In episode two of Twin Peaks: The Return, Darya — the girlfriend and henchman of Special Agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppleganger, as played by Nicole LaLiberte — seductively waits for him to return to their motel room wearing nothing but lacy lingerie. She’s on the phone with Ray, another henchman, discussing taking out evil Cooper when he comes through the door. He tells her he’s going to kill her for betraying him, holds her in both a sexual and menacing way, hits her and finally, after an uncomfortable amount of time, shoots her in the head through a pillow. The camera pans away to reveal her lingerie-clad body — a woman whittled down to nothing more than a sexual object.
This moment speaks volumes to a larger problem that’s plagued Twin Peaks: The Return all season long. More often than not, this revival treats its female characters as outdated gender archetypes, and discards several of them with little regard, like plot devices that are no longer worthwhile once they’ve served their function. This is upsetting on its own merits, of course, but it’s particularly disappointing when you consider the fact that we’re finally in an age of entertainment where women are getting roles that are much less traditional and far more interesting and complex. At this point, we should be past this kind of storytelling.
The troubling treatment of the female characters on Twin Peaks: The Return shouldn’t be explained away because this revival — which premiered 26 years after the original show’s run ended — has a decidedly darker tone than the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. Series co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost still should’ve been able to find a way to write women with depth and care, regardless of their decision to lean especially hard into the show’s horror roots. But that doesn’t appear to have been a priority for the showrunners.
It’s not as if they don’t know how to craft and portray memorable female characters. The first two seasons of the original Twin Peaks boasted several multi-dimensional women, who had developed storylines of their own and strong motives, despite facing sexism and violence.
Lara Flynn Boyle’s inquisitive Donna Hayward was one of the driving forces behind the show’s initial conflict — discovering who killed Laura Palmer. Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne started out as a bored, troublemaking teen, but soon became a valuable aid to Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper in solving the mystery (she also later became an environmental activist).
Even secondary characters like Mädchen Amick’s Shelly and Kimmy Roberston’s Lucy have significant dramatic arcs; true, those arcs have to do with their characters’ respective relationship issues and, in Shelly’s case, the trauma of abuse, but they don’t feel like bit players who are there simply to be objects or victims.
Now consider the revival. Diane, played by Lynch favorite Laura Dern, seems to have been relegated right back into her assistant role by the FBI in their quest to get to the bottom of who this strange Agent Cooper is that’s suddenly turned up. Even though she appears ballsy, and could possibly be aiding this evil Agent Cooper, her emotional range is limited to colorful retorts and moody cigarette breaks. Since she’s only been in a handful of the new episodes so far, I’d like to assume this will change as the season progresses, but we’re already halfway through The Return, and her development remains stagnant.
Aside from Diane, there’s a seemingly endless line of female characters that fit too neatly into tired, retrograde stereotypes. There’s FBI agent Tammy Preston (played by Chrysta Bell), who mostly just serves as secretary to FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (who’s played by Lynch), taking notes and doing clerical work. Underlying the sexism even more is the fact that she also has to deal with her boss often leading her places with a hand on the small of her back.
Richard Beymer’s Benjamin Horne has a secretary named Beverly Paige, played by Ashley Judd, but so far her only purpose has been to find the source of the humming in his office — and to tempt him sexually, of course.
The female characters who carry over from the original Twin Peaks also seem to have been stripped of their complexities. Shelly and Norma (played by Peggy Lipton) basically live at the Double R Diner and only function as waitresses. Meanwhile, Lucy’s just a quirky little wife who nags her husband about buying new furniture. Perhaps that will change with the mysterious letter she saw come through the sheriff’s office in the most recent episode? One can only hope.
All of this could be a Lynchian critique of small-town life and how little things change over time, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that these three characters used to have compelling storylines, and now they don’t. In Twin Peaks’ original run, Shelly’s side plot involved her trying to get out from under her abusive husband, Leo Johnson, in order to live a happier life with her boyfriend, Bobby Briggs. Now she pretty much only serves coffee onscreen.
Most of the other female characters have only appeared in an episode or two, and are treated more like pawns to help move the plot along and less like fully fledged people. Case in point: Tracey the coffee girl, who dies horribly after she falls victim to the horror movie trope of being an unwitting, sexually driven female in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her death simply serves as a clue to what effect the glass box, which appears to be a portal to the Black Lodge dimension, may have on the real world.
In episode 10, there’s an onslaught of similarly basic characters: the Mitchum brothers’ pink-clad female companions/servants, Candie, Mandie and Sandie, and Richard Horne’s grandmother, Sylvia. Like Shelly and other Twin Peaks characters before them, these women are facing physical and emotional oppression from men.
When Candie accidentally hits Rodney Mitchum with a remote control, she starts sobbing uncontrollably, even though he doesn’t seem all that upset — a detail that implies previous abuse on his part. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s literally beaten into submission by her grandson for her money, and left crying over her mentally disabled son, Johnny.
In that same episode, another female character — Shelly’s daughter Becky, played by Amanda Seyfried — is verbally abused by her husband, Steven, for not making enough money but also for something she did that remains unclear. It’s a scene that’s disturbingly similar to what her mother experiences in the original series.
The tagline of the 10th episode is “Laura is the one,” which suggests that all of the abuse these women face is meant to be reflective of what happens to Laura Palmer in the show’s beginning. The fact that an image of teenage Laura appears at FBI Director Cole’s door momentarily solidifies this reading. It’s likely Lynch and Frost are trying to relay that the kinds of toxic masculinity and hateful actions that Laura experienced are still relevant today.
But the violence against women just comes across as gratuitous — a feeling that’s underlined by the fact that even when they’re not being murdered or abused, the ladies of Twin Peaks: The Return are thinly written. Lynch has been criticized before for the way women are treated in his work, but the contrast between Twin Peaks and The Return has made it especially clear to me.
Obviously, Twin Peaks has always dealt in violence and toyed with outmoded ideas about gender roles. This is a show whose plot kicks off because police discover the corpse of a beautiful teenage girl. Lynch and Frost’s town of Twin Peaks is someplace that feels reminiscent of ’50s Americana, but with a sinister lining. It’s not surprising that the women on Twin Peaks: The Return still have to deal with bias and sadism — it’s just surprising that they have to deal with it from their creators as well.
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