Top of the Lake: China Girl premiere recap: 'Chapter 1'/'Chapter 2'
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)
Mom and Dad (Ewen Leslie) are both worried about this guy, partly because he’s a lot older than their 17-year-old daughter. “It’s not the old guys that you need to worry about,” Mary assures them. “It’s the young boys who are raised on porn who only want anal.” She says it so matter-of-factly that I’ve never trusted anyone more, even knowing that Puss — oh, have we not mentioned that his name is Puss? — is bad, bad news.
This doesn’t help convince her parents. Her mom is stubborn in her dislike for Puss; when Mary says she’s going to go pick him up for dinner, Julia is aghast that he can’t just call himself a taxi. Ah, Julia. One day, you’ll look back longingly on this time when you were judging him for needing a ride.
Puss doesn’t make the greatest case for himself during dinner itself: He and Julia get into arguments about feminism that include him talking about boobs getting saggy at a certain age and her shooting back that penises do too. When he leaves the table, Mary accuses her mom of flirting with him. “You are facing up to him, asking pointless questions, going on how about you went to university,” she snarls. Is this how you flirt? Will I get more guys if I talk to them about how I got an A– one time on an astronomy paper in college?
While mom and daughter are bickering, Puss is asking Mary’s dad for her hand in marriage. Ha ha! This does not go well. Mary and Puss end up going to bed while Julia goes on about how Mary should go to the hospital because she could be “ill.” “I honestly think she would kill me if I got in her way,” she confesses. Julia’s already proven herself to be a bit melodramatic — let’s not forget the taxi thing — but I’m kind of with her on this one. Mary’s no joke.
And she likely gets it from her birth mother, who told her boss earlier, “I don’t quit.” After spying on Mary’s house, Robin goes to bed and dreams of glowing, trippy children surrounding her. When she opens her eyes to see they’re not there, she howls in agony. It goes on long enough and is loud enough to cause her neighbor, Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) to stop by and see what’s up. What a nice neighbor! That is not Robin’s initial response, because Miranda also works with her and this is now pretty awkward, but she seems to warm up a bit after Miranda invites her to tea. Once at her apartment, Miranda puts on a helmet and does a wacky Rocket Man routine that I’m not going to pretend to understand but that I adore.
The next day, the police station gets an alert: a suitcase with long, black hair coming out of it has washed up on shore. Robin wants the case, so she and Miranda head to the beach to check it out. Once there, she opens the suitcase, looks inside, and says, “Hello, darling. You want to tell me what you saw?”
That brings us to the end of the first hour. Before we close the suitcase back up, though, there’s one scene in this episode that stands apart from the others: A group of men — or, rather, “men” — are sitting in a restaurant talking about the various sex workers they’ve encountered and giving them letter grades. I try to limit the amount of time I spend listening to men saying gross things about women, but the scene is important. These dudes are talking about Cinnamon. Specifically, Brett — a twentysomething with a boyish face and bashful smile, the closest thing to a protagonist (as of now) in this crew — is talking about how they spend their time together.
“She kisses me, she brushes my hair, parts it in a different way, she slaps my hand when I try to do stuff she doesn’t like,” he says, practically glowing. “Sometimes she makes me get her dumplings.” Another guy at the table, who kind of looks like T.J. Miller and who called Brett a “fetus face” just a few moments before, is all, “You know you can park your dick in there, right?” Leave Brett alone, T.J. (Please don’t let Brett be bad.) Then! T.J. says he tried to see her Sunday, but she wasn’t there. The last time Brett saw her was Friday. He’s shocked she’s gone. “She wouldn’t go anywhere without telling me first,” he insists, clearly trying to convince himself he’s right, clearly forgetting that he paid her to have this relationship with him, clearly oblivious to the fact that she’s dead in a piece of baggage.
So, yeah, Brett has a lot to learn about Cinnamon. What I’m more interested in, though, is: What are we going to find out about Cinnamon from him (…besides her dumpling order)? (Recap continues on page 3)
Last we saw of Robin, she was peeping into a suitcase and trying to talk to a dead woman. Rewind four weeks, and she’s getting ready for her wedding to Johnno. Too bad Johnno is off on his weed farm with a woman who is not Robin and who is not wearing any pants. Yikes.
Johnno and this woman are cuddly and flirty and obviously have A Thing, though he’s also totally honest with her: “I’m getting married,” he smiles to her. She seems to be fine with this. He seems to be fine with this. Guess who’s not fine with this?
Long story short, Johnno — and the formerly pants-less woman — get arrested with trash bags of weed (or leaf, as Australians seem to call it) on them. They’re put in jail, where Robin comes to visit so she and Johnno can still get married. She’s pissed, yeah, but she is determined as hell to get those vows out of the way. Then, as the officiant is in the middle of performing an impromptu jail ceremony, Robin notices the other woman, who Johnno tries to say is just a rando. It doesn’t work. Robin’s out.
