Top of the Lake: China Girl
Elisabeth Moss, Ewen Leslie, Nicole Kidman
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 9pm
There are times, during Top of the Lake’s first and second seasons, when I’ve felt like I’m watching a different show than the one depicted in its trailers and reviews. It’s been sold as part of the tradition of grim, crime-based prestige television, but the show has more to offer than that. Top of the Lake is best when it defies the edicts of prestige television, when it’s messy and volatile and doesn’t seem so self-conscious about how it will be perceived.
It was not always this way. In its first season, Top of the Lake needed a few episodes to find its footing. The central mystery involved a young girl who had been raped and become pregnant, and a detective, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), drawn to the case for personal and professional reasons. Set in a small town in New Zealand populated by violent, abusive men, dense forestry, and generous quantities of fog, the show seemed intent on defining itself in unambiguous terms. Expository dialogue, muted colors, and scenic establishing shots were offered in service of one idea: a town full of secrets. For three of its seven episodes (the show was split into seven 50-minute episodes on SundanceTV and six 60-minute episodes on the BBC), the show was procedural in the most literal sense: each piece was calibrated in the interest of plot or mood.
The series found its identity, however, when it burrowed into its wounded and dysfunctional characters and allowed them to act in ways that reflected the distorting effects of trauma. By the end of the first season, the show was a penetrating, psychological drama.
Top of the Lake’s second season, subtitled “China Girl”, not only picks up where the first left off, it improves upon it. The show has moved to Sydney and begins with Cinnamon, a dead prostitute zipped into a suitcase and thrown into the sea, before expanding to include an illegal surrogacy market, a police department corrupted by misogyny, and a family whose bonds have become strained. Robin’s stature has increased after her discovery of a child sex ring facilitated by her former supervisor, but she’s haunted by the aftermath of her decision to shoot him, the sudden collapse of her engagement to an unfaithful fiancée, and a series of miscarriages. Broken-hearted by her unsuccessful attempts to start a family, she now seeks out her daughter, Mary (Alice Englert), who was the product of a rape 17 years prior, and whom Robin gave up for adoption. Mary is dating a narcissist more than two decades her senior, nicknamed “Puss” (David Dencik), who lives above a brothel and teaches fragments of English to Cinnamon’s companions, but mostly amuses himself by giving impromptu lectures informed by his twisted sense of morality. Mary’s adoptive parents, Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman), are worried about Puss’ predatory instincts while in the midst of a bitter divorce.
It this all sounds a little convenient—Robin reconnecting with a daughter whose boyfriend is tangled up in a potential murder—it is. Then again, if you’re here for a tidy, symmetrical plot, you’re in the wrong place. Top of the Lake is best when taken scene by scene, because its considerable strengths lie in acting and directing—this season was directed by Jane Campion and Ariel Kleiman—rather than writing. It’s the rare television show not so much concerned with how its pieces fit as a whole, but with how they interact on a moment-by-moment basis.
For this philosophy to work, you need a lead actor who can give each scene consistent, emotional stakes. She must be able to make incidental gestures or lines of dialogue resonate on a plane above the mechanics of plot. Moss does so with remarkable frequency. Playing the lead in a genre show—comedy, crime, sci-fi—is difficult work, because you’re set up to be overshadowed by supporting characters who need only to develop a single rhythm and pitch. The lead needs to do more. She needs to listen, react, and respond in such a way to give herself and her supporting characters depth. Supporting characters often get to dictate a scene’s orbit (think Kramer from Seinfeld or Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black). The lead has to be compelling as both the center of attention and an accessory.
Moss is brilliant because she can do both at once: She can draw your attention when listening and reacting non-verbally. There are countless examples of this in each episode of China Girl, but one stands out: Robin at an in vitro fertilization clinic, seeking the names of couples who may have turned to illegal surrogacy out of desperation. Like many film and television detectives, Robin prefers the clarity of purpose provided by a criminal investigation to the delicate, emotionally fraught work of personal relationships and self-care. The two are combined, unexpectedly, when Robin is left to question one of the clinic’s doctors.
