Lost in the Movies: Steven Burnett (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #86)

Steven Burnett (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #86)

The TWIN PEAKS Character Series surveys one hundred ten characters from the series Twin Peaks (1990-91 on ABC and 2017 on Showtime as The Return), the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and The Missing Pieces (2014), a collection of deleted scenes from that film. A new character study will appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday although patrons will have immediate access to each entry a month before it goes public. There will be spoilers.

Steven is doomed to failure from the moment we first see him, the only question being how spectacularly he'll fail and what the fallout will be.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Eager to impress but not exactly dressed for it (he's trying, but the collar and tie are loose and the hair is askew), Steven knocks and enters an office at a car dealership where he's been told the manager wants to speak to him. The middle-aged man sitting at the desk inside brusquely invites him to sit down and then offers a humiliating litany of issues with his resume and other paperwork. Steven, it turns out, will never get a good job like this. Properly berated, he slinks out and slams the door behind him, perhaps able to hear - just within earshot - the interviewer mutter, "What an asshole." Showing up at a local diner to pick up his wife Becky, still in an even looser necktie, but losing the jacket and rolling up his sleeves to expose his freckled arms, he seeks solace in her kisses and, in turn, offers her solace in white powder (or what's left after the day's turmoil, which he describes as "some great fucking feedback"). Concerned that they are being watched by Becky's mother through the window, they pull into another spot in the parking lot and lift one another's spirits before driving off, blissfully high.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
There's no bliss in the Burnett trailer park home this morning. After hurling a red coffee mug through their window, Steven screams at Becky as she cowers on their couch. Why is she asking anything of or about him, when he never asks anything of or about her? (Or so he asks, while listing all the things he's definitely not asking, like why her wage as the only working member of the household is so low...) Spittle flicks from his lips and snot drips from his nose as he rages; he lifts his fist without striking her and hovers inches from her face to inform her, "I know exactly what you did." What she did...or what she will do? Seemingly later in the day, Becky stands upstairs from Steven as he hides in an apartment building stairwell with his mistress Gersten Hayward; they hear her yell for him and then fire a gun. Both look unsettled, but Steven gives the impression of being more gloweringly petulant than timidly afraid.

Sunday, October 2, 2016
Days later, the couple huddle at the green-swaddled base of a massive tree in the woods. Steven is rubbing his legs with a handgun while Gersten kisses him. A stream of gibberish spews from the clearly stoned young man: "I did it" ("No," Gersten counters in vain, "she did it!"), "Are you gonna come up with me," "Look at me. I'm a high school graduate," "I mean God...where will I be; will I be with the rhinoceros...the lightning in a bottle...will I be completely, like, turquoise?" Gersten attempts to talk him down from whatever state he's in - especially as he clearly prepares for suicide - but when a stranger tramps past them, notices their condition, and flees, she races around the other side of the tree and can only listen as Steven cocks his gun and fires.

Characters Steven interacts with onscreen…

Mike Nelson

Becky Burnett

Gersten Hayward

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Steven
The breadth of the Twin Peaks we experience through Steven's eyes (or, at least, in his presence) is breathtaking, stretching from the soulless outskirts of a mechanized society to the cruel heart of the natural world. And none of what he perceives looks very appealing: certainly not the drab office space where his resume is rejected, the shabby trailer in which he screams at his wife, or the apartment complex whose locked doors invite her envious bullets. Even the warm glow of the diner holds him at a distance - repels him, in fact - while the terrifying majesty of the mossy woods swallows him whole. The community that sang a dangerous but at least superficially welcoming siren song twenty-five years ago has transformed into a fortress wall against which a pathetic figure like Steven can only crash and be destroyed. In this character series' first sustained study of The Return's vision of Twin Peaks, the wounded and wounding young man offers a cautionary tale about both where the town and the show have gone in the intervening quarter century. This is no longer a place where human life has meaning, at least none that a high school graduate can ascertain, and this is no longer a story whose mysteries swirl around a single center that we (perhaps naively) hope can hold the key to all of them. There is, ironically, a key around Gersten's neck but it can't help him anymore than she can. When the show's own master storyteller (Mark Frost in a cameo as a walker in these woods) stumbles across Steven, this encounter yields no insight, only confused agitation, triggering one final desperate gesture to remove him from this cursed terrain altogether.

Steven’s journey
Framed by the bland dealership and the mystic woods on either end, Steven's journey pulls him away from civilization - but it doesn't seem like he ever really had a chance to thrive there anyway. The character is both cruel and incompetent, viscerally repulsive if also harboring a weird brand of charisma, and yet there persists a sense that he's a kind of victim - that's he's instinctively unable to properly navigate this world rather than willfully choosing the brambled path, poor as his choices may be. His arc is certainly a descent, but it's also a revelation: when we first meet him, he's basically the butt of the joke and we see him almost entirely through the bullying Mike's eyes - literally in the sense that we're introduced to the character from Mike's point of view. Only when he's with Becky does he start to open up a bit, as someone with his own sense of flaky charm and romanticism, a loser but one with some zest for life. Gersten further exposes his vulnerability and dependency; the portrait which emerges of Steven is of a person who fumbles most things yet sincerely and passionately falls in love in a way that encourages others to fall in love with him...despite all the obvious obstacles. There's also some sly parallels in the bookends of Steven's onscreen journey, far apart as they may be: Mike criticizes him for his terrible writing, while Gersten tries to hang on to his verbal pyrotechnics. Ever the distruster of language, David Lynch presents Steven's inability to communicate with a wry, subtle sympathy. Watching him fall apart, we observe that he can't function in society yet suspect he may be on to some more fundamental truth nonetheless - and his inability to bridge these worlds is his ultimate tragedy.

