"‘Top Of The Lake,’ ‘Mad Men,’ And How Elisabeth Moss Embodies Female Anger"
In next week’s episode of Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake (which premiered last night), Robin Griffin, the New Zealand police detective investigating the pregnancy and then disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl from her home in a rural community, quietly and almost casually sinks a dart in a man’s shoulder in the middle of a bar. It’s a shocking, violent act, particularly for a female character on television. But it’s also in keeping with the finest work of Elisabeth Moss, who plays Robin, and who stars as Peggy Olson Mad Men: she’s one of the best actresses working today at conveying anger from a female perspective, and exploring the constraints on how women are allowed to express that anger.
In Top Of The Lake, we learn before we meet Robin that she has a difficult reputation. “Robin Griffin,” a local police officer remarks after a young girl, Tui, is found up to her chest in a freezing lake—and after she is pulled out of the water, discovered to be pregnant—and it becomes necessary to pull in a detective with more specific experience, Robin is called in because she is in the area, visiting her mother. “This is going to be painful,” another remarks. When Robin arrives on the scene, she’s impatient. “I want this window covered with sheets of A3, and I want her on my own for as long as it takes,” she says of the room where Tui is waiting at a table, in full view of everyone in the precinct. “Clear? I want a clear yes from everyone.” When Robin objects to the idea of Tui being sent home, a police officer tells her “She can’t get any more pregnant.” “She could be attacked for being pregnant,” Robin snaps back at him.
But if Robin seems like a live-wire of tension, she has good reason to be angry. Her mother is undergoing treatment for cancer. Tui’s case comes at a moment of great tension in the region where she lives. Her father, enraged after a local realtor, Bob Platt, sells a tract of land that he believes was promised to him to a group of women who are setting up a quasi-feminist commune, drowns the man during an attempt to scare him. When he learns of Tui’s pregnancy, his instructions to the detective who called in Robin are harsh. “Here’s what you do. You get on your radio, you phone the detective, and you tell her she’s had a miscarriage, or she’s marrying the kid down the road,” he demands, trying to delay time. “I had my first orgasm when I was seven, my first fuck when I was eleven. So she’s a slut. Her dad’s a slut…But she’s not having a baby. I wouldn’t do that to one of my bitches.” The reaction of men in the—except for the commune—overwhelmingly female town is just as ugly. “Are you a feminist?” one of them asks Robin in an upcoming episode. “Are you a lesbian?” asks another. “You’d be better off being a lesbian,” a third chimes in. “Nobody likes a feminist except a lesbian.”
If the attitudes are frightening, even worse is the likelihood they’ll be made manifest. Tui’s father shoots a dog in front of Robin. The implication after the realtor’s death is that if the women don’t move off the land he believes to be his, he could come after them next. And what’s been done to Tui already, and what could have been done to her after she vanishes from the commune, is horrible enough. It makes sense that Robin is angry, and in a place where she’s been physically intimidated already, it’s not surprising that she’d defend herself, as she does when a gun’s pointed at her. And it’s unnerving that she’d strike first through the creative means of the dart—or, as the show suggests, that she’d be involved in a domestic incident where a wall was punched in. Robin’s enraged by sexism and sexual violence, and she’s responding by claiming a kind of physical power—and more importantly, physical aggression—that’s often reserved for men.
On Mad Men, the sexism is more muted—though sexual violence is still present in the form of so-called office hijinks like Ken Cosgrove’s pulling up a secretary’s skirt on election night, the coercion of various subordinate female employees, and Don Draper’s treatment of Bobbie Barrett—and Peggy’s reactions are more muted, too. I’ve been rewatching Mad Men in preparation for the premiere of the sixth season, and part of what’s fascinating about tracking Peggy’s evolution is seeing her start out as someone who doesn’t even know when she should be angry and become someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
When Peggy’s pitch for Belle Jolie lipstick is successful, she’s polite and deferential when she’s asked to get ice for the party celebrating it, even though it seems like the men in the office have appropriated her ideas for their own gain. When she’s offered a drink and a measure of the credit, it’s a surprise. When Pete tries to talk to her while she’s delivering files for Don, she retreats into silence and formal politeness, and is frustrated when Pete tries to shame her for being unprofessional—what he means by professional is available to him, not businesslike. After Peggy does well on another assignment for a weight loss machine, her requests are modest, for an additional $5 a week, and a place to do her copywriting work where she won’t be interrupted by Don’s calls. She’s capable of anger over domestic issues, like the absinthe vomit in her trash can after the Election Night party and the theft of her three dollars in mad money. It’s that incident that prompts a tearful Peggy to tell Don: “I don’t understand. I try to my job. I follow the rules. And people hate me. Innocent people get hurt. And other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It’s not fair.”
Peggy’s trapped in between what she can see and what she thinks she’s allowed to feel and express. She can speak out over her anger about something girlish, but not over the basic unfairness of her compensation, or her relegation to a secretary’s job when she has the brains to do a job that’s been reserved for men since World War II. Ken Cosgrove tells Peggy, when she has to begin her presentation for her weight-loss pitch with just two copies of her memo because she didn’t have time to type more, “Just give it to one of the girls,” asking her to behave like a man without recognizing the social awkwardness it’s already caused Peggy to appear to be above her station. But as she is promoted and becomes a more important figure at Sterling Cooper, and later at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, gaining what was previously a man’s status, Peggy’s increasingly allowed to express anger like a man would. When she told off Don last season for treating her like his work wife, rather than like a peer, she’d come a tremendously long way from the girl fetching the ice, permitted to have the kind of tantrum that Don threw all the time in the first season and to get away with it.
It’s fascinating to see Moss, who has a face so soft and girlish that before her acting career, she was selected as a sweet, blank slate that Excedrin used to sell headache medication, navigate these kinds of roles. Perhaps it’s the contrast between her looks and the rage that she embodies so capably that makes her work so striking and effective. But in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, Andrew Goldman told her “You said of your very short marriage to Fred Armisen, ‘He’s so great at doing impersonations, but the greatest impersonation he does is that of a normal person.’ I read that and thought, Wow, that’s rough.” “Thank you,” she responded in the published transcript, a terrific reminder that a face is no indication of the feelings behind it, or a woman’s ability to act on them—even if the means, or the expression itself, are unpredictable.