David Lynch will turn seventy years old in 2016. The likelihood of him producing much more work is too risky to contemplate for a devoted fan. The September 2015 death of Catherine Coulson, his contemporary and Log Lady, makes this anxiety even more acute. How much longer does a fan have before Lynch either neatly dissolves, laughing, into a haze of red curtains or slowly, imperceptibly becomes a shape in black smoke?
Any new work coming from the director whose film career started nearly forty years ago is significant. But even many devoted fans met the news of Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks—along with co-creator Mark Frost and composer Angelo Badalamenti for an eighteen-episode 2017 season on Showtime—with pause. After a fully-realized debut half-season in 1990, Twin Peaks was cancelled amid its second season, which aired in 1991 and spanned twenty-two episodes, dispensed with its central mystery: who the killed homecoming queen, the hyper-achieving student and community member, the recreational cocaine user, the lover of many men that is Laura Palmer.
With the understanding that the story of Twin Peaks would not continue after June 10, 1991, Lynch and Frost detonated the show with an ending that seemed designed to resist speculation about where the story could have ever gone from there—that is, if fans could see beyond the cloud kicked up by so many extravagant storylines. Put-upon housewife Nadine falls into a coma and wakes up a hypersexual, Herculean high school cheerleader! The head of the powerful Martell family did not really die in the storied boat accident and he is game to solve puzzle boxes! Windom Earle seduces and entraps a butt rocker with the promise of beer and turns him into a human chess piece!
By the airing of Twin Peaks‘ finale, Laura’s murder was resolved. Any stories that had worked up narrative momentum, like the romance between Special Agent Dale Cooper and Laura’s classmate, Audrey Horne, were awkwardly abandoned. The last episodes of Twin Peaks seem consumed by attempts to spin the show in other directions and to occupy characters whose relationships were sacrificed to some drama that left them excluded, waiting aimlessly around the RR Diner the way so many souls dwelt on the threshold between the Black Lodge and the White Lodge.
The function of Twin Peaks‘ finale is the same as one friend treating another like garbage so they do not miss them when they are gone. Cooper, the forthright, vulnerable, intellectual super agent hero with his adroit moral compass was possessed by the evil in Twin Peaks’ woods. With the “Good Dale” gone and many of the characters seemingly dead, even if it had not been canceled, Twin Peaks as fans knew it was over.
That is why new episodes concern the fans bonded so intensely to the show’s original vision. Twin Peaks‘ first seven episodes, overseen closely by Lynch and Frost, are unified in their quality and form a cohesively suspenseful story. The world of Twin Peaks was affectionately and thoroughly rendered: the warmth of the diner was fact, the Log Lady’s messages from beyond were fact, the existence of the dancing midget was fact, Pete Martell’s fishing prowess was fact. Lynch and Frost’s confidence in their world made it safe for fans to trust it with their love. In its second season, the show seemed to have lost its confidence, throwing storylines anxiously at their beloved characters, introducing new ones nowhere near as nuanced, reducing the heavenly pie of Twin Peaks to some salad full of quirks.
Really, though, Twin Peaks was evolving, and if the show had continued, the narrative threads it developed at the end of season two were poised to reveal the one to whom the story, for better or for worse, really belonged. Although Twin Peaks achieved its purest charm intertwining the magical police procedural mystery tour on which Cooper was taking Sherriff Harry S. Truman with the disaffected teen sleuthing lonely Audrey executed on the side, it is the side of Twin Peaks that the show never quite nailed in its heyday that could inherit Twin Peaks in 2017: Donna Hayward’s recovery from the death of her best friend.
To prioritize Donna is difficult to the point of seeming counterintuitive when there is the imperial master of corporate fraud and yellowface Catherine Martell, small business owner and domestic abuse survivor Norma Jennings, Lucy Moran who basically runs the Sherriff’s department, the divine Josie Packard—there are so many characters that better capture Twin Peaks‘ multitudes than Donna. Being narratively bound to James Hurley, the most boring and frustrating figure in all of Twin Peaks, does not help.
But before Twin Peaks resumes—to reengage with the logging town as it was left twenty-five years ago or, in the spirit of the Giant, to retcon the entire story (“It is happening again”)—it is time to consider Donna and what she means to Twin Peaks.
Donna Marie Hayward
Among the number of things that Laura Palmer’s death exposed about the town of Twin Peaks was how many people counted her as close. The most remote connections promised the most justifiable evidence for why a seemingly well-adjusted high school girl was murdered in a train car in the woods, her corpse sent floating down a river, wrapped in plastic. Laura the person was treated like the real mystery to solve, at least inextricable from the murder case if not, occasionally, overriding it.
As the person who was genuinely the closest to Laura Palmer, the narrative builds no suspense around Donna. She is not a mystery because she was what Laura was supposed to be. She is a lifelong resident of Twin Peaks. She is the high achieving, straight-A high school student in whose company it was easy for Laura to pretend to be. Her younger sisters, Harriet and Gersten, are held to the same rigid academic standards to which Donna was held.
