“Top of the Lake” (2013): where gods and monsters battle, and children lose
26 April 2013
The mystery/procedural often offers up a strange kind of comfort. Its structure promises that chaos and confusion can be resolved into “order;” mysteries will be solved; we will find out who did it. We might not feel good at the end, but we’ll know.
I got through the final months of writing my book by plowing through the Henning Mankell novels: Wallander, c’est moi.
For me, the best mysteries convey a more thoroughgoing, almost existential unease. Those Scandinavian procedurals are in part so riveting because they often wrangle with broader topics: the sense that cultural change has wrought insurmountable anger. In Jo Nesbø’s dark novels, the protagonist’s investigations initiate such a deep personal unraveling that his job is killing him. That tension between chaos and order worked out in these stories is, for some reason, something I need to witness — even when chaos seems to be winning. These modern mysteries constitute a dark diagnosis of contemporary society’s ills.
But Jane Campion’s 7-hour series Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix right now, and thank god for that) raises the stakes of the mystery to a new level. At the heart of this story is an almost mythic conflict between gods — a conflict over what it means when a world is made unstable with the appearance of a competing god. The fact that the gods at issue are patriarchal and maternal figures makes the stakes all the higher. I can’t tell you how much I loved this show, and how unnerving it is.
At one end of the spectrum is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the violent, unpredictable, and Scottish-brogued drug kingpin who lords over Laketop, New Zealand like the vengeful Old Testament God, with his tattooed sons Mark and Luke (above). His third son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), back from prison and disaffected from his father’s world, lives in a tent in the woods and sleeps with the local girls. This may be the best use of the four evangelists’ names in literary history.
The binoculars in Mark’s hand in that photo have spied a new arrival in the town: a group of women with a vaguely cultlike, inscrutable leader named GJ (Holly Hunter) which has purchased a spot on the lake called Paradise that Matt believes is rightly his. Living in empty metal boxes positioned in a circle, the middle-aged women swim naked in the lake, comb one another’s hair, and prowl for sex in town. In between they huddle around the emaciated GJ who, they believe, offers wisdom and the possibility of recovery from their bad relationships with men.
What turns everyone’s attention away from the faceoff between old and new gods is the fact that Matt’s 12-yr-old mixed-race daughter Tui has walked chest-deep into the freezing lake on her way to school, and that when the school nurse got her out of those wet clothes, she found — almost incomprehensibly — that Tui is five months pregnant.
Which brings detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss, aka Peggy Olson from Mad Men) to the scene. Now a specialist in child abuse cases in Sydney, she’s back in town to help care for her dying mother. When she asks Tui to write down the name of the man who impregnated her, the nearly silent child writes, “No one.”
And then, after a visit to GJ and the middle-aged women in Paradise, Tui goes missing.
Sure, Robin has her suspicions about likely perpetrators. The near-animalistic Matt, Mark, and Luke all live with Tui in their fortified compound and thus make ideal suspects. The little girl would have good reasons to deny (or repress) their rape of her. The town also has the usual kinds of blokey, oversexed, and/or disturbed men who inhabit barstools and dart games in low-level threatening ways.
But a funny thing happens on the way to investigating Tui’s rape and disappearance: with little to go on, the adults get reabsorbed in and distracted by their own dramas. Not least, Robin can hardly see this case without allowing her own bad memories to get in the way, to imagine bad guys who mirror figures in her own past.
Robin’s obviously maternal feelings toward Tui stand in sharp relief against her own relationship to her mother. Purportedly in town to help in her cancer-striken mother, Robin spends less and less time there, distracted by someone else’s daughter and, gradually, by the feral, razor-thin Johnno who’s haunted by his own demons. Nor is she the only woman in town feeling ambivalent about the mother-daughter dynamic. The women at GJ’s commune abandon themselves to self-care, a self-indulgence made all the more striking by the appearance of a daughter. Most unsentimental of all is the gravelly-voiced haunt of Paradise, GJ herself — who increasingly expresses antipathy toward the “crazy bitches” who want her to mother them.
You might think that a series that fundamentally probes relationships between men and women, parents and children, leaders and followers, rape and consensual sex might have straightforward feminist ends — particularly since it features a protagonist like Robin. But Campion’s goals are far more thoroughgoing than to condemn male violence, no matter how offensive. The women in the show are crippled and isolated by sexual shame and senses of maternal failure. They appear yoked to men in one way or another, even when — like GJ’s followers — they want to be rid of them. In sum, this is exactly what I want to see in female-oriented, female-directed filmmaking: complex stories and characters without simple morals.
This might sound bleak; I haven’t begun to talk about its wicked humor, the extent to which this show elaborates a human comedy as much as its nightmare. But let me assure you, when anchored to a neo-noir whodunit, and when acted so subtly by Moss, Hunter, Mullan, et al. — well, it turns back around into that chaos/order dynamic that we all find weirdly gratifying.
Campion’s probing of primal myths with all these unpredictable, violent fathers and distant, guarded mothers serves to imagine human society in its darkest terms. They live at the top of the lake, but just as there might be bodies sunk down below, so do memories and histories and secrets swirl in those shadowy waters.
Let’s not forget, after all, how tangled are the Greek myths — the complex tales of parentage, gods raping mortals, bloody patricides, maternal distresses, outlaws and castaways and expatriates. You could say there’s nothing new under the sun, but let me assure you that you need to see how this unfolds.
Not to mention the scary possibility raised by Tui’s pregnancy and memories of other rapes long ago: could there be an even darker god lurking out in the woods, a true devil? As Robin and the police stutter around in their investigation, we get that feeling at the back of our necks that something is very wrong in Laketop.
Logging in at 7 hours, this 7-part series isn’t nearly enough. I gobbled it down — as I’m wont to due when a series is available in its entirety like this — but as with the very best series, I’m left with the sense that I missed half of the things that might give me even more appreciation for its depths. In short: I might have to watch it again. You should watch it too.