“Twin Peaks Episode 20: Who Brought The Nightmare To Twin Peaks?” is also available in audio-visual format on the 25YL YouTube channel. Join us every day from January 30 to February 28, as we look at every episode of Seasons 1 & 2 for Twin Peaks Month.
Episode 20, “Checkmate”, is certainly some of the best of the worst of Twin Peaks. Whenever I have to convince people to watch Twin Peaks and they protest by citing the dip in quality of the second season, I make a point of insisting that while the James-Evelyn plotline is a chore, some of the best moments of the season are to be found in these episodes—and watching them once gives you a good idea of what to skip next time around.
That said, there’s something to be said about taking the time to look at these episodes one by one. In the middle of a lot of hokey stuff, we get a lot of information about the otherworldly entities and the Lodges, as well as Major Briggs’ otherworldly experience. And while I could do with a little less Ernie Niles screen time, it’s worth it for more Denise Bryson.
Major Briggs, Hierophant
During my very first binge-watch of Twin Peaks I paid little attention to Major Briggs, until I realized by the end that my first impression of him was completely wrong, and when I first rewatched it soon after, I had a completely different appreciation and watched his scenes more intently.
The opening scene in Twin Peaks Episode 20 is depicted on the hierophant card of the Twin Peaks tarot deck. It’s my primary association with both the card and Major Briggs, but this is also one of the few subconscious journeys of a character who isn’t Cooper. In most tarot depictions, the hierophant sits on a throne between chaos and order and represents wisdom and guidance. Beginning with the “Cooper/Cooper/Cooper” signal in Episode 9, Briggs serves as a bridge between Cooper and the residents of Twin Peaks and can explain the mystical aspects of the town in terms that Cooper is familiar with, unlike the Log Lady, who speaks in riddles and sometimes frustrates him.
This is where Project Blue Book comes in, which is of course a real-life study conducted by the military. Cooper and Briggs are both employees of the U.S. government, but they aren’t doing Uncle Sam’s business, so to speak. They’ve reached shared enlightenment about the otherworldliness of the Blue Rose cases that is only shared by Gordon Cole, and all of the official contemporary patter they use is merely a means of communicating the information to each other. They don’t indulge in outer-space or extraterrestrial mythology to the extent of The X-Files. In fact, as if to ground the meaning of all this into a more practical point, Major Briggs simply asks, “Is this meant for the soul? My soul?” Major Briggs is just a profoundly beautifully written character, and Don Davis gives each performance layers of personality.
It also seems like Briggs’ disappearance and reappearance in his living room would be a bigger deal if it weren’t lost in a lot of the other unusual activity happening in the town at the time. However, the Major’s’ time-hopping and the multi-dimensional plot takes up quite a surprising amount of screen time in The Return, and I have to wonder how much of it was in the works at this point.
James Has Always Been Cool
Still, here I am trying to make sense of the James-Evelyn plotline. And, yeah, on the surface there’s nothing really there. It always feels like the writers don’t know what to do with James Hurley after Maddie is killed but can’t just let him go. I think, if anything, this storyline just emphasizes that James is a central figure in Twin Peaks lore. He was Laura’s true love, after all, and the tragedy of James’ life is just how lost he is without her.
This is the beginning of a kind of purgatory for James. Maybe not literally, at least not any more than the entire cast of Twin Peaks is in purgatory in The Return, if the Roadhouse represents an institution or liminal space or something. But he seems to be trapped in the same state he was in when he lost Laura. The tragedy for him is multifold, and he never truly recovers. Is Freddie his Tulpa? A subconscious conjuring of the emotional and cultural intelligence that is stymied by James’ arrested development? Why not? Freddie is a ridiculous character and essentially exists in Twin Peaks to fight James’ battles. Even the green gardening glove could represent James’ working-class nature.
Invitation to Love
With the James-Evelyn plotline, the show continues its reliance on love triangles for plot devices. One thing I noticed dissecting both this and Episode 11 was a consistent dynamic in these relationships where the third interloper can be seen as a negative influence that appears to disrupt an otherwise happy couple.
Dick and Hank are obviously wrong for Lucy and Norma, respectively, as they both showed up after Andy and Ed and also have ties to the dark side of Twin Peaks, be it through Hank’s criminal past or Dick’s silly “gotta light” moment. I don’t think these small connections are mere accidents. For instance, in The Final Dossier, Frost reveals that Laura also interrupted Bobby and Shelly’s high school sweetheart relationship, which then led Shelly to start seeing Leo. However, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer tells a different story. Similarly, the story of how Ed and Nadine met differs significantly in The Secret History of Twin Peaks from the version Ed tells Cooper in Season 1. Frost’s books reverse these relationships, suggesting alternate histories.
Speaking of Leo, his reawakening is absolutely frightening, and I completely forget about it each time I rewatch. That said, Windom Earle soon neutralizes any threat he might pose for Shelly and Bobby, essentially relieving the couple from the responsibility of Leo’s captivity without letting him loose on the town.
Dead Dog Farm
In the final showdown of Episode 20, Jean Renault suggests that Cooper himself might be corrupting Twin Peaks. From his perspective, it’s a fair point. In fact, by this point, Cooper is nearly obsessed with Twin Peaks and his role as its protector or savior. There’s a case to be made in Jean Renault’s favor about escalation, but as The Return more than makes clear, even Agent Cooper’s good intentions aren’t always an indicator of good outcomes.
Twin Peaks is a tour through the nightmare of the American psyche, but we engage so thoroughly with that nightmare because we are guided by a uniquely comforting presence. The idea that this hero would himself be a harbinger of doom is something I’d usually just dismiss as villainous melodrama. But, uh, it turns out Jean Renault actually knows evil when he sees it. I guess he should.
Episode 20 ends with two explosions and another chess move from Windom Earle. With Jean Renault gone, the stage is now set for Earle to become the show’s main antagonist—that is, if this were any other show. Instead, Windom Earle is on a path to the Black Lodge that is driven by misguided ambition and self-serving revenge against Cooper. We’ll soon see through Windom Earle what Hawk means about the Lodge “annihilating your soul,” although Episode 20 also reveals the first clue that Cooper might be following that same doomed path.