Lost in the Movies: Top of the Lake season 1, episode 2 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search"

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 2 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search"

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 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

There's something special about second episodes. Rarely are they as immediately memorable or self-contained (open ending aside) as pilots. But they offer something a first episode rarely can: a feeling of settling in, investing, opening a door and entering a much bigger room. The first episode of a show could almost be a movie as it sets the wheels in motion. Even in Top of the Lake's case (where exposition is minimal), characters must be established and premises must be anchored down. That's why it's so liberating to see the same opening credits give way to new images at the start of a new episode. Two opposite qualities attach us to the material. One is familiarity. Whether it's been a week or a few seconds since we watched the previous episode, the interim of ending and new beginning offers us reassuring authority in this world. It's as if we were sitting next to a new viewer, explaining who's who and what's what. The other quality is openness. With the necessary work done, the plot doesn't have to tie itself up anytime soon. Relationships are fluid and malleable. Nothing is set in stone; anything could happen.

The first thing we discover in episode two of Top of the Lake is that the floating body isn't Tui. It's Bob Platt. Given an offhand comment by Matt last time, I assumed his body had already been discovered but no, apparently Robin now has two cases on her hands. Since we witnessed Bob's murder the only new mystery this episode presents is "Where is Tui?" (last we saw her, she left the commune to disappear into the vast wilderness surrounding the little town). As it establishes its footing on an episodic as well as serial basis, Top of the Lake introduces (and dismisses) a particular suspect within fifty minutes. The memorably named Wolfgang Zanic (Jacek Koman) is a mild-mannered bartender whose case history reveals convictions for child molestation. In classic horror film fashion, Robin questionably pursues Wolfgang to his isolated house without backup. Predictable mayhem ensues (Wolfgang is armed to the teeth) but the situation is defused in intentionally anticlimactic fashion when Johnno appears to talk Wolfgang down.

This subplot works well enough to provide temporary suspense, color in some personal detail, and remind us that Top of the Lake will both embody and defy genre conventions. That said, it's probably the episode's weakest element, necessary to move things along but not quite as effective as it could be. What strikes me on my second visit to this bleak, dour town is just how funny it can be. The episode features a deeply comical sex scene and there are plenty of arch barbs throughout (my favorite is Matt's putdown of a bar patron named Penguin, played by Bryon Call, whose ridiculous nickname will receive its payoff by episode's end). At other times the show expertly treads the line between tension and laughter, most notably while the bar patrons swarm around Robin like sharks, taunting and threatening her until she responds with a well-aimed dart to the shoulder.

One compelling thread is Robin's developing professional relationship to Al. In episode one, he was mostly an antagonist, rolling his eyes and brushing off her concern for Tui. This time he's closer to an ally, corralling his male peers when Robin has trouble managing them, and offering her the tools she needs to find Tui. However, there's still something offputting and arrogant in Al's sympathy. His aggressive flirtation feels as much like a power play as genuine affection. We also get a better sense of Robin's estrangement from her fiance and attraction to Johnno, whom she nonetheless straightforwardly describes as a suspect in her briefing. Perhaps her most memorable encounter is with Matt, who shoots a dog in her presence - an act of charity and cold-bloodedness that also doubles as an indictment of Robin (since a few second earlier, she declined to adopt it). Everywhere she goes in this community she is threatened, always implicitly rather than explicitly, by raw, unpredictable masculinity. This quality has already been sharply contrasted with the equally unpredictable and assertive aura of GJ and her female clan. (GJ is mostly absent here, but gets one excellent scene in which she refuses the terms of Jock, played by Chris Haywood, whose daughter has joined her mother at GJ's camp.)

The episode is co-directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis. (As I later learned, complicating my assessment of this as a "second episode," Campion directed the first few scenes while Davis directed the rest, since this is a compilation of parts of two episodes from the six-episode BBC version of Top of the Lake.) At times this feels closer than episode one to the impressionistic style I associate with the Campion films I've seen (The Piano, Bright Star, and several of her early shorts).  At others, this feels more perfunctory and standard, especially in the cutting. All considered, this is a very satisfying follow-up and expansion on what has been established. Robin is a solid and sympathetic protagonist, Tui remains a compellingly humanized victim (even when she's offscreen), Al is expanded as an ambivalent figure standing in Robin's path, and Matt and GJ remain the most colorful members of the ensemble. I won't make predictions right now - looking up cast info, I stumbled across a potential spoiler - but I look forward to seeing how Top of the Lake expands its premise, defies expectations, and develops the story, locale, and characters who keep us caring about the possibilities on the horizon.

Previous: Episode 1 ("Paradise Sold") • Next: Episode 3 ("Searchers Search"/"The Edge of the Universe")

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