Highs And Lows Of ‘Top Of The Lake: China Girl’ (SPOILERS)

Top of the Lake: China Girl has wrapped up its run on Sundance (you can catch all the episodes, plus the superior first season, on Hulu). I reviewed the show last week, and now want to get into specific highs and lows — with spoilers for the whole season — coming up just as soon as we ask “Where’s Wally?”…

HIGH: Robin vs Al, Round Two

On the one hand, Al making it so far into his assault on Robin without anyone in the station noticing is pretty silly, but — as we’ll talk about several times — realism has never really been Top of the Lake‘s stock in trade. The intensity of the scene, with him choking her with the belt while she lights the curtains on fire, was remarkable, and you can even go with the idea that she terribly underestimated Al given his injury (which proves she didn’t listen to her own advice to the cadets in the first episode) until it was too late. Plus, in the year of the Elisabeth Moss primal scream, the one she delivers here after Robin finally has Al pinned was a fitting companion to the ones she did as Offred.

LOW: The case is connected to Mary

The original series was loaded with coincidences, too, down to the brief period where Robin believed Johnno was her brother, but A) that’s the sort of thing you can get away with once, and B) that’s the sort of thing that works much better in a small town setting than in Sydney. Having Robin’s biological daughter turn out to be at the center of the whole case was a tougher pill to swallow, on top of Mary’s Puss obsession (we’ll get back to that). The alternative, I suppose, would be for Mary and Julia and Pyke to be unrelated to the case, but that would then render this another thriller with an extraneous difficult teen character, and I don’t know that that’s any better.

The investigation is essentially besides the point — Puss explains at the end that Cinnamon hung herself — and Robin in both stories gets too wrapped up emotionally in the cases to work them as well as she otherwise could. But a good chunk of China Girl looks and acts like a more conventional police procedural, so the contrivances stick out more.

HIGH: Robin cries over Miranda

Really, the entire quasi-friendship between the two partners was one of the highlights of the piece, and not just because I laughed every time Moss and Gwendoline Christie were standing in the frame together. They are a mismatched duo, with Robin trying to guard her every secret, even as she’s such an open wound, and Miranda so seemingly gregarious and candid, even though she’s lying to everyone but Adrian about her pregnancy. Christie’s most famous for doing larger-than-life genre work, but she’s excellent here as a very real and flawed woman, and Miranda’s grave injury on the beach nicely sets Moss up for another raw emotional moment as Robin cries in the bathroom after getting a look at the hospitalized, non-responsive body of her partner.

LOW: The magnetism of Puss

Part of the point of the story is that Mary is so damaged, for a variety of reasons — anxiety over learning of her adoption (and about Robin never responding to her letter), the break-up of Julia and Pyke’s marriage (and Julia’s condescension despite this) — that she would rebel by falling under the thrall of a man as disgusting and clearly bad for her as Puss. But the writers and actor David Dencik did perhaps too good a job of making clear how awful Puss is. It’s really difficult to sit through a lot of those scenes where Mary is hanging on his every word and command — particularly the stretch where he talks her into celebrating her 18th birthday by prostituting herself on the streets of Sydney — even over a relatively short season like this. It’s not an accident that the other characters are baffled by what Mary sees in him, but the original series was smarter in how it gave Matt Mitcham real charisma even as it also made clear how toxic he was to everyone around him.

(For that matter, Nicole Kidman is excellent at portraying the ways that Julia has pushed Mary away from her, but is so convincing that scenes with her — especially when Julia’s new lover is about to put each story beat in its literary context — can become really unpleasant.)

HIGH: Brett miladying his way into killing people

Early episodes try to distinguish Brett from his gross hooker-rating pals by suggesting he had real feelings for Cinnamon, but Campion and Gerard Lee’s scripts are also smart enough to point out that his pathology is no better than theirs, even if he thinks it is. And by the end of it all, his is shown to be even worse, because he’s so wrapped up in the idea of himself as the guardian of Cinnamon’s honor that he goes on a killing spree (he comes close enough with Miranda). What initially seems like extra-textual social commentary like the GJ scenes from the original instead becomes a key part of the plot.

What did everybody else think? How do you feel it compared to the original? Was Robin smiling at the end because Pyke was coming over (despite his apparent re-commitment to Julia), or for another reason? And would you want to watch Moss play this role again, or are you fearful of what kind of personal connection Robin might have to the next case?

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