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Paradise Lost

'Top of the Lake' ends as a beautiful mess

Parisa Taghizadeh/Sundance

After its two-part conclusion on Monday night, Top of the Lake seems imperfect, but so is life and so are the mountains in the show—they are wild, insisting on shapes of their own. The show was ragged, too, and the channel showing it was tattered yet strident. You could despair of those things, or begin to see them as part of the message. I don’t know whether Jane Campion selected this narrative autism in advance, or to what extent it was happenstance or mistake. But I cannot omit an estimate of what it felt like, on television.

Top of the Lake played on Sundance, so we may be grateful to that lost soul of a channel.1 The bones of the soul are still there, no matter that Sundance sold out to Rainbow, which then became AMC Networks. From time to time, Robert the Redford himself appeared in the Top of the Lake commercials, recommending a future offering on Sundance, the movie Control about Ian Curtis. That is a fine film, but watching it on Sundance would be submitting to the ordeal of the thousand knives of interruption. Sundance was a famous American ideal once, yet now the network is one of the most unpleasant ways of watching anything. The ads are crude and aggressive and desperately repetitive. They largely promote their own channel: In two hours there must have been half-a-dozen chances to get “a first look” at the forthcoming Rectify. If that is the only way Sundance can survive, it may deserve to be doomed. And maybe that conclusion can be applied to the entirety of Top of the Lake: Is it really worth making a show as ambitious as this if its best hope of being seen is the chopping block called Sundance?

So let’s consider the series as a whole, which will mean spoilage for those who haven’t seen it, and might want to. But it’s a series about spoilage, and human activities defacing the ominous beauty of the New Zealand landscape, where one piece of shore is called “Paradise.” The series was a mess, but only if you have faith left in the non-existent Rules By Which A Series Should Proceed—call it narrative order. The messiness was the most intriguing and disconcerting aspect of the whole show.

It took many forms, one of which hovers between creative obscurity and technical incompetence. It was frequently hard to hear what people were saying in Top of the Lake. That could be because of the accents, but I think it also derives from technical shortcomings and a strange aesthetic attitude that feels we shouldn’t be able to decipher everything people say, since real-life communication so often goes wrong. Still, it irked me because television sound is terrible, while the vaunted reports of improvement in movie sound are often a myth, despite technological advances. Yet much of what I was able to hear was resonant and compelling. The lines as written seemed to matter.

Then there were countless minor characters never introduced or explained. There were threads left dangling. In the seventh episode, there was a moment when the heroine, Robin, had cuts on her face, and then they suddenly vanished. Was that a continuity error or a scrambled save in the editing such as happens often enough? Or was it deliberate and insolent, like saying “fuck continuity”? Larger still, as the series concluded, and as we gathered ourselves to learn what really happened, all manner of possibilities were offered but not resolved. It was revealed (and mysteriously predictable) that Matt was Robin’s father, not simply because there had been a terrified affinity between them all along, but because it was a foundation of the show that in a collection of lost and defiled children Robin should bear that encompassing complication.

But the “crucial” information on the tests of blood and DNA was delivered by Al, the local police chief who was the source of most of the evil and who—I thought—was raping the lost child, Tui, near the end, just as he had either fathered her child or presided over the sex ring that got her pregnant. So why trust Al, who was trying to escape retribution and claim Robin for himself? The upshot is that no survivor can trust anything, and if Robin and Johnno are to stay lovers (and marry!) they have to deal with the chance that they are half brother and sister. Their future has been spoiled, just as narrative clarity has been waved in front of us and then willfully withdrawn.

Every readiness in the audience to root for Tui, the pregnant twelve-year-old who has vanished into the wilderness, is wiped out when she is saved. Yes, she survives the forest and the winter; she comes through childbirth in the undergrowth (actually with a crazy soothsayer present), and has a healthy baby. All of that may stand as metaphor as much as realism, though we should recall that, across the world, children deliver their own children alone and in circumstances where ultrasound, fetal heart monitors, epidurals, and doctors are not available. So Tui triumphs. Until, in a masterstroke, we realize that she is bored with the baby. She’d just as soon leave it to Robin (who once put her own child up for adoption) and go off and have “fun,” though unbeknownst to her that "fun" includes being raped. You can argue that a raped twelve-year-old (and raped many times) is unbalanced. But everyone in this story is unbalanced one way or another, and I can’t minimize the creative impact of our realizing that Tui is not a golden child—as Robin trusted for many episodes. So Robin’s hope for redemption has been drowned in the lake. The detective has uncovered her own trap.

There’s a lot more that might be said, including the abiding feeling that the community of damaged women living at Paradise was neither relevant nor interesting. When their guru, G.J. (Holly Hunter), stomps off, dragging a suitcase on wheels through the blond grass to catch a flight to Iceland, it’s a wry admission that she was a smoked red herring. The atmosphere of men abusing women was amply delivered in the rest of the story.

So, for the second time in a couple of years, an actress has presented a magnificent portrait of mental disturbance on television. The first was Claire Danes as Carrie in Homeland, uncannily accurate on the symptoms of bipolar illness, both sustained and deranged by her job. That was a great performance and it has been well rewarded. Elizabeth Moss’s Robin is every bit as good, and maybe a touch or two more interesting because her grief grows out of her back story and her turbulent attitudes to sex. Campion and Moss knew enough to make Moss carnal yet child-like in nearly every shot, but Moss understood that Robin was being driven mad by her own dread of the sex she yearned for. I suppose you can say that David Wenham’s Al deserved more of that depth, the same kind that was made available for Peter Mullan’s furious yet remorseful Matt.

Never mind. Elisabeth Moss was a revelation throughout, most beautiful in her fears, carried closer to disaster by her own bravery, a mass of contradictions, a mess you couldn’t take your eyes off. That’s the actress, but it’s Jane Campion, too. The whole show was played, without commercial interruptions, at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. I’d give a lot to see it that way on a big screen.

  1. The show is also currently streaming on Netflix Instant.