Top of the Lake Closes Its Run: Did It Work for You?

Now that Top of the Lake, the seven episode dramatic series has finished its run on the Sundance Channel – I’m left with more questions in the ‘post resolution aftermath’ than I had before the series ended. Whether or not this was the intent of the series creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee is a question I can’t answer.

Though the questions of what happened to Tui did get resolved, there’s a whole slew of other head-scratchers for we viewers to ponder. Reader FD and I are going to sit down to discuss the show, and with no specific agenda in mind – we will just see where our talks take us.


JMM: In the last three minutes there a number of questions left unanswered. The first one is what actually happened at Al’s house, 2) what was Robin rinsing out in the lake (was it Al’s blood?), and 3) GJ walks off as the show ends. Without specifically tackling those questions, were you happy with the way the show ended?

FD: I was impressed by the cinematography and the cast, particularly Elizabeth Moss (Robin), Holly Hunter (GJ) and Peter Mullan (Matt), but I was unimpressed with the plot and the editing. Even though I guessed who the villain was early on, each episode made less sense to me than the previous one. And like you, I have a shipping container full of unanswered questions.

Here’s a few of them: 1)Were Robin and Johnno really related or was Al also lying about their DNA test? 2) Why did Matt whip himself repeatedly at his mother’s grave site? 3) Why didn’t Matt suspect Al might have been involved with Tui getting pregnant? 4) Why did Matt try to shoot Tui’s baby if it wasn’t his? 5) Why did GJ decide to go to Reykjavik? (to get as far away from this story as possible?) I could list a lot more questions, but, my biggest question is: What was Ms. Campion thinking? Didn’t she notice any of these loopholes?

JMM: To respond about the five questions you just listed: 1) Matt told Robin that he was her father making Johnno her half-brother. Johnno said that was a Matt mind game. Then Al told Johnno that Matt wasn’t his father – making it even more of a puzzle. 2) I have no idea about why Matt whipped himself – guilt I suppose. Because surely he had so much to be guilty about. 3) & 4) Not sure about either of these – need an explanation. 5) GJ was all about money – at least in the closing episode. Seems like that was tossed in as an after-thought. However it all seemed so extraneous. And what was the point of her leaving – especially as the closing image.

Tui intercepts GJ, but moment later, GJ will walk off anyway as the closing shot

Tui intercepts GJ, but moments later, GJ will walk off anyway as the closing shot

Maybe it was all symbolic – NZ: bottom of the world, Iceland: top of the world. Maybe GJ was a stylization of Campion herself – you know, in it for the money. Big emphasis on the maybe. So the key element must be the program Al was running to rehabilitate the kids – because it was clearly something else entirely at least below the surface.

FD: I don’t think there’s a way to perfectly explain this story. Some things were purposely left ambiguous. Other aspects seem to have been inadequately tied up at the climax. But, here’s my quick attempt to summarize. 1) Al was involved in child porn/prostitution, which paid for his two million dollar home. 2) Al also ran a training program for the local kids getting them employment at the cafe/restaurant. April Stephens was a child sex victim who became a murder victim when she knew too much. Al investigated and declared Stephens’ death a suicide. Bob Platt saw the videos made at Al’s house (the terrible thing his wife talked about) and wound up dead (this could have been done by Matt when he dragged him behind his boat but Al’s investigation failed so he may have been involved in the second murder). When Tui disappeared, Al made Wolfie his third victim (scapegoat for Tui’s disappearance/pregnancy).

Tui said “no one” got her pregnant because she was drugged and didn’t remember any sexual encounter (this is supported by Tui later saying she didn’t know how the baby got insider her). This is the basic plot line, but there were many subplots and diversions, most of which undermined the central story’s power. Before we discuss these, do you buy my analysis?

JMM: Yes, the plot line is clear in the aftermath and yes there were some obvious clues early on. But I’d rather approach the story from questions than stating what happened. For example – why was Bob Platt at the house where the videos were made and even got himself in front of the camera. Was he an investor in the video production or a customer? Campion explaining what she wants from Moss as Robin

Director and creator of the series Jane Campion, explains to Elizabeth Moss what she wants from Robin in this scene

FD: I don’t know. As I said, there were many inexplicable scenes. We could pose questions for Ms. Campion till the cows come home. I’m more concerned with answering the question of whether the show worked. In some ways, I think it did — the acting, location, cinematography were terrific. The show held my interest even though it tried my patience and left me feeling dissatisfied. What worked well for you and what was your takeaway feeling? JMM: Well the locations selected were fabulous – as they said in the show – Laketop was a playground for the rich. The actors were fine – especially the women – although some of them were a bit too one note – Moss’s Robin was great. Matt was great.

