Note: This article contains spoilers for the entire Twin Peaks series.
How do you pick the best episodes of a short-lived TV series, especially one with a serialized story like Twin Peaks? You can’t pick them by which ones “tell the story without the filler” because they all flow into one another. Episodes directed by David Lynch could make up a whole list by themselves, but even those don’t cover Twin Peaks’ best outings. In the end, it comes down to which episodes best suck you into the world of Twin Peaks. Which ones make you think you’re living the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once?
As should be noted, this is not an “essential” episode guide to Twin Peaks. To fully appreciate the series you really do have to watch it all. If you don’t, these episodes won’t work as well as they do. Even the bad episodes make Twin Peaks what it is and contribute valuable pieces to its overall mythology. If anything, these episodes are the ones that deserve another look once you’ve seen the whole series (perhaps two or three times).
Note: This uses the episode order found on the DVDs and Blu-Rays. So it goes the pilot then episode one, with the final episode being episode 29.
In what is the most obvious candidate for inclusion on this list, the pilot perfectly introduces the world of Twin Peaks and its many characters. On rewatch, it’s shocking just how well it’s able to balance so many people and get the story rolling. Any exposition that would normally accompany so many character introductions is smoothed over with the plot, the death of Laura Palmer.
Everyone we meet is somehow connected to the murder, even in small ways. Through their reactions to the murder we learn about their lives. Through that lens, with the help of special agent Dale Cooper, we’re introduced to a town where no one is as exactly as they appear.
Cooper himself is given one of the best character introductions in television history as he dictates to the unseen Diane through a tape recorder. While the speech about trees and coffee seems rather pointless, it reveals so much about how Cooper views the world and is a welcome break from the somber opening of the episode. Cooper is a light of pure joy in the darkness that has been revealed in Twin Peaks.
Episode 2: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer
The Tibetan rock throwing exercise alone would merit this episode’s inclusion but there’s also so much more going on. Much like the dream at the episode’s end, many of the elements introduced here will be extrapolated on throughout the series. One Eyed Jacks, Leland dancing with Laura’s picture, even Josie with the two ledgers.
A lot of moments in this episode also have an undercurrent of comedy. The rock throwing exercise, which is portrayed as a dead serious affair by Cooper, can’t help but be seen as humorous for just how odd it is. Everyone does their best to roll with it but Truman especially can’t help but wonder what the hell he’s gotten himself into with Cooper.
Of course the dream at the end of the episode is a huge part of Twin Peaks lore and much of the series lasting imagery is rooted in it. Without this dream sequence, originally shot for the European Pilot of the series, Twin Peaks might not have made as lasting of an impact. Although one could argue if the series had stayed more grounded and didn’t include this imagery it could have gone on longer.
Episode 3: Rest in Pain
Is it easy to pick so many episodes from the first season? Yes, but come on, this was Twin Peaks firing on all cylinders. The funeral scene especially confronts all the major characters with their own lies and deceit, through the mouth of Bobby who was the first suspect in Laura’s murder. It’s telling that when confronted with the accusation that they were all responsible for Laura’s death Leland leaps onto the coffin, a telling clue once the true killer is revealed.
Much of the episode revolves around the funeral, with the lead up of Albert performing his tests on Laura’s body, Maddy arriving, and Briggs’ discussion with Bobby about death. It’s understandable the series couldn’t get all the characters together more often (how many huge town events can you have in the span of a month?), so when the series is able to work all the plotlines into one glorious scene it’s something to be cherished.
Episode 5: Cooper’s Dreams
As mentioned before, no one in Twin Peaks is exactly as they appear. When Dr. Jacoby talks with Bobby we learn a crucial part of his backstory that speaks that turns the character on its head. Laura laughed at him the first time they had sex. For all of Bobby’s macho tendencies he’s a scared little boy who would have done anything for Laura, including selling drugs. Where it was once easy to see Bobby as just kind of a dick, the more we learn the more sympathetic we become.
Dualism fuels Twin Peaks. Some people’s “other halves” are easy to get at, like Ben and Catherine’s affair, while others like Audrey’s reaction to that affair are more complex. In fact Audrey, who on the surface appears to be a “bad girl” is in fact one of the only characters in the show who doesn’t have some kind of double life. She openly embraces her “bad” tendencies and this keeps her from having to submerge them.
We also get a preview of things to come when the Log recounts what happened the night of Laura’s murder. The scenes between the Log Lady, Cooper, Truman, Hawk, and Hayward are both entertaining (Hawk asking what kind of cookies she has) and haunting (the Log Lady speaking of fire being a coward).
Episode 8: May the Giant Be with You
As much as the series relied on peculiar imagery and the dream in episode two, it was all still more or less grounded. With the lengthy Giant sequence at the start of this episode, Twin Peaks turns a corner in its development. This is now a supernatural story and BOB is not something of this world, if the Giant is to be believed. It’s no wonder so many casual viewers were turned off by this opening sequence but it opens up the story telling potential of Twin Peaks.
When Truman spoke of evil being in the woods in the first season, this episode confirms his statement was more real than he could have ever imagined. The evil isn’t just BOB or the Giant, but characters like Ben Horne who is so consumed by darkness that he (albeit unknowingly) nearly has sex with his own daughter. This could almost be read as commentary on the later reveal of Leland raping his own daughter. If he wasn’t aware of his actions, does that mean Leland wasn’t responsible? The answer in Ben’s case would of course be yes, but it does make one wonder if he would have stopped even if he had known it was Audrey.
