How Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Reminds Us Laura Was the One, 30 Years On

Movies Features David Lynch
How Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Reminds Us Laura Was the One, 30 Years On

It had only been three years since Twin Peaks, the hit ABC series created by filmmaker David Lynch and veteran TV producer Mark Frost, had first aired when the Bravo Network acquired the rights to broadcast all 30 episodes in syndication in 1993. By this time, the wave of excitement surrounding the show had already evaporated in a puff of smoke, leading to the show’s cancellation following its second season. For the re-airing, Lynch wrote and directed vignettes featuring monologues by Catherine Coulson (in character as Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady) to tack onto the beginning of each episode. Like his last-minute return to direct and re-write the second season’s finale, this addition seemed like Lynch’s attempt to right any wrongs committed while he had been preoccupied with other projects and left the show’s helm, leading to its demise. He made it a priority to tie even the most nonsensical episodes back to the bizarre show’s larger themes with these introductions. After all the Civil War reenactment side-plots and delusional, middle-aged drape-runner enthusiasts thinking they’re back in high school and strange women arriving in the night to swoop up the least interesting character as we watch it happen in slow, agonizing detail (“What about this, James?” we say with the girl of the hour as she raises her middle finger), Lynch immediately made a point of bringing his television brainchild back to focus on the protagonist of our story, lest we mistake who the true protagonist is.

“It is a story of many, but it begins with one,” the Log Lady tells us in this new introduction, “and I knew her. The one leading to the many is Laura Palmer. Laura is the one.”

Not Cooper, nor Audrey, nor any wacky side characters we’ve come to love. None of them are the main focus. Laura, the girl who remains a mystery for most of the series before being quickly swept aside by the writers once her murder is solved, is the one. As such, Lynch did the most complex character he has ever created the favor of letting her walk and talk of her own volition in the most important part of the Twin Peaks saga—as well as his most daring full-length feature at that point—and he was torn apart for it.

A year prior to the intros being filmed, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (retitled The Last Seven Days of Laura Palmer for several international releases) premiered at Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 1992. Though initial claims that the film was booed have been denied by people in attendance, it’s not a stretch to say that the reaction was polarized. Where most Twin Peaks fans were initially expecting answers to questions posed in the second season finale, they received information they kind of already knew (and here’s where to stop reading if you don’t want the show or movie spoiled for you): Laura had been killed by her father, who had been incestuously raping her for years; she nursed a drug habit and engaged in risky sexual behavior to deal with it; and the spirit world of the evil Black Lodge had been involved in her abuse and murder, though we might never quite know to what degree.

Basically, if you were expecting to see something like the show, you were going to be let down. Fans may have asked some of the following questions as they walked out of the theater in a complete daze: “Where was the warmth? Or the humor? Where was the community of Twin Peaks? Where were the off-kilter characters I loved so much?”

Even people involved with the show were confused by Lynch’s determination to turn back time and burn the thing down. Peggy Lipton, whose scenes were scrapped altogether, and leading man Kyle MacLachlan, who had asked for less screentime in fear of being typecast, have both expressed disappointment with the prequel, mostly with the gripe that the “small-town values” (as Lipton referred to them in a 2000 documentary interview) weren’t there anymore, and it wasn’t what the fans wanted.

Maybe not, but Lynch knew that the story of the many had to begin with the story of the one. Laura Palmer’s story deserved to be told in a way that let us see the terror through her eyes, not through the lens her abusers saw her through nor the cracked glass of a prom portrait that says nothing about who Laura really was. In interviews conducted by Chris Rodley for the 2005 book Lynch on Lynch, Lynch expressed this himself, saying the movie was about “the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest. It also dealt with the torment of the father—the war within him.” A girl dies in order to free herself of the unspeakable horrors around her, both tangible and supernatural, and becomes the fleshed-out superhero of her own story in the process, and people vehemently did not want it.

