Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Of The Lake: “Episode Five”

Illustration for article titled Top Of The Lake: “Episode Five”

After last week’s muscular focus, “Episode Five” scatters in the wind, and directors Garth Davis and Jane Campion just sort of watch, the authorial GJ hiding behind blank stares and not-so-cryptic expressions. A lot happens, actually. Johnno comes clean to Robin. Robin gets reinstated. Al proposes to her. Jude visits GJ. Jude dies, even, and Tui lives. It’s all very matter-of-fact, nothing given undue prominence outside of the exploitation cinema flashbacks and the cliffhanger. What stands out most is the accidental surprise that it’s been two months since Tui disappeared. By the end, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the episode even aired.

With so little passion, the episode’s jolts of violence easily become this chunk’s main theme. But first Robin says to Johnno, “I want to know the bad thing you were going to tell me.” A seven-hour marathon might not feel so haphazard, but threads like this and Robin’s work status feel arbitrarily manipulated in episodic form. Why bench Robin if she’s just going to come back to work next week? Johnno takes us back to that night, to the practically black-and-white scene of a brutal rape, scored by a barking dog and a screaming woman and shot with maximum jitter. Johnno’s confession is that he was let out of the dog cage but didn’t do anything to help her.

One of the rapists uses his tie as a leash to walk him like a dog, throws him to the ground, and taunts him into submission. It plays like a humorless rendition of Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac, which is all about gender and power. Immediately after confessing to an eminently reasonable Robin, Johnno exiles Sarge in the same way. He grabs him by the throat, knocks him to the ground, and makes Sarge fear him enough to obey him. Last week, I observed that all the men on Top Of The Lake are united by power. No wonder so much of the violence is about domination and submission. It’s not primarily sadism or vengeance or passion that drives all the violence on Top Of The Lake but a need to control.

The Johnno scene also illustrates the repetition of violence, the learned behavior of patriarchal abuse. It recalls Al’s line about rounding up the rapists and teaching them a lesson their fathers failed to. Instead of legally prosecuting them, Al and Matt and some others physically assaulted the guys explicitly as a means of behavioral modificiation. They were trying to teach them. With that in mind, it’s somewhat less surprising than it would have been to see Al take over Robin’s interrogation of Jamie with a prison experiment. He pulls Jamie’s chair out from under him, forces him to go through the motions of making his mother a cup of tea, and slaps him upside the head repeatedly. He must be really impressed with himself that all it took was a position of maximum authority, a much bigger body, and a lot of physical coercion to get Jamie to sort of respond. It’s like he’s spanking a puppy.

When Robin challenges him, Al denies that things got overheated. “Absolutely not. I nudged him. It’s how men relate to each other. It’s how they work with kids who have got no dads, an older male teaches an arrogant little prick some respect. He’s not gonna steal and hand out this yes/no shit.” There are two other striking instances of violence in “Episode Five”: Al flagellates himself again, and Jamie bangs his head into the wall. One wonders, especially given the Jamie-Tui connection, whether the self-punishment is also a learned behavior. Regardless, the episode recalls Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which seeks to explain “some things that happened in this country” with a story of domineering fathers who beat and manipulate their children when some mysterious accidents happen in late Weimar Germany. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the “things that happened” were those children growing up to be Nazis. Authoritarianism starts at home.

Robin and Jamie’s mother stand up against that violence. Robin’s credentials and authority and relationship with Matt is enough to call him off, but Jamie’s mother has to physically embrace Jamie to keep him from hurting himself. Eventually, he returns the hug. In a show about details instead of events, that’s huge.


Everything else can probably be summed up as strange bedfellows, two disparate characters meeting, mostly to the good. Jude’s visit to GJ actually brings out some compassion. Not in the advice, although it’s comforting: “You’re not going to experience this death of yours. He will.” She prescribes heroin instead of morphine. “In nature, there is no death, just a reshuffling of atoms.” No, what’s most moving is that GJ volunteers comfort instead of waiting for Jude to ask her questions. She reaches out, interacts, gets down on this earthly plane with the rest of the women in Paradise. Later, Jude meets Johnno and could not be more uncomfortable with her daughter’s social arrangements. She warns Robin to cut ties, and Robin acquiesces. Maybe it’s superstition, maybe it’s lingering GJ, or maybe it’s Robin suggesting that Johnno signaled the rapists in the truck that night, but suddenly Johnno doesn’t seem like such a good match. Lucy Lawless’ Caroline Platt, widow of the realtor in the boating accident, meets Robin and offers Bob’s computer if it will help her investigation. The final surprise encounter is the ending. Jamie ransacks his house, kayaks across the lake, dumps his garbage bags on the ground, and makes bird calls. Suddenly, Tui rushes out, rips open a bag, and starts eating. Presumably he’s been helping her the whole time, but it’s not completely clear. He doesn’t say anything when he sees her, and she doesn’t acknowledge him at all. It’s such a manufactured cliffhanger I wonder if it’s even noticeable in marathon form.

Stray observations:

  • As Johnno evicts Sarge from his trailer park, one female neighbor applauds.
  • There’s never an official explanation for why Al reinstates Robin, but the editing suggests it’s because a journalist is making him look bad?
  • It might be nothing, but part of the reason “Episode Five” feels blank is that men keep changing the subject. While Robin doggedly pursues the subjects of Tui and April and demands Johnno finish his story, the journalist gets distracted by the cafe and Al pivots to Robin’s lack of furniture.
  • Maybe the accusation is ridiculous on its face, but the fact that Johnno refuses to say that he didn’t signal the truck is troubling. On the other hand, no amount of magical jump cuts can redeem such a fake-seeming fight.
  • An act of violence that isn’t motivated by domination: The peeping tom who slashes Johnno.
  • A great scene follows, and not just because Johnno is reduced to a mere towel. Johnno sits naked in a shipping container, restrained out of necessity (he needs medical attention), surrounded by women talking frankly about sex and implicitly about his sexuality.
  • When Jamie is arrested, he has a bottle of roofies on him. Yikes.