Lisa Tomasetti/See-Saw Films/SundanceTV
September 10, 2017 at 11:39 PM EDT

Top of the Lake

TV Show
Jane Campion
Elisabeth Moss
Current Status
In Season
We gave it a B

“Chapter 1”

My childhood home is on the water, so I grew up watching miscellaneous objects — trash, usually — gather and hover on the surface of our dock’s shallow inlet. Once, I came home from school to find dozens of dead pufferfish floating on the surface, packed so close together it looked like a morbid quilt. It’s been years, and that image still haunts me, no matter how insignificant those pufferfish were to me before their mysterious deaths.

Top of the Lake: China Girl has nothing to do with dead pufferfish, but that’s the image I kept coming back to while watching the premiere, which begins with a man and a woman hauling a suitcase through a seaside cemetery and ultimately throwing it into the water below. You don’t need me to tell you that the titular China Girl is in that suitcase. Her name is Cinnamon, and she’s a sex worker at a brothel. We don’t know how she died; we do know the people who aided in getting rid of her body — or at least, two of the people — work there in some capacity, too. We also know that this suitcase is going to float to the surface, that it’s going to come ashore, and that people are going to wonder about and investigate what happened and suddenly care a lot more about this woman than they ever did when she was alive. Everyone’s more interesting when they’re dead.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s check in on Robin, who could really, really use someone checking in on her because she is not doing great. It’s been a while since Top of the Lake‘s first season aired, so to refresh: Robin went home to New Zealand to visit her sick mom and ended up getting involved in a case involving a pregnant, missing teen. Turns out, police sergeant Al had been pimping out young people — this teen included — for sex. Robin discovers this firsthand — after she shoots Al in the chest while he’s forcing himself on her.

Now, Robin is back in Australia and back at work. She’s been gone a while, and she’s training cadets, who aren’t exactly model students. One keeps giggling and then, during a role-playing exercise with Robin, says the, uh, wrong thing: “What are you going to do, shoot me?” he asks in character. Robin thinks he’s instigating — and maybe he is; he does seem like a little butthead — and reacts accordingly, shouting profanities at him. As her boss later tells her: “You’re supposed to encourage them. In that room today, you were an asshole.” Also during this talk, he asks if they can get together that night so she can explain herself. Maybe his intentions are to genuinely see how she’s doing, but once they get to the restaurant, it goes downhill fast.

He starts by asking her about her love life. “I’m celibate now,” Robin states, coldly. “That’s a waste,” he says, because of course he does. Then he asks her about the shooting, noting that Al says it was “personally motivated.” Robin stands strong, pointing out that there was plenty of evidence pointing to his guilt — including that time he drugged Robin. Revealing that bit of information to her boss is, I imagine, difficult enough, and then he keeps questioning her about it. Did Al try to rape her? How far did it go? What exactly does she mean when she says he forced her head “to his…”? That’s when she gets up and leaves.

Later, we see Robin drinking beer alone by the water. She seems at peace, having the time of her life, because anyone on TV drinking a beer by the water at sunset looks at peace. But no one ever is, especially not Robin. She goes home, where her brother basically kicks her out (also, he has a mullet). She copes by rereading a letter from her daughter, Mary, and drinking more beer until she’s surrounded by so many empty bottles that she looks like she’s crashing in a freshman boy’s dorm room. A few beers later, Robin looks up Mary’s address and heads there. Using Google to find your long-lost family — it’s just like Lion! Except condensed into less than a few minutes!

This brings us to Mary (Alice Englert), who’s currently at that house because she’s bringing her boyfriend (David Dencik) over for dinner to meet the parents. Twist: Her boyfriend was there the night Cinnamon’s body was taken away in the suitcase. He teaches “dirty English” at the brothel, where Mary sometimes accompanies him to help the women learn relevant terms like “bl– job.” But when the women tell him Cinnamon is missing, he’s very chill about it. TV murderers are always so chill, man. The other day I watched a fly die slowly and felt like I should be tried in court.

The problem — or one of many problems — is that Mary and her adoptive mom, Julia, don’t get along. Oh, and Julia is played by NICOLE KIDMAN, who I completely forgot was in this show until she strolled into frame. You know how her American accent was a bit off in Big Little Lies but she looked dreamy as ever? Here, the aging makeup and gray wig make her look like she stepped out of one of the flash-forwards in the Six Feet Under finale…but her accent is perfect! (Recap continues on page 2)

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