Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 6 (Sundance version) - "The Dark Creator"/"No Goodbye Thanks"


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 15, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

This was the best episode so far, but that praise comes with a caveat - in a sense, this isn't an episode at all. I'm referring to the different versions of the series, which I recently discovered (I wrote the intro to this viewing diary, explaining this discrepancy, at a later date), but I bring it up now because this is one of the few "episodes" where that chopped-up quality feels especially evident. Usually the American cuts find a good, natural-seeming spot to stop but episode six ends abruptly when Robin rides toward her fateful meeting with Matt. Nicely suspenseful, certainly, but without much of a final visual punch. Most likely, the "proper" ending occurs several scenes earlier at Jamie's funeral, as his friends push a skiff containing his body out from shore. That's quite a scene, though I questioned it at first. Staging an elaborate memorial at Paradise, the mourners decorated with Jamie's signature "NO" on their faces and clothes (even the horses have the word emblazoned on their haunches), while GJ's hippies sing a folksy cover of a Bjork song...it all seemed a tad overdramatic for a show that's usually much more down to earth.

Eventually, however, I rolled with it because it flowed from the previous drama so effectively. Everything has remained at a low simmer and it's time for it all to boil over. The music also accompanies a dramatic face-off between Matt and Simone (Mirrah Foulkes), his employee at the meth lab as well as Jamie's grieving mother. Simone refuses her boss' cash consolation and calls him out in front of everyone. Matt looks genuinely hurt by this outburst - as if he can't understand why the mother of a boy whose death he caused (chased off a cliff by his search party) - would be so angry at him. (Incidentally, even if not for the dramatic turnaround of his death, Jamie would need to be eliminated as a suspect; his mother admits that he was gay.) The funeral follows a whopper of a climax, in which we think we are watching Tui's death only to learn that Jamie disguised himself in her coat. I'll admit, I was completely fooled (mostly by the clever device of hearing Jamie's voice shout "Run, Tui" as we see a figure in his own outfit shoot at the pursuers - though I should have remembered that Tui, not Jamie, has been established as a crack shot). The climax closes with an iconic shot of Tui standing on a peak, firing her gun into the air and screaming.

That's the powerful conclusion, but let's rewind. After removing Tui from the picture for several episodes - letting the mystery surrounding her stand in for her actual presence, even letting the mystery dim at times - the show has now restored her front and center. For a long stretch, Top of the Lake offers Tui, Jamie, and their many friends an extended rendezvous in the bush. This is easily the most joyful, free-spirited sequence in the entire show, with only the GJ clan's far more fleeting romps as rivals. The episode offers a strong sense both of Tui's naivete (she claims not to understand how the baby got there - was she drugged?) and her flinty strength. We also realize anew how determined she is not to be taken back to her father. Since Al eventually reports that Matt is ready to confess, is the case closed? Jamie's death, and Simone's reaction, may have been a shocker, but nothing else in the episode suggests he's ready to surrender. Matt hectors his mercenary army to find - and especially, not to harm - his daughter and also amiably threatens Robin, even stowing away on a boat with her and Al (a fact a disturbingly calm Al seems to be aware of, though Robin hops onto the nearby Johnno's boat before they can discuss whatever Matt wants to discuss).

This, and several other scenes, suggest to me that Al is the culprit. At the very least, he's dirtier than he lets on - Robin is in the midst of asking him how he can afford a $2 million mansion when Matt pops in to distract us. The most disturbing moment, however, is subtle. Near the end of the episode, Robin meets up with Al at a coffee shop. But just before Robin arrives, Al is seated with a group of well-dressed men, talking about something mostly indecipherable. At one point he nods in the direction of the young girl serving them and asks, "What about her - do you think we could organize that?" Al was the one to introduce us to the barista program in an earlier episode. We've already noticed that those in Tui's and Jamie's circle are part of this program too and we've watched Al torment Jamie by making him pour pretend tea. (And of course, Tui was an honored barista with her picture on the cafe wall.) There is something profoundly shady about the program and the town's dissolute children. Is Al running a trafficking ring under cover of charity? I don't know if he's the one who actually impregnated Tui (maybe he's just the pimp) but I'll be surprised if he doesn't bear a huge responsibility. Perhaps Bob Platt is guilty; Robin does find some scandalous-looking pictures on his hard drive.

I don't trust Al at all but I've come around on Johnno. I think he is on the level after all, regarding both Robin and Tui, and he's certainly the only one sufficiently suspicious of the traps Robin walks into (or in the case of her impending visit to Matt, what appears likely to be a trap). Meanwhile, what does Matt really want to confess? I don't think it will be what Robin expects. Will he turn someone else in? Will he confess to the the killing of Bob Platt, or even Simone (who has told Robin she'll inform on Matt in a few days...famous last words)? Will Matt cop to abusing Tui, even if turns out he's not the father? Furthermore, does he know about whatever Al might be involved with (which, if it exists, undoubtedly involves Matt's daughter?). This episode - call it what you will - is characterized by sharp images, narrative twists and turns, and a growing sense of anxiety, a feeling that something is slightly off but everything is moving too fast for us to escape the troubling storm on the horizon.

Previous: Episode 5 ("A Rainbow Above Us"/"The Dark Creator") • Next: Episode 7 ("No Goodbye Thanks")

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