Author’s Note: When you love something as much as we love Twin Peaks, it can sometimes be a challenge to appraise it critically, warts and all. We don’t want to risk finding those warts, even if (or especially if) we know they are present, as if having a flaw makes the thing we love less lovable somehow. But sometimes you can’t ignore it, because the cognitive dissonance that arises is too much and it becomes necessary to point out the flaw in order to make sense of it, our reaction to it, and how it affects the original thing we held so dearly in light of this new evidence and viewpoint.
In recent weeks, two high profile articles published in two venerable giants of the print media industry — Roxane Gay’s critique of the Roseanne reboot in the New York Times and Molly Ringwald’s reappraisal of The Breakfast Club in The New Yorker — have brought this issue into the public conversation. Can Roseanne continue to be a beloved show if you disagree with the prejudiced beliefs of its star? Can we still find something to love in the films of John Hughes in spite of what makes them problematic?
After months of internal and external debate on the subject, it seemed like the right time for me to ask the same kinds of questions with regard to Twin Peaks.
But it’s not without trepidation. There is so much about Twin Peaks that is worthy of the high praise it continually receives that it can often feel inappropriate to criticize any part of it. We fans are quite protective of the things we love, and I love Twin Peaks a lot. So it is not my intention to throw the baby out with the bathwater; rather, I want to step back and examine one aspect of the show that has given me and many others pause, in order to understand how Twin Peaks fits into the broader cultural conversation that many of us are now having.
Since Twin Peaks ended back in September, something curious has happened to the landscape of pop culture. What began with a single New York Times expose by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey detailing the horrific allegations of sexual misconduct against now-disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein has, as of the writing of this article, become a vast and powerful movement dedicated to exposing the sexual abuse that women (and men) experience all-too-routinely in their daily lives. We’d heard about these things before October 5, 2017; we all knew what a “casting couch” was and had heard stories about women “sleeping their way to the top” as if it were expected of them or the only way they could have achieved the power of their station. But something about this particular story caused massive waves to ripple out from the point of quiet implosion. Suddenly, powerful people in Hollywood and broadcasting and in the world of business and politics were being toppled, ousted from positions as titans of industry by allegations of extreme sexual impropriety.
This “reckoning” as it’s come to be seen may be long overdue or over-the-top, depending on who you speak with. But most people agree that something needed to be done, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are, for the most part, being acknowledged as disinfectants, resetting our cultural and societal standards in the face of decades of normalized abhorrent behaviour. It’s causing people to rethink their interactions, to second-guess what used to be sexist or misogynist instincts; if it brings us to a point where the majority of people feel safe and free from the threat of violence of any kind, many would argue, how can that be a bad thing?
For the most part, the Twin Peaks community hasn’t been touched by this reckoning, not in the way House of Cards or the works of Woody Allen or Louis CK have been affected. But it’s not like we haven’t been somewhere like this before.
A Feminist Critique
Allegations of misogyny in David Lynch’s works have been there since the beginning, and have always dogged Twin Peaks. In the past, those raising concern about the treatment of women, especially in Twin Peaks, were often accused of blowing things out of proportion. The elements in question are not a sign that Lynch himself hates women, or that he’s advocating for their poor treatment; rather, they’re included to show us the world as it is, and that means showing us the ugly reality of domestic violence.
Personally, I never considered that Twin Peaks had a “woman problem” before The Return. As I saw it, the women in Twin Peaks were feisty and original, filled with gumption. Maybe they lacked the powerful agency of Dale Cooper or Harry Truman in the 1990 TV show, but in the end seemed as if no one in the world was master of their own fate anyway, not even Agent Cooper, so I didn’t mind so much. Because, truly, no one could argue that Nadine Hurley wasn’t a singularly fascinating interpretation of the cuckolded wife, or that Sarah Palmer wasn’t powerful in her grief. Characters like Audrey Horne defied expectations — she looked like the femme fatale but was innocent and hurt by the same world that killed Laura and destroyed her town. These were unique women, strong women, interesting women.
And then there was Laura. Yes, Laura was a victim — a victim of incest, of her father’s depraved weakness and rage or of the insatiable lust of an otherworldly demon, depending on how you looked at it. But while she silently filled our screen in the original series, wrapped in plastic or shut behind the glass display case in her high school hallway, in Fire Walk With Me Laura acted on her world. Powerfully. She survived. She shaped her own destiny and wrote the ending to her own horrific story in a way that continues to empower survivors of sexual assault to seek their own agency and reclaim their own stories for themselves. How could anyone watching this story claim that Twin Peaks or its creators were mired in misogyny?
