Twin Peaks S02E20: “The Path to the Black Lodge” (18/4/91)
If there’s an “underrated” episode in Twin Peaks, then it has to be “The Path to the Black Lodge,” which kickstarts the final three episodes of the series – a rough trilogy of Lynchian motifs, culminating with Lynch’s final episode – and contains possibly the greatest concluding sequence in the series after those outlined by Lynch in “Lonely Souls” and “Beyond Life and Death.” Over the later part of the series, it seems like there’s one benefit at the Great Northern after another – thanks in part to Ben Horne’s newfound philanthropy – and while that can sometimes seem a little too picaresque, it’s in this episode that this momentum really starts to crystallise around the upcoming Miss Twin Peaks pageant. Moreover, it’s also in this episode that this series of benefits and pageants really clarifies itself as a yearning, on the part of the directors and screenwriters, to morph the series back into its more stylised, hypnagogic, earlier self – in other words, to recover Lynch’s presence and influence, which may explain the peculiar prominence of Special Agent Gordon Cole at this back end of the second season.
Within that emergent, dream-like atmosphere, the love triangle between Ben Horne, Eileen Hayward and Doc Hayward grows ever more compelling, partly because Doc is one of the few characters who really recognises the manic continuity between Horne’s earlier and later incarnations, casually observing that “goodness in you is like a time bomb” and rendering “The Path to the Black Lodge” the episode that most perfectly folds Horne’s redemption narrative into the duplicity of Donna’s parentage and his efforts to renew his love affair with Eileen. For the first time in a long time, then, Laura Palmer’s Theme feels commensurate to Horne’s narrative without exactly detracting from his rehabilitation either. Instead, it’s the soaring parts of Badalementi’s iconic refrain that speak to his present situation, and which facilitate a wonderful transition to the Hayward attic, for a scene in which Donna continues to research her parentage in what feels more like an annex to the Great Northern, and to Ben’s world, rather than a part of the house we’ve got to know so intimately over the course of the series. Add to that the fact that Bobby is also dissociated from Horne in this episode, leaving the business world behind after reaffirming his love for Shelley, and it feels as if Ben’s arc has, quite improbably, reached a wonderfully pregnant conclusion, even if the pervasive presence of the pine weasel also subtly pokes fun at its pathos at the same time.
Speaking of the Hornes, this episode also marks the end of Audrey’s romance, as John Wheeler finds himself called away to deal with an urgent situation in South America. That in itself is quite a poignant situation, since John – so often framed as a Western figure – has functioned so wonderfully as a way of expanding the horizons of the series and allowing Audrey to escape from what initially appeared to be something of a narrative dead end. With his departure for South America, however, it becomes clear that there are horizons beyond which Audrey can’t follow, at least for the moment, not unlike Donna’s recognition that she can’t follow James on his soul-searching road trip (and it is worth mentioning that James never returns to the narrative after that final picnic scene with Donna in the woods, even if he apparently figures quite prominently in the third season). Along with the sadness, however, there is an even more emphatic sense of wonder, thanks in large part to a climactic scene between Audrey and John on the Twin Peaks runway – by far and away the most expansive space we have seen in the series so far – as she arrives at his private jet just in time for one last encounter before he embarks upon his trip.
If Wheeler has been framed as a Western figure, then this final sequence absorbs that into a more general ambience of classical Hollywood, recalling Casablanca in particular, albeit with a more contemporary, sensuous twist, as Audrey reveals that she’s a virgin and asks John to make love to her for the first time on his plane. In a wonderful twist, then, the expanded horizons of South America are displaced by the expanded horizons of this formative experience, to the point where it almost feels as if Wheeler has given Audrey everything she needs by the time she leaves in the plane, with the twilit expanse of runway tarmac suggesting that her horizons will continue to broaden from within Twin Peaks and that her physical yearning for escape has also been subsumed into a renewed awareness of her own power and potential. It’s scenes like this that really explain why Twin Peaks has come to be cemented in the popular imagination as a series of awry photographic poses and Hollywood tableaux, especially in the lead up to the third season.
