When it debuted back in 2013, the original Top of the Lake was an instant classic, and a perfect combination of elements: a creator in Jane Campion with a strong and distinctive voice as both writer and director, a star in Elisabeth Moss (then midway through her time on Mad Men) doing the rawest work of her career to date, a beautiful and unsettling locale in the remote New Zealand community where the story took place, and an elegantly simple mystery involving a missing pregnant teenager upon which Campion and her partners could hang any number of ideas about trauma, family, feminism, rape, and much more. Even the parts that seemingly had no narrative purpose, like a collective of women living in storage containers, led by Holly Hunter as a grey-haired scholar, only added to the hypnotic mood and themes of the piece.
The intensely personal nature of the story — Moss’ cop Robin Griffin returns from Sydney to investigate a crime in her hometown, whose chief suspect is both father of her ex-lover and important to her past in other ways — made it seemingly ideal for the limited series treatment, because what case could possibly hit Robin as hard, and what locale could possibly be as impressive?
Four years later, though, several of the principals — including Campion, Moss, and co-writer Gerard Lee — have reunited for Top of the Lake: China Girl, a new six-part series (it debuts Sunday at 9 on Sundance with back-to-back episodes; I’ve seen the whole thing) in which Robin finds another case to which she’s deeply connected, this time back on her old beat in Sydney. It doesn’t quite stack up to the original, in part because the lake town itself was such a huge part of the first series(*), in part because some of the coincidences that drive both stories play more convincingly in a small community than in a big city. But the acting is remarkable — here with Moss supported by Nicole Kidman, Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones, and Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, among others — and if you can see the seams of the story more easily this time around, what Campion and Lee have stitched together is still pretty stunning.
(*) The original series is streaming on Hulu; you can mostly follow the new episodes without it (from time to time, I found myself realizing I didn’t remember four-year-old plot points that characters here were alluding to), though the impact’s much more potent if you have. Plus, it’s great!
We pick up more or less in real time, with Robin returning to Sydney years after the events of the original. She is low woman on the totem pole due to her time away (and being a woman in a department dominated by men), asked to mentor overeager uniform cop Miranda (Christie) and take on the cases the other detectives don’t want. But then a suitcase containing a dead prostitute washes up on the beach, and Robin and Miranda are off on an investigation involving local brothels, shady fertility businesses, creepy Alexander “Puss” Braun (David Dencik), estranged couple Julia (Kidman) and Pyke Edwards (Ewen Leslie), and their rebellious teenage daughter Mary (Englert), who is somehow connected to all of it — including Robin herself.
Mary’s centrality to everything is a leap that’s necessary to give Robin the same investment she had the last time around — in many ways, a greater one — as this isn’t meant as much of an actual police procedural. (If you’re watching for the casework, prepare to be disappointed.) But it’s a leap that’s tougher to pull off in the more cosmopolitan setting, even as the scripts keep eradicating the barrier between Robin’s work and home life, like how she winds up moving into the apartment next door to Miranda’s, becoming uncomfortably intimate with her partner’s(*) comings and goings.
(*) On Thrones, Christie has worked alongside more diminutive actors than Moss, yet this show’s frequent glimpses of the two women, and their great disparity in height, plays as much funnier each time than when, say, Brienne of Tarth is hanging out with Arya Stark. Maybe it’s that Top of the Lake is intensely sober where GoT already has other outlets for humor, so it feels like more of a relief here, while also serving as a secondary way to illustrate the contrast between the private Robin and the outgoing Miranda.
But then, a lot of China Girl doesn’t withstand scrutiny if you’re meant to take it 100% literally. There’s a sequence at the end of the third hour, involving a character from the original story who has followed Robin to Sidney, that’s at once harrowing and utterly absurd; best to just embrace the emotions of the former and try not to think about the logic regarding the latter.
Julia’s new lover is a pretentious teacher who tries to filter every bit of human suffering she encounters through some form of literary device, at one point suggesting that another character’s autobiographical tale is “best read as an allegory.” In many ways, China Girl itself is best read the same way, as a commentary on male exploitation and abuse of women’s bodies — one of the more effective, if nauseating, subplots involves a group of young men who gather at a coffee shop(*) to work on online ratings of the prostitutes they frequent, but who are barely capable of having a conversation with a woman they’re not paying to be around — on nature versus nurture theories of parenting, and many of the other ideas that suffused the original story. (Hunter’s GJ doesn’t appear again, but Julia is an avowed fan of her work, and Kidman wears a wild gray wig that evokes Hunter’s.)
(*) A wryly nasty little detail: they are just there for the free wifi, and tend to order only water despite taking up a big table for hours on end.
And if nothing else, China Girl provides six more hours of Elisabeth Moss brilliance in a year that already gave us The Handmaid’s Tale. As an actress, she’s only grown in both power and fearlessness since the time she first played this role, and there’s a raw quality that at times suggests Offred has escaped the Handmaid’s dystopia for our world, only to realize it’s nearly as bad.
China Girl reminds me of the second season of Netflix’s Happy Valley, less because both revolve around jaded, damaged female cops than because the first seasons of both series featured stories so closely tied to dark secrets in their heroine’s lives that it seemed any additional stories couldn’t possibly measure up. Happy Valley dealt with that problem by identifying the ways the horror doesn’t end just because a particular case is closed, while China Girl does it by further unraveling its cop’s history to find something that matters to her more than the first case did. It doesn’t always work, but enough of it does that I’m glad Campion decided to bring the gang together again.
NOTE: China Girl has already been airing over in the UK, so some of you may have seen it. For now, keep any plot discussion as vague as possible, and I’ll try to revisit the whole season after it’s done so we can get more deeply into spoilers.