Just finished this one in my rewatch. I'll try to keep my comments targeted to the specific episode, but to some extent they are going to wander more broadly to the fascinatingly frustrating (or is it the reverse?) Episode 17-28 stretch of the show that I'm putting to bed for the last time before DKL re-takes the reigns 20-odd years later and changes everything we think we know about TP.
First thing first: the concept of a beauty pageant unironically acting as a season-climax event on a show that started with the rape and murder of a homecoming queen is thematically tone deaf. It really acts as the perfect summing-up of how much the show derailed (LostInTheMovies has nicely pointed out how the "wrapped in plastic" dance motif highlights this -- unintentionally, IMO. Nothing about this stretch of the show indicates that the producers/writers were particularly self-aware about their choices). While I think, conceptually, Norma's idea of a small town healing from the aftermath of Laura's tragedy by parading high school students around in leotards has interesting sociological and narrative potential, the execution the show chose -- camp and glamour without a hint of self-awareness or judgment -- is about as big as missteps get. Also worthy of a place in the hall of shame: the remarkable turnaround from Ben unwittingly pawing his own daughter in a whorehouse to Ben begging her -- completely without irony or self awareness on the part of the character or the show -- to participate in an event centered around objectification of the female form. Ick.
Between the Lana "witchcraft" stuff and the beauty pageant, there's an uncomfortable theme in late season 2 of having "fun" with the male gaze (the frat boy-ish Pinkle stuff in this episode, for instance). Will is IMO the biggest casualty of this: seeing him mooning over Lana several episodes prior to this feels completely against his characterization to that point, and ditto him presiding over an event where his 18-year-old daughter is strutting around in a skimpy costume. I get that none of these characters is, or should be, a saint. I love DKL's choice in FWWM/TMP to imply that Will knew, on some intuitive level at least, about Leland's abuse of Laura (although I question whether that's consistent with everything we see on the show), because that character turn feels real and adds depth. By contrast, Will's vaguely sleazy behavior on the show is both inconsistent with his general characterization and boring.
Moving on. It struck me on this rewatch that the first shot of Pinkle pawing at the Log Lady, and the very irritated Margaret shoving him away, is the perfect metaphor for the frustrating nature of the second half of the series. I like Lander generally, but Pinkle irritates the hell out of me and is as good a talisman as any to personify the most awful, self-amused aspects of the show, while Log Lady is the embodiment of the show's marriage of mystery and comedy at its strongest (and Coulson, of course, is always a reminder of DKL's career and beginnings). I looked over this thread before posting and realized that LostInTheMovies already noted this, and expanded upon it by noting that the metaphor pays off when the Log Lady literally disappears and is replaced by Windom. Again, I simply can't believe that any of this was consciously intentional at this stage, but it's sure something.
Coop's line that they're combing the woods for Briggs drives me nuts, because it highlights the fact that HAVEN'T been combing the woods for Earle for the past week. They've known he's in the area since Erik Powell's corpse turned up, and he has repeatedly let them know that he hasn't gone far. Hawk found Jacques's cabin in an afternoon in Episode 5 -- why haven't they even tried to enact a dragnet for Earle? Instead, they play a leisurely chess game and read books on astrology while innocent people die and are threatened and kidnapped. Ugh.
Someone noted earlier in the thread that Earle's makeup is less terrifying on the Blu Ray. If nothing else, the makeup definitely calls attention to itself in high def: It's unevenly applied and clearly ends at his forehead, creating a "minstrel show" effect. I wonder if this was the intention, or if it was just a lazy makeup job because they figured no one would notice on a low-res broadcast where the viewer's eye would naturally be drawn to his eyes and teeth? It doesn't really detract from the scene for me, though: that shot still gives me shivers. If anything, it makes it oddly even more off-putting.
Windom, Windom. It's tough to think of any character this side of Deadwood's Al Swearengen who spends so much time monologuing to a mute audience (Earle to Leo, Al to his Indian head). Unfortunately, Earle doesn't have David Milch writing for him. Welsh and Gyllenhaal/Hunter do find a bit of a groove for the character in this episode and the prior one, making him about as effective as he ever gets (but, as if paying the piper, Earle-as-Log-Lady might be his nadir).
While Hunter thankfully restrains his use of Dutch angles this go-round, he does use what I believe to be the only two "wipe" scene transitions in all of TP. While they go by very quickly, I find them stylistically jarring. I assume he employed this technique due to the difficulty of expressing the passage of time between scenes set in the same location. I much prefer Hunter's more elegant solution to the same problem at the beginning of the episode, using a fade to black to show the passage of time between Leo releasing Briggs and Earle's arrival home.
Cooper's manic astrological ranting is one of the very rare moments in the show where MacLachlan's performance feels really off to me. It's sad in general how much Coop's character has lost his quirkiness: Marilyn & the Kennedys and giving yourself a gift are distant memories. Even his Diane messages at this point are all exposition and shoe leather.
It is kind of amusing that this episode spends so much time racing to the finish line, only for Lynch to completely change what the finish line is! The Lodge stuff works because DKL used it as a jumping-off point for all the great stuff in Episode 29 and FWWM, making the build-up retroactively more rewarding because it IS actually going somewhere. Imagine how exasperating all the New Age Jupiter-and-Saturn nonsense would be if it led to the anticlimactic scripted version of Episode 29.