This bit of exposition is almost the only one of its kind, this high level at which the Hayward girls are expected to achieve, and Donna’s competitiveness is what drives her in all her pursuits—including her friendship with Laura. The enforcers of this expectation to succeed are Eileen and Dr. William “Doc” Hayward, and the nature of their relationship was established in Twin Peaks‘ final episodes as one of the next corners of Twin Peaks the story would have explored. Doc Hayward, who delivered his daughter himself, is a very visible figure in the Twin Peaks community. Eileen uses a wheelchair, and considering how the loss of Nadine Hurley’s eye was explained, the expectation is reasonable that viewers would have learned about her handicap as well. And if the story of Nadine’s lost eye—shot out by her husband on their honeymoon—indicates anything about Twin Peaks, it is that there, the biggest wounds tend to come at the hands of those closest to the wounded.
When Laura died, Donna allowed herself to realize that she had feelings for one of Laura’s boyfriends, James. James reciprocated Donna’s feelings. The fact that her best friend’s death made the pursuit of that relationship possible is one that Donna grappled with ungracefully, melodramatically, and humanly. The scene of Donna learning of Laura’s death anticipates this behavior: when she got the news, nobody told her what has happened. She realized the space beside her was empty. She heard a scream. She held onto herself while she admitted—not for the audience, but to herself—that her best friend had died.
In contrast to the cartoonish facets of Pete Martell and Deputy Andy Brennan and the ecstatically stylized goofball douchebaggery embodied to varying degrees of ridiculousness by Leo Johnson and Bobby Briggs, Donna is so human. She is not the only grounded presence in the town: Norma Jennings and Big Ed Hurley look like analogs for Donna and James, indicating what they might become.
Laura overwhelmed Donna, so Laura’s tools are the ones Donna knows to use when she wants to overwhelm others.
While Donna and James tried to establish their relationship, the ghost of Laura plagued them in many forms: Laura’s story always took precedence in the plot; Madeleine Ferguson, Laura’s identical cousin, tried to befriend them, only to befall the same fate as Laura after Donna got territorial about James; and—what both of those things were manifestations of—Donna’s unflagging guilt about and resentment for what a big part of her life was devoted to Laura, even in death. Donna does not visit Laura’s grave until the second season, and when she does, she unleashes a torrent of frustrations about how her, Laura’s, problems still diminish her own.
By the time Laura’s murder is resolved, relieving the tension between Donna, James, and the friend for whose death they both felt responsible, because they are young and so embarrassingly human that losing Laura was like losing a part of themselves. Without Laura’s ghost, Donna and James were an even weaker entity than they already were. And they were weak.
The contrivance that was James getting trapped by boring, B-movie villainess Evelyn—who appeared out of nowhere to yawn a black hole into the second season—is ultimately forgivable for catalyzing James’ exit from Twin Peaks. With Laura’s murder solved and James on a vision quest, Twin Peaks needed something else for Donna to do. The storyline she got mixed up in, the first storyline that belonged entirely to Donna, seemed borne of the same desperation that sent Deputy Andy and his rival for Lucy Moran’s affection on a multi-episode boondoggle to figure out if a small boy might, in fact, be Lucifer.
Donna noticed her mother fraternizing with Ben Horne: local business magnate, Civil War aficionado, Audrey’s father, and a man so innately corrupt, he had to study—in vein—to learn how, if not to be authentically good, at least how to not be evil. Donna discovered Ben was her real father, making Audrey her half-sister. Twin Peaks ended with Donna attempting to confront Doc Hayward and her mother about this. Ben Horne’s attempt to intervene seemed to result in his death by Doc Hayward’s hand.
“I’m Audrey Horne”
No revelation at the end of Twin Peaks had the potential to take the show into new territory like the link Donna’s investigation into her own parentage yielded between her and Audrey. Twin Peaks started out with Audrey—weird, friendless, and aware that she was possessing of no small measure of sex appeal to test drive—fascinated by the figure of Laura Palmer. They were not friends, but Audrey had watched her. She suspected that Laura had secrets. Audrey strove to affect the pose of who she thought Laura Palmer was, to appropriate the trappings of the bad girl. She, like Donna, felt competitive with Laura.
Where Laura was driven to exert control over her life in reaction to abuse, to get hurt on her own terms, Audrey was curious about the kind of person she, Audrey, could be. She was capable, after all, of performing the coquette so well, so she did. In the pilot, when she arrived at school, she changed out of saddle shoes and into red high heels, took a drag off a secret cigarette, and winked at Donna in acknowledgment of her transgression. By the finale, her performance had put her life at risk, and the end of Twin Peaks saw Audrey—fatigued, with a few more friends and a zeal for business and Billy Zane, and having acknowledged that she is sexually inexperienced—figuring out who Audrey Horne was.
Audrey’s first impulse toward self-discovery came after her life almost ended in her father’s brothel. Ben Horne had to reconcile his role in that as well as how his attorney, Leland Palmer, had been convicted of his daughter’s murder. Ben had a breakdown, and Audrey threw her support behind him. For Audrey, Ben’s one-man Civil War reenactment was evidence that Ben knew he felt bad about something, and that something might have been how he almost got her murdered. Audrey was about to face that alone, but then she found out she was not the only one bound to bear the burden of Ben the bad dad, because Donna is her half-sister.