Back to the present: Robin is talking to the morgue guy, Ray, about the cause of death for China Girl (we know her name is Cinnamon, but they still don’t, so I’m going to follow their lead and keep calling her China Girl until they figure it out). Ray thinks it could be strangulation, though he’s not totally sure. And…she was about 17 weeks pregnant with a baby boy. They think this will help them identify the father until Ray discovers the fetus doesn’t even have his mother’s DNA. As Robin eventually figures out, China Girl was a surrogate.
Robin guesses this woman was a sex worker, so she and Miranda start to contact the local brothels to see if anyone’s gone missing. Brett is doing his own detective work, too. After finding out about the dead woman found in the suitcase, he heads straight to the brothel — with dumplings, of course — in hopes of finding Cinnamon there. The lead woman at the brothel (a.k.a. the bottom girl, as Google just taught me) (also a.k.a. the person who helped dump Cinnamon’s body into the water), Dang, directs Brett to a room where she says Cinnamon is waiting. Surprise — she’s not there. For some reason, Brett still showers in preparation when he gets to the room even after realizing this is not the woman he’s looking for; he then engages in some awkward foreplay with her in a scene that basically has no point.
He does end up getting some information once he leaves the room and runs back into Dang. He’s trying to tell her his relationship with Cinnamon was different. She blew him without a condom, he explains. Apparently, that is the same as saying, “I love you let’s be together forever” in sweet Brett’s eyes. Dang rolls her eyes at him — “And then after, she said, ‘I don’t normally do that,’ yeah?” — and reveals that Cinnamon owes a lot of money. Seems like a risky move, Dang… (Recap continues on page 4)
At one point, Morgue Ray lovingly lectures Robin about taking care of herself and seeking comfort in loved ones. “I’m all alone, okay?” she snaps back. “Believe it or not, I’m happy.” A few scenes later, Robin is writing Mary a card and delivering it to her house. Morgue Ray got through to her!
Mary’s parents, Pyke and Julia, reach out to Robin and invite her to coffee. There, they say they haven’t told Mary yet that Robin is reaching out. They’re trying to protect her, an especially understandable move given the story they tell Robin: When Mary was 12 (five years ago), she wrote Robin a letter, hoping to start a correspondence. Robin never responded, causing Mary to, evidently, briefly adopt an American accent for a short time and to, more importantly, obsess over what she did wrong to make her birth mother not want to write back. Pyke seems pretty forgiving of Robin for this, while Julia is still furious. She also keeps talking about how messed up Mary is, seeming to imply that this is Robin’s fault. Julia says something about Mary being violent, making me wonder if there is some big secret and all this mother-daughter drama will turn out to be more than just a chance for Nicole Kidman to beautifully fume.
Julia quickly ditches to go hang with her girlfriend, while Pyke encourages Robin to meet Mary. She’s hesitant, but he thinks it would be good, so she agrees.
“I believe we share a gene pool,” Mary starts when she sits down at a restaurant table with Robin, thus kicking off one of the best scenes of the new season so far. All they do is sit and talk, but Mary’s blunt detachment is gripping in a way that’s both off-putting and hypnotizing. “You probably thought about aborting me, but you didn’t, so…yay,” she says flatly at one point. She defends Puss and gets up to leave right after, until she sees her strawberry milkshake arrive and decides to stay and drink it. What I like about this scene is how willing it is to be uncomfortable in a way that’s usually reserved for dark comedies: Mary’s eccentricity and Robin’s stiff anxiety play well with each other, creating a moment that seems to actually reflect how a long-awaited meeting between a mother and daughter who’ve never met would go down. It gets sappy at some points — like when Robin tells Mary she thinks she’s amazing purely because she’s alive — but even that sentiment seems real and plausible, a result of repressing so much for so long.
This candor continues when they talk about how Mary’s birth father raped Robin, a conversation that leads them to go outside to share a smoke. Robin admits she was raped by three men, not just one. She looks straight at Mary as she says it, but with a gentleness that shows she would be a wonderful mother if Mary would let her.
Mary responds with a joke — “mom and dads” — and then asks if they should take a photo. This is where the scene takes a turn. It’s a weird transition, which leads to another weird transition: As they say goodbye, Robin says to call if she’s ever in trouble. Mary responds that she’s going to take some Asian friends to the beach to teach them how to swim. “I can swim,” Robin butts in. It feels forced, like a puzzle the writers were trying to figure out before they gave up and just smushed two pieces together.
They got the result they needed, though: Robin’s going to go to the beach with the women from the brothel where Cinnamon worked for what is surely going to be a super fun, super chill day. Nothing like a murder mystery to aid mother-daughter bonding!