Twin Peaks S02E09: “Arbitrary Law” (1/12/90)
In many ways, “Arbitrary Law” feels like the last episode of the second season of Twin Peaks – or at least the last episode that’s focused directly on Laura Palmer’s murder. In part, that’s because it’s full of connections back to Cooper’s dream at the beginning of the first season and his vision at the beginning of the second season. In part, it’s because this is the episode where Maddy Ferguson’s body is discovered, with the result that “Arbitrary Law” often plays as an effort to condense and recapitulate the entire series in a single episode.
As might be expected, that creates a quite artificial and heightened tone, with all the familiar shots, vistas and scenarios replayed as pure soap, right down to a conversation between Donna and James that recasts their soulful night journey in the first episode in the register of daytime television. To that end, the episode is full of close-ups – more than in the rest of the season combined – that both amp up the affective intensity of every exchange and reflect Cooper’s intensive scrutiny of every character as he senses his discovery of the culprit is near. For that reason, this often plays as Twin Peaks at its most Hitchcockian, a network of reflected and reciprocal gazes, especially in the opening scene, which takes place against a series of canted shots of the woods – so different from the pillow shots that normally frame the action – and is accompanied by a particularly Herrmann-esque lilt to Angelo Badalementi’s score.
That heightened atmosphere works well for what is now essentially a supernatural investigation, since the audience knows that Leland Palmer is the murderer and are waiting for Cooper to find out as well, and to then exorcise BOB from Leland’s body. As a result, the associative, intuitive epistemology that has driven the series as a whole is raised to fever pitch here, with the result that every utterance potentially feels like a clue. In fact, this now feels less like an investigation than Cooper simply waiting for Laura’s killer to disclose himself or herself, culminating with a conclusion in which he gathers all the suspects at the Roadhouse and invokes the power of full-blown magic, as a massive thunderstorm descends on the town outside and lightning flickers across the mise-en-scene every few minutes.
In some ways this final scene is the counterpoint to the gradually tightening close-ups, since it’s easily the most ambitiously scaled camerawork and lighting so far, with lots of elaborate crane shots that give the sense that we’re watching the finale of some epic game show. What it lacks in Lynchian nuance, then, it makes up for in campy spectacle, and often feels like the denouement to Clue, Deathtrap, Sleuth or any of the other stagy murder mysteries that were so popular in the late 70s and 80s. For that reason, I’ve always found the real climax of this episode to be an extraordinary sequence in which Donna visits Leland and gradually realises he’s the murderer, even if her suspicions are too inchoate for to even articulate them to herself. As Leland’s fatherly, avuncular concern for her grief subliminally morphs into BOB’s predatory stare, she finds herself on the cusp of a revelation that is only just arrested when Dale and Harry arrive at the door to take Leland down to the station.
By contrast, Leland’s final repentance is anything but subtle – a climactic, histrionic scene in which he absolves himself of BOB as the water mains burst in the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department and a cascade of liquid rains down in his jail cell. It’s a strange sequence, not least because it suggests that Leland had no real agency or culpability in Laura’s rape and murder – he was simply inhabited by BOB, “another person” – although the residual scepticism around BOB’s existence by Harry does a little to ameliorate that. As the episode comes to a conclusion, Dale, Harry, Hawk and Albert parts ways in the woods, but there’s also a sense that they will come together soon under another guise – that of a supernatural investigation squad – before we cut to a final POV shot from what appears to be BOB’s perspective as he forages through a car accident before making for the woods.
In other words, “Arbitrary Law” is a crossroads episode – the definitive moment (if you can find one) at which the Palmer investigation was closed and the series tried to reach for other dramas and wider canvases. As a result, it doesn’t seem to follow on in a linear fashion from the supreme open-endedness of “Lonely Souls,” David Lynch’s episode, but to instead exist in an alternate iteration of the series and to propose an alternate iteration of the series. From hereon in, things would start to get very spotty indeed, especially in the couple of episodes when the cast and directors were treading water between the Laura Palmer and Wyndham Earle narratives, but more on that next time – for now, let’s just enjoy this last residue of the arc that made the first season and a half of Twin Peaks so memorable.
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