Top of the Lake poster

My Thoughts on the Episodes

Episode One: Paradise Sold
Tui wandering out into the lake

Like all pilot episodes before it, Paradise Sold has the job of not only telling a complete story while setting up the overarching narrative. Sure, Paradise Sold sets up a fair amount of plot. Tui’s pregnancy is discovered and just as quickly she disappears. The paradise commune moves in and immediately has to deal with the Mitcham clan. Robin, temporarily back from Sydney to care for Jude as she struggles to fight off cancer, is brought in to help Tui’s case. Robin and Johnno reconnect, bringing back the specter of that horrific high school dance.

But that’s not what Paradise Sold is concerned with setting up. More than anything, Paradise Sold is concerned with setting up the mood and tone of the series. This, as a character-driven drama more concerned with exploring character than the overarching mystery, this makes sense to me. It’s less Utopia (UK) and more Twin Peaks after all, and it’s in this regard that Paradise Sold shines.

The foundations for great character work, the themes of empathy and trauma, the laconically introspective pacing, the gorgeous cinematography, it’s all found here in spades. It’s a great pilot episode, one of my favorites on Off the Beaten Path.

If I had a favorite scene (or group of scenes), it would be Tui’s interrogation at the police station. It’s a microcosm of the episode. There are heartwarming moments of empathy, like when Robin talks to Tui in Parker’s office before she’s driven home. There are also moments of callous apathy, like Parker’s response to Robin’s objection to taking Tui home to a bunch of potential suspects aka “it’s not like she can get more pregnant”.  

If there’s anything I’d say to knock Paradise Sold, it’s that this is enough like the following episodes in tone and style that if these qualities don’t agree with you – maybe you’re all about plot, or high adrenaline action, or something else entirely – I bet you’ll drop Top of the Lake like a hot potato after watching Paradise Sold. On the whole, that’s a minor thing – if that’s even a legitimate complaint – to ding on one hell of a good pilot.

My Recommendation: Highly Recommend

Episode Two: Searcher’s Search

If Paradise Lost set up the overarching themes of Top of the Lake, then Searcher’s Search was the first episode to flesh out the greater theme of empathy and trauma by examining a specific concept. In this case, Searcher’s Search examines how love is impossible without empathy.

When talks with Zannic turn south

Since the narrative is driven largely by Robin, we see this examination primarily through her eyes in the form of her nascent investigation of Tui’s disappearance. From the very get-go, she’s stonewalled through apathy. The police force can barely muster the energy to pretend to care, the town treats it as a community get together, hell even Matt is pretty indifferent about the whole thing. Only Robin, with the assist of Johnno, tries to do anything worthwhile. This culminates in her investigation of Wolfgang Zannic, the only man in the town on the sex offenders registry for pedophilia.

Overall, one thing, in particular, struck me; no one questions why Tui ran away in the first place. Sure, some assume she was kidnapped by a pervert, but for the most part the people assume she’s just hiding in the mountain forests surrounding the town. The only exception is Robin. That right there tells me more about the town’s capacity for empathy than anything.

There are two highlights of Searcher’s Search I’d like to touch on. The first is Robin wandering out into the same lake Tui did aka the most empathy laden scene so far. That more than anything tells me Robin is right for the job, as grizzly as it can be. The second is Zannic’s speech about the most beautiful boy in the world. It shows just how warped the mind of an abuser can be to justify horrendous impulses. On top of that, it outlines a central tenet of empathy and love; love as a romantic concept can only exist between two individuals when they are of equal standing. Out of an episode full of misogynistic men talking about the virtues of sheep fucking and lesbian hate, this distressingly heartfelt speech is the most disturbing.

If I had any complaints, it’s that Searcher’s Search won’t win over anyone who was on the fence after Paradise Sold. Outside of the standoff at Zannic’s this episode is bereft of action. It’s more slow-paced introspection that takes its time worming under the skin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down for that, but I bet others will start tapping out about now. My other complaint about the episode is the Paradise Commune. While Bunny’s storyline this episode lets us examine the nature of love and empathy from another viewpoint, it doesn’t amount to a whole lot. Bunny’s daughter has next to no bearing on the plot going forward, and the Mitcham/Commune drama is set on the backburner.

On the whole, Searcher’s Search is a good episode that helps Top of the Lake settle into that laconic groove.

My Recommendation: Recommend

Episode Three: The Edge of the Universe
Matt keeping his mother’s trauma alive

I think it’s safe to say that, based on how much I’ve name-dropped The Edge of the Universe so far, this is my favorite episode of Top of the Lake. It, along with A Rainbow Above Us, is the hardest to watch. Why you might ask? Because it deals with trauma, and how it shapes our lives.

We see this with three characters: Robin, Johnno, and Matt. It’s here, in particular during Robin and Al’s work/pseudo-dinner date, that we learn the grizzly truth about Robin. Namely that she was gang-raped the night of a school dance at the age of 15 (Johnno was her date, but he wasn’t involved) and became pregnant with a daughter she gave up for adoption. With Johnno, he talks to Robin about his 8-year imprisonment in a Thai-prison for drug trafficking and how it has turned him from a hot-headed boy into the reserved man we now know. With Matt, we see how his mother’s physical and emotional abuse not only shaped him into the cool but angry man we know but how she still has a hold of him from beyond the grave. 

The sum of this shows how trauma shapes us as people and allows us to empathize with others. That said it doesn’t excuse our actions. With Robin, it’s how she’s becoming obsessed with the case, keeping her from spending time with Jude (who has given up on chemotherapy). With Matt, it’s his continued indifference to helping Tui out – he says he’ll get her back but he doesn’t do anything to find her – and how much of a raging asshole he is to Anita, the Paradiser he starts dating.

