“What would you do if that woman upstairs is your dead wife?”
It’s been three weeks since Alexis Stokes came into our lives, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned in all that time, it’s that she’s actually her twin sister Angelique, unless she isn’t. The evidence for Team Alexis is that Angelique died six months ago and was buried in a crypt, with a funeral and everything, and if she was still alive, then they probably would have noticed.
The evidence for Team Angelique is: What if someone could come back from the dead? It’s tough to answer a what-if like that, because whatever you say, the other person can still say, Yeah, but what if they could? A conversation like that could go on indefinitely, and we’ve only got 22 minutes a day, not counting the occasional sales pitch for Spic and Span.
So let’s start at the ending: Angelique is going to appear on the show.
That’s not a spoiler, because we’re televisually literate people. Everybody who watches television has an innate sense of the general shape of television stories, based on an awareness that television producers are usually more or less competent at their jobs. They’ve built a big new set dedicated to Angelique, which includes an enormous portrait, and you don’t go around painting portraits willy-nilly. Also, they’ve been talking about her nonstop for a month. If everybody suddenly shrugged and said, huh, I thought Angelique would return from the dead but I guess she won’t, go figure, then that would be storytelling malpractice of a fairly serious degree.
So the question is: what form will Angelique take? There’s a purported twin sister on the show, which gives us several options: a) Alexis is revealed as actually being Angelique, b) the spirit of Angelique takes possession of Alexis’ body, c) Angelique returns as a ghost, like Dameon has, d) miscellaneous.
But it has to happen one way or another, or else the storyline fails and we’ve wasted the last four weeks of our lives. This is what suspense means.
Because, at the most basic level, the only thing the audience cares about is itself. We understand that these patterns of flickering light that call themselves Quentin and Alexis are fictional, and what “happens” to them is whatever the writers and producers think up. There’s no such thing as a true suspension of disbelief; the whole idea is silly. There are zero people who have ever watched Dark Shadows, and decided they were looking at a nature documentary about insane people who live in a haunted mansion with a noisy camera crew.
So we don’t care whether Alexis is Angelique or her sister, not really. Actually caring would mean that we believe that there’s such a person as “Alexis”, and that her welfare matters to her family and friends, who are offscreen and fictional. If I told you that at this moment in April 1970, the real Alexis Stokes is in Florence, drinking expensive wine and making sarcastic remarks as her two athletic Italian lovers fight for the chance to bed her for the night, but we’re not going to see that because we have to stay here in the east wing and watch Bruno play the piano, then who cares how happy that version of Alexis is? She’s make-believe. She sounds really cool, but still, make-believe.
The thing that we care about is that a) Angelique appears on the show sometime in the near future, because Angelique is fun to watch and the story is obviously about her anyway, and b) that she arrives before the show gets boring, and we lose our patience.
You don’t love these people. You love the experience of watching them.
So, yes, you’re upset when a character that you like dies, but that pang of grief that you feel is over the loss of something that you enjoy watching. You would feel the exact same thing if the show was suddenly cancelled in the middle of a season, even if all the characters ended up happy in what turned out to be the final episode.
In real life, you mourn for the days you could have spent with the person that you loved. In your television life, you mourn for the episodes you could have watched. I was upset when Juliet died in Lost, even though it was thrilling and made for a kickass season finale, because I really liked watching Juliet and Sawyer together, and instead of making more Juliet and Sawyer episodes, she went and took a lead role on a stupid alien invasion show that I wasn’t going to watch.
So I’m glad we got the thrilling but “sad” ending, because it was more emotionally satisfying than it would have been if she’d had a boring but “happy” ending that took her off the show anyway. I liked her, and I wanted more, and I didn’t get it, and here I am still whining about it, seven years later.
So the real mystery in a murder mystery story is whether the audience will be satisfied with the resolution or not. Will it be plausible? Will it make sense? Will it be satisfying to see the criminal exposed, and whatever comes after that? And most of all: is this story that I’m currently watching actually a good story?
If a murder mystery ends with the killer being someone you never heard of, and leaves all the clues completely unexplained, then it’s a bad story, even if you enjoy watching it all the way up until the resolution. A good story can turn into a bad story on a dime, and a good TV show can turn into a bad one. In fact, later on this year, we’re going to watch that happen, in real time.
That is the tension that we refer to as “suspense”. The action moves towards a decision point, where the story can’t continue unless something changes, and you feel that short-of-breath excitement, because the good time that you’re currently having could fall apart, if they blow this upcoming pivot point.
