Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the original run of Twin Peaks.
In the early 90s the same question was on everyone’s lips: Who killed Laura Palmer? When David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal television murder mystery was first unveiled to the public, it seemed as though it could have been anyone in the titular town of Twin Peaks.
Though David Lynch stated that he had originally planned on never revealing the killer, network pressure from ABC eventually convinced him to cave in, and one of televisions all-time greatest moments was born.
Perhaps there’s another world where David Lynch didn’t crack under the pressure. A place where Twin Peaks‘ central mystery was allowed to live on for years, and the serialized, soap opera drama of the small town spun itself along in turn to an eventual series finale.
Maybe that world has a lot of advantages over this one. Maybe Twin Peaks as a series is better and more balanced there, not devolving into Civil War re-enactments and pine weasel charities but soaring instead into a terrifying film noir legend.
Even if that were the case though, there’s still one thing that our world has that this fictional metaverse does not: the reveal of the killer, Leland Palmer, and the subsequent death of Maddie Ferguson at the end of “Lonely Souls”.
While it’s easy to wax poetic about what Twin Peaks could have become were it not for the trifling of outside forces, it’s harder to imagine one of television’s most brutal, memorable, and iconic moments being consigned to the ashes as a trade-off.
The scene in question begins with Leland Palmer, the father of the series catalyst and murder victim, Laura Palmer, staring at himself chillingly in the mirror, while he adjusts his tie. Leland has appeared unhinged a number of times up until this point, so it’s not an immediate giveaway that something is really, dangerously wrong. The operating theory, however, had always been that Leland was being wracked by grief over his murdered daughter, not that he himself had done the deed.
This scene altered all of that in one fell swoop, as a sudden change in the mirror reveals that Leland is actually staring at Bob, as the latter is taking control of him once again. The implications of this are chilling enough, as it opens up a whole floodgate of troubling ideas, not the least of which is Leland Palmer molesting his teenage daughter and, perhaps unknowingly, living a double life as serial killer.
Ray Wise’s masterful performance is one of the key reasons for the soaring success of the scene. His change from Leland, to Bob, then back to Leland, and then back to Bob is a crushing tour de force that shatters the viewer to their core before leaving ashes in their mouth. Likewise Sheryl Lee’s touching portrayal of Maddy Ferguson made the murder all the more sadistic, as she is given the same brutal fate as her cousin but without any of the easy scapegoating that viewers might use to mentally massage themselves over Laura’s death.
Laura used hard drugs. Laura slept around. Laura liked male attention. For a certain subset of society, and one that’s probably a lot larger than we’d like to believe, this means that she “had it coming” or “was asking for it”. Of course, that’s utter nonsense but people will tell themselves what they have to in order to make sense of the world, even in fiction. The thing is, even these cave-dwelling Neanderthals cannot assuage themselves with the same excuses in regard to Maddy, as she was everything that Laura was not.
When Maddy comes down the stairs to see what’s going on, her first concern is for her passed out aunt before she sees BOB coming for her. Maddy is a genuinely a good, empathetic and likable person, and that’s part of what makes what comes next so hard to take.
As Bob gets a hold of her, even time and space seem to ebb and flow a bit, bending to his dark will. A spotlight appears, and things begin to slow down, dragging out Maddy’s torment. What might have been a shrill, half-second screech of fear becomes an intense, grating and guttural release of utter, devastating terror.
This scene is a key distinction of the importance of a director, and their signature usage of style to make a scene what they want it to be. Under anyone else this scene might have merely been passable, or even forgettable outside of its key revelation. David Lynch’s creeping, watchful eye allows the scene to penetrate your defenses, sinking its teeth in relentlessly, and drawing blood before letting you go.
As Bob taunts a terrified Maddy by chasing her into a corner and waggling his fingers at her, she attempts one final futile escape, only to be snatched up and beaten. Only then does she come face to face with her uncle once more, a crumbling mess who appears only to confuse her for his lost daughter once again, as he hoists her up and dances with her weak and dangling form.
Then Bob takes control again, and in a decidedly Lynchian moment, the scene finishes on a sick joke, as Bob and Leland promise Maddy that she’s “GOING BACK TO MISSOULA, MONTANA!” Her face is smashed into a framed picture, and as she succumbs to her injuries, Bob finishes by placing a paper letter under her fingernail, his compulsive signature.
The fact that this devastating scene is book-ended by scenes of other cast members, who seem to feel the ramifications of this event from the other side of town, makes it all the more effective. As the giant appears to Cooper and announces that “It is happening again.”, Cooper’s troubled and confused face shows his clear dismay for what this warning must mean. Donna begins to sob, having lost another friend to a sadistic murderer, and even the morally dubious Bobby Briggs seems to feel the evil implications of this act, as he looks around the roadhouse with pensive concern.
Though this is perhaps one of the last times in the series that Twin Peaks is truly great, and the beginning of the series slow descent into nonsense, it still remains one of Lynch’s greatest feats in directing, and certainly stands as one of the most terrifying moments in television history.