The 4th episode of Top of the Lake once again showed us some magnificent mountain, lake, and forest vistas set in the wilds of Queenstown, New Zealand, also known as the playground of millionaires. Whatever you desired, seemed available in Queenstown. Drugs, sex, even rock ‘n roll – although we have not seen as much of that as we might have liked.
What we did not get a lot of in this episode was clarity. On the other hand, this was balanced by consequences. Also on hand were recollections, remembrances, retribution, and even a bit of revenge.
My talks with reader FD continue:
JMM: I just finished watching TOTL Ep 4 and I must say I was roundly disappointed. Almost every scene seemed wrong or flawed, or a representation of either a misstep by the characters, or by the filmmakers. What was your take?
FD: I thought Episode 4 was far better than the previous episode, although I think there were several poorly handled coincidences. And I definitely thought the whole Matt Mitcham meltdown scene could and should have been cut.
JMM: Agreed, Matt Mitcham certainly threw a distinctly unreasonable emotional fit at his new playmate, Anita, one of the Paradise ladies. To me it showed just how unstable he really is. Mind you, I like his instability – he’s a tinderbox character, who can explode at any time. Which is exciting – but his actions in the episode seemed well … over the top.
FD: Whenever they cut away from the Tui investigation, the show falters, But from a screenwriter’s point of view, this is an instructive example of poor editing. TOTL shows how little room for digression you have when writing a mystery-thriller (in comparison, Side Effects, the Soderbergh film was very well-edited, although it also contained a few unlikely coincidences).
JMM: Okay, as long as you mentioned both poor editing, and unlikely coincidences, which scenes or scenes (other than Mitcham’s meltdowns) did you find to be problematic?
FD: The Number 1 rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring. TOTL avoids being outright boring, but it is annoyingly irrational. Plot twists are not properly set up. They appear out of nowhere. For example, I didn’t recall the fact that Tui was receiving text messages from Jamie (played by Luke Buchanan) – the boy in the hoodie, did you?
JMM: There is an explanation for that and it is a bit of a roundabout. We weren’t shown Tui texting with Jamie. But Robin goes to the his home after researching Tui’s cell phone and discovering a multitude of text exchanges between them. Robin hopes to interview the boy. But then his mother turns Robin away as she has to leave. She says Jamie doesn’t talk but he texts. Robin returns later. That’s how they handled that.
FD: OK, I don’t recall Robin researching Tui’s phone bill, but I’ll let that go. So, when Robin finally finds Jamie, he buries a sack in the woods. But, he doesn’t speak when she questions him. He has the word No tattooed on one hand which he uses to respond to Robin’s questions.
But then he suddenly speaks…??? What ‘s all the razzle-dazzle about? Fool us once, OK. Fool us for four episodes? C’mon already, tell the story!
JMM: Robin doesn’t see what Jamie does in the woods – she has already lost him – and that was handled badly too. By a fortunate break for her, she spots Jamie (though she doesn’t know who he is right then) as she’s going out to jog. At that point, she starts to follow him, but all she knows is that a ‘blue hoodie’ was in the video. I don’t think she has looked into Tui’s phone records yet. But despite the fact that it appeared that she was too close to him, while trailing him, she still manages to lose him. So yeah, it is a tad coincidental and badly handled.
However – at this point we don’t know if it is a wild goose chase yet. For example what is Jamie burying in the hole, and what else is down in the hole. And I didn’t like the no talking bit, especially after it turned out to be bogus anyway.
But I did like the bones part – spooky and unique, and nicely handled by the set decorator, but what does it mean – maybe that is a wild goose chase too….
FD: I think it’s just another buried animal, another red herring. But, there’s another weird coincidence involving the Jamie. By coincidence, Robin’s pal Johnno has been “monitoring” the kayaks along the edge of the lake, so he somehow knows that the boy has been paddling around the lake. Why is Johnno suspicious about the kayaks? Did someone steal his?
It seems to me there are too many false clues. Let’s look at some real clues. How does Al afford his beautiful house on a detective’s salary?
JMM: Al is a captain not a detective – ie; Chief of Detectives, but yes, his house did seem a bit too luxurious for his pay grade. Also did you notice he said he slept on the couch. What? No guest room in a lake front house? But it has already been shown that he accepts payoffs from Matt Mitcham. Al is ‘dirty’.
Johnno may be monitoring the kayaks because they are his and his brother’s kayaks. But that takes us back to the hole in the ground in the woods – The size of the hole was enormous. Jamie reached this place by kayak – so he could not have carried big animals – so why was the hole that big? That’s why I hesitate to call it a red herring.
FD: I don’t know why the hole in the ground is so big, but here’s an even bigger hole in the plot! Or a very big coincidence. As in deus ex machina. I’m talking about Ian Fellows, the pathologist that suddenly turns up with evidence about previous suspicious deaths and possible police cover ups. How did he know how to contact Robin? It seems he examined Platt’s body and became suspicious, but this wasn’t explained. The writer seems to have a habit of emphasizing misleading info and under explaining key pieces of evidence. It’s driving me crazy!
JMM: I agree this is sloppy writing. Likely he is the M.E. or County Coroner. Robin is hired on as an investigator and is on the books so it isn’t a question of how he found her. But as you say – he suddenly appears with ‘new startling info’ which isn’t startling at all. His purpose is to cast suspicion on Al and the police incompetence (his words) and worse – the cover ups (your words) . I thought this was poorly conceived and would have been wrong even if we had met him earlier.
Okay, it seems easy to find the flaws and missteps in this episode even though you said at the outset that you liked this episode better than the previous one – so what was a stand-out that you thought was well done?
FD: I liked Elizabeth’s Moss’ performance this week. She really nailed a lot of the emotions connected to her past. And her past may well be the real mystery that ultimately breaks the Tui case. So, unlike the drug induced hallucinations in the previous episode, the flashbacks in Episode 4 seem to be related to the backbone of the story. Also the photography is spellbinding at times. I just hope Robin’s past is not another misdirection.
We should be getting some clarity soon as there are only three remaining episodes. Do you think there’s a connection between the crime in Robin’s past and Tui’s disappearance?
JMM: BINGO! – This is exactly the foundation of the story. Disregarding Robin’s age and Tui’s age, their stories are likely beyond similar. Robin was brought in and immediately became engrossed in the case. This was not just another case for her. She saw in Tui’s situation, the same things that she had experienced herself (15 years ago), being revisited on this same town once again. And this terrified her.
FD: So who did it? Do you have any suspects to put in the witness-box?
JMM: On that note, I’ll hold off on revealing my thought on suspects. And thank reader FD for his participation in today’s discussion. Top of the Lake is flawed, and (as FD says) often maddening, but the mystery is still a mystery. We welcome comments from you other readers.