Questions Reign in ‘Top of the Lake’

We meet Tui Mitcham (Jaqueline Joe) very briefly in the first episode of Top of the Lake when we learn that she is pregnant, 12 years old and tough as nails. She disappears shortly thereafter, leaving few clues as to where she’s gone or who the father of her as-yet unborn child is. It’s a moody premise made darker by its remote New Zealand setting and the striking cast of characters who make up her family, friends and her town’s residents. At the center of the new Sundance Channel show is Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), an ambitious young detective who has returned to her New Zealand hometown to lead the search for Tui.

In many ways, Top of the Lake is reminiscent of Twin Peaks and The Killing, cult-favorite mysteries to which it has already been compared. While the show’s eeriness and the centrality of enigmatic female characters certainly calls for such comparisons, it also brings a fresh perspective on the long-time trope of police officers searching for a missing–and possibly murdered–young girl. Tui is, first and foremost, one tough girl and not the traditionally weak, helpless victim; and this is perhaps the most harrowing part of the show. The daughter of local drug lord Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), we get the sense that she’s already seen and experienced more than most girls her age living in rural areas have or will. Still, there’s a vulnerability about her that’s apparent from the moment she steps into a freezing cold lake at the top of the show’s first episode.

The show is four episodes into what seems to be a promising series thus far. Campion’s writing prioritizes slowly revealing the central characters to viewers, while allowing Tui to remain a tantalizing enigma. As we follow Robin, we learn that the case represents more to her than just a search for a young girl—it is also an opportunity to confront her own past, which surfaces in a powerful scene between the detective and her police superior Al Parker (David Wenham). Moss’ portrayal of Robin is particularly striking; she maintains a neutrality that makes even those things we can anticipate still seem surprising.

Mullan also earns praise as the sometimes likable but often violent father of the missing girl. Like his daughter, he’s a difficult riddle to solve. Though there have been intimations that he was involved in Tui’s rape or disappearance, it’s equally plausible that he is guilty simply due to absence. Being a drug lord is, after all, a time-consuming business, even if his center of manufacture is rather close to home. There’s another little puzzle on the show’s outer edges, both in terms of narrative and geography, involving maybe-guru GJ (Holly Hunter) and a band of troubled women who have taken over a part of Mitcham’s land in order to heal and reconnect with themselves.

Viewers who haven’t yet caught Top of the Lake have plenty of time to catch up before episode five airs. Be prepared for an atmospheric mystery that is as intensely uncomfortable as it is beautiful.

The Sundance Channel is running a mini-marathon including all of the show’s previously aired episodes on Sunday, April 7.

RATING 8 / 10