Lost in the Movies: Sylvia Horne (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #84)

Sylvia Horne (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #84)

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.
indicates passages added or revised since 2017, if you want to skip directly to fresh material; this is a revision of an earlier piece written before the third season.

In the depths of familial hell, Sylvia neither knows nor seeks any escape; her only relief is to return her family members' fire when possible.

Friday, February 24, 1989
It’s late afternoon at the Great Northern Hotel on a gloomy winter day; despite the luxurious interiors, the mood inside the hotel is just as gray. Sylvia, the owner’s wife, sits at a table with her daughter Audrey. A nurse approaches, asking Sylvia to go upstairs and talk to Johnny – “Maybe it will help.” Johnny is upset that his friend Laura is late for their usual afternoon appointment, and he won’t come downstairs until she arrives (that’s a problem, since Laura has just died). Sylvia demands to know what’s so hard to explain and forces the nurse to go tell Johnny that Laura will never be back. The whole time we hear a consistent, repetitive thud upstairs in Johnny’s room.

Saturday, February 25, 1989
Sylvia, her husband Ben, Audrey, and Johnny – dressed in a huge Indian headdress – are having dinner in painful silence (except for the odd noises Johnny makes as he perches on his chair). The awkward meal is interrupted when Ben’s brother Jerry arrives, handing out baguettes and trying to kiss Sylvia who hisses, “Benjamin!” She holds her head in her hands as a cheerful Ben flees the room with Jerry, munching on bread.

Monday, February 27, 1989
Sylvia argues with Ben about Johnny; they are hoping Dr. Jacoby will get him to remove his headdress so they can leave for Laura’s funeral. Sylvia actually defends the young man, saying they must be patient and shouldn’t talk about him when he’s in the room. Ben quips, “I have been waiting twenty years for some sign of intelligent life.”

Sunday, March 26, 1989
Nearly a month later, Sylvia shows up at the Haywards’ house to discover Ben confronting their entire, upset family. She demands to know what he’s trying to do to them and Ben snaps back, but before an argument can build Doc Hayward shoves Ben into the fireplace. Sylvia and the others rush into the living room where Ben lies unconscious next to a wailing Doc.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Sylvia calls out to both her son and an absent, silent caretaker, demanding, "Who let him out? Where is he?" Meanwhile the once nearly immobile middle-aged man runs through hallways and down stairs. She begins calling out to him directly but he does not respond or stop until there is a loud smash. Sylvia reaches Johnny too late. He is immobile once again, lying in a pool of blood on the floor.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Informed via intercom - warned, really - that her grandson is driving into the neighborhood for a "visit", Sylvia attempts in vain to shoo him away (though oddly she does not close and lock the door). Barely feigning a friendly demeanor until he gets inside, the glowering Richard easily rebuffs her resistance, demands money (not just the contents of her purse but the combination to her safe), and then chokes her, screaming profane insults into her face, until she squeaks out the numbers he's looking for. Hurling the old woman to the floor and storming off to rob her blind, Richard leaves his grandmother and uncle to impotently console one another; Johnny has been tied to a chair since the previous day's accident and now lies strewn across the floor like Sylvia, kicking his feet in frustration while yelling and moaning through a gag. "We can't make him mad," she murmurs as classical music plays and Johnny's bizarre toy repeats the same mantra endlessly in the background. She watches helplessly as Richard empties her cash, jewelry, and silverware into her purse and curses her on his way out the door. That night, she finally gets to express her rage at the assault, telling Ben over the phone that she and her lawyer will make him (Ben) pay for what Richard stole.

Characters Sylvia interacts with onscreen…

Jerry Horne

Ben Horne

Johnny Horne

Richard Horne

and Laura Palmer is mentioned
*retroactively added in March 2024

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Sylvia
Despite her husband’s wealth and power, Sylvia’s patch of Twin Peaks seems awfully narrow, barren, and monotonous. Most of her screentime is consumed with Johnny, either arguing about him with others or sitting next to her troubled offspring as he mumbles to himself. She seems equally frustrated by both Ben and Jerry, while the often vivacious Audrey is sullen in her mother’s presence. The Twin Peaks Sylvia shows us is increasingly farcical but with a nasty, unhappy edge: an endless roundelay of outbursts with no possible reprieve from the dysfunction.

The third season takes that kernel of a mood from the first season and amplifies it exponentially, only increasing the sense of this community as a symphony of wretchedness - after Richard's attack, a place of horror as well as mere misery. Now residing in a ritzy development rather than encased in the brooding box of her husband's hotel, Sylvia's varnished floors and earth-toned decors nonetheless suggest she cannot escape the darkness of the woods...or the sordid social violence of a town that likes to project its own mystified shadow self onto that ghostly realm.

Sylvia’s journey
As that description suggests, Sylvia doesn’t have much room for an arc. When we meet her she’s fed up and when we depart from her, she’s still fed up. Like Johnny, and unlike the more dynamic Ben and Audrey, she’s stuck in a rut. However, she does seem a bit more nuanced/subtle in the pilot and a bit more stylized/exaggerated in the finale - in keeping with Lynch's general shift between these two episodes towards a less naturalistic, more baroque approach to the material.

A quarter century later, Sylvia has left the hotel but is still bombarded by the same exhausting and chaotic Horne energy, first by an unusually hyperactive Johnny and then when a third generation descends upon her home like a tornado. If there's a change to be found between 1989 and 2016, it may be involve the tightening of bonds between her and Johnny as everyone else slips away (when she's lucky). But the only arc within the later series of episodes involves her endurance of pressures and outbursts until she's able to turn some of it back on Ben, the man who brought her into this fold in the first place. Otherwise, as in seasons one and two, she's stuck in place, figuratively if not literally the same location.

