Off the Beaten Path | Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake poster

Hey everyone! Seeing as it’s been a minute, I decided this installment of Off the Beaten Path is going back to the live-action drama well with the 2013 crime drama miniseries Top of the Lake

Before I go further, I want to make this clear. Top of the Lake, on a purely qualitative level, is the best thing I’ve seen for Off the Beaten Path. Well, at least for the live-action fare; I go back and forth whether Top of the Lake is the best or if FLCL is. It may not be the most watchable (I’ll dig into why later), but it is one of the most consistently good, thus it’s among the best.

Also, I’m warning you all now, I’m going to be talking mad spoilers. Mostly this will be how certain twists in the second half of the show cast a pall over everything before. So again, be forewarned.

On Empathy

So, out of all the small-town mystery shows that followed in the wake of Twin Peaks, what makes Top of the Lake one of the best?

It’s not the plot. Top of the Lake has many of the same beats and stylistic trappings as Twin Peaks (just without the weirdness), and it doesn’t have the kinetic feel of something like Utopia (UK) or True Detective.

It’s not the depth of the mystery either. While the mystery was the end game of the narrative, it was functionally more a vehicle for character exploration ala Twin Peaks pre-Laura Palmer’s killer reveal.

So what is it that makes Top of the Lake so good? 

The show that made Top of the Lake possible

To me at least the biggest reason on a writing level is creator and director Jane Campion’s thematic examination of empathy as it relates to trauma.

Campion uses Tui Mitcham’s pregnancy and disappearance and Robin’s investigation as a catalyst to examine how empathy shapes the lives of the townsfolk at both the macroscopic and the microscopic.

On the macroscopic, she shows us how empathy (and a lack of) can determine how a town functions. On the microscopic, she shows us how empathy and trauma shape the growth of a person. 

Over six laconically paced episodes, Campion shows us a small town that is all but kneecapped by a terminal lack of empathy. In Paradise Sold and Searcher’s Search, in particular, we see how the townsfolk and the police at large respond to a pregnant 12-year-old’s disappearance. At best there are token condolences for the Mitcham family. At worst there’s just outright apathy (this includes the Mitcham family). 

This chronic empathy deficiency allows some truly heinous shit to boil below the surface of the town, most often in the form of metastasizing misogyny that goes unchecked. Like, in what world would compassionate townspeople allow an unrepentant rapist like Sarge hang out like he’s the kooky member of the gang?

This culture of toxic masculinity permeates the highest levels of the town, leading to widespread corruption and ineptitude within the police. I mean, how else can you explain a police-operated pedophile ring going unchecked? And that’s not even getting into all the police work bungled and dropped due to the cops not caring about protecting the town they are nominally supposed to protect.   

Elizabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin

The only people who seem to care about Tui’s condition – Robin, Johnno, the Paradise commune, Tui’s school friends – are continually stonewalled due to how indifferent the town is about finding Tui. And that’s if they’re even trying to help Tui at all. Hell, not even all of those few truly comprehend the plight of Tui’s situation.

It says a lot that the only people who consistently show empathy towards Tui are currently experiencing or have experienced similar trauma. Stuff like Robin’s high school dance gang rape, Johnno’s imprisonment, the collective trauma of the women’s commune, and the kids forcibly caught up (unknowingly?) in a pedophile ring. It tells me Campion has a rather pessimistic view of humanity’s capacity to care for each other.

That said, it isn’t all bad.

If there’s a shining beacon of empathy to brighten the darkness of Top of the Lake, it’s Detective Robin Griffin. While she only came back to Laketop to care for her dying mother Jude, she takes on Tui’s case because she recognizes the gravity of Tui’s situation and wants to help her however she can. Further, while the majority of people stop caring and move on, Robin is the only one in a position to help Tui who’s pushing forward. Robin is even willing to dive into her horrific past trauma to help a young girl she’s never met before that first interrogation.

David Wenham as Detective Al Parker

What’s more, most of the most tender moments, those motes of light in an ink-black storm, come from Robin. Stuff like when she walks out into the same lake Tui did in Searcher’s Search, when she sits down at Tui’s level in Paradise Sold after the interrogation when she and Johnno reconnect emotionally in The Edge of the Universe and A Rainbow Above Us. You know, moments that make this dark and depressing show worth it, that adds dimension.

Campion’s empathic focus isn’t just laser-focused on Robin; it radiates out to all the main cast. Robin, Johnno, Bunny, Jaime, and Tui, even people like Matt get a judgment-free look at how past trauma has directed their lives, allowing us to empathize with them. If anything, the people who don’t get this empathetic treatment – most prominently Detective Parker and Sarge – are the ones to look out for. 

For my last words on empathy as a theme, I’d say that Campion has a complex view on how empathy determines how we live. Namely, that evil and misery are allowed to spread by a lack of empathy for our fellow people compounded by apathy to change. Thus the best tool, the driving force really, for bringing justice and emotional closure is empathy.

What Else Is Good?

Alright, so after nearly 1,000 words on empathy as a thematic backbone, what else is there to talk about in Top of the Lake? A lot, it turns out.

Peter Mullan as Matt Mitcham

First and foremost, we can’t talk about Top of the Lake without talking about the acting.

I think the performances here are easily the best I’ve seen within the confines of Off the Beaten Path. Nothing else comes close. Well, I guess Utopia (UK) has flashes – Neil Maskell as Arby/Pietre comes to mind – but nothing quite as sustained as we see here.

