Couch Pumpkin: Sofa Adventures
News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

There’s a War On ~ Top of the Lake

Even though it’s set in the middle of nowhere, halfway around the world, Top of the Lake feels incredibly topical. At a time when misogyny and abuse are in the headlines, its uncompromising look at gender conflict seems all the more electrifying.


Although Jane Campion’s mini-series is centred around the disappearance of a young girl (pregnant twelve-year-old Tui), the drama is actually more focused on young female detective Robin (played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), who has returned to her small NZ town after a period of time in Australia. Much like this summer’s other aquatic drama, the fantastique Les Revenants, the lake next to the town serves as a potent metaphor for the secrets and lies buried beneath the surface. Like all small-rural-town shows in this post Twin Peaks era, the tension rises as skeletons emerge from various closets.

This is not an all-out action show, nor is it flawless – its tone shifts rather wildly at times from black humour to sensationalist drama. However, in its examination of men and women Top of the Lake really excels. Frankly put, the men of Laketop are disgusting: violent, wild and excessive in all their appetites. The grizzled figure of Peter Mullan’s Matt Mitcham personifies this rampant masculinity – a drug dealer, thug and general wild oat sower with a clutch of mindless sons and a crime ’empire’ that ensnares the town. On the other side of the class divide we have greasy Al, Robin’s boss, played with sebaceous aplomb by David Wenham. His interest in Robin appears predatory, all the more repugnant for his ‘Nice Guy’ act. Even the somewhat redeemable Johnno is a former druggie and convict. When one of the women seeking refuge at the hippy women’s commune delivers a monologue about being attacked by her pet chimp (with whom she shared a bed) in the first episode, the moment comes across as incongruously surreal. As time goes on, however, the line between man and ape becomes increasingly blurred.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the series’ portrayal of rape. Rape is endemic in this society and either endorsed or ignored by everyone in the town, including the police. Campion makes Robin’s frustration palpable as she struggles to interest people in Tui’s statutory rape, echoing  her own trauma from years past. Natalie Wilson in Ms Magazine sums it up brilliantly when she says, ‘Rape is not an individual crime with individual solutions; it is a group offense, a societal crime’ (when you have watched the show, please read that whole article – it is great).

What makes this a fascinatingly feminist piece, though, is its refusal to find an easy dichotomy. The women aren’t saints – Robin herself makes many mistakes, sometimes following her own desires in the knowledge that they go against what society deems ‘good’ (‘can’t we do something wrong before we do something right?’). Particularly interesting is the frequent occurrence of disrupted or damaging motherhood, typified by Robin’s uneasy relationship with her own dying mother. The cursed lake, which in the opening sequence becomes a womb, perhaps symbolises this idea. Of course, one might argue that this is down to the involvement of men in pregnancy/the intrusion of men into the female body – after all, according to myth the lake is cursed by the heart of a warrior…

The women’s commune, Paradise, is also interesting. On the one hand it is a source for most of the show’s black humour and it seems at times that we are invited to laugh at this bunch of middle-aged hippies camping out in the middle of nowhere (along with their ‘enlightened’ guru, GJ, and her strange sex advice). What comes through quite strongly from their storyline is the inability of women to truly divorce themselves from the affairs of men.

On the other hand, their freedom is obvious – shots of the camp are frequently supplemented by nude figures, a refreshing non-sexualised antidote to the use of the female body in Game of Thrones et al. The nudity recalls the commune’s name, Paradise, an area of land coveted by Mitcham. He himself acknowledges, in a powerful metaphor, the corruption of Eden by the incursion of the phallic snake. Mitcham’s venomous outbursts against the women – ‘unfuckable’ – also recall the ire of the twitter ‘trolls’, reducing female value to sex and focusing on the genitals as a marker of acceptance into patriarchal society (see: Rawlings153 and his views on Mary Beard’s vagina).

Moss delivers an oustanding and sometimes heartbreaking  performance as Robin. What makes her so watchable as Peggy Olson works well for her here, too – her ability to embody both girlish naivety and a world-weary maturity. This refreshingly human female character has physical and mental strength, but is neither unrealistic nor unimpeachable. More of this, please, TV!

So, overall, you should be watching Top of the Lake. Campion has produced a drama that is thought-provoking, searing and one of the few feminist dramas to emerge recently. When we live in a world where male ‘trolls’ can say without shame, ‘If you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse’ and ‘Men are predators…And this [rape threats] is what we do’, this kind of unflinching examination of our patriarchal culture is absolutely vital.

ETA: Even as I was writing this, this whole clusterfrak happened. Moving to Paradise, y’all.

In addition:

  • The NZ acting pool is tiny so you will recognise a few familiar faces. Michelle Ang (Tui’s mum), Robin Malcolm (Anita) and Jay Ryan (Mark Mitcham) appeared in my fave teen show The Tribe (as Tai San, Ma’am and Random Chosen Guard respectively); Michelle and Jay appeared alongside Stephen Lovatt (Pete) in Neighbours and Jay and Stephen also took small roles in Legend of the Seeker. Michelle also had the honour of killing Xena: Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless – someone please tell me what magic potion she is drinking because she looks flipping fabulous). Of course, David Wenham is from NZ’s biggest export, The Lord of the Rings (where he played Faramir).

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