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Top Of The Lake is back for another detective mystery about women's bodies

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A dead prostitute, a cop with baggage, a seedy neighborhood and a conspiracy of silence—you pretty much know what you’re getting with a new detective miniseries. That goes double for Top Of The Lake: China Girl, which reunites creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee with star Elisabeth Moss for another investigation tangled up in sex and family, albeit one that swaps the primeval backwoods of New Zealand for the big city of Sydney, Australia, and the abstraction of paternity for the troublesome tangibility of maternity. But dreary structuralism is what gets you The Fall, which stripped the form for parts so methodically that the final season is all blank jargon and an amnesia plot playing the dark matter between the last remaining load-bearing columns of the narrative. Top Of The Lake: China Girl puts the pieces back together naturally and bracingly to tell a story of one woman’s body and women’s bodies in general, of mothers and daughters, sex workers and surrogates, and the male violence that interrupts at every opportunity. As in Top Of The Lake, the murder is a macguffin. China Girl is about the everyday war.

No wonder China Girl has such an entrancing gift for the casual. The investigation doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, let alone the world. In the first episode, every so often a suitcase with hair bobs in the ocean to a splash of beachy jazz. They’ll get to it eventually. Jane Campion and her co-director Ariel Kleiman stage scenes so as to accumulate detail, often narrative things like the giant stuffed panda but most enchantingly the details of behavior. And Moss is back in a role more suited to her fine-tuned spontaneity and animation, the small gestures of real life. I hate her drunk laugh because it’s the exact same manufactured giggle she uses on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, but it throws into relief how varied and complex her acting is the rest of the time. She’s a master of expression.

This time the case is a literal case, luggage containing the body of a young Asian woman that washes ashore on Bondi Beach in Sydney. Enter Elisabeth Moss, our screen avatar of maternal separation anxiety, back as Detective Robin Griffin. It’s been five years since the hunt for a missing girl in her rural New Zealand hometown led to the discovery of a local pedophile ring implicating her superior in the police department, Al Parker (David Wenham). In a business meeting over dinner that veers seamlessly into a grilling that forces Robin to recount her trauma and answer for her actions, it comes out that she’s spent most of the intervening years out of the loop. She had gotten engaged to Johnno (now played by Mark Leonard Winter), who once seemed so exceptional in a jungle of predatory men but now is just another guy who cheats, which Robin discovers when he and his mistress get arrested on the morning of his wedding day and Robin shows up at jail to carry out the ceremony anyway. Notice the way he responds to her question. First he lies and then he pivots to a different issue altogether. She pulls her hand out of his, removes her veil, and walks out, the officiant still going on about “man and woman, the feminine and the masculine.”

China Girl is as blunt and grotesque as its predecessor, an exaggerated not-very-funhouse in which the local informal MRA chapter or somesuch gathers in the middle of a café to rate sex workers online and commiserate about the friend zone while a waitress serves them drinks and in which an array of male police recruits can’t keep from cracking up like fifth-graders at sex ed in the face of their short, female, locally infamous training officer. The situations are heightened, but the extremity doesn’t dull the show’s vision. It reveals it.

The original Top Of The Lake offered a women-only commune in the woods run by Holly Hunter’s GJ, a plot issue for their landlord, the missing girl’s father, but more importantly a thematic counterweight to the outside world of men. China Girl is less explicit. There’s nothing like GJ’s separatism, but in addition to foregrounding queer and trans characters who challenge any rigid gender binaries from the get-go, the miniseries concocts two alternative arrangements of women within patriarchy. First there’s the sex work community, specifically the Asian survivors of China Girl, the temporary ID for the Jane Doe, but also the legalized sex worker, who acts as a lioness protecting her pride when the cops start poking their noses into their business. There’s a lovely balance in China Girl’s ex-brothel between the tender camaraderie of the girls within and the ugliness of their circumstances without.

Second there’s Nicole Kidman’s Julia, freckled beyond belief and her enormous gray mane up in loosely coiffed curls. She’s the adoptive mother of Robin’s daughter, who is in the process of divorcing Mary’s father because she fell in love with a woman who turns out to be Mary’s French teacher, Isadore. We’ll see if Isadore ever makes an appearance, let alone the house these two women share, but for now there’s this wonderful sense of Julia in between. She always seems to be on her way out, and Mary’s following suit.

