As the title might suggest, “Variations and Relations” acts as a bridge to the final three episodes of Twin Peaks, forming the connective tissue that allows the coalescing plot strands of the later part of the second season to finally condense into an escalating climax. True to the spirit of this part of the series, it has a centripetal momentum at times, full of lines of flight and emotional and physical departures, paired with a general tendency towards convergence, as the disappearance of Leo Johnson, the arrival of Windom Earle and the discovery of the petroglyph in Owl Cave all start to congeal into one grand narrative. In the process, the supernatural material starts to be folded back into the main life of the narrative – or vice versa – as all the spaces in the town start to accrue some of the eerie, otherworldly potential they enjoyed in the first season.
Unfortunately, this is also the point at which Earle really starts to get tiresome, partly because it’s the point at which he stops depending upon the personae that made him so eerie over the last few episodes, leaving little for Kenneth Welsh’s performance to do but keep on escalating to ever more baroque, hyperbolic extremes. Granted, histrionic acting is Twin Peaks’ stock in trade, but Earle’s comparative isolation means that he never really has anyone to bounce that energy off, resulting in a series of monologues that become more and more exhausting as they proceed. In fact, “Variations on Relations” opens with one of his last real interactions with the outsider world, as he lures a stoner drifter dufus into his cabin, plies him with alcohol, coerces him into allowing himself to be cast in a giant chess piece, and then shoots him in the heart with a giant crossbow. It’s as absurd and atonal as it sounds – a stoner trying to comprehend Earle through a comic pot haze – and really neglects what made Earle so creepy and eerie – as well as so redolent of Leland Palmer – in the previous episodes.
In a strange way, then, Earle is somewhat displaced from the convergence of the series around his actions and plans, which admittedly does serve to somewhat dissociate him from the world of Twin Peaks as a whole, cementing his association with the Black Lodge and paving the way for his gradual dissolution into surveillance imagery and technology in the subsequent episode. It also turns him into a kind of inevitable third party in Cooper and Annie’s relationship as the series converges around them which, again, is spectacularly in the next episode, where romance, Earle’s gaze and the camera itself are converged into some of the best shots in the entire series. For now, however, it’s enough that Earle feels strangely continuous with the unspeakable sadness that seems to haunt both Annie and Cooper’s past, and which makes their romance so melancholy and hopeful at the same time.
That’s particularly clear, here, in their first and only date – a nature hike that turns into a boat ride on the Twin Peaks lake – and the single most beautiful scene between them in the entire series. More than ever before, that strange shared sadness shines through, lending a real pathos to Annie’s return to Twin Peaks and an even greater pathos to her eventual sequestration in the Great Lodge that goes above and beyond the terror of Lynch’s imagery and imaginary (“I know about the dark tunnel you can fall into”). While Heather Graham is a revelation – it’s easily one of her best roles – the scene is also a testament to McLachlan’s versatility as an actor, since he’s just as compelling – if not more so – in this personal, romantic, earnest vein as he was in the more procedural role of FBI agent. In both cases, his intuitive epistemology gives him a wonderful relish for the present moment that almost makes it a foregone conclusion that his days with Annie are numbered, and that the moments they share are destined to come to an end sooner than either of them would wish.
Interestingly, this beautiful scene leads on to quite a moody, soulful sequence between Cooper and John Wheeler in front of the fire at the Great Northern. Finding themselves sitting next to each other, they engage in some small talk about love – they have never met and are never introduced in the series – that plays as a way of tentatively approaching the fact that Cooper and Audrey’s own chemistry, once so integral to the series, has never been resolved either. At moments, it almost feels as if the writers are trying to siphon off some of that chemistry to Audrey and John’s relationship, and yet in the next episode John leaves for good, as if there were something about Cooper and Audrey that was insurmountable after all, even if their rapport is no longer a direct narrative focus of the series.
Alongside all that, this is also David Lynch’s last appearance in the series before returning to direct “Beyond Life and Death,” the final episode, and it would be hard to think of a weirder performance from this most notorious of weird directors. Continuing his fixation with Shelley from “On the Wings of Love,” Gordon Cole convinces her to give him a kiss in the diner in full view of Bobby and, despite the sleaziness of his advance, the strangeness of his manner, and the fact that he is middle-aged, Shelley responds with zeal. At one level, it’s clearly a way of bringing Bobby and Shelley’s romance to a point of crisis, but beyond that it also feels like Lynch’s own strange riff on the mid-century diner culture that he has distorted into his own, as well as his own personal embodiment of the twisted mid-century family and gender norms that animate the series and soapiness as a whole. Whatever you think of it, it certainly doesn’t demystify Lynch or make him any more accessible or easier, and that’s a good preparation for and prologue to three of the most challenging episodes in the entire series.