And yet the misogynistic claims persisted for years. The argument usually takes the form of a critique of Leland’s punishment and the way in which the violence he commits against his only daughter — implied in the 1990 television series, made sickeningly explicit in the 1992 film — is not only explained away but forgiven, by the townspeople, by his wife, by the men investigating the horrific crime, including our stalwart hero, Agent Cooper. It was BOB, after all, and not Leland who did the raping and the murdering; Leland was a victim too. But his absolution comes at a price, distancing female viewers and survivors of sexual assault and incest from the show in order to placate the predominantly male ego; those tough investigators who can’t imagine that a man could rape and murder his own daughter will sleep soundly knowing that Killer BOB did those horrible things, not Leland Palmer, and that, as mortal men apparently unafflicted by supernatural disease, they are off the hook. This argument falls apart somewhat in light of Fire Walk With Me, which succeeds in complicating Leland’s narrative and calling into question his own culpability once more, but as far as the series goes, it is not entirely without merit.
Further feminist critique has laid a charge of promoting rape culture against the show. Twin Peaks, they say, glorifies “the sexual fantasy of a white male, complete with BDSM, rape (and girls who “want” to be raped), high school girls who work in a brothel, and women who are nothing but objects who use their sexuality to get what they want.” The myths about rape that many of these arguments employ are the very myths that the #MeToo movement has sought to dismantle, which is what makes this such a timely discussion. But are they accurate? Certainly Laura is party to some uncomfortable sexual circumstances. One Eyed Jack’s, as shown in the TV series, is a sexual fetish playland in which the women have no desires of their own and are the focus of nothing more than the fantasies of the men who patronize the establishment. Laura’s youth and state of mind are certainly important factors when considering her ability to consent to the activities in which she partakes in this environment. But while Twin Peaks may not condemn every man who preyed on Laura, I would argue that it doesn’t condemn Laura either; where other shows might victim blame, Twin Peaks treats Laura with sympathy throughout. Still, this argument is worth examining, even if we can find reasons to disagree with it or places where it does not apply.
The Return is a young cultural product and the discussion about it is still in its infancy. But it is glaringly obvious that this iteration of the Twin Peaks universe is more violent and more sexual than it ever was before. And that does give many people pause. The violence visited upon women — in media in general but also specifically within The Return — often fits within a problematic set of cultural semiotics that places women in a position of needing to be protected. The fact that women are so often sexualised during this process only adds fuel to this particular fire — sexual violence is so common on film and TV sets these days that “rape choreographers” are a legitimate and much-needed job category in Hollywood. And it is true that violence against women is often used to bring us as an audience to a specific emotion; it’s used as a means to an end.
I want to know if these ends, in The Return, justify the means.
Acts of Violence
The way that Twin Peaks has explored violence against women has changed, partly because of the different mediums through which the show has been made available to us. Back in the 1980s, we as a culture were waking up to a world in which the everyday abuses we’d long tolerated were no longer acceptable, and the ones happening behind closed doors (like child sexual abuse) were finally being exposed. The original Twin Peaks shone a light on this and, as writer Aurora Linnea writes, re-sensitized us to the horror of violence against women. It’s goal was not necessarily to shock us but to thrust it in our faces, to make us really feel it in a way we couldn’t ignore. Laura’s death (and Maddy’s later on) woke us up to the reality that this thing was happening in the middle class neighbourhoods in which many of us lived. That, in itself, is a remarkable thing for a basic network TV show to do.
But there was no saving grace for a world where these things had been allowed to happen, and the Twin Peaks we visited again a quarter century later proved that to us. The Return gave us a world in which this violence was magnified and blown up to such epic proportions that the only possible genesis for it was the fabric-of-reality-rending explosion of the first atomic bomb in White Sands, New Mexico in 1945.  It is within this world that Twin Peaks: The Return shows us women being brutally murdered almost mid-coitus (Tracey) or pre-coitus (Darya); where female murderers-for-hire are viciously hacked to death (Lorraine) or felled in a graphic hail of semi-automatic gunfire (Chantal); where a preschool teacher (Miriam) who witnesses the shocking death of a child is nearly beaten to death herself by the murderer, a man who has no compunction about later brutalizing his grandmother (Sylvia) in order to steal her money and make a getaway. Even when the violence is partially hidden from us, we still have to live with the fact that this is a world where battered women raise women who will themselves be battered (Shelly and Becky) and where bad life decisions mean that men can end their lives but the women who love them will be forced to clean up the messes they made (Stephen and Gersten).
