Catch up on ‘Twin Peaks’ with our guide to the essentials

More than 25 years after Twin Peaks aired its seemingly final episode, audiences will soon be able to return to the eerie northwest town with a new limited series on Showtime, premiering May 21. Longtime fans have been salivating at the chance to see what happens next in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystical detective story, but viewers unfamiliar with Twin Peaks may be wondering what all the hubbub is about.

What is Twin Peaks? Why is it important?

Twin Peaks was a serialized drama that aired from 1990-91. Primarily a mystery story, it followed the investigation into the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose body is found by the shore near her (fictional) hometown of Twin Peaks, Washington. The FBI dispatches the eccentric Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to investigate. What he finds is a town rife with bizarre characters and dark secrets.

Many of the defining aspects of Twin Peaks may sound familiar to modern viewers: Oddball detectives, a town with a dark secret, heavy use of dream sequences, and a large cast of oddballs have all become common features of modern shows. If the show’s premise seems old hat at this point, it’s only because Twin Peaks proved to be a truly revolutionary show, one whose influence can be found throughout the current “Golden Age of TV.”

Twin Peaks, unlike most shows of its time, liked to withhold, to draw things out, teasing new details every episode. And despite the mystery driving the show, it became apparent Lynch and Frost were less interested in providing answers than in using Laura Palmer’s death as an excuse to get Cooper — and viewers — to explore the weird world they’d created.

Beyond its novel storytelling, Twin Peaks also set a new standard for filmmaking on television. Lynch was already an accomplished director by the time the show went into production, and he and Frost enforced high standards for cinematography and set design. The show’s best sequences achieve a delirious beauty on par with anything in Lynch’s films.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the show, and the reason it continues to be popular, is how it defies easy categorization. Twin Peaks flits from mystery to horror to comedy at a moment’s notice; the grief at Laura’s murder can be juxtaposed with Cooper gushing out an ode to black coffee. It’s a show which recognizes that life is a patchwork of comedy and tragedy, horror and romance. Frost’s sharp, quotable dialogue is as important as Lynch’s fever dream visuals, and that gives the show a singular, enduring quality. Read on to explore some essential episodes that will prepare you for Twin Peaks’ return.

Essential episodes

If you you are a first-time viewer, or simply want to refresh your memory before the new episodes premiere, here are ten classic episodes to watch, covering most of the bases. Note that if you have time, you should at least watch the entirety of season 1 (which is excellent from start to finish), the first nine episodes of season 2, and the final two or three episodes as the second season tends to drag in the middle. (Note: As you’d imagine, spoilers apply ahead. If you want to go in fresh, we recommend skipping the synopses.)

Pilot/Northwest Passage

The feature length pilot for Twin Peaks opens with the theme playing over a montage of the verdant waters and woods of the Pacific Northwest. As in his film Blue Velvet, Lynch quickly cuts to the horror hidden beneath the pretty facade; as Pete Martell heads out for a day of fishing, he walks along the lakeside, a white bundle lurking in the background. This bundle is Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic, the first of many horrific sights. Perhaps most important, the scene establishes that Twin Peaks will be a show made with all the craftsmanship of a feature film. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Northwest Passage is how real it feels. Before the trippy dream sequences and cosmic horrors enter, there was a small town rocked a by a brutal crime.

Traces to Nowhere

After the pilot’s extensive table setting, Traces to Nowhere is a hearty first course, delving further into the character of Agent Cooper — and featuring his first, rather charged scene with aspiring femme fatale Audrey Horne. This is also the episode where the murder investigation really gets rolling.

Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer

Probably the most famous episode of Twin Peaks, Zen features some of the show’s most iconic scenes, particularly the dream sequence in which Cooper first visits the infamous Red Room, an extra-dimensional place that frequently appears throughout the series. There, he meets the cryptic Man from Another Place and Laura Palmer herself, who offer him clues as to the identity of her killer. It’s a creepy scene — particularly due to the way Laura and the Man from Another Place speak in reverse — and establishes the supernatural elements of the show.

Rest in Pain

Laura Palmer is the enigma driving the series, but Rest in Pain reminds the audience that she’s not merely a riddle to be solved, as the townsfolk of Twin Peaks come together to mourn at her funeral. The episode doesn’t just function as an emotional showcase for the people affected by Laura’s death; it also deepens the mystery behind her death, as an autopsy reveals some disturbing things about Laura’s lifestyle.

Realization Time

No detective story is complete without some undercover shenanigans, and Realization Time provides them in spades, as Cooper and Sheriff Truman pay a visit to a shady casino and brothel called One Eyed Jack’s. Unbeknownst to them, Audrey Horne plans to infiltrate One Eyed Jack’s disguised as a hostess.

The Last Evening

The finale of Twin Peaks’ first season didn’t reveal Laura Palmer’s killer, but it did bring several storylines to violent ends. Murder, arson, and an attack on Cooper’s life are just some of the exciting events that close out a nearly flawless season of television.

May the Giant Be with You

The second season premiere picks up where The Last Evening left off, with Cooper unconscious on the floor. While unconscious, he has a vision of a giant (Carel Struycken), a seemingly benevolent figure who gives Cooper some puzzling clues to help him on his path. Elsewhere, several characters undergo some striking changes. May the Giant Be With You sets up a lot of the events to follow in season 2, and has all of the cryptic weirdness one could want from the show.

Lonely Souls

Who killed Laura Palmer? That mystery is at the heart of the show from the first scene, so it may shock viewers to learn that the answer comes halfway through the show’s run. The revelation of the killer’s identity proves to be one of the most gruesome scenes in the show, as they claim another victim in brutal fashion. Lynch directed this episode, and his touch shows in the perfect, unsettling cinematography.

Arbitrary Law

Arbitrary Law brings the Laura Palmer case more or less to a close, with Cooper hunting down the killer. It could almost work as a series finale — some might argue it should have been — if not for the intriguing mythology the show had built up by this point. The rest of season 2, with a few exceptions, is a mess, and not in the good way of most Lynch projects. Arbitrary Law is one of the series’ last high-water marks, and a satisfying conclusion to the show’s central plot.

Beyond Life and Death

After the demise of Laura Palmer’s killer, season 2 still wasn’t even halfway done, and the plot started to wander, exploring the mythology of the otherworldly Black Lodge and introducing a new antagonist for Cooper to deal with. If you’re in a rush to get caught up before the show returns, skipping ahead to the season 2 finale isn’t the worst idea. The episode follows cooper as he chases his former partner — now nemesis — Windom Earle, who has kidnapped Cooper’s girlfriend and taken her to the Black Lodge. Cooper follows, and must contend with the Lodge’s eldritch inhabitants. The show ended on a terrifying cliffhanger, as a laughing, possessed Cooper smashes his head into a hotel mirror. Cooper’s fate is one of the greatest questions that have haunted audiences over the decades; hopefully the new season provides a satisfying answer.