Twin Peaks Ended Badly Because it Undermined its Female Characters

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When I was growing up, Twin Peaks was usually only mentioned at the tail end of some jackass yammering a joke about someone’s boobs. I never watched it when it aired because I was a mere twelve years old and probably too focused on Nicktoons to care. Lately there’s been a massive uptick of Twin Peaks attention on the interwebs since the announcement that it would be returning to television in a limited run for Showtime. Having binged the entire series and subsequent film and extended/deleted scenes, I can say with certainty that the first season was a boundary-pushing stylistic masterpiece that spiraled rapidly into the toilet as the show undermined its female characters within the second season.

I shouldn’t have to say this for a two-decade old show, but there’s spoilers inside.  If you’re still watching, don’t read this yet.

For starters, it seemed to me that for a show with a handsome besuited paragon for a male lead, the show had a lot of really compelling female characters who were just as important. Donna Hayward, for example, was bright and righteous but cursed; every investigation she attempted ended in someone getting harmed or killed, and her percieved innocence to Laura was central to their relationship and the events that occurred. Audrey Horne was an inquisitive firestarter driven by her need for male validation, who cleverly tricked her way into uncovering her father’s misdeeds while getting in over her head, and it was critical to his downfall. Josie, Catherine, Norma, Blackie, and especially Shelley, were all relatively strong female characters with strengths, flaws, and fears. They all had value to add to the story but were all limited by various factors, mostly caused by men.

In a way, it helped build this idea of Twin Peaks being a place where even the strongest women are routinely trapped, minimized, objectified, disempowered. It was a reflection of society, and for a while it didn’t really flaunt it as much as it illustrated the brutality of macho posturning and sexual abuse. Laura Palmer’s backstory was rife with a history of male abuses, starting with repeated rape from BOB via Leland throughout her entire life, and ending with dangerous disregard for her body with many sexual partners and johns, and a compulsive need to snort coke and engage in risky behaviors.  That’s not unlike many young women dealing with sexual trauma while trapped within patriarchal systems.

That isn’t to say that her story is being presented without a certain air of salaciousness, to draw the wry smiles of aged 18-49 men in the nineties who could get a halfie from a story about a girl who liked having sex with ugly abusive men. A lot of the violence was strangely juxtaposed with the innocence of teen sexuality, love, and waywardness. There was also that touch of predatory behavior towards the young women in many of the men, which is why it was so important to Cooper’s characterization that he rejected Audrey Horne’s advances for so long. His morality needed to remain intact while peeling the onion layers off of the town.

(Not that an especially moral man would lust for a teen, but within the moral spectrum of the show, he remains on the high end. It was the 90s, and a lot of creepy shit was still acceptable back then.)

Yeah, I would. You would too.

Yeah, I would. You would too.

All the while, the campiness of the show suggests the real antagonist is the toxic masculinity and entitlement of male abuse. Or at least, that’s how it seems under that lens, because masculinity is already so comically ridiculous when viewed from a safe distance. Certainly Ben and Jerry Horne are easy examples, as is Leo. Dr. Jacoby, under the guise of helping Laura Palmer, turns out to be another creep that gets his jollies off of her story. But even Dale Cooper suggests that women are “illogical” and that men should not bother trying to figure us out, which is interesting considering his great prowess as an intuitive investigator who finds real life meaning in his fucking dreams. [Edit: The actual quote here was “There’s no logic at work here, Andy, let that one go.  In the grand design, women were drawn from a different set of blueprints.”]  Some detective. He didn’t bother asking Lucy Moran why she was upset until much later. DUH, she was pregnant and didn’t want to be with either potential father. That’s not so tough to figure out, now is it?

I’d rather view this as the unevolved mindset of a community buried under the eaves of patriarchy than Lynch and Frost’s original vision, mind you; while I am certain that some of this is a creator’s fantasy of dominant men and submissive women, it was/is also the unquestionable reality woven invisibly into women’s lives. The reason that’s important is because if the entire show were one male fantasy, the later part of season two would just be a show going from bad to worse. But in understanding the setting as a hierarchy demonstrating the subversion of female empowerment, it becomes easier to see the extremely rapid decline of a really fantastic show as soon as Leland dies. I mean really bad, sinking into the aesthenosphere bad.

