Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl” is — among a seemingly infinite array of other things — a story about second chances. And while that theme is beautifully personified by any number of different characters during this six-hour miniseries, there’s a certain irony to the fact that this epic detective drama is built upon a foundation of redemption and regret. After all, Campion got it right the first time.
Premiering at Sundance in 2013 and airing on SundanceTV later that year, “Top of the Lake” was notable for being one of the first examples of a major filmmaker realizing the full potential of the “peak TV” era. It was also notable for being a staggering piece of long-form fiction, the Palme d’Or-winning director of “The Piano” returning to her native land of New Zealand for a violently beautiful mystery show that flipped the genre on its ass with savage grace. Fueled by an elemental female energy and forged by centuries of systemic oppression, the bracingly entertaining saga plunged deep enough to earn the implications of its title and then some.
“Top of the Lake: China Girl” somehow manages to dive even deeper. It’s richer. Wider. Darker. Campion, along with co-director Ariel Kleiman and co-writer Gerard Lee, has crafted a monumental latticework of emotional threads, seamlessly weaving together dozens of different character into an intimate epic that — over the course of six hour-long episodes that fly by in a flash — touches upon everything from sex work and surrogacy to patriarchy in the digital age and the instinctive push towards parenthood. But most of all, this extraordinary work of character-driven crime fiction is a story about bodies, and the stories that bodies tell us.
Less of a second season than it is a sequel, “China Girl” begins and ends with one body in particular. It belongs to a Thai prostitute named Cinnamon, who’s stuffed into a suitcase and hurled into the dark waters of Sydney’s Bondi Beach. When the luggage washes ashore, streaks of Cinnamon’s fine black hair sticking through a crack in the plastic, detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is quick to claim the case. Freshly returned from the remote glades of New Zealand and understandably still traumatized by the events of the first series four years earlier (a familiarity with which is sometimes crucial to understanding these new episodes), Robin has gone full Clarice Starling. She’s cut her hair, buried her pain, and tried to move on, but the process is already hitting a few bumps in the road.
For one thing, Robin is looking to exhume a new part of her past, as she’s moved in with her estranged half-brother and decided to reconnect with the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years prior. For another, the misogyny she suffered in Laketop has followed her into the Sydney police force, where — the show rather subtly observes — the male agents treat their female counterparts in much the same way as the proprietors of Cinnamon’s brothel treat their working girls (important note: prostitution is legal in Australia, but largely unregulated).
And Robin is about to experience that parallel firsthand, not only because the trail will take her into the bowels of the country’s sex industry, but also because her daughter’s 42-year-old boyfriend — an enigmatic East German ex-pat named Puss (David Dencick, looking and sounding like a dead ringer for Tommy Wiseau) — happens to own the building that houses Cinnamon’s bordello. Mary (Alice Englert) knows where Puss lives, and she’s fine with it; Mary’s adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and Ewen Leslie) most definitely do not, but they have plenty of other reasons not to like the guy. They also have problems of their own, the main one being that they’re in the process of getting a divorce.
Got all that? Well, there’s more, but not so much more that the various subplots ever become confused or overcomplicated; every new character who’s added to this story ultimately helps make the whole thing more cohesive, no matter how incidental they may first appear to be. The best example of this undeniably comes in the form of Robin’s unwanted constable, Miranda (“Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie). Initially introduced as a source of comic relief — a fawning fan who worships Robin for cracking the Laketop pedophile ring in the previous season — Miranda slowly blooms into one of the show’s richest figures, a complex and wholly believable woman whose long, pregnant body becomes one of the show’s most fascinating locations.
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