Robyn Malcolm and Peter Mullan in "Top of the Lake"
Robyn Malcolm and Peter Mullan in "Top of the Lake"

While last week's two-hour premiere of "Top of the Lake" dealt with the blunt one-two shock of a pregnant pre-teen girl and then her disappearance, this week's episode deals with the classic detective-story trope of obsession with a missing person. As is often the case, an obsession with the missing brings out an obsession with the dead. 

Robin (Elisabeth Moss) is giving her fiancé in Sydney the run-around, putting off his phone calls and texts while starting an affair with Laketop local Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), a Mitcham brother seemingly estranged from his vile family. She and Johnno have a relationship history, albeit one we know little about. A past teen romance is hinted at: When kissing Robin at her isolated Laketop cabin, Johnno asks her if he was her first kiss, to which she responds: “My first long kiss.”

I find it fascinating that in Robin’s search for pre-teen Tui, she herself is falling into a relationship with resonances of her own teen backstory. She also is choosing to conduct the affair at her dead father’s cabin. In last week’s episode, as she rifled through her father’s belongings while cleaning house, she fixed on a pair of his shoes and was moved to tears. Clearly Tui isn’t the only ghost haunting Robin.

Top of the Lake

After discovering that local pedophile Wolfie has hanged himself from a tree in the woods, Robin smells foul play, despite Al’s insistence that it’s an open-and-shut suicide. A small burial site nearby produces a dog’s corpse --- and not Tui’s, to Robin’s almost cathartic relief -- at which point her obsessive, ardent belief in Tui’s survival spirals into overdrive. Robin makes a shrine for Tui in her cabin’s living room, half-investigation board and half-collage, dotted with school photos and the cryptic message the young girl wrote during their first interview: “No one.”

As Robin in effect brings Tui into her own home, she and Al make good on their warrant to search the Mitcham household. Robin searches Tui’s bedroom, an attic space turned into a charmingly cozy A-frame hideout. Blink and you’ll miss one of the best shots of the episode, a low-angle exterior shot of Robin peering through the attic window. Contained within the small window frame she looks at once trapped and held at a distance, like a child being punished.

When descending the stairs from Tui’s room, Robin notices two women coming out of the bathroom -- strange. Matt (Peter Mullan) intervenes immediately, telling her to use his own bathroom. We later learn that the Mitchams are operating a drug manufacturing business from their secret basement, and cooking up a particularly potent batch of ecstasy.

I appreciated that within one episode we have the presence of a euphoric drug, usually meant for sensory/sexual heightening, while Matt Mitcham also admits that he has impotency issues, hence implying a different kind of drug: “I can get hard,” he tells Anita, “I just need warning.”

Top of the Lake

Matt and Anita’s elongated date sequence, which takes them from a restaurant to the Mitchams’ house and finally to a quiet corner of Paradise, is an elegant feat of filmmaking, and an example of how seemingly tangential storylines within a television episode, when done right, can serve character development in stirring ways. Hearbreakingly hapless Anita (Robyn Malcolm), like many of her commune co-horts, is starved for sexual intimacy, and jumps at the possibility of a date with Matt when he rumbles his way to Paradise with the intention of seducing property owner Bunny. One gets the sense he has nothing better to do than take Anita in place of Bunny, or that he has a glimmer of hope she might aid him in reclaiming his land.

Matt and Anita’s drug-trip sequence, set amidst moss-covered trees and lush hills streamered with waterfalls, has a Malick-esque visual poetry. There’s something awful, in the literal meaning of the word, in this series’ treatment of natural landscape. The scenery instills both a sense of personal connection, but also a formidable sense of chaos. This is best seen through the many narrative uses of Paradise, which plays a sort of looming additional character: It’s a sanctuary for battered women (ruled over by Holly Hunter’s GJ, who offers harsh comforts), it’s a site of betrayal (thanks to real estate agent Bob Platt, now murdered), and it may well hold within its hills the body of a young girl, either dead or alive.

It’s also a site of family history. Matt takes Anita to his mother’s grave, hidden in a remote part of the Paradise woods, where a leather belt lays waiting on the gravestone. Matt kneels down and begins to lash himself repeatedly, promising to his dead mother that he’ll somehow retrieve their family’s land.

As Robin struggles with a growing sense of urgency for the lost Tui, Matt Mitcham is grappling with his own demons, in the form of both his missing child and his mother’s restless soul.

Bits and pieces:

  • This episode is directed by Garth Davis, and co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee.
  • In Robin's absorption with Tui's case, she misses her mother's doctor appointment. The news isn't good: The cancer has spread, and chemotherapy will no longer help.