Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me ★★★★★

Laura is the one.

Laura Palmer as a character began life as quite literally the ultimate victim; a symbol of innocence cut down too soon, a vehicle to tell other stories, a motivation for drama and nothing more. This is a common thing in fiction: dead women who serve as blank slates for the audience to project their own tragedies onto, serving to easily get us into the heads of their survivors (usually men) because of an implied understanding, a parenthesized sort of loss that's less an individual event and more a universally recognized shorthand.

We all know this, but I think it's interesting that Lynch (and Frost, and whomever else contributed to the initial idea) recognized this trope as something potentially self-sustaining, a goldmine that could endlessly produce drama and story if given a sense of importance not just to a single character, or a few characters, but to a whole damn town. This universal loss is best embodied by the scenes in the pilot in which characters are shown to have a subconscious knowledge of what happened before they're properly told. The characters stand in for the audience; television/film is a communal experience and we're shown a communal sense of grief in a way few pieces of media have ever textualized so bluntly.

But for all the virtues of its premise, all the success the show had in its ability to capitalize on Laura as the ultimate "dead girl" trope, it's clear that at some point Lynch became more interested in the inverse, in taking the dramatic vehicle he had conceptualized and seeking to instead do the most counterintuitive thing possible: humanize her. With every little detail we get of Laura's life we're perplexed by her as a character, wondering what exactly she was like, why she was the way she was, what led to her death and why.

And by the time we've learned the why, the how, the when, it's clear that there's still something missing: an understanding of Laura herself. We know why she died, we know how she died, we know when she died...but we don't know who she died. We have only pieces, personal accounts from her lovers and friends and abusers, but we still don't know who Laura died as. At the heart of Fire Walk With Me is that mystery, and for all the details that it obfuscates and confuses, we finally get a crystal clear portrait of Laura, in all her contradictions.

Quit trying to hold on so tight. I'm gone, long gone.

It's hard to define what makes the work of David Lynch so special, but I think a good place to start is looking at how he takes tropes and deconstructs them, not in an empty or cynical way, but in a way that's refreshingly empathetic and defies simple explanation. Nothing is just one thing, most people are caught on some fluctuation between poles of good and evil; the best of Lynch's characters are composed of endless dualities.

And like, duh. Dualities are what this man works in, and what makes his films so intoxicating, so arresting to the subconscious mind. Good/evil, macabre/mundane, beautiful/terrifying, horrific/comedic, absurd/hyperreal, etc. Ironically, by drowning his ideas in contradictions, oftentimes creating something unrecognizable as our world, his films reflect back our lived experiences in ways the best naturalism is unable to capture.

You're talking about half the high school girls in America!

The kicker is, by turning Laura into a fleshed out human rather than a mere symbol, her particular story becomes more universal than it ever was before. Everyone knows a Laura, many of us are or have been a Laura, and that's why Fire Walk With Me has gradually gained a powerful resonance with so many, even more powerful than anything in the original series.

These hands are filthy. Look, there's dirt way under this fingernail!

The hand-washing scene really struck me this time. Laura's most popular depiction is as the glowing prom queen, a symbol in our deeply misogynistic society of innocence. But if you look deeper under her fingernails, as we do throughout this film, you can see the dirt, that she's not some faultless doe, that she did bad things just as she did good things.

There's a standard in our society that women have to be angels to deserve our empathy, a standard that doesn't apply to male characters, even the ones that commit far worse acts. And in this scene, we see the absurdity of that idea in a microcosm, as Leland lambasts Laura for having dirty hands.

Your Laura disappeared. It's just me now.

As Laura comes to terms with what her horrific abuse, she begins to entirely internalize that pain, in the form of self-hatred. Leland's projection of his own evil overwhelms her, and by the end of the film she's not only suicidal, but believes herself to be devoid of good.

The bulk of the emotional power of FWWM comes from the dissonance between Laura's self-image and how we come to see her, loving her in all her contradictions and understanding she doesn't deserve this even as she feels like she does. It's an interesting balancing act, a film so crushing to the point of exploitation, but with so much empathy for its protagonist even as we know she won't get the ending we want for her.

I'm going home, Bobby.

Another trademark of Lynch's films is the idea of cycles, of repetition. "It is happening again" becomes a calling card, the idea that evils repeat themselves is conveyed through everything from a rotating ceiling fan (the sound of which plays over the final rape scene) to repeated lines and shots, all the way to same character archetypes playing out distorted versions of the same scenarios, i.e. the opening investigation into Teresa Banks.

I'll explore this much deeper as I return to the...uhh...Return...but I think Agent Cooper's adventures serve to illustrate the limitations of a reactive, male approach to solving these cycles of violence. Reactive justice can put away the bad guy, but these things keep happening regardless, and you can't undo what already happened and its consequences.

This lack of catharsis breaks with what we expect from our stories, and better mirrors our real world experiences. Every attempt to traditionally "solve" the murder is shown to be futile, and this futility is made all the more painful when we have a character as seemingly pure and loveable as Cooper on the case. There's a disconnect between the efforts of our dashing male protagonist in the series and their inconsequence.

And in that crushing defeat, we realize just how little our reactive, judicial, patriarchal approach that fiction constantly displays translates to...actual solutions that actually keep the problem from persisting. The solutions are deeper than that, within the fabric of society itself. But Fire Walk With Me doesn't prescribe these solutions.

Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything. And then you'd burst into fire. Forever... And the angel's wouldn't help you. Because they've all gone away.

I think the ending of FWWM is what makes it all hold together, as it's not a happy ending but it's a deeply empathetic and beautiful one. The plot mechanics don't really matter, what does is that the ring and Laura's embrace of it goes against every dour idea Laura had of herself and her fate leading up to that moment.

It's not completely unprecedented; another notable scene is when Laura's love for Donna overcomes her self-destructive spiral. But this time her choice comes from (at least as I interpret it) a love of herself and a belief that she's not evil, a rejection of the horrible world she's known and what it expects from her, and a breaking of the cycles at play, even as she falls victim to it.

The empowering aspect of Laura comes from how against all odds she chooses to see BOB, to come to terms with evil rather than run from it or avert her eyes, as her mother did. And I think it's important that the film doesn't condemn those paths, nor does it condemn Laura's streak of self-destruction up to that point. These are all valid responses to the great evils of the world, and people who go down these paths deserve empathy.

But it's infinitely beautiful, in a bittersweet sort of way, that Laura is able to make a choice, that this choice is in many ways only something she can understand and goes against the advice of the series' protagonist, and that she's rewarded with what can only be interpreted as a sort of salvation.

If Ronette Pulaski's fate can be interpreted as indicative of Laura's, we can see them as reverse sides of the same coin, able to escape through salvation and die through salvation, respectively. Regardless, the constant is that they're able to find salvation, that even in the very darkest conclusions we can find solace, kindness even. That the film finds some way to give Laura a "happy" ending, in spite of everything, as if Lynch's empathy for the character overpowers the inevitability of the story itself.

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