The Angels Have Gone Away: The Horror at the Heart of TWIN PEAKS

(I’m not going to avoid spoilers for a show that is literally older than I am. If you don’t know who killed Laura Palmer, don’t read this article.)

Everyone loves a dead girl.

How many prestigious dramas begin with the discovery of some murdered beauty, angelic despite their suffering, while world-weary cops mutter about the misery of the human condition. How many hundreds of procedural episodes begin with that same discovery, and follow that same path of piecing together the victim’s last days, each clue revealing that the spoiled beauty was no saint, that avarice and/or trauma lurked behind her radiant eyes and luminous smile.

These stories may be about the dead girl in question, but almost none of them are truly ‘about’ the dead girl. The taking of a young woman’s life isn’t a tragedy in and of itself, it’s a starter gun for troubled detectives to begin examining their own baggage, for communities to recognize the maggots beneath their rose bushes, and for TV viewers to settle in for a twisty good time.

It’s fun, isn’t it? Picking up the clues, piecing them together step by step, it’s all a great game.

But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me to some extent, and I think the same thing bothered David Lynch. Which brings us to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

Twin Peaks didn’t invent the idea of an investigation into a young beauty’s murder revealing buried depravity beneath a placid community’s surface, but it may have perfected it, and it certainly codified how to play with those tropes with the modern television age. When Sheriff Truman pulled aside a plastic sheet to reveal Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), skin almost icy in death, it kicked off a frenzy of speculation and theorizing, which only intensified as Twin Peaks dug deeper into Lynch’s trademark surreal flourishes and the ever-increasing number of soap-y secrets that the Palmer investigation kicked up.

Throughout the run of the Palmer investigation, Lynch, co-creator Mark Frost, and the other writers and directors found ways to have Laura Palmer haunt the edges of the story. Her picture stood on mantelpieces and trophy cases, her voice and image carried on after death in videos and recordings and diary pages, and, in one egregiously soap opera-esque flourish, her lookalike cousin popped up to hang out with Laura’s old friends and help in the investigation.

But for all the time the show spent discussing Laura and piecing together her life and death, it was impossible to actually know her, which was of course the point. Laura was meant to be a puzzle that death had robbed us of the chance to solve, forever just out of focus. When her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) confessed to the murder and bashed his own head in (while under the possession of BOB, Twin Peaks’ resident evil spirit and all-purpose purveyor of malevolence), he died while experiencing a vision of Laura beckoning him into Heaven, the revelation of her killer having apparently cleansed her of the show’s revelations of a past including drug use and prostitution, restoring her to angelic perfection (Leland also spouts a bunch of exposition about how BOB made him kill Laura because Laura was “too strong” and refused to allow herself to be possessed by the demon, turning the girl into something akin to a superhero). Leland’s death and (apparent) forgiveness by Laura puts a neat and tidy bow on the Palmer investigation, dotting most of the i’s and crossing the t’s. Twin Peaks moved on, shifting focus to DEA investigations, increasingly deranged subplots, and a tangled mythology. The mystery that defined her finished, Laura Palmer was laid to rest.

She didn’t seem thrilled about it, though.

But David Lynch couldn’t let it rest. When he returned to the show to direct the series finale, Lynch re-wrote the material involving the “Black Lodge,” the strange dreamscape that functions apparently as a waiting room for the afterlife and a hangout spot for various demons, dopplegangers, and otherworldly entities, to heavily feature all the deceased Palmers, dragging the focus of the show back to the tortured relationship that started it all.

And then he did one better, co-writing and directing Fire Walk with Me, a prequel film that details the last few days in Laura’s life, re-framing the entire mythology of the show. Twin Peaks was no longer a quirky soap opera that happened to feature demigods and demons run amok; Twin Peaks was a tragedy, a horror about a young woman plagued by trauma who fought to hold onto some piece of herself, and died for it.

But while the story of Laura Palmer’s death was met with rapturous critical response and frenzied fandom, the story of her life pissed a lot of people off.

Or just, you know, confused them.

Fire Walk with Me was booed off the screen when it debuted at Cannes. In the U.S., where Twin Peaks-mania had rapidly died off from its first season high, the film was met by hostile critics and baffled audiences. It bombed. Hard.

It’s easy to see why. Rather than giving us fresh doses of our favorite characters, Fire Walk with Me opens with an extended prologue (it could almost function as its own short film) that plays as a grimy retort to Twin Peaks’ sunny surface. Once again we have a handsome and somewhat eccentric young FBI agent investigating a murder, only instead of Kyle MacLachlan’s endlessly chipper Special Agent Dale Cooper, we’re following Chris Isaak’s Special Agent Chester Desmond. Dale Cooper had an ever-present smile and solved crimes in dreams; Chester Desmond glowers, threatens, and when faced with confrontation from local law enforcement, he goes ahead and breaks a deputy’s nose. Even their initials are a reversal of each other.

