When news broke this past May that Twin Peaks, the landmark early-1990s television series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, would be making its debut on Blu-ray via a box set titled Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, the announcement stirred more attention than such announcements normally do. It wasn’t just that the series would be getting an upgrade for the HD era, though that was welcome news, or that the completist-friendly set would join the series to the 1992 feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The real news was that Lynch had edited scenes deleted from Fire Walk With Me into a 90-minute presentation called “The Missing Pieces.” Understanding why this matters means revisiting Fire Walk With Me, a divisive item in the Twin Peaks canon that disappointed many who regarded it as a missed opportunity. And understanding why it was divisive—why that disappointment, while not necessarily wrong, comes from a misunderstanding of what Twin Peaks was all about, and how the unearthing of 90 lost Fire Walk With Me minutes fits into it all—means doubling back to the beginning of the show.
When Twin Peaks debuted, it was preceded by ads asking a seemingly simple question: Who killed Laura Palmer? But series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost never planned to answer that question. Instead, they wanted to spin labyrinthine tales around the titular Pacific Northwest town. The mystery would deepen, but the solution would move further out of reach. That’s a beautiful idea for a TV series, and like a lot of beautiful ideas, it didn’t work out so well when tested on the real world. After debuting as a two-hour TV movie on April 8, 1990, Twin Peaks won a sizable following and immediate acclaim, thanks to its novel approach to serialized television. Frost brought in years of storytelling experience via his work on shows like Hill Street Blues and The Equalizer. Lynch—a few years on from Blue Velvet, an arthouse hit that defined the seedy underside of small-town America for the 1980s—brought a visionary’s sensibility, fleshing out the cast of quirky characters and pushing the show’s style far outside the no-flash approach favored by TV dramas at the beginning of the 1990s.
For a while, it worked brilliantly. The plot thickened as the characters grew more complex. The series’ second episode (not counting the pilot) ends with a bizarre dream sequence that introduced elements like the backward-talking, diminutive Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) as it deepened hints of a strange mythos, suggesting that Twin Peaks might be the site of an ongoing cosmic struggle between good and evil. In the process, the episode pushed network TV into avant-garde extremes it had never reached before. The first season ended with an episode filled with brilliantly plotted cliffhangers and an intensifying sense of weirdness. That August saw the release of Lynch’s Wild At Heart, which had won the Palme D’Or (while stirring some controversy). A Time cover followed in October with the headline “The Wild-at-Art Genius Behind Twin Peaks.” Malls sold “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” T-shirts. All seemed well.
And then it didn’t: As Twin Peaks entered its second season, viewers grew impatient waiting for a long-teased answer to the question that first drew them into the show—an answer finally provided, with a great deal of fanfare, seven episodes into the second season. (Probably unnecessary spoiler warning: It was her father Leland, played by Ray Wise, inhabited by an evil spirit known as Bob.) An already-thinning audience drifted further away, as did Lynch and Frost, who became less involved in the show as they pursued other projects. (Though toward the end, Lynch ended up logging time in front of the camera as hard-of-hearing Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole.) In time, the life drained out of the show, though it grew no less strange. One character seemingly died, only to begin possessing the knob of a hotel nightstand. A beauty contest was held. Lynch returned for the second-season finale, and again supplied one of the strangest hours that had been seen on TV at that point, but ratings had already sealed the show’s fate. It ended in frustration, with several characters left in mortal peril, and pure-hearted hero Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) disappearing into the Black Lodge, the seat of otherworldly malevolence, and returning possessed by Bob.
By then, few of the viewers who had fallen in love with the sinuous, unpredictable show just one year earlier remained. Many original fans who stuck it out received only frustration in return for their patience. I was among their number, and naïve about the long lead time needed to make a television show, I felt annoyed that Lynch, knowing the show would not be returning, didn’t at least make some effort to wrap the story up in the final episode. I was also naïve about Lynch feeling any sort of need to give the audience what it wanted. Good news soon arrived: Twin Peaks would live on in a feature film directed by Lynch. But for many Twin Peaks fans, that’s where the good news stopped.
