This recap contains spoilers from the fifth episode of
“Top of the Lake,” airing April 8.
This week’s episode of “Top of the Lake” finds its
characters combating feelings of helplessness — from the past, from a
seemingly impenetrable mystery, and from death.
Robin’s mother, Jude (Robyn Nevin), feeling terrified and
powerless in the face of her terminal cancer, visits Paradise. She bathes nude
with the gaggle of commune women, and then receives some terse yet strangely
soothing advice from GJ: “Are you dying? Nothing wrong with that. Very natural.
The body knows what to do, go with the body.” And then: “Get some heroin.”
Death or the imminence of death is something that’s often
verbally tip-toed around, and Jude finds GJ’s blunt statement to be relieving,
as she admits to Robin later at the house. However open she’s become to the
prospect of dying, Jude is still not willing to accept a more recent
development: Robin and Johnno’s romance. She pleads Robin not to see him, and
Robin — for the moment — complies.
Johnno has been wrestling with his own feelings of
helplessness, eventually confessing to Robin that he never tried to defend her
from the four rapists on the night of her attack. In a lovely moment that shows
Robin’s compassion but also her intuitive understanding of youth (she’s a
specialist in children’s cases, after all) she tells him: “There was nothing
you could have done… You were a kid.” Nonetheless, Johnno still feels he has
unfinished business with Sarge, the only one of Robin’s rapists still
skulking around Laketop. He drags Sarge out of his trailer, roughs him up and scares
him out of town, which is met with neighborhood applause. I appreciated the
parallels here; Robin takes revenge on Sarge in last week’s episode, while
Johnno finishes the job this week.
Unsurprisingly, Al wants Robin back on the Tui case. His
actual motives behind this are unclear. He’s certainly pushing his romantic
agenda with Robin, attempting to warn her away from her “drug addict friend”
(Johnno), and abruptly asking her to marry him. As I mentioned last week, one
of the many strengths of “Top of the Lake” is its ability to make fairly
repulsive characters sympathetically human. When Robin contradicts Al late in
the episode, his anger at her insubordination and then transparent attempt to
make her jealous (“I’ve got a hair appointment and then a date with a lady,
I’ve got a life”) is heart-tuggingly pathetic.
Speaking of repulsive yet sympathetic characters, Matt
Mitcham is struggling with his sense of ineffectuality, too. As he bemoans to his mother’s grave, “I know
I’m useless.” The poor man has the idea that Tui, a 12-year-old now missing for
two months, will simply show up at home one night. For the second time in the
series, Matt ascends the stairs to Tui’s bedroom, only to discover forlornly
that she’s not there.
To combat the terrible feeling of doing nothing while his
child remains missing, Matt announces to his live-in sons that he’s hired some
hunters to find Tui and bring her back — unharmed, and for a reward of $10,000.
Luke and Mark are ambivalent. They mention a couple of occasions in the
past, before Tui’s disappearance, where they found Matt passed out drunk on
Tui’s bed, while the girl “was walking up and down on top of him.” This
implication of incest doesn’t look good for Matt, and his wildly defensive,
violent reaction to their accusation seems suspicious, too.
After a brief breakup, Robin and Johnno reunite when
attempting to follow blue-hoodie wearer Jamie through the woods. Upon losing
the elusive Jamie, the two decide to have sex in the forest. (This moment
was a bit overwrought for my tastes.) Two unsavory forest dwellers — who I at
first assumed were Matt’s hired hunters, but now I’m not so sure — discover
the couple in the midst of sexy time, and film them with a phone. During a
scuffle, Johnno grabs the phone, but gets slashed in the leg. Robin scares off
the assailants with two shots of her handgun.
Robin gets Johnno safely to Paradise, where the commune
women are only too happy to strip him of his clothes and apply pressure to the
wound on his upper thigh. In the best scene of the episode, Johnno and Robin
discover what other footage exists on
the hunters’ phone — namely, a shot of
Tui wandering in the woods, appearing like an apparition in her white parka
before stepping out of view into the thicket of trees. It’s an elegant and
moving sequence, not only because Robin and the women of Paradise alike are so
relieved that the young girl apparently is alive, but because the discovery remains outside the realm of establishment. Paradise is about safety removed from
society. The women wouldn’t dream of reporting Tui’s appearance — something
that might very well put the girl into greater harm — but instead keep up the
quiet hope that she’ll return again to the commune for help. Robin, as a member of that greater society, bides her time with this new information.
Upon Robin’s return to her mother’s house, she discovers
that Jude has died in hospital. This blunt shock sadly echoes an earlier plot
point in the series, where Robin missed a crucial doctor appointment due to her
obsessive absorption with Tui’s case. At first, I found this development to be
too rushed. Though Jude is contemplating death early in this episode, she’s
certainly mobile and lucid, neither healthy nor immediately at death’s door. To have
her die so suddenly seemed like a jarring collapse of narrative events.
But, of course, illness can
overtake a person suddenly — or gradually, while the increasing severity is
kept private — and leave the surviving world feeling confused, like a piece of
the equation went missing. And so, as I realized upon my second viewing of this
episode, the narrative of death doesn’t have to make sense. Indeed, I now think
it’s another example of the series’ subtle, strange and compelling writing and
structure. It also follows GJ’s harsh logic: Like Jude’s boyfriend, Turangi (Calvin Tuteao), we’re the ones who experience Jude’s death, in all its untimely and random abruptness.
Robin’s feelings of helplessness and guilt over her mother’s
death are visually compared to Matt Mitcham’s. Notice how Robin’s anguish over
her mother’s final voicemail is edited immediately before Matt’s
self-flagellating at his mother’s grave. Why this visual and thematic parallel
between Matt and Robin? Is there some further connection between these two
characters that we don’t yet know about?
Matt’s masochistic behavior also finds echoes in Jamie. At
the episode’s end, we see the teen slapping himself repeatedly while in custody.
(During this sequence, Al inflicts a series of bizarre and humiliating
punishments on Jamie, including forcing him to pantomime making tea. This makes
Al’s suggestion of wanting to father Robin’s children all the more creepy. What
kind of father would Al be?)
In this elongated interview scene, when Robin unwittingly
plays good cop to Al’s bad cop, Jamie breaks his usual silence to scream “You
don’t know anything!,” giving voice to the overall atmosphere of helplessness
throughout this episode.
But Jamie is right: There are things that Robin doesn’t
know. She’s seen evidence of Tui’s survival, but where is she hidden? In the
final rousing sequence, we’re given undeniable proof of Tui Mitcham’s
existence, as Jamie brings bags of food deep into the forest. Upon his signal,
the missing young girl appears, and begins ravenously devouring his offerings.
Bits and pieces:
- Bob Platt’s wife approaches Robin and confides in her that
before Bob’s death, he’d seen something terrifying. In an attempt to cash up
and leave Laketop as soon as possible, he sold Paradise for $2 million.
- After being re-hired by Al, Robin talks to an out-of-town
journalist interested in Tui’s case, and mentions the local café’s barista
course for troubled teens. Tui was part of this program.
- Notable among Jamie’s possessions during his interview is a
bottle of date-rape drug Rohypnol.
- This episode is directed by Garth Davis, and co-written by
Jane Campion and Gerard Lee.