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« In Which We Do A Few Bad Things First »



Top of the Lake
creators Gerard Lee and Jane Campion

Dignity and its absence is not a regularly discussed topic in any form of art. Usually when it is addressed, we view a permanent loss of self-respect, the kind of descent into shit that only happens to older men, since that is apparently the time in which you are supposed to discard any possibility of living with honor. There is no coming back from that.

At one point in Jane Campion's magnificent miniseries Top of the Lake, Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) is hanging out on a little boat with Johnno, the man with whom she began cheating on her fiancee, Steve. He demurs when she brings up the topic of sex, and she responds, "Can't we do a few bad things before we do something good?"

Robin is a detective visiting her hometown of Paradise, New Zealand when a 12 year old girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) is discovered to be pregnant. Tui lives with her rough, disgusting family, surrounded by weapons, dogs and cages and a criminal lifestyle that largely ignores that she exists. Robin feels a kinship with the half-Maori girl that goes far beyond gender. She, too, has just left the most recent place she calls home, informing Steve, "You deserve someone better."

The show's primary antagonist is Tui's father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan). The sixty-four year old patriarch begins Top of the Lake by accidentally killing a real estate agent he is trying to threaten by dragging him behind his boat in the water. This template for the character says everything we need to know about him - full of menace, devious as he may be, this is someone who often accomplishes the exact opposite of what he is trying to achieve, but doesn't end up paying for it.

In order to threaten Robin when she comes calling to ask about Tui, he puts down a dangerous dog right in front of her with a high-caliber rifle. She is naturally appalled, but it only takes a moment for her to realize that Matt's action itself is merciful, even when all that surrounds it suggests the opposite.

Robin is not really afraid of Matt himself after that. She immediately comes to terms with the idea that the very fact he is not what he seems means is unlikely to be either the father of Tui's baby or the principal cause of her disappearance.

Part of the reason Top of the Lake feels so much more timely than a show it renders amateur hour, AMC's The Killing, is that it shows respect for both sides in the conflict between traditional and progressive ideas.

GJ (Holly Hunter) descends upon a purchased a piece of Matt Mitchum's property with a coterie of women victimized by men, or in one unique case, a chimpanzee. On the surface, she is establishing a support group retreat for these women of various ages.

The portrayal of this assemblage initially verges on satire, but that is only Campion's method for getting the giggles out of the way. Hunter is absolutely magical in this role, and it is a shame they could not do more with her. Mostly she sits in her distinctive chair, elevated slightly, but only slightly, above the rest of her group.

Flowing grey hair to her waist marks a contrast with her perpetually youthful face, and her appearance confuses all who interact with her; as one of her disciplines puts it, GJ "exists on another plane." This indeterminacy too passes, and when she admonishes a bald man who has flown from Shanghai to drop off his daughter with her, we know we are seeing neither hero or villain. 

Robin's first meeting with the long-haired guru is postponed until the series' third episode. GJ threatens her openly, informing her that she will be brought to her knees in a scene where she appears to be telling the detective's fortune. This hits too close to home, feels too familiar.

Robin is busy trying to reinvent the local police department, which maintains an uneasy balance with the impoverished community of Paradise. Her personal life is nothing short of a disaster. Robin's mother is dying of cancer, and she is unable to deal with that either. She never says goodbye to her mother: she only hears a voicemail on her phone.

If the town of Paradise is any indication, tensions between men and women are at an all-time high. Top of the Lake approaches these conflicts from every possible vantage point, swinging the camera high above the lavish natural scenery of New Zealand and close to the anguish of the participants in this drama, when things become most uncomfortable and violent, and then suddenly abstracting us far away again.

For the individual that fights in this war, it is the only way to deal with it and continue living. The remarkable fact is that they are able to go on, with the suggestion being that in some parts of the world, women do not really have a choice, or a retreat.

At first it seems like Robin is dealing with a misogynist roadblock in Al Parker (David Wenham), the resident chief of police. Once we learn the history between them, both of their behavior becomes a lot more complicated. Campion lets this play out over the beginning of Top of the Lake's fourth episode. The scene itself, a simple dinner in an empty house, is made possible by the depth of the performance the director coaxes out of Moss. On her other show, Moss is only permitted the chopped staccato cadence in which something is always being teased, concluded or resolved beyond the actual existence of the characters.

Moss' skills have undoubtedly been improved by her time on stage. She slips into a whole other persona here, not just in how believably she able to shift between the role of victim and aggressor. She also proves this transition can take place in a single moment if we are willing to pay the attention it requires. In this area Top of the Lake shows how inadequate traditional drama can be.

Campion often takes up the stories of children, whose characteristic relationship to the world around them has always been curious to her. It is distinctive that in Top of the Lake, for the first time I can remember, there are not any. Yes, Tui is only twelve. But that means so little to anyone in her world, and we slowly adjust to this reality. There no abdication of responsibility, no protection that comes from whatever innocence is possible in a place like this one. "In nature there is no death," GJ says. "Only a reshuffling of atoms."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about behavioral conditioning.

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Reader Comments (2)

Tui is half-Thai, not Maori. And Paradise isn't Robin's hometown, Laketop is. Paradise is the land in which GJ & her women settle.

I loved this series...and loved the way it handled its characters as you point out.
April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Yes, Tui is half-Thai - her mom was the upset woman in the first episode in which we meet Johnno.

I though Matt put the dog down because that belonged to the guy who drowned - he asked Robin if she liked dogs and wanted it or something to that effect and when she said no, he shot the dog.

I actually feel that Ms. Moss is an exceptional actress in both Mad Men and this series, so her performance is on par with Campion's directing, not a result of it.
April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJinna

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