Twin Peaks S02E16: “The Condemned Woman” (16/2/91)
With “Slaves and Masters,” director Diane Keaton reintroduced a warmth and sensuality that had been lacking in Twin Peaks for some time, and “The Condemned Woman” follows up with one of the most breathless, emotionally tumultuous episodes this season, as we’re taken through a whirlwind of romantic deferrals, frustrations and triumphs: Nadine and Ed break up in a surprisingly moving sequence, James and Donna have a romantic picnic in a picturesque grove and declare their love for each before James sets out on another soul-searching road trip; Norma asks Hank for a divorce and Hank threatens to refuse if she doesn’t provide him with an alibi for the night the mill burned down; Harry is forced to confront the possibility that Josie is guilty and that their entire romance has been a sustained act of deception; and, finally, Donna, Audrey and Shelley all receive fragments of a love poem – by Shelley – as part of Windom Earle’s grand plan.
Above all, however, Audrey meets John Wheeler, her main line of flight out of the narrative dead end that seemed to be looming for her midway through this season. Again, Keaton had a lot to do with that, framing Audrey in a much more expansive and generous way than any director since Lynch’s mid-season episode, to the point where the arrival of John almost feels like a foregone conclusion, a mere embodiment of the newfound horizons widening around her: “I’ve been at the far corners of the earth…it’s glorious out there, Audrey.” Just as she is on the verge of being ensconced at the Great Northern once and for all – taking up her first stint at the concierge’s desk – John arrives and asks for his luggage to be collected from his personal jet, producing a sudden shift in scale for Audrey that also makes John’s revitalisation of the Horne business, and the operation of the Great Northern, feel like something of a foregone conclusion as well.
In the process, the preponderance of romantic storylines suffuses everything in this episode with a soft, romantic glow, with the warm bath of Badalamenti’s synth tones feeling commensurate to what is actually happening on the screen for the first time in many episodes. Not surprisingly, that renewed aesthetic focus centres on Audrey, who always seemed to personify the pearl-filtered sensuality of the series more than any other character, not least because of her sojourn into the most cloistered and sequestered regions of One-Eyed Jack’s – and those pearly filters are amped up here again and enhanced by a retreat from extended exterior sequences, as the science-fiction shift to the woods is temporarily halted in favour of a restored focus on the Great Northern as the epicentre of all the series’ concerns and preoccupations.
Of course, that’s not to say that everything taking place at the Great Northern is equally compelling, since by this stage the Ben Horne subplot has virtually become a workplace comedy. In this episode, he’s shifted his focus from Civil War reenactments to the pine weasel, a local species that is on the verge of being wiped out by Catherine Martell’s Ghostwood Estate. With the weasel as his mascot, Horne becomes an advocate for ensuring that Twin Peaks “remains unspoiled in an era of vast environmental destruction,” seeing in the future of the town the fate of “life as we know it.”
In many ways, the writers found Horne’s narrative most difficult to extricate from Laura Palmer, and as a result he tends to be the character who most often allegorises the anxieties, frustrations and shortcomings of the series as a whole. This time around, it’s hard not to see his Twin Peaks preservation movement as stemming from the same nostalgic impulse as his obsession with the historical footage of the Great Northern that kickstarted his Civil War reveries, except that here the nostalgia is more revisionist and the longing to return to those heady early days of the series is given more of a wry inflection. Indeed, by this point, Horne’s reversal of character so comically incongruous – and his relish in redemption so histrionic – that it almost comes full circle and matches the zany intensity of the first season, to the point where the rehabilitated weasel feels like a comic dig at his own implausibly rehabilitated character, his sprit animal in more ways than one.
Still, the conclusion to the episode restores the Great Northern with all the occult power of the early part of the series, in one of the most iconic sequences in both seasons. As “The Condemned Woman” proceeds, its romantic fixations – and its convergence of romance and crime – gradually coalesces around Josie, who reaches the end of her arc here. Throughout the episode, there’s a sense of both Josie and the series coming full circle, with director Lesli Linka Glatter replicating the first shot of Josie – the first shot of any character in the series – shortly before Andrew Packard makes a toast “to beginnings and endings and the wisdom to know the difference.” In the incredible final sequence, Josie is take by BOB, in his first appearance since departing from Leland, and then trapped by him in a bedside drawer at the Great Northern before being supernaturally morphed into the woodwork.
Even in a series famed for its incongruities and ellipses, this sequence stands out for its sheer weirdness, especially since it’s never really addressed in the following episode beyond Dr. Hayward’s observation that he can’t really determine a cause of death for Josie. In a series packed full of bizarre and inexplicable autopsies, however, that’s not so remarkable, and so Josie’s ending hangs over the narrative as a mystery that is never solved – a mystery too great for even the third season, apparently, since Joan Chen hasn’t been named amongst the cast. And yet the openness and ambiguity of this most cryptic of conclusions seems to be precisely the point, since it works perfectly as a way of renewing the confluence between BOB, the Great Northern and the warm, pearl-filtered aesthetic of the early part of the series without simply replicating it either, as Josie is effectively enshrined and preserved in the palette and texture of the hotel. It was a roundabout route, but, finally, it feels as if the writers have managed to create some continuity with the earlier incarnation of Twin Peaks without being slavishly devoted to it either – and from here on it’s a steady approach to Lynch’s landmark finale.
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