In Top of the Lake, Peggy Olson Goes to Hell

Elisabeth Moss’s face is far from the only reason to savor Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s smart, bracing, hugely enjoyable mystery rural noir Top of the Lake, which premieres on the Sundance Channel on Monday, March 18. But that pale-to-radiant instrument of hers—a mouth that suggests her characters might be about to smile, if they would let themselves; those eyes that seem to see twice as much as anyone else’s, especially slights—might be the most consistently surprising element of a show built for surprise. While exhibiting supreme confidence, Moss wills a tremble to pass over herself; later, she'll soften and harden at once as she lunges into an ill-advised sexual encounter. The show is also built to harrow, and Moss’s wrenching paroxysms in the third hour's key scene follow suit, revealing just how much power this actress habitually holds back.

Moss may play a highly skilled idealist fighting for her place in a world of men dedicated to their hegemony, but the show—filmed in New Zealand—is far from Peggy Olson, Kiwi Detective. Moss stars as Robin Griffin, a big-city cop whose visit home to her cancer-stricken mother gets upended by one of those horrific cases that consume the lives of mystery-fiction heroes. First, a 12-year-old girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) turns up pregnant and unwilling to identify the father. Not long afterwards, Tui herself goes missing, possibly a runaway but possibly not, with hundreds of acres of bushland to hide (or be hid) in. Robin tries to rally the all-dude police department to devoting serious resources and manpower to the case; when one local lug argues back that women in primitive societies have long gone into the wilderness to give birth, Robin gives him a dressing down so thorough you’ll probably want to play it back—especially if you would relish seeing Mad Men’s Peggy delivering the same speech with the same confidence.

Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin in Sundance’s Top of the Lake.
Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin in Sundance’s Top of the Lake.

The show shares a spine with Twin Peaks. A director of challenging features sets a compelling mystery in a small town so isolated it seems to have pickled in its own strangeness. An outsider meets curious locals, many with slowly revealed motivations, and the episodes are smartly split between detective work and odd local drama. Difference is, Top of the Lake is more densely plotted than most novels, and what whimsy there is here is urgently human: The fiftyish woman who saunters into the local pub and offers cash for a quick fuck; the mad doings of the women living in boxcars as part of an empowerment retreat led by a ferocious Holly Hunter; or the fleeting glimpses of real bodies unclothed, something of a Campion hallmark.

The show is gorgeous, set in lake and ranch country, but the town is realistically impoverished; the local yobs’ homes are rambling, improvised structures with jury-rigged additions and, sometimes, tarps that appear to be load-bearing. (And dogs barking. Always dogs barking.) The toughs at the local bar are terrors: meth-abusing skinheads, scraggly-bearded sons-of-bitches angry at everything around them, especially the slight policewoman who wants to paternity test everyone in town.

The men are ruled by Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the scariest and most compelling TV villain since Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett on Justified. Weathered and weary, a lion going gray, Mitcham is the father of Tui—but he doesn’t want a cop sniffing around his home, which houses the family’s criminal business. His other offspring is a vicious, scrappy pack of angry men, elaborately tatted; Robin’s inevitable search of the Mitcham compound is marvelously tense.

As the charismatic leader of a cult-like healing group for middle-aged women, Holly Hunter barks harsh truths between beatific silences, her voice sometimes as drily, madly cracked as that of the kid’s talking finger in The Shining. She wears fancy cowboy blouses, buttoned to the top, and her hair flows straight and white, like the country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore; if enough people have the good taste to watch, she’ll inspire killer Halloween costumes.

As in all Campion projects, a heartening, sensual feminism courses through Top of the Lake. The lusts of adult women are presented frankly, sometimes with an aching beauty, as in an Ecstasy-fueled reverie in the superb third episode. Moss’s Robin is haunted by a past that at last comes to light in that same third installment (directed by Garth Davis); a scene of her confronting it has all the raw power of Campion’s The Piano. That moment, difficult to watch as it is, is thrilling, and the last thing you might expect from a creator and actress with resumes as strong as Campion’s and Moss’s. It could very well be the best work of their careers.

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