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 Willa Paskin, TV critic for Salon.com.
Dan Kois: Hello Willa! Thank you for joining me to discuss the two-hour finale of Top of the Lake, in which Robin finds the answer to the real mystery of Laketop, which is grosser than even she expects. We also saw a bunch of people die, some heroically (like Jamie) and some way less so (like everyone else).
Dan: But I want to start with Robin’s long dark night, which begins with her drinking a whole bottle of vodka and ends with G.J. telling her: “Die to yourself. To your idea of yourself.” What ... did she mean by that? And did Robin do that?
Willa Paskin: Oh goodness, thanks for starting me off with a softball, Dan. Decoding G.J.'s various speeches could be a lifetime occupation, especially because I always get the feeling half of what she says she just says to flummox everyone into leaving her alone. By these last two episodes G.J. is a seriously unchillaxed guru. As for whether Robin succeeded in dying to herself—and not only did she down that whole bottle of vodka, when she was playing with that plastic bag I think she was contemplating suicide—I think absolutely not. Dying to yourself, or dying to the idea of yourself, is some kind of giving up—and Robin spends these episodes not giving up, even after everything is so terrible she thinks she might be committing incest. I think going after Al and being unable to have a calm cup of coffee are not signs of Robin giving in, lying still, embracing her inner cat.
Dan: Yes, Robin's Luke/Leia crisis is pretty dire. But if G.J. didn't help her toward the solution, what purpose did she serve in this story at all? Why end the whole series with her walking off into the sunset, getting away from all the "crazy bitches" at Paradise? Or am I being a real dude about it, asking such irrelevant questions?
Willa: I don't think it's an irrelevant question, even though I do think that G.J. was, ultimately, kind of irrelevant, but in the best way. Among the many things that I love about Top of the Lake—which I think is the best thing that's been on TV this year— is how it does strange things that on other shows would make you totally insane, like have this tough-talking guru who, really, was never that essential to the story, and makes it work. I was glad to spend time with G.J. and the ladies up in Paradise, even though I think only some of what they had to say and do really "mattered." (Like, I think GJ's last line to Tui about her having a real teacher now matters a ton.)
Willa: Top of the Lake did everything the American The Killing claimed it wanted to do but didn't—get me interested in everyone around this crime, as much as, if not more than, the crime itself.
Willa: Did the Al stuff feel like an afterthought to you, given all the drama of Jamie and Tui and Matt, which I cared about much more?
Dan: It felt like a bit of a narrative afterthought, given that we were so far ahead of Robin in knowing he was a bad actor—even if I didn't know precisely what the Brown Room was when Big Shane and Shane found those images on Bob Platt's hard drive.
Dan: But at the same time it was important for us to find out what the rotten thing was at the center of Laketop.
Willa: I did like how it kind of made sense of the actual biggest mystery of Top of the Lake, which is, as a friend of mine put it, why does nobody in this town care about rape?
Willa: Well, the head police officer is also the head rapist.
Dan: Right. Talk about rape culture!
Willa: It also makes some things interesting in retrospect: What did happen that time Robin blacked out at his house? And, it's a nice touch on all the times that Robin found him a little creepy, and would say so, but only half-heartedly: her joking "you're being weird, Al" comments.
Willa: He was actually being really weird.
Dan: What's so weird about having a bottle of roofies labeled ROOFIES? Just seems like common sense to me.
Willa: Did you think Al was the father of Tui’s baby? Like, he had just lied about the paternity test?
Dan: Worse: I think Tui's baby shares the same uncertain paternity as Robin's baby. I think we are meant to think no one has any idea which of the creeps in the Brown Room was responsible: maybe Al, maybe someone else. But yes, he lied about the paternity test. Did he lie about Johnno's?
Willa: I am telling myself that he was so not a fan of that relationship, I can't see why he would have lied so they could be together. But that may just be because I am shipping very hard for Robin and Johnno even though he never wears any shoes.
Dan: If Thomas Wright doesn't get cast as the scruffy heartthrob in a bad Jennifer Garner rom-com off this, his agent doesn't know what she's doing.
