The Twin Peaks Pilot: The Place Where It All Began

Laura Palmer's body wrapped in plastic

The Twin Peaks Pilot (named initially “Northwest Passage”) aired for the first time on April 8th, 1990.

To introduce this story, let me just say it encompasses the all—it is beyond the “fire”, though few would know that meaning. It is a story of many, but begins with one – and I knew her.

The one leading to the many is Laura Palmer. Laura is the one. – Margaret Lanterman (The Log Lady Intro)

It’s hard to talk about the Twin Peaks pilot without repeating what everyone else has said, but it truly is the greatest opening episode to a TV show of all time. THE perfect pilot. Sexy yet wholesome, quirky yet serious; even now, when I watch it again, a flood of emotion pours over me. I still cry when I hear Sarah Palmer wailing on the other end of the telephone receiver, dropped by Leland when Sheriff Harry Truman visits him at the Great Northern to tell him the awful news that his daughter, his only child, is dead.

Despite this dark premise, the pilot is laugh-out-loud funny, cosy, soap-opera-like and really, really weird. We meet almost everyone in town in this feature-length episode, and there are only a handful of characters who turn out to be someone other than who we thought we met in the beginning. They would be Leland Palmer, Laura Palmer and, depending on how you read Twin Peaks, Agent Dale Cooper. That’s not to say that the townsfolk are innocent and sweet, far from it. There’s barely a soul in town who isn’t keeping a secret.

Welcome to Twin Peaks

The first scene opens with Josie Packard painting her lips in the mirror, looking every bit the femme fatale. It turns out that’s exactly what she was, albeit reluctantly by the end. We will learn that Josie has seduced the local Sheriff, the ruggedly handsome Harry Truman, by the end of the pilot. He never once deviates from being an honest, brave and respected leader of the town, even in his darkest hour.

Josie turns from her mirror

Everybody’s favourite eccentric Uncle, Pete Martell, is the man who makes the grim discovery of Laura Palmer’s body washed up on the beach outside his home at Blue Pine Lodge. The house he shares with his wife Catherine, and Josie, his sister-in-law, by marriage. That morning Pete sets off to go fishing without a care in the world. Something intuitively makes him turn to look back at the massive log lying on the shingles. It’s then that he notices something is very wrong. I cannot think of another show that has portrayed the discovery of a body like this even to this day. As Pete walks, the body lays behind him in the distance, and you don’t notice it until he does. It hits you with the same horror that it hits Pete. The scene is quiet and calm. There is no sign of violence, blood or gore. We wait for Harry Truman to arrive with Deputy Andy and Doc Hayward for the body to be turned over and her identity revealed.

She’s dead, wrapped in plastic. – Pete Martell

Laura Palmer had been lying face down on the beach for a while. Beaten to death and cast into the water about six hours earlier. Her face seems so different from how it had looked in her final moments of life. The water had washed away the blood and smeared red lipstick and the animalistic look of terror and defiance as her father bludgeoned her to death. No longer dressed in erotic lingerie or wrists tied with rope from the sex play of the night before with Ronette, Leo and Jacques, Laura Palmer lies naked, her face sprinkled with stars made of sand, her skin tinted blue, wrapped like a single blue rose in a plastic bouquet. She is peaceful and perfect. Laura is The One.

Pete discovers lauras body wrapped in plastic

My dream, is to go to that place where it all began. On a starry night, when it all began. You said “hold me. Don’t be afraid, we’re with the stars. I saw them in your eyes.Under the starry night. Long ago. But now it’s a dream. – “No Stars”, Rebekah Del Rio

Who Killed Laura Palmer?

But is Laura still the one? It is fair to say that Laura Palmer is the most famous murder victim ever portrayed in a TV show. It wasn’t intended this way; Sheryl Lee’s mesmerising performance as Laura dancing with Donna at the picnic video that James shot convinced David Lynch to bring her back into the show to play her cousin Maddy. Yet, while in Twin Peaks the series she had way more scenes as Maddy, it’s still Laura that she is famous for.

The whole story centred on “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” until the show’s creators were forced to reveal the answer. Then it became less about Laura’s past and more about Cooper’s future. The prequel Fire Walk With Me gave us an astonishing account of what happened in the seven days leading to Laura’s death, and then Twin Peaks Season 3 delivered Cooper’s return to reality after being trapped in the Black Lodge for 25 years.