(Sidenote: MacLachlan does eventually show up in Fire Walk with Me, in what’s essentially a glorified cameo and far and away the weakest material in the film. MacLachlan just looks bored throughout, and it sure seems like Lynch just decided to punt the Cooper scenes.)

The cops in Twin Peaks were folksy and friendly; the ones in Deer Meadow, where the dead woman lived, worked, and died, are belligerent, nasty, and possibly involved in the crime. The locals in Twin Peaks were hospitable and upbeat, while the Deer Meadow crew are miserable, dirty, sport festering wounds, and generally act as if the day-to-day trudge of being alive is getting to be much too much.

So, yeah, not exactly what fans of the show were probably expecting/hoping for when they sat down for the big screen continuation of their cancelled show. It almost feels like a cruel prank, as if David Lynch was aghast at being let into the mainstream and had decided to burn the joint down on his way out.

He showed up to do this personally.

The film does eventually find its way back to Twin Peaks proper, but rather than jump back in with the beloved ensemble (many of whom shot scenes that were cut from the final film and buried for years behind legal red tape) Lynch mires you into the world of Laura Palmer and her immediate circle of friends (aka the most annoying characters on the show), a group of kids who have responded to a growing awareness of the world’s poison by drinking as much as they can. Even ‘good’ kids like Donna (Moira Kelly, subbing in for Lara Flynn Boyle) and James (James Marshall) are experimenting with the wild side, with Lynch laying the sleaze on thick. It’s like the kids are rushing to give up their innocence before the world has a chance to steal it from them.

That certainly fits Laura. Early episodes of the show portrayed the Palmers as being apple pie perfect before the morning Laura failed to come downstairs to breakfast, but Fire Walk with Me depicts a home that is an advanced state of rot, withering from the inside as the violence within Leland steadily destroys his wife and daughter.

And this is where the true horror of this franchise/universe starts to come into focus. The show drew a hard line between good Leland Palmer and evil BOB, depicting BOB as a conscious, physical being independent of Leland that possessed him and forced him to commit wicked deeds. Fire Walk with Me obliterates that line, and leaves the viewer deeply unsure which crimes were perpetrated by ‘BOB’ and which were done by Leland himself. Was it BOB that drove Leland to seek the company of prostitute Teresa Banks? When Leland asked her to arrange a ‘party’ with some friends and discovered that one of the girls she brought was Laura, who was in control when Leland recoiled? When Teresa blackmailed Leland and he responded by bashing her head in…who delivered the blow?

Fire Walk with Me also dances with perhaps the sickest interpretation possible: That maybe there is no BOB.

As the show wore on, I definitely felt mounting frustration as the writing leaned harder and harder on the supernatural explanation for Leland’s action and Laura’s death. It seemed almost like Lynch or Frost or the network suddenly became afraid of the full implications of what they were portraying and rushed to find a way to absolve Leland and lessen the blow.

Fire Walk with Me doesn’t want to lessen anything. It wants to rub your nose in the vileness of Leland’s violation, and it wants you to feel Laura’s anguish and sorrow with absolute precision. In this other interpretation, Leland is simply a mentally ill man with impulses he can’t control, and Laura has learned to cope with the shame and fear by constructing an elaborate internal mythology that is finally beginning to crack.

(Sidenote: This would bring Twin Peaks closer in line to later Lynch trips like Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., both films in which the elaborate phantasms and convoluted plots are ultimately revealed as abstractions within the minds of guilty-conscience plagued protagonists making [failed] bids to absolve themselves.)

That’s certainly borne out by the performances from Wise and Lee, both of whom do a superhuman job at portraying two people straining to hold their psyches together against an onslaught of guilt, grief, and confusion. While much of the film is pitched at hysterical, overwrought frequencies, the scenes between father and daughter are raw, sick, and punishingly human. Lynch’s films often deal in ciphers and symbols, but the Palmer family bleeds real blood and their pain is grueling to endure. Lee especially is going for it, leaning hard into all the tortured facets of Laura. She’s a monster, an angel, a hot mess, a self-styled femme fatale, and an innocent desperate for something to hold onto as evil without a name chips away at her soul. Laura dies triumphant (BOB does not claim her soul) but she still dies, and the final moments of her life are as stomach-churning and heartbreaking as anything this great master of cinema has ever portrayed in his career.

And he’s had some DOOZIES.

If that sounds like a heavy fucking film, that’s because Fire Walk with Me is one. It is not interested in holding your hand, and it is not interested in trying to gloss up or demur the ugliest aspects of humanity. This is a film about a young girl struggling valiantly to hold up against unimaginable suffering and being crushed for it, and Lynch wants you to feel that loss. He wants to reclaim the iconic image of Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic and sear forever in your mind the knowledge of how much had to go wrong to bring that girl to that place, how all the opportunities to save her were ignored and blown past.

Everyone loved the dead girl, but no one was there to save her. Not even the angels were there to save Laura Palmer.

And there’s nothing fun about that.

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