'Twin Peaks' and the Origin of the Dead Woman TV Trope

by Sarah Marshall | April 10, 2014

photo credit: ABC

Laura Palmer has been dead for twenty-five years, but her legacy has dwarfed that of countless other living female characters. Now more than ever, seemingly every show on television replicates the question that “Twin Peaks” posed when it premiered on this day in 1990: Who killed the girl? We see it in countless episodes of “Law & Order” and its spinoffs, in “CSI” and its spinoffs, in “The Killing” and “Top of the Lake,”and most recently in “True Detective.” 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. As the corpses multiply in this fictive crime wave, it’s time for us to ponder a more enduring mystery: Why this is one of the only narrative questions we feel so compelled to answer.

Even when we don’t have Nielsen ratings to tell the story, it’s clear that there’s little that interests the American public quite so much as a young woman’s body. For all the power we imagine stardom must grant—or, perhaps more to the point, for all the power we imagine we give to stars—female stars, for the century or so that stardom as we know it has existed, have usually become famous for an essentially passive set of attributes. This is visible in the earliest of silent films, in which men must do—must seduce, swashbuckle, prank, and pratfall—while women may simply be: be beautiful, luminous, still.

This type of stardom, though perfected via celluloid, has long since transcended the medium. Princess Diana, when she first emerged into the public eye as the nineteen-year-old bride-to-be of Prince Charles, was lacking not just in defect but in visible personality of any kind, allowing her admirers to imbue her with whatever attributes they desired. Her gaze could be tragic, thoughtful, maternal, icy, playful, or vixenish, depending on the kind of woman one wished to gaze upon in return. Yet the adulation Diana enjoyed in life paled in comparison to the outpouring of grief inspired by her untimely death: bouquets left by mourners outside Kensington Palace reached a height of five feet, while across Great Britain, businesses closed and streets emptied so Diana’s public could watch her funeral on television.1 Though Diana’s youth certainly played a role in the public’s near-universal mourning, it seems her death did not destroy her persona so much as it allowed it to reach a kind of apex: Diana, made famous by her passivity, was now as passive as it was possible to be, and all the more loved for it.

A living woman groomed for passive stardom may easily accommodate the public’s wishes; a dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her as readily as any casket. A wish for her public to tell the truth about her—or at least be willing to hear it—is only one of the many troublesome demands a living woman may make. Troubled women—famous or not, beautiful or not—need attention, therapy, rehab, prescription drugs, doctors, insurance, lease cosigners, rides to the airport, bail money, late-night phone calls, credit card payments, kindness, toughness, unconditional love, forgiveness, help from professionals, help from their family, help from anyone else who is able or willing to give it. Sometimes they get it. Often they don’t. But mourning is unquestionably easier than helping. 

A dead woman is utterly incapable of offering up even the most cursory contradiction to the narratives that entomb her.

If the first few astonishingly widely viewed episodes of “Twin Peaks”made anything clear, it was that Laura Palmer, the show’s star victim, was a very troubled young woman. (She was also a very busy one: I watched “Twin Peaks” for the first time when I was in high school, fretfully applying to college and cramming for AP exams, and spent more energy than I would care to admit feeling jealous of Laura and the surviving teens of Twin Peaks for apparently having so much time for motorcycle trips, affairs with married adults, drug trafficking, and all manner of other life- and GPA-threatening extracurriculars. They must, I concluded, have been content with going to Washington State.) In many ways, Laura Palmer was a precise analogue for the character of the town itself: pristine on the outside, but corrupted at the core. The Laura Palmer described in the show’s pilot was a beloved daughter and friend who dated the captain of the football team and whose homecoming portrait hung in the school trophy case.2 She was also the town’s darling: When her body was found, her classmates and teachers all but rent their garments in grief, and the lumber mill closed for the day.

The first glimpse viewers had of Laura’s blond and blue-lipped corpse came when the town doctor arrived and, as gently and insistently as a groom lifting a veil from his new bride, lifted away the filmy plastic cerement in which her body had been concealed. For the rest of the show’s highly rated first season, viewers were invited to repeat this action again and again, following Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by the excellent Kyle MacLachlan, his Dune-era Purdey haircut trimmed to a more presidential length) as he simultaneously uncovered the truth about Laura and her hometown. Among other things, viewers learned that Laura was addicted to cocaine, worked in a brothel across the Canadian border, and carried on affairs with all the most powerful men in town—along with a few others—and had enough material to blackmail seemingly every one of its 51,201 residents. And it was impossible for viewers to learn about Laura’s secret life without learning the town’s equally scandalous—and equally dark—secrets along the way.

