One of the deepest mysteries conjured by the transmedia combination of The Secret History of Twin Peaks, The Return, and The Final Dossier is the role or roles of F.B.I. Agent Tamara (Tammy, TP) Preston. As new episodes continued to drop in the original May-September 2017 run of The Return, the trend within the Twin Peaks fandom was toward sharp disparagement of the character as a too-sexy surface without interior depth or significance to the narrative. Although this trend exists, I can’t help but wonder if it’s just the groove carved out by one set of especially outspoken voices within the fandom–voices that resist the gender explorations on offer in The Return.
Twin Peaks has always contained characters and events that might appeal to the forces of misogyny as well as to more progressive forces. In fact, I’d suggest this estimable element of the series comes inextricably bundled together with its focus on duality: water/fire, love/hate, formlessness/form, femininity/masculinity, and so on. This complexity is encoded deeply in Agent Preston, and if she gets interpreted in only one way, then the real potency and potential at her core is lost — lost to the misogyny that Judy so loves to sew among humanity.
A key scene to examine first is the brief conference between Agent Preston, Agent Rosenfield, and Director Cole immediately following their first prison meeting with Mr. C in Part 4. As the three stand together, Rosenfield stonewalls Preston’s lines of inquiry in the wake of their encounter with Mr. C. Even as she’s providing additional context and evidence to help them unpack why Mr. C was yrev very glad to see them, in return Preston gets evasion. Compounding Rosenfield’s curt non-answers to her questions is Cole charging in an accusatory tone that she’s wearing a wire (she rebuts that he asked her to) and then absent his typically polite tone Cole tells her “Go wait in the restaurant.” Her rightfully vexed walk to the restaurant is focalized through the gaze of Rosenfield and Cole, and the former, who’d said he wasn’t feeling well, remarks: “Feeling better now.” And the whole scene is deeply tinted blue, visually cueing us to see this scene as both highly unusual and charged.
For spectators already inclined to dismiss or disparage Preston, this scene might appear as evidence that the series itself treats her as mere sex object. For more open-minded and nuanced critics, this scene might appear as a regrettable slip in judgement. But there’s a third way to read this scene, and I think it’s the way that keeps its eye most firmly on the donut. Their conversation follows immediately on the heels of a close encounter with Mr. C, the embodiment of the worst masculine aspects of Agent Cooper: arrogance, efficiency, control, etc. When confronted by this isolated and magnified male hubris, Cole and Rosenfield are perplexed. Their sense of confidence and control is so shaken that Rosenfield confesses a serious breach in protocol he perpetrated in league with men he thought were Agents Cooper and Jeffries and Cole acknowledges that he doesn’t really understand what’s going on in their Blue Rose investigation. Put simply, the men of the Blue Rose Task Force have shot past their limits and are recognizing their fallibility.
Or, almost recognizing their own weaknesses, that is. After all, Cole’s brusque dismissal of Preston and particularly Rosenfield’s ogling and subsequent objectifying remark foreclose the insight into their weakness that they were on the threshold of perceiving. Where the two were so close to having an epiphany about how male hubris is a key barrier to defeating Judy, their fragile masculinity reasserted its dominance and projected sexuality onto Preston even as she’s done nothing to encourage that. The way Preston is sexualized in an all-too-familiar male gaze in this makes her, to my mind, an antinomy to Laura Palmer. Preston and Palmer are not precisely parallel. They both function in environments where men relentlessly sexualize them, and with both women, that destructive power dynamic prevents everyone involved from combating the forces of Judy.
This last point about the ultimate devastation that male power generates — the incapacity to confront Judy effectively — is reinforced in this scene by the strong blue coloring. In a scene that explicitly invokes the Blue Rose Task Force, the color blue clearly stands for the bigger, perhaps metaphysical, scope of the story. But, contrary to the contemporary gendered binary of pink for girls and blue for boys convention, blue is a color that resonates with coolness, softness, and the ethereal. The female, the feminine. And that blue tint to the scene is visible to us though it would seem not to the characters in the scene. It’s like a chromatic code for our spectatorial eyes only, and in this scene it points to Agent Preston and how the gaze that Cole and Rosenfield share prevents them from connecting with what she brings to the Task Force.
I’ll be the first to admit that this perspective on Cole is not easy to obtain. It’s taken me repeated and rigorous thinking through this scene from different angles to arrive at this particular interpretation. It’s challenging to be critical of such a beloved character as Cole, yet critique in this scene does not necessarily extend to him across The Return as his flexibility enables him to evolve over the course of the following fourteen Parts. And it’s to Cole’s credit that in this Part he assures F.B.I. Chief of Staff Denise Bryson (who is transgender) that he believes Tammy’s “got the stuff” and he doesn’t mean that she’s his romantic type. I would argue that in saying — and believing — that, Cole is approaching Preston’s forces and that this blue-colored conversation scene is part of him crossing the river by feeling the stones; in this case a wobbly stone from which he needs to retract his foot. And he does, I think.
