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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Of The Lake: “Episode Four”

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“Episode Four” of Top Of The Lake is an unusually focused leg of the marathon, as everyone shines some light on Robin’s attack and rape by four drunk men on her way home after a dance 15 years ago. Al tells Robin how he and some others, including Matt, rounded up the criminals and punished them. Robin tells him about how she gave birth to Sarge’s child. Her mother announces that she wants to meet her grandchild even if Robin doesn’t. And Johnno nearly makes a confession so unbearable to Robin that she cuts him off.

The episode is constantly negotiating between knowledge and ignorance. Al doesn’t really want to know what happened to Bob Platt, Wolfgang Zanic, or a third case a pathologist can’t explain. Simone is afraid to know what’s going on with her son Jamie, who collects bones and doesn’t speak anymore. Most significantly, Robin does and doesn’t want to know what happened to her. In the first scene, she says, “Fuck the truth, Al,” although by the time it’s over, she and Al have filled in the aftermath for both the rapists and the victim. Before Johnno and Robin get too close to the trauma, he asks, “Are you up for it?” and she shakes her head no. At the end she stops him: “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me.”

Top Of The Lake is stylistically emphatic, but not in the comically overcast way of The Killing. And there’s certainly no lurid thrill to the crime. A prom photo takes us back to a faded brown dance, magical at the time maybe, but now only sickening. Some guys interrupt a dance, and Johnno leaves Robin alone and upset without an explanation; inexplicably, black balloons flank her as she stands in the doorway peering into the darkness. A foggy gray outdoor shot is marked by sudden headlights, failed communication, and a chain-link dog cage. It’s a sequence of pure helpless despair as we wait to see how far directors Garth Davis and Jane Campion will take us into the trauma.

An earlier scene is a much subtler window into what Cinemascope’s Michael Sicinski calls a jungle of patriarchy. After a drunken dinner with Al, Robin can barely stand up, so he takes her keys from her. The next morning, she wakes up in a quiet, anxious scene of worrisome details: She’s in Al’s bed; she’s wearing his shirt; he took off her pants; he’s already left for the office. And this isn’t even a Mitcham or one of the barflies. Top Of The Lake successfully if momentarily builds all this suspicion around Robin’s co-worker and boss. When she pushes him on the details of the evening, trying to catch him off-balance by alternating between questions about the night before and new evidence in the Tui disappearance, he answers well. “So why don’t I feel like saying thank you?” She can’t be sure, even with friendly Al.

The gender war really gets obvious with Matt. Anita again violates a sacred space for him, this time by curling up on Tui’s bed the morning after. It’s an unwelcome act of penetration, and if you really want to get symbolic, Matt also lashes out because Anita’s cup handles point inward. Matt always seems impotent when it comes to hands-on physical violence, though, asserting his will through his sons and motor vehicles. This time, he responds to Anita’s transgressions by flinging her to the ground with the force of his car when he rams the Paradise gate as she struggles to unlock it, haranguing the women about their menstrual waste saturating his land, and telling each of the women that she’s unfuckable.

The women in Top Of The Lake are bound by endurance, from Robin to her mother. Every encroachment on the Paradise community is met with a swirling mass of non-violently resisting bodies. The men are bound by power, from Al dragging his feet to Matt intimidating the town. Zanic pulls a gun on her even though he’s done nothing wrong. Even the friendliest faces adhere to the type: Johnno interrupts Robin’s interview of Tui’s mother. But Robin is cracking up. Al suggests she pull Sarge over for an auto violation and book him. “Okay,” she says with steel, “And after that can I kill him?” The line recalls the climax of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, another murder mystery about a sick patriarchy.


Later, on the heels of two other charmers, Sarge approaches Robin at the bar like he’s found his receptacle for the evening. She’s chuckling that he doesn’t remember her. It’s pitch black. “Did we fuck or something?” As soon as the words come out, Elisabeth Moss drops the smirk, darts right to his eyes, and holds. Just as suddenly, she breaks a bottle on the bar and stabs him with it, possibly more than once. He collapses to the ground (chuckling?) as Johnno carries her out the door into the night screaming, “Do you remember me now, asshole?”

From the moment Al tells Robin she’s too close to the case, “Episode Four” is tightly tethered to pulp convention. She goes reckless cop on Sarge. Al demands her badge and gun in a battle of one-shots. She keeps investigating Tui’s disappearance and all the other skeletons in Queenstown’s closet on her own. But the stabbing is also a masculine move, penetration, a claim for power, and it happens in the same episode Johnno is deprived of power, locked in a cage, helplessly forced to watch an assault on his date. In an episode where the female cop is getting so emotional that she gets lost in a cut from a placid golden forest to a windy stone shore, Robin and Johnno violate the show’s rigid gender divide.


So does Ian Fellows, the pathologist who calls Robin at her home, rescues her from the episode-long reminiscence of a horrific night. He’s recommended three cases that Al has refused to pursue: Bob Platt, Wolfgang Zanic, and a girl named April Stephens who was run over on a lake-view road with traces of cocaine in her vagina. “I had a daughter who overdosed, so for me, it’s emotional,” he says. For Robin, too.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks to Scott for letting me sub this week.
  • Turns out Zanic couldn’t be Tui’s rapist because he was out of town for dental surgery the month she got pregnant.
  • Loved the early abstract shot of Moss’ face barely perceptible in the clouds reflected on her car door.
  • Jamie, the bone collector, is the latest red herring. He runs through the woods, kayaks out to somewhere, and buries a trash bag in the ground. In his interview with Robin, he reveals that he has also completed the barista course. Also of note: Johnno has been tracking the use of the kayak with a string.
  • In another powerhouse moment between Elisabeth Moss and Robyn Nevin, Robin tells her mother, “I don’t give a shit if Sarge is walking around with a grubby bandage on. I hope he is awake and in fucking pain. Always!” “Me, too. Always.”