After the pilot episode of the series set up the town and the central mystery of homecoming queen Laura Palmer’s murder, the first regular episode, “Traces to Nowhere,” begins to expand the canvas and deepen that mystery. FBI Agent Cooper, after securing a superior cup of java, questions a young man named James Hurley (played by James Marshall) about a video that shows Laura and her friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and hints at the presence of an unseen third person. Hurley admits that he shot the video, and that he was indeed having an affair with Laura, cheating with her behind the back of her batshit boyfriend Bobby Briggs, but he denies having anything to do with her death. We believe him, and so does Cooper.
Meanwhile, we get a closer look at the abusive marriage of the waitress Shelley and her asshole husband Leo the truck driver. Shelley is carrying on an affair with Bobby Briggs, but Leo’s got more than few secrets of his own. He’s bringing drugs into town (a lot of drugs apparently, since Bobby owes him $10,000) and he’s concealing a bloody shirt. When Shelley hides the shirt from him, Leo beats her with a bar of soap in a sock.
These events keep the plot building as intrigue connects to intrigue and we see how the lies of one person necessarily involves them in the lives of other people. (We learn, for instance, that the sheriff Harry Truman is carrying on a secret relationship with Josie Packard, a young widow and owner of the big local sawmill.) In short, the mystery is deepening, and that’s pulling us along. In classic whodunit fashion, our questions are only being met with more questions. How, we wonder already, is this all going to tie together?
What’s fascinating about the show is that while it is developing in this structurally conventional manner (discovery of the murder, introduction of the investigator, questioning of suspects, exposure of lies, revelations about the victim), Twin Peaks continues to develop its style as well. Comedy and horror, as is so often the case in the cinema of David Lynch, seem like conjoined twins.
On the comic point, Agent Cooper has scenes that play as pure goofball comedy. We first see him in this episode hanging upside down and dictating messages to his unseen assistant Diane:
Diane, it struck me again this morning. There are two things that continue to trouble me, and I’m speaking now not just as an agent of the Bureau but also as a human being: What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys? And who really pulled the trigger on JFK?
And on the horror point, the show continues to put Laura’s distraught mother (played by Grace Zabriskie) through the wringer. Late in the episode she gets a visit from sweet Donna. Donna has come to her friend’s grieving mother partly out of guilt (we’ve learned that while Donna was helping Laura and James conduct their affair, she fell in love with James herself). In trying to comfort Mrs. Palmer, however, Donna seems to open some hallucination. Mrs. Palmer sees her daughter’s face superimposed onto Donna and then has a vision of a long-haired old man hiding behind the couch.
Poor Donna. Twin Peaks seems like a town where you can get a nice cup of coffee and a good piece of pie, but, man, it seems like a rough place to be a teenager. Like every other high school on television, the school here is attended almost exclusively by attractive people in their twenties. The David Lynch twist on this cliché, however, is that half of these students seem pretty weird and the other half seem completely insane. Donna seems like the only normal kid in town. One of her classmates at school is the vixen Audrey Horne who is played by Sherilyn Fenn as a bad girl whose playful indiscretions seem to arise more or less out of boredom with everyone around her. Audrey doesn’t seem to have been a big fan of Laura, which makes her an outlier in town, and she confronts Agent Cooper in something that comes very close to being a flagrant come on.
By the close of the episode, a lot of things are happening but it’s not clear where things are going, even in the short term. “Traces to Nowhere” is a fitting title for an episode that is mostly concerned with moving pieces into place for later episodes. At the end, we learn that Laura’s therapist, creepy Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), has an audiotape that Laura has made for him. She hints that their relationship was not quite ethical or professional, and that while she likes James Hurley, she finds him boring. This seems like a major revelation, but it’s too early to tell.
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