Twin Peaks S01E02: “Traces to Nowhere” (12/4/90)
“Traces to Nowhere” was the first “official’ episode in the first season of Twin Peaks and is so differentiated from the pilot that it is still frequently referred to as “Episode 1” in guides to the series. Nevertheless, this is, for all intents and purposes, the second episode, and the beginning of the story proper. Whereas the pilot functioned partly as a standalone film directed by David Lynch, from hereon out Lynch’s direct involvement with the series would become less pronounced. With the exception of the following episode, none of the remainder of the first season was either written or directed by Lynch, who actually has more of an emphatic presence – as writer, director and actor – throughout the second season. For that reason, I’ve always been surprised that the second season has received such drastically different reviews from the first, since it’s here that Lynch really makes himself felt (although this could also be what rendered the second season so alienating to some viewers as well).
That’s not to say, however, that Lynch’s vision isn’t present in this second episode. For one thing, “Traces to Nowhere” is still written by Frost and Lynch. For another thing, the episode was directed by Duwayne Dunham, who had edited Blue Velvet and would go on to edit Wild at Heart. In fact, Lynch only offered Dunham the directorial role in the first place to provide him with stable work in the leadup to Wild at Heart, with the result that much of this second episode feels as if it is directed by Lynch, or at least designed to accommodate Lynch’s particular style and vision. Just as Dunham edited Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart to draw out all the peculiarities of Lynch’s visual register – especially his taste for static shots and warm, highly saturated colour palettes – so his role as director here consists partly in continuing and reinforcing the Lynch Effect of the pilot episode. In particular, Dunham was instrumental in reiterating the warm coral filters of that opening episode as a trademark of the entire series – a trademark that seems even more striking and immersive when watching it retrospectively on a digital television.
At the same time, however, Dunham was apparently instrumental in establishing the relationships between characters – the rich interpersonal element – as one of the hallmarks of the series. While the pilot episode elegantly outlined the different characters and suggested an enormous potential for complexity and inscrutability in their actions and interactions, it is only with this second episode that the sheer variety of relationships and rapports comes into focus. And rapport is probably a better word than relationship, all up, since there is barely a pair of characters in the series – however distant or tangential – that don’t have a specific manner of interacting with each other, or a specific set of interactive mannerisms that modulate slightly depending on who they are interacting with. Throughout this episode, Dunham draws upon Lynch’s work in the pilot to establish personality as a kind of riff, or musical motif, that sometimes acts in harmony with Angelo Badalamenti’s omnipresent score and sometimes rubs up against it in dissonant and deliberately distracting ways.
It’s no surprise, then, that this second episode sees characters perpetually scatting, dancing, breaking out into song and generally adopting a histrionic choreography that needs to burst into music to avoid collapsing under its own melodramatic momentum. Even from this early point, it’s clear which members of the cast were blessed with this histrionic delivery, and not always the ones you might expect – Grace Zabriskie, of course, as Sarah Palmer, but also Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Briggs, David Patrick Kelly as Jerry Horne and Jack Nance as Pete Martell. In truth, however, all of the characters – even the quieter ones – brim over with this melodramatic intensity, if only by drawing out hysterical and barely containable reactions in the characters around them. Yet it’s not just music but food that operates as a kind of melodramatic ceiling across this episode, with the characters continually achieving a state of emotional intensity in and through food that can only be captured by relishing the mouthfeel of language as if it were something that could be consumed and savoured in the same delectable and sensuous way.
Time and again, some massive emotional crescendo reaches its climax in a piece of pie or cup of coffee, while eating food also becomes a way of achieving catharsis for events that have happened more distantly in the narrative. Every bite of food seems to be a consummation of everything the character eating it has felt over the series so far, and yet at the same time to also intensify those experiences to a level where they need some further catharsis and relief. Hence the constant refrains and riffs that take place around food – the constant one-liners, commentary and general culinary ambience – as the episode takes the omnipresent diner culture of the 1950s and turns it into something uncanny and strange, an intensified vision of mid-century normality transplanted to the 1990s. At their most enraptured, the characters barely seem to speak at all, but to instead lapse into a form of glossolalia that is part speech, part music, part eating – a synaesthetic mouthfeel that refuses to differentiate the dialogue from the mise-en-scenes that surround it.
Yet even these riffs and refrains around food simply amp up the affective intensity rather than providing any catharsis or relief, which is perhaps why the series has generated such an intensely iterative fanbase over the last twenty years. You might say that the commentary around food in the series was operating as a series of memes before the digital age – certainly these riffs circulated in early UseNet discussions much as memes circulate today – accruing more intensity each time that they were repeated, until the act of speaking – and, more specifically, the act of repeating these commonplace observations of commonplace Americana – started to take on a supernatural and thaumaturgic intensity. Even by the end of this second episode, then, it’s unclear whether Agent Cooper’s rapturous riffs are a response to the coffee he is drinking or whether that rapture is what draws the perfection of that coffee into existence in the first place. That power of words to generate their own reality became an integral part of the series, but it starts with these small fragments of American vernacular, and the way they resurrect an older Americana that remains estranged both from from its historical roots and from the present day.
In some ways, then, my final impression of the second episode is of the aesthetic fragility of this zone between present and past. While the Twin Peaks “look” feels like a fait accompli in retrospect – especially with the canonical furore that has preceded the third season – it could easily have gone another way. Indeed, recent “quality” efforts to resurrect the series’ style find it difficult to recapture this zone, either normalising and naturalising it or opting for a more frankly supernatural register. In large part, that’s because quality television ironically leaves out the one ingredient – soap opera – so critical to Lynch’s sense of absurdity. That’s material for another time, however – for now, more coffee and cherry pie! Damn fine.
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