“Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Jeez, where do we begin? The dense, disturbing, one-of-a-kind murder mystery crafted by David Lynch and Mark Frost has haunted viewers ever since its 1990 debut. And as the show’s long-awaited third season prepares for its launch on May 21st on Showtime, the mystery is deeper than ever.
That’s where this A to Z guide comes in. Below you’ll find all the sights, sounds, characters, concepts, mysteries and madness that make Twin Peaks one of television’s most influential and beloved shows of the past quarter of a century. Consider it a cheat sheet for the premium-cable reboot to come, and a refresher course on what made the original such a special experience. That gum you like has indeed come back in style at last.
A: Angelo Badalamenti
“Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.” That music – as indispensable to to the series as Dale Cooper or donuts and coffee – is the work of Lynch’s longtime musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, whose suite of lush leitmotifs made the show sound like a world all its own. Twin Peaks without the composer’s sumptuous synths is like Psycho without Bernard Herrman’s screeching strings, or Jaws without John Williams’s menacing “dun-DUN-dun-DUNs.” This clip of the composer explaining how he and Lynch came up with “Laura Palmer’s Theme” shows how much heart and soul he poured into every note.
Lynch was filming a scene for the pilot in which the late Laura Palmer’s mother sits bolt upright and screams. Then he noticed a face in the mirror behind her – the same face he himself saw when its owner, an actor turned set dresser named Frank Silva, crouched behind Laura’s bed to dodge the camera for a different shot. From this sinister coincidence was born Bob, the demonic rapist and murder from the otherworldly Black Lodge who began the series by killing Laura Palmer and ended it by possessing Agent Dale Cooper. Thanks to his malevolent presence, no show has ever been scarier.
C: Coffee, Damn Good
And hot! Decades before cooking shows from Chopped to The Great British Bake-Off became a national obsession, Twin Peaks led with its tastebuds, as its characters constantly touted their affinity for a fine cup of Joe – and, of course the delicious cherry pie to go with it. More than just a cute recurring gag, the show’s celebration of diner fare demonstrated a genuine affection for small-town life that added warmth nuance to its often vicious portrayal of its hidden sins.
D: The Double R Diner
Home of a cherry pie that’ll kill ya – and haunt of not a few characters who’ll do the same – the Double R functions as a crossroads for countless storylines. A frequent meeting place for Coop and the rest of the town’s law-enforcement community, it’s also the workplace of owner Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) – the young waitress involved with two of the town’s baddest gents, psychotic trucker Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) and drug-dealing alpha jock Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). It’s also the site of Audrey Horne’s dance (Sherilynn Fenn) and the heart to heart between Bobby and his pure-hearted father Major Briggs (Don S. Davis), two of the series’ most iconic scenes. And don’t even get us started about the time Norma’s ex-con husband Hank (Chris Mulkey) thought a famous food critic might be stopping by ….
E: Evelyn Marsh
She was Season Two’s stab at a femme fatale, but her real victim was the quality of the show itself. Played by Annette McCarthy, who was saddled with the thankless task of generating story material for sullen James Hurley (James Marshall) in the episodes following the revelation of Laura’s killer, Evelyn was a black widow with a rich husband and a killer chauffeur. She used James as her patsy in a back-stabbing murder scheme – a noir-pastiche plotline disconnected from basically everything anyone cared about, and a marker of how badly the series struggled during the middle of Season Two.
F: “Fire Walk With Me”
One of the most haunting turns of phrase in a series full to bursting with memorably creepy lines, this passage from the poem recited by the repentant Black Lodge refugee Mike is arguably the show’s signature line. As a grammatically off-kilter paean to living life on the edge of morality, sanity, and even reality, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the show’s dark side. It’s also the subtitle of the prequel movie released after the show’s conclusion, which depicts the final week of Laura Palmer’s life in excruciating sad detail; Lynch has recommended the film as the key to understanding the show’s third season.
G: The Giant
By day, he’s the doddering old room-service waiter at the Great Northern Hotel. By night, he’s a towering emissary of the world beyond our own – a ghostly entity from the angelic White Lodge who provides Coop with crucial clues to the murder of Laura Palmer, and who famously warns him that “it is happening again” when the killer turns his attention to Laura’s cousin Maddie (also played by Sheryl Lee). Actor Carel Struycken is set to reprise the role in the series’ return; it really is happening again.
H. Sheriff Harry S. Truman
The one that got away. Michael Ontkean played this square-jawed local law-enforcement honcho, whose friendship with oddball FBI Agent Dale Cooper was all the more affecting for their odd-couple nature. Harry is also romantically involved with the glamorous Josie Packard (Joan Chen), whose rivalry with her sister-in-law Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) is one of the show’s main sources of intrigue. He was also a card-carrying member of the Bookhouse Boys, the local secret society dedicated to keeping watch on the numerous nefarious goings-on around Twin Peaks. Ontkean has since retired from show business; legendary actor Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) is rumored to be his replacement, though it’ll be difficult to recapture his innate righteousness.
