If you are a person who uses the internet, you’re probably aware that this week saw the long-awaited return of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s beloved and bizarre television series Twin Peaks. The first two-hour episode of the new season premiered on Sunday night to half a million viewers, and Showtime has already released the second episode online. So far, the revival has been very well-received by fans and critics alike, spawning a truly impressive number of think pieces in the few days since its first four parts were released.
Watching the premiere with friends on Sunday night, it was hard not to let out a squeal of excited recognition every time a familiar face showed up on screen. To see where these characters are, what they’re doing, what they look like after more than 25 years — it’s a thrilling experience, to say the least. But of the many returning character appearances, there was only one that sent the room into hushed sort of awe: TV’s original Dead Girl, Laura Palmer (as played by the inimitable Sheryl Lee).
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Laura Palmer and where she fits into the canon of “Beautiful Dead Girls” in pop culture. Twin Peaks is often cited as the series responsible for popularizing this motif on television — just google ‘dead girl TV trope’ and you’ll see what I mean. Although Laura Palmer may be the single most influential murder victim to grace the small screen, her blue-skinned corpse still one of Lynch’s most iconic images, the mystery surrounding her death isn’t what makes Twin Peaks work so well two decades after it’s original air-date. In fact, I would argue that what ultimately keeps fans going back to Twin Peaks time and time again is the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer herself.
(spoilers after the cut!)
Twin Peaks originally premiered on ABC in 1990. The show gained immense popularity during its first season, drawing viewers in with the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” at the center of its narrative. Following the success of Twin Peaks’ first season (and the show’s subsequent drop in ratings and eventual cancellation once Laura’s murder was ostensibly solved), more and more television shows began to mimic the original formula. These days, if your crime drama doesn’t kick off with the unsolved disappearance and/or gruesome murder of a young woman, it’s probably not on network television.
In a piece for New Republic entitled "‘Twin Peaks’ and the Origin of the Dead Woman TV Trope,'" Sarah Marshall succinctly illuminates the problematic nature of the dead-woman-as-plot-device. Marshall writes, “Again and again television narratives—to say nothing of other forms of media—use a dead girl as a point of entry into a story that the girl herself is powerless to tell.” We see this issue present itself across the entire spectrum of the crime drama, from network series like Law & Order: SVU to the critically-acclaimed HBO vehicle True Detective. Usually, the victims in these stories are either a) presented as flawless specimens of feminine purity, or b) not characterized at all.
What I find so interesting about Laura Palmer is that somehow, she manages to be both the origin and the antithesis of the Dead Girl trope.
When she is first introduced, Laura seems like the ultimate encapsulation of the ‘ideal’ female victim. She’s the beautiful blonde homecoming queen, and she is mourned by all: the police department, her parents, the hospital staff, her teachers, her classmates, her friends. We understand that she is a public figure of the small-town-sweetness variety, and that her death is a tragedy. Lynch’s camera zooms to focus on her portrait in the high school’s trophy case, lingering on the sweetness of her smile. Our understanding of her youthful innocence is furthered when we hear several excerpts from her diary, read aloud by Agent Dale Cooper during his investigation of her murder. In her final entry, dated the evening of her death, Laura writes, ‘Asparagus for dinner again. I hate asparagus. Does this mean I'll never grow up?'
However, following these first few scenes of the pilot episode, Frost and Lynch immediately begin the process of subverting the expectations that they themselves laid out. Over the course of the first season, we learn that in life, Laura was actually a far cry from picture of perfect victimhood initially presented. In a lot of ways, she was the opposite. She was addicted to cocaine (aka nose candy) and funding the habit through prostitution, she was using her (admittedly terrible) boyfriend Bobby Briggs to get drugs for her while cheating on him with her secret boyfriend James Hurley (also pretty terrible), who she describes cruelly on tape as “sweet, but so dumb,” and she was most likely sleeping with her deeply creepy psychologist Dr. Jacoby… just to list a few of her many offenses. As fellow wayward teen Audrey Horne puts it, “Laura was wild.”
It’s that word — wild — which seems to fit Laura, because we understand that ‘wild’ is not the same as ‘bad.’ Despite the many terrible decisions Laura makes, we know that she is far from the villain of this story. It becomes abundantly clear that many of her actions are a direct result of the long-term abuse she has suffered at the hands of something she has no name for, a darkness growing inside of her from which she ultimately can’t escape.
Today, while searching for sources on this subject, I came across an excellent piece Julie Muncy wrote for Wired in defense of Lynch’s much-maligned prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. “Laura Palmer was never intended to survive Twin Peaks,” writes Muncy. “When Sheryl Lee was cast for the pilot, she was cast as a dead girl, acting only in flashbacks and posed photographs. But her presence was so magnetic, so raw and expressive, that her character captured Lynch’s imagination. ‘I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside,’ he says in the book Lynch on Lynch. ‘I wanted to see her live, move, and talk.’”
Perhaps this means that even more than Lynch and Frost, we have Sheryl Lee to thank for the power of Laura Palmer. Lee’s performance is certainly half the draw of the character; in flashbacks, dream sequences, and voice recordings, she shows us so many different sides to Laura that it seems the more we see her, the more enigmatic she becomes. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, while by no means a perfect film, is worth the watch for Sheryl Lee alone. Her portrayal of Laura in the week leading up to her death is incredibly powerful, nuanced even through Lynchian levels of melodrama. As Muncy puts it, “Palmer is richly complicated: gracious and cruel, as secretive as she is generous . . . . Laura represents every stereotype of a teenaged girl, overlapping so tightly you can’t pick them apart. She feels, in short, real.”
Laura Palmer is what makes Twin Peaks is infinitely re-watchable, because although Laura’s killer was revealed in Twin Peaks’ second season, Laura herself remains shrouded in seemingly permanent layers of mystery. She continues to appear in the dreams of her friends, her family, and perhaps most-notably, Special Agent Dale Cooper. She wanders through the Black Lodge in slow motion, speaking in backwards-forwards riddles.
In the revival’s premiere, still trapped inside the iconic Red Room after 25 years, Laura tells Cooper, “I am dead… and yet, I live.” She’s right; we may know who killed Laura Palmer, but it turns out that the real mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks is Laura Palmer herself — who is she, really? Of course, that’s something we’ll probably never know.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.