Two years after Lynch’s Wild At Heart triumph, boos greeted Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at its Cannes première. It opened in the U.S. to scathing reviews. Lynch, so recently a Time cover star, found his latest feature reduced to the magazine’s “Short Takes” section, which accused him of putting “the familiar dwarfs and feebs on display.” (Insult to injury: The brief review ran beneath a more positive notice for Frost’s feature debut, Storyville.) Nor did it fare much better with the show’s diehards, or at least those looking for some kind of closure for the series.
How could it? Rather than picking up where the series left off, Lynch doubled back to before it began, first with a prologue following the investigation into the related murder of Teresa Banks in nearby Deer Meadow, then returning to Twin Peaks to recount the last days of poor Laura Palmer: high-school student, homecoming queen, Meals On Wheels volunteer, private tutor, sexual-abuse victim, cocaine addict, prostitute, and, ultimately, a corpse wrapped in plastic. It’s a peculiar, discomforting choice that often feels at odds with the series that inspired it. With many supporting characters reduced to cameos or absent entirely, the film’s Twin Peaks feels strangely underpopulated. Their absence also narrows the tone of the show: There’s no Invitation To Love, no sweet, goofy flirtations between Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), no sexy vamping from Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn). The film is hardly devoid of sex, however: Lynch, who co-wrote the film with frequent series writer Robert Engels, takes advantage of big-screen freedoms to put all manner of vice on the screen. But the sex ranges from the tearful (a high-school encounter between Laura and her secret boyfriend James) to the grotesque (Laura making out with the repulsive Jacques Renault) to the horrifying (Laura’s bedroom encounter with Bob/her father). Drugs seem to give no one any joy. Whatever pleasure Laura once derived from cocaine has since turned into the desperation of an addict, part of a larger pattern of debasement and self-destruction.
Rather than a strange, entertaining hybrid of supernatural drama, soap opera, and experimental oddness invested with Lynch’s personality, Fire Walk With Me offered an unflinching depiction of incest and murder, anchored to a performance by Lee displaying an intensity she never got a chance to display on the show. (True, she was mostly dead in the series, but she did make otherworldly cameos, and had a significant role as Laura’s identical cousin Maddy, all homages to Vertigo and The Patty Duke Show surely intended.) Lynch depicts Laura’s abuse and murder with a disturbing explicitness, but the most haunting scene comes when Laura, having spotted Bob snooping in her room, hides outside, watches her father emerge from the house, and for the first time in her life realizes that her long-time tormenter and her dad are one and the same. Lee’s performance has some moments of bug-eyed excess, but here, she conveys what it looks like when a world shatters.
In this moment and others—particularly an endless scene at a strobe-lit road house set to a hellish, droning jazz track by Angelo Badalamenti—Lynch applies his command of visuals, atmosphere, and creeping dread to a common kind of real-world trauma, and it’s a powerful combination, one that’s inspired some to reappraise Fire Walk With Me. In a 2013 Village Voice piece, Calum Marsh dubbed it a neglected masterpiece for just that reason, likening it to Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, another film in which a father descends into madness and drags his family with him. Marsh also credits the film with reversing a key element of the series: Rather than an absent victim, Laura defines the film by her presence. It’s easy to consider a dead girl as an abstraction when she’s part of a mystery to be puzzled over. It’s harder to see that same girl suffer and die, and realize “the pain endured in her life was more important than the intrigue surrounding her death.”
Maybe the mistake was in wanting Fire Walk With Me to pick up where the show left off, when really, the movie demanded to be seen on its own terms. Yet that isn’t entirely possible, either. Without the series, the film is nearly incomprehensible. (Or to be unkind, even more incomprehensible.) It also doesn’t ask to be divorced from the show, which it references and subverts from the start. Because MacLachlan dragged his feet in signing onto the film, much of the film’s opening section belongs to FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak, whose “Wicked Game” figured prominently in Lynch’s Wild At Heart) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) as they travel to Deer Meadow to investigate Banks’ death, but only after an encounter with Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a sour-faced woman introduced by Lynch’s Cole as “my mother’s sister’s girl,” and whose strange outfit and gestures Desmond breaks down as a series of codes. (Though he refuses to reveal why she wears a blue rose.) The scene now plays like an ahead-of-its-time parody of obsessive Internet fandom—and it’s worth remembering that Twin Peaks attracted an early version of one in the prehistoric days of Usenet—and the self-awareness extends to Deer Meadow, a nasty place Grantland’s Alex Pappademas has described as “a parallel-universe version of the Peaks pilot, set in a dumber, meaner, uglier small town.” From the start, Lynch seems to be trying to readjust expectations. Perhaps we should have listened.
