by Jane Hu and Michelle Dean
Jane: Wow, so the third episode of Jane Campion’s seven-part series, “Top of the Lake,” aired last night and it wasn’t until I started reading reviews that I realized how divisive Campion can be. Granted, this is her first television venture to be released in the U.S., and perhaps viewers are more used to Campion’s lush aesthetic on big screen, but it’s not like exaggerated dramatics are unknown quantities in TV-land either.
So I know we’re both Campion enthusiasts (Bright Star, would other films be steadfast as thou art?!), and while I’m absolutely loving “Top of the Lake,” there are definitely moments that leave me puzzled. Though we’ve only seen the first three episodes (and warning: this conversation will include spoilers for those), I’m anticipating many more plot-twists to come. But to back up — the show is somewhere between a thriller and police procedural. Campion and her reviewers have compared it to “The Killing,” but “Top of the Lake” veers from the typical “who murdered the dead girl?” narrative by 1) introducing us to the girl as alive; 2) introducing the core dilemma not as who killed, but who impregnated, the girl; and 3) making the girl not white. The young heroine, Tui Mitcham (Jaqueline Joe), is 12 years old, and she’s the first character we see in the pilot. Let’s start with her! What did you think?
Michelle: Ugh, the reviews. First, I do not understand why people are acting like Campion’s been underground since The Piano. It simply isn’t true. Holy Smoke, In the Cut, Bright Star — I mean, I realize these are all films about women and that maybe then not as many people watched them but it’s sort of weird to enthusiastically broadcast that. She’s not been in a cave for twenty years. Then there are pieces like the one by Mike Hale , which seem to get no farther than a “Chicks, man” critical stance. How dare Campion be obsessed by gender politics! askdakflljgh
Anyway, onwards: Tui struck me, in her brief appearances, as one of the more recognizable 12-year-olds I’ve ever seen on television, sullen and defiant and smart, no wise-cracking, just wariness. Given that we learn very quickly that she is pregnant, some of her guardedness seems related to that at first but I suspect it’s more of a personality trait than that. It’s not clear that we’re going to see that much more of her but her instincts — the way she doesn’t seem particularly afraid of her abusive father, Matt, just coolly reaching for a shotgun to ward him off — are something beyond the delicacy and fragility that plague depictions of young dead girls.
Jane: Usually, the dead girl in such shows is, being dead, more symbolic than active (this is why is why I love the hallucinatory portrayals of Alison in “Pretty Little Liars” so much), which made Tui appear all the more striking on screen. Her interactions with others are electric because she is, as you mention, hostile and enigmatic, and very much alive. She’s also unpredictable, to the viewer (I really wasn’t sure at first where that shotgun scene was going) and to those around her, such as Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), the detective who’s made it her goal to help her.
Michelle: I looked up Tui’s name and it turns out it means something like “wandering bird” in Thai. Which fits, as she’s gone by the end of the first episode. That Tui is a “gone girl” who isn’t white may slip by a lot of viewers without notice, but it’s the first signal that this will not be like every other violence-against-women police procedural I can think of (certain seasons of “Dexter” excepted).
Jane: As someone alert to bodies that aren’t white on television, Tui stuck out immediately, and she might have even stuck out as almost unbelievable (the mystical other!) if Campion hadn’t created such a realized and lived-in world in her isolated New Zealand community.
Michelle: Being not-American, as you and I and Campion all are, it seems important to bring up the particular position that Thai immigrants in New Zealand, like Tui’s mother, are in. I did some digging, sensing something awry with Tui’s mother’s situation. (She seems to be living in the back of a store with Matt’s son Johnno, i.e. Tui’s half-brother.) It turns out that there is a concern, in New Zealand, that many Thai women immigrants are victims of human trafficking, sometimes escapees from the sex trade in Bangkok itself. (Please understand I’m not saying this means all Thai women in New Zealand are present or former sex workers, only that it’s an idea that is in the public consciousness “down there.”) Campion is not the kind of person to sidestep things like that, though I suppose it’s possible it’s a red herring.
Jane: Absolutely, which is why it feels odd that reviewers are so quick to read “Top of the Lake” as allegorical — innocent children and damaged women against evil men! — while evading questions of geography, race, and political climate. Red herring or not, Robin’s scene with Tui’s mother was suggestive on a number of levels, from the corner store at which she works, to the fact that Johnno has to translate between them. As in this instance, the outsider status of Robin is emphasized throughout, but she’s also the audience’s point of identification, leading to all sorts of uneasy scenes.
