Laura Palmer
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Credit: New Line Cinema

Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks is the great American martyr of horror

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Oct 30, 2019

"She's dead — wrapped in plastic."

These technically weren’t the first lines ever spoken on Twin Peaks, the acclaimed horror series created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, but that introduction to Laura Palmer shall forever remain iconic for a reason. The mere image of her — her skin icy white, lips deathly blue, and her beautiful face still not at peace even in death as she is embalmed in a cocoon of tarp — came to define a show that was never short of striking iconography. A new idol of horror was born, a Dead Girl for a very twisted time.

David Lynch has never been a man especially concerned with completion or closure. Linear narratives aren’t his thing and his best work often feels like an artful slap in the face to every viewer who craves nothing more than answers to the many questions they have to ask. Twin Peaks was never supposed to solve the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. For Lynch and Frost, her death was merely an entry point into Twin Peaks itself and the myriad quirky and sinister characters who populated it. This was a series about the journey, not the destination, which didn’t sit well with the ABC Network’s eagerness for a pay-off to the mystery they’d hooked in viewers with. So the show gave answers and let the world know who killed Laura (spoiler alert: It was her dad, Leland, while he was possessed by Killer BOB).

However, even the most ardent fans of Lynch and Twin Peaks have spent a lot of time pondering the ultimate sacrifice of Laura Palmer. She was created to die, to be a plot device that motivated and brought together a larger ensemble. Pop culture is full of dead women sentenced to this fate, but few of those examples have been so endlessly inquisitive about their own set-up as Twin Peaks has.

Credit: ABC

The town of Twin Peaks is the perfect place that’s also rotten to the core. Lynch has always loved dissecting the tropes of Americana that he not-so-secretly adores, especially in Blue Velvet, a film about the poison of WASP American suburbia that still really loves the white picket fence ideal. Twin Peaks is scenic, populated by fascinating people who all embody some form of the American dream, and the coffee is top-notch. It’s not hard to see why Dale Cooper, the epitome of apple pie and baseball, would instantly warm to it. Laura’s death is the first unignorable sign that something deeply insidious is rooted in this dreamland. The homecoming queen was murdered and left semi-preserved in the icy river, wound in translucent plastic in an almost saintly manner, and it was easy to see the “death of innocence” narratives that the town was so eager to form for themselves, as well as the expectations of contemporary audiences.

It helped that Laura seemed to work overtime in her visible day-to-day life to be the saint everyone wanted her to be, through her kind deeds in teaching Josie Packard English, in looking after the severely mentally disabled Johnny Horne, and in coordinating the Meals on Wheels program. Of course, Laura was never the fantasy her family, friends, and fellow townspeople had of her. In Twin Peaks, the titan of local business is a corrupt criminal who secretly runs a brothel, local residents include domestic abusers and rapists, and the homecoming queen was a cocaine-addicted prostitute who was also a victim of incest.

Laura may be dead when the show starts but she’s always present, be it through that well-known image of her in her homecoming garb, her appearances in the black and white lodge where she provides cryptic clues to Dale of her fate, or her presence in Twin Peaks itself via her doppelganger cousin Maddy, also played by Sheryl Lee. As with most martyrs, she is everywhere and impossible to escape, especially for those who feel doomed by her disappearance. The audience is never allowed to forget the magnitude of her presence and absence either. Everyone is constantly reminded of the sacrifice made and its ultimate cost. In one scene, Laura's boyfriend Bobby Briggs claims that Laura wanted to die. When asked by Laura's therapist if she said that there was no goodness in the world, Bobby replies:

"She said people tried to be good, but they are really sick and rotten — her most of all. And every time she tried to make the world a better place, something terrible came up inside her and pulled her back down into hell and took her deeper and deeper into the blackest nightmare. Every time it got harder to go back up into the light."

In death, Laura is seen as the unwitting savior of the town’s soul, which directly contradicts how she lived her life before that, including forcing Bobby to sell drugs so she would have easy access to them herself. Dr. Jacoby, who himself had illicit relations with Laura while she was his patient, theorizes that Laura was driven to "consciously try to find people's weaknesses, to prey on them, tamper with them, make them do terrible, degrading things [because] Laura wanted to corrupt people because that's how she felt about herself."

