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 Jane Campion)
What an intense hour of television, full of twists and gut-punches. Not only did the show manage to surprise me and keep me in suspense, it did so despite some prior clues (and correct suspicions). More importantly, Top of the Lake really delivered on its premise, and the themes it sustained throughout. That includes a mood of uneasy, think-twice foreboding...the viewer's feeling of generalized mistrust reflects Robin's own state of mind all too well. Looking back over the story, none of the developments appear arbitrary. The outcomes, the revelations, the discoveries both false and true, are deeply rooted and cleverly seeded. There are plenty of loose ends and open questions but the important threads are tied up, the necessary answers provided, and appropriate ambiguities retained.
First of all, I was right about Al. He was trafficking the children from the barista program, in his own home no less - drugging the teens and preteens to stage pornography for, it seems, wealthy clients. The roofies found on Jamie belonged to Al, and his abusive behavior in the interrogation room was clearly part of a larger pattern. It's also likely that he did roofie and molest Robin after dinner at his house, and if he didn't it certainly shows an atypical restraint on his part. (Then again, there are indications - even in retrospect - that Al viewed Robin as some sort of redemptive figure, a way out of his life of his debauchery; at the very least her execution ironically fulfills his request that she kill him if she won't marry him.) Al was obviously responsible for the suicide of April Stevens, the girl whose roadside memorial and picture on the cafe wall are the two triggers sending Robin flying to Al's lakeside perch.
It was hard to feel much "satisfaction" as the clues confirmed my hunches though, due both to the disturbing nature of the revelation and the masterful sense of dread that Campion evokes as these clues come together. The build-up to the real climax, following the false ending, may just be the finest sequence in the whole show. I'm not even sure how the calm shots and casual air managed to jangle my nerves so acutely, but I just knew something wasn't right and the apparent calmness of the mise en scene only heightened this anxiety. The sunlight...the open spaces...the lack of music...the patient photography...the expressions of relief and relaxation after everything appears to be settled...somehow all these signifiers of peace are charged with distress. Well-done.
Here's what we don't know. We don't know for certain who fathered Tui's baby. We're told it was Matt, but we're told this by Al who obviously has much to hide. Does he have enough power to doctor a DNA test and conceal his own - or his client's - paternity (likely his own, since when Robin breaks into the house, we discover Tui upstairs on Al's couch, unlike the other children). I believe yes, but the show lets us assume this rather than explain it openly. And Jamie's haunting statement about "the dark creator who sucks the heart out of people" sounds more like a description of the cold, meticulous Al than the messy, more obviously threatening Matt. We also don't know for sure if Matt sexually abused his daughter. We do know his relationship with her, and the home he provided, was deeply unhealthy - and that she obviously wanted nothing to do with him: to the point of shooting him dead when he takes her baby in this finale. But she also told Jamie she didn't know how she got pregnant, suggesting the druggy haze of Al's den rather than abuse at her father's hands. I can't be sure, but I think the show wants us to believe that for all of Matt's monstrousness, he was not as evil as Al.
Finally we don't know the extent of Al's reign of terror: how far back it goes, whether or not the barista program was its only outlet, how many other townspeople knew it existed but kept their mouths shut out of fear - or participation. My initial suspicion was an open secret (much like Matt's drug ring) but the more I think about it the more unlikely it seems. Rather, I suspect Al's hidden life was only known to others like him. While the community may have suspected something wasn't right with their children, they couldn't disentangle this sixth sense from the generalized atmosphere of crime, poverty, and corruption. We don't witness the fallout from Al's exposure, since it occurs in the last eight minutes of Top of the Lake, once we're (nearly) lured into assuming the narrative has wrapped itself up. I wouldn't be surprised if some viewers were frustrated by this refusal to trace the aftershock of this big event. But the final scene, zeroing in on Robin, Johnno, GJ, and Tui - the latter two especially - somehow feels so much more right.
Of course Robin's journey has been the show's - she has confronted her own past, made peace with her mother, and learned to trust someone again. Johnno, for all his good qualities, could not protect her when they were teenagers nor can he be there (or even be remotely prepared) for her ultimate trial of fire with Al, a suspect he didn't even see coming. Despite this, he came to her aid in several tricky spots during the series. Johnno is Robin's companion but he can't be her savior; she must save herself. This is a constant theme of the whole narrative, both on an individual level and as part of a larger gender dynamic. Most of the men in Top of the Lake, no matter how tough, are unable to control and/or protect themselves, let alone the women in their lives (the most overtly paternalistic men are also the most dangerous). Men and women both need to understand that they are responsible for themselves and if the women seem generally more successful at this than the men, perhaps it's because many of them are able to band together and acknowledge weakness, whereas many of the men remain atomized and self-loathing once confronted with their own vulnerability.
Meanwhile, I have saved the episode's first big surprise for last: Robin is Matt's daughter. Initially the greatest import of this revelation is the suggestion that Robin's love affair with Johnno is incestuous. This explains Jude's horror when she sees them kiss, as well as Matt's aborted stowaway confrontation on Al's boat. Plus sibling incest happens to fit in more with other Jane Campion work I've seen than father-daughter incest. I was stunned, not only by the reveal (and Robin's icky attempts to go to bed with Johnno after telling him they are related) but by the memory that I'd stumbled across speculation about Robin's relationship to Matt when searching a review for actor's names, early on. Somehow I'd completely forgotten this possibility until Matt matter-of-factly informs Robin, "Your father isn't dead," in his familiar Scotch brogue...then it all came rushing back.
Robin's ultimate horror is averted in a cheeky twist of fate: a DNA test confirms that yes, Robin is Matt's child...but Johnno isn't! Incest averted, but this only draws attention to the less sensationalistic, more profound aspect of Robin's lineage, something I'm not sure even occurred to me until Top of the Lake was over.
Tui is Robin's sister.
Just as Tui is a vehicle for our protagonist to grow and change, the reverse is true as well. Tui, absent for several episodes, a quiet mystery early in the series, is in some ways our real star. And Robin functions in part as a more conventional adult projection of the 12-year-old's shaken but determined psyche, like a bedtime story she told herself to store up courage for the morning. Top of the Lake begins when Tui turns toward death, wading into the water alone. It ends with her turning toward life, as GJ advises her, "You have a new teacher - listen to him," while her baby boy cries in the distance.