My favorite example of the use and deliberate misuse of suspense is that time that David Lynch trolled the entire United States of America, with the first eight minutes of the first episode of the second season of Twin Peaks.
In 1990, the nation unexpectedly found itself enjoying a dreamy and partially abstract murder mystery show which was especially well-known for a lengthy dream sequence in the third episode featuring a character called The Man from Another Place, who appears in the form of a vibrating dwarf in a red suit who rubs his hands together and says, in reversed speech, “I’ve got good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.”
There were only eight episodes in the first season, played and then repeated over spring and summer 1990, and it was a nationwide sensation. People who didn’t ordinarily watch surrealist cinema actually sat around and tried to figure out what that dream sequence could possibly mean, like it was a set of clues that could be decoded. It turns out it didn’t mean anything in particular.
Because the funny thing about Twin Peaks is that it wasn’t a murder mystery at all; it was an avant-garde hipster soap opera and cultural rickroll, constructed deliberately to confuse the American public, and destroy our faith in ABC-TV. The fact that the show appeared to include an aimless murder investigation was basically just a coincidence. But people see what they want to see, and we were entirely convinced, all summer long, that we understood the nature of the story we were watching.
The first season ended with the main character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, being shot at point blank range by an unseen assailant. This was a thrilling cliffhanger, the kind of thing that would usually lead to a drastic plot pivot. Naturally, everyone thought that season two would open with a shocking reveal that would answer some of the questions we’d been puzzling over.
So… yeah. About that.
I remember being super excited for the new episode; everyone was. Twin Peaks was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, this strange and surprising and beautiful show that should never have existed. And David Lynch took that opportunity, with the biggest national audience he would ever have, to tell us, essentially, that we could go fuck ourselves.
The episode opens with Agent Cooper lying on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
Actually, that’s not true. More specifically, the episode opens with a three-minute theme song, and even more specifically than that, it opens with a one-minute shot of a machine in a factory slowly doing something to another thing, over and over, with occasional sparks, to a very pretty tune that slowly builds to a climax, and then unwinds again. It’s the closest thing on television to hypnotism, and it serves as an entrance exam, to make sure viewers really want to watch Twin Peaks, and they’re not just leaving the TV on after The Father Dowling Mysteries.
Then there’s a minute of actor names, one by one, appearing and fading over a seemingly endless shot of an empty road. Finally it cross-fades to a slow-motion shot of a waterfall, with more names and more names and more names. And then a shot of some water, with more names, and then the words “Guest Starring” and a lot more names. And then another shot of water, and the entire production staff.
And then Agent Cooper, lying, as I said, on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
A voice coming from the nearby telephone receiver — Andy, from the police department, who was talking to Cooper just before the shooting — says, “Agent Cooper! Can you hear me? It’s Andy! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! Can you hear me? Agent Cooper!”
Agent Cooper doesn’t respond to this urgent communication, because he’s lying, as I said, on the floor of his hotel room, shot in the chest and potentially bleeding to death.
And then the world’s oldest man walks into the room with a glass of milk on a tray. “Room service!” he announces.
Cooper manages to grunt a few times. Room service doesn’t really react to the fact that the occupant of this room is on the floor and bleeding, potentially to death.
Room service shuffles across the floor, thirteen slow steps, until he’s standing next to the shooting victim.
He leans over, and asks, “How ya doin’ down there?”
Cooper continues to lie on the floor, potentially etc.
Room service gives him a smile, straightens up a little, and says, “Warm milk!”
Agent Cooper manages to croak, “Would you put it on the table, please? And would you call a doctor?”
Room service says, “Sure!” and shuffles over to the table.
From the telephone receiver, we hear Andy, saying, “Agent Cooper! Are you all right? Can you hear me? Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! Can you hear me? Are you all right? Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! Agent Cooper! It’s Andy! It’s Andy!”
Confused, room service picks up the receiver, and places it on the cradle.
It takes him fifteen seconds to hang up the phone. He has to use two hands.
Room service moves back to the center of the room, and says, “I hung it up for ya.”
Agent Cooper slowly turns his head, and then — this actually happens — he says, “What’s that?”
Room service leans in a little closer. “Hung it up for ya!” he repeats.
Cooper stammers, “Did you call… the doctor?”
Room service gives him a pained expression, and blinks.
“The doctor?” Cooper asks.
Thrown off guard by the rapid pace of events, a confused room service groans, and says, “It’s hung up.” And then he says, “The phone.”
Agent Cooper smiles. “Thank you,” he says.
