Top of the Lake finale review

Alchemy. That’s what Jane Campion and co. have achieved with Top of the Lake. From base fistfuls of sensational plotlines and genre staples they’ve made something precious and unique. Paedophile rings, corrupt cops, macho drug king-pins, maverick detectives with past traumas… this is the hackneyed stuff of the crime genre (not forgetting this week’s soap opera-style secret parentage revelation). How then, did Top of the Lake transform its scandalous story into such an unusual, mesmerising drama?

Quietly is the first answer. Its makers had keen instincts as to when to let the landscape and the story speak for itself. It began with Tui’s silent bike ride to the lake, and ended with her stood wordlessly in Paradise, only giving young Jacqueline Joe a handful of lines during the six hours in between. TV crime drama has a weakness for gabbling exposition, from audience-avatar sidekicks narrating cases and clues, to rain-soaked monologues and melodramatic face-offs between heroes and foes. Unusually, the final ten minutes of Top of the Lake’s finale were practically dialogue-free.

Those ten minutes ticked dutifully by as we’ve come to expect from crime mystery conclusions, from false ending to final twist. By setting Robin’s discovery in daylight, and by forgoing rooftop confrontations or high-tension chase scenes in favour of wordless dread though, Top of the Lake avoided cliché and showcased the stripped-down strength of its lead performance.

Robin’s piecing together the sickening truth behind Sergeant Parker’s barista “Grad Nights” was conveyed using just Elisabeth Moss’ face and that thrumming score. The audience was trusted to have reached Robin’s conclusion before she did, and not patronised by a cosy epilogue explanation to make sure those snoozing at the back kept up. It was a triumph of tone, and sustained Top of the Lake’s unusually enveloping atmosphere until after the credits rolled.

You’d have been no kind of a crime TV viewer if Sergeant Al hadn’t fallen under suspicion at some point or another over the last six weeks. Whether it was the stag’s head on his office wall (a symbol from the opening credits and Bob Platt’s concealed “brown room” photographs), his familiarity with Tui in episode one, his incongruously flash pad where he (we think) drugged Robin in episode four, or that gesture towards Tegan in his ‘business meeting’ at the café, the clues were there. The grimy revelation wasn’t especially surprising, but then Top of the Lake’s procedural side wasn’t its priority.

Whether it was their intention or not, Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee erected the detective genre as a scaffold to support the other, weirder story elements. Al ran a sloppy shop we know, but the detective parts were never Top of the Lake’s most convincing moments (Robin was sequestered to work a case while on leave visiting her dying mother? Then allowed back on the investigation after glassing her rapist?). Eccentricities like GJ and the container camp, mute-by-choice bone-loving teenager Jamie, and Matt’s self-flagellation at his mother’s graveside were what made the series the unlikely, surprising holiday from normality that it was.

Key to that otherworldly atmosphere of course was the setting, without which Top of the Lake, like Channel 4’s The Returned, would be unimaginable. The mountains, lake, and bush were a canvas both broad and alien enough to marry Top of the Lake’s unconventional, generic, and allegorical parts into one coherent picture. Telling a story about the corruption of innocence in a place called Paradise might have been insufferably on-the-nose had the backdrop not been so disorientating and other-worldly.

Its characters too, even the weirdoes and the brutes, were charismatically written and performed. Moss was so convincing as Robin it’ll be harder to shake the image of her in a puffa jacket and hoodie come the next season of Mad Men than it was the other way around six weeks ago. Peter Mullan’s performance, it goes without saying these days, was flawless, while David Wenham carried Al’s hidden depravity with horrible charm from start to finish. Holly Hunter, as Matt Mitchum mirror GJ (both powerful, antagonistic and in this episode at least, practically sharing the same dialogue), was barely there, but held your focus for every second of her screentime.

One of the drama’s coups was its repositioning of gender and sexuality in crime TV. Unlike so much else we see, its nudity was male and female, rarely titillating, sometimes comic and often banal. The fact I even registered my pleasure at Robin being a female law enforcer who didn’t stalk around her apartment wearing tiny knickers and holding a big gun just shows how engrained the clichés of women in crime TV drama are. Not that Top of the Lake was perfect on that front – Robin’s rape, though well-woven into the plot threads, is an over-familiar origin story for a crime fighter – though at least it was her, and not her boyfriend the trauma motivated to fight crime.

That’s the really exciting thing about Top of the Lake. It loves crime mystery, but that doesn’t mean it puts up with any of its bullshit. As a non-flashy, non-Hollywood turning point for detective TV, it’s exploded the possibilities of where the genre, and its women, could go next. A triumph.