Top of the Lake: The New Series on the Sundance Channel

top-of-the-lake-posterSo where is Tui?

That’s the big question surrounding the brand new mini-series called Top of the Lake which premiered with two episodes on the Sundance Channel on March 18th. But it is hardly the only question nor the only mystery. Merely, it is the one on the surface. As we learn, the show is less about solving mysteries as it is about finding the truths.

Written by Academy Award winner Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, with Campion also sharing the directing duties along with Garth Davis, the series is set in the wilds of New Zealand; specifically,  we find ourselves in a small town called Queenstown.

We first encounter the lake when a young girl, one Tui Mitcham, purposely enters the lake with intent of killing herself. Only because she was spotted by the local school mistress and pulled out of the water, is why she is still with us.

After her rescue from the lake, Tui is taken back to the school, and is looked over by the school nurse. We learn that she’s okay and isn’t suffering from any hypothermia from her brief immersion, and that she’s just 12 years old, which seems a tad young for a suicide. We also learn that Tui is nearly 5 months pregnant.

Which prompts an investigation of statutory rape.

The local cops can’t get anything out of Tui in their interviews, so a former resident of the town, Robin Griffin, now a police detective specializing in cases of sexual assault in Sydney, Australia, but presently in the area visiting her ailing Mom, is called in as a consultant. Two things become immediately clear – Robin, played by Elisabeth Moss, is a no-nonsense, can-do cop, and that she is able to form at least a preliminary bond with Tui.

All of the above, seems like a proper way to introduce the series which will run for 7 episodes. This also seems like a good place  to begin a discussion. My discussion partner today will be reader fd, a frequent visitor and a person who often offers comments on this blog. PLEASE NOTE THERE ARE A FEW SPOILERS AHEAD WHICH I WILL WARN YOU ABOUT.

JMM: I’ve just set the stage for you by introducing Top of the Lake. Admittedly, I’ve just touched on the top of the story, so now I’ll ask you for your initial impressions.

fd: It looks like this series will require some patience on my part. Initially, the setting and story reminded me of The Killing, a previously broadcast AMC mystery series that I greatly enjoyed.

But, as soon as the opening sequence ended, I began to lose my bearings. I realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Or the Pacific Northwest region where The Killing was filmed.

This was New Zealand! The land looks beautifully moody, but the inhabitants we come across make the Mad Max gang look conservative. Everyone appears quirky. Difficult to read. And potentially sinister.

This is good stuff, but it quickly took me out of my comfort zone. There are so many strange characters. What were your impressions of the main characters, Tui, Robin, GJ and her flighty friends and the ultra heavy Mitcham men? Were you disoriented by the first episode or did it hook you from the start?

JMM: Not disoriented, but rather concerned. Tui was closed off, Robin was capable, even more than capable, but working in an atmosphere which required the Southern Lake cops to make a radical adjustment – this was not the kind of woman that they were used to. GJ represented a number of themes – chief of which was Earth Mother but in a different mind-set as was said by one the lakeside ladies., who were all characters, or should I say ‘unusual’.

As for the Mitcham men folk – yup, they were scary, and that’s being kind.

I also found the policeman Al Parker, to be one of the few normal folks – although obviously he could very well have a sinister side – but his accent was somewhat difficult to understand. And yes – I was hooked immediately as we were looking not only at a culture clash – but a bloody one as well.

fd: Unlike you, I was not quite hooked by the first episode. Some TOTL characters seem all too familiar — why do so many female TV detectives seem to have the same combination of daddy issues and commitment problems blended with scars from an earlier rape incident or a previous investigation that went badly?

JMM: Are we still in the first episode. Where did this info come from?

fd: Subtext? Must be in there, since I’ve only watched one episode and those were my initial impressions. Similarly, in the first episode, the Mitcham men act like the guy who portrays mayhem in insurance commercials. And what’s with all the tattoos?

JMM: Mayhem wrecks houses or property, he doesn’t kill folks intentionally. The head tattoo is a bird of prey. Here you have some cleverness by Campion. The guy is symbolic of a bird of prey – yet the lady detective is called Robin – a song bird. Campion further stirs the curiosity by giving Robin the last name Griffin. A ‘griffin’ is a mythological being with the head of an eagle, talon like claws at the end of lion-like paws, and the hindquarters of a lion. In short – fearsome.

fd: But, then there’s GJ (Holly Hunter), a white-haired weirdo who heads a commune of cast off mid-life women. This is where Campion’s writing talent starts to kick in. These women can sure talk. When Mitcham asks one of the ladies why she is living in a shipping container, she riffs for several moments about her pet chimpanzee, who masturbated so obsessively, she eventually had to have him put down. And if that wasn’t well-penned out-of-the blue dialog, what did GJ mean when she follows up with “I’m not alive. I’m a zombie.

