And so it came to this. After five weeks (or five hours if you’ve been watching it on the BBC’s iPlayer streaming service) of strangeness, Top Of The Lake: China Girl came to a close. Like any good finale, we were asking ourselves whether there would be a satisfactory conclusion to a series that started – lest we forgot – with the body of a young, Thai prostitute called Cinnamon, bundled into a suitcase and cruelly cast out to sea. Would Cinnamon get some form of justice?
NB: Spoilers inside
We picked up the action straight after the shooting at Silk 41. Robin, still in the sack with Pyke, received a telephone call from Miranda, telling her that the shooter – Brett – had fled. Robin, still drunk and now extremely queasy, took a cab to the scene and was relieved to find that Mary was not the victim on a stretcher being wheeled into an ambulance. No, Brett had fled and had taken Mary as a hostage. Puss had also scarpered.
So this suddenly turned into a hunt for Brett and Mary. Attention switched to Bondi, the last known whereabouts of the shooter, and Adrian, Robin and the team gathered to search the beach. Robin had spent the night in a drunken, emotional state with (the brilliant) Booty, who instantly gave her a should to cry on (he had immediately smelled that she had recently had sex) and a floor to sleep on.
The search on the beach was another classic, Top Of The Lake typically odd scene. At once brilliantly tense and gripping, its conclusion was strange and unsatisfactory. With Miranda wearing civvy beach wear so they could blend in and not cause concern among the throng of sun worshippers (Really? If there was the threat of an armed kidnapper on a beach full of people in the real world, I’m pretty sure the police wouldn’t give a monkey’s about disturbing them – it would have been evacuated in super-quick time), they found a cardboard box on the beach beneath which was Brett, shallow-buried up to his head in the sand. He grabbed his gun and shot Miranda.
We never did get to see what happened to either Brett or, for that matter, Miranda. I would’ve liked some resolution to both of their characters. And there was no tense hostage/kidnapper resolution, either, just a blithe and speedy climax to a storyline that merited more.
As for Mary she walked into Julia and Pyke’s home as if untouched by the whole experience, save for a blood-stained shirt. What had happened to her? Did she incapacitate and bury Brett on the beach? If not, how did she escape?
We were over half way through this finale and there were plenty of questions floating around, not least the whereabouts of the surrogates. It was revealed in episode five that Miranda and Adrian were themselves employing one of them to provide them with their own baby. Now, with Miranda close to death, it was down to Robin to find these surrogates, who had been spirited away (by Puss) and imprisoned in an apartment somewhere.
Throughout this episode we saw Robin go through the emotional mill, and this development of her character was welcome – she had always been emotionally distant, a classical detective in turmoil and extremely introverted and anxious (no wonder if you acknowledge what she had been through in her life) so to see let it all hang out was good to see, even if she was unstable. In fact, I did worry that her development had perhaps stepped over a line of believability and credibility.This instability came to a head when she happened upon Puss (she didn’t find him exactly, she really did just happen across him) chopping vegetables in the back of Cafe Stasi while she and Pyke were hunting for Mary.
This instability came to a head when she happened upon Puss (she didn’t find him exactly, she really did just happen across him chopping vegetables in the back of Cafe Stasi while she and Pyke were hunting for Mary).
In this scene we found out what had happened to Cinnamon. Just like that. In one or two lines. Puss explained, under duress, that Cinnamon was becoming increasingly unstable and he had tried to talk to her. But she had hung herself and it was he and Dang who had dispatched with the body. Even though this was the main narrative thrust of the series – what had happened to China Girl – there was no fanfare or real build up to the revelation of her fate. There had been no murder or mystery.
I’m ok with that, but what I could have done with was more meat on this particular bone – more lead-up, more insight into why Cinnamon had taken her own life, even though we had obviously received glimpses of what life as a surrogate within the walls of Silk 41 was like. But it wasn’t enough to build emotional weight or context – many of the sex workers at Silk 41 seemed relatively content, or as content as they could be in a job and in a workplace like that. So, with Cinnamon, I thought she deserved more.
Robin and Adrian had found the apartment where the surrogates were being kept and watched a video – with other hopeful parents who were relying on the surrogates – where Puss explained to them he was taking them out of the country. It was the film he had inexplicably made in episode five.
That left a frantic dash to the airport for Robin to try and head off Puss and the sex workers, as well as stop Mary from leaving the country.
In the end, Mary ditched Puss, but he had escaped with the surrogates to who-knows-where, confirming his status as a grade A scumbag, and nothing more than a human sex trafficker. For Mary, she ended up back at home – the home of Julia and Pyke, who were now trying to patch things up (again, really? Just like that?). And didn’t Julia enjoy telling Mary about her new relationship with her daughter…
We left poor Robin, alone in her spartan apartment, watching a video of Mary on her laptop when she was a child. Most crime dramas provide redemption for their main protagonists, but here the redemption seemed to be with Julia and Pyke. Through their experiences, their family unit looked as though it was repairing. For Robin, she seemed to be back where she started – alone, pining after her birth daughter. It looked as though for all the world that she might have truly found her, and some sort of connection with Pyke, but it obviously wasn’t to be. Although, there was a knock on the door at the end of the episode and we didn’t get to see who it was – was it Pyke? Mary? Or perhaps even a recovered Miranda?
Still questions at the end of another uneven episode. Like the rest of the series it was intriguing and watchable, with great acting, but once again the inconsistencies, procedural discrepancies and odd jumps in the narrative made this a frustrating overall experience.
On top of all that Top Of The Lake: China Girl really fell down on characterisation. As you would expect from someone as talented as Jane Campion, the series explored some serious subjects – sexism, misogyny in the workplace, sex and objectification, the emotional and physical aspects of motherhood, the power of motherhood – but some of the characters were so cartoonish (from the boorish copper, Sizzla, to Julia and her New Age partner, to even Miranda, Mary and Puss themselves) it was hard to take them and what they were trying to say seriously. They often lapsed into hyper-real pastiche and were not only hard to like, but detrimental to the overall themes and narrative drive.
The series also garnered criticism from reviewers for being horrible to men, but I disagreed with this. Puss was a dick, for sure, but characters like Adrian and Pyke were likable and believable. In the end though, from an opening series that was so good to a follow up so flawed and messy (it really needed a much tighter focus to say the things it wanted to say and provide a satisfying, gritty murder mystery), you have to say Top Of The Lake: China Girl was a well-acted, good-looking, sometimes good, sometimes barmy disappointment.
For our episode one review, go here
For our episode two review, go here
For our episodes three and four review, go here
For our episode five review, go here