If there’s any one consistent register to “The Black Widow,” the twelfth episode of the second season of Twin Peaks, it’s bemusement. Most of the action focuses on the characters least affected by Laura’s murder, while we’re also introduced to a plethora of new and marginal characters, as if the writers were restocking and repopulating the series with a new generation of townsfolk. Given that the Windom Earle subplot still hasn’t come into focus, the effect is more of a random connection of scenes than a sustained – let alone suspenseful – narrative drive, although the tone is still a bit more upbeat than in the previous two episodes. While the series is still clearly treading water, it feels as if the screenwriters have got into a groove and have proved to themselves that they can muster up enough energy to simply keep going, even if it feels like most of the plot developments and character revelations are short term solutions at best, momentary distractions from the growing restlessness and disorganisation of this later part of the series as a whole.
As a result, it’s hard to articulate any particular shape to “The Black Widow,” whose strange and unformed atmosphere lies more in the incongruity of its component parts – an incongruity that the cast seem to be (perhaps grudgingly) in on by this point in the game. As previously, it’s Nadine and Mike that mark the most violent departure from the previous Twin Peaks “look,” with their subplot playing more like a low-budget, low-brow 80s teen film set in the 50s than anything resembling their previous personae in the series. At the same time, Bobby Briggs is starting to take command of the energy and atmosphere of the Great Northern, since Ben Horne doesn’t leave his study for most of the rest of the season, and Audrey seems condemned to spend the foreseeable future lurking around her father’s office door, which is perhaps why the writers need to contrive and nurture a screwy rapport between her and Bobby which never really existed before, and which doesn’t feel especially plausible even now.
Being confined to Ben’s receptionist also cuts against Audrey’s lithe mobility and plasticity in the first season, which had the effect of making her seem as if she was everywhere at one, and made her abduction and constriction at One-Eyed Jack’s send quite traumatic shock waves across the series as a whole. Here, she’s literally boxed into a corner, which is perhaps why the later part of the second season had to compensate in such a drastic manner with her jetsetting romance. In some ways, it’s Audrey’s constriction that really signals the end of the procedural focus of the series, since she was almost a personification of Agent Cooper’s intuitive forensic method – certainly his muse – in the way she was able to spontaneously seek out information and follow the reticulated, pearl-filtered interiors of the Great Northern into smaller and more cloistered spaces, which, once again, was what made it so dramatic to see her finally trapped by those spaces during her sojourn to One-Eyed Jack’s.
Here, instead, that procedural energy is diluted and deflected into two new investigation – Ben Horne’s injunction to Bobby to follow Hank and see what is happening with his drug empire, and Andy and Dick’s investigation into Little Nicky’s past. Of course, there are all number of criticisms you can make about the Little Nicky subplot – years later, it’s amazing that anyone thought it would be a viable way to rebuild audience engagement – but what struck me this time around was that, if the screenwriters were going to introduce a child character, they should have fallen back upon the boy who Donna met during her engagements with Harold Smith. Not only was he far eerier and more Lynchian that Nicky but he played a critical role in foreshadowing the death of Maddy Ferguson (“Something…is happening”) and would have created just the right amount of atmospheric continuity with Lynch’s magnificent climactic episode.
Still, the total nadir of this episode – and the series – has to be Ben Horne’s narrative, which here devolves into him donning Civil War clothes and poring over a scale model of Gettysburg. For me, this is the real moment at which the series jumped the shark, rather than (as so many fans claim) the romance between James and Evelyn. In fact, so preposterous and contrived in its “eccentricity” is this sequence – it’s much closer to the Saturday Night Live parody of Twin Peaks than anything up until the death of Leland Palmer – that it momentarily eclipses everything that’s come before it, exuding the inane iterability of a meme that just won’t die. It’s not hard to see, then, why fans watching the series in real time rapidly lost interest, especially since Ben Horne’s arc is part of a wider move to eviscerate the Great Northern of its atmospheric intensity, as if the departure, death and redemption of Leland – and the release of BOB into the surrounding woods – had transformed it into a totally different place.