Maybe that’s just because Julia keeps overheating. Like Moss, Kidman’s on her second major small-screen role of the year following her extraordinary turn as a lawyer with an abusive husband on Big Little Lies, and like Moss, her role here isn’t so withdrawn. It’s not a revelation to see Nicole Kidman throwing away an entire cake and walking around like an anxious animal, but after such a delicately interior performance on Big Little Lies it’s thrilling to see her act out again. Julia’s daughter Mary, played by Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, thinks she’s a drama queen, and to a certain extent she’s right. Part of the intrigue in these first two episodes is meeting Julia and Pyke in a perfectly ordinary scenario—although there is a hint of danger when Mary bangs the drawer against Julia’s thigh—then watching a fight reveal all of their worst opinions of one another, and gradually squaring the two.

Julia’s right to be worried about Mary’s rebellion, manifested most prominently by her impending marriage to a 42-year-old ex-professor named Alexander who goes by Puss (David Dencik). Rounding out Mary’s family is Ewen Leslie’s Pyke, a doormat whose desire for the appearance of a happy family only perpetuates bad behavior. Take the gracefully loaded scene when Mary wants money to pick up Puss to bring him back home for dinner. Mary wanders into the kitchen, criticizes her mother’s cooking after having begged her to hold the dinner in the first place. Then she asks her father for money for the two taxi rides, and Julia understandably scoffs. Tellingly, Pyke stays out of it, faced away from the two women, refusing to meet Julia’s gaze, which would demand an active decision to side with one or the other. He just stands there as Mary pulls out his wallet, removes some bills, and slips it back in. Thus Mary gets what she wants, she gets it over Julia’s objection, and the issue of Mary’s over-rebellion against her mother continues, in part because Pyke is too cowardly to disrupt the pretend-polite atmosphere. On the one hand, at least he’s not a vicious bastard like so many other men in this world, but on the other his passivity is contributing damage of its own. I’m guessing he isn’t as even-keeled about Julia leaving him for a woman as he lets on. He just doesn’t want to disturb the waters.

Alice Englert is the real surprise, though, as a more naturalistic Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees type, a jaded teen coming to discover how little she really understands. She’s frustratingly prickly, but even that can be charming, as Robin discovers. “I believe we share a gene pool,” she says, sitting down to meet her biological mother for the first time. As Robin tells her, “You’re so alive.” Mary warns Robin that she’ll have to leave early but doesn’t; it was a defense mechanism. So is her language. She has no filter and talks constantly and sounds more worldly than she is in that way teenagers affect, all to protect herself. She tries to head off the pain of disapproval by predicting it. “It’s okay, I can take it.” That’s partly because one of the only things she knew of Robin before meeting is that she’s a cop. She expected someone stricter. But it’s also because she fears being rejected again.

That’s a callous way to put it, but Top Of The Lake is callous territory. China Girl devises this ingenious five-person family like a spiderweb to trap touchy subjects. The first and biggest is what it means—to Robin, to Mary, to Julia—that Robin gave birth to Mary. What claim to motherhood does the biological mother have, and what role does she have to play in her daughter’s life? Robin is haunted by the phantom figure of the baby she gave up for adoption, visualized in creepy, chintzy animation of glowing blue-green silhouettes of a toddler toddling and a woman minding a baby as the real Robin lies there restless. Mary’s conception of Robin is largely projection. She imagines her as a reaction against what she finds so irritating about Julia, the woman who raised her. Naturally, Julia goes into defensive mode. She doesn’t think Robin’s nine months and two days are a patch on the 17 years she spent raising a girl who hates her. The subject is so foregrounded that I doubt many in the audience are as slow as Robin and gay medical examiner Ray to realize why China Girl’s DNA doesn’t match that of the fetus she was carrying. But it doesn’t take Robin too long to realize she was a surrogate.

For now the series is mostly asking questions, but I think it’s clear Mary’s behavior is based at least as much on Julia and Pyke’s upper middle class parenting as on any sense of abandonment she feels by Robin. Maybe Julia and Pyke are trying to give Mary the space to fail and learn from her mistakes, maybe they’re afraid of pushing too hard and permanently ruining their relationship, maybe they’re easy on her precisely because Mary feels abandoned by her biomom, but whatever the case, they’ve failed, they’re failing, and every day their inability to command any discipline in their daughter sends her deeper into the arms of a manipulative creep who will fill that gap for them.