Then again, it’s not like the film ultimately works. It’s the product of Lynch working near the peak of his powers, and it contains some of the best scenes of his career—few could find such awful poetry in a long tracking shot of a cigarette-strewn barroom floor, and the scenes set in the Black Lodge have a nightmarish intensity—but it’s still a misshapen work that tries to join an unflinching depiction of incest, abuse, and downward spiraling to an increasingly complicated mythos that includes a plethora of supernatural figures (Bob, Mike, The Man From Another Place, Pierre Tremond, The Jumping Man, various angels) and a substance called “garmonbozia,” a physical embodiment of pain and sorrow that takes the form of creamed corn. It’s a film about a girl who loses the elaborate fantasy system protecting her from realizing her father is her abuser, but it also presents that fantasy system as a real, malevolent force being investigated by the FBI. One story should negate the other, and almost certainly would have, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.
Yet even Lynch has a hard time getting the balance right. The film ends with a scene of Laura, now in the world beyond, weeping at the sight of a guardian angel resembling the one who earlier disappeared from a painting of children being watched over by a protective spirit. That disappearance happened at the same moment Laura realized nobody was protecting her. It’s a great example of Lynch’s ability to find power in banal, even kitschy imagery. (See also: the bird from Blue Velvet and the menacing, miniature seniors of Mulholland Dr.) But that scene arrives after images of a mouth devouring that supernatural creamed corn and a monkey saying “Judy,” the latter harkening back to an earlier moment in which the quickly reappearing and disappearing Agent Jeffries (David Bowie) announced he would not be talking about Judy. Is Lynch dropping a reference to be picked up in a sequel never to be made? Getting in one last joke by offering a cryptic clue never to be answered? Is the film just Lil, dancing before us with a sour face, and making us stupid trying to decipher it? Those looking for answers got only years of silence in return.
Or, more accurately, silence interrupted by rumors of a longer, better Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. An old Usenet FAQ about the film includes the header “Why did critics almost universally pan the movie?” followed by a series of explanations that include “[A]nyone expecting a ‘regular' movie was disappointed and/or angry” and “[A]nyone looking for the humor of the TV series was disappointed.” It also includes this:
Part of the reason is that the film had to be severely cut, both from the published shooting script […] and from what was actually shot. Many of the scenes shot (some being the only occurrence in the movie of certain series characters) were removed. Forced to cut the film to a “commercially viable” length, many things relevant to understanding other scenes were left out.
Contributors quote Engels speaking of a 220-minute cut, and of editor Mary Sweeney referencing a five-hour cut. The FAQ also includes an address for readers to petition Image Entertainment for a director’s-cut laserdisc. Later, the movement for a longer Fire Walk With Me moved to the hope of a director’s-cut DVD, or failing that, a DVD with the deleted scenes included. But those hopes faded when the disc—despite a write-in campaign, to which I believe I contributed—hit stores in 2002 without them, due to a complicated process of legal wrangling and negotiating.
It’s easy to see a desire beyond mere curiosity here, a wish for a version of Fire Walk With Me that would end the series more satisfyingly. But as the years went by, that started to look less and less likely. Then May’s announcement changed that: A July 16 screening of the deleted scenes confirmed their existence, and on July 29, the set hit the market, allowing anyone to watch what had previously been trapped in the legal equivalent of the Black Lodge. What we got looked a lot like what deleted scenes usually look like: dead ends, intriguing digressions, smart discards, and intriguing unused options. The so-called Missing Pieces don’t so much complete a puzzle as join together a few gaps. They’re still welcome.
