The Donna Dilemma

“Black Lodge/White Lodge” is the 25 Years Later version of the popular point/counterpoint style of debating, wherein two sides take opposing views and hash it out on stage. Here, we’ll be debating the finer points of Twin Peaks lore, in writing, for your reading pleasure.

Today’s debaters are: John Bernardy & Lindsay Stamhuis.

The topic is: Who is the more compelling Donna Hayward—series-Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) or film-Donna (Moira Kelly)?


Black Lodge: by John Bernardy

Donna_at_Laura`s_funeralMoira Kelly can make you cry when she cries, sure, but so does Lara Flynn Boyle. Both Donna’s are dead even there. But Moira Kelly played the Donna who was as perfect a daughter as she could be and as perfect a friend for her best friend as she could, and her life was essentially stable until the night with the pink room. She had an adventure, yes, but Lara Flynn Boyle’s the one who played the Donna that was pushed OVER the precipice, the Donna that has to decide whether to bloom into herself now that Laura’s shadow is gone or stay the best friend and redirect her pain into the drive to solve Laura’s murder. And Lara Flynn Boyle plays both of these Donna’s, usually within seconds of each other, usually with a shift of a facial expression or her tone of voice.

I was 12 when I watched Twin Peaks for the first time, and Donna was the character I most identified with (I assume because James was merely reactionary and I was much too shy to see any of myself in Bobby). Because she’d lost her best friend, she was pathless. She lost her innocence, she lost the strongest person she personally knew. She could not go back to the way she’d seen the world, and she was exploring the different ways to move forward, and in typically

impatient youthful fashion she tried going all directions at once. As a child nearing puberty myself staring can’t-go-back-to-the-way-it-was in the face, I took her struggle of finding herself personally. She made mistakes, started smoking, acting like her best friend for a while, but trying on personas is the thing to do when you’re trying to grow into an adult when you have no idea what kind of road map you should even be using to get there. You focus on a goal, whether that’s learning how to fall in love with a friend you never knew you wanted, or finding closure to the pain of losing your best friend by finding their killer. And if you meet a weird family along the way who does magic tricks with creamed corn you keep cool and stay focused because you’ve got to look like a grown-up. And if an interesting shut-in shows some attention, enjoy it a little because deep down you want to learn how it felt to be that friend you always admired (maybe a little too much considering you know how much in trouble she always seemed to be, but she was FREE).

At her core, she is still the friend and daughter who wants to help, but in Season One that meant taking action. It meant taking a control she’d only flirted with before now (and unlike in the pink room, her safety net isn’t there this time. Because let’s face it, James isn’t privy to the dark). Does Donna become her best friend, does she fill Laura’s absence herself as she takes up Laura’s role by smoking, wearing her clothes, becoming her? Does she try to find happiness with a boy who also understood wanting to love Laura for the right reasons? Does she hide her pain? No, actually she does not. Donna Hayward becomes driven. She becomes harder. She redirects her pain. She sees the void left by Laura as her failure. And she’s driven to correct her failure even as she finds herself blooming into herself.

Lara Flynn Boyle, when Maddie Ferguson asks Donna “I thought you liked this guy”, changes Donna’s face to consider this question, accept the answer, says “I do”, yet steels herself to be ready for the covert diary recovery mission in front of her. She conveys this in a second, and sells both sides of the argument (she indeed does like Harold, but she’s open to collateral damage all the same). What Boyle brings to the role in particular is her intensity when she delivers her lines. The quieter she gets, the more riveting she becomes. The scene at Harold’s when she’s telling her side of the story that’s in Laura’s Secret Diary exemplifies this. So does the scene in the pilot when Lynch directs her and James as they hide the necklace. Boyle’s quite good at aiming her words, and she’ll take you out at the kneecaps if you’re not careful.

I understand the writers quit giving Donna important things to do after her storyline with Harold completed but let’s go ahead and tie that off because the amount of Donna’s screen time before this point well outnumbers Moira Kelly’s time as Donna. You can compare these two tenures fairly evenly. And say what you will about Lara Flynn Boyle behind the scenes but her intensity, her ability to play wanting it both ways at all times, she sells the story of a girl learning how to discover herself for the first time. I’m wearing my preference on my sleeve, and essentially that’s what this kind of debate boils down to anyway, but I can’t help it. Boyle embodied that stage of a person’s life (probably the reason the writers kept having her go to high school) and I’m still thankful today she was there to do it.v


White Lodge: by Lindsay Stamhuis

The challenge in arguing Lara Flynn Boyle’s Donna vs Moira Kelly’s Donna is that the two characters are almost literally that: two different characters. As Laura Palmer’s best friend and one of the people closest to Laura in the days leading up to her death, Donna undergoes massive changes in her personal life donnaover the course of her story. This necessarily changes her character dramatically. Judging her character in terms of better or worse is almost impossible. So the question becomes not “Who is better?” but “Who is more compelling?” And in that vein, I have to answer that Moira Kelly’s portrayal is the more interesting and compelling of the two.

