Is a Feminist Revolution Unfolding on 'Game of Thrones' and 'Twin Peaks'?

by Ryan Poll

10 August 2017

Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks share cultural DNA in their pervasive and structural violence against women, yet both seem to be transforming into unlikely forms of feminism on television.
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones 
cover art

Game of Thrones

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10pm

(HBO)

cover art

Twin Peaks

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Michael Horse
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10pm

(Showtime)

From the bowels of patriarchy, a new world order is being born. That world is feminist.

As many cultural critics have observed, this season of Game of Thrones seems propelled by a rising tide of female power. Cersei (Lena Headey) now sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing (a city name that inscribes the kingdom’s patriarchy); Daenerys (Emilia Clark) has finally landed in Westeros to claim the throne that she believes rightfully belongs to her; and Sansa (Sophie Turner) has become the temporary leader of the North.

In the new world order, women shall rule. The rising tide of female power is encapsulated in the second episode of season seven, “Stormborn”. With Daenerys returning to her family castle, she strategizes with a cadre of advisors on the best way to overthrow Cersei and recapture the throne. Such a scene, featuring a council huddled over a regal table strategizing about war, is a staple of the long-running series. What makes this scene unique, however, is that for the first time in the series, it’s women who form the majority, occupying the dominant positions and voices of power. Surrounding Daenerys is Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), and Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg).

As Game of Thrones gallops to its finalé, a clear feminist consciousness is emerging and taking shape. Later in the same episode, the elderly Olenna informs Daenerys that she has “outlived ... many clever men.” Her secret? She “ignored them”. Daenerys, though, does more than just ignore men. In the subsequent episode, “The Queen’s Justice”, she articulates her gender consciousness and her willingness to stand up to men, explaining to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) how the majority of her brief life has been dictated and determined because of the reigning patriarchal structure that situates women as subservient and subject to a range of violence. Daenerys explains that she has spent her entire life in “foreign lands” and that multiple men have attempted to kill her. She continues, “I have been sold like a brood mare. I’ve been chained and betrayed. Raped and defiled.” From the bowels of patriarchy, a new world order is being born. That world is feminist.

While this gendered revolution occurs in Westeros, I want to suggest that a similar revolution may be simultaneously unfolding a few channels away. To counter HBO’s flagship show, Showtime launched the return of Twin Peaks in May 2017, 26 years after ABC cancelled the original run. Although Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are worlds apart in terms of aesthetics, sensibility, and genre, they share cultural DNA in their pervasive and structural violence against women. Both shows currently air on Sunday nights, and both are transforming (perhaps) into two of the most unlikely forms of feminism on television. 

Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper, Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks< (2017)

Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper, Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks< (2017)

Like its HBO counterpart, Twin Peaks is predicated upon and perpetuated by aggressive violence against women. The series was catalyzed by the discovery of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)—a seemingly perfect, white, teenage homecoming queen—found wrapped in plastic, the victim of multiple rapes and a brutal murder. This spectacular act of violence against Laura Palmer seemed to challenge the picturesque image of this small logging town tucked away in the Pacific Northwest. As David Lynch and Mark Frost explored during the original series, the aggressive violence against Laura Palmer was not an aberration, but emblematic of the everyday and structural violence against women. Throughout the first two seasons, examples of violence against women multiplied: Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) was emotionally and physically assaulted by her husband Leo (Eric DaRe); underage high-school girls were actively recruited to work in a brothel across the Canadian border—owned by Ben Horne (Richard Beymar), one of the wealthiest businessmen of Twin Peaks—to service prominent members of surrounding communities, including the show’s titular small town; Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) was raped and nearly murdered; and, as we learn, Laura Palmer was sexually assaulted by multiple men in her life, including her father.

This violence against women continues in the present season. Ariana Romero writes of the new season: “In Twin Peaks: The Return, there is no implication of assault. There’s simply brutal, bloody, epithet-filled violence against women, which the series consistently savors.” Lynch doesn’t seem to critique this violence against women; rather, he frequently perpetuates it.

I’ll not refute this important critique, which has proliferated across the internet. Instead, I want to suggest that perhaps, maybe, Twin Peaks is moving towards a type of feminist narrative that makes it analogous to Game of Thrones.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting either show should be celebrated as exemplary feminist texts. Game of Thrones has a long history of luxuriating in female nudity that’s unnecessary to the story (the subject of many critiques and parodies). Moreover, the show, at times, seems to take sadistic pleasure in the torturing and abuse of women’s bodies. Lynch’s art is similar. Violence against women is a staple of Lynch’s canon and his aesthetic universe is largely populated with female tropes rather than fully dimensional characters, although he gets fantastic actors to make the most of these roles. What gives me hope for Twin Peaks: The Return, though, is the way it challenges and denies the nostalgia implied in the show’s title. 

