Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me plays this weekend, October 6 and 7, at the Keystone Art Cinema as part of its“Midnight Madness” series.
To celebrate, Aly highlights one of her favorite aspects of the film in the first installment of MFJ’s “Around Indy” column.
Laura is the one.
In Twin Peaks (1990-1991), Laura Palmer is the murdered girl the entire town failed, a beautiful and unknowable corpse. In Fire Walk With Me (1992), she is a woman, trapped and vicious, who chooses to die rather than continue the cycle of abuse, both supernatural and real, that has been inflicted upon her. In Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), she is all that is good in the world, and despite Agent Cooper’s best efforts, she can never return to it.
Laura Palmer was always the mystery, not who killed her. Wrapped in plastic, waiting forever and never for Pete Martell to discover her on that rocky beach. Laura Palmer is Twin Peaks, and without her, it feels empty. Her violent absence unravels the people who remain there. Without her, they change.
The Donna Hayward we first meet in Twin Peaks, seeing Laura’s empty seat and intuiting death, is not Laura’s Donna. There are practical, real world reasons for this — Lara Flynn Boyle chose not to return for Fire Walk With Me, and so Moira Kelly filled the role — but the real world has very little bearing on the world of Twin Peaks. The Donna of the original show feels like a shell of herself, taking on personas and discarding them as quickly as a teenager goes through outfits on the first day of school. Donna frequently gives everyone around her whiplash. With Laura gone, she never quite knows who she is supposed to be. Neither do we, the ones watching her and judging her for it.
Some of Donna’s personas fit better than others, notably one corner of several overlapping love triangles. Laura, James, Donna. James, Donna, Mike. Donna, James, Maddy. James, Donna, Harold. Evelyn, James, Donna. By the end of the second season, Donna is even the product of a previous generation’s triangle as the secret daughter of Benjamin Horne and not Doc Hayward, the father with whom she grew up. This is the triangle she rejects — not the ones she slides in and out of, but the one that fundamentally changes her identity. It’s the only one she can’t control.
Donna’s useless cries of “You’re my daddy!” as she hides in Doc Hayward’s arms are the last we see of her; she does not return, as played by Boyle or Kelly, in The Return. It’s almost as if that last triangle was one too many, and as the truth breaks, Donna breaks with it, a character no more. But then, Donna was always more of a trope than a character, imported from soap operas and stubbornly resisting the subversion that the writers achieved with the rest of Twin Peaks’ citizens.
It’s as frustrating as it is strange. Even a brush with the eerie Tremonds with their disturbing stares and disappearing creamed corn barely derails Donna from her plucky and beige Nancy Drew-esque pursuits. While Laura’s death opens the door for other characters like Sheriff Truman to accept the magical and deeply weird side of Twin Peaks, Donna goes on ignoring it. When all that is left of Twin Peaks is the magical and the deeply weird, it is abundantly clear she doesn’t belong there. Maybe that’s why, narratively, she never returns.
But Donna did belong there, once. As annoying as she can be in Twin Peaks, as she fumbles through teen drama and carelessly causes injury wherever she goes, it becomes harder and harder to believe that this paper doll of a girl was ever Laura Palmer’s best friend. But then there is Fire Walk With Me, and an entirely different Donna.
In Laura’s eyes, Donna is sweet and achingly innocent. Laura sees a girl who wants to grow up, who wants to have sex just for the sake of having it, who belongs with James but doesn’t know it yet, who can take her time growing up and will do so with determination if, and only if, she’s ready. Laura sees a girl who will follow her into the dark without fear, who will risk violation to prove her strength, who will stay by her side no matter how far she goes because she is her best friend, always. Donna may not know all of Laura’s secrets, but Donna loves her anyway. Donna is shelter. Donna is an angel. Donna is Laura’s best friend.
What happens, then, when one half of such a friendship dies and the other is left alone? Of course, Donna fractures. She takes Laura’s sunglasses and pretends they are a talisman that will keep Laura alive, if she only acts like that dark Laura she barely knew. She sits at Laura’s grave and weeps, not because her best friend is dead but because her problems didn’t die with her.
“It’s almost as if they didn’t bury you deep enough!” Donna sobs.
I sob with her, because Laura would agree.
The last thing Laura ever wanted was for Donna to be like her. The one time Laura truly lashes out at her best friend is when Donna wears Laura’s sweater in the Pink Room and, drugged out of her mind, nearly suffers rape. To Laura, the cause and its effect are clear: Laura’s stuff will taint Donna.
“Don’t ever wear my stuff, don’t ever wear my stuff,” Laura screams, begs. Laura’s stuff will put her in danger. “Never.”
But a roofied drink prevents Donna’s from remembering Laura’s unhinged pleas. Later, she takes Laura’s sunglasses and transforms.
But that transformation starts long before Donna hangs off the bars of James’s jail cell, smoking a cigarette and acting like Baby’s First Femme Fatale. It starts the moment Laura is gone.
The day Laura dies, Doc Hayward wonders why he lets his daughter’s best friend smoke in his house when he forbids it from everyone else; she says, smiling her Laura Palmer smile, that it’s because he loves her.
“I do love you, you little smoking whippersnapper,” he teases back, lovingly, fatherly, in the way Laura has never known. Donna sits next to her, present but probably not paying attention. Teenagers rarely do, when moments are sweet.
The next day, after Doc Hayward unwraps only a fraction of Laura’s many secrets and gently disciplines Donna for sneaking out of the house, he tells her, “We’re so thankful to have a daughter like you.” It’s a touching moment, until you read between the lines. Your mother and I are so thankful to have a daughter who isn’t like Laura. But isn’t she? Didn’t Donna just creep out her own window to meet a boy in the forest? Somehow it makes perfect, tragic sense that without Laura, without someone to define herself against, Donna tries to become her.
Donna without Laura is no longer an angel. She’s just a girl, still a girl, even though her best friend’s death forces her to grow up overnight. But Donna’s way of acting like a grown-up is just an imitation, the same way she imitates the darkness in Laura that she mistakes for adult behavior. Donna never really understands what she’s imitating, and the blunders she makes because of that have consequences for which she is not ready. More: Donna’s faulty copycatting very nearly kills her. When he’s run out of lookalike nieces, BOB finally smells the Laura on his daughter’s best friend, and it is only luck that saves Donna from him, in the end.
Growing up too fast is a special sort of agony, and Laura wanted to spare Donna that. When Laura comes to her senses in the Pink Room, her instinct to protect Donna is feral and unforgiving because Donna is her best friend. Laura will not allow Donna to suffer the way she has suffered. In those last seven days of her life, Laura sees clearly that Donna has a chance to live a life that was stolen from Laura a long time ago. She sees a light in Donna that shines but never burns.
For Laura, Donna is the one. Without Laura, Donna all but fades away. Fire Walk With Me accomplishes much as a film that repositions Laura from object to subject in her own story, and a huge part of that is showing how she sees and protects Donna while she’s alive. Too often films about teenage girls pit them against each other without acknowledging that antagonism is only part of the equation within female friendships. Within the final days of Laura Palmer, we see the whole picture — the whole Laura, the whole Donna, the whole of them together.
And they’re beautiful.