The doctor, Ian (Kevin MacIsaac), asks Robin her age and presents a 20-sided die to illustrate the long odds some couples face when attempting to conceive. Robin, having experienced three miscarriages and the dissolution of two engagements, is compelled and vulnerable, her private and professional lives colliding in the kind of way she’s taken care to avoid. Flustered, she picks a number while pretending to make notes, but can’t keep her eye off of the die for more than a few seconds as Ian rolls it three times, never landing on her number.
The scene serves two functions: to provide insight into Robin’s investigation and deepen the sense that, despite her reticence toward social and romantic contact, she can’t shake her desire to build a family of her own. None of this is spoken; rather, Moss conveys it through gesture and tone: a brow furrowed beyond indications of professional interest, the nervous edge that creeps into her voice, and the magnetic pull the die—and its metaphorical implications—has on her gaze. She conveys years of frustration and emotional trauma through slight adjustments in her facial expression and the movement of her head and eyes. This is what the show was missing in the first half of its first season; the extra dimension to make a scene resonate beyond a mere transfer of information.
It helps that Moss is joined by a strong supporting cast, many of whom are excellent in varied and vivid ways. There are Mary’s adoptive parents, played by Kidman and Leslie, who are temperamental opposites, with Leslie’s as the rare minimalist performance that’s transparent rather than opaque. Everything—the pain and confusion of his daughter’s rebellion, his wife’s affair with a new lover—is absorbed and indicated as slightly and simply as possible. Kidman, on the other hand, is an agitated, exposed nerve. Each emotion and impulse finds its way to the surface, projected toward the nearest available target. Watching the two attempt to operate as a family unit, even a broken one, has the consistency of oil interacting with water.
Then there’s Gwendoline Christie, who plays Miranda, a new detective assigned to Robin as partner and apprentice. If any person embodies the show’s improvements, its rejection of the stern, self-serious codes of prestige crime drama, it’s Christie. There’s much she does well, but she has an incredible way of moving, as if her body were frozen in the middle of puberty. Her arms and hips swing in the wide, imprecise way of teenagers who’ve yet to adjust to their grown limbs, and her disposition is stuck in a sunny, pre-adolescent climate. Miranda is written primarily as comic relief, but Christie gives her pathos. Even her most child-like moments—laughing during an interrogation, pausing to excitedly pet a dog while on the job—are pitched to emphasize her innocence as much as her incompetence. She’s a rare romantic in a profession of weary cynics.
Campion and Kleiman have found a style that can sustain and accentuate these performances. The procedural stiffness of the show’s first episodes has loosened into a more improvisatory rhythm, which resembles jazz in its tendency to shift from passages of harmony to unexpected dissonances and punctuations. The emotional center of a scene can turn in an instant, from mortal seriousness to comic absurdity, from distress and chaos to comfort and reconciliation. All of which is shot, staged, and scored so as to almost vibrate with feeling and texture. It’s a liberation for the show, which, after leaning on scenery and lighting in a thin approximation of style in its first episodes, has now adopted a wider range of expressive technique: longer takes, expanded gradients of color and light, a score that’s sensuous and suggestive. Campion and Kleiman manage to align the show’s primary concerns with their methods of expression.
Of course, for a show that prioritizes individual scenes and moments over structural coherence, it’s bound to make mistakes. There are times when Top of the Lake feels as if it’s acting on impulse, fulfilling and creating tensions that amount to little more than sensationalism. A similar indelicacy occasionally seizes on the show’s themes. In each of its seasons, Top of the Lake has been forceful in examining and condemning the process by which insecurity leads to systematic oppression, misogyny in particular. The truth and nobility in that pursuit is clear, but in its second season, the show’s depictions of misogyny approach caricature. (By the season’s midpoint, just about every male with a pulse who works adjacent to Robin has made an inappropriate romantic advance.)
The show’s sins, however, are those of artists with perspective and energy: sins of ambition rather than conformity. You’ll find more disciplined shows, but few that examine dysfunction with such bold, insistent style. You’ll find few shows that can pivot from a season of emotional injury and miscommunication into a coda that points toward redemption without seeming insincere. Such is the skill behind Top of the Lake, a show that does what it feels rather than what it’s told. I hope its spirit is contagious.