Top Of The Lake stands apart from the pack for its dangerous subjectivity. This isn’t about documentary realism. It’s about women’s experience of a society run by men, perpetuated by toxic ideas about gender that ripple through a peer group and echo through generations. The iron essentialism and jagged cutting struck me in 2013 as keeping this backwoods detective story both simplistic and messy, if still a miniseries of rare primal power. Now I admire something this unafraid to risk. Something this rocky and defensive. And I wonder if anything on television has come closer to capturing an age of crude opposition.

Stray observations:

  • Top Of The Lake: China Girl is written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. “Chapter 1” is directed by Campion as well and “Chapter 2” by Ariel Kleiman.
  • The miniseries premiered at Cannes to a few serious raves, some comparing the series favorably to the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, which also screened there, and which even then was a radical landmark. So I was a little surprised by the CBS procedural opening, in which the criminals dispose of a parcel of luggage with hair. Luckily the rest is more sophisticated.
  • Puss’ first English lesson of the series: “No one ever gives away power. Power has to be taken.”
  • Robin has a letter from Mary from years ago that she never responded to. In it, Mary writes, “Thank you for having me.”
  • In their first scene together, Mary says to Julia, “It’s not natural, because you are a lezzo and a woman of shallow discrimination, so you may want to fuck me, too.” That’s the starting point. It goes downhill from there.
  • Interesting that the first thing that gets Pyke to react is the revelation that Puss is older. That’s what really incites his protective instinct, a competitor.
  • “I hate feminism, mum.” Julia says to Pyke but really to everyone, “See what we’ve raised.” Mary’s position is just the opposite of whatever Julia says. It’s not substantial. “I like wearing makeup. Everyone at school does.” Julia cocks her head and asks with maximum brutality, “What about equal pay, Mary?” She hits her target, but Mary finds a way to dodge. “What equal pay? I don’t work. I think it’s for older people, 35 and plus.”
  • I love the moment when Mary is dancing alone in the living room and Julia comes over to her to talk. Mary tries to get her mother up on her feet, Julia tries to get Mary to sit still for a moment. Both of them are trying to meet on the same level, but neither can compromise, and it ends with a crash.
  • Gwendoline Christie plays Robin’s partner, an eager recruit named Miranda who it turns out is pregnant. Robin chastises her for smoking but lets her have space.
  • I’m already fuming about Al Parker. He wants to have a sit-down to hammer out what happened, I guess? He’s acting like he’s the one with the high ground, like she shot him for no reason and he’s going to be magnanimous about it. Robin understandably wants nothing to do with him, but in a desperate moment agrees to the sit-down in exchange for the China Girl case.
  • Best part about the wedding flashback: Tui and Tui’s child! Maybe there are happy endings.
  • As the party dismantles the wedding, Robin’s girlfriends tell her, “It’s okay. We hate our boyfriends, too.”
  • In a meeting with the homicide guys, Robin asks if they can turn the screen on. “Mmhmm,” says Stally as he slides her the remote. He doesn’t seem to mean anything by it. It’s like he only half-listened to her in the first place.
  • The other salient point about that scene is how the guys talk about generalities of the systems that would lead China Girl and other like her to such a fate, and Robin talks about the hypothetical specifics of this one woman’s story.
  • One of the prostitutes says that Puss hurts them sometimes.
  • Miranda mischievously asks, “Have you ever thought about being an escort?” Robin’s curt, then intrigued: “No. Have you?” “I’ve thought about it, because the money’s so good, but the work…” “What?” “A bit bleak.”
  • Julia’s stance on motherhood: “You withheld from her. Mothers don’t do that. They reassure their children. That’s what they do.” So her style of parenting is indeed a reaction against what she sees as the failure of Robin’s parenting. Julia gives Mary so much rope because Robin gave so little.
  • Every line out of Mary’s mouth at the meeting with Robin is a treasure, whether heart-breaking, funny, or withering: “She’s a new lesbian and sort of political so it’s bonding for her and Isadore to be outraged together.”
  • Mary tells Robin, “I know why you didn’t contact me…You know I do. It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay for you, but it is okay for me. I’ll wear his genes better than he did. I’ll even kill him for you if you like. Born to revenge. My daddy was a rapist. Then I shot him and he was dead…I like you.”
  • Robin tells Mary the whole story, well, basically. “Yes, I was raped, and you should know that it wasn’t one perpetrator, okay? There were three.” Mary takes a moment and says, “Mom and dads.” She makes Robin laugh.