Lost in the Movies: Betty Briggs (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #73)

Betty Briggs (TWIN PEAKS Character Series #73)

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.

Betty is a family woman, almost unnervingly pleasant but harboring a deep, abiding love and concern for her husband and son.

Thursday, February 23, 1989
Betty Briggs sits quietly in her home, sewing as her husband Air Force Major Garland Briggs reads from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. They are interrupted by a doorbell and Betty welcomes Laura Palmer, the girlfriend of their son Bobby, into the house. She directs Laura to Bobby in the basement where "he belongs," as Laura jokes. She continues to listen to the Major read as Bobby and Laura come upstairs again and say goodnight. The Major tells Bobby to put out his cigarette (he doesn't) and then continues to read scripture.

Friday, February 24, 1989
Betty is massaging the Major's shoulders as he reads the newspaper. The phone rings and when she answers she is greeted by Sarah Palmer, the mother of Bobby's girlfriend. She is worried because Laura isn't at the house on a school morning and together the two mothers try to figure out where she might be. Betty explains that Bobby goes for an early-morning run before football practice and Sarah wonders if her husband took Laura with him to work. But when Sarah hangs up, Betty looks concerned. Later in the day, she and the Major must pick up Bobby from the sheriff's station where he has been taken for questioning after the murder of Laura. The concerned parents talk to the Bobby's lawyer and when Bobby exits he has no patience with his father's outreach. Betty is flustered and demands that they all just go home.

Saturday, February 25, 1989
The Briggs pray before dinner and the Major attempts to give Bobby a pep talk. The bratty teenager isn't particularly interested and his father ends up slapping his cigarette from his mouth. It lands in Betty's meat loaf and she picks it out with a stunned expression on her face before recovering; "We're here for you, Bobby," she says reassuringly, although Bobby doesn't look reassured.

Monday, February 27, 1989
Betty summons the men of the family with a big smile on her face (matching the yellow smiley-face pin on her lapel), adjusting her gloves as she holds a rosary and reminds them that Laura's funeral is imminent. The Major and Bobby don't seem very enthusiastic. At the funeral, Betty stands near the Major as the preacher pays tribute.

Wednesday, March 1, 1989
The Briggs sit in family therapy with Dr. Lawrence Jacoby and share Bobby's troubles with the psychiatrist: he's moody, he's violent, he drinks. Jacoby asks to see each family member alone, starting with Bobby. On their way out of the room, Betty looks back at their slouched-over son with concern.

Thursday, March 16, 1989
Betty speaks with Sheriff Harry Truman and FBI Agent Dale Cooper about her husband, who disappeared in the woods the night before. Cooper was with him but has no idea what happened, and Betty can only help out so much. She acknowledges that he is fascinated with the woods, and that he often disappears although it's usually work-related, but can't tell them if he's attempted to contact "some element that lives in the woods" ("That's classified," she tells Cooper.) "There's certainly no manual to be married to it," she says with a sense of genial resignation. As she leaves, she offers to share some notes the Major left behind.

Friday, March 17, 1989
Bobby comes home in the middle of a thunderstorm to find his mother sitting alone in the dark. Betty begins to weep and they talk about the Major. She is worried that this disappearance might be different from the others. Bobby shares a recent experience with his father, in which the Major recalled a beautiful dream about the two of them. Betty praises the Major, and expresses her longing for him. Then the lights go out and the Major appears in an old pilot's uniform. He asks how long he's been gone, and an overjoyed Betty embraces him and doesn't let go.

Monday, March 27, 1989
At the RR diner, Betty and the Major cuddle and kiss while Bobby sits at the counter and holds hands with a waitress. Jacoby enters with Mrs. Palmer and interrupts the lovers' reverie, informing the Major that she has a message for him.

Thursday, October 1, 2016
Happily typing away on her Apple laptop, reading glasses perched on her nose, Betty is visited by Bobby, now a sheriff's deputy, along with Sheriff Frank Truman and Deputy Hawk. She knows exactly why they're there and cuts them off before they can finish explaining: they want to find out what happened when Cooper visited the Major the day before he died. She tells them that he predicted this distant visit and told her to show them a silver cylinder he'd hidden in the top of an old wooden chair. Betty is especially moved to tell Bobby that his dad knew someday he'd be in this better position - that he foresaw it all. This business concluded, the police finally agree to a fresh cup of coffee.

Characters Betty interacts with onscreen…

Major Briggs

Laura Palmer

Sarah Palmer

Dr. Jacoby

Bobby Briggs

Agent Cooper & Harry Truman

Deputy Hawk & Frank Truman

Impressions of TWIN PEAKS through Betty
Betty's sphere in Twin Peaks encompasses the Briggs household and little else. That in itself is quite a bit, however. Through her husband and son, she's involved with Laura, the subsequent fallout over her murder, the top-secret business of the Air Force, the supernatural aura of the woods, and even Cooper's trip into the Black Lodge. She's usually more of a spectator than a participant, but we get a fairly strong sense of the town through her eyes. As a show, Betty's Twin Peaks is kinda quintessential: unsettlingly offbeat (even viewers who forget most scenes with her character will probably remember her playing with the scissors when Sarah calls), delightfully quirky (that cigarette in the meat loaf, the incongruous smiley pin on the way to the funeral), and surprisingly poignant.
The Return does not expand Betty's sphere, but it does deepen it. Once again, we see her in the Briggs home - this time living the solitary life of an elderly widow. (There are no signs this is the same house; if so, the kitchen certainly has been remodeled.) More than ever, she plays a role in the series mythology as a steward of her husband's work and, now, his legacy. If her part in the original series was quintessential, by now her frank pathos and steadfast domesticity stand apart from the greater extremities of the new season. Our one scene with her feels like an immersion into a sweet old memory for a brief moment: marvel at the chair, savor the coffee, and then move on to what the town and the show have become.

