“This search will bring you down hard…on your two knees.
Face in the dirt.”
There are plenty of non-feminist reasons to watch Top of the Lake. The writing is great. The acting is excellent. It’s gorgeous, full of huge sweeping shots of New Zealand wilderness.
It feels at once realistic and weird, weird in the way real life is (media is often duller than real life because our definition of realism is boring, not real). Each scene is so dense with atmosphere and meaning that watching a single episode almost feels like finishing a film.
It’s also a deliberately feminist show about rape culture and patriarchy and strong female characters.
(I’d honestly recommend just watching it with no prior knowledge like I did, although the following doesn’t contain major spoilers if you still need to be sold. Should be on Netflix.)
The main character is Robin (played by Elisabeth Moss), a detective. She’s in search of Tui, a 12 year old girl who got pregnant then disappeared somewhere into the wild.
This search takes place in her old home town, where she leads an investigation by the local police (they needed someone trained to deal with child sexual assault). This town is dwarfed by nature–houses scattered like pebbles along the rim of vast Lake Wakatipu, everything in the shadow of mountains.
Over the course of the first episode, we realize she’s descended into a hive of patriarchy.
This shot is highly representative of the show’s dynamics.
Top of the Lake emphasizes the tenuous patience of men with women. In life, when a woman speaks plainly with men, I cringe, wondering when they’re going to invoke their lazy power and make her shut up.
Robin speaks with the focus of a tightrope walker. If she falters the men will walk all over her, and she will lose her voice. She has to actively maintain her surroundings or things fall apart. She leaves a meeting for a minute to correct a racist police officer and everyone slowly trickles from the room.
She sees men. She clocks them. We are held to her steely gaze that never falters even when her lips are smiling.