But none of the other actors caught my fancy. My takeaway if that this was a good story (at the outset) and was spoiled by all that followed. I’m going on record by saying that seven hours was a bit too ambitious.

FD: I thought everyone in the cast was very good — and several actors had really challenging characters like the seven-minute woman. Al’s character was difficult to pull off — he didn’t quite nail it.

Holly Hunter took her character far beyond the plot requirements. I don’t know how you evaluate a performance for such a distinctive, but ultimately, unnecessary character.

Like you, I loved the New Zealand location. But, when I started out, I expected to see a mystery. A drama, perhaps, but still a “who done it” story. Well, I figured out who done it by the second episode. After that the show used sleight of hand tricks and over-the-top characters to maintain my interest. In the end, the drama overpowered the sense of mystery I was hoping for. I think this was caused by stretching the story. I agree there’s a gold nugget here, but it was covered by too much silt.

JMM: Well – I disagree here and there with your last remarks. The seven minute woman wasn’t acting it was writing. If Al was meant to be the killer/villain then you couldn’t have figured that out in the second episode because Tui had not gone missing yet. Al was colorless – and if that was his style choice than he did it well. If it was Campion’s choice to make him innocuous early on then clearly she worked her sleight of hand. Mind you – it was not difficult to perceive Al as the perp – just not as early as you stated.

Oozing creepiness

Oozing creepiness

Anything else you’d like to cover or ASK?

FD: Yes, I stand by my spotting Al as the perp even before Tui disappeared. He just oozed creepiness — which is why I said the actor didn’t nail his purpose. And I beg to differ about the seven-minute lady. These actors had very unlikely characters and it’s very hard to make that seem believable, regardless of the quality of the writing.

A few of the girls living it up in Paradise

A few of the girls living it up in Paradise

Holly Hunter’s delivery and Peter Mullan both worked magic while Campion was more of a trickster. But, Campion did at least one thing really well. And we haven’t mentioned it.

Look beneath the mud, and you’ll find the hidden gold. Top of the Lake appears to be a story about a detective trying to find the father of a young girl’s baby. But, it’s really the story of the detective finding her own father. By hunting for Tui’s child’s father, Robin discovers her own. This is good writing. All I would ask is that Campion should have stayed more focused on her main idea.

Now, I’ll leave it to you to bring closure to this murky tale.

Every home in town had one hanging on it's wall

Every home in town had one hanging on its wall

JMM: Well I absolutely agree that the charm of the story was the parallel or mirrored stories. Robin’s past and Tui in the present. Of this there can be no disagreement.

One picture tell it all. This is Tui - both 'before' and 'after'

One picture tells it all. This is Tui – both ‘before’ and ‘after’

I also loved the deception that was played on us during the ‘chase’. However closure is an altogether different thing. Since we can only guess at GJ’s motives for leaving Paradise (I’m ticking the box marked money) I think that most of the murkiness came from the stretching of the story – which may also be a money thing.

I’d like to see more of Robin. Possibly as a sex crimes detective in Oz, but I doubt that will happen.

I’d also like to thank reader FD for his erudite answers and analysis. Now as far you readers – I am sure that while this story has reached a conclusion, it seems quite likely that you may have some questions of your own about the series. You are invited to post them as comments.


For a different perspective, have a look at the write up of TOTL over at the Feminéma website.

16 thoughts on “Top of the Lake Closes Its Run: Did It Work for You?

  1. Liked reading this discussion. I agree with mostly everything said here, even with the differing opinions because so much of the show was ambiguous. But after finishing the series, I think Matt truly was innocent of raping his own daughter and that he wanted to kill Tui’s baby because he was in denial about her being pregnant in the first place. He wouldn’t allow a make-shift baby crib in the house because Tui couldn’t be pregnant, she was only 12 years old after all. So I think by killing the baby, it would be as if it never existed.

    And it can never be verified if Johnno was not really the son of Matt, but doesn’t it feel right? He didn’t seem to have any Mitchum quality to him in the least…

  2. A couple of additions. Johnno said that only his mother stepped up when he was in prison. Was that because Matt knew he wasn’t his father?

    One scene forgotten – when Robyn has a few glasses of wine at Al’s place and then collapses. In hindsight she was clearly drugged. Did anything else happen or was this just a way of Al making her look stupid? That strange offer of marriage – he was looking for redemption. He said she was his angel – he was looking to escape what he had become.

    Other questions – why did blue hoody boy have the roofies? Also if these kids were being drugged and raped how did they wake up? Surely if you wake up in a strange place you ask questions. Surely you know when you’ve been raped. And when it keeps happening?

    Also what was the hold that Matt had over Al? He can’t have known about the Al using the coffee shop as a front so what was it? Or did Al have a business interest in the drugs selling? I’m assuming so.

