Twin Peaks: The Return has enjoyed widespread acclaim since premiering in May, with critics lauding its daring, experimental format and refusal to conform to linear narratives. While I have to admit that watching the show isn’t always pleasurable—there are long scenes with no dialogue, and others so abstract they can be hard to decipher—I do recognize that creators David Lynch and Mark Frost are pushing the boundaries of scripted television. And, like many, I continue to watch out of pure curiosity as to how (and if) they’ll tie the seemingly disparate threads together into a cohesive narrative.
Unfortunately, while the show is avant-garde in a technical sense, it often feels like a wasteland for women. While Mic’s Ally Hirschlag echoes so many of the thoughts I’ve had while watching, I want to take a deeper dive into one of the several (dare I say it?) sexist tropes that Lynch and Frost seem to be overly invested in: the embittered wife trapped in a loveless marriage. I count no less than six examples of this archetype in The Return: Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), Phyllis Hastings (Cornelia Guest), Doris Truman (Candy Clark), Beverly Paige (Ashley Judd), Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), and Becky Burnett (Amanda Seyfried). While criticisms of Lynch’s depictions of women have been raised in relation to past works (like Blue Velvet), this aspect is usually discussed as a footnote. I want to suggest that maybe it should impact our reception of Lynch’s oeuvre, particularly The Return, in a more significant way.
First, though, let’s lay out the characters that fit the trope:
The wife of principal Bill Hastings—who has been accused of murdering his lover, Ruth Davenport—appears at the beginning of “Part II.” Phyllis tells Bill she knows he was having an affair with Davenport, to which he immediately responds that she’s been having an affair with his lawyer, George. She’s all too happy to let Bill rot in jail for the rest of his life. In the next scene, she’s murdered by evil/doppelgänger Cooper; the reason for her death is never revealed, although he says something cryptic about her following human nature perfectly. In the following thirteen episodes, we still haven’t circled back to Phyllis to find out whether she’s a larger part of evil Cooper’s plan; perhaps we will never know.
Sherriff Frank Truman’s wife appears briefly in “Part V,” haranguing him to fix a leak at the house and upset that he hasn’t fixed her father’s car. She shouts, “You’re impossible!” even after it’s clear that he has, in fact, taken care of the chores she’s asked him to see to. In “Part VI,” she storms into the police station and yells at her husband about her father’s car still not being fixed; she is nearly hysterical. Then it’s revealed by another character that their son took his own life. It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for Doris’ behavior, but the larger question is, why was it necessary to include this very minor character in the story? She’s just one more embittered, one-dimensional woman on the show; her character serves no purpose, even for the development of Sherriff Truman himself.
Moving on to a slightly more important character, Beverly Paige is introduced early in “Part I” as Ben Horne’s new secretary at the Great Northern. After she meets Ben’s brother, Jerry, Jerry asks if Ben has slept with her yet, to which Ben retorts that she’s married. As Jerry notes, that “never stopped you before,” clearly referring to Ben’s exploits in the original Twin Peaks, which included an affair with Laura Palmer before her death. It’s not until “Part VII” that we get some backstory on Beverly, when it’s revealed that her husband is housebound with an undisclosed illness. He accusingly questions why she’s come home so late, and she responds with extreme irritation to his emotional manipulation: “Do not fuck with me!” This is apparently a situation that has happened before.
Beverly’s demeanor at home and at work are a study in contrasts: At home, she feels overburdened by having to care for her sick husband, while at work she’s patient, professional, poised, and happy to attend to Ben Horne’s needs. What’s more, if it weren’t for the fact that she subtly comes on to her older boss (who gently rejects her advances) in “Part IX,” Beverly would be among the most grounded, realistic female characters in The Return. Why was it necessary for a character played by bombshell Ashley Judd to express sexual interest in an older, homely man? (This is another trend I’ve noticed in the series that would raise the hackles of any self-respecting feminist: attractive women falling all over themselves for repellant men, like Chantal [Jennifer Jason Leigh] and evil Cooper.) Perhaps Lynch and Frost are suggesting that Beverly is so embittered in her marriage that any man who isn’t needy and draining would be attractive to her.
It’s a shame, because Beverly as a character has potential—she’s one of the few women that female audiences can relate to, in that she’s not hysterical (Audrey), overly controlling (Janey-E), perpetually cheerless (Diane), or content to play the role of eye candy (FBI agent Tammy Preston). For the record, recent episodes have shown that original Twin Peaks character Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) is one of the few thriving women on the show; it’s too bad she’s gotten so little screen time.
Janey-E is an interesting example of the embittered wife trope. Early on in the series, she’s almost a caricature of the nagging wife who controls her husband’s every move. In “Part VI,” she professes her desire for Dougie (who is actually the original Cooper) to spend time with their son, Sonny Jim, only to turn around and thwart their bonding. She seems perpetually put-upon in general, as when she and Dougie are questioned by the Las Vegas police in “Part VII” about Dougie’s car. There’s no apparent reason for her irritation. It’s just part of her M.O.
