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Five Striking Similarities Between Elisabeth Moss' Roles on 'Mad Men' and 'Top of the Lake'

by Beth Hanna
April 8, 2013 3:44 PM
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Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, left, and Robin Griffin, right

A joy of the current TV season is that one of the medium’s finest actresses, Elisabeth Moss, has key roles in two of the finest series in recent memory -- “Mad Men,” now in its sixth season, and Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.” While the athletic, hardened Kiwi detective Robin Griffin and sharp-as-a-tack ‘60s Mad Woman Peggy Olson are worlds, eras and professions away from one another, there are striking similarities between the two characters.

1. Accent-uate the positive. One of the great details from the fifth season of “Mad Men” is Peggy Olson’s slip into her native New Yawkuh accent when chatting with Ginsberg in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Usually she keeps her accent neutral and her elocution elegant while at work, and then brings out the “Ma!” when visiting her Brooklyn home. Moss’ dexterity with dialects is of course on display in “Top of the Lake,” where she boasts a fairly good Kiwi accent. Interestingly, Robin was raised in Laketop, New Zealand, but has been living for many years in Australia, so the more detail-oriented question remains whether Moss is in fact accurately channeling a New-Zealander-who’s-lived-half-her-life-in-Sydney accent. This my Yankee ear cannot tell.

2. The Big C. That would be Catholicism. While the Catholic religion doesn’t play a major role (or even a minor one) in “Top of the Lake,” I was struck by Robin's salient comment in last week’s fourth episode when she (SPOILER alert) reveals that she was impregnated by her four teen rapists, and subsequently had a baby girl. She put the child up for adoption, but succinctly explains that she didn’t abort it because of her “Catholic mother.” While Peggy in the first season of “Mad Men” becomes pregnant under very different circumstances (she has a consensual tryst with Pete Campbell), she too puts the child up for adoption. In Peggy’s case, it’s too late to consider the option of an abortion -- she goes into labor without realizing her substantial weight gain is an actual pregnancy -- but her Roman-Catholic family’s judgment looms over her, particularly that of her resentful sister, after the illegitimate child is given up.

3. Young woman, big job. With the perennially unemployed or underemployed young women of “Girls” recently buzzing about the TV stratosphere, it’s refreshing to see Moss’ Peggy Olson and Robin Griffin handling high-responsibility dream jobs -- and not buckling under pressure -- at relatively young ages. The comparison between Robin and the BBC’s “Prime Suspect” sleuth Jane Tennison (a career-defining Helen Mirren) is apt, but remember that when we meet DCI Tennison she is about 10 to 15 years older, albeit higher in rank, than her modern “Top of the Lake” counterpart.  Both Robin and Peggy embody ambitious, fast-rising women, unafraid to speak their mind and push projects in new, innovative directions, despite facing roadblocks. Which leads me to…

4. Shouldering the boys’ club. Peggy’s not only working her way through the thicket of condescending, hardy-har-har men in the 1960s advertising world, she’s also working in a field that caters to men’s desires (or indirectly, via the “women want what men want” concept). This was exemplified nicely in the Season Six premiere, when Peggy, now sitting in an elevated position at Ted Chaough’s agency, faces three men and displays a shrewd knowledge of what Super Bowl viewers -- a “drunk, loud male audience” -- want in an ad. Meanwhile, Robin is apparently conducting her investigation of Tui Mitcham’s disappearance on an exclusively male police team, dealing with smirking cops during her presentations, a detective-sergeant who plainly doesn’t understand the severity of her past trauma (or how it should have been dealt with from an enforcement standpoint), and a general lack of concern for the missing teen girl.

5. Ambiguous sexual tension with an older male authority figure. Detective-sergeant Al Parker’s interest in Robin has deeply malevolent undertones, especially following the suspiciously potent red wine he offers her at a two-person dinner party. Meanwhile, Peggy’s past work relationship with Don Draper, which was a fascinating mix of flirty, friendly and paternal, had viewers wondering season after season if a Don-Peggy hookup was on the horizon. (Thankfully, it wasn’t.) In both cases, Moss’ characters seem to inspire intimidation and familiarity in her bosses, which manifests in vague to explicit sexual interest. With Peggy’s agency move, it looks like Ted Chaough may very well fill Don’s shoes in this regard.

What say you, TOH-ers? Noticed any other interesting similarities between Moss' Peggy and Robin?


  • Barbara | May 25, 2013 9:36 AMReply

    I was always under the impression that Peggy's sister has her baby. there was a scene, I don't remember which season, that Peggy is confronted by her sister, when she o say good bye to the baby

  • allie | April 9, 2013 8:51 PMReply

    excellent points and essay; it made me reflect on this awesome young actress, and the shows in general. love them both and Ms Moss. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  • Jerren | April 8, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    I don't think she's trying to "collapse" circumstances into anything. She states, right at the top of the piece, that the two characters are worlds apart. I think what the writer did well is to illuminate an exciting young actress's choices in material. There ARE indeed some striking similarities, as the piece so elegantly details, and what's fascinating to me is to think about if said similarities were the draw for Moss, or if some of these things came out in the development of her respective characters after she was cast. Knowing that film/TV is a collaborative medium, I would think it's a little of both. Anyway, more to the point, I was happy to have this article to peruse and think about. I was NOT happy to see condescending comments that add nothing to any conversation anywhere.

  • No | April 8, 2013 5:56 PMReply

    Does it really matter? A critic can collapse the most casual set of circumstances into alleged similarities.

  • tyler4all | April 8, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    slow day, huh?

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