Laura Palmer, Alison DiLaurentis, & Hannah Baker: How Twin Peaks Made Us Obsessed With The Dead Girl
(Warning: Spoilers for Twin Peaks, Pretty Little Liars, and 13 Reasons Why ahead.)
Posters for Showtime's reboot of Twin Peaks bear an ominous tagline: "It's happening again." Yet, it already has happened again. Though it has been 16 years since we last saw Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) uncovering the dark secrets of the not-so-sleepy Washington town, Laura Palmer's DNA has found its way into plenty of shows that came after it. Twin Peaks has so permeated pop culture that it has since given birth to some of TV's most complex female characters.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review Of Books, Alice Bolin coined the term "a Dead Girl Show." As Bolin describes, a Dead Girl Show is a series based around the mystery of, well, a dead girl — usually one who was murdered and for whom the circumstances of her death remain a question mark. As Bolin describes, "the Dead Girl is not a 'character' in the show, but rather, the memory of her is." Twin Peaks, says Bolin, is the original Dead Girl Show: The mystery of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the prom queen whose body was found wrapped in plastic in a river, consumed nearly every person in her hometown. It also consumed the rest of the world — Twin Peaks, despite being cancelled after only two seasons, is still often ranked as one of the best shows ever made.
It seems only fitting that, a month after ABC's cult series gets new life, one of the show's closest successors will be laid to rest. Pretty Little Liars, a series that began with the discovery of Queen Bee Alison DiLaurentis' (Sasha Pieterse) body buried in her own backyard, will bow out after seven seasons on June 27. It's end comes mere months after the world was introduced to another Dead Girl obsession. 13 Reasons Why, which dropped on Netflix March 31, is a series about another Dead Girl who died by suicide and left behind tapes detailing her "reasons." Yet it's more than just the plot similarities or "weirdness" that the shows share: Ultimately, the series stress the importance of understanding the young women that inhabit its world.
Pretty Little Liars
There have been numerous articles about the surface similarities of Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars. PLL creator I. Marlene King recently acknowledged the undeniable connections during an interview with Vulture. Much like Laura, Alison DiLaurentis was a popular, often cruel teen hiding her own slew of secrets — dark, twisted secrets that would shatter the image of the innocent teen dream taken too soon. While both Alison and Laura are seen as powerful and invincible to those around them — thanks to their confidence and popularity — it soon becomes clear that there are forces beyond their control.
Unlike Laura, Alison is not actually a "Dead Girl" — it is revealed midway through the series that she is actually alive, and on the run from the villainous A. Yet much like Laura, Alison's biggest moments come from the times when other characters remember her — she's almost more of a person in flashback than she is when she comes strolling back into her Pennsylvania hometown. Alison consumes the minds of those she left behind, and before her official return to Rosewood deploys a doppelganger — Cece Drake (Vanessa Ray), later revealed to be Alison's secret cousin — to "check in" on what Alison is missing. Laura herself has an echo in Maddy, her lookalike cousin (also played by Lee). These Dead Girls are, technically, nowhere — but, much like the villain stalking Alison for much of the show, "they are everywhere."
That's because the Dead Girls on both shows are larger than life. The first four seasons of Pretty Little Liars depict Alison not as a typical teenager, but as somewhat of film noir character — the dreams, hallucinations, and memories that her four best friends have of her are all metaphors and dark, ominous warnings. The Liars — decipher Alison's diary the way in which Cooper and the concerned citizens of Twin Peaks analyze Laura's chilling personal thoughts. Alison hidden messages talks of her "Beach Hottie" — the older man whom the Liars initially believe murdered her to cover up a pregnancy. Laura writes of an evil man named Bob, later revealed to be her killer, rapist, and, in a disturbing supernatural twist, the demonic spirit possessing Laura's father Leland (Ray Wise).
In many ways, Laura and Alison's "girlhood" made them vulnerable. Both Laura and Alison live a double life in which they behave like the grown women they will never actually grow into, both as a direct reaction to some level of trauma. Laura turns to cocaine to cope with memories of her sexual abuse, then ends up turning to the affections of men to feel safe and in control. Alison, meanwhile, has been taught by her mother that lies are a powerful tool to get what one wants, only to be punished for her manipulations by her elusive stalker A. Her "mean girl" image — cultivated because it's the only way she knows how to feel powerful — is what ultimately dooms her to a life on the run.
13 Reasons Why
There are many shows that fit the "Dead Girl Show" bill — Bolin name checks Veronica Mars and True Detective, and I would throw The Killing in there as well — and it's safe to say that the series would likely not have existed in their form had Laura not been found in that lake in 1990. Yet, as Twin Peaks reboots itself and Pretty Little Liars unveils its final A, the world has become fascinated with the biggest twist on the genre yet. Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, which has stirred up adoration as well as controversy, is very much a "Dead Girl Show" — only this time, it's not so much about who killed Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) as it is about why she died.
The series, which is based on Jay Asher's 2007 YA novel of the same name, has many of the same traits that Pretty Little Liars and Twin Peaks share. Hannah is already dead when we meet the characters in the first episode, yet she narrates the story via 13 tapes that reveal the reasons she chose to end her life. Much like Agent Cooper and the Liars, Hannah's co-worker and crush Clay (Dylan Minnette) must uncover the truth about what caused this horrific thing to happen — even if, this time, the death happened at Hannah's own hand.
Hannah's narration may be straightforward — she tells listeners explicitly that we will know the truth about why she chose to end her life by the end of the 13 tapes — but like Laura and Alison, Hannah was almost unknowable when she was alive. Hannah may not have been a "Queen Bee," but she was someone who hid her pain with a brave face as opposed to a football player boyfriend and squad of loyal followers. In all three narratives, simply existing as a teenage girl is a challenge in itself, full of expectations and where there is always a villain lurking in the wings, be it an obsessed stalker with a wide lens or a very literal demonic force.
Like Laura and Alison, Hannah is often victimized because she's a young woman: She is harassed in the hallways thanks to an explicit photo that gets sent around the school, then slut-shamed by her own best friend. In the final episodes, it is revealed that Hannah was raped by a classmate, one of the bigger catalysts for choosing to end her own life.
The Dead Girl, Understood
While it may not have been the creators of Twin Peaks' intention, the series helped open doors for shows that did more than merely acknowledge the inner workings of a young girl: They made it paramount that we figure these characters out. In a world that sometimes has a hard time reconciling young women as actual people, these series reminded us of the girl roaming the hall's humanity. Ironically, only when these women are stripped of life do audiences get to see that.