This recap contains spoilers from the fifth episode of "Top of the Lake," airing April 8.
This week’s episode of “Top of the Lake” finds its characters combating feelings of helplessness -- from the past, from a seemingly impenetrable mystery, and from death.
Robin’s mother, Jude (Robyn Nevin), feeling terrified and powerless in the face of her terminal cancer, visits Paradise. She bathes nude with the gaggle of commune women, and then receives some terse yet strangely soothing advice from GJ: “Are you dying? Nothing wrong with that. Very natural. The body knows what to do, go with the body.” And then: “Get some heroin.”
Death or the imminence of death is something that’s often verbally tip-toed around, and Jude finds GJ’s blunt statement to be relieving, as she admits to Robin later at the house. However open she’s become to the prospect of dying, Jude is still not willing to accept a more recent development: Robin and Johnno’s romance. She pleads Robin not to see him, and Robin -- for the moment -- complies.
Johnno has been wrestling with his own feelings of helplessness, eventually confessing to Robin that he never tried to defend her from the four rapists on the night of her attack. In a lovely moment that shows Robin’s compassion but also her intuitive understanding of youth (she’s a specialist in children's cases, after all) she tells him: “There was nothing you could have done… You were a kid.” Nonetheless, Johnno still feels he has unfinished business with Sarge, the only one of Robin’s rapists still skulking around Laketop. He drags Sarge out of his trailer, roughs him up and scares him out of town, which is met with neighborhood applause. I appreciated the parallels here; Robin takes revenge on Sarge in last week’s episode, while Johnno finishes the job this week.
Unsurprisingly, Al wants Robin back on the Tui case. His actual motives behind this are unclear. He’s certainly pushing his romantic agenda with Robin, attempting to warn her away from her “drug addict friend” (Johnno), and abruptly asking her to marry him. As I mentioned last week, one of the many strengths of “Top of the Lake” is its ability to make fairly repulsive characters sympathetically human. When Robin contradicts Al late in the episode, his anger at her insubordination and then transparent attempt to make her jealous (“I’ve got a hair appointment and then a date with a lady, I’ve got a life”) is heart-tuggingly pathetic.
Speaking of repulsive yet sympathetic characters, Matt Mitcham is struggling with his sense of ineffectuality, too. As he bemoans to his mother’s grave, “I know I’m useless.” The poor man has the idea that Tui, a 12-year-old now missing for two months, will simply show up at home one night. For the second time in the series, Matt ascends the stairs to Tui’s bedroom, only to discover forlornly that she’s not there.
To combat the terrible feeling of doing nothing while his child remains missing, Matt announces to his live-in sons that he’s hired some hunters to find Tui and bring her back -- unharmed, and for a reward of $10,000. Luke and Mark are ambivalent. They mention a couple of occasions in the past, before Tui’s disappearance, where they found Matt passed out drunk on Tui’s bed, while the girl “was walking up and down on top of him.” This implication of incest doesn’t look good for Matt, and his wildly defensive, violent reaction to their accusation seems suspicious, too.
After a brief breakup, Robin and Johnno reunite when attempting to follow blue-hoodie wearer Jamie through the woods. Upon losing the elusive Jamie, the two decide to have sex in the forest. (This moment was a bit overwrought for my tastes.) Two unsavory forest dwellers -- who I at first assumed were Matt’s hired hunters, but now I’m not so sure -- discover the couple in the midst of sexy time, and film them with a phone. During a scuffle, Johnno grabs the phone, but gets slashed in the leg. Robin scares off the assailants with two shots of her handgun.
Robin gets Johnno safely to Paradise, where the commune women are only too happy to strip him of his clothes and apply pressure to the wound on his upper thigh. In the best scene of the episode, Johnno and Robin discover what other footage exists on the hunters’ phone -- namely, a shot of Tui wandering in the woods, appearing like an apparition in her white parka before stepping out of view into the thicket of trees. It’s an elegant and moving sequence, not only because Robin and the women of Paradise alike are so relieved that the young girl apparently is alive, but because the discovery remains outside the realm of establishment. Paradise is about safety removed from society. The women wouldn’t dream of reporting Tui’s appearance -- something that might very well put the girl into greater harm -- but instead keep up the quiet hope that she’ll return again to the commune for help. Robin, as a member of that greater society, bides her time with this new information.
Upon Robin’s return to her mother’s house, she discovers that Jude has died in hospital. This blunt shock sadly echoes an earlier plot point in the series, where Robin missed a crucial doctor appointment due to her obsessive absorption with Tui’s case. At first, I found this development to be too rushed. Though Jude is contemplating death early in this episode, she’s certainly mobile and lucid, neither healthy nor immediately at death’s door. To have her die so suddenly seemed like a jarring collapse of narrative events.
But, of course, illness can overtake a person suddenly -- or gradually, while the increasing severity is kept private -- and leave the surviving world feeling confused, like a piece of the equation went missing. And so, as I realized upon my second viewing of this episode, the narrative of death doesn’t have to make sense. Indeed, I now think it’s another example of the series’ subtle, strange and compelling writing and structure. It also follows GJ's harsh logic: Like Jude's boyfriend, Turangi (Calvin Tuteao), we're the ones who experience Jude's death, in all its untimely and random abruptness.
Robin’s feelings of helplessness and guilt over her mother’s death are visually compared to Matt Mitcham’s. Notice how Robin’s anguish over her mother’s final voicemail is edited immediately before Matt’s self-flagellating at his mother’s grave. Why this visual and thematic parallel between Matt and Robin? Is there some further connection between these two characters that we don’t yet know about?
Matt’s masochistic behavior also finds echoes in Jamie. At the episode’s end, we see the teen slapping himself repeatedly while in custody. (During this sequence, Al inflicts a series of bizarre and humiliating punishments on Jamie, including forcing him to pantomime making tea. This makes Al’s suggestion of wanting to father Robin’s children all the more creepy. What kind of father would Al be?)
In this elongated interview scene, when Robin unwittingly plays good cop to Al’s bad cop, Jamie breaks his usual silence to scream “You don’t know anything!,” giving voice to the overall atmosphere of helplessness throughout this episode.
But Jamie is right: There are things that Robin doesn’t know. She’s seen evidence of Tui’s survival, but where is she hidden? In the final rousing sequence, we’re given undeniable proof of Tui Mitcham’s existence, as Jamie brings bags of food deep into the forest. Upon his signal, the missing young girl appears, and begins ravenously devouring his offerings.
Bits and pieces: