Certain episodes of television stand out not only within the
course of a series, but within the course of a year. In 2012, it was the
eleventh episode of “Mad Men,” titled “The Other Women” (incidentally also
featuring a stunning performance from Elisabeth Moss). This year, the finale of “Top of the Lake” achieves that same skin-tingling, harshly
heartbreaking, core-shaking status.
Robin wants to mount a case against Matt Mitcham, but initially
isn’t getting any help from Jamie’s mother, Simone (Mirrah Foulkes), or the other women who work
in Mitcham’s drug lab. After lying, saying they’re on their way to a book group
(to discuss the literary classic “Blue Velvet,” ha!), the women admit to Robin
that the money, health insurance and general support they receive from Matt is
too great to lose.
Bunny’s daughter and fellow Paradise resident, Melissa
(Perth-based musician Georgi Kay), is strumming away on her electric guitar in
the woods when Jamie and Tui appear. The teens head to Paradise for a meal,
where GJ repeats her terse wisdom from last week, that “the body knows what to
do.” Tui is resisting the advice to have her baby in hospital, stating that she
doesn’t want to be naked for the delivery. Her fear of birthing the child
around professionals — many of whom presumably would be men — hints at the
likely reality that she’s repressing a sexual trauma. She’s also bleeding,
which doesn’t bode well for an out-of-hospital birth.
A group of Laketop teens, all sporting “Yes” and “No” on
their hands and many of whom are participants in the local barista course, meet
Tui and Jamie at their forest hideout. It’s Tui’s birthday. Jamie denies that
he impregnated Tui, instead telling his friends that it was the “Dark Creator…
the snake of Paradise.” (This seemingly implicates Matt Mitcham.) He then says
something even more troublesome: “You know who it is. Wake up.” The idea of
“waking up” signals a sense of dreaminess or lack of awareness, which is echoed
later when Tui confesses to Jamie about her baby: “I don’t even know how it got
This episode screams “Warning!” through the mise-en-scene.
The most salient example, of course, would be Robin’s rifle-wielding assailant,
the undistinguishable figure in the dusk who aims his shotgun at her as she
prepares dinner. After Matt’s gang of hunters ambush Tui’s friends to get
information on her whereabouts, the barbecue at the Mitcham residence has a
number of visuals that put us on alert. First, there’s the dead female deer
head skewered on a spike (in contrast to the glorified taxidermied stag heads
we see throughout the series). Next, Matt smashes his hand through a glass
cabinet, and then sends a family heirloom — his mother’s “precious” teacup —
shattering to the floor. His message is clear: He won’t hesitate to kill any of
the hunters if they harm Tui. (Ironically, this also suggests a violent streak
in Matt towards what’s precious to him —
i.e. his family members.)
A nerve-rackingly uncomfortable scene finds Robin stuck between the devilish glares of Al and Matt on Al’s boat,
stranded on the freezing lake. This scene parallels Bob Platt’s precarious situation
in the first episode, and we all know how that turned out. I can’t imagine
Robin’s visceral fear of being, yet again, in a position where she is
outnumbered by men in an isolated setting. Luckily, if somewhat implausibly,
Johnno materializes on his boat to whisk her back to shore, claiming he smelled
a rat after hearing “from Luke about the fishing trip.”
He also tells her that Matt’s hunters have staked out Tui
and Jamie’s forest hideout; once ashore, Robin and Johnno begin searching on
foot for the location, hoping to intervene before the hunters can do any harm.
Too late. After getting into a bloodless shoot-out with their unwanted
visitors, Tui and Jamie switch jackets (so that Jamie is hidden inside Tui’s
puffy white parka, and Tui concealed under Jamie’s signature blue hood) to
throw off the hunters. As the men chase Jamie, mistaking him for Tui, the young
boy slips on a landslide area of rocks, and after skidding hundreds of feet,
falls to his death over the edge of a cliff.
While the sequence leading to Jamie’s death is horrific and gut-wrenching, it’s also
a brilliant example of skillfully choreographed action. Notice how Robin,
walking along the river bed, can hear the shouts and gunshots but can’t locate
the chase; we as viewers have no particular geographic sense of where she is in
relation to the action until Jamie’s body falls into frame. Suddenly, two
planes of action, joined only by editing and sound, are thrust together visually
with one stomach-turning reveal. The importance of sound in this sequence is
reiterated when, as Jamie’s body is hauled into shore, Tui lets off those
plaintive gunshots, accompanied by animal-like wails of anguish. Robin hears
the noises reverberating through the hills.
Has a cover song ever been used to such effect in a series?
Melissa’s rendition of Bjork’s “Joga,” which she performs with a few other
women from Paradise for Jamie’s memorial service, gives me chills. (A nice
visual detail in this scene: The local teens’ horses have “NO” written on their
flanks in large letters, a beautiful and poignant form of protesting a life
cut short too soon. Jamie would have approved.)
