Top 10 best and worst characters of Twin Peaks (and what they teach about writing)

Twin Peaks

OK, so I am obsessed with the TV drama Twin Peaks. If you’re not familiar with it, then you either weren’t old enough in 1990 or you haven’t discovered it on Netflix yet (get cracking). Part of it is because of how ridiculously similar designer Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro’s great game Deadly Premonition is to it, particularly the first season — seriously, I could compose a whole article about everything they share in common. But since this isn’t a video game blog, I wanted to tie it back to writing (duh).

The 10 best and worst characters change dramatically over the course of the show,* but they’re also extremely likeable or easily loathed. Some of them I’ve grouped into pairs. (Everyone knows Agent Cooper is awesome, so I’ve left him off this list.)

Here’s what we can learn from them, whether or not you watch the show.

Some slight spoilers ahead.

The five best

Ed Hurley and Norma Jennings

Twin Peaks Ed Norma

In a show filled with psychotic murderers, abusive husbands, rebellious teenagers, and good-clean cops (note: all stereotypes), you crave normal. The town of Twin Peaks is anything but. This is a drama, after all, so the sticky situations the characters constantly find themselves in are naturally overblown.

Ed and Norma — lifelong friends who love each other but could never be together — are the best example of the sense of stability that’s missing from most of the show. While characters like protagonist/FBI agent Dale Cooper are reliably moral and just, Ed and Norma aren’t perfect by most people’s standards. Like many on the show, they partake in adulterous behavior, but unlike the other characters, you don’t hate them for it. You might actually cheer them on.

Ben and Audrey Horne

Twin Peaks Ben Horne

I wanted to discuss businessman Ben Horne and his daughter Audrey together because of how their relationship grows. Ben’s not exactly a model guy — he’s kind of a scumbag — but I liked him more and more as the show went on. He has this vibe about him like he knows how incredibly weird and messed up the goings-on of Twin Peaks are even if he’s responsible for some of them. He might not be as a physically intimidating or calculating as some of the other characters (Hank and Catherine, for instance), but he always bounces back and adapts to fickle situations. When everyone else is super serious, you can count on Ben for some levity — and a reality check. A character doesn’t have to be a good guy for him to be likeable or relatable.

Twin Peaks Audrey

Audrey is just as admirable as her father, if in different ways. She starts out as this immature high schooler until her childish tricks almost get her killed. From then on, she’s no longer a little girl crying for daddy’s attention. She’s determined to grow up, learn the business, and earn her father’s (and everyone else’s) respect the hard way. I gotta love her for that. Believable growth is just as important for turning a unlikeable character into a favorite one.

Nadine Hurley

Now here’s a character who really busted out of her shell. Nadine was originally a dull, overbearing housewife — her only function seemed to be keeping Ed from Norma. And poor Ed was stuck with a woman who screamed at the top of her lungs about silent-sliding drapes, of all things. She sucked.

Later in the show, she almost dies, and when she wakes up, she thinks she’s a teenager again — with really high adrenaline, who can apparently tear kitchen sinks from the wall and hurl adolescent boys clear across a football field.

Yeah, it doesn’t really make any sense, and that’s part of the charm of Twin Peaks. But I love this no-nonsense Nadine, and finally, she’s not a silly side character. She’s shattering milkshakes in her hand like a crazy woman and saving her hubby from ex-cons.

Twin Peaks Nadine

Major Garland Briggs

The major is awesome for several reasons. As soon as I met the no-good teenager Bobby — who smokes, drinks, and spends occasional time in jail — I just assumed his parents neglect him or treat him like crap. The truth is quite the opposite. Bobby’s parents are two highly well-adjusted people, and his father, Garland, is one of the coolest government types you’ll ever see portrayed onscreen.

Twin Peaks Major Briggs

Major Briggs isn’t some unthinking, immoral, rules-are-rules-and-whatever-my-commander-says-goes kind of character. He’s one of the most intelligent, articulate, and considerate on the show, and I immediately found myself respecting him way more than I thought I would. Government men, especially on shows like Twin Peaks where weird stuff happens (take The X-Files, for instance), are always secretive, uncaring, and rude. Their methods are almost always bad — inhumane, even — and they get away with it. Briggs is different. While he doesn’t share some things with Agent Cooper and the team because of top-secret confidentiality reasons, you know he’s kicking himself for it, and he finds a way to help in whatever way he can.