So, how do you feel watching the pilot in a post Season 3 world? It’s not quite as simple as, “if Laura didn’t die, Dale Cooper would never have come to Twin Peaks. The End”. It’s true, he may not have gone there for that reason; but as a Blue Rose Case, Gordon Cole may have sent him on the trail of a missing schoolgirl.

Laura smiling on film


Dead or missing, the loss of Laura remains the same. In saving her on the night she was meant to die and sending her to live as Carrie Page in Odessa, BOB is not defeated and remains a parasite using Leland Palmer as a host until Leland takes his own life (or BOB makes it look that way) a year later. Judy continues to fester in Sarah Palmer, feeding off her pain and sorrow over not knowing what happened to her daughter—was she murdered? Did she run away? Will she ever see her again?—and then her husband’s suicide would probably be blamed on his grief over his lost child. Sarah would still be lonely and alone, haunted in the big white house where she would watch TV, drink and smoke herself to death over an agonisingly slow 25 years.

On the bright side, Maddy would have lived as she likely wouldn’t have visited from Missoula without a funeral to attend. What else would change?

Bobby and Shelly would still be having an affair, but Leo would likely still be in the picture, possibly preventing their future marriage and Becky Briggs’s birth. Would Bobby have become a police officer, or would his path have taken a darker turn with Leo still influencing his life?

Donna and James may have ended up together, and he would have always been cool, or he may have just got on his bike and gone. Donna may never have learned that her birth father was Benjamin Horne. Audrey wouldn’t have ruined the ridiculous smörgåsbord, and the Norwegian’s wouldn’t have left. The development of Ghostwood would have gone ahead, inviting many new faces to the town. Jean, Jacques and Bernard Renault would continue to supply cocaine to high school kids from across the Canadian border.

On the night that Laura would have died, after giving up waiting for Laura in the woods, Leo, Jacques and Ronette go to Jacques’ cabin for a drug-fueled orgy. During the night, the three go to an abandoned train car in the graveyard nearby. Ronette is found wandering along the train tracks across the Idaho border, while Laura is reported missing.

ronette walks across a bridge in tatters

So, while Laura’s death was a tragedy, its impact may have saved many lives. It changed people; some for the better, some for worse. Dale Cooper is one of the most fascinating characters to study through a post-season 3 lens.

My Special Agent

Cooper’s arrival in Twin Peaks is one of those iconic moments in TV that people recognise even if they’ve never seen the show.

Diane, 11:30 a.m., February 24th. Entering the town of Twin Peaks, five miles south of the Canadian border, twelve miles west of the state line. I’ve never seen so many trees in my life. As W.C. Fields would say, I’d rather be here than Philadelphia.  It’s 54 degrees on a slightly overcast day. Weatherman said rain. If you could get paid that kind of money for being wrong sixty per cent of the time, it’d beat working. Mileage is 79,345, gauge is on reserve, riding on fumes here. I’ve got to tank up when I get into town. Remind me to tell you how much that is. Lunch was, uh, $6.31 at the Lamplighter Inn. That’s on Highway 2 near Lewis Fork. That was a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat, a slice of cherry pie and a cup of coffee. Damn good food. Diane, if you ever get up this way, that cherry pie is worth a stop. Okay. Looks like I’ll be meeting up with the, ah, Sheriff Harry S. Truman. Shouldn’t be too hard to remember that. He’ll be at the Calhoun Memorial Hospital. I guess we’re going to go up to intensive care and take a look at that girl that crawled down the railroad tracks off the mountain. When I finish there I’ll be checking into a motel. I’m sure the sheriff will be able to recommend a clean place, reasonably priced. That’s what I need, a clean place, reasonably priced. Oh Diane, I almost forgot — got to find out what kind of trees these are. They’re really something.

We gather so much information about this man from this opening statement. FBI Agent Dale Cooper is a chiselled, dark-haired man—he could be Superman; he looks the part. Cooper appears to have a secretary named Diane, who he sends messages to via his dictaphone, and those messages are very precise. How he gets them to her so quick in pre-internet days is anyone’s guess. This is a man with a sharp eye for detail; he won’t forget a thing. He enjoys reading, politics, nature and most of all…food. What interests me most is how easy it is for him to slip from deadly serious to whimsical and almost childlike in less than a second. It’s one thing that makes him so adorable and attractive, but it is also pretty weird. He’s smart, dedicated to his job, intuitive and cool, but there is also a simple soul in there amazed by snowshoe rabbits and delighted by cherry pie, and he won’t—or perhaps can’t —keep his inner child quiet. All he needs is a bright green jacket.