JMM: Yeah, that chimp business caught me by surprise. I knew they had ‘issues’ but that was a stunner or a shocker. And I’ve no idea what to make of GJ so far.

fd: As interesting as these individual characters seem to be, the relationships between them set up the real hook. Incest? Everyone seems related. The women’s shipping containers occupy the same ground where Mitcham’s mother is buried.

JMM: Yes this is true, but they didn’t know that. We only found out when the senior Mitcham announced it.

fd: Which was the apparent reason he took serious action. But, why? This is why I felt disoriented.

JMM: Yes, you are 100% correct that we don’t know why. I’m thinking/guessing that somehow that property also represented a buffer zone – between the lake shore and their own homestead which was gated and set up with full electronic surveillance equipment. Perhaps the Mitchams are drug dealers?

fd: Everyone seems to have a complicated back story that relates to one or more of the other characters. But, there are no flashbacks, so we don’t quite know what to make of things. Tui seems to be part of the Mitcham clan and her half-brother seems also somehow related to Robin.

Tui arrives at Paradise

Tui arrives at Paradise

JMM: Tui is Matt Mitcham’s daughter, but the half-brother, has a different mother. How do you connect him to Robin?

fd: When she introduces herself, he says he knows who she is. Seems like they share some history. And I think he’s another one of Matt Mitcham’s sons. His name is Johnno Mitcham. I understand if you’re confused about the Mitcham family tree. So am I!

JMM: Okay – what was your reaction to the resentment and the fact that the Southern Lake police didn’t take Robin very seriously, at least initially?

fd: Very stock stuff, but this also could suggest more intertwined relationships as well as a cover up of previous crime(s). It’s always a bit unbelievable that the detective who eventually figures everything out gets no respect at first. Even if she has the necessary credentials, experience, and chutzpah. Why were you “concerned” at the start of Episode 1?

JMM: Easy – the Mitcham’s were scary. We met them as soon as the trucks started to deliver the containers. And their reactions were a sure signal that they were to be feared. That lady called them ‘Alpha’s’ didn’t she?

fd: Yeah. The actor who plays Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan – above) is great. Good cast, even Tui (Jacqueline Joe) delivers. And I liked the bit where Tui writes the name of her attacker on the slip of paper. I didn’t suspect the name she wrote. Small twists like this make me want to stay tuned.

SPOILER WARNING: JMM: Um, she didn’t write a name – she wrote No One. Later on in the beginning of Episode 2, the senior Mitcham pointedly said, No One loves her more than me, no one,  Whether or not this was an intentional clue or a misdirection is something we don’t know yet. Which is a nice place to begin talking about the second episode.

fd: Instead of encountering more strange characters, the second episode focuses on the mysteries embedded in their relationships. First question: where is Tui? She’s missing, pregnant, and possibly dead. Second question: Is Tui still alive? Third question: Who’s the father of Tui’s unborn child? And I get the feeling there’s more questions to come, including how did Robin’s father perish in the lake? So, I got hooked quickly by the expanding mystery that ripples like the top of a lake. Didn’t the show get better in Episode 2?

JMM: I was of a thought about the mirrored ending of Episode One and the start of Episode 2. Like two sides of one coin. Different yet similar. But the overview is that this episode had more places to go, and more relationships to be revealed. As you put it – the mysteries and the questions. Ep 01 served more of an introduction Ep 02 gets down to cases. So yes – this episode worked very well for me. Campion begins this episode with a couple of shocks – the body and then the dog. Then she tosses a puzzle at us – the derelict at the bar – as in “Fuck off Putty”. What was the purpose of this character?


fd: They’re like chinese puzzles. I didn’t get much from the bar scene other than the fact that the locals don’t like lesbians and the barkeeper is a convicted pedophile from Austria!  But, there’s a lot more to puzzle over in the second episode. The title sequence shows an antelope head floating in the lake, right? Have you noticed that almost everyone has a stag head in their office, including that “normal” police honcho, Al Parker?

JMM: Mountains, lakes, wilderness – hunting seems normal. But with so many mounted stag heads – it must be symbolic of something, but I can’t identify it.

SPOILER WARNING -fd: And Robin tells us her that her father died in the same lake as Bob Platte, which is also the lake Tui may have drowned in.

fd: Why do you think the show is named Top of the Lake?

JMM: Top of the Lake is really only a beard as it is always what is beneath the surface that matters most.  May I take you back to the bar scene(s) again. I think Campion is laying down the gauntlet and is shooting her cannons in a full broadside (no pun intended) with men as the target. I thought she went above and beyond – at least this early (in the second episode). The way she presented the bar to us – the men are all layabouts. Even the cops drink while on duty.

