Content note: This article discusses sexual assault and incest
The central mystery of the television series Twin Peaks (or at least the central mystery of the original two-season run) is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the blonde homecoming queen found dead and wrapped in plastic by the water. The pilot quickly establishes that, even before Laura’s mysterious death, everything about her was already a mystery. She was the girl everyone knew, without anyone actually knowing her well. Half the town had a motive for killing her, yet none of the clues surrounding her death make sense or point to any earthly source. She was simultaneously the embodiment of every average teenage girl and a collective fantasy. All of this makes her the perfect object for an entire town’s projections, and during the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, that’s all she could be. The series begins with the discovery of her dead body, and from that moment on, aside from the occasional flashback, diary entry, or audio tape, we see little evidence of her true existence.
Depending who you ask, David Lynch’s prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is either a deeply empathetic and humanizing course correction or a needlessly gruesome literalization of an iconic cipher. Set during the week prior to Laura’s death, the film is an intimate portrait of her life. And while Twin Peaks leaves aspects of Laura’s history and murder ambiguous, Fire Walk With Me makes every detail abundantly clear. Perhaps too clear, based on the reactions of many viewers.
During the first season and a half of Twin Peaks, we learn that Laura had a cocaine habit, engaged in sex work, and had intimate relationships with a variety of men. The police discover evidence that she was sexually abused, and when it is finally revealed that she was murdered by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), there is a strong implication that he was her abuser. It’s an implication that the characters themselves shy away from acknowledging. When the circumstances surrounding Leland’s arrest — and subsequent death in custody — suggest demonic possession by the mystical entity known as BOB (Frank Silva), Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) share the following exchange:
Truman: “Well I lived in these old woods most of my life. I’ve seen some strange things. But this is way off the map, I’m having a hard time believing.”
Cooper: “Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?”
Cooper and Truman see Laura’s trauma and abuse, but they can’t look at it directly. Incest is too taboo, and Leland was a respected member of the community. Reconciling his crimes means finding a way to minimize his accountability. It’s entirely possible to walk away from Twin Peaks accepting that BOB is the true abuser and murderer and that Leland is merely an unfortunate vessel. Perhaps for some viewers, that is indeed the more comforting interpretation.
Fire Walk With Me allows no such comfort. BOB is still around, but in a far more nightmarish and metaphoric capacity. He is who Laura visualizes as her abuser — until one day, when she finds BOB in her bedroom, runs outside and hides behind a tree, and then sees her father exiting the otherwise empty house. In that moment, she is confronted with a truth that her brain and body have protected her from accepting. The illusion begins to crumble, and she spends much of the rest of the film searching for meaning.
The journey from repression to catharsis in Fire Walk With Me is familiar to many survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse. Trauma has the capacity to block and distort memories, making “truth” a difficult thing to know with certainty. Survivors often make meaning out of the clues that are available to them, and sometimes, when enough internal safety has been established, the body brings long-known but deeply repressed memories to consciousness.
In the time that passes between the sighting of Leland leaving the house and the inevitable and horrific scene of him on top of her, mid-rape, Laura frequently asks herself and the universe questions: “Is it true?” “Who are you?” It isn’t that she doesn’t know the answers to these questions, but denial is hard to break and the questions protect her. Questions allow the possibility that there are answers other than the one she least desires to be true. They also provide an opening to piece together evidence and context. When Leland grabs Laura’s hands at the dinner table and questions her about her cleanliness, she senses the subtextual meaning without wanting to think about it too hard. When he has a meltdown while driving after encountering a frantic stranger, she knows there’s something menacing beneath the surface of his reaction, but she can’t quite grasp it. She knows that he, like her, has secrets, and that her secrets are controlled by his silence. Lee infuses Laura with a terrified curiosity about her own experience and memory. She is constantly on the verge of complete emotional devastation, but her urge to know keeps her grounded.
Meanwhile, Wise’s performance of Leland is incredibly fluid. He seamlessly moves in between states of compassion and concern for Laura’s wellbeing, contempt for her maturity and agency, and revulsion at his own glances toward her. Though it’s still possible to read these shifts as a sign of possession, they happen so naturally that it’s impossible to know where Leland ends and another entity begins. Through Wise’s performance, Fire Walk With Me directly confronts the reality that Twin Peaks never could: that fine upstanding men can be monsters, and that such monstrosity comes from within themselves.
A crucial aspect of mythology introduced in Fire Walk With Me is a jade ring. The insignia on the ring is familiar to viewers of Twin Peaks season two, and the symbol’s reappearance here gives the ring an immediate sense of supernaturality. Throughout the film, the ring appears in the possession of different characters, without any indication of how it is being shared or transported among them.
In a dream, Laura is presented with the ring, and Cooper urges her not to take it. His meaning isn’t clear in that moment, but it becomes so later, in the final moments of Laura’s life, when she is once again presented with the ring and puts it on her finger. She has just seen her reflection in a mirror, “becoming” BOB, a fate she refuses to accept. Immediately after Laura puts on the ring, Leland kills her, screaming, “don’t make me do this.”
We assume this is Laura’s end, but it isn’t. In the final scene, we see Laura in the afterlife, comforted by Cooper and a guardian angel, and she begins to cry and laugh all at once. There are no words to express what she’s feeling. It is the transcendent joy of finally letting go of her trauma. It is the ultimate catharsis: complete freedom from secrets and silence.
Fire Walk With Me turns the tragic premise of Twin Peaks into the ultimate act of liberation. Rather than perpetuate the cycle of abuse and allow herself to embody BOB, like Leland did, Laura puts on the ring and allows herself to be killed. Her agency frees her from the torment she was fated to endure and perpetuate, and in her death she experiences a joy more pure than anything she was able to experience in her earthly life. When Cooper tells her not to take the ring, he is trying to prevent her death, but what he doesn’t understand is that, for Laura, the alternative is so much worse.
This is not to say that the only way to be free from trauma is death; it would be a grave oversimplification to say that Fire Walk With Me glorifies suicide or martyrdom. But much like how the ending of Thelma & Louise presents its heroines with the choice between a life that won’t ever be on their own terms again and a much shorter life that is still theirs to own, the ending of Fire Walk With Me asks Laura to choose between joining the cycle of abuse or ending it. In that moment, she chooses to end it in the only way she can, and in so doing, she reclaims her humanity and allows herself to feel all of her long-repressed emotions in the safety of the afterlife.
And it isn’t only Laura who gets to experience catharsis. After Fire Walk With Me’s release in 1992, Lee shared in an interview with Empire Magazine, “I have had many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot. And so for me, it doesn’t matter what the critics say — if one person walks away having released something, then it’s worth seeing.” Fire Walk With Me is a difficult film, and it’s understandable why watching relentless abuse would be a nonstarter for many. But Lee’s point — that the film offers a cathartic experience to survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse — is significant. It has deep value for people who are routinely silenced and shamed for their histories. As one of those people, I can attest that I have never seen a film speak to that experience with as much empathy as this film does and that the emotional release it offers is unique.
Fire Walk With Me invites viewers to live through the pain of abuse, knowing that there will be an end to it. Most survivors don’t know where their healing journeys will take them or when the most difficult emotions will subside. But this film allows for emotions to reach a climax and then release — it’s an opportunity to know what such a thing feels like. And it has so much value to the real people who Laura represents.