    Al involving Tui in his illegal schemes seems odd too. Surely considering how dangerous her father is he’d have kept her out of it. But perhaps he was arrogant enough to think he’d get away with it.

    Of all of those I like the fact that there are a lot of loose ends. Although the question of how these kids were repeatedly raped without them knowing is the only one I’d call a plot hole.

    I thought GJ walking away was fine. Her work was done. The women might be a bunch of crazies but they repeatedly were the only decent people to turn to in a crisis. They had become their own community.

    I thought the series was excellent. I guessed Al by about the fourth episode and saw Johnno as brother a mile off but didn’t mind that. Agee totally with the comment above about Matt being in denial about the baby.

    • Thanks for the comments Steve. The series did have a lot of stuff both unresolved as well as unclear.

      If Al drugged Robin, at the dinner at his home, why?

      Matt’s hold over Al is also unclear – but I do recall Matt giving Al a big packet of cash. A cut from the drug business? A payoff to look the other way about the drug business. Or maybe even a payoff by Matt to Al for making the killing of that young girl on the road go away by calling it a suicide.

      At the end, when Tui was at Al’s house – wasn’t it because she was just following her friends, and Al had no way to explain denying her, so he let her come to the house and drugged her like the others, but kept her upstairs and away from what went on downstairs.

  3. Enjoyed reading this dialogue, however, in my opinion, this was one of the best mini-series ever made. The acting was incredible, the storyline was gripping, and it was so different than everything else on tv right now. Campion’s films always leave things to be questioned and I see that as Campion hopefully seeing viewers as intelligent and able to come up with their own questions and answerss, and not just say “well, this doesn’t make any sense, therefor it’s stupid.” As for the character of GJ, I think she was integral to the story. She was the wise old crone and feminist all the way. I absolutely loved this series!

    • I agree, FAB miniseries. I found GJ quite peculiar, not what I would expect. But it made sense if she were a power hungry, greedy, possession-less cult leader. Almost sadistically passing on “zen” observations .

      One thing unmentioned that made Matt look guilty of being the father of Tui’s baby in the first or second episode, I believe, was when he said ” no one loves Tui more than I do”.

      And written on Tui’s note addressing who raped her was “no one”, to me making it look like it was the person who says “no one” loves her more than he.

      Many twists and turns, this series couldn’t offer anything better as it was tops.

  4. Ok:

    Matt was paying off Al to turn a blind eye to the drugs. He gave him loads of cash in the boats near the start.

    Matt whipped himself with a belt because his Mum used to whip him with it – mentioned early on that she was nasty and whipped him.

    Main one – Al was the guilty one – how can you have a series with those themes and have a final(ish) scene of a partying bad guy with a drugged up Tui and not take that as a flag of a resolution?

    I think it’s right that Matt was confused and freaked out – he was innocent. Probably.

    Maybe Al kept Tui upstairs because she was the mother of his child.

    Eugh this is all too much.

    But yes, very well directed and acted in particular. No-one mentioned Jonjo – he carried some pretty good scenes.

    GJ left because her job was done.

  5. YOu are missing one of the biggest questions – what was the terrible, horrible thing that Johnno wanted to tell Robin about the night she was raped? Did he take a turn? Did he in fact wave to signal the guys? It seemed that he chose to not reveal what it was after all. Because the answer he gave did not seem truthful.

  6. Just finished watching this series on Netflix, it creeped me out and yet I had to get to the end. I wonder if there will be a continuation of Robin the detective. I believe Jane Campion did the strange movie years ago with Holly Hunter and Harvey Kietel called The Piano. Appreciate all the comments and did believe Al was rotten, but for looking the other way with the drug making, never the child sex. Also Robin’s Mother would have made a deathbed confession about Robin’s Father, but she did want her to stay away from Johnno and Matt was a creepy dirty looking man capable all of sorts of things with his low life sons.

  7. I think one thing unmentioned was GJ is a cult leader, yes, who wanted money and power. As far as Matt whipping himself at his mother’s grave, it was an example of psychotic behavior.

    Pretty much the whole town was a male dominated, misogynistic, woman hating, violent, mentally
    Unstable in-bred gene-pool. Drugs, guns and sex rings always go hand in hand, that’s the relationship between Al and Matt. One hand fed the other.

    One thing that bothered me from the evidence that Tui was across the lake: why was a search team never sent out there? That Tui’s discovery on camera went straight on the back burner was disturbing; and that’s when Robins own weakness, submission and lack of power really became evident.

    Don’t get me wrong though, this series had me on the edge of my seat and wanting more; what I call a “page turner”. Would love to read it.