Doesn’t this assessment of Cole and Preston echo what transpires with Agent Cooper, Laura Palmer, and Carrie Page in Parts 17 and 18? Driven by his “100%” and “I am the FBI”-indicated masculine sense of confidence and control, Cooper tries but fails to swoop in and save the woman in trouble and the rest of humanity with her? It seems like it’s only when he walks away from the house he believed was the Palmer family’s and looks utterly baffled and helpless that Cooper is truly positioned to collaborate in attacking Judy. In that ultimate moment, the attack is a collaboration between Cooper, now willing not only to admit he doesn’t even know what year it is but to ask a woman if she knows, and Page with her powerful and assertive scream that seems more intent on rending Judy and her capacities in the timeline than on registering fear.
To complement my interpretation of this controversial scene, consider the two Twin Peaks novels Mark Frost has written. Published in October 2016, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is the first introduction to Agent Preston. The astonishing combination of detailed research and analytical acumen presented through her commentary on and assessment of The Archivist’s dossier establishes her as an agent with truly extraordinary capacities. Agent Preston takes on both the tireless grind of research, as in authenticating documents and locating relevant archives and materials within them (even on microfiche for goodness’s sake), and the more recognizably glamorous magic of assembling the clues into cohesive and compelling theories.
What’s more, The Secret History of Twin Peaks gives us glimpses of Preston’s personality, as when she remarks, “Kind of quaint, isn’t it, how news was still being disseminated in print during these last days before the Internet. If it weren’t for all the murders and explosions and dizzying double-crosses, I’d be tempted to say it seemed like a more innocent time” (222). Moments like this show Preston to be more circumspect in her growing interest in the town of Twin Peaks than was the initial interest of Agent Cooper. Recall how Rosenfield had to temper some of Cooper’s boosterish enthusiasm for the town with reminders of the criminality and cruelty that brought them both to the area.
[As a side-note, one major quibble I have with this novel is that the audio version includes Annie Wersching rather than Chrysta Bell as Agent Preston, and that undermines the consistency of Bell’s performance and ownership of the role in The Return.]
On the other side of The Return is The Final Dossier, which Frost published in October 2017. In the opening Interoffice Memorandum, Agent Preston remarks, “To state it more plainly, I’m ‘The Archivist’ now” (1). It’s significant that the newest member of the Blue Rose Task Force identifies herself with Major Garland Briggs more than with the other agents in Cole’s coterie. Perhaps the answer to why Preston has the stuff is that she possesses many of the skills that the strange navigator Briggs as well as the other Blue Rose agents do, and with a difference. Perhaps she embodies the vital yin energies that complement that male yang that’s been exclusively deployed up to this point in the story.
In addition to identifying with Briggs, Preston explicitly wonders in The Final Dossier the extent to which Agent Cooper is culpable for the violence that’s unfolded in Twin Peaks. With an appropriate degree of caution, Preston theorizes that his knight in shining armor complex originated in the trauma of his relationship with his own mother (57). That Preston can envision this makes her rather unique within a narrative mesh of prominent father-son relationships (Dougie and Sonny Jim, J.J. and Benjamin Horne, Mr. C and Richard Horne, and so on). And her insight isn’t anomalous as just pages before that she delivers a scathing rebuke of Vivian Smith’s mothering of Norma Jennings and Annie Blackburn (53). What’s more, the anger palpable in Preston’s rebuke is fueled by a paragraph-length hypothesis on why human beings seem to fascinated by and attracted to the wicked. So, just at a key moment in the novel of Preston thinking through the big picture of human nature in relation to cruelty and crime, she puts her finger on mother-daughter relationships and articulates an abiding solidarity with daughters.
Put simply, Preston is a force for the female and feminine in Twin Peaks and in that role she’s pushing against a substantial tide of male and masculine predominance.
To bring this perspective on Preston to a close, I cite two more appearances in The Return. First is when she and Rosenfield are left alone in Cole’s office after the Director has finished a phone call purportedly from Cooper and informed them that they’re going to South Dakota. By contrast to Rosenfield’s disgruntled outburst, Preston pulls a rather neutral yet bemused face as she stands juxtaposed with the massive portrait of Franz Kafka. To be sure, the fact that this portrait adorns Cole’s office indicates a lot about the Director, but it’s no accident that Preston is the agent visually associated with the past master of the weird who is well known for his own problematic relations with parents and his narratives that pressed against and beyond boundaries of what it means to be human. This moment in Part 3 is an unambiguous signal that Preston is key, but like the blue key in Mulholland Drive, Lynch offers precious few details.
Finally, in Part 14 there’s a great scene where Rosenfield recalls for Preston the case of Lois Duffy that started the Blue Rose Task Force. Preston looks cool and ruminative as she listens to his account, and she becomes animatedly astute as she responds to Albert’s prompts about what question she should ask him and what is the answer to it. Preston’s poise in this exchange differentiates her from Cole and Cooper, Earle and Jeffries and Rosenfield, all of whom we’ve seen falter through erratic and/or problematic emotions and actions. Preston is the female force at the forefront of what promises to be a totally alternative approach to pitching battle against Judy.
Andy Hageman is Associate Professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He teaches and writes about contemporary film, literature, and media–from Chinese science fiction and Björk to David Lynch’s cinema. His essay “The Uncanny Ecology of Mulholland Drive” was featured in the book Back to Mulholland Drive: Minimal Fantasy, edited by Nicolas Bourriad as part of a 2017 exhibition at La Panacée Center of Contemporary Art in Montpellier, France.