Among other things, that means reconfiguring Cooper’s relationship with the Great Northern, so it makes sense here that he appears to be in a different room – or at least that we see his windows open for the first time, flooding his bed and suitcase with sun and suffusing the space with a sense of porosity and permeability that renders it only natural that he should start looking for lighter, brighter real estate possibilities in Twin Peaks over the duration of this episode. If that weren’t enough, the Great Northern also becomes the locus for a completely uninteresting subplot revolving around the Mayor and his wife that really puts the hotel to bed as an eerie or occult site – both figuratively and literally – in what feels a bit like a narrative thread that was originally intended to provide some tentative direction post-Laura but instead arrived stillborn and is only really being followed through and completed as a matter of obligation.
Alongside all these strange twists and turns, the science fiction is also developing, as it turns out that messages that Major Briggs received about Cooper were actually sent from Twin Peaks, rather than from the heavens, converging and conflating deep space with the surrounding woods, and generating more discussing about the possible meaning and location of the White Lodge. While I like the way this angle draws upon Cold War paranoia – it fits with the contorted Americana of the series as a whole – I just don’t really buy Major Briggs, since his self-seriousness, for all its campiness, grates uneasily with the playful allusiveness of the series as whole, and often feels totally miscast and misplaced to me. In fact, the sci-fi stuff is often handled in quite an awkward and atonal way more generally, generating a preposterous lighting pattern that seems to be desperately trying to recapture the expressionist touch of earlier episodes but just comes off as cheesy, canned suspense.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the final sequence, in which Cooper and Harry interrogate Norma’s father-in-law – easily the worst character this season – in Coop’s room, whose cosy, wood-panelled, pearl-saturated coordinates of yore are completely unrecognisable against the hyperbolic, incessant thunderstorm going on in the background. Cutting to a CGI depiction of mounting storm clouds, it’s the final nail in the coffin for the Great Northern – and Coop’s relationship with the Great Northern – and feels like the end of a forgettable, half-hearted horror film, which makes the desperate strains of Badalementi’s score feel even sadder and more misplaced.
Luckily, the flipside of this evisceration of one of the series’ most memorable spaces is a reinvestment of atmosphere elsewhere – most immediately Dead Dog Farm, the house that Cooper inspects and considers buying during this episode. Partly because it bears such a close resemblance to Leo Johnson’s cabin, where Laura was held before being murdered, this is one of the most effective expansions of the series out into the woods around the town – much more effective than the UFO stuff – and is shot with a heightened forensic expressionism that recalls the best bits of the first season without feeling too indebted to or nostalgic for them either. At the same time, the James Hurley-Evelyn Marsh subplot grows in atmosphere as well, with James meeting Evelyn’s brother, a chauffeur, whose presence just seems to reiterate this as a late, neo-noir descendant of films like Sunset Boulevard and Angel Face that focused on hard-boiled protagonists shacked up above garages while their automotive autonomy was subjected to a steely femme fatale.
More contemporaneously, the James-Evelyn subplot feels like an early instalment of the 90s erotic thriller – the last gasp of neo-noir – bringing a new kind of sultry eroticism to James’ presence that becomes even more overtly sexual in the next episode. As with so many 90s femme fatales too, Evelyn feels positively synthetic and cyborg-like compared to the main characters of Twin Peaks, and Badalamenti’s score morphs and writhes in some weird directions to match her, inspired in part by the manic organ music playing on the jukebox when she first locks eyes with James at the roadside bar where they meet. More on that next time, however, since this is one subplot that genuinely escalates over this transitional phrase of the series. For now, a final genuinely eccentric and random fact about “The Black Widow” – Molly Shannon makes an appearance as Little Nicky’s caseworker. In retrospect, this just seems to reiterate everything about the episode that plays as SNL parody, but there’s also something strange about seeing Shannon in such a serious part, in such an absurd subplot, that makes us aware that unexpected things can still happen at this point the Twin Peaks universe, if only in retrospect.