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 Michelle Dean, who recently wrote about the show on The Awl.
Dan Kois: Hello, Michelle! I'm so glad you're here to discuss this episode of Top of the Lake with me. There's a lot to go over—from Al's misbegotten proposal, to Johnno removing Sarge from Laketop like so much vermin, to the sad death (and voice mail) of Robin's mom. Plus, we've finally got the not-unexpected but still welcome confirmation that Tui is alive.
Dan: But there's only one place to start and that's: Did YOU recognize Lucy Lawless? Because I sure didn't.
Michelle Dean: It took me until they were in the trailer to recognize her! If this is a stealth revival of Xena it will be an even bigger feminist fantasy than I thought.
Although to be fair Xena's a bit S&M for Campion. Too much leather.
Dan: She's more about women frolicking unfettered by bustiers or chaps.
Michelle: Exactly. More Eileen Fisher when clothed, too. But it leads to my point, which is this: I feel like the best way to watch this show is as like pure feminist wish-fulfillment, which adds layers to scenes and plot choices that look kind of bizarre and random because they don't fit into our rubrics of how this type of show is supposed to operate. Because these crime shows are not written by feminists.
Like, for example, Robin doesn't need Johnno’s anti-Sarge crusade per se. Though she does need Johnno not have participated in her rape!
Dan: I was fascinated by how calmly she accepted his teenage failure to intervene and how angry her acceptance made him. What do you think he wanted out of that conversation that he didn't get?
Michelle: He wanted her to forgive him, I suppose. But what's there to say?
Dan: I didn't get that impression at all! I thought he wanted her to be angry at him. I thought he wanted her to blame him.
Michelle: That's an interesting read.
Dan: Then at least he can fool himself into thinking he COULD HAVE done something—rather than that he was (and remains) essentially powerless in her story.
Michelle: Fair. I think I may just mean that I perceived the selfishness in it. Like him telling her was frustrating because all it would do is make them relive things they can't change. He was prioritizing his catharsis over hers.
I mean she doesn't get catharsis, really. She just gets to keep living with it.
Dan: And then later their reconciliation, on a bed of moss in a forest primeval, was so beyond.
Michelle: The whole thing is just a giant middle finger to the genre. I mean Tui being alive is a part of that—what, you think she's helpless? No! She became of the forest to survive!
Dan: But surely there are people who have given up on this show long ago because they're like, "I don't care about this lady and her chimp or this dude whipping himself, WHERE IS THE GIRL," right?
Michelle: Yes. Which is sad! I mean it's formally challenging television, and formally challenging television is not the prestige vogue right now. Mad Men and Game of Thrones and the rest are polished stones.
Dan: Exactly! Campion's films are knee-deep in feminist critique, but they never feel academic or formulaic. They're completely unpredictable.
Michelle: Yeah. I mean people complain about the abruptness, but I like it. You are supposed to feel disoriented. Sex and violence are disorienting things!
Dan: So let's talk disorienting moments! No. 1: Jamie smashing his head into the doors of his mom's house.
Michelle: I don't know what's wrong with that kid. But I think this is a way to signal he's really, truly not the father. There's something too pat about that explanation. And Jamie is not pat. But then he was also led into it by Al, who clearly has a very dark side to him that was not as apparent until him kicking the crap out of Jamie.
Dan: The show's been hinting at Detective Sergeant Faramir's dark side for a while, but after this episode, I would not be at all surprised to find out that, in the end, he's the villain of the piece.
But I would be equally unsurprised to find out it's Matt, or Johnno, or that there is no villain, just the unforgiving mountains and the frigid depths of the lake.
More disorienting moments: Did Robin's mom commit suicide?
Michelle: Possibly. She sounded drugged, but she would anyway. I thought it was a suicide, yes.
Dan: "Hello darkness," indeed.
Michelle: Well though it raises the question: Why not wait until she can get her daughter on the phone?
Dan: The people of Laketop are nothing if not impulsive.
Also, I would welcome an entire series about Robin's face-tattooed almost-stepdad, who proposed with a beer tab and seems like the greatest guy.
Michelle: Yes, except that he was an abuser.
Dan: Oh, right. Laketop's a complicated place!
Michelle: Yes, and the fleece makes him look so friendly in spite of it.
Dan: Do you think Tui is having this baby in the bush? With Robin attending, and maybe GJ in support? That's my prediction.
Michelle: Oh, yes. Though GJ is funny, I can't make her out. She's an earth mother guru with a really hard edge. Not really the Gaia-worshipping midwife, you know? Sort of like Hunter S. Thompson crossed with Sappho or something.
Dan: I could see her cutting the cord with her teeth.
Also, the secret that Bob Platt found out is gonna be ... horrible, whatever it is.
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, I suspect whatever he saw, he was a part of, which explains why his guilt over it only extended to confessing to an ex-wife.
Dan: Though bear in mind his ex-wife is an avenging warrior princess.
Michelle: Gotta go. I have a shipping container with my name on it.
Dan: Do as you like. I’ve got a hair appointment. I've got a date with a lady. I've got a life.