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 newrepublic.com

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times