Back in Twin Peaks proper, “The Path to the Black Lodge” also represents the point at which Catherine Martell, Pete Martell and Andrew Packard embark upon the last part of their narrative arc – the mystery box left behind by Thomas Eckhardt. Watching these characters takes on a particularly bittersweet edge in the days before the third season, since – along with Harry Truman and Josie Packard – they represent the one strand that won’t be continued, with Jack Nance having passed away and the other actors not returning. In other words, this is the one part of the series that will always, at some level, end in the 90s, not unlike the iconic out-takes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which, before the announcement of the third season, seemed destined to be the last thing we ever saw of Twin Peaks. While there’s no doubt that the third season is one of the most exciting and anticipated television events of the century so far, there’s something salutary, then, about these fragments that will still always speak to the mystery, opacity and sheer frustration – productive and devoted frustration – that accompanied the ending of the series’ first incarnation.
In many ways, the mystery box feels like a perfect analogy for the strange pull of this subplot, since, even within the context of the original series, the Martell/Packard arc felt more and more hermetically sealed from the rest of the narrative, with Catherine, Pete and Andrew seeming to retreat into a stylised soap universe more and more with each passing episode. Of course, that meant that this part of the series could afford to adopt a much more hyperbolic and histrionic acting style than any of the other subplots, to the point where it almost plays as parodic riff on this late, post-Lynchian part of the series – and criticisms of this part of the series – which is perhaps why it makes sense that it won’t be continued in any direct way the third time around. In that sense, the mystery box feels like an image for the eventual fate of this subplot as well, since even at the time you could probably have guessed that this would be the least likely of any of the narrative threads to be continued – and the most likely to stubbornly insist on some irreducible opacity to the series as a whole that would never permitted to be fully elucidated or reconciled with the rest of the characters and events.
That sense of opacity also extends to Windom Earle, who is abstracted more from the action than ever before, as if in reaction to his heightened presence and hyperbolic monologues in the previous episode. As the series proceeded through these final stages, the writers and directors searched, in different ways, for the best means of representing Earle, since it was clear that, at some level, he had to be a character in his own right, and form an authentic connection to Cooper’s past, but that he also had to be vague and diffuse enough to split the difference between BOB and the Black Lodge as well. Up until this point, the main strategy had been to largely remove Earle from the action and mediate him through his various personae, along with the rumours and stories that had spread about him, along with his own cryptic communications to Cooper in and around their deadly chess game.
At first, “The Path to the Black Lodge” starts in that vein, opening with an anecdote about Earle emerging from the woods that is far creepier than Earle himself, as he is folded into a series of casual sightings and fleeting glimpses that’s only enhanced by Shelley, Donna and Audrey’s realisation that they, too, have all encountered him in one form or another in the lead up to the Miss Twin Peaks pageant. That sense of a fleeting, flickering presence is only enhanced in the following episode, where he appears briefly as the Log Lady (and the brevity is a key part of the eeriness) and only emerges in full during the final strobe-lit sequence. For now, however, his presence seems to gesture towards two further evolutions in horror – the fixation with urban legends and folk knowledge in the slasher films of the 1990s and the glitchy, protean aesthetic of the digital horror films of the 1990s. As I discussed in an earlier review, the scene in which Leo Johnson arrives at Earle’s cabin quotes the Friday the 13th franchise so directly and self-consciously as to turn Earle himself into a kind of harbinger of post-slasher horror, or of the way in which slasher horror would eventually turn into something beyond itself, and that promise is arguably fulfilled here more than in any other episode, with the exception of Lynch’s final masterpiece.