Room service brightens up. “Sure!” he says. “No problem!”
Then room service goes back to the tray, and picks up the bill. He bends down to offer Cooper the tab, and a pen.
Cooper takes the pen, and looks at the bill. Then he looks up at room service, and says, “Does this include a gratuity?” This is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed. I swear to god, there is nothing else like this.
“Yes, sir!” room service says, and Cooper signs the bill.
“Thank you,” room service says, and straightens up. “Thank you kindly.” Cooper smiles.
And then there’s a whole two minutes more of this scene, which continues along exactly the same lines. Room service ends up shuffling in and out of the room a couple times, giving Cooper a thumbs-up, followed by another thumbs-up. It’s unreal.
So that was David Lynch, saying to America: This show is not the show that you think you’re watching.
Everybody thought that there was going to be action, and more clues — and most of all, “answers”, an absolutely irritating and irrelevant request that was also thrown at the Lost creators, because nobody understood Lost either.
Twin Peaks is not a show about questions and answers. If you want to see the tidy resolution of a mystery, says Twin Peaks, then go and watch the fucking Father Dowling Mysteries, as seen on this channel eight minutes ago. We genuinely do not care whether you watch our show or not.
Obviously, America didn’t take to that idea very well, which was kind of the point. Viewers turned against the show, which had already pre-emptively turned against the viewers. The network reportedly called Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost in for a series of meetings about actually revealing Laura’s killer, which apparently they didn’t want to do, probably because everybody kept asking them to.
“For all its depth, it is nevertheless a murder mystery,” said the Chicago Tribune, “and it had better be able to satisfy the whodunit desires of viewers weaned on Columbo and Perry Mason.” The fact that the show made it clear that it had absolutely zero interest in satisfying those viewers just sailed right over everybody’s heads, including mine. I didn’t really figure it out until Lost came along, and pulled the same trick for six years running.
Anyway, the point is that the audience doesn’t really care who killed Laura Palmer, in the sense of fictional justice. We just want to like the show, and apparently, we also want the show to like us, which is a very weird thing to want.
That eight-minute opening of season two was deliberately designed to signal that no, this is not a murder mystery, this is avant-garde supernatural comedy soap opera, and you thinking that it’s Columbo is part of the joke. We’re not going to meet your expectations, because you don’t understand what you’re looking at, and we can’t believe that ABC is still giving us money to make a prime-time network show that openly hates the prime-time network audience, oh my god, how is this still even happening?
And meanwhile, twenty years earlier, something about Dark Shadows, something something something something.
Tomorrow: Back From the Death.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Bruno makes a couple mistakes in the same line: “Once Mrs. Collin was out of here, that woman upstairs had to get rid of anyone who wouldn’t believe her. So, enter Dameon enter–Edwards.” He also stumbles a minute later: “Even you were… ready to believe, in fact you did believe, that the occult was involved here!”
When Quentin walks up to Angelique’s portrait, the shadow of a camera moves into the frame.
Buffie holds up the cash that Cyrus gave her, and you can see several of the fake bills, with weird markings. Although, maybe that’s how Parallel Time money looks.
During the closing credits, we can see a stagehand sitting on a chair, chewing gum. He’s visible for a full minute, and then the camera pulls in tighter to cut him out of the shot. You should go and look at this one, it’s amazing.
Tomorrow: Back From the Death.
— Danny Horn
30 thoughts on “Episode 999: The Dead Wife”
Actor note here, and not for DS: The room service guy on TWIN PEAKS was Hank Worden, a great character actor who spent most of his career playing old men, typified by Mose in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (and he was only 55 then). TWIN PEAKS was one of his last two TV gigs (the other being the finale of COP ROCK, as an elderly actor cast for a campaign commercial who even shout-outs the fact that he worked for John Ford). He’d carved out a fifty-plus year career (with a face like that, in addition to cowpokes and old men, he played his share of undertakers), and was either 89 or 90 when he did TWIN PEAKS (he died in 1992 at 91). I always appreciate that kind of longevity.
Yay, thanks for the info. I love this scene now as much as I hated it then, which is a great deal. He is hilarious in it.
Twin Peaks didn’t need a script…
It was the cinematography and especially the musical score, that made its mark on television history.
And Audrey Horne. TP’s answer to Angelique.
Casting was excellent for every role.
Plot didn’t matter, we just wanted these people, these pictures, and this music playing on our screens in a dark room.
I couldn’t help wondering whether it was Ben Blue. There’s a little resemblance.
Ben Blue passed away in 1975.