Actor: Caleb Landry Jones
Jones was a ubiquitous cinematic presence in 2017, appearing in several of the year's most noteworthy releases. A highly unusual actor with his mannered performance style and memorable look (somehow both dissolute and fresh-faced, although it will be interesting to see how he ages into his appearance with time), he's one of those personas so bizarre that he paradoxically became mainstream. Jones made an auspicious debut as a teenager in one of 2007's most acclaimed films, No Country for Old Men (as "boy on bike"; he also ostensibly appeared as an extra, "boy at party," in another 2007 classic, Superbad). Alongside brief appearance in Breaking Bad and Victorious during that era, he had a recurring role in six episodes of Friday Night Lights which ended in 2010; after this, he'd make a hard shift from TV into film, only returning to the medium for an auteur like Lynch. Later breakout performances included Banshee in 2011's X-Men: First Class and the lead role in Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral. The same year that Twin Peaks aired, the twenty-eight-year-old received multiple nominations (and a National Board of Review award) as part of the Get Out ensemble - he plays the eccentric preppy brother in the affluent white liberal family that terrorizes the film's protagonist - and was also nominated by SAG as part of the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri cast. Additionally, he was singled out for a nomination as best breakthrough performer of the year by the Detroit Film Critics Society, which cited those two films alongside The Florida Project and American Made. While that year may have displayed the zenith of his productivity, he hasn't exactly declined since - in 2021, he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for a role he was apparently born to play: the fictionalized portrait of an infamous Tasmanian mass murder in Nitram, whose backstory reads like a dark fulfillment of the troubled Steven's demons. (film pictured: Get Out, 2017)


*Part 5 (Showtime title: "Case files." - best episode)

Part 10 (Showtime title: "Laura is the one.")

Part 11 (Showtime title: "There's fire where you are going.")

Part 15 (Showtime title: "There's some fear in letting go.")

Steven is onscreen for roughly ten minutes (just over - qualifying him as the first official entry in the revised character series). He is in five scenes in four episodes, taking place over six days. He's featured the most in Part 15, when he contemplates suicide with Gersten. His primary location is the woods. He shares the most screentime with Gersten. He is one of the top ten characters in Parts 5 and 15.

Best Scene
Part 15: Deep in the woods, Steven huddles in the arms of a woman who cares for him, but she can't save him from his own self-destruction.

Best Line
“I know exactly what you did, exactly what you did.”

Steven Offscreen

Part 2: Our first introduction to Steven occurs when Shelly Briggs airs her concerns about Becky's husband: "My daughter is with the wrong guy." But her friends are incredulous: "Everybody loves Steven!" Really?!

Part 11: One person who doesn't love Steven is Becky's dad, Deputy Bobby Briggs. Warning his daughter that he's had plenty of cause to arrest Steven, he tells her that he'll tolerate him a little longer as long as he doesn't hurt her (both parents suspect he is an abuser). Becky pivots between wanting a divorce and wanting to stand by her man, while admitting that Steven spends everything Shelly gives her. "He's goes out looking for work every day!" she insists when her mother pressures her to leave him, though she can't resist the snorting addendum, "...at least I thought he did!"

Part 13: Becky calls Shelly in tears, informing her that Steven hasn't been home in two days and she fears (as she alluded to in their previous conversation) that he's going through some great difficulty. Shelly wonders if "maybe he just needs some time."

Mark Frost's season three follow-up The Final Dossier doesn't delve too deeply into the Becky/Steven drama but it does address the storyline as an aside within an aside, the Gersten Hayward section of the Donna Hayward chapter. We're informed that Steven is not just a user but a dealer of narcotics and that he's "gone missing", leaving his apparent fate in Part 15 ambiguous. The novel also suggests that Becky is safe, hinting that whatever Steven is talking about in his final appearance is either a delusion or something other than what it initially seems - perhaps he didn't kill Becky after all. Indeed, this work leaves open the possibility that both spouses survive The Return, a possibility that seemed foreclosed on both ends when the series wound up a few months before publication.

Additional Observations

• When Steven enters Mike's office, a duck figurine is featured prominently in the mise en scene. Considering Lynch's frequent references to "the eye of the duck" as a crucial linchpin to any work, is this is a suggestion that Steven's rejection is a point of no return for his downward trajectory? If so, perhaps he should have spent less time worrying about a rhinoceros, and more time worrying about a snake.

• An intriguing chronological loophole presents itself when we consider the ambiguity of season three's storytelling. What if the Part 10 scene, in which Steven threatens Becky, actually takes place after the Part 11 scene in which she shoots up Gersten's apartment? It makes a certain amount of sense: Becky, hyped up on jealousy, goes too far and then the previously relaxed Steven strikes back, telling her she has no right to pry into his personal life outside the home. This also illuminates his "I know what you did" line. However, Becky's conversation with Shelly implies that Steven probably hasn't come home since the shooting (placing this confrontation before it), and also closes the door on the idea that maybe the fight scene is when Steven shoots her. One thing seems certain: given Becky's and Steven's clothing, the two scenes - Steven yelling at Becky, and Becky shooting at Gersten's door - take place on the same day. We could almost look at them as a Mobius strip sequence, one scene leading to the other and then back, ad infinitum. Given the slipperiness of time in The Return, and Steven's confusion beneath the tree of knowledge, anything seems possible.

Next (active on Wednesday, January 25 at 8am): Phil Bisby
Previous: Johnny Horne

To immediately read a month of upcoming entries, updated weekly to stay a month ahead...

(at the time of publication, this includes revised full entries on bonus characters, plus full entries on new or revised characters among #85 - 52)

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