Top of the Lake: China Girl Recap: People Are Not So Honest

Top of the Lake

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

After a four-year jump between this season of Top of the Lake and the last, you knew there were going to be flashbacks. So here we are on Robin’s ill-fated wedding day, which we learn was only four weeks previous. As Robin stares pensively at her wedding dress in her bedroom, her fiancé Jonno spends his wedding morning tending to his secret marijuana crops in the woods, and messing around with a girl with blond braids and knee-high socks.

“Marriage seems to just fuck things up,” the girl says, when Jonno informs her of his impending nuptials. “People are not so honest.” Isn’t that the truth.

Things go sideways when the cops bust Jonno on a suspension bridge, a garbage bag of weed in each hand. Cut to Robin walking furiously through the police station in her dress and veil, preparing to take her vows through the bars until she notices the little Nordic pixie sitting in the cell.

“A hitchhiker,” Jonno insists, but Robin knows in an instant that is a lie, that the only real question now is how much of their relationship has been a lie and for how long. She walks out and away from him forever, which is the single smartest decision we will see in this episode.

Back in the present, Robin is on the scene with the body of the dead girl, who has acquired the moderately racist pseudonym of “China Girl.” Because no murder investigation would be complete without a little casual misogyny, a more senior male detective on the scene forces Miranda fetch his jacket and demands repeatedly to know whether Robin is single. “That’s irrelevant,” she says, which is accurate: Her relationship status has no bearing on how little she wants to deal with this dude. She can’t even escape this bullshit at the morgue, where the gray-haired, medical examiner announces that if he’d had a bigger penis he would’ve tried to marry Robin, and she smiles and shrugs it off because the smirks and the come-ons are the low hum of her world, the constant ringing in your ears that you almost stop hearing after a while.

Miranda shows up for the autopsy of the body, which reveals the cause of death as strangulation. The face was badly damaged in the fall off the cliff, making identification difficult, but there’s another surprise: The woman was pregnant. As the fetus is extracted, Miranda runs from the room distraught. Surprise! She’s pregnant, because this season is babies babies babies moms.

Speaking of which, Robin — who had three miscarriages with Jonno — finally decides to write a letter to the other child she lost, her long-lost biological daughter Mary. Soon, she’s meeting up with Mary’s parents, Julia and Pyke. Julia is defensive and passive aggressive from the get-go, smiling thinly in the way that so often indicates polite loathing in upper-middle-class women. She says that Mary has grown angry and even violent, a change that she blames entirely on Robin’s failure to respond when Mary first reached out to her years ago. This would have been right around the time of the season one, when Robin was busy dealing with a pedophilia ring and shooting her rapist boss in the chest.

“Your baby has been loved by me very much, and now she hates me,” Julia says as she storms out, her favored tactic for dealing with conflict. After she leaves, Pyke reveals a far more obvious reason for Mary’s behavior: He and Julia are in the midst of a divorce, after she left him for a woman. That’s the thing about mothers and daughters when they fall out, and about families in general: It’s easy to feel betrayed and abandoned by the person at the center of most intimate relationship in your life, while they feel just as they feel betrayed and abandoned by you.

Pyke asks for her Robin’s help in dealing with The Alexander Problem, and soon she and Mary are making awkward small talk at a restaurant. Although Mary insists that she’s fine with Robin not responding to her letter — totally fine — it only takes a moment for her insecurities to start seeping out. “I’m too much, too intense, too needy, too direct,” Mary says, matter-of-factly. “I’m not beautiful … you probably thought about aborting me.” If you’ve been wondering why Mary, with all her seeming confidence and intelligence, is clinging so desperately to a controlling, middle-aged con artist, well, there’s a clue.

Mary has worked out that her father was a rapist, though she seems unbothered by it. She promises that she’ll “wear his genes better than he did. I’ll even kill him for you, if you like.” It’s not really surprising that Mary’s first attempt to win the affection of her biological mother involves offering to kill someone. Her extreme neediness and risk-seeking behavior are precisely what make her so vulnerable to Alexander and his ultimate agenda. The textbook for abuse is playing out here chapter by chapter: seducing Mary with the promise of unconditional love; claiming that they are the only ones who can understand each other; and then eroding down her boundaries, identity, and other relationships until there is only one thing left that matters — him.

Back at the Sad Man Cafe, the nerdy johns confer about their collective inability to talk to women who are not paid for their attention, their anxieties swaddled tightly in bravado about the dubious charms of their penises. They make a funny, funny joke about the murdered girl, I guess, because if women are just people-shaped objects to you when they’re alive, they aren’t going to become more human when they’re dead. But this is news to Brett, an earnest young man who saw Cinnamon regularly, not just for sex but for a “girlfriend experience.” They had something really special, you see.

When Brett returns to the brothel to investigate, he learns that Cinnamon is gone, and he also gets an earful from the other girls about Puss, a.k.a. Alexander. They say he’s a very good teacher who educates them about the nature of oppression, and also sometimes gets angry and hurts them. Nothing to worry about there, move along!

Before the episode ends, there’s one final twist to the pregnancy of the dead woman: It turns out that she does not share any genetic material with her fetus, which means she was not only a sex worker but also an illegal surrogate. The ethics of paying poor women from developing countries to give birth to the children of wealthy couples are murky, in ways that echo some of the feminist debates around sex work: Is it exploitation or opportunity, particularly for women living in dire circumstances with few other options? What does it mean to turn a woman’s body into a commodity that they are paid for, especially in a world that so often treats them as objects with no real value?

We’ve seen objectification take a lot of forms in Top of the Lake, up and down the spectrum from irritating to devastating. There’s a connective thread between harassing a female colleague for sexual favors, raping a woman, and grooming a vulnerable teenage girl to be the sex toy of an adult. They are different acts, to be sure, but what lies at the heart of them all is a deeply frightening sense entitlement that allows men to look at a woman and say: This is something I deserve to have because I want it. Just ask the “incels” of the “men’s rights” movement, who view their “involuntary celibacy” as an unnatural state cruelly inflicted upon them by women. The implication, of course, is that women’s bodies and sexual favors belong by default to men, and are being unfairly withheld from their proper owners.

Who thought they owned Cinnamon’s body when she died: The johns who paid for it, the brothel owner who managed its use, or the couple who paid a large sum of money to grow a child inside of it? If you own something, after all, who says you can’t throw it away when you’re done using it?

Top of the Lake: China Girl Recap: People Are Not So Honest