Instead of framing it as Women, Good and Men, Bad, it makes more sense to see these characters as Outsiders, Different and Locals, Same. The group women living on the plot of named “Paradise” (led by a flowing grey-locked Holly Hunter as “G.J.”) are not only unassimilated to this specific NJ community, but they’re also unassimilated from one another. These women live in shipping containers (talk about migrants) in a sort of camp-out arrangement, and Campion shows them constantly in contention with one another, even if at the level of an eye-roll. Against this are the men of the town (all of whom I can distinctly tell apart, unlike those of so many American network and cable dramas) who are uniformly afraid of change to their, yes, sexist lives. (“Is she a she?” they keep asking, about G.J.) I don’t read these character as clichés, though, because they’re utterly believable. G.J. and her crones, in all their resentment and vulnerability, are so compelling. And they didn’t look like any other television bodies. (Drive-by old lady nudist really brought that home, like a reminder of “I’m here! I exist!” always in the background.)
Michelle: Yeah. To me the drive-by nudist is just one of the show’s many giant middle-fingers to the world. Another one, in the Game of Crones (I’m sorry) is that when Matt arrives to find the occupants of Paradise already setting up, one of the women tells him a whole song and dance about how her pet chimp died. She describes the chimp as though it were sort of an abusive boyfriend, and then says sadly she had to have him put down. It’s a weird story but I loved it; Campion is fucking with her audience, who like Matt expect these women to be crazy. (The scene is in fact so ambiguous I can’t tell if the woman herself is fucking with him, though she insists she really is talking about a chimp.) And in a way, they are, but it’s a kind of crazy born of a lifetime of bad experiences with men. One woman decides to take charge by driving to the local bar and offering them $100 for seven minutes in heaven, as it were, and when she explains why it has to be seven minutes, not six or eight, you kind of get it.
Jane: Yes! In the most recent episode, Matt returns to Paradise and tries to give her a bouquet of flowers while she’s sitting in a car, and she just looks in horror, rolls up her window, and drives away. NO ATTACHMENTS. Anything can become a point of attachment! Which also seems to be the underlying logic of the detective genre too — not just that everything can become a clue, but that romantic attachments are often obstructions (this is tweaked when you have a female protagonist, of course).
Michelle: I do think the power plays are pretty explicitly gendered; I agree there is “different” going on on top of them but so far there isn’t a single man on this show with unquestionable motives. That said, I’d be happy to hear someone tell me precisely what is so unrealistic about what Robin is seeing up by the lake. I don’t think I only know asshole men, that seems a bit much, but so far the dynamics of sexual assault, and even the police’s reaction to it, don’t seem to me to be so far off.
That said possibly the thing ringing falsest to me in the first couple of episodes is G.J. It’s either the wig or something else; she’s too… on point.
Jane: HOLLY HUNTER, WHAT IS HAPPENING? Campion, for me, is one of those directors that can move from subtle to being utterly on the nose, and I think Hunter’s character is currently leaning toward the latter. Is it her long, gray (barely-masked wig of) hair? Is it how she’s always smoking a cigarette? Maybe it’s the outfit and Hunter’s delivery that makes G.J. look like she just came out of a 1950s Western. She speaks in these seer-like aphorisms that aren’t just predictive, but sound almost like threats. Is she mystical, omniscient, telepathic? I don’t know whether to feel safe in her presence, or giggle (if a bit nervously).
Regardless, as we know from The Piano, Hunter has a magnetic attraction about her and in “Top of the Lake,” she’s again set against the most stunning backdrop. G.J.’s “Paradise” is set on a plot of land that justifies its name, but is described as a recovery home for “women in a lot of pain” (the name “Paradise” quickly turns from on the nose to, like drive-by nudist, another Campion “fuck you”). And even “Paradise” doesn’t quite belong to these women: Matt’s mother is buried there and, as became clear last night, he really wants it back.
Is this New Zealand story about a struggle over land, a fight for territory? On the ground, everything begins to resemble a Western, or frontier film, where small communities compete for survival and one fallen woman — or in this case, girl — represents futurity, however menacingly. From above, the panoramas of lush New Zealand mountains reminds me of Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which is set in Alaska on the other end of the planet (though we all know how that ended). There can be no generalizing about nature, and things are never as they seem. From The Piano, to those opening minutes of In the Cut, to almost every exquisite scene in Bright Star, Campion is a master of filming nature. Like Herzog, she makes nature uncanny. They’re like moving paintings, a Jeff Wall production, and I think the aestheticization — that is, the flattening — of New Zealand is something we should watch for.