In the one instance where a woman is the one committing the carnage, it’s almost explained away as being the result of supernatural intervention (which, to me, treads dangerously close at times to the old Killer BOB vs Leland Palmer debate): Sarah Palmer without the (metaphorical or literal?) demon clearly residing inside her is just a sad shell of a woman, an alcoholic recluse who frightens the locals and requires check-ins by good-natured Sheriff’s Deputies. She’s not menacing on her own; without the literal ghoulish spectre of her pain living behind her face, she’s pathetic. Her strength is not hers alone; it comes from without, manifested and explained away as the product of otherworldly intervention. This is seen in the countless think pieces, Reddit posts, and forum discussions on just how, exactly, Sarah must be Judy; it is almost as if she has to be, because fury like that doesn’t exist in women without something else behind it. This is problematic in and of itself, for the way in which it characterizes female fury, but that’s for another essay.
Undoubtedly, the violence in Twin Peaks is different this time around. It feels gratuitous and it is, in many cases, sexualised to gross extremes, though only when it comes to female characters. Showtime allows this, and clearly the showrunners were okay going there, but I have to wonder if that was the right choice. It’s not nearly as distressing to us to see Darya or Chantal murdered as it was for us to experience Maddy’s death at Leland’s hands in Season 2. Perhaps that is because Maddy’s murder was a singular event, not something which we gradually became used to seeing with greater regularity. Perhaps it’s because we are all desensitised to violence now, and Lynch/Frost are commenting on this. But is commenting on it enough of a reason to show it in the first place?
What purpose, really, did any of this serve?
Every single woman who suffered at the hands of a man in The Return, whether onscreen or not, was treated the same — their anguish, their beatings, or their murders were set up to show how full of rage the men in this world are. BOB was used in Season 2 to illustrate a metaphorical approach to pathological evil. In The Return, BOB isn’t even truly necessary anymore. That metaphor is almost wholly abandoned; men create their own evil for capitalistic reasons, because they’re jealous, or out of fear for their own survival. Earthbound reasons, certainly, and maybe that’s part of the point: maybe Lynch/Frost were trying to show us that evil is a human quality and needs no supernatural entity to urge it forward (excepting Sarah, that is). Even Mr. C seems driven by the Good Dale’s earthly desires, as BOB has largely been sidelined, reduced to an evil entity hardly worthy of discussion in the face of the carnal (blood)lust of Dale Cooper’s “bad side.”
Of course the most heinous of these crimes are committed by men who are, at best, Lodge-adjacent, or Lodge-entities themselves at worst. Mr. C’s crimes are numerous, and two are committed against women. The Experiment, conjured by Mr. C in his New York City glass box, murders Tracey, after possibly being conjured by some Babalon Working sex magick, which is a whole other ball of wax. Richard Horne — the product of the rape of Audrey Horne by Mr. C, itself a Lodge-adjacent act of sexual violence — is responsible for no fewer than four separate violent incidents alone, three against women and one against a child. Perhaps there is something to be said here for the notion that, while evil can be seen as a human construction, the worst of it is still connected to that evil place under the sycamore trees. (Though, if that’s the case, don’t we run the risk of absolving their crimes the way Dale and Albert and Harry and Major Briggs were so eager to do when Leland’s crimes were revealed to their full extent in the middle of Season 2?)
A Defence of Violence
It does seem as if the raison d’etre behind so much violence of all kinds in The Return was to make it absolutely crystal clear that this violence exists in the world; we can’t avoid it so we should confront it, head on. This could be why we’re privy to scene after scene of brutality. We can’t look away. We must bear witness to this. But the question of whether that is a defensible decision is important. Would it have been enough to show us the evil that men do writ large on our screens in the churning and billowing visuals of an atomic bomb blast? Or was it truly necessary to be shown so much onscreen violence against women in order to understand that this is the case?
Unfortunately, The Return does seem guilty at times of exploiting violence for emotional responses to things that we already understand to be true; often, that violence is sexual in nature or happens to sexualised women.
As a brief sidebar: there is a weird, almost ageist, element in Twin Peaks that is hard to ignore. It’s true The Return has been applauded for the age of its cast, especially of the returning original female cast, and I am not going to take away from this singular achievement. Almost all of our older female cast members get happy endings — Nadine reaches a powerful understanding of her own unhappiness and takes her life into her own hands, Norma finally gets her Big Ed, and Lucy literally saves the day and conquers her own fears and confusion; this isn’t to say that all older women in the show receive happy endings — this certainly isn’t the case for Doris Truman, nor is it for Audrey Horne — but if you’re beautiful and young on Twin Peaks you don’t even have a chance at happiness unless it’s manufactured (in the case of Janey-E Jones). In media today, older women are very rarely represented at all, and certainly not by actresses of a similar age. Major props are certainly deserved for this.
