Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.
What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.
The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.
While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.
One thing that Top of the Lake does incredibly well is to show the relationship between homo-social bonding and rape culture. Peter Mullan plays a swaggering criminal who positively crackles with murderous energy and frayed neural wiring. However, despite terrorising both his family and business partners, he sits at the absolute apex of Laketop society; he has not only had children with half the women in town, he is also surrounded by a coterie of sycophants whose job it is to smooth ruffled feathers and remind everyone of what a ‘good bloke’ he is. Unsurprisingly, the character’s role in the death of a business partner and the disappearance of his own daughter go almost entirely unchallenged. Laketop is in the habit of making apologies and looking the other way when ‘good blokes’ misbehave. Good Blokes also react to the news that their twelve-year-old daughter is pregnant with a nonchalant declaration that she must be a slut in much the same way as her dad is a slut. These kinds of ideas pervade Laketop society and contribute directly to a climate in which people get away with rape and nobody gets round to investigating the death of a teenage girl who was found with traces of cocaine in her vagina. When a pregnant twelve-year-old heads off into the hills, the police simply shrug their shoulders, assume that she must be dead and seek out a convenient scapegoat, an outcast who can be hounded to his death without causing upset to the prevailing power structures. This is precisely what feminists mean when they talk about a rape culture: A set of social values that tolerate, excuse and normalise rape. Top of the Lake perfectly captures what it means to live in a rape culture and how that culture perpetuates itself every time someone apologises and turns a blind eye to the actions of a Good Bloke.
The series’ critique of male-dominated social spaces is a timely reminder of the importance of female filmmakers. It is much easier to critique a culture from the outside and while most well-intentioned men may realise that their social spaces are dysfunctional, their ability to gain perspective on said social spaces will be forever hamstrung by the fact that they were socialised from birth to accept those values and ways of being.
As unusual and well realised as the series’ critique of male spaces may be, it really isn’t doing anything unusual for the crime genre. Since the days of Sherlock Holmes, detectives have always been outsiders and their ability to see past human bullshit to the truth has always depended on their ability to stand outside of said bullshit. What this means in practice is that many works of crime fiction also function as social criticism; David Simon carefully ensured that his characters stood outside of both crime and politics and so The Wire is able to follow how one sea of bullshit flows into another to create the oceanic depths in which all of American society is destined to drown. Similarly, Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss explores the underlying nature of Italian society and shows how a charming sociopath with a history of political violence can rise up through the ranks and join the establishment. This outsider perspective is particularly vivid in Carolyn Gold Heilbrun’s Kate Fansler novels, whose depiction of academia as a misogynistic shark tank is drawn directly from the author’s personal experiences.
One of the reasons why Top of the Lake proves so dramatically unsatisfying is that the crime genre has trained us to expect our detectives to be out-siders with in-sight and this is definitely not a label that applies to the character played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. Moss’s character Robin Griffin grew up in Laketop but left New Zealand for Australia after being raped. Griffin returns home to look after her mother and takes a job with the local police force but despite her outsider status, her roots in the community and her specialist training in handling children, she never really understands what is going on in Laketop until it is too late. Confronted with a monolithically male professional space, she ignores her professional instincts and throws herself into winning the respect of her creepy boss (a respect to which she is entitled as a qualified detective). Frustrated by her inability to get to grips with the case, Griffin hooks up with her old high school boyfriend only to wind up using him as a shield. In one spectacular scene that cuts to the root of the problem, she argues with the man and walks away from him only to call for his assistance when she stumbles across a dead body. Why would a trained detective ask a civilian for help in such circumstances? Why would a trained detective with a gun keep relying on a civilian to fight her battles? The unfortunate answer is that Griffin is a woman who grew up in a sexist society and while she may be an educated woman who understands sexism on an intellectual level, real life keeps forcing her to conform to gender-based expectations: Whenever she is in trouble, her first instinct is to look to a man for help and this instinct is why she never gets to grip with the meat of the case.
As brilliant as Top of the Lake may be in describing how men mistreat women, the series is absolutely savage when it comes to describing the extent to which many women are complicit in their own misery. Campion gives this idea form by embedding it in a women’s community that turns out to be just as pointless and enabling as the male-dominated spaces to which it is supposed to provide both an alternative and a refuge.
The community is really little more than a bunch of metal containers dumped by the side of the lake and inhabited by wealthy American women in search of guidance. While Campion makes it clear that the women living in the community are suffering from various kinds of trauma, she is absolutely merciless in making it abundantly clear that much of this trauma is a result of the women’s abject stupidity. For example, one of the more prominent women in the community talks about her need to get over a messy relationship with ‘Brad’ only to then reveal that ‘Brad’ was in fact her pet chimpanzee who turned out to be so sexually aggressive and domineering that he had to be put down for the woman’s own safety. It is hard to imagine a better metaphor for women who keep landing themselves in relationships with transparently unpleasant men but Campion drives the point home by having this exact same woman start a relationship with the quite obviously violent and unpleasant criminal played by Peter Mullan. Why would this woman do such a thing to herself and, more importantly, why did none of the women in the community step in and point out that she has simply transferred her affections from one violent ape to another? The answer lies in the fact that the community is at least as toxic and unsupportive as the society that surrounds it.
