Twin Peaks S02E13: “Checkmate” (19/1/91)

The thirteenth episode of the second season of Twin Peaks is where things start to pick up again after the free fall caused by the closure of the Laura Palmer case. In part, that’s because the writers finally start to coalesce the disparate plot threads around a new suspenseful focus – the arrival of Windom Earle, Dale Cooper’s ex-partner, in Twin Peaks. But it’s also because the science fiction fringes of the series are deflected through soapiness in a way, drawing upon the long connection between soap opera and sci-fi to produce a new kind of hallucinatory tone and intensified atmosphere. Between Major Briggs’ revelation of his involvement in Project Blueprint, a US investigation into UFOs commenced in the 50s and discontinued in the 60s, and the first appearance of Invitation to Love since the first season, it feels as if the series has managed to tap into the contorted mid-century backdrop that made the earlier episodes so wonderful, albeit in a new and even more surreal way.

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Part of that return to melodrama – or that reconfiguration of science fiction as melodrama – is a new attention to female characters and female scenarios. In the last couple of episodes, Norma, Nadine, Evelyn, Josie and Catherine have all had major plot strands, but for the first time they coalesce quite tightly here, with each woman managing to find a temporary line of flight out of an unhappy and constrictive domestic situation, which is perhaps why they all feel like so many facets of Laura as well, caught between the belief that escape must be inevitable and the equally pressing belief that escape can never really happen for them. No character captures that tension quite like Norma, who even in her most joyful moments has a kind of reflexive melancholy that draws her closer to Laura’s strange sadness than any other character in the show. Of course, Twin Peaks always prioritised the intuitive and affective epistemologies of soap opera over the more rationalist and masculine epistemologies of police procedural, but the male characters feel feminised here as never before as well.

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It feels appropriate, then, that the episode ends with Special Agent Denise Bryson finally appearing “in disguise” as Denis for the sake of a drug bust with Dale Cooper on Jacques Renault in Dead Dog Cabin, only to transition back into Denise for the final stage of the stakeout. In a comic set piece, the dealers don’t recognise Denise as Denis as she exposes her garter to distract them from Dale’s advances, in what almost feels like a parodic secondary revision of Laura’s final night, especially since Renault is one of the drug dealers – the only properly surviving member of the party that brought Laura to her death – and Dead Dog Cabin looks so much like Leo Johnson’s cabin, where some of Laura’s final hours took place. At the other end of the spectrum, even Ben Horne’s absurd subplot – which now extends to constructing a scale model of Gettysburg – almost works as a parody of the more masculine register of strategy, investigation and reconnaissance work, especially because it blends into his instructions to Bobby Briggs about following Hank Jennings, a procedural red herring if ever there was one.

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However, it’s in the James Hurley-Evelyn Marsh subplot that this feminising atmosphere reaches it apex, since this almost plays as blueprint for the kinds of emasculating, synthetic female power that would come to define the 90s erotic thriller, the last real iteration of 70s and 80s neo-noir. What’s interesting about this early version, however, is that Evelyn’s manipulation and exploitation of James is subordinated to the way in which her presence turns him to an object of desire and veneration on the same level as Laura. As this narrative arc proceeds, their romance invests James with the kind of sensuality and sexuality that almost seemed to be demanded by his beauty earlier in the season, but which was never really acknowledged by Laura, who found him “too sweet,” nor by Donna or Maddy, whose relationship with him was always bound up with and mediated by their shared investigation into Laura’s murder.

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In other words, it’s almost as if James had to leave Twin Peaks – and the memory of Laura – to be fully sexualised for the first time, which is astonishingly late in the piece for such a smouldering actor, and all the more striking and surprising for that. In a stunning move, the end of the episode actually cuts away from the escalating siege at Dead Dog Cabin to depict James reclining shirtless in bed like some gorgeous Calvin Klein or Abercrombie and Fitch model, homoeroticised as much as eroticised for the first time. Part of what makes this subplot so powerful, then, is that it converges the soapy and sci-fi elements of the episode into a single atmosphere, since while it’s more couched in the language of melodrama than any other subplot (with the possible exception of Catherine Martell’s invocation of Andrew Martell and Thomas Eckhardt), Evelyn herself is also arguably the most robotic, synthetic figure in the entire series. Suffused with the cyborg, post-human eroticism that would come to define the 90s femme fatale, she forces Badalamenti’s score to really explicate its synthetic foundation and technological sensibility to accommodate her presence and performance.

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Throughout the Evelyn-James subplot, that convergence of soap opera and science fiction starts to feel a lot like horror, a trend that characterises this episode as a whole, which is full of moments at which characters unexpectedly step into the frame in quite a stylised, theatrical and suspenseful manner. It’s there in the climax at Dead Dog Cabin, one of the few spaces and narratives in this late part of the series that really feels immersed in the woods in an organic way, thanks to some great on-location shooting. It’s also there in a surprisingly eerie sequence in which Hank attacks Ed Hurley, only for Nadine to suddenly enter the frame and save the day. But it’s clearest in the terrific penultimate sequence, in which Leo Johnson finally comes alive and stalks Shelley, set to a manic, jangly score that effectively undoes the rockabilly riff that has itself done so much to undo Badalamenti’s atmospherics over the last few episodes.

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So powerful is this sequence, in fact, that it almost plays like a miniature movie, with Shelley waking up in the middle of the night to realise that Leo has left his chair and is staring at her, silhouetted, from the other side of the house. Earlier in the season, Leo started to feel like an inchoate slasher, especially in an eerie sequence in which he coated his face in cake as Shelley and Bobby danced around him like maniacal teenagers. It’s appropriate, then, that his face is covered in cake once again – it’s his signature mask – as he appears and disappears from Shelley’s field of vision, exhibiting the strange combination of blunt corporeality and disembodied mobility that characterises the most insatiable slashers. As the rockabilly riff starts to morph, the lights in the Johnson house, flicker, pool and coalesce, while director Todd Holland focuses on the light fixtures themselves in a really forensic, fetishistic and Lynchian manner – a real reprieve from the hammy expressionist lighting at the end of the previous episode.

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At that point, the action quickly cuts to the Sheriff Department, which is lit in exactly the same way, and where Windom Earle has left his first victim – the most macabre image since Leland killed Maddy – with one eye poked out, next to the staring eyes of a mounted deer. While the next episode, “Double Play,” will conclude with an even more emphatic convergence of Leo’s slasher energy and Windom Earle’s demonic choreography, the effect is still eerie enough here to make it feel like BOB has suddenly re-entered the picture, and that Earle is going to be able to draw upon the same lurking presence in the mountains that sustained BOB. In a checkmate of its own, then, the series has finally found a way to continue BOB’s evolution without having him simply or simplistically inhabit another body, and from hereon out it’s most onwards and upwards, especially in the next episode – but I’ll save that for the next review.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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