[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Top of the Lake: China Girl” Episode 6, “The Battle of the Mothers.”]
“Top of the Lake: China Girl” didn’t need to exist, but the very fact that Jane Campion brought these characters back to TV made it destined for a murky ending. After all, that odd sense of closure and the lingering dread at the ramifications of a crime was what made the first set of episodes so haunting. The season-closing reveal of Sergeant Al Parker’s involvement in a child sex ring turned “Top of the Lake” from a dark meditation on rural crime to a pitch-black tale of human despair.
“Top of the Lake” is all about that elusive sense of finality, the frustration with not being able to leave behind the most seismic events in your life. So what would “Top of the Lake: China Girl” offer as a follow-up? Unsurprisingly, the second series culminated in more devastation, but rounded those late developments out with a resigned sense of fate that this show feeds on.
In “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” the ending was the beginning. In the very first conversation we see on-screen between Robin and Miranda, the subject quickly turns to events of that previous finale. Even if Al never reappeared for the fiery confrontation in Episode 3, the casual mention that he essentially skirted justice for his crimes was the first indication that “China Girl” was headed for a cyclical resolution. (David Wenham wheeling in like a Bond villain was an odd visual change of pace, but right in line with the heightened surreality that permeated the rest of “China Girl.”)
The truth behind the newest dead body wasn’t revealed with an earth-shattering drop, but a glancing blow. The biggest mysteries of “Top of the Lake” are about human nature, not about any one murder motivation. There will always be another crime. Solve the next one and the process of holding that culpable party accountable won’t erase the idea that disgusting, entitled trolls still lurk below the surface of the internet and that a bevy of workplace harassers still think that “a yes-no” is an acceptable thing worthy of perpetuating.
Sally Bongers/See-Saw Films/Sundance
It also gets at the specific cycle of grief that Robin can’t escape from. As she leaves the hospital where Miranda lies in a coma, she gets one final chance to rage against the cycle of danger her job (her vehicle for escaping the tragedies of her own past) have trapped her inside. Like her former boss surprisingly being at the center of the last round of horrific crimes, Robin as a character becomes an unwitting magnet for trauma. In her pursuit of justice and understanding and redemption, her detective duties put her and those alongside her in harm’s way. It’s a peril that comes with the job that only feels more magnified by how close these parallel storylines of surrogacy, crime, and motherhood run side by side.
Whether it’s the physical consequences visited on Miranda or the psychological ones that haunt Julia and Pyke, there’s a certain sense of twisted poetry in how neither of those are fulfilling ends either. One character lies in bed strapped to a breathing apparatus, while the other two are stuck in a prolonged goodbye as the daughter they used to know is still slowly slipping away. Even though Mary returns home, all three of her parents are still forced to wrestle with the grief they feel about the way her dwindling teenage years have transpired.
“China Girl” unfolded much like Miranda describes her first encounter with her superior officer lover: “Awkward and fumbling, but it was beautiful.” Navigating the endgame of Puss’ scheme (and justifying Miranda’s place in it) is a twisting, logical journey that six hours might not have been enough to pursue. But watching the row of surrogates descend down the escalator, realizing that they’re destined to be ushered out of the country as pawns in a sinister plot, is part of the odd, textbook blend of tragedy, serenity, and fleeting grace that the finale saw “Top of the Lake” returning to.
The series closes with a moment that finds Robin finally affording herself a smile, allowing herself to connect to a daughter that she is still learning how to love. Watching home videos on a DVD, it’s another artifact that she must borrow from Mary’s adopted family. That final knock on the door, tantalizingly left unexplained, could very well be the confounding, comforting presence of Pyke. But it could be the neon-outlined hallucinations of her unborn children, the ghosts of the childhoods she’ll never get a chance to help shape. There’s a reason “Top of the Lake” came back. Like life, it never really ends, it just leaves off after a while.
“Top of the Lake: China Girl” is now available to stream in its entirety at sundance.tv.