It should come as no surprise then that The Edge of Universe has some of the best performances, especially from Moss. From her tender moments with Johnno at her father’s cabin to her emotionally raw talk about her past with Al during their dinner to the sheer rage when she shanks Sarge at the bar, she demonstrates why she’s one of the best actresses of her generation.

Side note, did anyone else cheer when she stuck that broken bottle into Sarge’s ribs? I don’t normally condone violence, but man did that asshole have it coming.

My Recommendation: Highly Recommend

Episode Four: A Rainbow Above Us
That fateful night right before everything went wrong

So yeah, it’s safe to say A Rainbow Above Us is the hardest episode of Top of the Lake to watch, which makes it one of the hardest episodes of television to watch. That’s because if The Edge of the Universe is about how trauma shapes us, then A Rainbow Above Us is about confronting that trauma head-on.  

This means we get a couple of flashbacks where we see the event play out. Thankfully, we never see anything (at least, nothing in focus), but we hear Robin’s screams and the laughter of the men. I’d put this on the level of the school shooting in Episode 1.3 of Utopia (UK)

Now that Robin has (temporarily) been kicked off the case for assaulting Sarge, she and Johnno continue their affair. During this, we get confessions from Johnno about his role during that fateful night. Namely, he was there, trapped in a cage, and forced to listen. When he’s released, instead of helping out Robin he flees into the woods. 

While she doesn’t blame him, it’s clear this act of cowardice has eaten at Johnno’s soul ever since. This leads him to try and correct his mistake; he beats a still injured Sarge to a pulp and drives him out of town. Everything is heartbreaking about this, but it shows how necessary it is to confront the trauma. Namely, if we can’t forgive ourselves for wrongs, both perceived and real, we can never grow past it.

On the whole, this is probably my least favorite episode of Top of the Lake, but not for the horrific stuff I’ve already talked about. Mostly it’s because not much else happens of consequence. Robin’s suspension is lifted within the episode, but outside of learning about the ineptitude of the Laketop police from a third party coroner and Robin meeting Tui’s friend Jaime, not much is done on the investigation front. It’s also becoming clearer that the Mitcham/Paradise drama is not only on the backburner, but has been taken off the stove entirely. The only thing between the two we get is Jude visiting GJ, who advises Jude to commit suicide by heroin on her own terms instead of waiting for the cancer to finish the job.

That said A Rainbow Above Us is still better than a good half of the episodes I’ve covered on Off the Beaten Path.

All in all, A Rainbow Above Us is the darkest breather episode I’ve ever seen that ushers us into the back half of the season.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats*

Episode Five: The Dark Creator
Tui’s reaction to Jaime’s sacrifice

Five episodes in, the momentum finally starts to build up in The Dark Creator

Matt, finally deciding he ought to do something to get Tui back, hires some of the bikers he gets his drugs from to find Tui in the woods. By the end of the episode, as of Jaime’s funeral service at Paradise, Matt’s whole operation is at risk of collapse, along with his ole as de facto leader of the town.

Robin, fully back on the case and reeling from her mother’s death at the end of A Rainbow Above Us, tries to make inroads with Jaime, whom she (rightly) suspects is helping Tui survive. She also starts to put together a grander picture of ongoing corruption, what with the photos she finds on Bob Platt’s laptop (which the rest of the force declined to check because that’d be, you know, work).

All this culminates in one of the most heart-racing, action-packed scenes we’ll get. Namely, the bikers chasing who they think is Tui – it’s actually Jaime in her jacket – off a cliff to the horror of Robin and Johnno (who were racing to the scene to help). 

In other words, if you’re someone who’s more enthused by plot yet decided you wanted to stick with Top of the Lake, then The Dark Creator is the episode for you.

With this greater plot focus, Campion scales back a bit on the thematic side. While retaining the empathy theme (look at Parker’s attempted interrogation of Jaime as a good example), there’s not much in the way of a deeper examination. Granted, I could be dead wrong, but I don’t think I can bring myself to rewatch the back half of the show, so I’m sticking with it.

So yeah, The Dark Creator isn’t as deep as, say, The Edge of the Universe. That said, it’s still a good episode of television that kick starts the endgame of Top of the Lake and the best of the back half of the series.

My Recommendation: Recommend

Episode Six: No Goodbyes, Thanks
Robin attempting to wash away the horrors of Laketop

Here at the end of Top of the Lake aka No Goodbyes, Thanks, I’m not quite sure what to think. Sure, a lot has worked out at the end. Tui and her child are alive and healthy. Robin and Johnno are in a good spot. Most of all though, Robin put all the pieces together and stopped Parker’s pedophile ring. 

In other words, we get a good amount of catharsis. Even with all the mysteries opened up by Parker’s true role – like, can we trust anything he’s said to this point? – and the mysteries still left open, we still have that sense of well-earned catharsis. 

Nothing felt so cathartic to me as Tui and Robin back at the lake where everything started, now together and bonded by newfound sisterhood(?) and shared trauma. It’s a good, albeit dark, note to end the series on.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how well some of these new mysteries sit with me. Like, did we need the reveal of Robin’s (supposedly) true parentage? Sure, I spotted the signs early on, but was it necessary? Like, did we need to tie Robin to Tui with the bonds of (potential) sisterhood? Did we need the momentary debate about whether Robin and Johnno, up till now on the whole passionate lovers, are in fact half-siblings? Sure, we learned Johnno isn’t Matt’s son after all, but why do we need that in the first place? It just feels like a soapy wrinkle to me that feels out of place.

So on the whole, No Goodbyes, Thanks is somewhere in the middle. Where it loses me is when new twists are thrown into the mix. As a conclusion to the ongoing story, I think it ties everything that matters up, which is ultimately what matters.

My Recommendation: Recommend

By Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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