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.