Lost in the Movies: Top of the Lake season 1, episode 1 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 1 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"

Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Aired March 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion)

Premiering in 2013, the first episode of Top of the Lake knows that we have certain expectations about this sort of mystery show. It makes sure to toy with those, but also, in a way, fulfill them. The short series was created by the great New Zealand/Australian director Jane Campion with Gerard Lee, whose work I'm unfamiliar with (IMDb reveals him to be a longtime collaborator of Campion, co-directing a short film from '83 and writing her acclaimed feature Sweetie). Together they craft a world both realistic in its grungy, atmospheric detail and heightened in the eccentricity of its behavior. From an American perspective, Top of the Lake is illuminated by two popular trends, both with deep roots in Twin Peaks: the auteur-driven "prestige TV" phenomenon with Campion not just creating, producing, and co-writing the episode but also directing; and the "dead girl" genre in which the body of a tragic young woman sets the plot in motion, introducing an outside detective protagonist and exposing secrets and weaknesses in the surrounding community. The big surprise for me, based on what little I'd heard (or thought I'd heard) about this particular show, is that this time, the "dead girl" doesn't actually die...or, as the episode ends, does she?

Barely a few minutes in, Top of the Lake has quickly established the evocative landscape of South Island in New Zealand (a locale whose unusual architecture, open space, and vague sense of melancholy recall the 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter). We're then shown 12-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) wandering up to her chest into a freezing lake, where she stands still, shivering. Is she trying to kill herself? She doesn't seem very determined and we wonder if she has ulterior motives - especially if we've read the basic description of the show's premise. Tui is about four or five months pregnant and when asked by sympathetic Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) to reveal the father, she lifts the top page of a notepad to write the name underneath, warning Robin "don't look till I"m gone" (a deft, sensitive touch on the part of the authors). Robin, peeking at the slip of paper once Tui leaves the interrogation room, gets her "answer": "No one." Not merely an evasive holding action, this phrase recurs as a kind of motto for the series, appearing under Tui's solemn portrait during the end credits. No one...but we have our suspicions.

Tui's dad Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the stringy long gray-haired leader of what appears to be a family-staffed criminal gang, is old enough to be her grandfather. Did he abuse her? He is certainly cavalier about her pregnancy, handwaving it by proclaiming he lost his own virginity at eleven and later commenting directly to her, "Good, you didn't say anything" (this is as she points a rifle at his chest). However, I think Matt's abuse has taken the form of neglect and insult rather than rape. Robin doesn't pinpoint him precisely either, instead noting to the all-too-indifferent policeman Al Parker (David Wenham) that there are a lot of men around the compound where Tui lives: all too many possibilities. Al shrugs and says, "She can't get any more pregnant."

In fact, Top of the Lake doesn't exactly pose the identity of the father as a true central mystery. It's cagey enough with its exposition that everything is suffused with a sense of uncertainty. We learn a few things for certain. Matt and his sons Mark (Jay Ryan) and Luke (Kip Chapman) own a piece of land called "Paradise," which has been taken over by a therapeutic quasi-cult led by the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter). Hunter has little screentime but is one of the episode's highlights, having fun with a character who is determinedly out-there, but also imbuing her with a deep sense of wisdom and charisma. You don't expect a show that begins with a pregnant preteen attempting suicide to be particularly funny, but the scene in which the Mitchams confront the hippie interlopers - including one who relates the tragic tale of her chimpanzee Bill (a "friend," she clarifies, not a pet - or lover!) - is genuinely hilarious in its clash of cultures.

Also funny, in a darker vein, is the Mitchams' boat ride with Bob Platt (Darren Gilshenan), whose shifty behavior doesn't trick anyone into missing the fact that he sold their land. The scene turns solemn when we realize they may actually have killed Bob, but then bursts back into black comedy when the brothers argue who has to give him mouth-to-mouth. Later we overhear a phone conversation suggesting resuscitation was unsuccessful and that Bob, indeed, sleeps with the fishes - pegging Matt not merely as an asshole, but a murderer. Nonetheless, the information is so fleeting we can't be sure. Likewise mysterious: Robin's troubled history with Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), Tui's half-brother who also appears to be living with Tui's mother Kimmie (Michelle Ang). We aren't quite sure about Robin's relationship to her own mother Jude (Robyn Nevin), an apparently sick woman who is very defensive of her nurse and/or lover (Calvin Tuteao), a man whose violent tendencies give Robin pause.

Perhaps the episode's biggest question mark is the conclusion, in which Robin and Johnno find a body floating in the lake. Several scenes earlier, in what may be the episode's strongest sequence, Tui arrives on horseback at the makeshift commune. She is told by GJ that her condition is a time bomb. Did she take that advice all too much to heart? I hope not, as Tui is a compelling character and I would like to see Top of the Lake continue subverting its genre's tropes. No matter where it goes next, this premiere establishes a unique template with plenty of open areas to explore.

Next: Episode 2 ("Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search")

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