Lost in the Movies: DEA Agent Denise Bryson (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #51)

DEA Agent Denise Bryson (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #51)

*A revised entry will be published separately in 2023 for an updated character series (which will be collected here). This is the original entry written before The Return.

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys eighty-two characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as well as The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. A new character study will appear every weekday morning until the premiere of Showtime's new season of Twin Peaks on May 21, 2017. There will be spoilers for the original series and film.

Denise's professional acumen and pleasant personality keep those around her focused on the job, even as they adjust to her transition as a female.

Thursday, March 16, 1989
Denise Bryson arrives at the Twin Peaks sheriff's station on behalf of the DEA and she causes a stir right away, not because of her task - to investigate FBI Agent Dale Cooper for his alleged involvement in cocaine trafficking - but because of her appearance. "Dennis?" asks a stunned Cooper, who knew Denise when she identified and presented as a man. "Actually, I prefer Denise, if you don't mind," the DEA agent responds politely. She is introduced to Sheriff Harry Truman and Deputy Hawk Hill and chitchats about the pleasant nature of the town ("It's a bit more complicated than that," Sheriff Truman admits when Denise remarks, "I picture you chasing lost dogs and locking up the town drunk"), before discussing Cooper's case (Cooper says he's being set up) and her impending stay at the Great Northern Hotel. That night, Cooper greets her at the bar of the hotel, where a big wedding is being celebrated (she caught the bouquet, although she admits her advantage as a former varsity wide receiver). She tells him that they found cocaine residue in his car - while she believes it's a frame, there's only so much she can do to help him in her position. After she gently reminds him to call her "Denise" not "Dennis," Cooper asks about her transition, and she says that she discovered her identity during a sting operation in which she played a transvestite to bust a dealer. In the process, she discovered she felt far more relaxed in women's clothing and would remain in "costume" after the workday was finished. Later in the evening she dances with a delighted Deputy Andy Brennan.

Friday, March 17, 1989
Denise enters Cooper's hotel room to discover him with Audrey Horne, an attractive young woman. Audrey is initially jealous to see another woman with Cooper. Then she discovers Denise is in the DEA; thrilled at the possibility of female agents, an excited Audrey kisses a surprised Cooper on her way out the door. Cooper then reveals to Denise what the teenage girl brought him: black-and-white surveillance photos of a meeting between Jean Renault (a Canadian mobster), Preston King (the same corrupt Mountie who accused Cooper of stealing cocaine from Jean's bordello), Ernie Niles (a visitor to town), and Hank Jennings (an ex-con local). Cooper is impressed by the pictures and wants to set up a sting, but Denise pushes a more important subject: how old is Audrey? Cooper chuckles at Denise's interest, assuming that because she identifies as a women her sexuality would change. Denise playfully corrects his impression with a turn of phrase (see "Best Line") followed by, "Know what I mean?" A cheerful Cooper admits, "Not really." That night, Denise approaches Ernie in the RR Diner, revealing the photos of him, her DEA badge, and an ultimatum: either he helps them bust the rest of the gang or he's going back to prison for a long, long time. As a thunderstorm rages outside Cooper's room, Cooper and Denise interrogate a nervous Ernie, eventually getting him to reveal the proposed deal: four kilos of cocaine are to be unloaded, but he doesn't have a buyer. Denise volunteers for that role.

Saturday, March 18, 1989
A stressed-out Ernie, pushed by Cooper and Denise, finally makes the call to Jean, setting up the buy for that afternoon. A few hours later, while Ernie is being wired by Deputy Hawk, Denise returns to the room disguised as "Dennis," a male buyer in a suit and ponytail, feeling that this persona will be more "appropriate" for the exchange. Observed from a nearby hiding spot by the sheriff and his deputies, including Cooper (the suspended FBI agent has been deputized just for this occasion), Denise and Ernie enter the decrepit Dead Dog Farm to make the deal. Unfortunately, Ernie's wire is discovered due to his prodigious sweat. Jean holds a gun to Denise's head and shouts to Cooper that the gig is up. Cooper offers himself in exchange for the hostages and remains inside the building as night falls. Then, a "stranger" approaches the door: it's Denise, dressed as a waitress, and carrying a tray. She lifts her dress to display her leg, but just as Jean starts to recognize her, Cooper spots the handgun tucked into her garter and grabs it. He shoots Jean dead as Denise tackles Mountie King, punching him out and pressing him up against the wall to handcuff him. Cooper thanks her for her ingenuity, and she credits Truman for the idea. The mission has been successful: the truth of the drug allegations has been discovered, a narcotics ring has been busted, and Cooper has been vindicated.

