Laura Palmer's high school yearbook, from David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
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Is Twin Peaks responsible for the dead woman TV trope?

From The Killing, The Bridge and CSI to True Detective - why do so many TV series open with the mutilated corpse of a woman? Sarah Marshall looks back to the trope's dark origins.

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.

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 livingfemale 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 Mea 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.

This piece originally appeared on

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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage