After 25 years, Denise Bryson is still pulling on her panties one leg at a time.
During her original three-episode arc from 1990 to 1991, Special Agent Bryson provided a mostly positive representation of a transgender woman at a time when such a thing was all too rare.
But LGBT characters have come a long way since the ’90s. When I first heard that Duchovny would be reprising his role, I was concerned that a character like Denise Bryson might seem out of place in 2017. Not so, I discovered after burning through the first four hours of the new series this weekend, like most Twin Peaks diehards did.
I’m happy to report that Twin Peaks handles its only transgender character with more grace over the course of a five-minute appearance than other prestige shows and films have managed to do with hours of runtime at their disposal. Denise is not only back, she’s better than ever.
For one, the character has gotten a big promotion. We are reintroduced to Bryson when loud-talking FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by David Lynch himself) goes to the office of the FBI Chief of Staff to discuss an investigation into Agent Cooper’s whereabouts, only to be informed that “she’s just finishing up a meeting” (emphasis mine).
In the pantheon of Twin Peaks’ law enforcement characters, women are few and far between. So it’s no surprise—although it is a thrill—when the ever-stylish Denise strides in wearing a smart maroon skirt suit and a string of pearls.
The fact that Denise is now the “Chief of Staff of the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation”—as she takes great pleasure in reminding Cole—is a well-deserved coup for her character.
When last we saw Denise, she was helping Cooper take down minor drug-runners in the Pacific Northwest. Now, she’s got a stately desk in an enormous office with a fireplace to boot.
As writer Rani Baker noted, the original Twin Peaks depicted Denise as a “talented and confident” agent at a time when transgender characters generally weren’t given much agency at all.
Less eloquently put, Denise was a badass—and not a Tarantinian female badass, either but a Lynchian one, using her character quirks to gain subtle advantages.
Cole reminds us of Denise’s eminent capability during his brief conversation with her in the Twin Peaks revival, harkening back to a time when he “had enough dirt on [Denise] to fill the Grand Canyon” but abstained from using it because she “was and [is] a great agent.”
It’s gratifying to see Cole’s young transgender recruit now occupying a position of power, rewarded for what we can assume has been two decades of hard work in an environment that hasn’t always accepted her.
Indeed, in their short scene together in the Twin Peaks revival, Cole points out that Denise didn’t have an easy road to her new title.
“When you became Denise,” he reminds her, “I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.”
It’s a surprisingly affecting moment, showing not only a former superior addressing his mentee-turned-boss but also seemingly Lynch himself addressing the situation of a marginalized character in his own universe.
Between Agent Cooper’s relentless conscientiousness—and the cosmic push-and-pull between the forces of the Black and White Lodges—Twin Peaks has always had a strong focus on morality, even if it ultimately asks more questions than it answers. Cole’s beautiful “fix their hearts or die” line is not just a heartwarming recollection of a backstory that Twin Peaks has never explored, but also a reminder to viewers that Denise isn’t meant to be mocked.
By far the most impressive feature of Denise’s return to the screen, however, is that her character is now defined more by her womanhood than the fact that she is transgender.
The whole purpose of Cole’s visit to the Chief of Staff is that he’s seeking permission to take a young agent named Tamara Preston into the field to look for Agent Cooper.
“Really, Gordon?” Denise asks, with a knowing smile, telling him, “I know your profile, Gordon: Beautiful agent, barely 30.” She informs him that she’s “speaking more as a woman now” than as the FBI Chief of Staff by expressing concern over his choice.
Gordon reassures his boss that “Agent Tammy Preston has the stuff” and is being taken along for her qualifications, throwing in some flattery for good measure: “There’s room in this Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than one beautiful woman.”
Even in pathmaking shows like Orange is the New Black or Transparent, transgender characters are often almost wholly defined by their trans-ness, often as the result of the kind of stories they choose to tell.
But in the Twin Peaks revival, over the span of a few minutes, we get to see something special: a female character in a position of power who just so happens to have transitioned decades ago.
The rarity of that sight makes Denise’s return important—all the more so, almost, because of its matter-of-fact brevity. We have never seen Denise’s coming out story or the struggles of her early transition, nor do we have to: she’s here, she’s Denise, and we can either fix our hearts or die.
That message is even more refreshing because Twin Peaks manages to rely it without any sense of self-seriousness. Indeed, it wouldn’t be Twin Peaks if Denise didn’t deliver plenty of kitschy humor, too, like a forgivable-because-kind-hearted line about needing “balls of steel” to do her job or a cute moment in which she fans herself after the quite handsome Cole leaves the room.
Denise always made wry little jokes about being transgender—her memorable line about still putting on her underwear “one leg at a time” earned its place in the Twin Peaks history books—and Twin Peaks doesn’t throw levity out the window for fear of offending.
Chief of Staff Bryson may or may not return in future episodes. The only production images that have been released thus far show Denise in the exact same outfit as she wore in this single scene. As it stands, her conversation with Cole seems like a self-contained cameo appearance on Duchovny’s part—one that closes on with Denise wishing Cole good luck and Cole replying, with obvious affection, “Ten-four, good buddy.”
If that’s all we get to see of Denise, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful finishing note.
But for now, I’m praying—as ardently as Audrey Horne once prayed to Agent Cooper at One-Eyed Jack’s—that she’ll come back.