SPOILER WARNING: JMM The Paradise lady comes in for a 7 minute fuck – and she doesn’t care who does it. The men are just tools (pun intended). Robin is heckled at the bar, but she holds her own by darting the one guy.

JMM: Am I misinterpreting?

fd: I didn’t find the scene to be excessively anti-male, although I found many of the men obnoxious. Men behaving badly is another frequent stereotype, but is also often realistic. Women behaving badly is also becoming overused and unwelcome. If you watch many movies (and TV) today, you’ll see a lot of aggressive female behavior that men would be quickly condemned for using against women. Apparently, women’s aggression is supposed to be cute or humorous, but I find it equally offensive. The dart hurts regardless of which sex becomes the target.

Self defense is always acceptable, but I didn’t like the violence.

JMM: Then there’s the guy who flew in to Paradise by chopper, and GJ barely gives him the time of day… he’s a tool as well. Even his own daughter calls him an asshole.

fd: He could qualify as an asshole. As could the seven-minute woman in the bar. I think Campion is looking critically at both her male and female characters. She may show more sympathy for the women, but I don’t think she’s blindly prejudiced against men.

JMM: I was puzzled by the end of this episode as well. Robin stakes out Wolfie’s cabin. She drove her own car there. If Johnno dropped her off the next morning – isn’t her car still out by Wolfie’s? Just asking…

fd: I guess that slipped by me. I didn’t understand why she went to question Wolfie at night.  She takes risks. And we know her bravado is gonna eventually get her in hot water — or more likely, ice-cold lake water. By the way, isn’t Top of the Lake the name of the area at the center of all the action? The Mitcham land with the shipping containers as well as her father’s cabin?

JMM: Yes top of the lake is what the area is known as – but that might be strictly a geographical reference – like North End of the lake.

SPOILER WARNING JMM: Robin must have followed Wolfie home from the bar. I think she was less concerned with questioning him, than getting a look at his place to see if Tui was there, or if there was any evidence that she was being kept there. So he would have to be home. That was why they set up the scene where Robin followed Wolfie in the dark as he carried the plate of food.

fd: I thought Episode 2 picked up the pace. Since the series has only seven episodes (concluding on April 15th), I expect a lot to happen next week.

And on that note, we will conclude. Thanks for the chat fd. Readers, in case you are wondering where can see this series, the Sundance Channel is carried on the following systems:

DirectTV, Verizon, Time-Warner, AT&T U-verse, Cox Communications, and Comcast.

Stay with us for more on this series next week, and we invite your comments and opinions.


5 thoughts on “Top of the Lake: The New Series on the Sundance Channel

  1. What the h happened at the end of episode 7? And how did Robin figure everything out so perfectly (and wordlessly)? What were the clues that led her to her seemingly impossible conclusion?
    Why was there no exposition to explain anything? Was the shooting justified, since she was no longer a cop aand had absolutely no real evidence of anything?
    There is a fine line between minimalist and nothingness in storytelling…

    • Thanks for the comment/questions.

      Here’s my opinion. At the cafe Robin sees the images on the wall of the kids who went through the training program. She sees Jaime, April Stephens, and Tui.
      She also sees Al tell the young waiter – “look at the customer… she’ll tell you what she wants. Robin knew of the training program but had no idea that Al so hands on and involved.

      Robin was also there when all the kids left the Paradise commune in the van with Al including Tui.

      So Robin’s sets off for Al’s place – the fancy home by the lake – not knowing what to expect. But thinking that Al is involved with all these kids, but not knowing exactly how.

      Al comes out. There’s a struggle with the gun. Al is shot.

      My thinking is that Al couldn’t simply shoot Robin – he has no idea whom she might have told she was going to his place. Plus there are too many people at his place. If Robin got inside she would discover the child porno ring. So in a sense he is going down. Convicted. So – Al wanted to be shot – like an assisted suicide – rather than face a trial and incarceration.

      But I think you are right. It seemed rushed and assembled so quickly in the last episode far too quickly. As you are saying – Campion didn’t as much finish the story – instead – like GJ, she just walked away from it.

  2. I believe the show did not give closure to GJ. She just walks away
    From the situation. Will this show return for another season or was it just a mini series? I was hooked on the first show. It did appear like the Killing but kept my interest because it moved fast and remained totally concrete. Awesome!

  3. Just watched episode 1 (after binging on season 2: disappointing and silly!). The reviewers should not make too much of the structutre of the episodes,as they are watching the six hour-long episodes reedited for American transmission into seven American-hours.

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