Twin Peaks is a story about grief, of the endless ways the loss of one life reshapes so many others. The death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the loss of a friend, the thought of having failed a daughter, a reminder of your own mortality and ultimately the end of countless other things. As we learn all that she was to so many people we are struck by the realisation that she never will be again. A direct consequence of the show opening with the discovery of Laura’s body is that every moment is coloured by this loss and the town of Twin Peaks itself comes to feel like it has suddenly drawn to a halt. We understand the power of her presence through the emptiness created by her absence.
It is hard and maybe pointless to try and prescriptively describe the processes of grief but a fundamental level of acceptance is understanding that things have come to an end, that you will never see their face or hear their voice again, that there are no new memories to be made. In its first season, shortly after Laura’s death, Twin Peaks introduces us to her cousin Maddy, also played by Sheryl Lee whose presence though instrumental to the development of the show’s wider mysteries also serves as a symbol of exactly how difficult that acceptance can be. Maddy is unlike Laura in so many ways, something that the friends who sincerely knew her come to understand far quicker than the adults in her life. Despite this, her resemblance to her cousin also makes her the target of a very tragic projection on the part of Laura’s parents.
9 years ago this August, my father passed away, I was 13 at the time and it will come as no surprise that this had quite an effect on me. But what I remember almost as clearly were the baffling ways people found to comfort me. Beyond the inquisitive and the plain insensitive there was a common thread amongst people who had known my dad of explaining in great detail how much I looked and acted and sounded like him with the assumption that this was what I needed to hear. From the day of his funeral I remember being inundated with comments about how I would have to take his place, how I was now the man of the house and how in some way or another their memory of him rested on me. Though no doubt well intentioned, these were just not the things I needed to hear as someone going through their own grieving process. The thought that instead of accepting his passing and the finality it brought I instead had to somehow rectify that was not a comfort, but a burden. This was made infinitely more difficult to stomach by the romanticising nature of grief, the sense that I was to be held to a standard that was unreachable by design.
From her very first appearance, Maddy Ferguson is marked by a similarity to Laura; Lynch reveals her face as if to shock an audience and we are initially to understand her as a kind of haunting presence. Though this framing is understandable as a part of a mystery story it is also something the show immediately begins to deconstruct as we are further introduced to Maddy as a person in her own right. We see the countless ways she is different from Laura, embodied powerfully by Sheryl Lee’s almost oppositional performances. She is small, in her own head and often an outsider where Laura was larger than life and seemingly always in her element. When Maddy disguises herself as Laura the two could not look less similar.
Maddy arrived in Twin Peaks to grieve the loss of her cousin and we are very quickly left to be ashamed of having made the assumption of anything else, as if the combined effect of the show’s mysteries had made us cruel and untrusting of the sincere expression of heartbreak. Through this framing, the showrunners clue the audience in to an area of the grieving process that the show otherwise leaves untouched, the ways in which grief becomes targeted and violent in the absence of conclusion. The unspoken envy towards those who had a connection with the deceased that you never will and the unfair expectations placed on the shoulders of those who survived them.
Entering my teenage years having had it drilled into me that I was to fill some space left by my dad never felt like a comfort and never brought me any peace, it often lead to the opposite. I forced myself down academic pathways that brought me no joy or success, I actively fought any semblance of discontent with my identity or sexuality and I spent years trying to live up to the image of a person I had put far less time into understanding. Internalising parts of other people’s grieving process became a roadblock to understanding my own. This is why when I saw Maddy Ferguson victimised by the expectation of becoming Laura Palmer I was struck in a way I never have been before. Watching her reclaim her identity in the face of constant coercion to do the opposite was cathartic and exciting and left me questioning my own relationship with my dad’s death, asking maybe for the first time why I had allowed adults to place that responsibility on my shoulders at all. When Maddy announced she was leaving Twin Peaks I knew I was sad to see her go but I was also incredibly thankful for what she had represented, both for the show and for myself.
And then, it happened again. Maddy Ferguson was murdered by Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura’s father. The act, intentionally mirroring Laura’s death is both a revelation and a tragedy. I found myself more affected by this than I had ever expected and one more time it left me wondering about what exactly was learned here about this idea of grief as a weapon. When Maddy, a character defined by her desire to be seen as distinct from Laura Palmer is killed in the exact same way it could easily be seen as a repudiation of that process being at all worth it, but I think more tragically it is a reminder of what happens without it. Leland Palmer grieved Laura perhaps more openly and explosively than anyone else in Twin Peaks, and after all that the fact that he still could not reckon the finality of her death with everything that survived her is the most explicit manifestation of what happens when grief remains a bargaining process. The reality of grief is that it is lifelong, it is very rarely a linear progression of just getting better and it is impossibly complicated. But it is also a communal responsibility to those who are still here. I see the two sides of this process in my own experiences, boxing myself in to an idea of someone else at the exact time when I should have been growing into myself.
Maddy is a victim not only of her uncle but of grief itself, of the way it reshapes us, the hole it leaves in our heart that we can nurture or haphazardly rush to fill. Despite the tragedy of her death, her presence in the narrative feels like an incredibly valuable reminder to understand the value of accepting that something has been felt for the last time, and that it will only dilute that memory to demand it of someone else.