Cooper arrives in Twin Peaks

The Greatest Bromance Ever Told

As the pilot progresses, Cooper meets the townsfolk, led by Sheriff Truman, with whom he hits it off immediately. The pair become mentors to each other; Cooper mesmerises Truman with his deft detective skills and quick reading of people, sussing out their secrets in seconds. Cooper is enthralled by Truman’s knowledge of the local wildlife and nature, trusting him immediately, like a young boy on a hike with his father or a Scout leader. This bromance upskills them both, especially Cooper, who before his time in Twin Peaks had been mentored by Windom Earle, who we later learn tried to kill Cooper, succeeded in killing his own wife (whom Cooper was having an affair with) and was now held in a secure mental facility. Cooper’s heartbreak, regret and guilt made him a pretty serious man with no patience for tomfoolery, but the goodness and warmth of Sheriff Truman and the town of Twin Peaks rubbed off on him. Every day spent breathing in the towns clean air; he became softer, kinder and open to love again.

harry and cooper smile at a table of donuts

Who Do You Think That Is There?

But even the most perfect seeming Cooper has a dark side. Enter the freshly squeezed Audrey Horne, aged just eighteen years old and still in high school. Yes, Cooper spurned her advances, but it took all the will in the world. We know that later on Coop’s dark side will give in to that temptation—well, much worse than that—he will rape Audrey while she is unconscious in hospital, impregnate her and then leave town. When he first meets Norma and Shelly at The Diner, he can’t help but flirt with them both. On the flip side, Coop instinctively dislikes Dr Jacoby when he first meets him at the hospital. You might say it was intuition, but it turns out Jacoby is one of the good guys. It’s just strange that he would trust his gut and spirituality on so many matters, but when it came to mental health treatment, he was very suspicious. Was Coop averse to the prodding of his mind because he was aware that there was a darkness in his subconscious just itching to get out? Two things are sure to drive you crazy; fear and love, and they open the doors to the dark and light of your subconscious.

If you look closely enough, there are some small signs of Cooper’s Mr C. side in him, even right at the beginning. The cold way he tells Bobby that he didn’t love Laura anyway, and how his eyes gleamed when he discovered the typed letter ‘R’ left by BOB under Laura’s fingernail. That look on his face, just the swiftest glimpse of being excited, or even impressed by, this serial killer’s cunning. It’s not that he has murder in his heart, not yet; it’s that he enjoys having an opponent, and he may have just met his match in BOB.

Cooper is excited about a letter found under laura's nail

Famously, BOB was written into the story after Frank Silva’s reflection was caught in the mirror as Sarah Palmer screams while having a vision of a gloved hand digging up half of a gold heart necklace from a mound of dirt. This scene struck fear into the hearts of everyone watching (despite most not even noticing BOB’s reflection). Grace Zabriskie has the power to terrorise with that shriek—just like her on-screen daughter. This shot encompasses the whole story of Twin Peaks in a way; Laura Palmer framed and remembered forever as a sweetly smiling, all-American prom queen—a world away from the truth of who Laura Palmer really was. On the couch sits Sarah Palmer, hair wild as if she’d been electrified with fear. She will remain seated there in her dressing gown for the rest of her days, haunted by her daughter’s life and her daughters’ death. BOB is always there too, lurking in the shadows, an eternal reflection of the suffering caused. BOB cannot be destroyed really; he is the evil that men do.

Sarah sees a vision of BOB

I don’t want to end on a sombre note, however. The Twin Peaks pilot is superb for so many reasons. It has some of the shows most recognisable quotes and scenes. Nothing has ever come close to its brilliance. Here are just some of the best and most memorable moments. Take a deep breath…