While this episode might not have included the pay off most viewers were expecting after a summer long hiatus, being able to watch it right after the preceding episode removes those expectations and allows viewers to dive headfirst into the new mysteries that lay ahead in season two.
Episode 14: Lonely Souls
The death of Maddy is a scene few TV shows have ever matched. The horrifying nature of Leland murdering her (and pretty much confirming he murdered Laura) is only amplified by the presence of BOB. That some pure embodiment of evil is present at the death of a beloved character adds a whole new layer of complexity. Is Leland controlled by BOB? Is BOB just a vision and not actually real? The more Twin Peaks asks these sorts of questions the harder it becomes to pin down and that’s what makes it worth so many rewatches.
Maddy’s death is immediately felt throughout the town as the characters at the Roadhouse feel a wave of sadness wash over them. Whether they know it or not, the people of Twin Peaks are more connected than they might believe.
While this episode may have been forced into existence by the network, it still manages a satisfying pay off to the “Who killed Laura Palmer” question that became a pop culture sensation.
Episode 15: Drive with a Dead Girl
Never before has a calm before the storm felt so charged with danger. Seeing Leland, whom we now know is the killer. walking around and nearly killing Cooper puts you right on the edge of your seat. BOB is unhinged and seems delighted in the idea of being caught. Ray Wise proves just how phenomenal an actor he is in the scene where he learns they’ve arrested Ben. He’s able to go from seeming genuinely sad to giddy to malicious in the span of one shot.
On the other end Ben is overwhelmed at being falsely accused for Laura’s murder. With so much build up of Ben possibly being the killer, it’s great to see him have to worm his way out of it. Jerry provides some great comedy here as perhaps the worst lawyer ever.
This episode may be a break in the story between the revelation of Leland as the killer and his death but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
Episode 16: Arbitrary Law
Arguably the best episode of the series, the Laura Palmer story comes to one hell of a conclusion as the true nature of BOB and Leland are revealed to Cooper. These scenes are charged with supernatural energy and BOB’s shrugging off of any retaliation from Cooper or the others is hard to watch. Even if Cooper has trapped Leland in the cell, BOB can escape anytime he wants and he delights in the death of Leland.
Leland’s reaction to killing his own daughter is harrowing but it also asks the question of just how in control BOB was of Leland. The series never firmly answers this question and Fire Walk With Me only complicates it. This kind of ambiguity is what has kept Twin Peaks alive all these years and what makes this a stand-out episode. Even when the evil is defeated, good isn’t inherently the only thing left.
Cooper is unprepared for the power of BOB and while there is closure to Laura Palmer’s story, BOB lives on. While the second half of the season didn’t quite live up to the promise of fighting against the darkness in the woods, this episode propels the show forward enough to coast off the momentum through the worst entries in the series.
Episode 18: Masked Ball
I know, I know. This is part of the “bad” episodes of Twin Peaks.
I don’t think any fan of Twin Peaks out there really considers this to be up there but I’m going to include it for one simple reason: the character of Denise Bryson. For a crossdressing/possibly transgender character in 1990, she’s shockingly well handled. I think the character was supposed to an attempt at another “wacky” character in Twin Peaks but Cooper’s reaction to her is so progressive. The minute he realizes that Denise now identifies as a woman he’s all in for supporting her. Even Hawk compliments her look.
When even today transgender characters are hard to find on TV and even fewer are treated with respect, Denise is delightfully ahead of her time. I know for many that’s only one small moment in an episode filled with problems but it’s worth celebration.
Plus you get Hawk breaking down the White and Black Lodges which is an essential piece of Twin Peaks lore.
Note: In the following episode Audrey unquestioningly accepts Denise as a woman and seems to be enraptured by the FBI letting women agents in. Considering Audrey was often considered the shows breakout “sexy” character, it’s nice that she so readily accepts Denise.
Episode 29: Beyond Life and Death
The other episode that is often listed as the series best, this outing is truly like being transported to another world. After the lackluster second half of the season this episode snaps everything back into focus. Twin Peaks is back, baby, and it’s not just weird for weirdness sake but everything has meaning. Finding that meaning is near impossible, but it’s there. Cooper’s desperate attempt to save Annie only sets up what could become the framework for the third season. We wrote all about that here.
This episode is an experience unlike any other. While it can work as a stand-alone watch long after you’ve finished the series, I’ve often found it’s most effective after you’ve made it through the crappy episodes. It feels like you’ve been stuck under water, desperate to reach the surface, only to emerge and find yourself on another plane of existence.
Special mention goes to the song, “Sycamore Trees” played as Cooper enters the Black Lodge. Its haunting words will stuck with you long after the episodes run time and it’s the perfect track to listen to as you walk through a forest. Just be careful not to do it at night or you might start seeing owls everywhere.
If you’re a hardcore Twin Peaks fan reading this, I’d love to know what you think the series best episodes are. Is the later half of season two holding some unseen treasures? Can you make a case for “Little Nicky”? I’d love to hear!
Big thanks to In Twin Peaks for their screencap archive of the series.
Shamus Kelley has got idea, man. Follow him on Twitter!