Characters Denise interacts with onscreen…

Agent Cooper

Sheriff Truman

Deputy Hawk

Deputy Andy

Audrey Horne

Ernie Niles

Jean Renault

Mountie King

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Denise
Most immediately, Denise demonstrates the town's tolerance. In 1990, transgender acceptance was much lower than today, and certainly her status surprises some in the town (others don't even seem to notice). Yet, with a few corrections and some time to get used to it, most grow to casually accept her as who she is. Whether this is a function of an enlightened populace or the more outdated view that this is simply another wacky eccentricity in a town full of such quirks, most of the time the acceptance is pretty heartening. And she is a character who can be funny without being over-the-top, a welcome relief in the sometimes outlandish middle section of season two. As a DEA agent involved in a local drug operation, Denise emphasizes the criminal aspect of Twin Peaks the town and thus the crime-genre aspect of Twin Peaks the show, and she is yet another outsider who arrives in town and finds herself amenable to its charms.

Denise’s journey
The big part of Denise's arc occurs before we ever meet her, as explained during a couple minutes at the wedding reception. But she's clearly in a space where she's still navigating the contours of her newly discovered identity and especially its social implications. For whatever reason, she reverts to the "Dennis" identity when making the buy. Is this because she still views dangerous action as a man's job (as one feminist critique suggests, also noting that she only returns as Denise to use her sexuality as a tool)? Is this because she's prudently cognizant of the dealers' own prejudices? Is she simply embracing a convenient cover in case the criminals have seen her around town already? Whatever the reason, it allows us to glimpse Denise both as she was, and as she really no longer is (as several podcasters have noticed, her mannerisms and presentation are still very "Denise" even when dressed as "Dennis" - she's in drag as him, not in her other scenes). Denise's arc also reveals and emphasizes her loyalty to Cooper alongside her professional duty, demonstrating an ability to hold both in balance in a fashion Cooper himself can greatly admire.

Actor: David Duchovny
Duchovny is most famous for the work that followed Twin Peaks a few years later, which many feel was at least partly inspired by Twin Peaks (and featured several other alums in guest parts, as did the Duchovny-hosted erotic cable series The Red Shoe Diaries a few years earlier). Agent Mulder on The X-Files is one of the iconic character of the nineties, a dashing offbeat young man who drew a bit from Agent Cooper while very much coloring within his own lines. Although he helmed two X-Files films, the bulk of Duchovny's work has been in television. He followed The X-Files with Californication and then Aquarius, though the latter series was recently cancelled (considering it deals with the Manson cult, and the upcoming season was to finally reach the murders, you'd think they could have let it continue for one more year, or even a few extra episodes). Most recently, Duchovny has been working on two major revivals of nineties shows: The X-Files and...well, we'll get to the other one soon. (series pictured: The X-Files, c. 1990s)

*Episode 18 (German title: "Masked Ball" - best episode)

Episode 19 (German title: "The Black Widow")

Episode 20 (German title: "Checkmate")

Denise was written by Barry Pullman, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engels (in collaboration with Peyton). Mark Frost conceived the character, telling Brad Dukes in the oral history Reflections that he "wanted to introduce a character that had transgender issues; I just thought it was an interesting subject that hadn't really been tackled much, certainly not on network television." Denise was directed by Duwayne Dunham, Caleb Deschanel, and Todd Holland.

Denise is onscreen for roughly twelve minutes. She is in nine scenes in three episodes, taking place in three consecutive days. She's featured the most in episode 19, when she finds out Cooper was framed and contacts Ernie. Her primary location is the Great Northern Hotel. She is one of the top ten characters in all three of her episodes.

