Welcome to Twin Peaks:/\/\ First-Watch Recap: Season 1: Ep. 1.1 “Pilot/Northwest Passage” (Original airdate Sunday, April 8, 1990) — a review (Part 1 of 2)


I’ve been told that I can be a stubborn man. I’ve heard about the television series Twin Peaks for thirty years now, and I’ve always been tempted to watch it. The show gets referenced all the time, especially with reviewers of any series with a quirky, offbeat or surrealistic vibe. Just recently, I was reading reviews of Jason Segal’s singular brainchild, Dispatches from Elsewhere, and this series was namedropped again. I thought that maybe thirty years was enough. It was time for me to see what all the fuss was about.

I was familiar with co-creator/director David Lynch‘s work. I watched Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet. I even watched Dune, but I’m not really bragging about that. I can’t honestly say that I liked all the things I saw equally. I know that Blue Velvet is considered to be a masterpiece by most critics these days. I loved Lynch’s sense of visual style in that film, but found its bizarre weirdness both disturbing and off-putting. It is probably my memories of this movie that kept me away from Twin Peaks for so long. The Kyle MacLachlan connection, maybe.

I’m familiar with the other co-creator, Mark Frost, by name only. He was a writer for Hill Street Blues, so I’m sure I’ve seen some of his work without being aware of it. I also remember seeing his novels, The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, on the bookstore shelves years ago. I’ve never read his stuff that I can recall, but it is possible that I may have one of these novels in paperback in my library closet.

Enough time has passed and I’m ready to dive into the deep end. I plan to watch one episode a week until I run out of episodes. I haven’t decided whether I’ll continue on with the movie Fire Walk with Me or the Showtime limited-run series that was a continuation of the show 25 years after the events of Season 2. It all depends how much I like the 1990-91 series. People who identify with the weirdness that is a core part of my personality have assured me that I will like it a lot.

This is a Watch. Not a Rewatch.

I’ve managed to remain mostly ignorant of everything that happened in this series, so I’m going into it with a fresh perspective. My initial goal is to watch all 30 episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, taking copious bulletpointed notes while doing so, and then posting my results here. As I said, I plan to watch one episode per week. I won’t commit to putting up one Twin Peaks post per week, because I’d just end up disappointing myself. I will, however, document my journey through this series as often as possible. How’s that for noncommittal?

I’m going to lead with an additional disclaimer here. Maybe a couple of them.

Watching this series for the first time, I’m going to be reminded of other television series I’ve watched since the early 1990s. I have a basic understanding of how time works, so I understand that these shows were almost definitely influenced by Twin Peaks, not the other way around. Just in case it ever seems otherwise, don’t think that I’m accusing Mssrs. Lynch and Frost of crystal-ball-gazing and plagiarizing shows from the future.

Second disclaimer: I’m going to SPOIL the hell out of this series. If I can ignore information about this program for 30 years, so can you. That being said, I’m sure I’ll be making speculations about the series as I go along that are way off the mark. As always, I encourage comments, but please refrain from spoiling things for me, even if my theories are assinine. Advance warning: They probably will be assinine.

