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‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ Serves a Stunning Mystery

The moody drama returns with a new mystery and compelling performances from both Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman. 

I can’t imagine what Top of the Lake would look like if it was filmed in America. In today’s landscape of reboots and re-imaginings, I’m thankful that people have left Jane Campion’s moody and unnerving series alone. The positive thing about the Golden Age of Television is that writers and directors are afforded more time if they want to expand on their original work, and Top of the Lake: China Girl is a welcome continuation of the series.

Elisabeth Moss returns as senior constable Robin Griffin, and even though she uncovered a child pedophile ring, it feels like people don’t take her seriously. In her first scene of these episodes, a group of men fail to hide their fit of giggles as she goes through a routine training. There’s something quite reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in the way that men look at Robin. Starling was a rookie cop and the sole woman in a lot of scenes (remember that elevator scene?), but Robin is an established detective. You constantly wonder what men are thinking as they look at women in China Girl (both seasons actually). Most of the time, you don’t want them to tell you.

After the debacle with Al Parker (who returns in Episode 3 when there’s an inquiry about what happened in the first season finale), Robin takes on the case of a young woman found in a suitcase that washes up on the shore. Her face is so brutally bashed that they can’t even ID her or determine her race. They call her “China girl” because “of the texture of her hair,” and things get more complicated when they discover that she’s pregnant.

Motherhood is the strongest and most prevalent theme through this season. Not only was the victim of this season carrying a child, but Robin decides to locate the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager. China Girl spends a careful amount of time showing how women think about being a mother. Robin’s daughter, Mary (played with a electric eagerness by Alice Elgert), is about to turn 18, but she’s acting out at home because her parents, Julia and Pyke (Kidman and Ewen Leslie), have separated. Mary lashes out at Julia at every turn (because she “turned into a lesbian”), and Julia is continually vocal about how her daughter has changed.

(Photo: BBC/SundanceTV)

The first season felt claustrophobic and toxic because of the town of Laketop, but China Girl opens up the action and allows the characters to get lost in dark corners of Sydney. A lot of the action takes places in and around a brothel (it’s legal in some parts of Australia), and the city feels like a welcome change from the creepy Laketop. There’s a lot to unpack in each episode, and the layers aren’t always pulled back to the viewer immediately. You will wonder what every look means or every strange exchange of dialogue could lead to.

Moss is having a hell of a year. With this and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, she really serves us a one-two punch. She has total control of Robin Griffin, and you can easily tell that Campion has allowed her to have free reign to make this character hers. Kidman, with a frizzy grey wig and birthmarks on her face, makes her scenes whiz by. It’s interesting to watch her scenes in this series when her last Oscar-nominated performance was for also playing an Austrailian mother who adopted someone who needed help. This time, however, she’s struggling to rebuild the bond between her and her daughter.

China Girl is a slow burn mystery. These characters have returned but they don’t give you an easy answer or solution. It’s moody, dark, and quite sad at times, but engrossing. These women are dynamite.