Jane Campion and Elisabeth Moss team up once again for TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL, relocating Robin Griffin to the police squad in Sydney, Australia. Life has not been particularly kind to Griffin since we’ve last seen her, so she buries herself in a new case after a dead Asian woman is found in a suitcase washed up on shore.
Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) has left New Zealand and is back at the Sydney, Australia police department where she’s trying to keep her head down and do her job. She’s suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of shooting Al Parker, a detective sergeant, during her last case investigating a pedophile ring. He’s now suing her in civil court, claiming the shooting wasn’t justified. He believes it was personal. The news of this follows Griffin and hangs like a cloud over her head. The only person or family she has in all of Australia is a brother who she isn’t particularly close to. She wants to bury herself in her work to forget about all of the things she doesn’t want to deal with right now.
Elisabeth Moss plays Griffin with a world-weariness written in every motion of her body and expression on her face. She’s far more damaged than even she likes to admit, and her new boss does everything he can to try to help her, but she’s unwilling to talk about the past. She’s a loner, and it’s exactly how she wants it. Griffin has built up a defense mechanism and barrier around herself for protection, and she doesn’t want anyone getting closer than arms length to her. She suffers from night terrors that cause her to scream out in anguish and has trouble sleeping, but she’s also unwilling to see a therapist or counselor that could help her work through it.
On top of the anxiety and stress the past case and its aftermath has placed on Griffin, she’s had a disastrous brush with marriage that we see in a flashback. She and Johnno were to be married, but on the day of the wedding he’s arrested with garbage bags full of marijuana, and has been having an affair with another woman. Griffin finds out about it when she shows up to the jail to be married anyway, and finds the other woman in the jail cell with Johnno. She leaves both the jail and Johnno, having a cathartic burning of her wedding dress with friends before she heads off to Australia to go back to work. When we catch up with her, she’s now celibate and doesn’t want anything to do with relationships anymore. She just wants to work.
Her new boss senses Griffin needs to be looked after, and teams her up with Miranda (Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones) who is told to never let Griffin out of her sight. Miranda is a breathe of fresh air on Top of the Lake, and brings some humor to the fairly drab mood of the show. Despite Griffin’s attempts to distance herself from Miranda, the two soon become friends as well as police partners. When an Asian woman turns up stuffed into a suitcase and washed up on shore, Miranda will work her first murder investigation with Griffin to help teach and guide her as they begin to unravel who this woman is, and how she died.
From the first scenes of the new season, it’s clear the people who got rid of the body are running a brothel in town (which I was surprised to learn was legal in Australia) and the girl in the suitcase was a sex-worker in the brothel named Cinnamon. Beyond this, we don’t know who killed her or why. We’re introduced to a 41-year-old East German man named Alexander who lives in the brothel, as well as his 17-year-old girlfriend Mary. It’s unclear at first why we spend so much time with Mary. A lot of time is spent dissecting the bizarre relationship between Mary and her parents, as well as Mary and Alexander. We witness a disaster of a dinner where Mary introduces Alexander to her parents Pyke and Julia (Nicole Kidman). Her parents, and even us the viewers, can clearly see Alexander is grooming her or brainwashing her, to drop out of school and marry him. His intentions seem nefarious, but Mary is so head over heels in love with him that she can’t see it for herself.
Nicole Kidman is wonderful as the hurt and aggrieved mother of Mary. She takes the brunt of her daughter’s anger, since the pain of her parents divorce, and Julia leaving Pyke for another woman, seem to really trigger Mary to be as terrible as possible to Julia. Julia’s exasperation at being unable to control her daughter, let alone even talk to her, plays to Kidman’s strengths as an actor. There’s so much love for Mary and hurt in her performance, that one can’t help but feel sorry for Julia even if she seems to blow things out of proportion at times. The reason we’re spending so much time with Mary and her family becomes clear once we realize Griffin gave a daughter up for adoption when she was 15, and Mary is this daughter.
The investigation into the dead Asian woman, who was pregnant at the time, crosses over with Mary and her family due to Mary’s involvement with Alexander, who works at the brothel. Griffin’s investigation has the awkward possibility intermingling with her personal life after she meets her daughter Mary for the first time face to face since giving her up for adoption. For now the coincidence can be looked past, but there’s a real danger of everything becoming too convenient. It’s something I trust Campion would not allow to do, since she’s a wonderful storyteller.
The tension of the show is turned up high, because it’s not only Griffin’s investigation at stake, but also her newfound connection with her daughter, who may or may not be dating the killer. The darkness of the subject matter is played brilliantly against the gorgeous backdrops of New Zealand and Australia, making Top of the Lake: China Girl an interesting and intriguing crime show.
Season 2, Episodes 1-2 (S02E01-02)
Top of the Lake: China Girl airs Sundays at 8PM on Sundance TV
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates.
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Jeff Iblings | Contributor