Now that we’re past the two-part première and into the third of seven parts, the question remains: To what extent was Top Of The Lake conceived as seven distinct episodes of television and to what extent is it merely a seven-episode unfolding of one complete story? We can say for sure that casual viewers could not drop in on “Episode Three” and get a satisfying, coherent, standalone nugget of television. In that sense, it’s completely serialized. On the other hand, there are themes specific to tonight’s hour that set it apart from the two we’ve seen before. So while I’m mostly continuing to review the show in medias res, oblivious to how individual parts will fit into the completely whole, the third seventh does have a particular flavor.
The prevailing theme is one of self-loathing and self-abuse, and it makes partners out of our adversaries, Robin and Matt. Until now, Robin has been an intrepid pursuer of justice in a corrupt and hostile place, slashing through a thicket of male authority figures and local roughnecks to get to the bottom of a missing persons case. Sure, there’s a degree of selfishness to what she’s doing: She’s freaked out by having to care for her cancer-stricken mother and the case gives her an excellent reason to get out of it—and puts her on much surer ground to boot. But Robin feels, properly, that she can be an advocate for Tui where none exists and though she has a better feel for the culture than a true outsider, she’s constantly displaying bravery and resolve in moving the investigation forward.
And yet the feeling that she’s cast dangerously adrift comes through forcefully in “Episode Three.” Her flirty texts with “Steve,” her fiancé from Sydney, turn here into a tense phone call where he’s impatient and disbelieving of her rationalizations for continuing to stay there. We also learn her engagement to Steve is now over five years long and counting, which seems entirely due to foot-dragging on her part. But the true extent of her restlessness and self-destructive nature—qualities she shares with Elisabeth Moss’ character on Mad Men, e.g. her dalliance with Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell—really comes out in her renewed sexual relationship to Johnno, the son of her prime suspect. A session in a bar bathroom leads to a bedroom scene where Johnno asks Robin to keep her engagement ring on during sex—a form of territorial pissing that seems a bit much, frankly.
Meanwhile, Peter Mullan’s Matt continues to be a fascinatingly shifty character, with some moments of tenderness sneaking into a persona defined by anger, paranoia, and violence. Matt has some heat taken off him when Wolfie, the rifle-blasting bartender, is found hanging from a tree outside his cabin, with an apologetic suicide note on the inside table. Robin joins the rest of us in not believing Wolfie has any connection to Tui’s disappearance, particularly after a forest grave reveals a dead dog.
Episode three of Top Of The Lake is a reminder of Matt’s dark charisma, his ability to assert his will and forge relationships through qualities other than instilling fear in people. He and Al (David Wenham), for instance, have an arrangement that gives him the jump on Robin’s investigation, and he wields his charm again when he comes to Paradise bearing flowers. His intent is to ask questions of GJ, but as we see with Robin earlier (“How are your knees? You will go down hard—bang!”), she’s more inclined to ask questions and make prophetic statements than give out information. But he comes away with Anita (Robyn Malcolm), a Paradise resident who finds him alluring enough to look past his psychosis. She can do so no longer when Matt takes her to visit his mother’s grave, freaks out over her treading on it, and proceeds to flagellate himself with a belt.
In terms of the main investigation, Robin and Matt’s behavior suggest different things: Robin’s personal issues will be an obstacle in the investigation and Matt’s upset over his mother indicates that he really does care about his family as much as he says he does, even if his relationship with them is dangerously twisted. Overall, this third episode undermines that assumption that Robin and Matt, powerful as they are, exercise as much control over their lives as they seem to. Their weaknesses make them vulnerable, and each will likely be expert in sussing them out in the other.
- Some serious gallows humor at Paradise over a locked shipping container: “It’s where we keep all the dead children.”
- Moss’ reaction to her mother’s news about being taken off chemo is a great piece of acting. Robin should understand right away that it’s bad news—that the treatments aren’t working and the cancer is terminal. But she doesn’t, so the news registers on Moss’ face in a wave of shock and despair.
- Robin nearly stumbles onto Matt’s drug operation, tucked in a secret passageway beneath a bathroom shower. The sight of two women leaving the bathroom—and Matt’s hasty, none-too-convincing explanation—bring her back to it, however.
- “Can we do a bit more of the wrong thing before we do the right thing?” If I had a problem with this episode, it’s that it could have been less explicit in parts. (See also: Sex with the engagement ring on.)
- Tui’s “NO ONE” note appears to be the key piece of evidence. To be continued…