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Nostalgia etymologically means a longing to return home. When it became official that Showtime was producing the return of the cult classic, the initial excitement of so many fans was the desire to return to the fictional town of Twin Peaks and aesthetically experience characters that have become cherished. From the onset of the new season though, Lynch and Frost have denied this nostalgic desire. In the first several episodes, little of the narrative even unfolded in the titular town. In contrast to the first two seasons, which remained largely confined within Twin Peaks, the current season geographically leaps from and between New York City, Las Vegas, and Buckhorn, South Dakota. Moreover, this season refuses to show us familiar and beloved characters such as Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)—who only appeared in episode 12, two-thirds through the current season—and most conspicuously, the beating heart of the first two seasons, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

Cooper was, in many ways, the axis of the first two seasons. He was the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, spiritually oriented, Boy-Scout demeanor-ed FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks to investigate the rape and murder of Laura Palmer. One of the primary reasons fans were excited to return to Twin Peaks was because of Cooper, to re-experience his catch phrases now reproduced on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and Facebook profiles. Although MacLachlan has returned, as of two-thirds of the season, he hasn’t reprised his canonical role. Rather, MacLachlan now plays two different characters antithetical to Cooper: an evil Cooper, who rapes and murders, and Dougie Jones, who wanders through the season like a zombie. In contrast to the leadership qualities of Cooper, Dougie Jones is literally dragged through life, and his speech is limited to repeating the last few words of what someone else says. Many fans are waiting for the “real” Cooper to return, but this desire is a form of nostalgia that Lynch and Frost have vehemently denied spectators thus far.

Why deny fans what they want? Why does the show adamantly refuse to appease the nostalgic desire that dominates mass culture? Perhaps it’s because by negating nostalgia, a progressive underside can develop. If the new Twin Peaks is constructed on the denial of nostalgia, then perhaps what is being denied is patriarchy. The show’s movement away from Cooper is a movement away from the patriarchal trope of the male protagonist who saves the day. To await the return of Cooper is to await the return of a knight who’ll restore the social order, a trope which, as the series documents, is constitutively misogynistic.

If the show is indeed committed to an aesthetic of anti-nostalgia, not only shouldn’t Cooper return, but neither should other male protagonists to save the day. Hopefully, by the season’s end, the protagonists battling the evil in the world—an evil that is explicitly misogynistic—will be women.

The show’s thwarting of nostalgia has multiple implications, but most importantly, it pushes the series into new directions and denounces the familiar. The familiar in Twin Peaks is the violence perpetrated against women. The new, I want to suggest, is embodied (and disembodied) by the lurking spirit of Laura Palmer.

It’s always presumptuous to write about culture in medias res. To modify Kierkegaard, “art must be experienced forward, but it can only be understood backwards”. Nevertheless, to experience art is to continually interpret and speculate. In this spirit, I want to suggest that Laura Palmer will play a prominent role in the closing third of the new season.

Thus far, the presence of Laura Palmer in the new season is perplexing. Twelve episodes through the 18-episode season, her relation to the convoluted, sprawling plot—spanning multiple geographies and introducing dozens of new characters—is tenuous at best. Her haunting spirit has surfaced multiple times thus far, but how she relates to the current narrative is difficult to discern. If we think of the season as a long movie, as Lynch insists, then we must dwell on the importance of beginning the movie, of grounding the movie, with Laura Palmer.

The opening of the “return” replays an exchange from the final episode of season two, as Cooper is entrapped in the Black Lodge. While in a position of passivity, affixed to a chair, Cooper is approached by Laura Palmer who promises him, “I’ll see you in twenty-five years”. This was uttered in 1991. In the 2017 return, Laura Palmer’s promise may be coming to fruition in progressive ways.

To understand the spirit of Laura Palmer, we must understand her opposite, BOB, an evil spirit who’s gendered male and whose brutal violence always targets women. In the show’s metaphysics, BOB is partially responsible for Laura Palmer’s sexual assault and murder. In the current season, BOB inhabits Cooper, and thus far, under the influence of BOB, evil Cooper has (it’s strongly suggested) sexually assaulted Audrey Horne while she was in a comma, Diane Evans (Laura Dern), and numerous other women.

Moreover, BOB’s spirit doesn’t seem to inhabit Cooper alone; his spirit seems to occupy multiple men. Many of the new male characters introduced this season are defined by their aggressive violence against women, making them replicas of evil Cooper. Richard Horne (Eamon Farren) has sexually assaulted several women so far, including his grandmother whom, in episode ten, he grabbed by the throat and screamed, “I will squeeze the shit outta you, bitch! You cock-sucking bitch!” Another new character, Steven Burnett (Caleb Landry Jones), viciously beats his wife Becky (Amanda Seyfried). Further, the new season is catalyzed by the discovery of yet another woman found naked and assaulted: high-school librarian Ruth Davenport (Mary Stofle). If there’s a force that can stop the evil, patriarchal, misogynistic spirit of BOB, it’s reasonable to assume that counter-force is female.

What if we understand the show’s promise of a “return” as the second coming of Laura Palmer, acting as a force analogous to BOB? Just as BOB can disseminate and occupy multiple male bodies to enact nefarious, misogynistic violence, perhaps Laura Palmer can similarly embody and galvanize the show’s many battered women—multitudes spread across multiple regions—into a collective force that overthrows all figures and icons of violent patriarchy. In this sense, the show’s straying beyond the titular town to represent women being physically assaulted and treated as second-class citizens throughout the nation dramatizes the point that violence against women is systemic and national. The town of Twin Peaks, in a sense, is a synecdoche of the nation.

As we move towards the concluding of this challenging, demanding season of Twin Peaks, I hope what unfurls is the spreading spirit of Laura Palmer, who multiplies and manifests herself across the nation-state through the same electronic circuits used by BOB, catalyzing a violent overthrow of the current order. This diffusing of female power would mirror what the women of Westeros are doing.

These musings may prove wishful thinking, a futile fantasy about narratives worlds where feminism is teased but disallowed to come to fruition in any serious and sustained way. This desire for radical feminist change may prove false. Hopefully, however, we’re witnessing two feminist narratives come to fruition in series where feminism once seemed impossible.

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