Top of the Lake: China Girl Recap: The Destiny of Man

Top of the Lake

Chapter 1
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

When last we saw Detective Robin Griffin, things were rather depressing. While investigating the sexual abuse of a child in her native New Zealand (and taking care of her dying mother), she discovered that Al Parker, the station boss who roofied her and may have raped her, was also the mastermind behind a pedophilia ring, and promptly shot him. As we open on Top of the Lake: China Girl, things are … well, still pretty depressing.

Just in case you mistakenly thought anything good had come out of the last season, we learn that Al not only survived the shooting but turned state’s witness, got immunity, and filed a civil suit against Robin. Now, after an engagement to Johnno that was called off the day of the wedding, Robin has finally returned to work as a detective in Australia after a five-year absence. And if you think that cracking a major case would earn her any respect from the deeply sexist boy’s club that is the Sydney police, you would be wrong about that as well.

Robin’s first day back on the job involves showing recruits how to properly restrain a suspect. Both the rookies and the higher-ups titter disrespectfully through her instructions, like they’re all in on a joke — and the joke is her. It’s hard to tell if what’s funny here is simply a woman being in charge, or the fact that she put a bullet in the last suspect she confronted, but either way, they’re all about one step removed from laughing in her face. She singles out a particularly smirky recruit and forces him to role-play as the suspect while she demonstrates the technique.

Because this budding authority figure is the same sort of shithead who probably used to bully people in high school and then hand-wave that he was just kidding, it doesn’t take long before Smirky McPowertrip is yelling, “Are you gonna shoot me?” and insisting it was all a part of the game. This triggers a long stream of profanity from Robin, and while well-deserved, it would be more satisfying if it weren’t so obviously post-traumatic. Despite insisting over and over that she’s fine, that all she needs is work, you can’t really choose to leave your profound psychological damage at the front desk when you punch in. And so the damage comes with Robin, everywhere she goes.

She’s partnered with a constable named Miranda Hilmarsson, a.k.a. the fantastic Gwendoline Christie, a.k.a. Brienne on Game of Thrones. “That is an actual woman, by the way,” another asshole detective laughs as Hilmarsson walks by, which is almost identical to how the warrior Brienne is treated by men on Christie’s other show. You can learn a lot about men based on the way they treat women who deviate from narrow ideas of womanhood. Women who are too strong, too big, too loud, who take up too much space, who do not cater sufficiently to the boners of these paunchy, insecure solipsists are not just different but broken. The dark implication coursing through the men’s laughter is that women like Hilmarsson are not serving their purpose, which is to be pretty and small, or at least to make yourself as small as you can.

Elsewhere, two people throw a mint-green suitcase containing a body off a cliff into the ocean, which floats for much of the episode like a terrifying message in a bottle, waiting to be read. Since these people work for a brothel, all signs point to this being a murdered sex worker, just in case you want to know the particular flavor of depravity that will infuse the mystery of this season.

We learn more about the (legal) brothel where she worked through a group of johns who sit around at a café all day. They look like they’re about to start a D&D campaign, but instead spend their free time on some sort of erotic Yelp site, giving sex-worker performance reviews. One of them complains about receiving “one-dimensional oral,” and while I’m not sure you want to advertise that your penis exists on a plane that has neither height nor depth nor width, I’m not here to argue with him.

Back in Robin’s no good, horrible, very bad life, her brother throws her out of his apartment, she keeps waking up screaming during the night, and she finds herself haunted by the memory of the daughter she gave up for adoption, who was of course conceived through a gang rape. We get our first glimpse of that daughter — a 17-year-old named Mary — as she meets up outside her prep school with her skeezy 40-something boyfriend Alexander, who looks like a middle-aged Tim Riggins with a vaguely European accent. They share a cigarette on their way back to his apartment, which just so happens to be in the same building as the brothel.

Mary lies around on the couch as Alexander, a former junior professor and great humanitarian that he is, teaches the half-naked immigrant sex workers English synonyms for various acts, and waves away their concerns about a woman called Cinnamon who suddenly disappeared. He eventually shoos them all away, but not before sharing a pithy little proverb that I assume was his yearbook quote: “No one ever gives away power. Power has to be taken.”

Mary’s adoptive parents, Julia and Pyke, are in the midst of a divorce, and so feckless and permissive that they seem to have no idea what a boundary is, let alone how to enforce one. After a modicum of browbeating, they invite Alexander to dinner, and have virtually no reaction when their daughter fishes $50 out of their wallets and hectors them about the poor quality of the lettuce they plan to serve the knock-off Humbert Humbert en route to their house.

Over wine and candles, they learn all about the failed academic career of the man who has been grooming their daughter, whose doctoral thesis explored how “the destiny of man is to enslave women.” But don’t worry, folks, this subversive intellectual luminary is actually on the side of women everywhere! “I’m a feminist,” he announces, shortly before telling Julia to “shake her titties.” Because of course he is.

Mary, who announces she hates feminism, insists that Alexander is “amazing” because he can quote whole passages of Dostoevsky by heart and has a lot of pithy things to say about “revolution” and had to leave his post because his colleagues “couldn’t really handle the scope” of his bold inquiries into the inevitability of enslaving women.

Oh, and the whole purpose of this little soiree is so that Alexander can ask permission to marry Mary. While both Julia and Pyke have objections, Julia’s take the form of simply walking away as her teenage daughter brings a 43-year-old man into her room to have sex, while Pyke actively enables the situation, going so far as to bring them both a post-coital piece of cake. It’s an abdication of responsibility so egregious that it’s neglect at best, and enabling a predator at worst. Since Robin’s only interactions with Mary involve stalking her on Google Street View, it’s safe to say that she’s getting absolutely no help in the parenting department.

Sexism, rape culture, and exploitation aren’t new themes for Top of the Lake, but this season seems primed to explore the dark side of another facet of womanhood: the relationship between mothers and daughters, and what it means to give birth to or raise a girl in a world that is primed to eat her alive. In closing, everything is a disaster, everyone is terrible, and it’s all going to get worse. We close on the suitcase finally washing up on the shore, the horror of its contents — and all the forces that conspired to put that woman there — still waiting to be revealed.

Top of the Lake: China Girl Recap: The Destiny of Man