“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.

536522_431891623561435_193783295_nNot 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.

13 Responses to ““Top of the Lake” (2013): where gods and monsters battle, and children lose”

  1. Hattie Says:

    Those Scandinavian procedurals are in part so riveting because they often wrangle with broader topics: the sense that cultural change has wrought insurmountable anger.

    You nailed it! That’s what’s gone wrong with people.

    I’m not a Campion fan, hated *The Piano,* but will certainly look at this new series. It sounds as if she got the message about the sexism in her film..

    • Didion Says:

      It’s been so long since I saw The Piano — I might need to see it again to remind myself.

      I just love those Scandinavian mysteries. Compared to Nesbo and Mankell, Steig Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series looks downright cheery.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Thanks for your perspectives on TOTL. You have provided a marvelous write up of the series which simultaneously will pique interest yet gives away very little.

    I saw the the 7 hours over the 5 weeks it ran on the Sundance Channel – and though I considered that it didn’t end as well as it began, I was glad to have watched it and discussed it. I hope your readers will invest some time into this riveting yet flawed series.

    Speaking of Jo Nesbo – I just finished The Leopard which followed The Snowman, and The Redbreast. I’ve got The Phantom in hand too. And you are 100% right about Police Detective Hole working at a job that is killing him.


    • Didion Says:

      Thanks, JMM! I wish I’d been able to watch it at the same time you did — not least because I would have had more time to absorb the episodes from week to week. But alas … my cable package doesn’t include Sundance.

      So glad to hear you’re gobbling up Jo Nesbo, too. Those novels just get darker and darker. Sometimes, when in the true depths of self-pity (about grading papers, etc.), I find Hole’s struggles to be cathartic — they remind me that it’s not like I’m recovering from gunshot wounds, nor am I wrangling with an addiction to anything. Helps keep it all in perspective. 🙂

  3. Becky Says:

    Just started watching this, thanks for the recommendation. Oh, and Nesbo? I will tear up when he knocks off Harry. He says it’s coming.

    • Didion Says:

      Every single book has felt like Harry’s going to get himself killed! I can’t believe it’s going to get worse!

  4. I LOVED Top of the Lake, despite it’s gruesome subject matter(s). Please, more feminist TV. Please, more TV from a woman’s angle. Please, more TV with more female characters. Please, just more.

    • Didion Says:


      • Bronwyn Tudor Says:

        THIS was feminist television — a woman who collected the money of others and ultiamtely abandoned them? I detested that character.

      • Didion Says:

        Well, I think you’re making a bit much out of the one character. I felt that what makes it feminist television was that the story revolved around rape culture, that it featured just as many (if not more) female characters than male, and it featured a three-dimensional woman as lead. I also very much appreciate that it was created, written, and directed by Jane Campion (in tandem with co-writers and directors).

        That said, I found Hunter’s character riveting and hilarious. Can she help it if those crazy bitches keep following her around? 🙂

  5. hattie Says:

    I thought TOTL sagged a bit in the middle but the last two episodes were great. It all ends up on an ambivalent note, which I liked.

  6. Bronwyn Tudor Says:

    Re: the Hole novels — he does finish off Harry in a way that I found infuriating — but some thought the end was open to interpretation. I had heard it might be coming, so I tried to prepare myself, but it was the WHY of it mostly that I hated.

    • Didion Says:

      Ahhh! that novel hasn’t arrived in the US yet! I’d accuse you of spoiling it, but I’d heard this would happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: