As China Girl concludes, the case solved almost as an afterthought, the question burned in my mind is not the ending, which some took as a cliffhanger, in which Robin watches home videos of Mary and looks up at a knock on the door in yet another image that has me 100 percent certain Jane Campion and/or Gerard Lee are giant fans of Veronica Mars. I take the show at face value that it’s probably Pyke, who is coming over after all, to catch up on lost time as a budding family unit, but it could be Mary, or Adrian or Liam or a freshly released Miranda. It’s not really that interesting who’s at the door, and in any case, Campion and Lee designed the scene so that it doesn’t matter. It’s a scene about Robin discovering the wonder of parenthood, witnessing her child’s first demonstrations of personality, loving Mary from afar. But the question that haunts me is about loving Mary up close. Does Mary give Julia that hug?
I was screaming when they cut away. It’s a brilliant climax, Julia not taking the bait, staying put, enduring, negotiating, demanding Mary meet her on some level, making it clear how much more giving her love for Mary is than Puss’, and Mary on her way out the door and out the country with the abuser who hit her and pimped her out. Mary refuses to stay even after being taken hostage and somehow avoiding a local manhunt that you’d think would involve cops at her house. She also refuses to listen to Julia. Julia’s new partner Isadore has been let’s say dangerously removed from things, by which I mean lived experience and consequences, once calling Puss’ life story a fairy tale and immediately sucking up to him after his freak-out and now calling Mary’s story a hero’s journey. Maybe that has something to do with Julia’s insistence on giving her daughter so much rope. But now Julia’s fed up with Isadore’s point of view and she’s face to face, talking to her daughter who insists on diving back into the fryer of her own volition, and at last she’s down to one last compromise: How about a hug? No more philosophizing, no more abstraction, no more ideals, just a reestablishment of the physical connection between Julia and Mary. The cut to profile is shot through the bar, which blocks Mary’s side of the scene from view. It’s just Julia standing there, arms wide open, waiting. And then a cut.
Based on the cut, it’s an open question, and based on the circumstances, I’d guess Mary did not hug her mother. They make up for it later, but that resolution occurs off-screen, with Mary sedate. But whether Mary felt her mother’s tight embrace or she just felt the guilt of punishing her mother once more, the showdown is a powerful influence on what she does next, which is go to the airport, meet Puss and the girls, and finally see him with enough perspective to remove herself from the situation.
In “Chapter 5,” Pyke wonders how Mary could still be with Puss after the nose bite, let alone the pimping. That’s because the episode opens with Mary leaving Robin’s apartment with Puss, who’s come to pick her up and give Robin a creepy kiss in her sleep, which is redundant in at least two ways. Here Mary cites the final straw as Puss letting the elevator doors shut, which left her as a hostage for Brett the crazed gunman and revealed how little Puss cares about her in a glaringly obvious image. But if that were it she wouldn’t have shown up at the airport at all. He’s trying every trick in his pathetic book, calling himself the true victim, preying on her class guilt and self-esteem by calling her a spoiled bitch, and slapping her right there in the airport. None of it seems to work. She doesn’t budge an inch.
I’m not sure Robin’s quite right, though, either. When she confronts Puss, and by that I mean she beats his ass and holds a gun to his head, she tells him Mary doesn’t love him. Mary hates him. That inadvertently gives Puss ammo to use against Mary later. At the start of their fight, he tries to cow her into submission: “So what, you hate me now?” He’s trying to make her the bad guy so she’ll feel sorry enough to seal the deal and fly away. Mary doesn’t take the bait. She may hate him, but that’s something like the way she loved him, counterfeit emotion. More specifically, she sees things more clearly. She sees his fraud and selfishness, she sees the free, fierce, unconditional love of her mothers, and she sees a way out of an abusive relationship. Julia sees Mary off to that showdown with love and Robin sees Puss off with fear, the two mothers working in tandem to help Mary finally free herself.
I almost wish Top Of The Lake wasn’t so committed to being a murder mystery, because for one thing it barely cares what happened to Cinnamon, and for another the drama of the investigation is well beneath that of its other relationships. Brett goes on a rampage to avenge Cinnamon, including hiding in the sand and shooting a cop. There’s a recurring accusation that Robin is not open to love that makes a jagged fit with what we see of her, but it’s treated like some kind of epiphany and a catalyst for Robin’s growth. The shadow surrogacy business at Silk 41 brings out some real pain and—of course, as always—leads right back to the top of Robin’s department, as Miranda’s pregnancy was surrogate and Adrian was to be the father. Top Of The Lake never met a coincidence it didn’t like. And I guess we take Puss’ word for it that Cinnamon hanged herself and the proprietors of Silk 41 were just disposing of the body?