Key to that process is the way in which Earle is now mediated through a more recognisably proto-digtal style, with the investigation coalescing around a segment of raw, grainy, footage of him discussing the Black Lodge back when he was still working for the Bureau, in a kind of complement to the CCTV footage of Cooper at One-Eyed Jack’s that played such a crucial forensic role in the back end of the first season. As the episode returns again and again to this tape, it feels as if the glitch, scratchy footage itself represents some kind of apprehension of the Black Lodge as the inconceivable horizon of the series’ hyper-cinematic style, as Earle himself also starts to be more absorbed into computer technology and surveillance equipment than ever before. Indeed, it’s only through an early desktop computer that Earle is able to figure out that the petroglyph is a map in the first place, even as the full import of the Lodge seems to exceed anything that a computer could do at this point in time, making me wonder how the shift to digital cinematography – and drone aesthetics – might contour the supernatural dimension of the third season.
Of course, this new iteration of Earle also means that on the rare occasions when he does still appear as himself he’s even more annoying than ever, capable of single-handedly ruining whole scenes with some his staid “crazy” monologues. A case in point is an incredible sequence in which Major Briggs is confronted by a dress-up horse in the woods – a surreal, strange riff on the fourth Friday the 13th film that would be the very best of Briggs’ encounters in the woods (not that that’s saying much) if Earle didn’t abruptly appear from within the costume to rabbit on in yet another operatically deranged disquisition that immediately implodes the exquisite suspense and emergent atmosphere.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere is more robust here than in any of the preceding ten episodes, as a series of recurring ambient disturbances suggest the convergence of all the different threads of the second season into a looming, amorphous threat. Nowhere is that clearer than in a terrific scene in the RR Diner in which a subliminally slow pan backwards from Cooper and Annie morphs what appears to be a sentimental moment into something more threatening, as the romantic music gives way almost imperceptibly to a more jagged, dissonant set of motifs. It has to be one of the best shots – and shifts in tone – in the entire series, as the camera almost – but not quite – approaches a POV shot from both BOB and Windom Earle, as if BOB and Earle have already been embodied and contained by the camera, which only enhances the strange proto-digital dissolution of Earle across the course of this episode. As might be expected, these atmospheric disturbances climax during the Miss Twin Peaks episode at the end, at which point the style finally segues back into the distended, queasy hallucinations of the Red Room, with the light dimming and the giant appearing to warn Cooper once again.
What follows is one of the greatest endings in the series, the strongest single montage sequence in the series, and a conclusion that rivals anything Lynch ever directed for Twin Peaks. Following the giant’s warning, we return to the fateful intersection where James last saw Laura, followed by a reprisal of some of the most iconic pillow shows, before moving to a series of pans through empty spaces from the series, starting with the Twin Peaks High School, as if to recall the camera’s slow movement through the deserted corridors on the day Laura’s murder was announced. While these pans take us through relatively familiar rooms and corridors, they’re all spaces we’re used to seeing in highly stylised static shots, and the newfound fluidity of the camera has a profoundly estranging and uncanny quality, until it’s almost like envisaging an alternative version of Twin Peaks’ place in the universe and an awry reorientation of the entire town. Appropriately, then, it all builds to a reexamination of the abstract petroglyph map of Twin Peaks, as if cementing a totally new cartography and set of coordinates for the town, and for the future direction of the series as a whole.
That’s not all, however, as “The Path to the Black Lodge” concludes with one of the most incredible single set pieces in the entire series, as we cut to a hollow deep in the woods where BOB emerges out of a portal and signals the opening of the Lodge. Throughout this later part of the second season, the directors and writers have often struggled to imbue the woods with real gravitas and eeriness – and to converge Earle, BOB, Laura and the woods – but all of a sudden it comes together in this single, perfect image, which establishes an entirely new – and yet strangely familiar – set of supernatural coordinates for the town, as well as an injunction to a new way of mapping and experiencing the series as a whoe well. By the time we get to Lynch’s final episode, then, it feels as if we’re already in a completely new iteration of the series, and so it’s my guess that the exquisitely poetic imagery and coordinates of this concluding sequence must become a point of departure for the third season, whose elliptical trailers recall this final fever dream more than nearly other set piece in either season.
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