    • Thanks Appleannie for your interest and comments. It has been awhile since I revisited this post, which means it has been awhile since I thought about the series. Having skipped Mad Men for most of its run – I didn’t begin that series until Part I of MM’s final season had been announced – so I had no real knowledge of the actress Elizabeth Moss. I loved her performance as well as her character’s story.

      On the whole I was impressed by the series despite the fact that many of the questions were unanswered – or said another way – left to the interpretations of each viewer

  8. Robin was the worst detective ever. How the heck did she think Al paid for that house and his boat? Why did she never follow up on anything? Sloppy writing and tons of plot holes. The character of GJ was ridiculous. Waste of 7 hours except for Peter Mullen as Matt who was incredible.

    • Hi Marti – thanks for the comment.

      My final review of the series was a dialogue with another reader and it took place in April 2013 which is nearly
      4 years ago.

      In retrospect, I can’t really disagree with your perspective now. Robin was indeed not at all a successful detective.
      Peter Mullen was indeed special as Matt.

      As far as Al being the bad guy, I think that the series was engineered in such a way to conceal his activities and motives.
      Al to make him somewhat surprising as the ‘bad guy’. If they gave away too much, the shock lessened.


  9. I am always late to the party but just finished this series from a Library DVD and wish I had a book club to discuss it with. This audience may no longer be active given that it’s been a couple years since the series was released but I do enjoy reading these comments as I share many of the same questions plus a few more:

    (1) Did Johnno receive payment for or in the form of weed for his offering up 15 y/o Robin to the nasty gang of men who raped her after the school dance, including Sarge? If so, how was she able to reconcile that and forgive him and still love him as deeply as she did? He seemed like one of the few decent men in town and clearly redeemed himself from his awful youthful indiscretion that so permanently scarred his own young GF. Perhaps we are left to believe that his nasty brothers put him up to it … yet they were not amongst the gang that raped her.

    (2) What happened to Tui’s mom? We see her in one single scene in the beginning but no interaction whatsoever with Tui or Robin for the rest of the series. Was that Johnno translating to Robin with Tui’s mom in that brief early scene? I may need to re watch the series again to catch more details. I also found the accents sometimes made the dialogue difficult to understand.

    (3) Did we ever determine if Johnno’s compassionate mother was not the same mother as his two brothers presumably had? Although Al could have been lying about the DNA tests … if Matt were really Robins father, then isnt it also possible that Matt was not actually Johnno’s father? Which would mean that Robin and Johnno were not in fact half siblings after all. Hopefully.

    (4) A prior comment here mentioned Matt paying Al off to make the young teenage girl’s hit and run death look like a suicide. But it seems clear to me by the end of the series that a young girl who worked as a barista at the coffee shop “mentored” by Al who was later found dead on the side of the road would be an Al murder coverup, not a Matt murder coverup. At the risk of sounding too naive, I don’t understand why the teenage girl would have traces of drugs in her vagina. That was one of the most disturbing revelations in this very disturbing series.

    (5) I believe the lost ladies in Paradise were a quirky bunch but also tied in as a previous viewer mentioned as a compassionate haven for Tui, Robin, Robin’s mom, even Johnno when he’s stabbed in the woods, and so many others desperately in need of healing, community, and a safe venue. GJ was able to verbalize and intuit observations and predictions without the artifice of layered emotion or preachy judgment. She seemed cold but she dispensed wisdom in a no nonsense way that comforted those who were suffering. She didn’t want any fuss made over anything so she left when she was no longer needed. Also interesting how Jane Campion made it rather clear that many of these women still needed and wanted and craved men. Busting the feminist myth that women don’t need men.

    (6) The New Zealand scenery was beyond stunning. The cinematography so haunting and ethereal.
    Reminded me of the David Lynch series Twin Peaks in some ways.

    • Hi there Lisa. Thanks for the comment.

      I’m afraid I can’t be of any help on your questions. Top of the Lake aired nearly four years and a half years ago. My post that you read was written back in April of 2013. So my memory of specific details or plot points is non-existent.

      On the bright side; I can report that the second series of Top of the Lake is entitled China Girl. Elizabeth Moss returns as Detective Robin Griffin. This time the series has brought homicide detective Robin back to the Sydney, Australia police department. The case that she catches is about a murdered Asian woman, whose remains were stuffed into a large suitcase which was then tossed into the sea. This suitcase eventually floated up to the surface and washed ashore in the Sydney suburb – Bondi Beach.

      This season of the series runs 6 episodes and the cast also include Nicole Kidman. I have watched the complete series and am willing to say that this second series might be a tad better than the first one.

      You can watch the series On Demand on the Sundance Channel if your cable system includes the channel. Or I think it is also available on Amazon Prime. There is a European DVD (available in the UK) – but I am certain that a DVD for the US Market Region 1, has not been released yet.

      Below is a link to the trailer.

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