Visionaries and Vehicles, Canvases and Clues: Regressive Female Politics in Twin Peaks Season 3

*NOTE: the following essay overviews events from Twin Peaks season 3, episodes 1 and 2 only. Many spoilers follow.**

“My log has a message for you.”  

Season one of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks brought viewers the Log Lady, who uttered this iconic line of dialogue.  Her words were a crucial message to the detectives on the Laura Palmer investigation, setting the wheels in motion to determine the location of Laura’s murder.  

“This is a message from the log.”

In Twin Peaks season three, in 2017, the Log Lady repeats herself almost verbatim, this time to Deputy Chief Hawk, this time referring to the mystery of Agent Cooper, now missing for 25 years. Her words send Hawk to the woods, and spur him to open up old case files, searching for “something missing.”

2017 finds Lynch searching for the “good” version of Agent Dale Cooper instead of the prom queen’s killer, and the shift in the mystery is logical and necessary.  Laura Palmer’s killer has already been identified, and season two’s bleak ending begged for a resolution.  However, the shift from investigating Laura Palmer’s murder to unravelling the whereabouts of the “good” Agent Cooper has resulted in a drastically limited view of women.

In the first two episodes of season 3, women are exclusively plot devices or symbols. Women speak and provide exposition, they are police officers and coroners and cheaters and criminals, they are hardworking and psychic and undead.  However, every single one of these roles is secondary, supporting, or in service to the plot — which is male-driven and male-dominated.  Women’s bodies become canvases for violence, and then clues for an investigation.

Episodes one and two introduced Darya and Tracey, used them to develop plot points, and brutally killed them off.  Tracey opens the show, bringing lattes to Sam, who is employed in watching an empty box.  She’s anxious to learn about Sam’s job, and her interest heightens the viewer’s interest.  Tracey then repeats these actions exactly — on a different day, she brings coffee, but then gains access to the room, strips, and has sex with Sam on the couch before a mysterious force shears her face off.  Tracey’s only role is exposition, her function is titillation and objectification and shock.

Darya’s character development is similarly bleak.  A con artist or criminal, she’s silent in meetings, slinking around in hot pants and a silky jacket.  Then, lounging in lingerie, she attempts to con the “bad” Cooper, gets beat up as she reveals her information to him, and then gets murdered for her trouble. Cooper leaves Darya in her lingerie after putting a bullet through her head, calmly shuts the door, and goes into literally the next hotel room over, where he finds another woman, wearing a short, silky robe.  She exposits about upcoming crimes, then presents herself to Cooper, who digitally penetrates her, he pronouncing her “nice and wet.”  As with Tracey’s presentation, this woman’s body is objectified, blocked with her back to the camera, forcing the viewer to concentrate on Cooper’s experience touching her.

If women are not plot devices, they are symbols or conduits — visionaries, psychics in service of advancing the thoughts, emotions, or developments of a male character.

Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, starts Hawk’s investigation with the cryptic comment, “there’s something missing.”  The missing item in question is the real Agent Cooper, stuck in the red room for 25 years.  She makes another phone call to Hawk, commenting that “the stars turn,” and addis more puzzling abstractions to Hawk’s clues.  These comments reinforce the Log Lady’s otherworldly characterization, continuing her development from seasons 1 and 2.  But ultimately, the Log Lady is a heightened plot device — a mere conduit between the spirit of her husband, trapped in the log, and the outside world, dominated by male authority figures.  In this way, her character development hinges on the death of her husband — if he were alive, he would theoretically be doing the speaking.

The Palmer women are also returning visionaries.  Laura Palmer is no longer the subject of the story, rather an elegant, gracefully aged denizen of the red room, making abstract comments and cryptic predictions to help the viewer and Cooper, and then shifting into full symbolic mode – unhinging her face to reveal a ball of white-hot light beneath, whispering in Cooper’s ear and then getting forcibly sucked up into the ether.  Her development has been curtailed; instead, her function is purely symbolic.  She is perhaps the cipher at the center of Lynch’s feverish commentary on hidden, everyday evil.  She’s transitioned, then, to a puzzle, not a person.

Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother, is reduced to a symbolic object even more ruthlessly.  Laura’s mother, numb and isolated still, watches a graphic wildlife documentary on an oversized television, drinking bloody marys and smoking an endless parade of cigarettes.  In the dark, she is illuminated only by the light of the garish programming, as animals maul each other, eating each other alive.  A symbol of the way her life has unfolded? Perhaps.  Or even a crystallization of violence endemic to this television show? Maybe.  Regardless of the symbolic possibilities, the fact remains that Sarah Palmer is anchored to her television, grounded in her living room, and reduced to a symbol.

The women of Lynch’s seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks were absolutely objectified in various ways, but they were also human.  They had histories, concerns, desires, and needs.  Certainly, a level of characterization and therefore humanization was derived from the setting — the original run of the show centered on the events in a small town, and as the new subject is the completely evil and very mobile Agent Cooper, there isn’t as much opportunity for world-building.  

Still, it’s hard to think about a character like season 3’s Darya — beautiful, vacant-eyed, lingerie-clad, and whispering on the phone — without remembering season 1’s Shelley Johnson — whispering on the phone, lingerie-clad, beautiful…but with frightened, or playful, or lustful eyes.  Whether it was fear of her abusive husband, lusting after Bobby Briggs, or regretting dropping out of high school, Shelly had goals and feelings. Season three is only two episodes in, Darya is dead, and all the viewer knows about her character is that she didn’t want to die.

I love Twin Peaks.  I’ve been a hardcore fan for almost twenty years, and I was so excited when the show returned that I baked a pie in celebration (and I carved the Owl Cave symbol into it, too).  And I know it’s only a few episodes into the season, and a lot can — and will — change as the show continues.  But as a pioneering, complicated director and creator, Lynch needs to move forward with his gender representations, too.   

Or maybe he just needs to go back.


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