In a year in which one man’s Twitter account became the world’s barometer of international crisis, it can be difficult to find things upon which we can all agree. However, here’s one truth that seems irrefutable across party lines: Laura Dern makes everything better. Whether it’s her broad comedy in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, her refashioning of an iconic character in Twin Peaks: The Return, or her award-winning work on Big Little Lies, her year was as varied as it was memorable. And that’s not even including the fact that she was in a little movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Sure, 1993 was a strong Dern year – with Jurassic Park and A Perfect World – and we could talk about her underrated work on Enlightened for hours, but 2017 truly was the Dernassaince.
Appearing on no less than five programs this year, she was 2017’s clear television MVP, displaying her stunning range and uncanny ability to ground even the most atypical narratives. But make no mistake – Dern’s TV ascendance in 2017 is about quality far more than quantity. We may have witnessed the best year of this Oscar nominee and Emmy winner’s career, and we’d be blessed if she even comes close to repeating it in 2018.
Was there a more heart-stopping moment in television this year than when Albert finally found the legendary Diane on Twin Peaks: The Return, and it turned out the woman Agent Cooper had been talking to since 1990 was actually Laura Dern?
All preconceptions fans had about the identity of Cooper’s unseen assistant from the original series were shattered. In every moment Kyle MacLachlan rambled into his Dictaphone, he had been talking to his co-star from Blue Velvet all along. Try watching the original series now without immediately picturing Dern on the other side of that conversation – it’s impossible. And by putting Dern in Diane’s unforgettable outfits, Lynch drew a throughline from his 1986 masterpiece through Wild at Heart and even Inland Empire, tying the entire project even more intrinsically to everything he’s done before. But this was no mere casting stunt. Dern served a greater purpose, tying us to the history of Twin Peaks, her work with David Lynch, and her brilliant take on this traumatized character.
On a show that often spun off into the surreal, Laura Dern was a grounding, relatable force. Her Diane would light a cigarette and take a drag before saying a word, cynically assessing the situation around her with every puff. And her dark past with Cooper (whose evil doppelganger raped Diane) just enhanced how this new series amplified the malevolence around the entire history of Twin Peaks. David Lynch often seemed to be saying with The Return, “All of this is much darker than you remember,” and Dern called out our rose-colored nostalgia through the pessimism that pervaded Diane, even the way she carefully spoke and moved. Laura Dern didn’t have as many scenes as Kyle MacLachlan or Naomi Watts, but it’s hard to imagine Twin Peaks: The Return – the best show of 2017 – without her.
That’s actually true for every time Dern appeared on television in 2017. It’s cliched to call such an accomplished performer a scene-stealer, but Dern makes roles so completely her own that you can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Take, for example, her work on the new season of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which she again finds the balance between surreal comedy and the truth of her character.
Appearing in just one episode, Dern plays Wendy Hebert, a woman who comes to Kimmy with divorce papers because she’s planning to marry Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), the religious zealot who imprisoned Kimmy for years. Wendy could have been a babbling lunatic, but Dern finds gravity even in someone willing to marry a maniac. She conveys a special kind of delusion, one that stems from her character’s need to hold on to anyone who sees value in her. It’s so memorable that she almost makes us want to watch a spin-off with her and Hamm.
She brought a completely different energy to an episode of Fox’s underrated The Last Man on Earth and did solid voice work on Netflix’s F is For Family. Together, those three comedies display the range of the year she had, especially when placed alongside Twin Peaks: The Return and her award-winning work in HBO’s Big Little Lies.
As Renata Klein on the HBO hit, Dern serves several different purposes, and she knows how to lean into all of them as an actress. First, she’s an instigator. The premiere sets her up as a villain, someone who pushes the buttons of the two characters clearly designed as our heroines, Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley). Renata initially appears to be little more than an overcompensating, overprotective mother who’s merely going to be the catalyst to the action of the story – someone to accuse Ziggy of bullying or meddle in other places she doesn’t belong. But, even from the beginning, viewers know there must be more to this character than a mere supporting villain. It’s Laura Dern! There has to be.
And there is. In the way she always seems to, Dern makes Klein absolutely essential to the overall picture of Big Little Lies. Not only is her character involved in nearly every aspect of the unfolding mystery – the bullying, the Avenue Q disaster, the party scenes – but she also becomes a thematic tentpole of the series. Renata Klein is often angry, but Dern never plays that anger in a traditional “scorned housewife” way. She recognizes that Renata is the kind of person who has found vast success in her life but can’t figure out why that success isn’t making her happier or providing a greater sense of comfort and justice.
The world to Renata is unfair. It’s unfair that her daughter gets bullied. It’s unfair that Chloe won’t come to Amabella’s birthday party. It’s unfair that people see her as the bad guy. She has a line near the end, where she says, “You think you’re at wit’s end? My daughter is the one getting hurt and I can’t stop it.” In that moment, you suddenly see Renata Klein in a whole new light. She can be the smartest, most successful person in the room, but she can’t stop her daughter from experiencing pain. That’s unfair. Dern beautifully conveys the crippling frustration of a control freak being confronted with the harsh fact that they can’t fix everything.
Whether she was laying herself emotionally bare about her past with Agent Cooper, begging a mom to let her daughter come to a birthday party, or finding hilarious truths in a madman’s haiku, Laura Dern never faltered in 2017. Every decision she made felt not only like the exact right choice, but also like one that no other actor could have done the same way.
Her output this year wasn’t just a creative peak in a career filled with highlights. It was a kindness for the entire medium – televised comfort food for 2017’s weary soul. More than anything, her performances finally gave us a reason to stop worrying for a bit, as we glanced at the screen and thought, “Oh, look, it’s Laura Dern. Maybe everything really will be OK after all.”