There’s a lot to think about in Alice Bolin’s essay “The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show” in the Los Angeles Review of Books. What starts as an insightful and often bleakly witty look at the strengths and weaknesses of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective falters when it unfairly conflates that entertaining but very deeply flawed show with David Lynch & Mark Frost’s vastly superior Twin Peaks.
“Just as for the murderers,” Bolin writes, “for the detectives in True Detective and Twin Peaks, the victim’s body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems.” For True Detective this is, well, true. For all the show’s gestures in the direction of excoriating predation upon the less powerful by the more powerful, usually meaning upon girls by men, it’s ultimately a show that erased the very victims it purported to care for. The emotions of the male cops were our only window on their personhood and suffering.
By contrast, Twin Peaks brought us where Laura Palmer lived and forced us to keep looking at how she felt there. Indeed, Lynch made an entire prequel film for precisely that purpose (one that gives lie to the Bolin’s claim elsewhere in the essay that death prevents the Dead Girl from claiming the redemption available to the living males who investigate her death, but that’s neither here nor there). Unlike True Detective, where we as viewers are never separated from the focalizing influence of Marty, Rust, the two cops investigating them, and eventually the killer, the experiences of Laura, Maddy, and Donna were central to Twin Peaks, allowed to stand on their own, and devastating as such. Asseriting that “in Twin Peaks…the central characters are male authority figures” participates in the precise erasure the essay is decrying.
Moreover, the show worked rigorously to de-glamourize its presentation of rape and abuse. Even in the more explicit prequel film Fire Walk With Me, the sexual activities Laura initiates, though shown to be in some way sexy to her, are so because they represent crude and damaged attempts to reassert sexual agency in the face of years of horrific rape and abuse. Our glimpses of the actual rapes and assaults that take place are heartbreaking, soundtracked by screaming and sobs. The fallout for Laura, for her female classmates, for her mother — these are all chronicled unsparingly. This, and the unique and unforgivable violation represented by the identity of the killer, are what the show is about; the uncanny imagery and stunning filmmaking are intended to charge those elements, not the other way around.
Bolin also badly misreads the role of the supernatural on Twin Peaks — not just the Black Lodge and its murderous entities specifically but, I think, the nature and function of monsters in horror fiction generally. Citing the role of the demonic Bob in Laura’s murder, Bolin writes, “Externalizing the impulse to prey on young woman cleverly depicts it as both inevitable and beyond the control of men.” As evidence she cites a statement Agent Cooper makes to Sheriff Truman that the existence of supernatural evil beggars belief no more than the existence of the very human evil it helped enable. But in context, that line is intended to drive home the horror of wholly human abuse, not dismiss it. For one thing, countless male characters in Twin Peaks — Bobby, Leo, Ben Horne, the Renault brothers, Dr. Jacoby, the faraway editors of Flesh World — required no supernatural intervention whatsoever to commit their exploitative and misogynistic actions.
For another, monsters have since the dawn of time represented not just external but internal fears, our terror not just of the outside and unknown but of the impulses and excesses of mind and body we know all too well, because those minds and bodies are our own. I believe the idea that the killer bears no complicity for the killings because of the role of the supernatural isn’t even borne out by the text, but even if it were, the supernatural is not there to let male viewers off the hook in terms of their contemplation of the simultaneously universal and individualized nature of misogyny. It’s there to embody it.
The essay concludes by unfavorably comparing TD and TP to the more recent “Dead Girl show” Pretty Little Liars. It concludes:
What would seem to be Pretty Little Liars’s worst faults — its unwieldy plot, its lack of consistency, the culpability of so many characters — are actually instructive. Its creators have made a Dead Girl Show that is not about a journey instigated by a Dead Girl body toward existential knowledge, but the mess, the calamity, and the obscurity that are the consequences of misogyny.
This, of course, is an excellent description of Twin Peaks.