Sunday, September 10, 2017

REVIEW: 'Top of the Lake: China Girl' - Robin Returns to the City for Her Daughter and a New Case in 'Chapters 1 & 2'

SundanceTV's Top of the Lake: China Girl - Episode 2.01 "Chapters 1 & 2"

Detective Robin Griffin is newly back in Sydney, haunted by the baby she had as a teenager and partnered with an eager new recruit, Miranda. When a body in a suitcase washes up on Bondi Beach, Robin is determined to take the case.

The first season of Top of the Lake was so absolutely mesmerizing. It was easily one of my favorite shows during the year it debuted. Since then, the television medium has changed a little bit. Yes, SundanceTV is still around and successful enough to produce another season of the show. But there is just so much more content out there. Every outlet seems to be bringing their A-game lately. And yet, Top of the Lake can still easily be regarded as one of the best season-long mystery shows of the past decade. However, I'm surprised by how much of the story I've forgotten in the years since it debuted. That's what happens when there is so much content to watch and the desire to watch as much of it as possible. There's only so much storage in one's brain. I would have loved to experience the world of that first season again. But time constraints meant that I only had time to read some plot summaries and some of the posts that came up after the finale aired. It was a nicer refresher of all that happened in that season and the storylines that still resonant now after several years. Top of the Lake: China Girl is determined to tell a completely different story. The setting has changed. The mood has changed. The central crime has changed. Elisabeth Moss is still doing terrific work with a remarkable Australian accent. But it still feels like a part of the same show as well. It's stunning to watch. Things have changed and evolved. But the confidence is still there to tell an entertaining and compelling story that is also very emotionally devastating.

Of course, there are some problematic elements to this new story in the early going as well. They are pretty noticeable and distracting too. It helps if the audience can just accept that they are plot points that occur for conveniency. Some of these issues were apparent in the original season of the show as well. And yet, they were less problematic because of the setting. There is a huge difference between an eery lakeside community and a crowded Australian city. When characters interacted seemingly at random in the previous season, it was believable because the town was small and intimate. The community knew each other. In a city, that can't possibly be true. But Detective Robin Griffin is full of thoughts about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 16. That daughter, Mary, is now an important character in the story. Her purpose is more than just providing Robin with a personal connection so that she doesn't spin out because of her work. Instead, she's in love with a guy, Puss, who seems directly connected to the central crime that Robin is investigating this year. That just seems very improbable. It's a connection that is played very seriously in these opening episodes too. The connections are all around these characters. It's almost a mystery if they'll ever notice them and connect the dots. It's strange and just requires the audience to go along with it completely.

In the beginning, it doesn't seem like there is a whole lot to this central mystery either. The opening scene shows the two people carrying a suitcase to atop a cliff and then pushing it into the ocean where it sinks below. The entire first hour is about the journey that that luggage takes. Robin and her new partner, Miranda, don't even have a body to work with in this case until the second episode. That allows the first hour to be very atmospheric and reintroduce the audience to this world and what concerns will be very important for the main story. It's just teasing the audience with information. It's very effective at doing so. At one point, it seems like the luggage is going to come to the surface at the exact place where Robin is enjoying a cigarette by herself. That would have been another unbelievable twist. At another point, it seems like people are noticing that the girl is missing and are confronting others about it. But it takes the entire first episode for that luggage to be dragged out of the ocean and the depravity within to be revealed. It's a gruesome sight as well. The water was not kind to this body. But the abuse she suffered before she died was traumatic as well. This is the tragic outcome of a tragic life. And now, Robin and Miranda are investigating while it seems inevitable that their personal connections and feelings will corrupt this case at some point.

For Miranda, she's new to the force and very taken aback whenever someone mentions that China Girl - as the medical examiner calls her - was pregnant. She's sickened because she is pregnant as well. In fact, there's an eery parallel because they are at the same stages of pregnancy. No one can notice that Miranda is pregnant. The only person who knows is Robin. That's only because Robin demands an answer. Throughout these opening episodes, Miranda is a different kind of person. She's more upbeat and naive. It's delightful to watch. In fact, it's helpful to Robin when she is woken up by the nightmares she is having. It's silly to see Miranda just playing around in her kitchen with a helmet on and Robin being completely perplexed. Miranda towers over Robin in a way that seems crushing but is actually hilarious. It's a great use of physical space. The show gets a number of great shots out of Gwendoline Christie's height. This world wasn't inherently built for her. And yet, she has adjusted and is just eager to prove herself to her fellow officers. She has a genuine connection to Robin because they are both the subject of gossip from their co-workers. People always think they're funny when they say Miranda actually is a woman. Meanwhile, there's the fear that Robin is quick to pull the trigger on anyone who crosses her. She's still dealing with the stress and trauma of the initial case. She's newly returned to the workforce. But she's also dealing with a civil lawsuit from Al Parker - who got immunity despite his crimes. It's helpful that she has this companion and a case to focus on. But people are constantly telling her that she needs more as well.