It’s a long way to walk to make the point that the developed world subsists on the bodies and labor of the developing world, but make that point it does, in Puss’ comically didactic goodbye film taped to the TV for the police and surrogate parents. For too long, he says, the West has exploited the East. You will note that this is a German ex-academic landlord drafting a bunch of immigrant tenants who barely speak the language to star in a video about their own exploitation, and it’s unclear to what extent they understand either the video or their emigration from Australia. But he’s not wrong exactly. The Thai immigrants in China Girl are exploited by the crypto MRAs, the wealthy couples in need of cheap surrogates, even the authorities at Robin’s police department. And now the shoe’s on the other foot. The law sides with the girls. Their fetuses may have none of their DNA, but they’re the children of their birth mothers. And those mothers are taking their children to another country, never to be heard from again. Meanwhile the parents who provided the DNA are breaking down, calling lawyers, appealing to Adrian in his role as police honcho, prevailing once again on the exploitative power systems that led to all this. The power systems that resulted in a Thai woman’s death being labeled by the investigators, “China Girl.”
Class and race are welcome buttresses for Top Of The Lake’s jeremiad against patriarchy, but bound up in that flight is a last defense of maternal rights. In the design of the show, not only is it just and appropriate that Robin have a role to play in her biological daughter’s life, despite giving her up for adoption before leaving the hospital, but a mother would have such a claim even if her child had none of her DNA. But are the DNA-providers not biological parents as well? They’re treated as desperate, pathetic, and offensively bourgeois, but doesn’t it follow that Miranda has some claim to maternity over the child eventually born of her DNA? Not legally, no, but on a more fundamental level, the tremendous intelligence of the body, as GJ puts it in the original miniseries? Poor Miranda gets off even worse than Robin. But maybe that’s why Robin promises to find Miranda’s child. Maybe this isn’t over.
So Top Of The Lake: China Girl concludes somewhat as expected, a drama of women’s bodies and a feat more of provocation than conclusion. The mystery of Silk 41 doesn’t get resolved exactly, but as the fog of mystery dissipates, what lingers is that the real danger to the girls of Silk 41 was never within but without.
- “Chapters 5 & 6” were written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. Campion directed the first, Ariel Kleiman the second.
- Pyke: “I’ll get him fucked up. I’ve got contacts.”
- In the scene where Brett identifies the body of Cinnamon, Robin tries to be considerate but Stally is compassionless: “I guess she died fucking…Did she shave her muff?” He also laughs off Brett’s request for a moment alone. But Robin backs him up on that. “It’s inappropriate. You’re a customer, not a family member.”
- The real Stally drama comes to a head when he once again interrupts their work and punches a wall because he can’t have Robin. Happily his partner intervenes, making him go outside and get the car and warning Robin to keep her distance because Stally gets fixated. And here Stally was acting so high and mighty to Brett. Unhappily his partner goes on to enlighten Robin on the diverse spectrum of “yes-nos,” which is a shared belief among the guys apparently that a woman might say no but means, “Keep trying.”
- Brett tells his phantom Cinnamon he’ll restore her honor, which is such half-considered buzzword phrasing I almost think the producers didn’t mean for it to sound like anything more than it is. But it does; it sounds like defending her honor, protecting her virtue, father-daughter dances and Pyke standing up for Mary at Puss’ school. None of which has anything to do with the implied and fitting feminist target of real men perpetuating violence supposedly to defend a woman’s honor. Cinnamon’s already dead, so Brett isn’t doing this for her honor. And Pyke isn’t concerned for Mary’s dignity or virginity but her life and well-being.
- Miranda’s having a girl and naming her Rosa, but not herself. She’s a customer of the same surrogate black market as the other characters, quite a coincidence. “To my one good egg, my A-grade blastocyst.”
- Not sure what to make of the idea that everyone convinces themselves these sex workers are students. Is it class blindness?
- Pyke’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy test is to worry this might mean she could be indulging risky behaviors maybe. “So she’s not using protection? That’s a risk.” As if the danger is still ahead. No, Pyke. We’re well past risk at this point. Do some parenting for once in your life.
- We finally get the story on how a girl like Mary wound up with a guy like Puss. Apparently she and Michaela used to hang out at Café Stasi after school, and Puss works there. In fact, we’ve seen this place before. When we first meet Mary, she’s with Puss, and a woman slaps him. We see her again too. It’s Lydia, the disabled girl Puss proposed to on a dare.
- If nothing else, Robin at least makes Puss fear for his life once before he leaves the country. “You pimped by daughter! You almost got her shot!”