“Dispute Between Brothers” officially feels like the beginning of the third “part” of Twin Peaks, if not the third season per se, since this is the point at which the action definitively moves away from the investigation into Laura Palmer’s murder. When I first watched Twin Peaks in 2001, I saw it all on a box VHS set that didn’t really distinguish between seasons, which is perhaps why I always envisaged this as the beginning of the second season. Certainly, the distinction between this episode and the last is much more dramatic than the distinction between the first and second seasons, to the point where “Dispute Between Brothers” often resembles a completely different series in its effort to reorient itself without Laura Palmer as a guiding focus. Whereas most of the series is quite soapy in its willingness to stretch an entire day out over several weeks, three whole days have elapsed since we were last in Twin Peaks, allowing the episode to open at Laura’s wake in the midst of a conversation between Dale Cooper, Harry Truman and Sarah Palmer.
In some ways the time lapse was necessary simply to make this conversation tenable, since Sarah’s reaction to Leland’s culpability would presumably have been too inconceivable to even visualise at the moment at which she found out about his real relationship with Laura. As it stands, she feels just a little too placid and resigned in her conversation with Harry and Cooper but, being the actor that she is, Zabriskie manages to imbue even that resignation with a pregnant intensity, leaving the camera with little to do by the end of the scene but to just zoom into her face as she closes her eyes in testimony to everything that is still simmering and bubbling beneath the surface. From thereon, the action expands out to the wake itself, which is the real transition point between the old Twin Peaks and the new Twin Peaks, and is as queasy, tonally, as that might suggest, with director Tina Rathborne clearly trying to capture the gravity of the occasion but also aiming to create enough of an upbeat tone to provide the series with enough momentum to move on to its next incarnation.
As a result, it’s a bit like the downbeat and upbeat halves of Laura Palmer’s Theme had been blended into a single melody, as all the characters start to move into their next trajectories, their second lives, learning how to orient themselves anew without the investigation into Laura’s murder to anchor them. Apparently the cast felt quite abandoned by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and they certainly feel quite vulnerable here, treading water in a kind of uneasy free fall between one iteration of the town and the next that makes for one of the most tentative, hesitant and self-doubting episodes in the entire series (although it’s arguably outdone by the subsequent episode, “Masked Ball”). On top of that, many of the characters simply look different, as if a cloud or ambience has been lifted from Twin Peaks and taken many of its quirks, mannerisms or frustrations along with it, reiterating just how much the characters were embodied and defined, physiologically, by the way in which they reacted or contributed to Laura’s murder.
At the same time, new relationships start to form – or, rather, the episode simply assumes a rapport between characters, such as Bobby Briggs and Audrey Horne, that were never really there. And Rathborne simply doesn’t seem to know what to do with some characters, especially those, like Ben Horne, who were particularly contoured by Laura’s unimaginable depths and what they managed to get her to disclose of them. In that sense, it’s the absence of Laura as a syntactic device – connective tissue – rather than the absence of the police investigation that’s an issue, since Laura was as much a condition of possibility as a character in herself, suffusing every relationship with an eerie potential that exceeded anything we knew or could know about the residents of Twin Peaks. Since Sheryl Lee is slated to appear in the third season, it’s presumably that sense of possibility that Lynch is keen to revise and renew – something that also occurs in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – but for now its absence gives the series a really naked, vulnerable quality, and it’s quite sad to see such incredible actors and characters struggling to articulate themselves.
In some ways, the title of the episode says it all, since it refers to a dispute between the Mayor of Twin Peaks and his brother at Laura’s wake – an incident that barely figures in the story – as if it were necessary to foreground these minor, peripheral characters because nobody else’s trajectory feels clear and no other narrative direction feels established. Interestingly, the worst subplot is the only one that really still insists on a direct connection to Laura’s murder – the ongoing, escalating crime drama revolving around Jean Renault and One-Eyed Jack’s – and it almost feels as if Lynch and Frost have only kept Renault around in order to continue anchoring the palette in the series in the brothel, since he’s the only character still associated with it now that Ben Horne has retreated into his office for the remainder of the season.
Like the characters, too, all the spaces in the film feel different in the wake of Laura’s absence, while we start to see new spaces at well that set the tone for the rest of the season. In particular, we’re granted a glimpse of Harry’s house for the first time, as Josie Packard turns up at the door in the middle of a thunderstorm in what will turn out to be the beginning of one of the soapiest sequences over the next few episodes. At the same time, the more familiar spaces are deflected through a new register, part soapy supernaturalism (“Harry, do you believe in guardian angels?”) and part contemporary spin on The Twilight Zone, with Major Briggs becoming a major player for the first time in the later part of the episode. Even that, though, feels a bit ham-fisted, culminating in the final scene, in which Cooper gazes up into an owl’s eyes as Major Briggs has an alien encounter in the woods, with the appearance of David Duchovny in the next episode cementing this back half of the season as a precursor to The X-Files as much as Lynch’s own filmography of the 90s.
Still, stuff does happen – stuff has to happen – and the most significant narrative development sees Cooper forced to remain in Twin Peaks after discovering that he is being investigated by the FBI himself due to his decision to cross the Canadian border during the raid on One-Eyed Jack’s. Despite all the chaos, it is a powerful change to see Cooper in civilian’s clothes, on the other side of the law, and feels like a decisive break or development in his character. In the background, Wyndham Earle starts to circle around the narrative, Nadine enters high school – her subplot is the most aggressive in insisting on a new era of Twin Peaks – and Norma’s mother turns out to be the pseudonymous food critic M.C. Wenz, in a weepie aside that forms part of one of my favourite narrative threads in and around the RR Diner in this later part of the series. Still, this episode and the next represent the series at its greatest crisis of identity, so I find it hard not to want to hurry through both and catch up with the series as it starts to redefine itself again – although that’s still (at least) a couple of episodes away.