Plus, he’s one of the only few characters who treats the Log Lady with any semblance of respect. “We three saw the light” — he, the Log Lady, and her log. Any other government drone would bill her as insane and get on with it, but the major breaks all stereotypical conventions of what his character should be.

Leland Palmer

The father of the main murder victim of the show, Laura Palmer, ends up being a pretty weird guy. But that’s easy to tell: His main mechanism for coping with his grief is dancing. Yep, dancing. And singing. To everything and anything.

He goes a little nuts when he learns his daughter is dead, which is understandable. Half of the time, he’s embarrassing to watch; the other half, he’s awesome, and you wish more people would adopt his chipper attitude and break out into song (a few of them do). It’s corny, sure. But Leland embodies the insanity of Twin Peaks at large — how it changes from a nice, quiet town into something archaically weird and evil. That’s not a bad character to have around when your viewers are struggling to comprehend just what the heck is going on.

Twin Peaks leland palmer

Special mention: “Dennis” Bryson. For obvious but much too spoilerish reasons. Heh, I love David Duchovny.

The five worst

Leo Johnson

Twin Peaks Leo

Talk about lame characters whom you can’t help but hate. Leo Johnson is a drug trafficker and domestic abuser, so he pretty much sucks all-around.

He’s as two-dimensional and irritating as you’d expect from this type of character, too, and I never felt an ounce of empathy for him. Leo continues to be the same old Leo, and anything that happens to him is boring. Snooze.

Bobby Briggs

The spoiled, arrogant son of a respectable U.S. Air Force officer, Bobby is trouble. My boyfriend finds his authentic mannerisms amusing (OK, the actor is spot-on when it comes to depicting an annoying teenage boy), but I can’t stand him.

Unlike Leo, Bobby does change, but it’s superficial — with his father’s belated approval, he begins to invest in his future. As an aspiring businessman, he’s mildly entertaining when paired with the likes of Ben Horne, but in other ways, he’s becoming the same crappy guy that Leo is. (Bobby and Leo’s wife Shelly are involved in an affair.) It’s a back-and-forth that he never really breaks out of. He betrays his girlfriend after causing her life to derail, treats people poorly, doesn’t know a thing about hard work or respect, and drools over Audrey — who’s much too good for him, and she knows it.

Twin Peaks Bobby Briggs

Bobby’s not as stagnant as Leo, but his evolution as a character is a harder sell. While he’s not the worst in the cast, I have a hard time lumping him in my good pile.

James Hurley

Now, James is the worst, hands-down. This is a character who can never make up his mind. The ladies adore him, for god knows what reasons. He’s either in “love” (let me count how many times he throws that word around like confetti), soul-searching (pffft), or wishing he “could start over.” JUST LIVE YOUR LIFE, JAMES HURLEY. GAH.

Twin Peaks James Hurley

James’s subplots are about the worst and most pointless in the show. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Nobody’s cares about a character who’s stuck in a cycle and is pathologically indecisive. I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I see his face.

And, just FYI? He sings like a total girl. I’m not even kidding. I know it’s not his real voice, but … god. In fact, that video pretty much summarizes everything I hate about James.

Josie Packard

twin-peaks-josie

Josie is the one character whom I liked at first and gradually grew to despise because she’s manipulative and makes no sense whatsoever. She was actually pretty loveable until I realized how nuts she was.

Everything quickly became, “Oh, poor Josie. All she wants to do is shop, and everybody keeps on ruining her life.” Writers: I do not want to pity your character. I want her to stand up and fight when crap comes her way. Show me that she’s actually as strong as you claim she is. Josie had a ton of potential, but she went nowhere.

Laura Palmer

Twin Peaks Laura Palmer

Surprise! One of the worst characters on Twin Peaks is dead from the outset. Yep, Laura Palmer — the town sweetheart who’s mysterious and misunderstood.

I have no idea how a whole town could fall apart over someone so awful and uncaring, but Laura Palmer was a sexually promiscuous drug user who regularly abused her friends’ trust, fooled dozens, and got mixed up in some pretty scary shit. Yet they keep on loving her. So much tragedy ensues because of one selfish, pretty girl.

Well, that’s it! Can you think of anyone else from Twin Peaks or a different show who teaches a good lesson about character-writing?

