Identification and Detection in Top of the Lake
In 2013, BBC Two and the Sundance Channel premiered Top of the Lake, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s artfully-constructed crime miniseries about sexual violence in rural New Zealand. The program concerns Sydney-based detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who returns to her childhood home near Laketop to visit her ailing mother (Robyn Nevin). Soon after her arrival, the local child services department contact Robin to assist with the investigation of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), a schoolgirl whose pregnancy was discovered by the school nurse earlier that morning. Robin is trained in dealing with sexual assault victims and, as we later find out, was herself attacked by the local hooligans when she was a teenager. Serious and efficient, Robin is quickly dissatisfied with the police’s casual approach to Tui’s case. The team assigned to the investigation are resistant to Robin’s authority and Detective Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham), the officer in charge of the Southern Lakes police station, seems flippant and condescending.
The appeal of many crime dramas, such as the path-breaking Twin Peaks (1990–91), the ever popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–) or the BBC’s hit series Sherlock (2010–), is that they are stories of epistemological mastery. Put simply, crime dramas involve a narrative journey from ignorance to enlightenment centred almost exclusively on a detective protagonist. Often, this is a highly gendered process, especially in the "hard-boiled" tradition—such as film noir text The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)—or "buddy-cop" television series such as True Detective (2014–). In these texts, men investigate women. Sometimes such an investigation centres on a duplicitous femme fatale who actively deceives the male investigator and tries to stymie the case. Frequently, however, women in contemporary crime programs feature primarily as victims whose bodies play host to clues.
As the shot reproduced in this article shows, Top of the LakeAgatha Christie’s Marple (2004–13)) is that an elderly woman’s adeptness at chit-chat makes her a proficient investigator. In a slightly different vein, Detective Robin Griffin’s competency in Top of the Lake resides in her capacity to identify with Tui; a quality that the other Southern Lakes police officers sorely lack.
The shot from the first episode shows a relatively informal moment in which Robin converses with the young girl at the police station. Robin faces the opposite direction to Tui, allowing the girl to avoid eye-contact and evade the intrusion of the detective’s gaze. However, unlike during their formal interview a few hours earlier, Tui returns Robin’s look. The camera remains stationary during their conversation, positioned outside of the room in the hallway, close to where the other police officers are working. This shot informs the spectator that Robin is qualified to take the case not merely because of her formal expertise, but because of an exclusive insight into, and empathy for, Tui’s experience. It is only later in the series that we learn exactly what this insight is: namely, that Robin herself became pregnant after being attacked by the town’s inhabitants and that her own abusers never faced formal prosecution (instead, they were released after being informally "taken care of" by a group of senior men from the town).
If this analysis risks characterising Detective Griffin according to a stereotype of feminine emotionality, it is worth pointing out that Robin’s capacity for insight is a form of detection (or of achieving "epistemological mastery", as I earlier described it). Crime dramas are thematically organised around several figural and literal processes of "seeing". First, they are dramas of "looking at" or inspecting clues; a process particularly pronounced in the predilection for extreme close-ups of forensic evidence seen in the CSI franchises or the reimagined Sherlock. Second, crime programs also dramatize seeing in the figurative sense: investigators "notice" connections between clues that are invisible to other, less-astute people (in episode two of True Detective, for example, Detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle hallucinates a vision of a clue while watching a flock of birds pass over the Louisiana marsh, unlike his partner who must ponder the significance of evidence the traditional way). Third, seeing in detective fiction also involves "recognition": identifying victims and perpetrators, acknowledging the "bigger picture" and understanding the truth of a crime. Top of the Lake does not contain very much of the first form of seeing; Robin does not scrutinise blood stains under ultraviolet lamps or tweeze clues from under the fingernails of murder victims. Likewise, she does not "see" the vital connections between the available clues until the final episode—as Detective Sgt. Al Parker remarks, it takes Robin a very long time to solve the case. Instead, as this shot from the first episode expresses, Robin is qualified by her skill with the third form of detection, that is, her capacity for recognition rather than her forensically-trained eye. In particular, it is not hard scientific evidence that eventually reveals Tui’s abuser; a long sought-after test of her newborn child’s paternity turns out to be a false lead. Instead, in the series’ final moments, Robin realises that Al Parker has been running a child sex ring—a conclusion she reaches by trusting her lingering distaste for the chief detective and scrutinising his connections to the local schoolchildren. Hence, the crime against Tui is solved only because Robin retains her suspicion of Laketop’s culture. As it turns out, masculine violence and aggression remains an underlying structuring force in the community, just as it was when Robin herself was attacked.
Another reason not to interpret Robin’s gaze as simplistically "feminine" and empathetic is that identification can also, somewhat contradictorily, involve objectification. As Elizabeth Cowie writes:
In general speech, ‘identification’, as the noun of the verb ‘to identify’, refers to two processes which are apparently quite distinct. There is on the one hand the process of identifying things as objects, that is, as different or similar from each other in, for example, the categorising of species as mammals, insects etc. On the other hand the term refers to a process of making oneself the same as, to identify with something else (the Latin root of the word means literally ‘to make the same’).1
This statement illuminates that Robin’s role as detective in Top of the Lake is dualistic, involving both recognition and differentiation. Although Robin’s experience enables the empathy we see in the shot, her training also positions her to identify Tui as an object, an "abused child,” who requires a particular form of treatment. Robin’s sensitivity to Tui’s situation—for example, her insistence that Tui’s interview should not be witnessed by anyone else at the police station—just as likely stems from her knowledge of correct police procedure for dealing with child victims. As the first episode of Top of the Lake makes clear, Robin will not alter her methods to accommodate the local police’s knowledge of Tui’s individual circumstances (for example, she disregards Al Parker’s remarks that Tui is a known problem child in the community). It is also Robin who demands that Tui’s body be inspected via ultrasound and, eventually, tested to determine her child’s paternity. Like the protagonists of programs like CSI, Twin Peaks or Prime Suspect (1990–2006), Robin treats the victim’s body as a decipherable clue.
Robin Griffin therefore practices a form of detection that involves identification in both of the senses that Cowie pinpoints: scrutiny premised on a victim’s objectification, but also recognition premised on the acknowledgement of continuities between the victim and other subjects. This is especially important in Top of the Lake, a series that examines the entrenched structural forces that enable and perpetuate sexual abuse in Laketop—forces that both Tui and Robin have experienced. It is only through two processes of identification—that is, Robin’s commitment to procedural evidence-gathering as well as her capacity to see the continuities between Tui and her own experience—that she can resolve the crime. All this, I argue, is foreshadowed in the shared look between Tui and Robin at the Southern Lakes police station.