Laura Palmer - Who was she and why does it matter

April 08, 2015

Twin Peaks Title Sequence image

Damn fine coffee. The fish in the percolator. The red room under the sycamore trees. The man from another place.   
As we recall David Lynch’s remarkable Twin Peaks on the eve of its 25th anniversary and its (possibly) forthcoming, long-gestating third series, it is these iconic moments – ones which revitalised and revolutionised the very medium of television - which we fondly remember.   

Yet, of all the praise that is lavished upon the show, very little has been made of the ground-breaking and empowering manner in which Twin Peaks presents its eclectic and eccentric mix of female characters.    Whilst academics and pop culture experts acclaim the cinematic eloquence and labyrinthine narrative strands Lynch brought to primetime TV, discussion of the strong, complex women on the show has largely centred on their (admittedly excellent) taste in clothes. 

Countless articles have highlighted the immaculate ways in which Audrey Horne has teamed saddle shoes and pleated skirts to winning effect, but very few have taken the time to reflect on just how incredible and diverse the representation of women on Twin Peaks truly was.   

The show itself centred around one of the most enigmatic heroines in screen history – Laura Palmer. She, perhaps more so than even Agent Cooper, is the heart of Twin Peaks and the axis around which the entire series resolves despite the fact that, as we discover in the opening moments of the pilot, she is dead. Her body if found wrapped in plastic – a failed attempt, perhaps, to preserve forever the physical form of a beautiful woman cut down in the prime of her life.    

Laura Palmer Dead Wrapped In Plastic

Throughout the pilot, we are introduced to the inhabitants of the small logging town which gives the series its name. Diverse they tiny population may be, but they are each united in grief for the passing of Twin Peaks’ Homecoming Queen – the ethereal blonde who enchanted all those who met her. Yet, as is ever the case in a David Lynch creation, all is not as it seems.   

In Blue Velvet, Lynch’s iconic 1986 movie named after the hit song, the director famously shows us an idealised version of America – blue skies and picket fences, green shoots of grass reaching enviously for the heavens. The camera unexpectedly takes us down, below the surface of a supposedly perfect scene, to witness the underbelly of chaos and savagery rumbling simultaneously on unseen – the filth of insects entwined in primal violence disturbs us. Laura Palmer, filled with secrets and hidden darkness, is the living embodiment of this cinematic sequence; picture perfect on first look but, below the surface, a sinister terror reigns.   

The apple of her parents’ eye, a model student and volunteer for the local Meals on Wheels programme, Palmer radiated a wholesome glow to many around her but, at night, our heroine lived something of a double life – addicted to cocaine, an underage prostitute and sexually involved with a number of men from around the community, her nightlife undermined the population of Twin Peaks who sought to preserve her image as one of purity and innocence. It is not difficult to see here the inspiration Marilyn Monroe played in shaping Palmer’s character – indeed, Lynch and Mark Frost (Twin Peaks co-creator) had previously worked on adapting Goddess, an in-depth biopic of the actress, before collaborating together on their wildly successful television series.   

Laura Palmer Prom Queen

In popular culture, it is often the case that women are presented entirely as either a Madonna figure (virtuous, pious and saintly) or a whore (promiscuous, often incapable of love or being loved). In Laura Palmer, we meet a character who transcends both of these labels – she is rounded, and three dimensional, capable of extreme acts of tenderness and, equally, callous moments of lamentable hate and pitiful cruelty.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how Palmer is mythologised by the men in Twin Peaks who look to categorise her, in order to understand her. Throughout her life, the young student was more than willing to play up to such an image in order to manipulate those to her way of thinking. Yet, more than the wholesome and eternally youthful figure we see preserved in photographs around the town, Palmer was a living, breathing young woman who struggled with the life many expected her to live and with suffering they could not comprehend. In short, like the millions who watched the show, Palmer was flawed and human - even if her entire community struggled to come to turns with such an understanding.   

Beyond death, Laura Palmer’s life was laid out in front of us as Agent Cooper investigated the multiple, copycat homicides taking place across Northern America. Whilst the marketing for the show centred around the question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, the series itself seemed much more concerned with asking: “Who was Laura Palmer?” Each week, Cooper would unveil more details from her life and the puzzle would grow larger and larger.

Palmer was beautiful and ugly; kind but mean; merciless but full of clemency – the woman we met, wrapped in plastic, more than anything was one of the most interesting and innovative characters ever to grace the small screen.



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