Oh, and by the way. It’s rumored that the show could come back for a third season, but this is largely speculative. [Update: This is officially not happening. Too bad.]

*My impressions are based on a good three-fourths of the show. I’m almost done with the final season.

GIFs found here and here.

shelly johnson Twin Peaks GIF

33 thoughts on “Top 10 best and worst characters of Twin Peaks (and what they teach about writing)

  1. Cool article! I’ve never watched Twin Peaks (sadly), but I’m a huge David Lynch fan, so I should probably get on that.

  2. Laura was awesome. Especially if you know the background to her behavior (like from the followup movie), which you should.

    You missed the absolute worst, which was the contrived, unlikable, thankfully short-lived “Jack” (Audrey’s “alternate” love interest after Heather Graham came along). Billy Zane’s acting was some of the most awful and grating ever….he ruined every scene he was in. (Although in Titanic it was perfect for the role.)

    You’re right about Josie…ton of potential that was wasted. Partly the actress (horrible), partly the way the writers dealt with the character.

    And screw the negativity…I have a feeling Twin Peaks might come back.

    1. Hey Bob,

      I actually didn’t care for the movie. I know a lot of people do, and that’s cool, but for me, I went in expecting a tone similar to that of the show and got something much different.

      But it’s not so much Laura herself who bothered me as it was the whole town’s feelings toward her. If she hadn’t been so undeservingly idolized, people’s lives wouldn’t have fallen apart so much when she died.

      I completely forgot about Jack – HA! :) Good point.

      Fingers crossed we get more Twin Peaks!

  3. Couldn’t disagree more about Laura and James. They were the ideal. The heart of the show that romantics yearn for and could never be. He had a conscience and was at a tough crossroads.

    Most of your other observations/analysis are spot on. Ben Horne was great but so strange. So…perfect for the show. Especially the whole Civil War uniform, reenactments, and regalia.

  4. I just dialed in to Twin Peaks, and I’m not sure if I want to follow through with it past the “twist” that occurs mid-season 2. But, I’m curious to know about some of the aspects of the production behind-the-scenes etc, so I searched the internet and found this page. I was not intending to post anything here, but you appear to be very attractive 8) so hi. Thanks for sharing your opinions on this interesting show. I was specifically looking for some dirt in regards to why they [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!] made the decision to turn Leo Johnson into a drooling invalid; I wouldn’t be surprised if the actor that played him said something inappropriate to somebody with some creative power (those things happen – for example, the actress that plays Audrey claims that Lara Flynn Boyle’s complaining in real life affected her character’s screen time and her romantic involvement with Agent Cooper being broken off). But, I couldn’t find anything about Leo. It wouldn’t surprise me. Also I’d put Andy, Dick Tremaine and that bubbly moron police chick in the “best of” list as well, personally. I really surprised myself at how hard I was laughing at Andy doing his thing, especially since I thought I knew what to expect from that sort of character. Anyway that’s it 8) see you

  5. No. Nadine is one of the worst things to come from network television since Amos & Andy. What a grating, nagging, moronic, unredeeming waste of an actor’s salary. She’s the one character with zero tie to any of the central mysteries.

    1. Nadine is the most useless character. When she gets all powerful she gets more pathetic. People thought Laura was perfect that is why the town fell apart.

    2. Nadine was useless she added nothing to the show, and wasn’t interesting at all. Dick Tremaine and the kid should have never been on the show. Fire Walk With Me was dark, but it explained the back story and what tormented her. The Blu-Ray series that came out in 2014 has some deleted/extended scenes that make the movie much more meaningful. Laura Palmer was great at fooling people: Great Student, cheerful to most people, attractive, caring to most, etc… Leo and Bobby were a big part of her problem.

      1. Agreed! I did not like Nadine, especially after she started sleeping with Mike. I suppose they had them both on contract and needed Some kind of story. They probably figured, “Let’s just throw two random people together and see what happens.”

  6. How could you not include Agent Cooper? What about Bob? Scariest supernatural villain of all time!
    Also, I don’t think Bobby or Laura deserve to be on the Worst list. Yes, Laura’s character is exactly how you describe her but in life (for some strange reason) these types of personalities are able to win people over. I’ve seen it in my own life. If she were truly a sweet and inncent girl next door, you wouldn’t have Twin Peaks. It would be a completely different (and much less interesting) story.
    Jack and Annie deserve to be on the worst list. Those two characters never should have happened!