  • Deputy Andy breaks down in tears while taking photographs of Laura’s corpse. “My God, Andy, it’s the same thing as last year in Mr Blodgett’s barn. Is this going to happen every time?”
  • “Norma, I’ll see you in my dreams.” “Not if I see you first”.
  • The mischievous Audrey Horne puts on her red heels and smokes a cigarette by her high school locker.
  • A mysterious boy dances the snake in the high school corridor.
  • An unknown girl screams and runs across the yard outside the school. Donna and James realise that Laura is dead when the police enter their classroom. James snaps a pencil.
  • Bobby is taken to the Sheriff’s station to be questioned about his girlfriend Laura’s murder.
  • A shell-shocked Ronette Pulaski walks the railroad bridge, badly beaten, in a dirty white négligée, her hands tied with rope. This moment turns the episode on its head; this is not just a quirky soap opera; something terrible has happened in this small town.
  • Josie shuts down the sawmill for the day out of respect; Catherine fires an employee for looking at her.
  • The Log Lady makes her presence known by flicking the lights on and off at the Town Hall.
  • Cooper finds cocaine and a key to a safety deposit box in Laura’s diary, an entry that says, “nervous about meeting J tonight.”
  • “Diane, I am holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies.”
  • Police discover the train car murder scene. Andy asks Lucy not to tell Truman that he cried.
  • “Fire Walk With Me” is found written in blood at the murder site.
  • Cooper instinctively doesn’t like Dr Jacoby.
  • A one-armed man is seen walking towards the mortuary of the Calhoun Memorial Hospital.
  • Lucy lays out a table with an impressive array of doughnuts. A policeman’s dream.”
  • Julee Cruise sings “Falling” and “The Nightingale” at The Roadhouse. I love that these hardman bikers enjoy the seductive ambience of Julee Cruise. Not a note of heavy metal is heard.
  • There’s a fight at the Roadhouse, Bobby and Mike vs The Bookhouse Boys.
  • Bobby and Mike bark at James from their police cell
  • Big Ed and Norma are having an affair.
  • Shelly and Bobby are having an affair.
  • Truman and Josie are having an affair.
  • Ben and Catherine are having an affair.
  • James was having an affair with Laura.
  • James and Donna begin their affair.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Honestly, that’s barely skimming the surface. Laura’s death affected everyone in this small town, but she was full of secrets that we couldn’t begin to imagine—secrets that would lead us to a place both wonderful and strange, and thirty years later, we’re still talking about it.

  1. I’ve always wondered what The Log Lady meant when she said ‘Laura is the One’ to Hawk and if Cooper learned about the phone call , if he took Margaret at her word. Once he comes back to Twin Peaks, with his normal identity intact, he doesnt take a well earned break, preferably with Diane, or return to his duties as an FBI Agent , he takes Diane on a journey, where at some point they become Richard and Linda and she leaves him. He doesnt try to locate her but continues searching for Laura, whom he finds working as a waitress in a diner in Odessa, Texas under the name Carrie Page. Cooper has already tried to save Laura on the night she was supposed to die, by simply leading her away from the future crime scenes. Instead of the old Cooper who helps people to become better with friendship and advice (Audrey!) , he falls into the old ‘hero’ trap by trying to ‘save’ Laura from her fate. Only, he can’t. Once he has convinced Carrie that she is indeed Laura Palmer, he tries to reunite her with her mother. Sarah Palmer is another character Cooper whitewashes or idealises. He never questions whether she really knew about Laura’s suffering , or what her relationship to her husband and daughter was. (Profiling was only just becoming a popular crime fighting tool in crime drama, ) My favourite article on 25Yrs Later is whether or not Laura is Dale Cooper’s mother!
    Not in the normal sense maybe, but the article does point out similarities in Good Laura and Good Dale, a love for coffee and pie, disliking asparagus , concluding that Laura may have ‘created’ Dale Cooper as a hero figure in her life to protect her from all the toxic male figures; Leland of course, Bobby Briggs (who blames all his problems on Laura) , James whose idea of helping to find her killer is to break into Dr Jacoby’s house, luring him out by having Maddy impersonate Laura.
    I also like to think of Laura Palmer, Maddy Ferguson and The Log Lady as the Good Witches of Twin Peaks (because of their ESP abilities, and their desire to help others), while Audrey is just the normal girl, with flaws and insecurities who learns to become a better person. (There just isnt anything remotely relateable about Donna, the ideal daughter and student from a ideal, upper to middle class family, but who could probably never beat Laura at anything. Even when she breaks curfew rules after Laura’s murder (probably for everyone’s good) Dr Hayward lets her off the hook because he knows she had a good reason and only because she wasnt found dead in a ditch somewhere. How would Dr Hayward feel if he knew that she broke into Dr Jacoby’s house to steal evidence and manipulated Harold Smith into trusting her only to try and steal Laura’s diary. Then she appears to go back to her normal life after Laura’s murder is solved, unlike the countless number of people whose lives have been lost or destroyed.

Leave a Reply