The dead speak in Twin Peaks, but evil is excused

Sarah Posted by Sarah at May 18, 2017 17:10:48 May 18, 2017 17:10:48

SPOILERS FOR ORIGINAL TWIN PEAKS

The new Twin Peaks begins this weekend. Before it begins, let’s revisit the original. The original was a show that charmed you with its weirdness. The town of Twin Peaks seems populated almost entirely by oddballs, and the oppressive presence of the primordial Pacific Northwest forest looms over everything, lending the town and the show about the town an atmosphere of remote mystery. From the moment he arrives, Special Agent Dale Cooper—himself a strange blend of sharp investigator and dreamy romantic—seems absorbed into the quirky fabric of the town. Cooper is a Sherlockian figure, a detective who uses dreams and visions as part of his method of inquiry, and who makes fantastic leaps of logic that still bring him to vital clues and understanding.

But a television investigator is only as good as the crime he investigates, and Cooper is matched by Laura Palmer, arguably the most famous corpse in television history. Laura is beautiful even in death, wrapped in her plastic shroud, her blue-grey visage artfully sprinkled with sand and framed by her blonde hair, an image calling upon centuries of paintings of the Madonna. She’s the homecoming queen who volunteers for Meals On Wheels and tutors a developmentally challenged boy; everyone loves Laura, she’s such a nice girl.

She also has a cocaine habit, cheats on her boyfriend, and poses for porno magazines. Laura has a double-life, a second skin in which she is a wild child, a party girl, a seductress. She is Trouble and Troubled, her two sides seemingly irreconcilable. She is the definition of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, and she’s also ground zero for the “dead girl” trope, in which a dead woman is the entry point into a narrative. The dead girl trope is rampant in television, particularly procedurals, and it’s especially damaging because it renders murdered and violated female bodies nothing more than a spectacle.

Laura Palmer is a Dead Girl, but she differs in one major way from the trope: She has a voice. Through her tapes, her diary, and the recollections of those who knew her, Laura remains present in Twin Peaks. Cooper’s investigation reveals so much information about Laura, her character is built not through performance but through story, as each different piece of her divided life comes into view. Twin Peaks gives Laura her due, never treating her as a mere spectacle, and neither Cooper nor the show itself ever judges her. There is no implication that she “earns” her death because she didn’t conform to the nuclear family ideal she presented as a façade.

Twin Peaks is empathetic to Laura, and so by extension is its audience, but ultimately it betrays her by laying the evil done to her at supernatural feet. One of the most fun aspects of Twin Peaks is the latent paranormal vibe that permeates the show, from Dale Cooper’s dreams and visions to Log Lady’s arboreal messages, to Nadine’s super-strength, to the owls. But what starts out as a bonus mystery—just what the hell is going on with this town?—turns into the show’s greatest weakness.

Laura’s truth is that she was being sexually abused by her father, Leland, who ultimately murdered her. This is a stunning, horrifying revelation, and had show creators David Lynch and Mark Frost left it at this devastating but all too believable explanation, the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death would be one of television’s great tragedies, instead of a sour disappointment. But Leland is pardoned in the end, because he was possessed by the evil spirit BOB, and BOB made him do it. Dale Cooper absolves Leland of his guilt because he couldn’t control what was happening. This is the ultimate betrayal of Laura, rendering her abuse and murder as mere consequences to demonic possession. Leland becomes the real victim, Laura, merely the accident. Twin Peaks goes to huge lengths to personify and make known Laura, to not treat her as a prop, but then sweeps her aside to focus on Leland and pardoning his actions because of BOB. The evil turned out to be supernatural all along, and a human abuser is forgiven. 

This conclusion betrays a show built on metaphor and hidden meanings by turning what seems to be a metaphor into a literal being. At first, BOB seems to represent the hidden discord of the Palmer family—Laura’s mother, Sarah, has tortuous visions of BOB, as does her cousin, Maddy. The Palmer home seems infected by some evil, which suggests a connection between Laura’s home and secret lives. Now imagine if BOB really was just a metaphor, if the big reveal was that Leland was the evil all along, full stop, that it was just him, an abusive and twisted man who terrorized his seemingly perfect family behind closed doors. That is a real evil, one that exists in our real world, and then Laura Palmer is not a victim of supernatural circumstance but a reminder that evil can happen in full view of the community. Twin Peaks gives voice to its victim, only to take away her message.
 


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