  7. Catherine has always been my favorite (other than Cooper, but duh.)

    Your worst list is spot on though except maybe Bobby. It’s sad too because I really liked James in season 1, but season 2 made him unbearable.

  8. You might want to update your update. Season 3 is officially coming back in 2016. I completely agree with you. I’m re-watching the entire series with my wife (who has never seen the show) and we are just about where you were when you wrote this. Everything Josie comes on screen, me and my wife start to doze off. I hate to admit it but there are parts of the show I don’t think I have ever seen cause I could truly care less like the entire Josie Packard plot. Thanks goodness for the fast forward button.

  9. James and Josie were little bitches. I wanted to punch both of them every time they were on screen. Donna and Lucy got on my nerves sometimes also if I’m being honest. But I think my favorite characters were Pete, Audrey, Ben, Bob, Hawk and Cooper (duh). Gordon Cole was also a great comic relief character, and I really liked Andy when he wasn’t part of that romance subplot.

  10. You need to read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer to better understand her character. It was written by David Lynch’s daughter between seasons 1 and 2. You can read it online for free if you just Google it. A good, relatively short, read!

  11. so true!! i hate james so much oh my god he is like always lost and cant control himself with his feelings for other girls. i want to slap donna so bad bc she’s so in love with him

    totally cant stand josie too!

    aura is the worst! i think i hate her even more in twin peaks: fire walk with me
    idk the character/actress just annoys the crap out of me :C

    sydsense.blogspot.com

    1. Well Nadine stands in the way of Norma’s happiness. It’s not nice and it’s not fair of course, but it’s naturally going to happen. Norma wants her husband.

  12. I know she doesn’t appear much, but I quite liked Laura’s borderline mum.

    The pilot scene where she breaks down on the phone was actually what got me gripped in the first place.

    Worst characters: you forgot the FBI man who insults everyone. A two-dimensional character as deep as Leo.

  13. I don’t know, I kind of feel like what you’re saying about Laura misunderstands the whole basis of the show. Within Twin Peaks obviously, not FWWM, I dont think she’s meant to be a realistic, three dimensional character, that’s kind of the whole point. Even if we were treating her like a real person though, I feel like that’s very harsh. She’s a seriously, seriously traumatised teenage girl who gets into a lot of trouble and struggles to keep her relationships up because of it. Considering the (very spoilery so I wont say it) mid-season 2 reveal, I’d expect everyone to have more empathy with how much crap she got into when she was alive. Her situation is kind of as horrific as it gets.

    But definitely, spot on, James is the worst. God, I hate him. If it were me, though, I’d take Ed and Norma off the list and replace them with Catherine and Pete. They were great, whereas I never found Ed or Norma’s romance interesting at all. Norma was a nice character seperately, but together they were just kind of boring second fiddle to Nadine’s storyline. I get what you say about Bobby, but I’d probably replace him eith John Justice Wheeler. Even with his flaws Bobby had some high points (talking to Coop in the Pilot, working with Ben, any scene with him and his parents) but Wheeler was 2D, cringy and boring til the end. Literally his only function as a character was to make Audrey no longer a virgin, and I really dont like that.

  14. All your best characters were excellent, except Nadine who was hard to take. All your worst characters were also excellent, and you didn’t even name the actual standout worst character, Harold Smith played by Lenny Von Dohlen (who had a flourishing career before and after as IMDB shows),

  15. All your best characters were excellent, except Nadine who was hard to take. All your worst characters were also excellent (possibly excepting Josie which is a debatable subject), and you didn’t even name the actual standout worst character, Harold Smith played by Lenny Von Dohlen (who had a flourishing career before and after as IMDB shows).

  16. Could not disagree more about Nadine being on the best list. Besides the obvious candidate for worst character overall, James, Nadine is definitely the worst. I think she’s even worse following the OD… Also disagree about Leland being in the best. Sure he doesn’t deserve to be on the worst list, but his character was just ridiculous. And where is cool ol’ Coop? I think him and Audrey were the best overall!

  17. I just paid $90.00 for the DVD boxed set. I am 3/4 of the way through with the entire series and non of the characters seem likable or compelling or having any depth.
    The ones who make my skin crawl the most are well represented in your list of the good ones. Oh well, just not my thing, I guess.

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