So, without any further ado—

  • On this date in history, AIDS activist Ryan White, 18, passed away. His short life inspired the passing of the Ryan White CARE Act, and helped lessen some of the stigma of having the HIV virus.
  • On the Billboard Hot 100, the #1 song that week was “I’ll Be Your Everything,” recorded by Tommy Page and co-written/produced by some New Kids on the Block.
  • Even after listening to the song just now, I didn’t remember it. It was a certified gold record, also. I was already a young old man in 1990, apparently. I certainly didn’t have my finger on the pulse of whatever was popular. I didn’t even recognize most of the Modern Rock Tracks that hit #1 in 1990.
  • No apologies. I like what I like.
  • Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby and Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman were both in movie theaters on this date. I watched both of these movies later, but not in the theaters. VHS tapes, baby.
  • Kristen Stewart, known for the Twilight Saga, was born the following day, Monday, April 9. That should make you feel old now.
  • Cigarettes were less than $2 a pack, as I recall, and a gallon of gas cost less than a loaf of bread. Postage stamps were 25 cents. Time marches on.
  • Since this premiere was on Sunday, the television competition probably wasn’t too fierce. However, the series would be moved to Thursdays the following episode, which put the show up against NBC’s Thursday night lineup, which included Cheers for the first half-hour (and this was the #1 show at the time), and then Wings or Seinfeld for the last half.
  • Some of my notes will be reproduced exactly as hand-written on a yellow legal tablet. Others will be embellished or translated into English, or otherwise annotated.
  • This pilot episode was a 2-hour premiere, which means, without commercials, it clocks in at 93 minutes. Twice the length of a regular episode. Because of this, I’m dividing this First-Watch Recap into two parts.
  • The episode opens with several outdoor lap-dissolves. Trees. Birds. A factory spewing smoke. Buzzsaws as we do a dissolve that pushes into the factory. This area, with its tall trees and mountains, is a logging community. Though it’s too early to know this, we’re looking at Packard Sawmill, important industry in this town.
  • The title card “Twin Peaks” comes up as the credits begin to roll. There’s a lot of synth music in the theme playing. An ’80s holdover, perhaps.
  • We get a shot of the Welcome to Twin Peaks sign, advertising their population as 51,201. Afterward, at least in this episode, it never feels like the town is this big. The population of the central Arkansas town I live in is just a little more than this, but feels much busier. In this episode, you get the impression that there is one gas station, one diner, one main industry, and so on.
  • It turns out that David Lynch and Mark Frost wanted the population to be listed at a little over five thousand, which is how it feels. The network thought that people wouldn’t be able to relate to a town that small.
  • Our very leisurely credit sequence ends with a shot of moving water, with tall slender trees reflected in its surface.
  • Then we cut to a scene of an Asian woman putting on her makeup in front of a mirror. We haven’t been told this yet, but this is JOSIE PACKARD (Joan Chen), who owns Packard Sawmill.
  • Then we get a shot of PETE MARTELL (Jack Nance) leaving the Blue Pine Lodge to do a little morning fishing. He tells his wife, CATHERINE MARTELL (Piper Laurie), his plans as he leaves. Later in the episode, we learn that the Martells live at the Lodge with Josie Packard, who is their sister-in-law.
  • Pete discovers a dead body by the water, wrapped from head-to-toe in plastic. He calls it in to the sheriff’s office.
  • LUCY MORAN (Kimmy Robertson) is the sheriff’s receptionist/dispatcher. She is the one who gives SHERIFF HARRY S. TRUMAN (Michael Ontkean) the message. Sheriff Harry tells Lucy to have DR. WILL HAYWARD (Warren Frost) and DEPUTY ANDY BRENNAN (Harry Goaz) to meet him at the scene.
  • We’re getting hit with a lot of proper names here in the early going, and I missed quite a few of them at first pass.
  • As he takes photos of the body, Deputy Andy begins to cry. From the sheriff’s comments, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Through later interactions, I inferred that Deputy Andy and Lucy had a little something going on when they were off-duty.
  • Sheriff Harry and Dr. Hayward turn the body over and immediately identify her as LAURA PALMER (Sheryl Lee). See what I mean about this feeling like a smaller town? I don’t even know who my sheriff is, much less what he looks like.
  • My theory is that the seasonal story arc will be about solving the murder of Laura Palmer. That seems almost too obvious. We’ll see how this pans out.
  • We cut to a scene at the Palmer Home. SARAH PALMER (Grace Zabriskie), Laura’s mother, doesn’t know her daughter isn’t at home and is calling to get her out of bed. She calls BETTY BRIGGS (Charlotte Stewart) at home to ask if Laura is with her son BOBBY BRIGGS (Dana Ashbrook), but Betty does not know. Betty gives Sarah the number to the high school’s field office, because he was supposed to be at football practice. Sarah talks to the football coach, MAX HARTMAN (Ben DiGregorio), who tells her Bobby hasn’t showed for practice yet, and has been late for several weeks straight, now that you mention it.
  • We cut to a scene showing AUDREY HORNE (Sherilyn Fenn), leaving for school from the Great Northern Hotel, which is owned by her family. Inside the hotel, Audrey’s father, BENJAMIN HORNE (Richard Beymer) is discussing something called the Ghostwood Development Project with LELAND PALMER (Ray Wise), Laura’s father. They are hosting a group of Norwegian investors and the plan seems to be to take over the Packard Sawmill land and convert it into the Ghostwood Country Club & Estates.
  • Ah. The plot thickens. Or at least gets more convoluted.
  • Leland is called away for a phone call with his wife Sarah. Leland sees Sheriff Harry showing up at the hotel to talk to him and immediately knows the news is bad. Leland says, “My daughter’s dead,” and breaks down. Sarah hears this over the phone as well, and both parents are devastated.