Oh, so this is the episode with “the chewer” seated as the credits roll. Wasn’t he holding a sandwich? I thought that was what he was chewing, a bite of a steak sandwich or something. I kept wondering why he would never finally swallow his food.
This post makes me glad I never once bothered to watch Twin Pukes, because David Lynch is one of the reasons I have long renounced any cultural associations of the 1990s. Pointless hipster hogwash.
Prisoner, have you ever seen David Lynch’s graduate school film, “Eraserhead”? That made Twin Peaks seem completely sane.
Only a short clip as I remember, where this guy is sitting down to eat his chicken dinner but he can’t because the chicken keeps dancing all over the plate. What do dancing chickens have to do with my time on Earth?
There is another episode that shows a crew hand eating at a table throughout the entire run of the credits. I don’t remember the episode number, but I believe it is one of the earlier ones before Barnabas is introduced.
That box in Cyrus lab…isn’t that the vessel that will hold the head of Judah Zachary?
Judah who? Are you looking into the future?
…or is it the past?…
…speaking of which, did you have an uncle Dameon by any chance?
Nah, that’s the vessel with the pestle, with the pellet with the poison. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.
No, they broke the vessel with the pestle. And replaced it with a flagon with the figure of a dragon. The chalice from the palace has the pellet with the poison and the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true.
During this point in time, ABC’s One Life to Live and All My Children (as well as The Doctors on NBC) had their end credits rolling over a staged scene with characters. It was improvised, and usually took place on a set that was not seen in the final scene of the episode. It worked well, and I always wondered how it would have worked out on Dark Shadows. Of course, the show that did this to the very best effect (IMO) was Frasier. They’d stage something that was like an inside joke that you wouldn’t get unless you watched the episode.
Another great piece tying together three of my TV touchstones. You’ve also hit on something that unites these three series: they couldn’t last or be replicated. Imitated, yes. It’s why I think that attempts to remake Dark Shadows ultimately have failed. Dan Curtis tried in 1991 but was too much in love with his source material (namely HODS) trying to marry it to the TV show. And I think he presaged Steven Spielberg and George Lucas both attempting to fiddle with their own movies (Close Encounters and the Stars Wars trilogy respectively) As far as I’m concerned all I wanted to see was a sequel or a reunion movie to satisfy my DS cravings. Lucas waited too long to do the “first trilogy” and WAY too long for the third one. A LOST sequel would be pointless, although.. Better stop because I don’t want Bad Robot to get any ideas. So, soon we’ll see if Twin Peaks can make the sequel thing work
Oh, my god, that “thumb’s up” killed me. A college professor of mine decades ago spent a whole class period on this scene.
I am reticent to use the trope “there are two types of people in this world,” but there really does seem to be folks who are insistent that shows reveal clearly and obviously “Who Is Number One?” or “Who Killed Laura Palmer” or “What is the exact nature of the alien conspiracy?” Whereas, I’m on the other side thinking it doesn’t matter. It is the backdrop or rather the springboard to interesting stories. And more often than not the “answer’ is always underwhelming.
I guess it depends on whether the answer makes the story more interesting or less interesting. If Twin Peaks was struggling to find interesting stories to tell while the “who killed Laura Palmer” mystery dragged on, and naming the killer would allow them to move on to other things, then yeah, find the killer.
The thing that I find frustrating about audience reaction is that people get very upset with the idea that the creators are “making it up as they go along,” which is always true of every competent serialized narrative ever. That’s why it’s a TV show and not a movie, because you’re making the show in real time while the audience is watching it, and if you come up with a better idea, then you use that. A detailed six-year plan would make any TV show worse.
Except for Breaking Bad, which pretty much plotted it all out in advance, and ended up with the most brilliant serialized narrative ever, IMHO — even if still love Dark Shadows more.
I’ll add Babylon 5 to that list. JMS planned a 5 year arc, with a definite story end. He prepared trap doors, characters that could be brought in to fulfill storylines in case he suddenly lost an actor, which he did. It was one of the first shows to have an over all arc and helped lead to the current status where many shows have story arcs. A show that was under appreciated both at the time and now.
I think people only say that when they can see the seams–which they should not be able to do.
It was David Lynch leaving the show that killed it. After that it was people trying to fake eccentricity rather than creating from a place of true eccentricity.
There were people online who insisted that even FRIENDS had some grand plan to eventually pair off Chandler and Monica. “There are hints all through the early episodes.” (No, there’s not — it just looks that way because the actors shared a chemistry that was later seized upon.)
