Nobody knows much of anything on Top of the Lake, the new miniseries from Jane Campion. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) and the rest of the local New Zealand police don’t know who impregnated Tui Mitcham, a 12-year-old girl found neck-deep in a freezing lake; Tui herself certainly isn’t telling. Her father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), doesn’t know what a posse of liberated women have done setting up camp on a stretch of land he owns jointly with a realtor. He and his grown sons can’t quite tell whether GJ (Holly Hunter), their spiritual leader, is a man or a woman.
It’s this last mystery that is perhaps the most telling about the show, or at least about what the show currently promises to be. Superficially, Top of the Lake is a crime story, a whodunit, but as in all the best mysteries, there are darker things lurking beneath the surface. This is a story about men, and women; it’s a story about what men do to women, and what those women do to get their own.
Mitcham and his boys remind me of nothing so intensely as roosters strutting around the farm: they ooze the kind of casual, supercilious masculinity of your average frat boy, but with a rougher edge. These are, after all, country boys. One of these men almost certainly raped Tui, and from external appearances, it could easily have been any of them. And, of course, the head sergeant of the local police force, Al Parker (David Wenham), seems a little too friendly with the family, a little too quick to reassure Robin that he knows them and that they couldn’t possibly be responsible for Tui’s condition.
This cohort of men may be used to having the run of the land, but the scales are about to fall from their eyes, for women have descended on their town. If these guys had any sense at all, they’d be scared stiff. They’re not yet, for the most part, but they will be soon. The old rules, the rules that allowed them to do things however they liked – the sort of rules that make it acceptable to brush aside the pregnancy of your twelve-year-old daughter as no big deal, because all women are “sluts” by nature — are not going to stand up to the pressure Robin and the rest put on them.
The Mitchams’ reaction to GJ is perhaps the most telling instance of this soon-to-be-shifted territory. These supernaturally confident specimens of masculine privilege do not seem threatened by much, but they clearly feel threatened by her: or, rather, by the ambiguity of her. There is nothing traditionally feminine about the way that GJ presents: she wears men’s clothes, her voice is low, and her chest appears almost flat. Nothing is quite as frightening to this type of man as a woman whom they cannot fit into a box, whom they cannot sexualize. They ask first the other women in the enclave and then the man who rented them the land about GJ, seemingly incapable of accepting the simple answer that GJ is a woman unconcerned with the conventional strictures of womanhood.
But the notion of womanhood was already corrupted in their community, and, specifically, in their family, long before GJ and her crew arrived. For a 12-year-old girl is not a woman, and yet she has been made into one by one of these men. GJ does not represent the destruction of womanhood but the liberation of it, the reclaiming of it from the men who have so debased it that they have refused even a child the creation of her own identity independent of sexual objectification.
If GJ is the symbol on the edge of society, then Robin is the driving force from within: an old local coming back from a long stay away, who seems to have her own history as a victim of sexual violence. She is a part of the system, a detective specializing in sexual assault and abuse, and there is something of the avenging angel in her, a hard light in her eyes when she talks to Detective Parker that, if he has any sense, he would find frightening.
It may be crass to say it, but I couldn’t help thinking it over and over again as I watched this story begin to unfold: America could use a healthy dose of Jane Campion’s worldview right about now. Herein you will find no romanticization of rape, no defense of rapists, no hand-wringing over the bleak futures of two sixteen-year-old boys who violated a defenseless classmate, as we have so disturbingly seen on most major news networks in response to the verdict of the Steubenville rape case.
As with all of Campion’s work, the writing is nuanced and subtle, and I have no doubt that many — if not all — of the male characters will turn out to be complex, ambiguous human beings (Parker, though clearly untrustworthy, seems a likely candidate for a radical change in perspective.) But there is no ambiguity about what has been done to Tui, in whom there lurks a sinister terror horrible to behold in one so young. This is a story about evil, and Top of the Lake never lets us forget it.