  • The scene changes to the Double R Diner. Bobby Briggs is there at the counter. He’s the Cool Guy, with his confident swagger and leather jacket. He offers the waitress SHELLY JOHNSON (Madchen Amick) a ride home, and the diner’s owner, NORMA JENNINGS (Peggy Lipton), looks a little suspicious of these two as they leave.
  • Turns out that her suspicions are valid, as these two seem to have something going on. Shelly the waitress is a married woman, but her “old man” LEO JOHNSON (Eric Da Re) is supposed to be out of town. But, Bobby and Shelly both see Leon’s truck parked in her driveway before they get close. Bobby drops her off at a distance and quickly leaves.
  • It makes me wonder how Shelly normally gets home, if she doesn’t have a car. Maybe Twin Peaks has some sort of public transportation.
  • Sheriff Harry takes Leland Palmer to Calhoun Memorial Hospital to identify Laura’s body, which he does.
  • We’re still not done meeting new characters. I understand that one of the functions of any Act One is to bring all the important characters on-stage. Typically, in a murder mystery, one of the characters we’re introduced to is actually the murderer. This is already a large cast of characters, but it keeps getting larger.
  • We cut to Twin Peaks High School, where we meet DONNA HAYWARD (Lara Flynn Boyle) for the first time, as she goes to her locker. Audrey Horne’s locker is close to hers, and Donna seems amused that her friend is smoking at her locker. Impression: Audrey Horne is a Bad Girl.
  • JAMES HURLEY (James Marshall) approaches Donna and asks if she’s seen Laura yet, and makes the comment that it seems like a nice day for a picnic. Which means nothing to me yet.
  • Bobby Briggs finally walks into the high school building, strutting like he owns the place. A couple of young ladies tell him that the sheriff is looking for him. Bobby talks to his best friend, MIKE NELSON (Gary Hershberger), who I think Bobby refers to as “Snake” several times, although I may be wrong. Mike confirms to Bobby that something has happened.
  • Mike Nelson was the name of the guy who took over MST3K from Joel Hodgson. I know that’s probably a very common name, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t point this out.
  • We cut to the homeroom shared by Donna Hayward, Audrey Horne, and James Hurley. A cop shows up looking for Bobby, and tells the homeroom teacher the sad news, saying that the principal will be making a school-wide annoucement. The teacher looks devastated, and Laura’s friends figure things out. Donna begins to cry.
  • Sheriff Harry asks Bobby Briggs if he’s been read his rights, and tells him to call his parents so they can arrange to get him a lawyer.
  • Back at the Palmer House. Sarah Palmer tells the cops that she last saw her daughter at 9 PM the previous evening. Meanwhile, other cops are upstairs in Laura’s room with Leland Palmer. They are gathering some stuff to take back to the station, including Laura’s diary and a camcorder. Leland doesn’t have the key to the diary.
  • A mill worker JANEK PULASKI (Rick Tutor), reports, off-screen, that his daughter RONETTE PULASKI (Phoebe Augustine) is missing.
  • Possibly another dead girl? Oh my.
  • At this point my legal pad is beginning to look like a murder book, with its ever-growing list of names, along with circles and arrows trying to show the relationships between the characters. I am dedicated to staying ahead of this story, no matter how many settings and characters come into play. And, we’re not done yet.
  • Our next scene is back at Packard Sawmill, where we get a little more acquainted with characters who’ve already briefly appeared on-stage. Catherine Martell, fisherman Pete’s wife, actually runs the day-to-day operations at the sawmill. Her late brother was Josie’s husband. There is some friction between Catherine and Josie. Josie wants to close the sawmill due to Laura Palmer’s murder and the announcement that Janek Pulaski’s daughter is missing also. Catherine doesn’t want to shut down operations. Josie ends up pulling rank, saying that she actually owns the sawmill. Pete actually takes Josie’s side and shuts down the mill. Catherine leaves the meeting, asks a worker his name—it’s FRED TRUAX (Dan Bixler), by the way—and then fires him on the spot. I don’t know if Fred is ever important again, but he was a named character with dialogue, apparently fired for no reason.
  • We cut to an exterior shot of a young woman walking along a train trestle in a dirty, torn shift, with ropes on her wrists. This is Ronette Pulaski. She escaped from her captor.
  • We cut to a new setting, Big Ed’s Gas Farm, which is apparently the gas station in town. The gas station is run by ED HURLEY (Everett McGill), and the house where he and his eyepatch-wearing wife, NADINE (Wendy Robie), live is close to the gas station. She seems to yell at Ed a lot. This time it’s about picking up some drapes that she ordered.
  • Ed is James Hurley’s uncle. James sees his uncle at the gas station and gives him a note to give to Donna if she comes by, asking her to meet him at The Roadhouse that evening.
  • I’m going to pause here, since another major character is about to roll into town and uncover some additional complications to the plot.

I have found the pilot episode of Twin Peaks to be a little confusing. There are a lot of characters that get introduced, and a lot of settings. It seems like every character has backstory that’s going to be revealed along the way. So far, it has seemed like a relatively normal police procedural to me.

I can tell that the television series Veronica Mars and even the recent Riverdale were, at the very least, inspired by this series. The whole “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” story thread seems to have become a fairly common TV trope during the last three decades.

I am intrigued by the central mystery and am digging the intricate character work here.  We’ll talk about the back half of this episode next time.

One thought on “Welcome to Twin Peaks:/\/\ First-Watch Recap: Season 1: Ep. 1.1 “Pilot/Northwest Passage” (Original airdate Sunday, April 8, 1990) — a review (Part 1 of 2)

  1. I was so wrong about Dick Tracy being in theaters on this date. It wouldn’t release until summer. I replaced it with the more fact-appropriate Pretty Woman.


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