Of course, an undesirable premise was not helped in a commercial sense by the fact that the movie was very much a David Lynch feature film, not only in content but in form. Yes, the deleted scenes that eventually became available in 2014 as Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces did help to put the story into context, but the way Lynch lets it unfold confused those unfamiliar with his style (or only familiar with how it existed after Mark Frost, who declined to stay on for the film, helped to make it more linear). From the moment the opening credits end and we see a television smashed into pieces, Lynch makes his mission statement clear as we descend into a world of unfamiliar, unlikable characters. It could be argued that the horrors which unfold after the screen cuts to black could only be told in Lynch’s unconventional style, which mirrors his protagonist’s fractured reality in her final days.

Lynch himself, playing FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, is the only face we recognize as we’re thrown into a hapless investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (the anti-Laura Palmer) conducted by Chet Desmond (the anti-Dale Cooper) and Sam Stanley in Deer Meadow (the anti-Twin Peaks). Teresa and Laura knew each other—having turned tricks together with Roadhouse bartender and drug dealer Jacques Renault acting as pimp—but on the surface, their cases only have two things in common: The killer, one Leland Palmer slash Bob, the evil spirit from the Black Lodge who used Leland as a host), and a blue rose, an indicator of a case involving paranormal activity, which we won’t learn any further details about until 25 years later in 2017’s The Return.

When Agents Dale Cooper and Albert Rosenfeld finally arrive on our screens after we witness the Teresa Banks investigation and Agent Desmond’s disappearance, they prove to know as little as we do, offering no guidance or reassurance. When David Bowie enters as Agent Phillip Jeffries, the chaos only multiplies, providing no explanation for anything that has happened so far in terms of the Lodge mythology or The Project Blue Rose backstory. The recut scene in The Missing Pieces makes what’s happening a bit clearer, but not by much. By this point, if the crowd at Cannes had gone into the film completely blind with no prior knowledge of the show, it’s no wonder they were darting their heads around in search of the exit.

Though these scenes at FBI headquarters set up a whole lot for the show’s belated third season, the main purpose it serves as we prepare to watch the unraveling of Laura Palmer is that of a reminder: Cooper is a flawed character, limited in comprehension of both his own trauma and how the world around him works. Having just witnessed him complete his journey (for now) as a failed hero in the Twin Peaks finale, and through his confusion in the FBI offices and his insistence that Laura shouldn’t take the ring (the thing that ends up protecting her soul from being devoured by Bob) in her dream, we confirm that he’s as in the dark as we are. We can’t trust him to be our chipper, eccentric guide for this journey like we could in the series. Bring in the correct narrator for her own story: Laura Palmer, a 17-year-old girl so filled with self-loathing over what’s being done to her that she works to destroy herself almost every night, purposely avoiding her family’s home where something even darker lingers.

This is where we need to stop and give an abundance of credit to Sheryl Lee, whose portrayal of Laura is so intense and harrowing that the film wouldn’t have worked half as well as it does had she not been involved. Lynch himself knew Lee was his secret weapon, already having been so enchanted by the way she played Laura in flashbacks on the show that he wrote Laura’s identical cousin, Maddie Ferguson, into the story just so she could keep returning. Though we already know what’s going to happen when she enters the film around 35 minutes in, Lee’s acting is a crucial part of what makes the depiction of abuse feel so lifelike, putting us firmly in Laura’s shoes as one atrocity after another slowly ends her life. “It was hard for me to let Laura go only in the sense that she required so much of my attention and space in my life, and I was exhausted,” Lee—who by all accounts totally threw herself into her performance—later said in a Criterion Collection featurette. “I’d never played a character that required so much of my body, mind, heart and soul that there was very little space for me left during that time.”

Lee’s ability to achieve such a layered performance came from the source material. She chose not to rely on the show’s characters’ recollections of Laura, including those of the adult men who slept with her knowing she was underage. Dr. Jacoby’s insistence that “Laura was a woman” and Ben Horne’s declarations of his love for her while she was working at his brothel tell you all you need to know: This vulnerable young girl was put in further danger by the adults she put her trust in, and their recollections cannot be trusted.