Twin Peaks may never have gone there—and it may never go there—but the groundwork existed for the show, had it gone on to a third season in 1992, to shed the iconic but colossal Laura and Cooper as its focuses and transform into a story that saw Audrey—necessarily—and Donna—triumphantly—become themselves, the center of a stronger, loving Twin Peaks.
“Why don’t you get out your violin, Donna?”
But it is Donna, not Audrey, to whom Twin Peaks belongs. Laura’s death catalyzes both Audrey and Donna, but unlike Audrey, Donna resists discoveries about herself in the process of investigating the Laura-shaped hole in Twin Peaks. This is evident in their respective investigations into the relationships that Laura left behind. Audrey is active: she drove headlong into her attempt to be embody the femme fatale fantasy, chasing the mystery of Laura Palmer and the affections of Agent Cooper. With that same verve, she recoiled into the arms of Horne Industries after she almost died and Cooper rejected her advances.
In assuming Laura’s role on the RR Diner’s Meals on Wheels program, Donna became involved with the agoraphobic Harold Smith, a man for whom human interaction constituted collecting lives in a series of notebooks. When Donna discovered Harold had one of Laura’s diaries, she took to wearing Laura’s sunglasses, flaunting her involvement with Harold, and exerting her sexuality in a way that James remarked was a departure from her characteristic proto-Twilight blend of guilt and over-the-sweater stuff.
Laura overwhelmed Donna, so Laura’s tools are the ones Donna knows to use when she wants to overwhelm others. Audrey was intent on finding out what Laura got out of being a bad girl because she thought she could get something out of it, too. Donna’s motivation to assume parts of Laura’s life was all about sticking it to her late best friend.
Donna wanted to invalidate Laura’s relationship with Harold by having one with him herself—”anything you can do, I can do better.” Donna shared a story with Harold about the time she and Laura met some boys, partied with them, and went skinny-dipping. Donna’s version completely rewrote Laura’s account, as it existed in her diary. Laura recorded it with palpable dread as an inevitable episode, prompting the insistence “I don’t feel guilty about what happened”; Donna remembered it as idyllic and thrilling.
Audrey almost gets murdered in her foray into Laura’s life. When Harold Smith realizes that Donna’s involvement precludes any actual respect for or interest in him, he reacts by killing himself. After coming close to winding up like Laura—dead—Audrey decided to change her life, but after Harold Smith, Donna maintained the stance that that was not about her life, but Laura’s. Everything is about Laura, and Donna felt safe when operating within that belief.
“l’d rather talk about the truth right now”
Donna does not emerge as a character in and of herself until she finds out that Ben Horne is her father, Audrey is her half-sister, and her story becomes about her identity. This would have been a potent spark for the third season. The fact that Audrey is such a charismatic presence guarantees that Donna would have had to confront what the show demonstrates is her biggest flaw: her desire to beat others at their own game instead of forging her own. And considering that Twin Peaks‘ game circa 1990 is unbeatable, the new season finds itself in exactly that predicament.
Twin Peaks the show examined the town that used and lost Laura Palmer. The film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, directed by David Lynch and released in 1992, bookends the series and reveals the events that led up to the show. It also reveals what there was left for Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper to do. Chronologically, the last piece of Twin Peaks sees the two of them trapped on the threshold, where Laura waited to pass on into the light with Agent Cooper there to support her.
Fire Walk with Me also reveals Laura Palmer’s perception of the town and which of the many relationships explored in the show really were really significant parts of her life, who she really feared harming and sought out to warn when she felt everything unravel. Laura hid less from Donna than the show sensationally suggested: Donna saw Laura go around with men; she saw Laura high in public, getting head from strangers.
Donna interpreted Laura’s behavior as Laura posing a challenge to her. She followed Laura to the Road House. She put on Laura’s jacket and seduced bikers. The sight of Donna acting like her drove Laura to screams. In the morning, Donna woke up with hazy memories of the night before. She asked Laura, “Was I wearing something of yours and you got mad at me?” According to the script, and implicit in Laura’s repeated warning not to wear her stuff, Laura was to have said, “All my things have me in them. I don’t want you to be like me.”
Donna is not like Laura. She has the chance—the freedom—to establish herself not in reaction to Twin Peaks, but as an agent of change in Twin Peaks. Donna’s reconciliation of her fraught relationship with Laura is the foremost thread of that story that was never resolved, and Fire Walk with Me reasserts the importance of that relationship to the story of Twin Peaks.
At the end of Twin Peaks, Donna is ready to launch an investigation into who she is, and Twin Peaks is ready to reconfigure around that. By the finale, so many of the forces engaged in conflict or committing treachery are gone or hobbled, unable to shoulder the narrative. If Donna Hayward took her place in a post-Laura Twin Peaks that appreciates what a risk it is to have a girl in its heart, and if she held the town accountable for that and made it a place where it could have been safe for Laura to be Laura, for Audrey to be Audrey, and for Donna to find out how to be Donna—that is one way it could happen. But there are more things to heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
Illustration by Kara Sheaffer