Willa: I guess, also, one of the big themes of the show is, even as police officers, always being too late: always coming after the trauma. And so the fact that Al felt like an afterthought in a way seemed thematically right on. The damage is done. It is too late, in so many ways.
Dan: Right. Tui's got a baby she doesn't even like. Robin and Johnno may not be related, but it's hard not to imagine their relationship isn’t forever tainted.
Willa: And then there's the ur-crime, of this particular story anyway, which is also that Robin will never be ungang-raped either.
Willa: Johnno will never not have been there.
Willa: And, Top of the Lake also gives you the sense there's all these other terrible stories we just don't even really know about—like what happened with Robin's father.
Willa: I would say that, if Johnno and Robin can get over the him-being-there-while-she-got-raped incident, maybe incest might be doable.
Dan: That's looking on the bright side!
Dan: But can we please talk about Matt, and Peter Mullan?
Willa: Yes, let's talk about Matt.
Dan: His emergence from the hold of Al's boat! His revelation to Robin in what was supposed to be his interrogation. His death out in the woods, shot by a feral Tui. Every time he appeared on-screen I caught my breath.
Dan: In a way I wanted him to become the hero of this story. Or at least a hero. Like, in my ideal version of this story, he's Harvey Keitel in The Piano.
Willa: He looks like him!
Willa: Well, the reveal of Al means Matt wasn't exactly the bad guy: He did not impregnate his daughter, and he did spend the entire series doing almost everything he could to get her back.
Willa: My standout sequence with him remains the acid trip in the woods, all that kindness and curiosity, mixed with his anger and self-flagellation and dangerousness.
Willa: He's so canny and manipulative, but then, ultimately, was he clueless: Was he so chummy with Al because he knew what Al did, or because he didn’t?
Dan: Because he didn't. Because he was protecting his own little corner of badness, not knowing that Al was protecting his much bigger sin.
Dan: Hard to imagine if he knew he wouldn't kill Al.
Willa: So he's sort of this noble, scenery-chewing drug lord and murderer.
Dan: I expect him to get his own AMC series within a year.
Willa: I hope his son with the amazing shaved head bird tattoo appears on it. I think that's the best TV tattoo maybe ever.
Dan: I love those guys! The poor other son, who can't even have sex without his dad walking in, barking orders?
Willa: That seems so perfectly Campion: these butch, macho guys are actually little kids who can't have any privacy or assert their manhood without their dad out-swaggering them.
Dan: "Awesome, dad! Just shut the door!"
Willa: I do feel that airing the final two episodes together did not give poor Jamie his proper moment. What a sweet kid. That scene with him showing how babies come out of the birth canal? All he did for Tui? It's really sad.
Dan: Yeah. But that funeral was still a pretty rewarding sequence, even jammed into a two-hour finale. Paradise, as a story element, justified itself there—with the horses arrayed around the trailers with NO painted on their flanks, and the Mitcham boys bewildered, at sea in a flood of female mourning.
Willa: There's something both so hopeful and tragic about the ending, that Robin is going to be in some maternal position to both Tui and this baby Noah, even though we know, from the earlier episodes that she never wants to meet her own child, because if she were that child, hearing the story would make her want to kill herself.
Dan: Whooo, when you put it that way, it seems more tragic than hopeful.
Willa: Well, the more hopeful way to put it is that Robin's wrong. That the child won't feel as she does, or as she did. And, anyway, she's still a better choice for a maternal figure than a 12-year-old.
Dan: I just go back to what the drug-lab women told Robin when she got in their van. "If you think you're helping us, you're dumb." Robin obviously did palpable good by returning to Laketop. But the message of this series remains, I think, that there's something awful in the world that won't go away whether you arrest everyone in the Brown Room or not.
Willa: I agree, but I just did not find the feeling of the show—its ephemeral vibe—to be that depressing. For a show about the really horrible and disturbing things everywhere, in everyone, I did not find it bleak.
Willa: Tui didn't die.
Dan: In fact, she showed her power and strength. She didn't need Putty and his stupid midwifery textbook to have that baby; she didn't need Johnno or Robin to save it.
Willa: She found her inner hissing cat and did it herself.
Willa: The ending to me was like: Life is hard, but possible.
Dan: That should've been on the poster.