I: Invitation to Love
One of the greatest show-within-the-shows this side of Itchy & Scratchy, this was Peaks‘ send-up of soap opera melodrama, watched by many characters who were caught up in soap opera melodrama themselves. Love triangles, doppelgangers, shocking shootings – much of went on in the “real” Twin Peaks also went down in slightly more hysterical form in the fake afternoon-TV staple popular with many of the town’s residents. Series co-creator Mark Frost was the man behind the camera for this very meta element.
J: Julee Cruise
She was Angelo Badalamenti’s angel-voiced counterpart, the platinum-blonde singer who gave voice to his rapturously romantic compositions. In addition to “Falling,” the vocal version of the Twin Peaks theme song, Cruise performed on the show itself – most memorably in the Bang Bang Bar roadhouse, where her song “The World Spins” brought half the cast to tears at the very moment Laura’s lookalike cousin was falling victim to her killer.
K: Kyle MacLachlan
Like the platonic ideal of a leading man, cinema du Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan – also the star of the director’s big-budget sci-fi spectacular Dune and Reagan-era suburban nightmare Blue Velvet – didn’t so much play FBI Agent Dale Cooper as embody him. With his brylcreemed hairdo, his boyish optimism, his grad-student intellect and his innate decency, Coop was the antithesis of all the forces of evil at work; MacLachlan had both the looks and the chops to turn this improbably combination of personality traits into one of the most believably noble heroes in TV history.
L: The Log Lady
“My log has something to show you.” Catherine E. Coulson’s mysterious townsperson, known to all as the Log Lady for the hunk of wood she carried around and communicated with, became so synonymous with Twin Peaks that she was selected to host introductory segments for re-runs, defining the series’ offbeat tone for a generation of viewers. Once married to fellow Lynch repertory player Jack Nance (Peaks‘ Pete Martell), she died in 2015, leaving her role in the reboot uncertain.
M: Mark Frost
David Lynch gets much of the credit for Twin Peaks‘ success, and rightfully so. But without the involvement of co-creator Mark Frost, a veteran of the landmark drama Hill Street Blues, it’s unlikely the show would ever have gotten off the ground. The son of actor Warren Frost, who played Doc Hayward on the show (and joined fellow Peaks vet Grace Zabriskie as Susan’s icy WASP parents on Seinfeld a couple years later), Frost co-wrote every episode of the show’s forthcoming third season with Lynch, and penned the tie-in books The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.
N: Nadine Hurley
“Cotton balls!” Played by Wendy Robie, Nadine stood out from the Peaks pack with her trademark eyepatch, her obsession with creating perfectly silent drape runners and her deeply unhappy marriage to Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), whose affair with Norma Jennings is a major subplot. Her later memory-loss regression to her teenage years, her return to high school, and her superhuman strength (!!!) are often cited among Season Two’s daffiest and dumbest moments. But Robie’s puppy-dog-vulnerable performance proves that even at the show’s weird-for-weirdness’-sake nadir, there was a beating human heart beneath it all.
O: One-Eyed Jack’s
“Bite the bullet, baby!” The neon sign for the show’s casino-slash-brothel north of the Canadian border where Laura Palmer moonlighted prior to her murder, became one of the show’s most memorable visuals, while its staff – from sleazy card dealer Jacques Renault to owner/client Ben Horne to doomed madame Blackie O’Reilly – demonstrated the all-too-human evil that often ran parallel to Peaks‘ supernatural menace. It was also the site where Ms. Horne performed her infamous cherry-stem trick. Also: Rest in peace Michael Parks, who played Jacques’ brother and One-Eyed Jacks’s in-house muscle/psychotic Jean Renault.
There was a fish in it! It’s just a goofy throwaway bit about the only bad cup of coffee Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman drink during the course of the series, but the silly source of the foul tasting beverage served to the upstanding lawmen by sweet old Pete Martell is another demonstration of the show’s deep-rooted affection for the characters and the slightly warped world they inhabit.
Who’s alive? Who’s dead? Who blew up in a bank explosion? Who’s possessed by an otherworldly incarnation of evil? The cliffhanger ending crafted for Season Two by Lynch and Mark Frost, who hurriedly returned to the series after departing in the middle of the season to make movies (Wild at Heart and Storyville respectively), left countless plot threads dangling. The subsequent prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, was more concerned with the human (and superhuman) drama leading up to Laura Palmer’s murder than with tying up loose ends from the series itself. For this reason alone, the show’s long-anticipated third season feels less like a nostalgic retread than a truly necessary addendum to an unfinished tale.
R: Red Room
Sometimes less truly is more. Witness the Red Room, the definitive Twin Peaks image. Some red curtains, a matching sofa, a Venus statue, a zig-zag flooring pattern and voila: an extradimensional environment that has stood the test of time and forever defined David Lynch’s work. This antechamber to the Black and White Lodges that wage spiritual warfare for the fate of humankind is the site of two of Peaks‘ greatest scenes: the dream in which Coop first encounters Laura Palmer and the diminutive, red-suited Man From Another Place; and the climactic confrontation with his arch-enemies, Bob and the rogue FBI agent Windom Earle.
