Last May I helped organize a conference in my university and after talking about our research fields I was recommended two TV shows for the crime lover in me: Top of the Lake (2013) and The Bletchley Circle (2012). One of the things that called my attention was that Top of the Lake was written and produced by Jane Campion whose movie The Piano changed something in non-sexist representation of women. So, as soon as I got home I got Top of the Lake and started watching it. Beware! This review contains some minor spoilers.
To sum up the main premise, I would only say that detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) moves back home to New Zealand to spend time with her mom, who suffers from cancer, and ends up investigating the pregnancy and posterior disappearance of Tui, a local a 12-year old girl. These are the events that set the action in motion and, as the series progresses, new information is discovered about both Robin and Tui. I think this structure of a case taking up a whole and only season is becoming more and more fashionable because the audience get to know and become familiar with the characters. As a consequence, the detective becomes a central character so that the writers and the actors/actresses can explore a human psychology more deeply. This allows for more complex and realistic portrayals of investigators, both men and women. In Top of the Lake, Campion explores Robin’s sexuality, mind, psychology and body, something that is not so common on TV crime fiction where investigators are mere tools to solve the crimes. She is a daughter, a fiancée, a girlfriend, a detective, a friend, a native and an outisder, all at the same time. But above all, she is a woman and Campion will center on the joys and perils of this.
But, despite this amazing main character, I had quite a few problems with the series and I have been waiting for weeks to write this review because I cannot make up my mind about it. If I ask myself: “Elena, did you enjoy the series?” I would say that I did, from a crime fiction point of view. Robin was also a masterfully written and performed main character, quite different to what we are used to see on TV nowadays. And the scenery? That was amazing! Check it for yourselves:
However, I think I am missing something, or maybe I am trying to over-analyze a good crime TV show as a masterful, feminist and life-changing production. Along with the case we are presented with a group of women who moved to a land called “Paradise” to heal themselves from what I would broadly call the patriarchy. They are divorced, they are abandoned, they are what society would sadly call “crazy bitches/witches”. Throughout the series I fell in love with their leader, GJ (Holly Hunter), because she was androgynous, strong and opinionated. However, does a female character need to be like that to be interesting? And what about the name? GJ? As in God/Jesus because they are in Paradise and she has disciples? I am not the best at figuring out religious connections, so I will leave this to those of you who are.
Top of the Lake also makes a great effort to explore rape, rapists and how women are affected by this crime. Robin herself was the victim of a brutal sexual crime back in her teens and now she has returned home a grown woman, a great detective, and above all, healed and in charge of her life. There is no self-pity for her, she is aware of what she went through and condemns it, but she has moved on with her life and has tried to make the best of a horrible situation. It is not very often that rape victims are presented like this on TV. I am a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU and although they made a great job at exploring rape, victims are usually presented as shocked and weak, but doing the right thing: denouncing their rapists to the police. But not here: Robin has gained back agency: it is her life and she proudly claims it after the attack.
And, finally, patriarchy, sexism, classical male values and brutality are embodied by Matt (Peter Mullan), Tui’s father. He represents everything that is wrong with how society raises men with men’s values in a classical way. I was made sick by everything he said, everything he did and every place he stood at. Campion also makes him a complex character showing how he was raised and how he has raised his two adult sons, but she never portrays them as victims.
So, I do not really know what more to say about Top of the Lake. It is a good TV show and it makes a different with women’s representation is these new productions. After the women’s representation fiasco of True Detective, I think it is great to see that women have a place on crime TV shows. But, I do not see it as the masterpiece that everyone says it is. Both Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter gave standout performances and I do hope they are recognized for their work.
Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Here are some questions that helped me think and are still unanswered (spoilers):
- Why is Robin running away from her fiancé in Sydney?
- Why does Robin’s mother tolerate her partner’s violence against her?
- GJ’s camp means a return to nature, a feminist idea born in 1970’s France and that, broadly speaking, associates women with nature. Why did Campion use this idea to, finally, discard it in the very last episode?
- Related to the previous question: Why is Tui’s birth in the forest presented as positive?