Meanwhile, however, the beautiful young women of The Return are too often decorations first and foremost; Special Agent Tamara Preston is a perfect example — whatever brilliance was evident on the page in The Secret History of Twin Peaks is tamped down in favour of showing her as a sex object above all else, which was strange to behold, as Preston was a force of nature in the pre-series novel.
These beautiful young women are also, as shown above, frequently hurt or killed at the hands of the powerful men whom they orbit. Beautiful young women in media in general and Twin Peaks in particular, seem to serve a visual purpose before they serve a narrative one, which is often to be hurt/killed/saved. Older women in media, one might charge, cannot be sexualised, so violence done against them is inherently different than violence done against a younger woman, who has cultural currency in her youth (possibly even culminating in her virginity, which is still too often seen as a gift to be given to the most worthy male suitor) that older women simply don’t have, no matter how wonderful it is to see them actually cast in decent roles here. Think about it: how differently would the fury of Richard Horne have played out had we seen it unleashed against his mother, Audrey Horne, instead of his grandmother? Would there have been an ugly, Oedipal, sexually-perverted component to it? Is this what Sherilyn Fenn objected to? One can hardly blame her if that is the case.
But I digress.
It seems to me that the suffering in Twin Peaks exists in order to show what men are capable of doing with all the pent up fury of their own momentum. Maybe they’re being influenced by supernatural entities; maybe this is a purely human construct; maybe none of this matters because all of this is a dream and it might all be intended to subvert our expectations anyway. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it feels cheap.
The old argument goes that showing something doesn’t mean you condone it; you can comment on a thing without agreeing with the thing.
But is showing something over and over and over again adding to the conversation about the existence of violence? At what point are we allowed to say “…enough”?
Commodification of Women
Women are, undoubtedly, a powerful commercial tool. The commodification of the female body helps sell everything from beer and cars to Internet domain registration. In the same vein, female pain and suffering elicits a stronger emotional response than the same violence against men. It’s why military organizations have so often argued against allowing women to have combat roles — unit cohesion being what it is, coupled with the apparent “fact” that male soldiers will always only want to defend female soldiers, risking their own lives and the lives of others in order to do so. Women are soft and beautiful and fragile, the thinking goes, and in the world of mass media, they can be eroticised to sell us things or they can be brutalised to make us feel things.
There is a deep psychological desire in our culture to protect women; it’s why “damsel in distress”/“knight in shining armour”/“rescue romance” tropes are so astonishingly popular, and have been part of Western literature going back all the way to its roots. The men in the audience, especially those who see themselves in the hero and strongly identify with his quest, can live vicariously through his journey to rescue the girl; they can put themselves in his shoes, defeat the Big Bad, and save the day. It’s a primal thing. In showing a woman in distress (or worse), filmmakers and writers are appealing to something that is as old as our stories are, but it’s something that largely benefits only male spectators (the way Tammy Preston’s painted on skirt suits benefit the male gaze, while serving no real world, practical purpose whatsoever — where would she keep her service revolver? How can she run after a perp effectively in high heels and a tight skirt? She is a constructed fantasy, and while we could debate the moral rightness or wrongness of such fantasies until the cows come home, let’s not pretend that this is any way reflects reality.)
Nowhere is this saviour fantasy more prevalent within Twin Peaks than in Agent Cooper. We all waited with bated breath for him to emerge from his catatonia and save the world. In the end, his misguided attempt at saving Laura — Laura, who saved herself and does not need a White Knight to ride in and fix anything for her — brought about the divisive and tragic ending of Part 18, potentially rewriting history or fracturing the very nature of reality in the process.
David Lynch and Mark Frost are talented writers and creators. They know that these are the stories we’re primed for on a deep, unconscious level. Using them for no other purpose than to achieve the completion of some other story arc thus feels manipulative. The violence, as discussed above, is in service of showing us that violence exists, but is that a message that needs to be repeated as often as it is? The troublesome notion of women needing saving is, by and large, in order to finish Agent Cooper’s character arc, but is that a worthwhile goal?