Best Scene
Episode 18: Denise introduces herself to the sheriff's station, confidently overcoming the awkwardness of her reception.

Best Line
“Coop, I may be wearing a dress but I still put my panties on one leg at a time.”

Additional Observations

• From the script to episode 18, after Denise tells Cooper the story of her discovery: "So one thing led to another and I'm currently into a specialized kind of program called Gender Relocation Inhibition Therapy, or G.R.I.T. Part of my treatment is to dress the part for six months prior to any further therapy; hormones, electrolysis - ..." I encountered this excerpt in an (excellent) article about Twin Peaks' take on trans issues and initially thought the author was being cheeky, adding a bit of extra dialogue to make a satirical point about what the show was and wasn't willing to say about trans issues in 1990. To my surprise, however, I looked up the script and yup, this is a direct quote. Why was it removed from the episode, especially since viewers are sometimes confused about whether Denise is transgender or transvestite? Perhaps the director or editor felt the situation was best left ambiguous for aesthetic purposes or that such real-world details detracted from the whimsical air of Twin Peaks. Or perhaps it's a case of transphobia that the writer even anticipates in the script itself (the following scene description says this is "more than [Cooper] wants to hear" - a reaction shot that would have undermined the positive aspect of detailing Denise's process). Or perhaps, from the opposite angle, the creators felt they were getting too much wrong by representing the situation this way (I can't find references to the acronym outside of this script). Regardless, this solidifies where the writers were coming from with Denise and her gender identity.

• In Scott Frost's My Life, My Tapes: The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper, we meet Denise when she went by "Dennis," working undercover with Cooper in Tijuana. Cooper actually spends several years working with a DEA/FBI task force and expresses his temperamental difference with "the cowboy esprit de corps that is prevalent in their ranks."

• The question of how Twin Peaks handles a sensitive subject (that it was pretty far ahead of its time to address in a positive manner at all) seems to attract what could paradoxically be called "cautious enthusiasm." The praise I've seen takes the time and context into consideration (Denise's arc wrapped about a month before The Silence of the Lambs came out, after all) while a lot of the criticism addresses (though by no means exclusively) the casting of a cisgender man as Denise. She is definitely a character who comes up a lot on social media (see Twitter and Tumblr). Though I'm more interested in what trans woman have to say on the subject (please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments - I'm also keen to link to any applicable essays/posts), I am writing this entry so I might as well share my brief thoughts. It struck me on this viewing that, while the portrayal is very positive overall especially in context, every scene (even every time we return from a cutaway within a scene) makes room for at least one gag/punchline about Denise's gender. Many may be harmless, some are subtle enough to miss, but their persistence suggests the writers were not quite comfortable unless arching their eyebrow just a bit, nor could they allow her gender to recede entirely as other aspects of her character arose. Without completely dismissing the writers, who do some good work here along with some more questionable decisions, I think the direction and especially the performance are where Denise shines brightest. One notable aesthetic decision: Denise's first scene contains almost no music (and in Twin Peaks the score is never afraid to tell us how to feel). Her other scenes tread lightly on the soundtrack too; this is probably a source of both discomfort and appreciation for many viewers. Like so much else in Twin Peaks - both in terms of what it depicts and how it depicts - the portrayal of a trans character is caught between nervously relying on some lazy assumptions/devices and boldly, with almost unconscious ease, getting some big big things right that hardly anyone else in the mainstream pop culture could even see.

SHOWTIME: Yes, Duchovny is on the cast list for 2017. The casting will be both celebrated and controversial, especially since a quarter-century later there exists a widespread preference for trans actors playing by trans characters. However, Denise is viewed fondly by a lot of fans, and there's a lot to wonder about. How will David Lynch handle a character he never directed before? What about Frost, who created Denise but never wrote her scenes? Will the character present differently, not just given the intervening years, but the fact that she may have been through reassignment therapy since those episodes? Will Denise still be in the DEA? Will she work with Agent Audrey Horne? She caught the bouquet at the Milford wedding...is she married now?

Yesterday: Betty Briggs

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