What I love about TV is how, like comics, there is spontaneity and evolution based on audience reaction.
I seem to remember a similar discussion concerning the way in which the Leviathan Creature was presented on DS – that showing it would never have met the audience’s expectations. (Actually, I thought that was the way Yaeger should have been presented in his early appearances; reflected by imperfect surfaces (like the tray, or in a window), as a shadow on the wall, a form in near-darkness. Would have been better than that makeup job.)
I know that the audience cares mostly about itself is one of the basic tenants of the blog and I think you make a pretty good case, but I would posit that it isn’t always true. My clearest example is through soap operas. We were always CBS soap people. I grew up with those characters and I do want them to be happy. Although I’d rather see them on screen being happy, I’ll take knowing that they are off screen being happy. One of my favorite “Guiding Light” couples ever was Quola (Quint and Nola). I was so excited when they brought them back. Then they spent the next year having them do “interesting” things that were totally out of character and I hated it and wanted them safely off the canvas again somewhere reconciled. As happy as I was to hear they were coming back I was more happy they were being safely shuttled out of town. My all time favorite couple was Manny (Michelle and Danny) and when the new head writer obviously had NO idea whatsoever how to write for them I was glad she wrote them off rather than watch them be tortured. (I call their last year on the show the deep, dark, best forgotten, amnesia year.)
On the other hand I have for periods of time having more to do with schedule coincidence watched “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital.” On each one I have one couple I truly like and the rest of them I have the same attitude you describe on this. I want to see them do interesting things and off with their heads if they bore me. So I really do think it can matter depending on your relationship to a particular show whether you care about the characters being well and happy or not.
On the other hand it’s definitely the characters I care about and not the actors. I’ve never been much about meeting actors because I know it would really be the character I would want to meet and this isn’t them. Also, if I cared about the actors I’d be happy if they got a better job. I’m not. I’m small and petty and want them to stay in the character I like and if they leave I want to see them come crawling back to the show with their tails between their legs.
One other show to mention about it not being what you think was “How I Met Your Mother” that I had gotten bored of and stopped watching long before the end, but then in the final episode the EP suddenly pulled tight on the strings and showed us what we thought we were watching wasn’t what we were watching after all and it revitalized my interest in watching the whole series over again even though a lot of people didn’t like it and felt cheated.
This story is affecting me a little more since the last time I watched it, because my mother’s twin sister passed away two years ago. There’s always some level of feeling like a deceased loved one isn’t really gone and will come walking through the door again, but I can attest that it seems to be much stronger with a twin. Two years on, Mom still reaches for the phone every morning to call her sister, sometimes not remembering until she gets the “number no longer in service” message. She’ll find herself driving in the direction of her sister’s house before remembering and turning around. So, while I agree that it’s our TV literacy telling us Angelique isn’t gone, there’s also an element of reality to it.
“There are zero people who have ever watched Dark Shadows, and decided they were looking at a nature documentary about insane people who live in a haunted mansion with a noisy camera crew.”
Actually, Mr. Horn, make that one person, not zero.
When I was a child, I thought nighttime shows and movies were “made up,” and that soap operas were “real people.” I believed we were actually looking at the 1960s equivalent of “reality TV.” It never occurred to me that the widow women watching “As the World Turns” were watching “made up” TV.
And since “DS” was also a soap … put two and two together … so there you go. Little 7-year-old William (my age during the PT storyline) really thought this was something involving actually human beings and that “DS” was proof of the existence of vampires and ghosts. Because I thought it was “real,” I’d get very overwrought and had bad dreams. Thus, “DS” became banned in my home. So I’d catch it at neighbors’ homes when I could.
But at 7, I firmly believed this was “real.”
Lisa Blake Richards gets to do some real acting in the scene where Buffie comes to the lab and Sabrina interacts with her and Cyrus. She’s pretty good!
Note to the stagehand in the closing credits:. “I’ve got good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.”
“Use your evil powers now!”
“Call on your false gods!”
Yes, please. Something needs to happen and soon. This is even harder to get through than the beginning of 1841PT. I don’t hate it as much but I’m even more bored. DS at its best was surprising. This isn’t. We know Alexis either is or will be Angelique. So get on with it!
As Prisoner noted above, shows like Twin Peaks, Lost, Westworld, and even large chunks of The Sopranos are just hipsters trying to put something over on the rubes. Sort of like Lucy always pulling away the football at the last second. But Charlie Brown never stopped believing that “This time it’ll be different!” and I guess that’s why some people still watch that type of show.