The community’s origin story tells us quite a lot about its true nature: Nominally lead by Holly Hunter’s spiritual leader GJ, the community came about when a wealthy woman met GJ in rehab and found her to be disconcertingly honest. Mistaking rudeness and egocentrism for enlightenment, the woman approached GJ in search of guidance only to be told that the only way such a relationship might work out is if the woman were willing to bankroll the creation of a community. GJ (who looks quite a bit like Campion herself) has the intensity of a cult leader but none of the interest in the people following her, frequently referring to her charges as ‘bitches’ she moves between insulting them to their faces and offering up ‘wisdom’ that is as senseless as it is emphatic. Like female dogs, the members of the community respond to the tone of GJ’s voice rather than the content of her words. In fact, even if they wanted to respond to the content of her words, they probably would not be able to as GJ’s idea of spiritual guidance is to tell a woman in crisis to lie on the floor like a cat. Deploy your hermeneutics and pour over GJ’s utterances all you want but the truth about this particular community is evident in the fact that a pregnant twelve-year-old girl turned to them for help only to decide that she was better off living in the fucking woods.
Top of the Lake is a series entirely overshadowed by absent parents. Regardless of their age, virtually every character in the series is noticeably scarred either by parental abandonment, the death of a parent or frequently both. This absence manifests itself as a yearning for parental authority, for someone in a position of power who will tell you what to do. This need for someone else to make their decisions drives the characters into the arms of authority structures like the police force, the male-dominated underworld or the female-dominated spiritual retreat. However, the more the series progresses, the more obvious the folly of this strategy becomes as Campion reveals that both the ‘criminal’ dad and the ‘spiritual’ mum are fucked up and entirely incapable of making decisions for themselves let alone anyone else. In fact, the series ends by revealing the identity of the person who raped the twelve-year-old girl and the manner in which they did it turns out to be a quite deliberate distortion of parental entreaties to close your eyes, go to sleep and stop worrying about grown-up stuff you can’t understand.
Intriguingly, though the grown-up characters in Top of the Lake are a complete mess, their teenaged children are surprisingly resilient as long as they are ignored. Not only does the 12-year-old girl survive in the woods on her own but her close friends organise a system to keep her in food and supplies without needing to reveal her location to any grown-ups. This system is maintained until something happens that forces the girl to break cover but the second she is back in grown-up society, she changes from an empowered individual capable of making her own life-and-death decisions to a moody child who keeps palming her responsibilities off on the people around her. Given that all the parents in the series are astoundingly fucked up, this raises some interesting questions about the nature of parental/child relationships in general.
Back in the 1960s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman discovered that if you repeatedly electrocute an animal in a way that makes it impossible for them to avoid the electrocution, the animal eventually stops trying to evade and comes to accept the inevitability of its suffering. Psychologists refer to this acceptance as Learned Helplessness and argue that it is a central component of the pessimistic explanatory style associated with clinical depression. The major difference between animals and humans is that while both can be mistreated to the point where they come to see suffering as inevitable, only humans can learn this lesson vicariously by looking at the misery of others and concluding that it is their lot in life to suffer too. Learned helplessness can be used to account for why people choose to stick with abusive relationships and it certainly accounts for the refusal of Top of the Lake’s characters to take responsibility for their own happiness and confront everything that is shit about their society. The reason why the series’ teenaged characters seem more resourceful and independent than their grown-up counterparts is that they have not yet learned to see the world as a vale of unavoidable suffering.
The moment in which the 12-year-old girl hands her responsibilities over to grown-ups in order to remain a helpless child is the moment in which the world begins to break her. Sure, the grown-ups step in and volunteer to help but that offer of assistance also contains the seeds of addiction, an addiction that can end only with the kind of demented parent issues that plague the adults of Laketop.
The weak and unsatisfying failure of Top of the Lake does raise some interesting questions about the importance of narrative in maintaining an audience’s interest. Art house film famously ended its dependence on narrative in the 1960s and set out to create a cinematic language that would allow directors to weave big ideas around stories that make little sense and offer little in the way of dramatic satisfaction. Though less experimental and ‘arty’ than many of her contemporaries, Campion will undoubtedly have been aware of post-narrative art film and may have tried to port that aesthetic across to TV. However, while one could convincingly argue that the protagonist’s complete failure to get to grips with the mystery she was supposed to be investigating served a thematic purpose, such cleverness cannot compensate for the fact that the dysfunctional nature of Top of the Lake’s narrative makes for an unnecessarily boring viewing experience. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad both lack proper narratives but neither of these films is longer than 150 minutes while Top of the Lake is about six hours long!
Many people argue that while American film is currently undergoing a period of decline, American TV is enjoying something of an extended golden age. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that this cultural shift might be some sort of zero-sum game: Don’t worry kids… you might never get to see another Terrence Malick film outside of a film festival but here are some lavishly-produced neckbeard rape fantasies instead! The problem with this assumption is that the methods and values of art house filmmaking do not automatically port across to long-form television. The Sopranos introduced a number of art house techniques and Mad Men introduced a number more but Top of the Lake suggests that long-form TV tends to struggle without a traditional narrative to maintain focus and levels of emotional engagement. Mad Men has pushed at this envelope by systematically ensuring that the denouement of each season’s plot takes place off-stage but the action that does take place on-stage is resoundingly soapy, a sump of sordid affairs and enlivened by just enough art house ambiguity to trick the audience into believing that they’re not killing time by watching soap operas.
Top of the Lake is undoubtedly a bold experiment, an attempt to raise the bar for police procedurals and explore the troubled interface between individual autonomy and collective expectation when the content of those expectations is what we use to construct our sense of individuality and our need for freedom and autonomy. However, as beautiful and bold as this experiment may be, it can only be classed as a failed experiment… not so much because of the director and writers but because of the medium itself.