Even so, the Great Northern haunts her story, framing her Return scenes so that we gaze at its environment before and after seeing her for the first and last times. First Johnny injures himself on an old framed picture of White Tail Falls, notably one in which the hotel does not yet loom on the horizon. Once again, the Horne family has collided with this pristine vista and once again they've lost more than they gained in the bargain. And then, finally, Sylvia's voice returns to the place we first heard it. As Ben rubs his forehead and clutches his telephone, she re-discovers the only form of comfort she's ever known in this narrative. At long last, her target finally seems to be as crushed by the weight of their family as she always has been.

Actress: Jan D'Arcy
D’Arcy has remained active in the Twin Peaks community, attending many fan festivals. In an interview with Brad Dukes, she reveals that she was inspired to act after seeing Orson Welles in Macbeth and later participated in summer stock as a teenager – where Billie Burke (Glinda the good witch from The Wizard of Oz) invited her to Hollywood. This makes two Twin Peaks actors who got their start thanks to Burke, Hank Worden (the room service waiter) being the other. Between that and her childhood in the woods with an outdoorsman father, her connection to Lynch seems clear enough. Though she had lived and worked in L.A. for years, she moved to Seattle before Twin Peaks and got the job that way. More recently, she worked as an executive speech coach and appeared in the 2022-released feature film The Sound of Violet(film pictured: Alive, 1992)
(only added the passages about Worden and the recent film)

The Pilot

Episode 2 (German title: "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer")

Episode 3 (German title: "Rest in Pain") - voice is heard offscreen

Episode 29 (German title: "Beyond Life and Death")

Part 9 (Showtime title: "This is the chair.")

*Part 10 (Showtime title: "Laura is the one." - best episode)

Sylvia was mostly a Lynch specialty. D’Arcy auditioned for him personally and she only appears onscreen in episodes directed by him (though apparently Mark Frost told her at the Emmies that they were planning to write her back in). Her part was written by Lynch, Frost, and Harley Peyton (when she’s overheard arguing with Ben while Audrey spies on Johnny – a vocal performance directed by Tina Rathborne). In the finale, Lynch told her to improvise her line in the finale since she hadn’t been written into the teleplay (along with many other forgotten characters, Lynch wanted to bring Sylvia back for this episode, however briefly).

Sylvia is present (onscreen or vocally) for roughly ten minutes. She is in seven scenes and six episodes, taking place on four different days spread out over a month and then two successive days twenty-seven years later. She’s featured the most in part 10, when Richard assaults her. Her primary location is the house she lives in with her son, and she shares the most screentime with Johnny. She is one of the top 10 characters in part 10.

Best Scene
The Pilot: Sylvia shows vulnerability beneath the bitter surface as she turns away from the nurse who asks her to talk to Johnny; she’s clearly in pain.

Best Line
“BENJAMIN!” (as Jerry leans in for a kiss)

Sylvia appears briefly in Mark Frost's novel The Final Dossier, which is to date the last word on Twin Peaks. A few of the blanks between seasons are filled in by the "Ben and Audrey Horne" chapter which informs us that the Hornes finally divorced after thirty years, a separation credited both to the "ricochet effect" of the Haywards' breakup and the fact that Ben and Sylvia had been distant for a long time already. Frost also confirms that Sylvia took full custody of Johnny and ominously notes that she played a part in Richard's upbringing (as Ben emphatically did not) - one of the few times Richard comes up in a book which mostly skates around the late deviant.

Additional Observations

In a deleted scene from season one, available as a special feature on the blu-ray, Sylvia tells Jacoby that Audrey caused Johnny’s condition by pushing him down the stairs when they were children (an eavesdropping Audrey is upset by this discovery, though it turns out to be unfounded).

In a deleted scene from Fire Walk With Me, which was unfortunately never shot, Sylvia hosts a birthday party for Johnny and – surprise! – argues with Ben, in this case because he has a picture of Laura on his desk.

Although she’s in a couple scenes with Audrey, Sylvia never interacts with her daughter.

• Like many other characters (including Audrey), Sylvia’s hairdo changes quite a bit between the pilot and her next episode.

• When I published my initial entry on Sylvia I wrote the following in the "Showtime" section: Yes, D’Arcy is on the cast list for 2017. There is a pattern to the affirmations so far – they are all characters or actors whom Lynch had a particular interest in; like Heidi the waitress, Sylvia was brought back after a long interval and was even intended to be in the film. Perhaps in the quarter-century since we last saw her she’s been able to break free from her claustrophobic life. Or maybe she’s taken control of it. Apparently Lynch envisioned her co-running the hotel on the original series – maybe today, her husband incapacitated by a head injury, she administers the business by herself. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if in classic Lynch fashion (think Frank Booth, Dumbland, or The Angriest Dog in the World) Sylvia is still trapped in a darkly comic cycle of anger and resentment, seething at the world and snapping at her husband.

 Well, I got that last part right, although it's suggested onscreen - and stated outright on the page - that the two are divorced (they are certainly estranged). Sylvia also receives her biggest, most important scene ever in the new season, even if I couldn't quite bring myself to designate it the "best" above (not only because it's unpleasant to watch but because I've never quite been convinced of its place in the narrative). The woman who almost entirely disappeared a few episodes into the original series ultimately played a much more important role in season three. Indeed, there's a great deal of suggestive evidence that D'Arcy's opportunity was carved out for her because Sherilyn Fenn refused to play Richard's battered mother in a similar sequence. If so, Sylvia's trajectory across three seasons takes on a grim "meta" aspect; the mother who was never really there for Audrey steps in one last time to suffer in her daughter's place.

Next (available now): Mountie Preston King
Previous: Phil Bisby

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(at the time of publication, this includes full entries on new or revised characters among #83 - 52)

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