There was a sudden shift in the show’s mood shortly after Leland died. Benjamin Horne had a wild period of civil-war obsessed insanity and then shifted rapidly to superdad and tree-hugger. While his character’s interaction with Catherine suggested it might have been a ruse to handily grab available land and capital, his relationship with Audrey showed some kind of “father knows best” rebirth, with a mere moment of apology between the two. And despite Audrey’s deeply unsettling experiences, she falls in line as daughter of the year in the hopes of actually inheriting the family business. Mind you, in the show’s timeline, it was less than a month ago that she was fending off his sexual advances at One-Eyed Jack’s and nearly overdosing on his heroin. His return to clarity is celebrated as some exciting hard-won moment. It doesn’t make any sense. There should be bad blood or at least suspicion there.

How I felt watching the show devolve

How I felt watching the show devolve (Via HuffPo)

Nevermind that by the end of the series, the show practically forgot that Audrey, Bobby, James, Donna, Shelly, and Mike are all high school students or high school age. By the end of the second season, the month is March (Laura Palmer was killed in February). Maybe it’s just me as a teacher, but I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to imagine Audrey Horne planning a business trip to Seattle during the only month of the school year where there are no observed holidays.

Even worse, despite Leo being physically and mentally abusive towards Shelly and trying to kill her twice (once with brain damage, once premeditated without), with all of this on top of his being a philanderer and a convict, he somehow earned a redeeming moment by releasing Briggs and asking him to save Shelly. This was a preposterous shark-jumping moment that had my eyebrows knotted. There was simply nothing about it that made sense. Leo had been an abuser through and through, even while scrubbing the floors during Fire Walk With Me. His redemption was a repugnant decision. It made him a martyr.

There were lots of other characters and stories that appeared to serve no real purpose. Evelyn’s entire relationship with James, the entire existence of Lana (and her role as the sexual dynamo[object] that could make all men weak), and the entire concept behind Miss Twin Peaks all seemed like plot contrivances that were specifically designed to show as much lacy leg as possible and were inconsequential to telling a story about Cooper and Earle. Miss Twin Peaks could have just as easily been a high school dance, a town-wide wedding, or unlimited pasta night at Olive Garden, but none of those made it as easy to put a bunch of attractive women in black pantyhose with the lines going up the back of the leg.

I consider this the nadir of the series

I consider this the nadir of the series

I also still don’t understand the larger purpose behind Donna’s parentage, when her character would be so much more effectively used as another junior detective getting into other trouble related to the mysteries at hand. The girl unearthed evidence that was hidden from a supernatural rape demon inside of Laura’s mind, who cares who her father is?

Once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, the show devolved into a series of nonsensical unconnected mini plots that devalued compelling female characters. By the end, they didn’t matter much as independent young women, because they were framed as either ornaments, lovers, or targets.

That isn’t to say the show’s failures weren’t caused by outside forces. It’s well known that the network pushed Lynch and Frost to reveal Laura’s murderer well before they had intended, denying them the opportunity to continue intricately weaving threads into the mystery and forcing them to haphazardly come up with a new story. The intervention of suits is often the cause of bad television. And it has been said that that Cooper and Audrey Horne’s love interests were only introduced into the cast because Lara Flynn Boyle vetoed their pairing together, despite their relationship being well developed. The result of that was two haphazard pairings, one completely forgettable, and one that was effectively used but devoid of the age taboo that made Dale/Audrey so interesting to watch.

But could you imagine what a memorable moment it would have been had Audrey asked Cooper to be her first, and how that scene could have played out with the mingling notes of mischief, innocence, and creeping evil? And if Audrey were Windam Earle’s target, then?

I could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about the lost opportunities from twenty years ago, but it doesn’t add to anything. The point I am making is this: though several nostalgic fans and critics have pointed out that the meandering and drawn out plots and lack of cohesive vision caused the demise of Twin Peaks, I posit that the most critical failure was the show undermining its female characters on a show that had initially made good and purposeful use of their characterization.

It brings me back to one of the best moments of season 2, when Miguel Ferrer (I fucking love Miguel Ferrer) suggests this:

“Maybe that’s all BOB is, the evil that men do.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it.”

General George Hammond from Stargate and Miguel Ferrer

General George Hammond from Stargate and Miguel Ferrer

Indeed, Twin Peaks was at its best a show that put a spotlight on the evils of men and the ingenuity of the women stuck dealing with them. I hope this quote bounces around the writer’s room before any stories get put on paper, or this Showtime reboot will be a bust.

