Laura going on. "Episode 4" finds Audrey Horne and Donna Hayward teaming up to discover what role Horne's Department Store might have played in Laura's death (given that she and the other victim, the still-hospitalized Ronette Pulaski, both worked at the perfume counter there!) and James Hurley getting to know Maddy better with the assumption that having someone around who looks like Laura might help flush out the killer. For his part, Benjamin Horne continues his machinations with Catherine to get the Mill, while Josie spies on him and it tormented by none other than Norma Jennings' husband, Hank, who is up before the parole board.

See, the problem here is that the cast of Twin Peaks in this episode is 24 large and "Episode 4" devotes a pretty decent amount of coverage to most of them. So while Cooper and Truman are off doing their thing, Shelly Johnson and Bobby Briggs have scenes, Norma goes to a parole hearing, and the tension between Deputy Andy and the station's secretary, Lucy, continues to smolder. But to be able to say what "Episode 4" is about is difficult because it is part of an extended middle act. Not so much occurs as things continue.

And this episode's continuing things are executed amazingly well. "Episode 4" is complex in the layers of action, but not confusing (so long as one has been watching the prior episodes). While the series has had two essential plotlines (Laura Palmer's murder investigation and Benjamin Horne's conspiring to get the Packard Saw Mill) but in "Episode 4" the lines between those two plots begin to blur and the tangential plots seem to come to prominence. So, for example, the incarcerated Hank Jennings has a clear backstory that relates him to Josie Packard, the victim of Benjamin's manipulations. The overlaps and interweavings of the small segment of Twin Peaks that is involved with either plot begins to appear far less like coincidence, especially as Leo and his drugrunning becomes linked to both Laura Palmer and Benjamin Horne in "Episode 4!"

But, of course, this is all part of a grand design and it's a tribute to the writer, producers and director that it all works. There is never a moment in "Episode 4" where either the plot or the characters seem so outlandish as to be foolish. Indeed, we never feel like we are watching something bizarre, so invested are the players and so engrossing is the plot. If anything, "Episode 4" opens with the supernatural ideas - we learn definitively that Sarah Palmer is a psychic and that Dale Cooper, for all his use of empirical reasoning and methodology, is a believer in psychic phenomenon going so far as to say that he believes he is a powerful sender - but quickly backs off to a position of concrete realism. So, for example, Deputy Andy, who has been characterized as clumsy, draws his firearm for the first time ever and it drops, going off! That type of realism could be played as a joke, but instead, it is used as an opportunity to paint the world of Twin Peaks as a bit more true to life; Cooper and the entire Deputy staff join Sheriff Truman at the shooting range to brush up on their skills!

It is exactly that type of realism that makes Twin Peaks so engrossing; the characters act like people in their positions ought to. Even the young people work out tremendously well (and those who follow my reviews will know I'm not generally a fan of teen actors!) because their characters are responding to their loss with a sense of realism. In this case, Audrey and Donna both want to find out who killed Laura Palmer, Donna to assuage her grief, Audrey because she has a crush on Cooper and believes - an a realistically naive way - that if she can crack the case, he'll fall in love with her. That's brilliant and it's realistic and it's easy to watch, follow and believe in.

"Episode 4" makes good use out of its serialized structure, not only adding new plot threads and twists, but giving some essential character development to continue progressing the characters so they continue to become more and more fleshed out, more faceted, and more realistic. Norma Jennings feels compelled to aid her husband in getting out of jail, despite knowing that it will likely be the end of her emotional affair with Big Ed. Norma is portrayed as a woman of great integrity and kindness, and she progresses into something of a mother figure to Shelly as well. It's rare that a show treats its second or third tier characters (Norma is on the periphery of both the major plots) with that much care.

Furthermore, developing both Donna and Audrey works wonderfully for both of them and the unlikely good girl/bad girl pairing makes for an interesting dynamic as they set off to expose Laura's killer. It's nice to see Audrey do more than simply sway in a sultry fashion and Donna do more than cry or moon over James.

But this is one of the big episodes where Cooper uses every scene he is in to truly define himself as the hero of Twin Peaks and his role in "Episode 4" is no nonsense. We are treated to a performance where Cooper stands up for Sheriff Truman to his boss over Truman punching Albert in the prior episode. Going out on a limb for his new friend makes him likable and courageous. Kyle MacLachlan continues to bring his sense of whimsy to the role and it plays very much in his favor in this episode. But he is able to go from not quite right to deeply emotive with no transition, like when Cooper relays the story of his one lost love, then shoots off a few rounds at the firing range. MacLachlan sells the performance perfectly.

But the most daring performance might also be the simplest. Actor Al Strobel appears shirtless, confirming he is a one-armed man and he plays his scenes as deeply emotive, just the safe side of being overly-dramatic. He keeps his tears just in check enough to be believable and he rocks the episode as Philip Gerard!

Anyone who likes a good investigative drama will love "Episode 4" of Twin Peaks, provided they've been watching the other episodes. Here is hits is stride and is witty, wonderful and clever unlike most anything else that is on television.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Twin Peaks - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the groundbreaking debut season reviewed here!
or check out the entire series, available in the Gold Box Definitive edition, reviewed here!

For other works with Chris Mulkey, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Lost - Season 3
Rain Man


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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