The real standout is Elizabeth Moss’s turn as Robin Griffin. Like, while the other performances were up there, it’s no question Moss’s performance carries the show. I mean, just watch The Edge of the Universe and The Dark Creator; it’s some of the best acting of her career, going from tenderness to raw rage and everything in between. It’s no surprise she received a fair share of awards nominations for her performance, along with a few wins (she won a Golden Globe for example).

Luckily for us though, Moss isn’t alone in providing a great performance; otherwise, the show would be more one-note.

Some standouts (aka my favorites) include Peter Mullan as Matt, with his best in The Edge of the Universe and No Goodbyes, Thanks (he also got some awards love); Tom Wright as Johnno, with his best in The Edge of the Universe and A Rainbow Above Us; lastly David Wenham as Detective Parker, with his best in (surprise surprise) The Edge of the Universe and No Goodbyes, Thanks

Tom Wright as Johnno Mitcham

For the last outright positive I want to talk about, I gotta talk about the cinematography. I just gotta.

Back when I first watched Top of the Lake, I thought Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography was fine but nothing extraordinary. Namely, it’s a good collection of scenic vista shots but nothing too dynamic like what we see Arkapaw do in True Detective S1

Man has that opinion changed.

Now, just like the acting, I’m thinking this is the best cinematography I’ve seen in anything for Off the Beaten Path. Granted, it’s not as clear cut as the acting was – to me the soul of Utopia (UK) is the style of the cinematography – but it no longer reads as just serviceable cinematography with lots of scenic vistas.

If anything, the scenic vistas highlight feelings of isolation our characters are experiencing, while more intimate moments have corresponding shots. Sure, it still isn’t the most dynamic and energetic cinematography like Utopia (UK). But you know what, it doesn’t matter. The cinematography perfectly encapsulates the introspective soul of Top of the Lake, which is what matters here.

What About The Weak Points?

With all that out of the way, it’s about time I talk about what I consider some of the weaker elements of the show.

Just to note, while I may not consider all of these to be issues in themselves, they’re issues in that I can see them turning off potential viewers.

The moment of truth

First and foremost, there’s the rewatchability of Top of the Lake.

To be honest, there’s a reason why I took so long to finish watching Top of the Lake for this review. Namely, after a false start a few weeks prior, I felt like I had to rewatch the first three episodes, and even those three can be incredibly draining on an emotional level. That’s a tough ask. This is easily one of the darkest shows in terms of content and emotions you’ll find.

So normally, you’d think this is something you watch once and call it good. Which makes sense. That is until the last 10 minutes.

In the last 10 minutes, we are hit with the twist that (SPOILER ALERT!) Parker is a key player in the pedophile ring, supplying both the kids (from his at-risk youth barista program) and the location (the basement of his mansion).

Safe to say, this throws everything we’ve seen from Parker out the window, ending the show on a note almost stygian in darkness without a chance to resolve anything.

So, with this new revelation comes the natural thought that comes with twists of this magnitude; does this twist hold up? The only way to figure that out is to – ding ding ding! – rewatch this. I’ll say this much about the rewatch. Knowing the nature of the twist (along with stuff I’ve learned from my recent foray in true crime), the foundations were laid as early as Searcher’s Search. The issue is Top of the Lake is already so emotionally draining that I can see many people skipping out on a rewatch, which is understandable.

The ladies of Paradise

On a related note, there is a lot of stuff on a plot level that is more or less dropped or left a mystery in the end.

Mysteries like who is the father of Tui’s child? Did Zannic commit suicide or was he murdered? What happened the night Robin stayed at Parker’s? Is Matt Mitcham Robin’s birth father?

As for the plot, the conflict between the Paradise commune and the Mitcham clan is all but dropped after The Edge of the Universe and ends on one hell of an anti-climactic note. Like, the series ends with GJ walking away with nothing but her suitcase and the clothes on her back without an announcement. 

On a related note, if I had any major complaint about Top of the Lake, it’s that I’m not quite sure about the role of the Paradise commune on a plot level. Sure, one minor incident at the beginning – the murder of Bob Platt over the land dispute – was the thread that unraveled the whole mystery in the end. But after the first three episodes, you’d think they’d have a bigger role in terms of the big picture. Honestly, it’ll take yet another rewatch (in however many years) for me to fully understand what’s going on down in Paradise, cause right now they feel more like window dressing, especially GJ.

Granted, as a character-driven drama, the fact there are so many mysteries left unresolved and plot threads left dangling after some setup doesn’t bring the show down. What ultimately matters here is how our cast of characters have grown and changed in the face of confronting the darkness of Laketop and their pasts. That said, if you’re more interested in an overarching mystery and/or prefer more plot-driven fare, I bet Top of the Lake will leave you frustrated to no end.

In Conclusion

So that’s Top of the Lake for you. Safe to say, it’s one hell of a quality ride.

Like some kind of wizened tortoise, Top of the Lake takes us on a slow-paced, introspective journey filled to the brim with great acting and gorgeous cinematography that asks us what it means to empathize with the people that make up our lives, and how a lack of empathy can shape us.

It’s easily the best of the post-Twin Peaks small-town crime dramas, and the best and most consistent live-action show I’ve covered on Off the Beaten Path. Here’s hoping that Top of the Lake: China Girl shapes up when I eventually get to it.

My Recommendation: Highly Recommend

My Episode Recommendations

  1. Paradise Sold: Highly Recommend
  2. Searcher’s Search: Recommend
  3. The Edge of the Universe: Highly Recommend
  4. A Rainbow Above Us: Recommend
  5. The Dark Creator: Recommend
  6. No Goodbyes, Thanks: Recommend

If You’re Interested in Watching Top of the Lake

If you’re interested in checking out Top of the Lake, you can find the 7 episode cut on Hulu.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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