Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Top of the Lake season 1, episode 4 (Sundance version) - "The Edge of the Universe"/"A Rainbow Above Us"

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 4 (Sundance version) - "The Edge of the Universe"/"A Rainbow Above Us"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 1, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

As it turns out, Robin's big discovery - "I think I know what she meant by 'No one'!" - may have more to do with herself than with Tui. Visiting Al at his chic glass house that evening, she explains that by "no one" Tui may have meant "more than one" rather than zero. In other words, she was gang-raped. Al is dismissive, turning the subject to Robin's past. In this episode, we we finally learn the details of the detective's own trauma. About twenty years ago she attended prom with Johnno; he disappeared with some friends, so she left and hitched a ride in a truck. Johnno also hopped aboard the back (though she never knew he was there) and then the driver and other passengers took her to an isolated spot and raped her. The perpetrators were not charged, but the cops and Mitch violently punished them off the books. Robin got pregnant, gave the baby up for adoption, and years later received a letter from her now-teenage birth daughter, to which she never responded.

We hear this information through Robin's interactions with Al, Johnno, and her mother, rather than all at once. As such, Robin has a very rough episode - we are now halfway through the series and this is probably her low point. Al, after accusing her of projecting personal history onto the present case, has to put Robin to bed when she gets sick and passes out. Waking up (alone) in his bed the next morning, she does not entirely trust his motivations. That feeling may be mutual: Al removes her from the case, ostensibly because she smashes a bottle across a bar patron's face (it's heavily implied that he was one of her rapists, but doesn't remember). However, Al may have ulterior motives, hinted at by his wounded expression after finding her in Johnno's tent one morning.

Johnno does his part in the make-Robin-feel-awful sweepstakes by hinting that he was present for her rape and that it might even get worse than that. They are looking at pictures from that prom night, dredging up bad memories, and Robin stops him in his tracks - she doesn't want to know (it helps that the dreaded revelation is disrupted by an abrasively ringing phone). Even Robin's mom contributes by demanding to meet her granddaughter before she dies, something Robin absolutely refuses. So far, that's a lot of summary - and of just one part of the plot - but it feels necessary to convey Robin's sense of pressure and distress. Tui's case, for all its horror, apparently serves a cathartic purpose for Robin; opening old wounds, yes, but also offering a shot at resolution that she herself was unable to attain. Sometimes, ripping off the scab to reveal the raw wound can feel "better" - or at least more of a relief than letting it fester, infected.

Robin, of course, continues her investigation off the books. She meets Ian Fellows (Anthony Phelan), a pathologist whose matter-of-fact contempt for the local police led him to seek her out. He explains how the cops refused to move forward on three suspicious cases despite his own recommendations. One involves a girl run over by a car on Laketop Highway (near where Robin was assaulted), with cocaine found in her vagina. "When a kid's involved, it's different," Ian tells Robin. "I had a kid who overdosed. So for me, it's emotional." As with Robin, his obsessive investigation carries a personal sting. Top of the Lake reinforces the notion that the best detectives have some skin in the game, re-traumatizing themselves while exploring the traumas of others. This particular meeting leads Robin to the scene of the apparent suicide (the dead girl stood directly in the way of oncoming traffic, as if welcoming her death). And she too is nearly is run over, further blurring the line between victim and investigator.

Robin's other meeting is with Jamie, a bone-collecting, hoodie-clad teenage friend of Tui, whom she sights trekking into the woods. We, but not she, follow him to a ditch where he suspiciously drops a loaded garbage bag. A body? Food? Supplies? Is this where Tui is hidden? When Robin catches up with him later, we learn that the boy refuses to talk. He will only communicate through a "No" written on his hand, or occasionally via text messages. But Jamie breaks his silence as Robin is leaving, asking "Do you really believe in all that shit?" Later the detective encounters Jamie's friends, who also write words on their palms ("Yes" in this case). Like Tui, these adolescents are all baristas in an ostensibly redemptive community program. Is something else going on here? Top of the Lake establishes a community defined by the struggle between the powerful, maintaining a code of silence to preserve their power, and the victimized, keeping quiet to preserve something more valuable (and vulnerable) than power. Only a figure with a foot in both worlds stands a chance of understanding what this silence really says.

Previous: Episode 3 ("Searchers Search"/"The Edge of the Universe") • Next: Episode 5 ("A Rainbow Above Us"/"The Dark Creator")

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