Shovel Yourself Out of the Shit?
via GIPHYPerhaps Agent Cooper misunderstands the story in which he finds himself. If we understand Cooper’s journey as flawed and misunderstood, then the entirety of The Return is called into question. This is not a story about women and the men who love them so much they need to save them; it is not a straight-up surrealist retelling of Otto Preminger’s Laura. It’s about taking control of your own life, about digging yourself out of your own shit. It’s not the only theme of course, but it seems to be an important one. And it means that no one, not even Laura Palmer, gets a heroic last-minute save. We make our choices and we have to live with them.And yet, it is still troubling that The Return, like most media today, chooses to give us this message while also showing us the bloodied bodies of its most beautiful female actors on full, often semi-naked, display. This is the biggest problem I still have with Season 3. Because if we’re reading this right and a key takeaway from Season 3 is that we’re supposed to save ourselves, how do you explain that to the more than 7.5 million American women who have experienced violence at the hands of a domestic partner in a 12-month period, or to the one woman every nine seconds who is beaten or assaulted in the United States, or to the shocking 70% of women worldwide who experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime? It’s not for lack of trying to escape that women are all too frequently killed at the hands of their domestic partners; no amount of gold shovels are going to help someone who lacks financial independence to leave, or who has bought into the corrosive belief that maybe she can fix him. This says nothing about the casual violence perpetrated against woman on a daily basis, on subways or street corners, in elevators, in our workplaces; the stuff that women before this never talked about. Presenting this idea that “shovelling yourself out of the shit” is the central theme of Twin Peaks then seems tone-deaf at best, an example of the privileged position so many media makers write from these days.
How do we square this with the world as it is now?
#MeToo and #TimesUp may not seem to apply here because the show was written and filmed long before this reckoning came about. But this seismic shift in the way we relate to women, portray women, and give agency to women on screen and in real life is not something that happened overnight; this is not a new issue. In this day and age, in a post-#MeToo world, is it enough appeal only to male desires — to be the hero and save the day? Is it enough that, for example, Bobby Briggs is allowed to grow and change and become a hero in his own right while Shelly and Becky succumb to the same cycle of violence and heartache from which he — and he alone — is presumably capable of saving them? Is it enough to only hear about these stories from (white) male perspectives? I don’t know, honestly, but I believe it is worth looking at The Return critically to see if it meets this standard, or if it too is guilty of commodifying female pain for a viewer still largely steeped in a patriarchal mindset. 
So I put it to you, dear reader. Do you think that the sexual violence against women in The Return is justified, or does it cross a line? Is its purpose — to illustrate that men are capable of great evil — a valid reason for this violence to exist? Or is this kind of social commentary and activism outside the scope and purview of pop culture? How can we read The Return and reconcile it with a world where violence for the sake of violence (especially when directed against women) is no longer okay?
Or is that even possible?
 If the use of an atomic bomb as an explanation for the intrusion of evil into this world feels convenient, it’s because it probably is. Much like Albert Rosenfield’s Season 2 suggestion that BOB might simply be “the evil that men do”, potentially reducing the spectral reality of BOB to nothing more than a metaphor, felt like a cop-out, the idea that evil was birthed during the Trinity tests (while visually stunning) hasn’t sat exactly right with a lot of people.
 Even if in the end they were sincerely trying to upend the notions that heroes exist at all, and I do believe that this is the case. There were a lot of good conversations after The Return ended, and far too many people bristled at the suggestion that Cooper ultimately failed. We’ve been conditioned to expect that a man like him can’t fail but to me it’s clear that Lynch/Frost were setting us up for this rug-pull all along. The inclusion in the Blu-ray and DVD special features of David Patrick Kelly singing “The Lass of Aughrim” to David Lynch in between filming is especially poignant because of the association many people have of that song to James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” — and here I must ask you to allow me a moment of indulgence: this is my favourite short story of all time. In it, Gabriel Conroy must come to terms with the fact that his outlook on the world is not just incongruent with that of the people around him but that he may actually be wrong. At the end of a night of partying, his wife, Gretta, hears a man singing “The Lass of Aughrim” and becomes wistful; Gabriel is filled with affection and longing for her based around his desire not to love her as she is but to control her. Joyce writes: “[Gretta] was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her.” (emphasis mine). Gabriel succumbs to the same white knight/saviour fantasy discussed above, and holds on to this right up until the moment he realizes that Gretta is wistful because there was another man before him, and she loved him, and he died. Gabriel has never known the powerful love that Michael Furey and Gretta felt for one another, and at first he is angry but eventually he realizes the fault is his. His worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the world in which he actually lives, which has shifted imperceptibly beneath his feet but with disastrous consequences. I don’t know how familiar David Lynch is with James Joyce; I don’t believe that David Patrick Kelly sang this song for any reason other than he had a mandolin and this was a song he knew. But it serves to underscore, for me at least, the subtext present in The Return: that we can’t always trust what we know and must constantly challenge our own assumptions, as the risk of making grave errors the likes of which Cooper made at the end of Part 18.