I loved the first season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. We described it here as “A Winter’s Bone meets Twin Peaks version of The Killing.” It was a weird, atmospheric slow-burn murder mystery, and while it wasn’t the most accessible show, it was hard not to appreciate it if only for the beautiful cinematography, Elizabeth Moss’ acting, and a finely crafted story.
The good news about Top of the Lake: China Girl is that Elizabeth Moss is still very good, Gwendoline Christie is a joyous treat, and the season itself is less weird and more conventional, which makes it far more accessible. It’s an entertaining six episodes of television — I’d say that it’s far more enjoyable to watch than the first season.
But structurally, it is not good. It’s a goddamn mess. The central murder mystery ends up being something of a McGuffin, subplots trail off into nowhere, and the way that coincidences pile up to serve the plot is next-level absurd. It’s a season of television that needed to be workshopped in the writers’ room for a few more months before being handed over to production. In some ways, the fall off in writing feels similar to the difference between the first and second season of True Detective. Again, I found the second season of True Detective entertaining and occasionally well acted, but it was not good. Likewise, there are some really great scenes in China Girl, but the sum of its parts falls on its face in the end.
There are going to be some minor spoilers here (not for the ending or anything) because in order to demonstrate how absurd the coincidences are, it’s necessary to lay out the plot. Set four years after the original season, it sees the body of a young Asian sex worker stuffed into a suitcase wash up on a beach. Robin (Moss) ends up investigating the murder. Meanwhile, we learn that Robin also has a daughter of her own, a product of rape when she was very young. That daughter, Mary (Alice Englert) is nearly 18 years old now and she wants to meet her biological mother. Robin and Mary do connect, but we also find out that Mary’s much older, skeezy abusive boyfriend Alexander (David Dencik) is heavily involved in the brothel from which the Asian sex worker was employed. With the aide of Alexander, many of the sex workers are also working as surrogates. Elsewhere, Robin is paired up on the case with a earnest new partner, Miranda (Christie), who also happens to be pregnant, and her pregnancy may or may not have something to do with the sex workers who act as surrogates (I won’t say anything else, lest I spoil it). In other words, the two women Robin connects with in this season also happen to be connected to the murder of a sex worker working as an illegal surrogate.
As a crime story, it’s an outright mess.
However, thematically, China Girl is still a very rich and rewarding series. It’s as though Jane Campion came up with a lot of very good characters, and she knew exactly what she wanted to say about these characters, but she couldn’t figure out how to work it into the crime story. That’s OK if you’re coming into China Girl not expecting the story to work, because the series says a lot about the bond between mothers (both biological and adoptive) and their daughters; about harassment in the workplace; about the power dynamics between men and women; and about the psychological need some have to bear children.
Look: I loved the first five episodes of China Girl. In fact, I was raving about them to friends before I watched the final episode. It’s gripping, moving television, and the relationship between Robin and Mary and Mary and her adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman, who is terrific) vacillates between exhilarating and heartbreaking. It was only after I got so heavily invested in Campion’s murder mystery that I turned on the series after realizing in the finale that it was going to crash and burn. I love to follow clues, but I find it frustrating when they lead to nothing. Indeed, the ingredients exist for a great case here; I wish I’d known in advance that Campion had little intention of serving it. Unfortunately, instead of appreciating how wonderful and well acted so many moments in the series are, I left feeling bitter that Campion had frittered away so much with a muddled, bizarre, and nonsensical finale.