It's clear that Robin's mind is traumatized. She's traumatized by the previous case. She's traumatized by the fear of the unknown with her daughter. She's traumatized by her fiancé, Johnno (now played by Mark Leonard Winter instead of Thomas M. Wright), cheating on her on the day of their wedding. All of this has led her to this moment. She's investigating the case and really determined to solve it. She needs the work in order to feel focused and grounded in her life once more. She doesn't want to be at the training academy teaching new officers. Nor does she feel she needs someone following her around to make sure she doesn't do anything illegal. She doesn't feel respected at the precinct. The men are these dominating presences that simply allow her to do things. She pushes back and is seen as aggressive as a result. She's fine with the way she is. But she's clearly struggling as well. Everyone seems to be inquiring about her personal life. But it's ultimately her decision to reach out to her daughter and her adoptive family. That's her choice in order to find something more fulfilling in her life. It carries the overall theme of complicated motherhood throughout these opening episodes. But she has never been a mother before. She clashes with the woman who has been a mother for seventeen years.

That woman is Nicole Kidman's Julia. She's a bit of an abrasive personality. And yet, that makes sense as well because of the life she has lived over the past few years. Again, Julia and Mary are new characters this season. Their dynamic wasn't previously seen in this world. But their story and conflict feels lived in. A lot of it is being told to the audience now. Julia and her husband, Pyke, are parents to Mary but they've gotten a divorce because Julia fell in love with a woman (who is always offscreen). It's a complicated family dynamic because Pyke feels like the more relaxed parent whom Mary can go to for anything she wants. Julia is much harsher and concerned. She doesn't like Puss when they meet. She views him as someone who demeans women in the name of feminism. They get into a huge disagreement which Mary sees as her mother flirting with her older boyfriend. It's a very strange and disarming dynamic. Julia believes there is something mentally wrong with her daughter. She believes she's bipolar or other traits she inherited from her biological parents. But she is still Mary's fiercest advocate. When Julia and Pyke sit down with Robin for the first time, Julia needs to know why Robin hurt her own daughter by not responding to her letter for five years. It was a destructive and formative time for her. It was that way for Robin too. This is the first time she's had the possibility of reaching out. She's not proud of that. But it's still poignant when Mary reaches out to meet. It's a tense and compelling sequence between mother and daughter. It's full of this rich history. It's not clear right away how much Mary knows about Robin. She slowly reveals that she knows a lot but isn't interested in staying for very long. And yet, she does. She stays for an entire milkshake and cigarette. She even offers a chance to hangout again in the future. That meeting will serve as the realization that their paths are crossed in more ways than one. That already seems a little forced though. But the tension of the performances and direction are so compelled that they almost make up for it.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter 1" was written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee and directed by Jane Campion.
  • "Chapter 2" was written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee and directed by Ariel Kleiman.
  • It's very fitting that Robin and Johnno didn't actually get married. They came close which only further reminds the audience of just how twisted that relationship always was. She felt drawn to him because of this community. She even was willing to get married while he was in a holding cell. But it's key in her escape that she is finally forced away to begin her life in Sydney again.
  • Family and relationships appear to be key to this season as well. It's actually refreshing to see so many gay romances referenced too. Of course, none of the gay romances are all that important to the plot. Julia is with another woman now. But her importance to the story is as a mother and ex-wife. Meanwhile, the medical examiner and Robin's brother, the massager, are gay as well but are more important as Robin's friends who are concerned about her.
  • It's weird how it takes Robin and Ray a long time to realize that the baby not sharing the same DNA as China Girl means that she is a surrogate for someone else. That realization seemed pretty clear to me the moment it was revealed in the story. Of course, it also plays as a surprise because of all the hints that China Girl is Cinnamon who has had unprotected sex with Brett.
  • Not quite sure what to make of the group of guy friends who are openly talking about and rating the prostitutes they've been with while in a coffee shop. They close the lids when the waitress comes to the table and that's it. It still seems pretty obvious that everyone else in there probably knows what they are doing. They aren't being subtle at all. But it's more important to set up Brett as a guy who is slightly different than the rest of them and concerned about Cinnamon.
  • Puss is 42 while Mary is 17. But they are in love and want to get married. Julia is very much against it while Pyke and Robin just want to know if Mary is happy. Of course, Robin hasn't met Puss yet. Her opinion may change because of her investigation. It seems clear that Puss knows something about what happened that will prove very crucial to the case. So, will this personal connection help or hurt things for Robin?