Twin Peaks
ABC 

If this were the extent of “Twin Peaks”’s narrative, it doubtless would have had no trouble keeping the audience it initially attracted: It is, after all, a time-proven and profitable formula, used to great effect in everything from Peyton Place to the eleven o’clock news: You think ____ is the real story. But the real story is actually ______. On the face of it, “Twin Peaks” merely mimicked this approach. The subject matter was salacious, surreal, and often disturbing; the formulaic premise was comforting, familiar, as American as cherry pie. Perhaps the most alarming revelations viewers encountered in the hunt for Laura Palmer’s killer concerned the fact that (without giving too much away) her murderer was not a stranger to her, and that she had died as a result not just of whatever trouble she had gotten into as a young adult but of ongoing abuses she had suffered since childhood. From these disclosures—darker even than perhaps the most enthusiastically morbid viewers could imagine—the narrative progressed to a neat conclusion: The killer was apprehended, justice was served, and the darkness that had led to Laura’s death was done away with once and for all.

Or so it seemed. After solving the mystery of Laura’s murder, the show turned to the greater darkness suffusing the town, presenting viewers with the beginnings of a broader mythology (while simultaneously making use of as many soapy tropes as it could muster). Some fans remained avid, but for the most part, ratings tanked. As a narrative, “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was impossible to outdo, and for good reason—but the hostility and indifference with which fans and critics greeted the Laura-less episodes of the second season might also have reflected an even greater perceived wrong. The real problem with “Twin Peaks” was not that it lost its energy after solving its central mystery, but that it dared to keep airing at all: In all the experience viewers had with such narratives, the story had to end with the young woman’s killer brought to justice, the righting of the wrong, the return to grace. In this way a young woman’s death, however horrific, can seem oddly utilitarian, even comforting, within the confines of narrative: Her death is an affront to social order, but her body is a ledger on which a deviant may record his desires, a route toward the greater safety that will follow when good and dogged detectives inevitably locate the killer and lock him away.

“Twin Peaks” appeared to obediently follow this narrative for its feted debut season. Yet closer inspection reveals something more. Laura’s killer—again, without revealing too much—is not really her killer. She may have had only one murderer, but nearly everyone she knew contributed to her death, through abuse, willful ignorance, or sheer blindness. Even those closest to her seemed to recognize that she would be, on some level, better off as a corpse than a homecoming queen: “It all makes some terrible kind of sense that she died—that somebody killed her” said James Hurley—the sweet, dense, low-rent James Dean who secretly loved her—in the pilot episode. James spoke these words to Laura’s equally sweet best friend, Donna Hayward, before the two fell in each other’s arms, finally free to start their treacly love affair, to mourn their miserable, troubled, troublesome friend, and forget the terrible world she had inhabited. Yet James and Donna’s relief is short-lived, as is the viewer’s: In a less complexly rendered narrative, Laura’s death would close the door to that terrible world. As “Twin Peaks” progressed, the door only widened—and the majority of viewers chose not to go through it. After debuting just a year before as the most talked-about show in recent memory, “Twin Peaks” finished its second and final season in hundredth place in the Nielsen ratings (to put it another way, it ended the year ninety places behind “Major Dad”).

Mourning a once-troubled young woman is easy, but trying to understand her actions is always difficult.

The conversation surrounding difficult women on television (and in fiction) often hinges on the question of likability, and given the overwhelming presence of dead women on television today, it seems all too likely that dead women are the most likable female characters of all. We have seen, recently, how hard a time audiences have with living female characters who are flawed, difficult, troubled, and in other words real, as the early cancellation of “Enlightened” and the rancor inspired by “Breaking Bad”’s Skyler White, “Man Men”’s Betty Draper Francis, and “Girls”’s Hannah Horvath has amply demonstrated.

Even Laura Palmer, once as much the darling of primetime lineups as she was of her hometown, could not ride on the coattails of her corpse once she was revived as a living character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a 1992 feature film prequel depicting “the last days of Laura Palmer.” The film showed not the idea of Laura but her reality: She walked, she talked, she hurt her friends, she gave up on saving herself. The film went largely unloved by both critics and fans of the show, no doubt in part because it confronted viewers with the reality the series had only hinted at: that mourning a once-troubled young woman is easy, but trying to understand her actions is always difficult.

Today, we pride ourselves on having entered a new era of programming, and on pushing the boundaries of how ambitious and difficult television can be. Breaking the unstated ban on realistic, unlikable women is one boundary we have only just started to push. If it makes the task easier, perhaps we can start simply be ensuring that more of the women we focus our attentions on are actually alive.

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