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7 thoughts on “Twin Peaks Ended Badly Because it Undermined its Female Characters

  1. Good article, and I agree with much of this. I would get even a bit more specific, though your general point is well-taken. You write, ” I posit that the most critical failure was the show undermining its female characters on a show that had initially made good and purposeful use of their characterization.” I think the critical failure is specifically the denial/avoidance of Laura’s trauma and that, to a certain extent, everything else springs from that. The wake scene is particularly shocking for how cavalierly everyone ignores the fact that they are honoring a serial rapist and murderer (it’s basically used as a setpiece to launch some really bad comedic subplots). But even earlier, in episode 16 (the killer’s capture) the show is flirting with denial/avoidance. I think it plays the demonic-possession angle too hard; it’s useful as a metaphor and spiritual amplification but shouldn’t be an escape hatch for Leland. That’s one thing I really like about Fire Walk With Me. It’s also interesting to note that when Cooper ultimately falls to Bob in the finale, we are led to believe (both through Frost’s story developments and Lynch’s additions) that it is his lack of comprehension about Laura, Caroline, etc play a large role in his downfall. In a weird, somtimes subconscious way, Twin Peaks was pretty good at holding itself accountable.

    The situation is complicated but essentially I think what happened is that Lynch and Frost were flirting with some dark stuff but wanted to keep it at a relatively safe distance until the network’s pressure (and, truth be told, Frost’s own desire to move on from the murder mystery) forced their hands. It may have been for the wrong reason, but it was the right dramatic decision – a show that continued to keep Laura’s suffering ambiguous would not only have been less compelling and powerful, it also would have skirted the Twin Peaks saga’s most incredible achievements: episode 14 (killer’s reveal), episode 29 (finale), and Fire Walk With Me. And, as someone noted on Twitter (which led me to this post) it really changed Lynch as a filmmaker – not just the female protagonists, but the emphasis on victims rather than voyeurs of violence, the fractured identities, the intermingling of multiple planes of reality and psychodrama, all arise from his troubled collaboration in Twin Peaks.

    • You’re right about Leland’s escape hatch. While he may not recall the years of rape while under control of Bob, he was still a major force of dominance in Laura’s life, enough to strike fear into her and her mother. The scene in FWWM at the dinner table is very telling, too, especially with the finger he observes as being so filthy being the same finger where BOB leaves clues. He also chose Teresa Banks because she looks like “his Laura.” Leland may never have been possessed. He may have always been a rapist and serial murderer.

      It makes me wonder if BOB was more Laura’s coping mechanism than Leland’s demon.

      But you are right about one thing, FWWM was an achievement, and seeing Laura’s full story changes the way I observe Twin Peaks. The show alone might show Laura as a good girl who fell into bad vices, but the movie reveals that she was a tortured survivor, and she made it as long as she could. She’s a heroine.

      • Yes – FWWM really does open up a whole new can of worms, which is good. My take is that Leland’s possession is more of a partnership. The host and the demon go hand in glove. Leland’s dark side calls on the energy of Bob when he needs him, just as Bob looks for human hosts to tempt and motivate so he can feed off their own evil. I do think Leland is heavily in denial, to the point of blocking memory, but retains responsibility for his actions. For Lynch, particularly in his films but probably in his own spiritual views as well, the spirit world seems to be very real but it feeds off human decisions rather than controls them (see also the Mystery Man and the Phantom).

        As for the idea that Bob is a “creation” of Laura, there’s a really compelling theory that plays with this concept: https://babelwright.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/cherry-pie-wrapped-in-barb-wire-understanding-twin-peaks-fire-walk-with-me/.

    • Thanks for this. I’ve only just begun swimming through his ocean, primarily because Dangerous Minds (the blog) really pumps up his lesser known projects. And his quinoa really is amazing.

      I’ll be using this. :)

  2. Does the writer of this story realize David Lynch is driving the horse this time? Even if some of the second season wasn’t as good as the first season, it was better than anything else on television at the time. Kids. Her perspective is off. She is looking back at it, with the spectre of all the intriguing television that has been produced since TP. This is why we are still talking about it, as opposed to Northern Exposure, American Gothic or some other tv show from the 80’s. About the only other show that comes close to the brilliance of Twin Peaks is LOST. I’m not sure if LOST gets as much chatter now as TP does, but I doubt it.

    • Well, as a fellow “kid” (only 7 when it aired and like the author, too busy watching Nickelodeon) I don’t think “not as good as other TV shows” was the point of the article, so much as where the show strayed from its own high points. I think that’s why even fans are pretty tough on the show at times: it sets such a high standard at its best that it pains you when it doesn’t live up to it. Agreed that with Lynch keeping the reigns in hand this time (along with Frost, who was also touch-and-go during the rough mid-season 2 stretch) we can expect excellence all the way through.

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