In Slate’s Top of the Lake TV Club, Dan Kois will IM about each episode of Jane Campion’s Kiwi miniseries with another fan of the show. This week, he chats with Slate culture critic June Thomas.
Dan Kois: Hello June! Thanks for joining me to discuss the fourth episode of Top of the Lake. This week, we learned the many, many awful ramifications of the sexual assault Robin suffered back in high school, from the kid she gave up for adoption and has decided never to communicate with to the fact that maybe Johnno was locked in a dog cage for the whole thing. And then, after she tells the whole story to Detective Sergeant Faramir, he … well, did he roofie her?
June Thomas: I don’t know if Al roofied Robin, but he’s definitely manipulating her, and almost certainly lying to her. He looks like a Sunday-dinner-making, bike-riding metrosexual, but he talks like a condescending sumbitch.
Dan: But he also clearly had actual, tender, romantic hopes for her—such that seeing her in the tent with Johnno immediately embittered him and put an end to his even pretending to be on her side.
June: Sure, Al’s mood changed once he discovered Robin in Johnno’s sex tent, but why was he bringing her coffee just before he told her to “stand down”? Hadn’t he heard about her bloody reunion with Sarge at that point? A cop committing GBH at the local bar would surely have been a big enough deal to justify a phone call to her boss.
Dan: I got the impression he was going to deliver a polite, private dressing-down, but it turned into a businesslike sacking once he saw the sex tent.
June: I just wasn’t convinced by his claim that the older guys, including Matt Mitchum, had rounded up her rapists and decided Sarge was the ringleader. If the name Matt Mitchum is heard in relation to a rape, the likelihood is he did it.
Dan: Speaking of Matt, he sure worked overtime to erase any positive feelings I had for him from last episode.
Dan: I really enjoy Jane Campion’s wild swings between elliptical, subtle characterization, and enormous anvils like Matt destroying the actual gates of Paradise.
June: Head. Case.
Dan: That storytelling rhythm is the way this series reminds me the most of her earlier work (The Piano especially). Sometimes the tonal disconnect is jarring in a bad way, but usually it just keeps me pleasurably off balance.
June: But it was interesting that he interpreted the noise from Tui’s room as meaning she was back. He clearly thinks she’s alive, whereas Al reckons she’s dead.
Dan: This episode gave us new clues from Ian Fellowes, pathologist, who correctly determines that Laketop’s police department is “a lost and found office, with Al Parker as head clerk.” Plus a new suspect in young Jamie, who loves bones because Bones Don’t Lie.
June: There are an awful lot of teenagers for a town that small and shitty. What was the deal with the cuddly toy the neighborhood kid was carrying—was it the same one as on April Stevens’ memorial, or was that just an odd coincidence?
Dan: “Hug me! [Horrible bear cackle]”
Dan: The shot of Robin standing at that memorial, with the immense New Zealand mountains behind her, was almost absurdly gorgeous.
June: This is an unrelentingly grim series, by any standard. That gloriously photographed landscape is the only escape.
Dan: It made me think of how this show uses that New Zealand landscape really well—Campion (and Davis, when he directs, to a lesser extent) loves switching from shots in which characters are visually contained within bushes, containers, dashboards, windows—to immense open vistas in which characters are reduced to mere ornaments.
June: “I got lost. Left the path, couldn’t find it again,” Robin tells her mother in what may or may not have been a lie. It doesn’t often seem that being out in nature brings relief.
Dan: Right. It makes me feel like the overarching message of this series is that in geologic time, none of these poor bastards’ problems make a whit of difference. The unseeing, unfeeling earth will go on long after they’re all at the bottom of the lake.
Dan: Maybe that’s a slightly darker interpretation than Campion is hoping for.
Dan: So what comes next? I was intrigued by Johnno’s promise: “Lie low and you’ll see a lot about how this place operates.” I would like to see a lot about how this place operates!
June: Me, too, though everything I’ve seen so far is nasty, brutish, and scary.
June: I guess the next big question is what does Johnno want to tell Robin. It was smart of them to hold that over for another episode, because my guess might be even worse than reality. Johnno stores his cups handles-out in the Matt Mitchum-approved manner. Was he really in the dog cage while his prom date was raped?
Dan: Ugh, that’s what I’m worried about too. He said it was bad. I hope it’s not that bad. Such is the brutal world of Top of the Lake: My fondest hope is that it turns out a character was only forced to watch the gang rape of his prom date from inside a dog cage.
June: Dan, I have to ask you, as one of the most prolific adult Harry Potter-ologists, what do you make of the opening credit sequence? It looks to me like someone has summoned a Patronus at the bottom of the lake—and it’s a stag. What does that mean?
Dan: Isn’t it just a stag’s … head? Like the ones hanging on the wall with Christmas lights in their antlers at prom?
Dan: Which, by the way, what was the theme of that prom?
Dan: “Laketop High Prom 1998: Make Tonight Hurt Forever.”
June: “Laketop High Prom: Stupid Fucking Bitch, See What You Made Me Do.”