Instead, Lee turned to The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the book Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, wrote and published as supplementary material for the show’s fans in 1990. Lee had lent her voice to the audiobook upon its release and recognized it as her only key into Laura’s living nightmare, told from her own perspective. “I am so afraid of death,” one undated entry not mentioned during the show or movie’s runtime reads. “I am so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me.” All Lee could do next was run with what she knew and what Lynch and his writing partner, Robert Engels, had provided her with. What she came up with was staggering. The palpable fear and anger radiating off of her when Laura has a meltdown at Harold’s house, or the moment outside of her home where she realizes—lying in the bushes—that Leland has been abusing her, create movie moments that haunt an audience for a lifetime.

Perhaps the most realistic thing about the way Laura is written is that she’s not always likable—both in remembrances of her peppered throughout the show and in Fire Walk with Me. No one who suffers this kind of pain gets through it without any collateral damage. She is deeply complex, inherently flawed and lashes out at those around her in a subconscious effort to prevent them from getting hurt by her. She fights with Donna in the nightclub when she sees her begin to mimic her own lascivious behavior, later telling her, “I don’t want you to be like me.” She gives James the cold shoulder (and the middle finger) when she expects him to hurt her like her father and the older men she sleeps with do, but all he can come back with are his dumb puppy dog eyes. She cares for her boyfriend Bobby, but uses him to get what she needs to numb the pain. It’s a pattern of self-loathing and harm that’s clear throughout the film: She believes that she is to blame for whatever’s happening to her, and she’s decided to hurt herself until she doesn’t have to think about the shame. She has no one to tell her she should feel or act differently.

It’s established that all Laura can see of herself is her darkness. Where Cooper has the problem of not being able to recognize his shadow self, Laura is cruel to her friends that remind her of her “good half,” fearing that she’ll corrupt them as she wallows in her own hopelessness. Cue her famous response to Donna’s question about falling in space where she believes you end up falling “faster and faster, and for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything, and then you’d burst into fire forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you, ‘cause they’ve all gone away.”

In one of the movie’s most devastating sequences, where Leland berates Laura for not washing her hands and she sobs over it in the bathroom (now knowing her father is probably her rapist) before Leland tearfully tells her he loves her, Laura ends it by turning to the angel in the painting on the wall and asking, “Is it true?” When she sees her angel disappear from the painting on the night she dies, Laura is convinced her prophecy has come to fruition and she knows what she has to do to defeat Bob. “Your Laura disappeared,” she tells James in their final conversation. “It’s just me now.”

This leads to the question of how much everybody else knew. If you’re watching the show on its own, you see a community gathering around their deceased prom queen in a time of mourning, and we all feel second-hand embarrassment for Bobby when he lashes out at her funeral where everyone feigns innocence over what could’ve happened to Laura. After watching these devastating sequences in Fire Walk with Me, we see Laura can hardly conceal her problems. Her drug use is an open secret, and yet, in the series pilot, Sheriff Truman scoffs at the idea that the cocaine found in Laura’s diary could belong to her, telling Agent Cooper, “You didn’t know Laura Palmer.”

Did he ever know her? Watching the show again after the movie, Bobby’s rant feels like a single moment of clarity in a pageant of delusion and misguided well wishes. Suddenly, you wonder why this girl’s friends and family didn’t want to wait even a day for an autopsy before getting her into the ground as fast as humanly possible. They rush her burial so they can forget all of the cries for help they readily ignored, and Twin Peaks can once again be a picturesque community where vulnerable people are hurt by those who supposedly love them—while they pretend none of it is happening.

In the same Criterion interview, Lee shares this spot-on observation: “This is a movie, but this continues to happen every day. And how can we stop it? When I watch Fire Walk with Me now, as a mother, I watch it and I think, ‘Look at all those signs that were being exhibited. This girl was in danger, and look at all these people that were in her life! What would have happened if somewhere, somehow, someone could have helped or stopped it?’ That’s hard to watch.”

She’s also expressed discomfort with the way even diehard fans have sexualized Laura, treating her less like an underaged victim of assault and more like an image of a dead woman they can push their own desire onto. To forget Laura and look at the parts of her that are easy to objectify is to miss the point. Even the show itself forgot Laura for a good chunk of its second season without Lynch’s watchful eye over the proceedings, and it quickly lost all semblance of coherence or control, as if Laura’s spirit tried to strike them down for glossing over her pain. Lynch knew it had to be made right, so he forced us all to look at the grisly truth, as if to say, this is what you all treated like a fun guessing game. She had to go through all of this, and then you forgot her?