Betty’s journey
Like several other supporting characters, Betty actually gets more breathing room in the backwater of season two, a much-maligned period of the show. In season one, she's little more than an amusing caricature, but episodes 18 and 19 allow her to develop an actual personality, as a woman who loves her husband very much but is pained by the sacrifices his gifts and responsibilities entail. Probably her most heartwarming arc is with Bobby; the sullen, bratty adolescent of late February has blossomed into a sensitive, compassionate young man by mid-March (at least towards his mother - his maturity in relation to Shelly and authority figures outside the home will take a little more time). No doubt the trauma of his girlfriend's death and the persistence of his father's mentorship contribute to his reformation, but perhaps his mother's worried patience plays a role too.
The third season continues Betty's progression from season one to two. She is as involved as she's ever been in the central action, now not only the Major's sidekick but his successor. And that aforementioned arc with Bobby reaches its apotheosis twenty-seven years later, as the parents' devotion produces an honest, dutiful, decent man for a son.

Actress: Charlotte Stewart
Stewart lived a dual life in the seventies, splitting time between her role as the wholesome schoolteacher Mrs. Beadle and the multiple-year opus that was production on David Lynch's debut feature Eraserhead, in which she played Mary X, member of not one, but two of the most dysfunctional families in cinema history. (It's not totally clear if the productions overlapped at all but Eraserhead took so long to finish that she started it before she'd been cast for the first season of Little House and the film was released at the end of the third season). Stewart's offscreen life was pretty wild too - she arrived in Los Angeles in the sixties and befriended Jim Morrison, living the hippie life to the hilt. Her recent memoir, Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl's Guide to Becoming Mrs. Beadle, Mary X, and Me documents her ups and downs over a long career, and she's discussed that journey (and shared excerpts) on the Red Room Podcast, Twin Peaks Unwrapped, and The Brad Dukes Show. She was also Brad Dukes' first interview on his site, paving the way for his iconic Reflections oral history book. Although her role in Twin Peaks is relatively small, Stewart has been a constant presence in fan communities since the show aired, and a crucial member of the Lynchverse from the very beginning.
In the past decade, Stewart has only one credit besides Twin Peaks and it also draws on her past; she plays a bartender in the short film Livin' on a Prairie, about a woman obsessed with using Little House on the Prairie as an emotional substitute for her own disappointing life. (series pictured: Little House on the Prairie, 1970s)

The Pilot

Episode 1 (German title: "Traces to Nowhere")

Episode 3 (German title: "Rest in Pain")

Episode 5 (German title: "Cooper's Dreams")

Episode 18 (German title: "Masked Ball")

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

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

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (collection of deleted scenes from the film)

*Part 9 (Showtime title - "This is the chair." - best episode)

Stewart first heard about the show when David Lynch had dinner with her and her roommate Jack Nance (who starred as her husband in Eraserhead and played Pete on Twin Peaks). Betty was written by Mark Frost and David Lynch in the first couple episodes, continued in solo scripts by Harley Peyton and Mark Frost, and carried into the second season by Barry Pullman and Robert Engels (co-credited with Peyton and later Frost too). She was directed by Lynch, Duwayne Dunham (twice), Tina Rathborne, Lesli Linka Glatter, and Caleb Deschanel.

Betty is onscreen for roughly fourteen minutes. She is in eleven scenes in eight episodes (and the deleted scenes from the film), taking place in just over a month and then one day twenty-seven years later. She's featured the most in part 9, when she delivers the Major's message to Bobby. Her primary location is the original Briggs home. She shares the most screentime with Bobby (prior to season three, it was with the Major).

Best Scene
Part 9: "This is the chair," Betty informs her son and colleagues as she finally follows through on her husband's parting words.

Best Line
“Bobby, when your father told me this, you were a very long way from where you are today. Somehow he knew that it would all turn out well. He saw this life for you. Your father never lost faith in you.”

Betty appears fleetingly in The Secret History of Twin Peaks and The Final Dossier, Mark Frost's novels published just before and after the third season. In The Secret History, she's mentioned in passing purely as an attachment to the Major. The Final Dossier uses her to confirm the doppelganger's visit to her husband in the "Major Briggs" chapter but also reveals her familial role in the "Shelly Johnson" chapter. "Betty, grieving the recent loss of her own husband, stepped up to the plate," we're told, "devoting herself to providing her son and his new wife a stability that they sorely needed for their new family." Further, "Norma and Betty joined forces to cosign a loan that allowed Bobby and Shelly to buy their first house."

Additional Observations

Betty's prominent crucifix (and the palm fronds we see on the wall before the funeral) stem from the conception Stewart brought to the writers. As she's said in subsequent interviews, "Betty was Catholic, Garland was in the military, and Bobby was screwed!"

• That owl lamp she turns on when Bobby comes home is a thing of beauty.

When I published my initial entry on Betty I wrote the following in the "Showtime" section: Yes, Stewart is on the cast list for 2017. This will make her Lynch's longest living collaborator (only Catherine Coulson worked with him for an equal span). I'm quite curious how Betty is doing. Since the actor who play Major Briggs has passed away, Betty will be a widow. Will she still be presented in relation to her son, if not her husband? Will we see her with her grandkids, or even great grandkids? Or will Lynch and Frost present Betty outside the family sphere for the first time?

Next (available now): Black Rose "Blackie" O'Reilly
Previous: Becky Burnett

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(at the time of publication, this includes full entries on new or revised characters among #72 - 46)

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