At the memorial, Simone approaches Robin, understandably
emotionally unhinged but more friendly now, and tells
her that Jamie wasn’t the father of Tui’s baby. “He was gay,” she says with
tremulous matter-of-factness. And then, as she notices Matt and his crew
arriving: “Don’t say that in this town.”
Peter Mullan, whose terrifyingly focused, excellent turn as
Matt Mitcham I hope won’t go unnoticed at this year’s Emmys, once again
communicates his character’s complexities in the memorial sequence. Matt is
genuinely bereaved for Simone’s loss, but also shrewdly aware that keeping her
on his side — and quiet about the drug business — is imperative.
Mitcham’s concerns prove warranted, as Simone tells Robin
the next day that she wants to testify against Matt, and that a few other women
from his lab will also come forward. Here is another example from the series of
women banding together — as they do in Paradise — for strength, in search of
a sense of peace and personal justice. This is movingly paralleled when Robin
returns to the police office, and Al’s brunette colleague (the only other woman
I’ve seen around the Laketop police station) gives Robin a hug, without
During Matt’s “personal confession” to Robin at
his home, he alleges that she is in fact his daughter, the product of an affair
between him and Jude. This not only clarifies Jude’s intensely negative
reaction in last week’s episode to Robin being involved with Johnno Mitcham,
but also throws Johnno and Robin’s relationship into a seriously complex light.
Robin’s behavior later — brashly kissing Johnno and trying to seduce him (her “Hello,
brother” line is shiver-inducing) — suggests that she is willing to run
the risk of incest.
How interesting that Robin is literally “brought to her
knees,” as GJ predicted a few episodes ago, when she gets roaring drunk
following Matt’s unsettling confession. At Paradise, a hungover, worse-for-wear
Robin tells GJ she “doesn’t know how to go on living.” In perhaps her
best monologue of the series — a feat, as she’s spouted many a great word of
strange wisdom — GJ tells Robin and the other women to stop trying to help others,
to free themselves of the need to plan, strategize, and look for a way out. Here
these women are, in a place with the existentially rueful moniker of Paradise,
and yet: “There is no way out.” Oddly, this parallels the visual space of
Paradise. Though the property is a beautiful expanse, it also functions as a
safe zone, a container to stay inside (like the cargo containers in which the women
sleep). The point of Paradise, as GJ would have it, is to stop looking for a
way out — be contained where you are.
This is the opposite of Matt Mitcham’s philosophy, as he
condemns his sons cruelly for having “empty” lives. Indeed,
throughout the past few episodes, Matt has made it his steadfast pursuit to have a plan. It seems then to follows
GJ’s unforgiving logic that Matt dies following his own “way out” — i.e.
locating Tui, which he does, and then attempting to kill her baby. Before Matt can carry out his designs on
Tui’s adorable newborn, his young daughter shoots him in the forest.
We learn that Robin and Johnno are in the clear. It seems Johnno’s
mother was every bit as promiscuous as Matt Mitcham, and Mitcham is not
Johnno’s biological father.
The significance of “waking up,” as poor Jamie
warned his friends, does come into play in the series’ climax. Al has been
facilitating the drugging and raping of Laketop’s barista-course teens from within
his house. In an act of daring bravado that recalls Clarisse Starling from
“Silence of the Lambs,” Robin shoots Al point-blank in the chest, and
then descends into the lurid underbelly of his too-clean mansion, where she
discovers the pornography ring in action.
The cryptic photos discovered on Bob Platt’s computer were
in fact pointing to just such a scene as the one discovered in Al’s basement. A blood-splattered Robin, with her gun
and cell-phone camera in hand, captures and documents with exactitude the
heinous crime about to occur. Filming it (with her eyes peeled open, unable to
look away from the horrors) is her way of literally giving clarity to a mystery
so shrouded in obscurity. In doing so, she is reclaiming the power of her
younger self, providing hard evidence so that justice — a justice she herself
never experienced — can be served.
The series ends on a beautiful note. GJ is leaving for
Reykjavik, perhaps to find a new place to call Paradise. Tui runs after her
through the burnt-gold fields, and begs her to stay. For months, GJ has been
the bizarrely hypnotic emotional compass for a number of the series’ characters
— and its viewers. As she wisely points out to the young girl, with no sugar
coating: Tui has a new teacher. We hear the sounds of baby Noah crying.
Bits and pieces:
- It should be noted that there is ambiguity on the point of who impregnated Tui; we hear from Al that Matt is the father, but Al of course has his reasons for possibly covering up the identity of another outside rapist, and blaming it on the now dead Matt. Yet it’s possible that Matt is part of the porn ring — he too has a stag’s head mounted on his walls. If Matt weren’t at least concerned about possibly being linked to the infant via DNA, holding the baby at gunpoint would be a bizarrely extreme move — why the need to have the child killed? Another possibility is that Matt has molested Tui, but that another man in the porn ring is the father.
- The finale is co-directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, and co-written by Campion and Gerard Lee.
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