Kelly only appears as Donna in the 1992 film Fire Walk With Me and as such all of her scenes take place in relation to Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee); this is something that Lara Flynn Boyle’s Donna is largely unable to do, as Laura is already dead by the time we first encounter her on screen. This puts series-Donna in the difficult position of navigating a world where her defining role has been taken away from her: Donna is Laura’s Best Friend, but Laura is dead, so where does that leave Donna? As a result, series-Donna can, at times, feel listless and uprooted, which—many people assert—is ultimately detrimental to Donna’s character growth and story development, as the writers often have no idea what to do with her. This is especially true after Laura’s killer is revealed, and Laura’s prominence as the core of the show rapidly fades.

This issue is resolved in the film by putting Donna next to Laura and throwing the pair into stark relief against one another. Film-Donna has a real and defined purpose from the outset: to be Laura’s best friend forever, no matter what the cost. Every decision that Donna makes is made with this goal in mind. Laura needs a moment alone with James? Donna steps aside. Laura needs to express her deep existential sadness over things she’s kept secret from everyone? Donna hears her. Laura arrives on Donna’s doorstep begging to know if they’re best friends? Donna consoles her.

Through it all, Donna’s retains a wide-eyed innocence that Laura has long lost, if she ever possessed it at all. Laura has no will to survive, and when Donna begins to realize this, she does everything she can to right the ship before it sinks. Kelly pulls this off with aplomb as she believably winds her way through the last seven days of Laura’s life.

The biggest test of Donna’s friendship with Laura comes on the last Saturday before Laura’s death, when Laura takes a trip to the Roadhouse and then to Partyland, a darker and more salacious venue in which Laura’s dark side comes to the fore. Donna sees that her friend is troubled and decides to tag along, not fully understanding what it is she is getting into and in spite of Laura’s warning that she should stay away. The following scenes are heartbreaking and the reversal of roles that follows is masterful: Laura experiences a change of heart and comes to Donna’s aid, and Donna ends up needing to be saved before she is consumed by the life that Laura leads. We don’t see Donna again after her Sunday morning confessional in her parents’ living room, when she confronts Laura about what has happened and why she does what she does.

Kelly moves through this progression—from innocent bystander to active participant, and from unwavering in her support of Laura, to hesitant and questioning of Laura’s motives—with such convincing sincerity that it is jarring to move to series-Donna in the Pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Certainly this is not aided by the fact that the series was written long before the events of the film were put on paper. The difference between 30 hours of multiple writers and directors working on these characters, and two hours written and directed by the original creator of the show is clear: there is a tightness, a succinctness, and a flow to film-Donna that simply is not present in any meaningful way within series-Donna’s character. It is not the failing of the actor in question, but rather a failing of the medium and the circumstances of the writing and directing of each portrayal that cause these differences.

The resulting series-Donna does have her well-conceived moments: her tearful lack of confession as she protects James in the police interrogation room, her understandable drive to investigate Laura’s murder (seemingly initiated by that protective spark for James moreso than her love for Laura), and her introduction to the Tremonds. However, too often series-Donna is a rapidly shifting mess of teenage emotions, almost none of them truly focused on the sadness of losing her best friend which was the driving force behind so many of the best moments in FWWM. As with many characters and actors in the TV show, series-Donna seems to be her most focused and believable with David Lynch behind the camera, guiding her down the fine balance between soap-y melodramatics (e.g. “You’re my daddy!”) and straight dramatic romance (e.g. the pilot scene in the woods with James). Lacking this narrative cohesion or sense of character, series-Donna can be a bit of a bore, especially after Laura’s killer is revealed and Donna’s sole role is to ask about, cry over, and rescue/be rescued by James. The entire paternity sub-plot also lacks any real tension, as the result is so clearly telegraphed there’s no real mystery for the viewer—nor, the viewer feels, should there be for Donna.

Once again, this is not an indictment of Lara Flynn Boyle’s portrayal of Donna—she simply wasn’t given much to work with. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be pilot-Donna to film-Donna. Even in that case however, the broader range of interaction and nuance Kelly was encouraged to build in overshadows the soapy drama of pilot-Donna.

Pretty clearly, you can see my preferences, but I’m open to reconsidering! Let me know what your thoughts are, and we can carry on the conversation.


Do you have a topic for Black Lodge/White Lodge? Do you want to write it? We want YOU! Send an email to Lindsay and let us know your ideas and you could be featured in an upcoming Black Lodge/White Lodge debate!

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