Michelle: But in Campion’s films some people are of nature, and then other people are trying to subdue the wild. (In The Piano, the former is Harvey Keitel, the latter Sam Neill.) Tui, I think, is the former in this schematic. She walks into the lake. And when Tui comes over the mountain on horseback, headed to the compound at Paradise, weapon strapped to her back, it’s all… very Lone Ranger. Or rather Tonto, I guess. But something about her survivalist look there (as refracted through, I dunno, Tiger Beat) is meant to tell us something, make us believe that she could survive in the wilderness alone. She is of it, the wild.
Which is sort of funny because later in the second episode, when a policeman suggests exactly this, that Tui like an animal has crawled off into the wood to give birth somewhere, Robin dresses him down. And we feel she is one hundred percent right! I mean, really, what a ridiculous notion of human childbirth to adopt, one only available to someone who has never bothered to look into what women go through. But it’s one thing to elegantly link Tui to some idea of the natural, and another for it to be imposed on her by someone who hasn’t the faintest clue what he’s talking about.
But the analogy between Tui and animals keeps growing. In the third episode, she is suspected to be the body buried in a shallow grave on the property of a known child molester. But in fact, the Kiwi CSI team finds the corpse is a dog. And here again I felt, as a viewer, like Campion was trying to flip me off. Like: you think Tui would go that easily? You think she’d just accept her death gently, like a dog? How can this be the explanation? In another kind of show I’d be annoyed by the whole digression into Wolfgang, the child molester, who I think it’s pretty clear from the start is not the man we’re looking for. He is not the answer, this man living in such obvious suspicion in the creepy cabin in the woods. But I think it’s interesting the way Campion handles this. Like: of course it’s not him. Of course it isn’t.
Jane: Campion is an expert at the flip it and reverse it, and she uses the misdirection trope of detective narratives so well here. This is why I reject the notion that she’s heavy-handed; “Top of the Lake” hinges toward naturalizing, even animalizing, the women on the show, and then veers around to show them resisting such simplification. Campion’s shots can be seductively beautiful, but they’re also quite menacing — so when you place a group of half-broken women in half-open shipping containers in the middle of this landscape, they don’t map onto one another in any easy analogy. Instead, they’re unpredictable in a way that constantly threatens their so-called ecosystem, and you realize that the moments which brought them here are heavily cultural, political, patriarchal and bureaucratic, and they’re just looking for a place outside those histories and contexts.
Michelle: Speaking of threatening ecosystem, much of the foregoing we wrote before we saw the third episode, and we kept reading that the third episode would be a game-changer, and we wondered if we would have to rewrite all our conclusions in light of it. But I found it much more ambiguous. First we learned that there’s a drug lab belowground at the Mitcham place, which is no doubt what Mitcham wanted Tui to keep quiet about. But I think what was supposed to throw us off was the scene where Matt Mitcham, mid-ecstasy trip, takes one of the crones to his mother’s grave in the wilderness, tells her he’ll “fix this” and then kneels before it and whips himself with a belt.
The funny thing about the self-flogging is that I felt we were being played with again. There’s this odd attitude towards misogynists sometimes, that believes that if they managed to revere one woman it means they could not hate the rest of them. But in general, it seems to me, the hatred of women comes from starting out with some unattainable ideal of them. And a woman who wants you to “fix” things, one who inspires you to whip yourself with a belt, as Matt’s dead mother does: well, that’s Norman Bates stuff. That’s how misogyny works!
Jane: Right, and that’s what TV narratives do: they give you specific exceptions of love, marriage, something approximating equality among a man and a woman, and it’s supposed to lull you into acceptance… It feels like Campion might be just aggressively suspicious enough here not to let all the heterosexual dynamics resolve themselves so easily. We should note that “Top of the Lake” is, like The Piano, very much about mothers and maternity. I can’t help but read into Robin’s deflection of the question “Do you have children?” when caught looking lovingly at the video of Tui dancing (which is also a trope: “Twin Peaks,” “Pretty Little Liars”).
Michelle: That said, I guess the impotence sort of eliminates him as a suspect in Tui’s pregnancy. Though to be honest I suspect her slip of paper, the “no one” she says “did this to her,” is the truth. At the beginning of that first ep — blink and you’ll miss it — a boy on the bus sends that “r u ok?” text. He shows up again in her cell phone pictures. Is he wearing a blue hoodie? I feel like I’m afraid to double-check. I don’t want to figure something out too early.
Jane: Too late — I checked! And he is! He is wearing the blue hoodie!