As we see Cooper fail to save himself because he cannot comprehend that both good and evil exist within him and that one does not cancel the other out, he is trapped in the show’s version of purgatory while the side he couldn’t reconcile goes free. We now know Laura has always been our hero. She frees herself in the end by realizing there is no separate good or bad Laura, and that what happened to her was her father’s doing—as well as the doing of this larger evil force known as Bob—but not hers. The Leland distinction is also key. Where the show tries to absolve Leland of wrongdoing, acting like he was Bob’s oblivious puppet, Lynch once again makes things right by making it clear here: Leland had a part in this. Even if he didn’t understand what Bob was or how he controlled him, he knew what he was doing to Laura.

He remembered the diary entries. He drugged his wife. He killed Teresa as soon as he realized she knew he was Laura’s father. Bob’s former partner, Mike, specifically yells to Laura, “It’s him! It’s your father!” when they’re stopped in the car and he wields the ring that will end up saving Laura from Bob. When Laura demands, “Stay away from me,” after she finally confirms it was Leland raping her, the look on his face is not one of confusion, but nervous concern. He cried “I thought you always knew it was me!” right before he killed her. Lynch makes a point of cutting between Bob and Leland throughout the harrowing scene in the train car, showing that, like Laura’s dark and light halves, both exist and one does not cancel the other out. Bob is not a figment of Laura’s imagination and the Lodge mythology is not entirely a metaphor, but the supernatural doesn’t absolve Laura’s father.

Leland raped his daughter for five years and she died to free herself of it and the dark spirit from another world threatening to overtake her and make her like her father. For all of her flaws, she comes out victorious. She figures out who her attacker is with help from the beings in the Lodge and escapes a world that only performatively cares about people like her, a world that protects men like her father or Ben Horne. A world that promotes them, puts them in high government positions, lets them literally get away with murder. It’s a world that looks a lot like our own.

The movie’s original ending as written in Lynch and Engel’s screenplay gets straight to the point, even providing fan service (a forbidden phrase in Lynch’s world): Laura dies quickly, and her friend Ronette Pulaski (who can be read as Donna’s dark counterpart, if we’re looking at Laura’s duality) escapes. Then, we flash-forward to see Annie, basically catatonic, in the hospital after escaping the Lodge and Cooper, possessed by Bob, exactly where we left him in the season two finale. Again, Lynch forces us to spend time with the gravity of Laura’s murder rather than characters who had little bearing on her life; he brings the angel into the train car to free Ronette so she can open the door and Laura can get the ring Mike throws to her, saving Laura from being possessed by Bob. After she dies, the focus remains on her as we cut to the Red Room in the Lodge, buried in the town’s woods. Good Cooper is there, but only as a silent means of comfort, letting Laura weep with joy as her angel is revealed to her, telling her everything is okay. It’s all over.

Soundtracked by Angelo Badalamenti’s swelling score, the final scene remains one of the most devastating moments in Lynch’s oeuvre, retaining its emotional power no matter how many times you watch it. Laura Palmer is a character, but we all probably know someone like Laura Palmer and we might not even know it. Laura is everyone whose every move is a cry for help, but has no one really watching. Though hers is an extreme case, Laura is also every teenage girl who has been assaulted or sexualized to the point where they’re made to feel unsafe, which is to say…pretty much every teenage girl. Laura is anyone of any gender who finds the will to survive despite abuse of any kind, even though that strength shouldn’t be necessary. She is everything so many people want to ignore or forget, and here, Lynch and company force you to look at her as she looks at her angel, laughing at all of her attackers and knowing she’s finally safe, that her power is finally valued. The screen fades to white and morphs to blue, but pointedly does not turn black. Laura lived in the darkness. Now she finally gets to rest.

This final look from above says, the one leading to the many is Laura Palmer. Laura is the one. Do her the favor of looking. So, 30 years on, we should continue looking. For Laura and those like her, it’s the least we can do.

Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.

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