Poised halfway between the Laura Palmer and Wyndham Earle narrative arcs, “Masked Ball” may be the most tentative, hesitant, self-doubting episode in the entirety of Twin Peaks. While the writers were well known for improvising as they went, this is the first time you can really feel that the show was being conceived episode to episode. It opens with the rockabilly riff that we last heard around Nadine’s subplot – a riff that seems almost designed to put Badalamenti’s atmospherics to bed once and for all, or to at least dissociate them entirely from the spectacle of Laura’s face wrapped in plastic – as James Hurley cruises down the highway on his motorbike, in the first footage to be set outside Twin Peaks (or of anyone departing Twin Peaks). A lot of fans feel like James’ relationship with Evelyn Marsh, which begins in this episode, is the moment at which the series started to jump the shark, and if you fall into that camp you’ll probably also feel that this is the moment at which Twin Peaks had to start the slow, steady journey back to the legitimacy of David Lynch’s final episode.
It’s appropriate, then, that Special Agent Gordon Cole, played by Lynch, makes a muted appearance here, if only because it reiterates just how distant Lynch feels from the series at this particular point. As he shouts at Cooper from a long distance line, reassuring him that everything is going to be fine with his FBI misconduct hearing – “these are hard times, but we get through” – it feels like we’re hearing Lynch’s message to the cast as a whole (or perhaps the message that the cast needed to hear from Lynch at this particular point). Even more than “Dispute Between Brothers,” then, this episode is starting to take on the quality of a completely different series, with an almost unrecognisable cast of characters at certain key moments. At the same time, the soundtrack is starting to change, with the rockabilly riff becoming more and more prominent, giving whole sequences the feeling of a wacky frat comedy rather than a suspenseful procedural (or suspenseful soap), especially whenever we focus on Nadine’s high school subplot (and speaking of frat comedies, I’ve always wondered whether “Little Nicky,” the demonic child that Andy and Dick Tremayne foster parent, and who we meet in this episode, was the inspiration for the 1990s Adam Sandler film of the same name).
Admittedly, there are a few half-hearted references to the original soundtrack, and especially to Laura Palmer’s Theme, but they’re always truncated, as if they’ve become almost too painful to play in their entirety now that the case has been closed. Similarly, the musical sequences in the Great Northern are also underwhelming without Leland’s manic energy, while the irreverent lounginess of Audrey’s Theme – and the related musical motifs – are somewhat undercut by the way in which certain subplots start to sediment into a full-blown soap, as the cryptic allusions that were previously anchored in Laura’s murder expand into extended monologues and discursive expositions that feel light years away from the screwy repartee of the first season.
Most of this soapiness is centred on two crime subplots, one revolving around the surprise return of Andrew Packard and the imminent arrival of Thomas Eckhardt and the other revolving around Jean Renault’s ongoing efforts to exact revenge on Agent Cooper. As in the previous episode, the second subplot is the worst – the last, nagging thread directly related to Laura’s murder that just won’t go away. The second thread, however, is a bit more compelling, just because it’s presented more frankly as soap opera in terms of framing, dialogue and characterisation, and actually works quite well to resurrect the noirish moodiness that’s on the verge of being drained from the series at this particular point.
Speaking of noir, I’ve always found the relationship between James and Evelyn kind of intriguing – partly because it’s the only part of the action that really takes place outside of Twin Peaks – but I’ll focus on that more in a later writeup since the romance is only in its early days here. Suffice to say that the tempo of the show changes quite a bit at this point, with some segments passing in the accelerated time of science fiction and others passing in the extended time of soap opera – and it’s this latter sense of time that crystallises in the subplot revolving around Evelyn and James, where it immerses us in the dreamier, oneiric side of noir in its allusions to titles like Sunset Boulevard and Angel Face.
In fact, if I had to choose one subplot which signalled the utter nadir of the series, it wouldn’t be James and Evelyn but the part played by Ben Horne, a character the producers could never get their head around after he turned out to be innocent of Laura’s murder. For much of the rest of the series he’s presented in a sentimental, lugubrious light, as if to compensate for him almost being the culprit, until it almost feels as if we’re witnessing the birth of a new character, or a new purity brought out by his final realisation of what exploiting and losing Laura actually meant. That culminates here, in a sequence in which he watches old grainy footage of the Great Northern while quoting Shakespeare, before cradling the blank screen after the footage runs out. For me, this always feels like the exact point in the series at which the writers officially ran out of ideas, leaving them with nothing but nostalgia for the original show – and our original glimpses of the Great Northern, so distant now – as well as a blank canvas that forced them to start from scratch.
As Ben Horne is reduced to doing shadow puppets against the blank screen, then, there’s an urgent sense that the series has to do something – anything – to save itself, and that starts to pay dividends as soon as the following episode. In my review of “Drive with a Dead Girl,” I mentioned the weirdness of the extended, sentimental flashback to Ben and Jerry’s childhood days, but in retrospect it feels like a preparation for this strange sentimental trajectory over the remainder of the season. As far as “Masked Ball” goes, however, the title really says it all, since in this case there isn’t even a masked ball to speak of so much as a sense that every character, as we previously knew them, has been masked and disassembled in some kind of irreversible manner.
And yet. And yet. In the midst of all this confusion – or perhaps because of it – “Masked Ball” manages to present us with one of the series’ most enduring cult figures, in the form of Special Agent Denise (formerly Denis) Bryson, a cross-dressing FBI agent played by David Duchovny, whose presence feels part and parcel of the way in which this later part of the second season anticipates The X-Files and other 90s TV sci-fi as much as the next stage in Lynch’s filmography. In her miraculous transition from Denis to Denise – and the way in which is suddenly consolidates and focuses Cooper’s compassion, curiosity and eccentricity for the first time in episodes – Denise’s presence is tantamount to a revelation, a vision of unexpected transfigurations and new directions (not least because Denis came across his penchant for cross-dressing as accidentally and contingently as so many of the key plot points and stylistic decisions for the show itself).
Not only does Denise Bryson offer us a wonderfully reparative vision of genderqueer identity – so ahead of its time that it almost feels out of time – but she feels like the series’ guardian angel at this point, hovering over it like a beacon of hope and a promise of unexpected continuities, which is presumably part of the reason why Lynch has made it clear that she will play a role in the third season as well, where she will hopefully elevate the proceedings as beautifully as she does here, in what turns out to be – unexpectedly – one of the very best concluding sequences this season, and a real rallying cry to the cast and crew to allow the series to reinvent itself in unexpected and disorienting ways.