Following on from “Laura Palmer’s Diary,” “The Orchid’s Curse” was one of the most tightly plotted and structured episodes in the second season of Twin Peaks, revolving around two symmetrical situations. On the one hand, Dale Cooper and Harry Truman’s efforts to recover Audrey Horne from One-Eyed Jack’s was paralleled by Donna Hayward and Maddy Ferguson’s efforts to recover Laura Palmer’s secret diary from Harold Smith’s apartment. On the other hand, Leo Johnson and Nadine Hurley both return home from hospital during this episode, although under very different conditions.
Since they pertain more directly to the ongoing investigation into Laura’s death, the two recovery operations play more of a central role here, cementing an increasingly noirish and nocturnal mood to the series that sees many of the major plot points taking place at night and moving out into the woods as things escalate towards the revelation of Laura’s killer. In the last episode, we were introduced to Judge Sternwood, played by veteran Hollywood actor Royal Dano, a circuit magistrate who is brought in to preside over Leland Palmer’s bail hearing. From his first appearance in cape and cravats, Sternwood plays like a figure straight out of American Gothic literature, and his brief presence in the series is crystallised, here, in one key piece of advice to Agent Cooper: “I’d advise you to keep your eye on the woods – the woods are wondrous here, but strange.”
Of course, this is the advice that Cooper has been getting all along, especially from the Giant in the opening episode, who warned him that “the owls are not what they seem.” However, there’s a new kind of darkness and seriousness to Judge Sternwood’s advice that sets the stage for a – mostly – very sombre episode, one of the most intense in the series so far, as the action quickly branches off into the two recovery operations, each of which is driven by a map – a map of Harold Smith’s apartment and a map of One-Eyed Jack’s. Most of the episode cuts between these two spaces, each of which the respective characters (Maddy and Donna on the one hand, and Dale and Harry on the other) into their inner sancta. In the case of Harold Smith, it’s the tropical hothouse that’s somewhat incongruously placed in the midst of his apartment; in the case of One-Eyed Jack’s, it’s the “Tiberian Baths,” the most exclusive and lascivious zone within the brothel. In both cases, however, it feels as if we are moving ever closer towards the stylistic consummation of the series, as the palette gets warmer and warmer, the spaces become more cloistered and reticulated, and the sense of suffocating sensuality grows to fever pitch, culminating with a series of close-ups of the stamens, pistils and other internal organs of Smith’s orchids.
Indeed, the defining image of the episode is the interior of a bright pink orchid that gathers everything lurid about One-Eyed Jack’s and distills it into a single sensually evocative cipher for the style and outlook of the series itself. Throughout these sequences, Dale and Maddy are wearing black, and that colour comes to define both of them over the following episodes, as they start to gather the darkness of Twin Peaks around them and both, in their different ways, fight to contain and control it. Between that strangely noble darkness and the pearl palettes cushioning and suffocating it, you can start to see the stylistic co-ordinates of the Black Lodge come into place, as well as the way in which the Lodge implodes any convenient moral symbolism that might attach to its red and black palette.
In a strange way, although the sequence with Dale and Harry – and the recovery of Audrey – is much more integral to the plot, it’s the strand focusing on Donna, Maddy and Harold that has the final word, if only by dint of sheer stylistic histrionics. As with the opening shot of “Laura’s Secret Diary,” it’s here that you really start to glimpse the kind of insane energy that would come to define Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as Donna and Maddy’s final confrontation with Harold is set to an intense, jagged, kinetic motif that’s quite unlike anything else in Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack so far. Given the expressionist framing, canted angles and hyperbolic delivery, as well as the staginess and theatrical constriction of Harold’s room – he hasn’t left it for years – the result is closer to classical Hollywood than daytime soap, with writer Graeme Clifford effectively presenting us with a miniature film-within-the-film.
Given that Clifford directed Frances, it’s hard not to see some of Jessica Lange’s intensity within Harold, played by Lenny van Dohlen, part of a heightened cinematic register within this episode as a whole, especially in and around the scenes involving Judge Sternwood. And yet, like so many other episodes of Twin Peaks, this one seamlessly self-corrects with the other parallel plot developments, both of which have a much more soapy, televisual quality. That’s particularly clear in Leo’s return home, partly because the Johnson household has always felt like the soapiest in the series, not least because it’s where (I think) we first see Invitation to Love for the first time. At the very least, it’s the space that’s most identified with this soap-within-a-soap in my mind, partly because of how its architecture and layout contrasts with the residences in Twin Peaks proper, although perhaps that’s material for another time.
I couldn’t end, however, without mentioning Nadine’s return home from hospital. While I feel that this particular event is not necessarily soapy in itself, there is something about its sheer improbability that makes it feel soapy to me, especially because no character embodies the obsessive, melodramatic energy of the series quite like Nadine. Although she’s more of a supporting character, she seems like the affective motor-engine of the series whenever she emerges, wacky on the surface but also imbued with a propulsive energy that goes beyond her individual role or conscious agency. More on her next time, perhaps, but for now let’s end with one of the strangest facts about this episode – the appearance of legendary singer-songwriter Van Dyke Parks in a brief cameo during Leland’s hearing. In a series so fixated with music and sound, I still can’t figure this one out. What’s he doing there? Is he integral to the plot or is it simply a matter of an eccentric icon who wanted to be a part of the experience in some way, however minor? As Jeffrey Beaumont observed in Blue Velvet, it’s a strange world.