S: Shelley Johnson
“SEEING YOUR BEAUTY NOW, I FEEL AS THOUGH MY STOMACH IS FILLED WITH A TEAM OF BUMBLEBEES!” Played by Madchen Amick, Double R waitress Shelly Johnson may well have been the single most breathtaking person in the entire Twin Peaks cast, which considering the competition is saying a great deal. No wonder FBI honcho Gordon Cole felt moved to declare his affection for her at top volume. Prior to Gordon’s infatuation with her, Shelley was involved with Leo Johnson and Bobby Briggs, two of Twin Peaks‘ roughest customers, which makes her return in the show’s third season intriguing indeed.
T: The Tremonds
A kindly old woman and her adorable grandson – what could possibly be creepy about these two? A whole lot, as both Laura Palmer and her best friend Donna Hayward discover. Also known as the Chalfonts, this duo hails from the supernatural Lodges and offer their human interlocutors cryptic guidance. Mrs. Tremond is played by Frances Bay, aka the “old bag” Jerry mugs for her marble rye in Seinfeld; her intentions here seem somewhat more benevolent.
Hang on – how does this tale of psychological horror with a supernatural twist tie in to alien encounters? Well, it was the 1990s, when Area 51 was the hottest real estate in America. But more specifically, the malicious mystical goings-on in the forests surrounding the town were being tracked by the Air Force’s (very real!) Project Blue Book, an official military investigation into the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. On the show, the project’s local offshoot was spearheaded by the warrior-philosopher Major Garland Briggs, who helped uncover transmissions from the evil Black Lodge that appeared beamed in from deep space. The truth is out there, as the saying goes.
V: Van Dyke Parks
If working with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson during the height (or depth) of his sandbox psychosis is only the second weirdest thing you’ve ever done in your career, you might be Van Dyke Parks, the music-industry gadfly who appeared as a defense attorney during the show’s second season. The Smile sessions lyricist was an early example of the mutual admiration society that David Lynch would form with prominent musicians, many of whom – from David Bowie (see below) to Trent Reznor, Eddie Vedder to Sharon Von Etten – would appear in either Fire Walk with Me or the upcoming new season.
W: Wrapped in plastic
“She’s dead … wrapped in plastic!” In just a few words delivered by Pete Martell, the kindly lumberjack and fisherman played by Eraserhead’s poster boy himself Jack Nance, the tragedy of Laura Palmer is made clear. This was not just the catalyst that kicked off the show and kicked over the rocks that hid the town’s dark, seamy underside; it was a reminder that this was a once-vibrant kid, destroyed, debased and discarded like garbage. The image of the teenager in her plastic shroud was seared into the pop-culture consciousness. And the phrase itself became the title of the fanzine that kept the legacy of the show alive from the series’ cancellation through the birth of the Internet.
X: The X-Files
Chris Carter’s paranormal hit had a whole lot in common with Lynch & Frost’s forerunner: the conspiratorial/supernatural mindset; the idea of FBI agents secretly tasked with uncovering the hidden truths of existence; and the presence of David Duchovny, who played trans woman agent Denise Bryson on Peaks before he inhabited “Spooky” Fox Mulder on the Fox TV series. Considered the spiritual successor to TP at the time by legions of fans, the show wound up differing from its predecessor in one key respect: While Peaks was cancelled prematurely, The X-Files continued for several years past its logical sell-by date. Both, however, have come back for at least one more round long after their initial demise. Which brings us to …
As in “without you, Twin Peaks is nothing.” The fervent fan community dedicated to dissecting every scene, solving every riddle and theorizing about every possible outcome that formed around the seties was the direct antecedent to every geek-culture fandom that came afterward. Think of the endless online chatter and fan theorizing dedicated to The X-Files, Lost, True Detective, Westworld and Stranger Things – you don’t get that without Peaks providing the initial devotee-to-detective spark of obsessive engagement. (Only Star Trek has a more rabid fanbase, and even that is debatable.) Without the legion of viewers who dedicated themselves to solving the show’s many mysteries as seriously as Agent Cooper himself, this revival would likely never have happened. Take a bow, folks.
Z: Grace Zabriskie
The haggard, harrowed heart of Twin Peaks. As Laura Palmer’s mother Sarah, actor Grace Zabriskie was tasked with bringing the devastation of her daughter’s death home to viewers, with a razor’s-edge performance involving bouts of shrieking terror and chain-smoking devastation. Zabriskie was the ideal opposite number to her equally gifted counterpart Ray Wise, who played Laura’s father Leland Palmer. The horror and sadness present in these two performers’ work in the series shows how seriously Twin Peaks took the trauma that set its mysterious story in motion.