Presented more or less in chronological order, the first batch fleshes out Desmond and Stanley’s excursion to Deer Meadow, making it look like an even nastier place than before, thanks to a marathon fight scene between Desmond and a local sheriff (Gary Bullock). These give way to scenes at FBI headquarters in which Cooper converses flirtatiously with his secretary, Diane. We neither see nor hear the recipient of all those tapes he recorded investigating Laura’s death, leaving open the possibility that she may not exist at all—though this presumably closes off the possibility that “Diane” was just the name of his tape recorder. There’s also a long scene in which Bowie’s Agent Jeffries teleports from Buenos Aires, with an extended stop in a location dubbed “above the convenience store,” a gathering place for all the mythological characters, including Das Boot’s Jurgen Prochnow in a big fake beard, playing a character dubbed “The Woodsman.” It makes little sense, but it at least makes a little more sense than the Jeffries sequence in the film. It’s also a must-see for those with a taste for Lynch at his most unhinged.
From there, it’s off to Twin Peaks itself, where the most notable scenes are those involving characters who never made it into the movie: Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean), Andy, Lucy, and Hawk (Michael Horse) all get some time at the police station. Big Ed (Everett McGill) and Norma (Peggy Lipton) share a tender moment drinking in a truck. Laura has a sweet scene at the home of the Haywards (Warren Frost and Mary Jo Deschanel) that suggests both how beloved she is by those who’ve watched her grow up, and how troubled she’d become. (The Haywards don’t seem to notice that their daughter now looks like Moira Kelly instead of Lara Flynn Boyle.) Pete (longtime Lynch collaborator Jack Nance) and Josie (Joan Chen) conduct business at the lumber mill. It’s a treat to see everyone in character again, but easy to see why their scenes didn’t make the cut, and hard to imagine how their inclusion would have improved the film, rather than making it feel even more uneven.
Finally, there’s a sliver of what many fans wanted in the first place: A glimpse of what happened after the finale. In a scene introduced as “Some months later,” Cooper’s late-run girlfriend Annie (Heather Graham), already seen in the film talking to Laura as a specter, gets wheeled into a hospital, as Cooper talks to the Man From Another Place in the Black Lodge. After some more business with Annie in the hospital, the story picks up where the series left off, with Cooper’s possessed body having smashed his head on a mirror while asking “How’s Annie?” This time, the scene includes a few more seconds, with Sheriff Truman and Doc Hayward breaking in, picking up Cooper, and telling him to go back to bed. Cooper replies, “But I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.” From there, credits roll over what, barring some unlikely revival, will be the last we’ll ever see of Twin Peaks: a demon-possessed FBI agent with a keen interest in dental hygiene.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, one that keeps with the series’ original conception, about mysteries being more meaningful without solutions. With “The Missing Pieces,” those of us who’ve long wondered what a fuller Fire Walk With Me would look like finally got our wish, and what we got is intriguing, but hardly revelatory. There’s another lesson, too, one about engaging with art rather than trying to fix it. I’ve never liked Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but even though I’d still rank it toward the bottom of my list of favorite David Lynch films—above Dune and Inland Empire—I’ve also spent more time watching, thinking about, and sorting out my feelings about it over the last 22 years than I’ve spent on more successful but less memorable films. It’s a frustrating movie, but one too strange and vibrant to dismiss, and too untidy to reshape into what we want it to be.
Looking back, the whole Twin Peaks phenomenon feels like, well, something out of Twin Peaks: a blue rose, a Show From Another Place, a visitation from a stranger world that made a deep impression before vanishing and leaving those who saw it to puzzle over what it all meant. Its undeniable decline and strange resurrection as a punishing movie has become part of its lore, not footnotes to be dismissed. Some fans posted about it on the Internet. Some went searching for other art that stirred the same passion. Some made their own boundary-pushing television shows and movies. You can upgrade it to high-def, fill it out with extras, and put it in a box, but what made it Twin Peaks will always be somewhere else, just out of reach, where it was always meant to be. It’s a mystery made complete by its incompleteness.