Janey-E alternates between giving Dougie the cold shoulder and suddenly becoming affectionate when his actions result in material rewards. When we meet her in “Part IV,” she’s (understandably) pissed about his three-day disappearance. But when she sees that he’s won thousands of dollars at the casino, her demeanor transforms into that of a loving wife, declaring that she missed him. In “Part X,” Janey-E takes Dougie to the doctor, who confirms that he’s lost weight and is suddenly in great shape, news that provokes a sudden desire on her part to have sex with him. Her sweet act continues in “Part XIII,” when the mafioso Mitchum brothers send Sonny Jim a backyard gym set and Janey-E a shiny new BMW; she gushes over Dougie, telling him how much she loves him. The portrait that emerges is of a shallow, opportunistic woman with no real depth of emotion; her affection is always calculated.
Now we’ve come to the unhappily married women in The Return who are also basket cases. Becky, Shelley Briggs’ daughter, is introduced in “Part V” when she goes to the Double R Diner to ask her mom for money, essentially due to the failings of her drug addict/loser husband, Steven—played by the 2017 winner of “actor most likely to play a psychopath,” Caleb Landry Jones (see Get Out). Becky is clearly making bad choices, and when she finds out in “Part XI” that he’s cheating on her, she “goes postal” and pursues him and his mistress with a gun. As the only married millennial woman on the show, Becky is a sad cry from the independent twenty-something who advocates for herself and can stand on her own two feet, both professionally (why doesn’t she have a job?) and emotionally.
I’ve saved the worst for last. The most pathetic married woman, and definitely the most disappointing revival of an original Twin Peaks character, is Audrey Horne. When she finally shows up in “Part XII,” she seems to have been coerced into a marriage with a man, Charlie, who is not only physically way beneath her station, but also seems like a miserable human being in general. She’s openly carrying on an affair with someone named Billy, who is missing. Audrey and Charlie spend three separate cringe-worthy scenes (in “Part XII,” “Part XIII,” and “Part XV”) in a purgatory-like back-and-forth trying to decide whether to go out and look for Billy. Along the way, Audrey becomes increasingly hysterical, stating that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She’s basically a shell of her original character, and don’t get me started on the high-pitched, whiny voice… “Part XV” ends with Audrey overcome with rage (like Becky) and strangling Charlie. Audrey checks all the boxes for the dismal representations of married women on the show: embittered wife, basket case, cheater.
Curiously, in contrast to all of the embittered wives in The Return, David Lynch’s own character, Gordon Cole, is a perpetual bachelor. Beyond his inappropriate hand-on-the-back touching of his colleague Tammy Preston, in “Part XII” we see him cavorting in a hotel with a stunning French woman at least half his age, who seems overjoyed to be in his company. I’m not naïve enough to think that Lynch is suggesting we take her behavior at face value; I can see that he might be playing with the stereotype of the old lecher who, inexplicably, is able to turn the heads of gorgeous young women. And yet, there he is, an old deaf man having a grand old time, while most of the women on the show are miserable. Even if some of the female representations are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, in 2017 it’s troubling to see a series with more than 100 characters in which so few women are complex, self-assured, and/or likable.
What should audiences take away from The Return’s reliance on the “embittered wife” trope? When a show is daring and innovative in certain ways, is it automatically exempt from being discussed as a failure due to its problems of representation and characterization? Consider The Return alongside a “lowbrow” show like Two and a Half Men, which has been almost universally skewered as sexist. The legacy of the latter—notwithstanding the fact that it may have been very funny at times—is tainted by its dismal portrayal of women. Why shouldn’t we hold avant-garde, esoteric shows like The Return to the same standard?
I would argue that scrutiny is especially important because this is not the first Lynch creation to contain retrograde depictions of—or gratuitous violence against—women. In the current political climate, in which a self-confessed sexual predator was elected to be president over the most qualified candidate in American history, in part because she is a woman, and in which rape culture and victim-blaming of sexual assault survivors runs rampant, we can’t afford to give The Return a pass simply because it’s audacious in form. Even if the last few episodes tie together the disparate narratives in an incredibly compelling way, the show will still have left a trail of broken women in its wake.
This is especially true of the middle-aged women on the show. Unlike Norma—and, I would argue, most real women as they approach middle age—most of the show’s female characters don’t gain more assertiveness, self-knowledge and self-acceptance over time. Instead, they’re bitter and vengeful. And to what end? At least half of the women I’ve discussed—Doris, Beverly, and Becky—are not significant to the plot of either the original Twin Peaks or The Return, as they haven’t intersected with the main hero (Cooper) or villain (evil Cooper). As far as I can tell, these characters are extraneous additions whose only purpose is to play into a voyeuristic desire to see damaged women. I understand that many critics revere Lynch because of his reputation as an innovative filmmaker, but it’s high time to take paper-thin characterizations of women more seriously as a consistent shortcoming of his work. In the era of peak TV, when TV series increasingly present us with a wide range of three-dimensional women, Lynch, Frost and Twin Peaks: The Return should be no more above scrutiny than anyone or anything else.
Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on Showtime. Read our episodic reviews here.
Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and independent scholar whose pop culture critique has appeared in CNN Opinion, New York Observer, Ravishly, Pop Matters, Remezcla, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @rmbodenheimer.