Laura is further given her voice back to show the route to brutal martyrdom in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The prequel to the series was highly controversial when it was released as fans felt cheated by its lack of closure for the show’s cliffhanger ending and characters like Dale Cooper. They already knew what happened to Laura and didn’t seem all that interested in learning more. Yet bringing Laura back only added greater layers of emotion and understanding not only to the heroine herself but the smothering burden placed upon her shoulders. Her mental turmoil is overwhelming, as are the pressures put on her by Twin Peaks, and the trauma of being a victim of incest. Her murder at the hands of Leland/BOB is one of the most horrifying and terrifying scenes in Lynch history, an ice-cold reminder of her martyrdom that the series itself never fully confronted. To Leland, an abuser who may have more power over his own actions than he's willing to admit (this is something made much clearer in Fire Walk With Me), Laura's power must be quashed lest he fully lost control over her. He replicates this horror when he kills Maddy, Laura's aesthetic double but total opposite in terms of personality. Where Laura was fighting against her social role, Maddy comfortably inhabited hers but refused to be shoehorned into the Palmers' lives as Laura's replacement. Martyrs are characterized by their refusal to conform to a crooked world, and Laura suffered accordingly.

Credit: New Line Cinema

Cut to 2017 and suddenly we were offered the astounding opportunity to return to Twin Peaks. The revival that nobody ever thought would happen was now a reality thanks to Showtime, and David Lynch was fully off the leash in the best way possible. For those aggravated by the original series’ lack of closure, The Return was probably a nightmare, but for the rest of us, it was devastatingly good. Laura Palmer returned, but not as much as we hoped for or expected (as always, it’s a foolish endeavor to expect anything of David Lynch). Sheryl Lee is credited as appearing in every single episode, even though she is only in a couple of them because that instantly recognizable homecoming queen photo appears in the opening credits, a reminder of the shadow that forever looms across this quaint town.

Before Dale Cooper finally escapes the black and white lodge where he has been imprisoned for decades, he meets Laura one more time, now as a middle-aged woman both in and out of time. She serves as a reminder to Dale of the woman she never got to be and of what is at stake. He wants to succeed not only to save his own life but to reset the entire natural and social order. However, time doesn’t work like that and the stars were long aligned for Laura’s fate before Dale was even born.

Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return may be the greatest thing David Lynch has ever made: It’s nothing so less than the creation of good and evil itself. The birth of the atom bomb signals a new age of humanity, one capable of annihilation in ways only dreamt about before. BOB is created in this fiery aftermath, but evil cannot survive without good, and so through cosmic meddling, Laura Palmer's face appears in a golden orb that is kissed adoringly and sent to Earth. Now, we see that Laura was not merely set up by herself and those around her to be martyred: It was literally her purpose in life.

The series ends with Dale getting the briefest of happy endings before he leaves once more to continue his good work. Yet suddenly he may not be Dale anymore, and the woman he finds who looks identical to Laura Palmer claims to be someone else. He takes her back to Twin Peaks but someone else is living in her house and they’ve done so for many years. The show ends with Laura screaming and the lights going off as if she has borne witness to something of unimaginable horror. Just beforehand, the voice of Laura’s mother, Sarah, can be faintly heard calling out her name. This new woman may claim to not be Laura but she seems doomed to bear her pain.

Here is the undeniable truth: Laura Palmer can never be saved. No matter how hard Frost and Lynch tried — and they spent 18 episodes of a hallucinogenic, genre-bending reboot trying to make it happen — Palmer was a martyr whose fate could not be reversed. This is partly because the story was so inextricably connected to the image of Laura as the broken saint but also because horror as a whole has many of its strongest foundations in the sacrifice of women. The mystery of her death was too tantalizing for ABC and American viewers to ignore, far more so than her life.

There is a moment in The Return where Agent Gordon Cole, played by Lynch, opens the door of his hotel and is overwhelmed by the image of Laura Palmer. It's the specter that has defined his life and career, both on and off the screen, and Cole’s futile search for justice in her name speaks to his inability to give her her dues. It seems that nobody has felt more regretful about the death of Laura than David Lynch himself.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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