Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 3 (Sundance version) - "Searchers Search"/"The Edge of the Universe"


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 March 25, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis)

Similarly to other short series I've seen, episode three is reserved mostly for character development and insight. Robin discovers her mother is going to die, and she tells her fiance (on the phone) that he deserves better before cheating on him with Johnno. We learn more about Johnno's past, both his relationship with Robin (she was his first kiss) and his years in a Thai prison. Even the still-missing Tui gets screentime when Robin is moved by a videotape of her playing in the woods. This may be Top of the Lake's clearest nod to Twin Peaks yet - and Robin's fascination with the victim places her closer to the likes of Dale Cooper than the "True Detectives". There's an extra twist to the bond, though, since Robin too is female and haunted by her own dark past. She clearly identifies on some level with the missing girl.

No character is explored as thoroughly in this episode as Matt Mitcham. Matt's dark side (to call it a "side" seems an understatement) has never been more cloaked. He demonstrates an ability to be charming, humorous, and perhaps - we are occasionally led to believe - even honorable and sensitive in his own way. In this, he resembles iconic antiheroes of the current TV golden age but with a crucial difference. Unlike the narratives of Tony Soprano or Walter White, we don't feel that we are taking this journey in Matt's shoes. He remains uncertain, unsettling, and unpredictable after three episodes; I still don't have a clear read on his limits or principles, if any. Is he blunt in his brutality, a violent criminal who comes at you straight? Or is he, in fact, the serpent in the garden (a possibility he explicitly forswears), capable of attacking from the side when least expected? His appearance at GJ's compound with a bouquet of flowers threw me for a loop, especially after an earlier scene in which he curses these women to Al.

What are Matt's motives? His date with Anita (Robyn Malcolm) occasionally paints him as a wounded soul, even a bit timid, both bewildered and gratified by Anita's slightly daft openness and adventurousness. I don't think this is insincere, exactly. But I do wonder if he can't turn on a dime, when cold-bloodedly deemed necessary, threatening or even murdering Anita to make some sort of warning statement to GJ's clan. (His goal throughout, for whatever reason, is getting to Bunny, played by Genevieve Leman, perhaps because her husband is wealthy and she could be ransomed? I'm reaching here.) At the end of their encounter, lolling through the woods in a drug-fueled Edenic haze, Matt shows Anita his mother's grave, yells at her for standing atop it (never has her gushing naivitee been more sharply contrasted with Matt's savvy sharpness), and vows to get his land back. Then he whips himself with a belt, as his mother used to do when he was a child. We haven't reached the bottom of this character yet.

Al, meanwhile, takes a backseat but also becomes harder to trust. One of the ways that Top of the Lake toys with the conventions of detective fiction is its ability to flip the traditional gender script. Robin is someone we can trust as a viewer, while the various men become "hommes fatales" with shady loyalties and duplicitous personas. In his scene with Matt, Al comes off as a corrupt small-town cop, griping to the crime kingpin about how his hands are tied but offering an inside heads-up on developments to come. In the car with Robin, though, Al doesn't hide these questionable bonds. He spins them in a more seemingly harmless direction: Matt's not exactly a friend, Al says, but close enough for him to feel dirty. In a show whose characters are dotted all along the line between good and bad, Al may be most firmly in the middle.

Johnno is also ambiguous. Clearly, he betrayed Robin in their past (though the details remain vague). After ignoring her in a bar while drinking (a soda) with several other women, Johnno aggressively comes on to Robin in the bathroom. She appears gratified but their romance is perpetually shadowed by a needy, resentful energy, and demons spoken and unspoken. At times I've considered that he is responsible/complicit in Tui's pregnancy and/or her disappearance and that his involvement has something to do with his own broken bond with Robin. Robin and Johnno see a lot of each other in this episode but unless I've forgotten, she never interviews him about Tui (as previously promised). The episode ends with the biggest teaser since that body in the lake, maybe even bigger. "I think I know what she meant by 'No one!'" Robin declares. We'll have to wait and see what that might be.

Previous: Episode 2 ("Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search") • Next: Episode 4 ("The Edge of the Universe"/"A Rainbow Above Us")

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