A Scandal in Paradise: On “Top of the Lake”

By Jen VafidisApril 6, 2013

A Scandal in Paradise: On “Top of the Lake”

AFTER THE FIRST TWO episodes of Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake resist any typical whodunit structure, the third slackens the rope. Our detective, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), is brooding over evidence, mainly a scrap of paper with the words “NO ONE” written on it. This note was our missing innocent’s evasion to the question of who could be the father of her unborn child. The detective stares hard, and, after a few gulps of red wine, she gets a look of rare certainty. She reports to her boss over the phone that she has figured it out: she knows who “NO ONE” is. And that’s it. The credits roll. We have ourselves a cliffhanger not unlike the one at the end of episode three of Twin Peaks, where Agent Cooper wakes from a dream of a red curtained room and declares he knows who killed Laura Palmer. What could the detective see that we couldn’t? Who the hell knows. Next episode, please.

For all its self-conscious weirdness, Twin Peaks was still straightforward, somehow, if too fond of the old bait-and-switch. Top of the Lake is none of that. The next episode of Twin Peaks, for instance, opens with breakfast and Cooper confessing he’ll need help from his friends deciphering his epiphany. Episode four of Top of the Lake opens with Sunday dinner, at the impeccable house of Griffin’s boss. This is where she will tell him her theory about “NO ONE,” and where he will dismiss it. This is where we will learn that Robin is also a rape victim. This is where she will get too drunk to leave the table without falling to the floor, where she will wake up in her boss’s button-down and check to see if she’s wearing her underwear. This is where the rope tightens again. To quote Robin from an earlier episode, “Why do I feel so manipulated?” 

Well, because I am being manipulated, in a special Jane Campion sort of way. Her archetypes, like Harvey Keitel’s noble savage in The Piano or Abbie Cornish’s romantic playgirl in Bright Star, grow spines, but they’re still replicas, albeit imperfect ones. It’s not that Top of the Lake is posing as a detective thriller, as some critics have suggested. It’s that the writing on the show is particularly self-conscious. There’s an echo effect. Campion plays a much larger game of bait-and-switch. You are watching a procedural drama that refuses to be simply that, often comporting itself as a meditation on trauma and recovery. The series is miming its detective thriller predecessors while it throws a wrench in their gears. All while looking distractingly gorgeous. 


Let’s talk about that wrench. What makes Top of the Lake different? For starters, the object of our obsession is a 12-year-old Thai girl named Tui, not a blonde, white prom queen; she’s alive, not washed up on the shore; she’s pregnant, not just raped; and she is not in the crosshairs of the story as much as she is part of its overall mood, like all the characters are. All the characters except, perhaps, for Robin. As a visitor from out of town, she’s the one who’s out of place, which draws us to her. It’s her emotional trauma that gets grafted onto Tui’s, her desires that we return to.

Still, there’s something eerily familiar about all of this. While Campion herself has waved at The Killing as an influence, and others have pointed out the basic parallels to Inspector Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect, the best ally for Top of the Lake might be The Silence of the Lambs. Both are genuinely on-the-nose weird and require viewers to adjust to peculiar rhythms. (Just try watching a clip of The Silence of the Lambs out of context, and you will be made uncomfortable in a whole new way.) Both relentlessly interrogate femininity and masculinity via nearly every character, not just the women; from Buffalo Bill’s female performance to Matt Mitcham’s professed impotence and subsequent self-flagellation, there’s a colorful range of gender theories to be explored. Both stretch the bounds of their narrative structures. Both feature scenes of our hardened protagonists running in the woods.

Is that too glib? Not really. There’s a litany of things that make Top of the Lake like other stories in the missing-girl genre. In these stories, there is usually a female detective who is marked as different or in need of special attention. (Twin Peaks is exceptional, but only because David Lynch wouldn’t know what to do with a female protagonist that wasn’t totally bonkers.) On The Killing and its Danish foremother Forbrydelsen, you have the Sarahs, Linden and Lund, wearing their androgyny on their sleeves. (In Sarah Lund’s case, this is literal. Her sexless Faroese knitwear is so noticeable, it’s coveted; there’s even a website with details on how to make or buy one.) On The Bridge, another Danish crime drama, the woman detective is lacking in social skills to the point of seeming like she might have Asperger’s. In the first 20 minutes of the pilot, she doesn’t let an ambulance through the crime scene on principle, even after a woman pleads for her husband’s life. People look at her quizzically; her co-workers raise their eyebrows at her behavior. Isn’t she unusual? 

These shows also tend to fixate on a murdered girl who played the virgin-whore in life. These are usually party girls damaged by their attractiveness. In the case of The Bridge, there are girls, plural, two women whose bodies have been split in half by their killer and mashed together, like a Frankenstein monster of femininity, splayed over the border between Sweden and Denmark. (The close-up on the bodies is prime goosebump material; watching it, you remember that detective series are always fundamentally about what people are capable of doing to one another.) One half is the abdomen of a respectable politician, and the legs are those of an escort. As false dichotomies go, this one is pretty literal. Madonna, meet whore. The image emphasizes how often these stories feature women shaming the public with their private selves. As Laura Palmer says, “Isn’t sex weird?”  

Of course, a show with a career woman would not be complete without sexism. While this is not true in the Danish shows, refreshingly enough, there are plenty of DCI Jane Tennison moments in Top of the Lake, where our heroine is tough enough to withstand any punches from male colleagues. Robin’s mother even says outright in episode one that she is “hard.” She sneers: “And what I don’t like is that you think it’s strength. It’s not.” 

But Robin can be quite raw. We see her drunk and stumbling in front of her boss. We see her make mistakes in front of her team. We come across her curled up on the floor, taking an isolated nap early in the morning at the office. We see her cornered by an old flame in a bar bathroom. We see her watch video footage of Tui without, seemingly, any aim other than empathy. In fact, Robin is much more an open wound than Tui ever is onscreen. Whereas Robin lovingly strokes her father’s shoes and says “Daddy,” a moment Troy Patterson at Slate labels as “extreme Plathiness,” Tui holds a shotgun to her papa’s face. (The case could be made for both being pretty Plathy, if you ask me, but then I don’t see the term as derogatory.)

Patterson’s reference is actually in step with something present in most good detective stories, and most New Zealand noir films too: alienation. Chalk it up to the immensity of the surroundings, maybe. Robin Griffin is an exile returning to her origins, both literally (this is the town she grew up in) and figuratively (as a rape survivor, she is revisiting her past), and she is alone, on purpose. This brings her closer to a character like Sarah Lund, who spends time hunched over a bowl of dinner and a glowing computer screen, whose mother also assesses her choices as destructive. In these shows, a lot of value is placed on drawing people in, not pushing them away, but it’s a fine line to walk. You can be too friendly with some and get punished (Buffalo Bill’s victim offering to help him put a couch in his van; Nanna Birk Larsen getting too close to her lover), and too harsh with others and get judged. Those who push away develop a professional fascination with the ones who cannot help pulling you in. The detectives dreamily watch video of their lost girls being coquettish: Laura Palmer dancing with a friend, Tui dancing in mysterious company. 

The question of the company they keep or don’t keep is the basic tension in these women’s lives. Where are these women’s boyfriends? What about their sons? One subplot of Top of the Lake features a coven of abused women who have flocked to a plot of land called Paradise to heal themselves. In a conversation about anger, one of the women asks another, “Do you ever masturbate?” Her question goes ignored, but not because it’s taken as immoral or crude. Something else has distracted them, away from this moment of openness. It’s as if no one wants to get too close, even if being close is all anyone can think about. 

In any show about dire straits for women, a question persists: what keeps this from being a Lifetime movie event? Are these victims, or is it more complicated than that? The more attention paid to pain, Campion seems to be arguing, the worse things become. It’s Robin we’re scared for when she’s alone in a suspect’s cabin. It’s Robin who wishes to ignore confrontation. When she cheats on her fiancée with an old flame, she quite seriously asks, “Can’t we do a little bit more of the wrong thing before we do the right thing?” It’s Robin who might not be able to survive. 

As novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette says, the crime genre is “the great moral literature of our time,” exposing society’s ills in a way no other narrative can. Having a flawed person at the center is de rigeur; making a flawed woman the focus seems even more fashionable. But are we looking at women whose morality is questionable, or are we seeing women for whom morality is an unsolvable question? For Campion at least, the latter seems the case. The world she has created is large enough to be about more than a woman chasing and avenging innocence. The search for the truth is always littered with distraction; it’s easy to lose your will to know how inhumane humans can be. “Fuck the truth,” as one character says, and you almost agree. Let’s never find out who killed Laura Palmer. Let’s never go in the woods. Let’s stay by the shore of the lake forever.


LARB Contributor

Jen Vafidis is an editor at Oxford University Press, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, of which she is the deputy editor. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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