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Elisabeth Moss Keeps it Compelling in Return of ‘Top of the Lake’
September 9, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Robin Griffin has returned. Cuddly, no. Compelling, yes.

The troubled detective from Sundance’s dark 2013 series Top of the Lake, played by Elisabeth Moss (top), returns Sunday (9 p.m. ET) in the six-hour sequel Top of the Lake: China Girl.

Griffin has been out on R&R, we learn, since the end of the first series. She has just returned to duty when a suitcase washes up on a nearby Australian shore. It contains the body of a young Asian girl.

Griffin grabs the case. But she doesn’t have the luxury of throwing all her attention into it, because she’s still on a mission of her own.

She has decided she wants to meet her 17-year-old daughter Mary (Alice Englert, right), whom she gave up at birth.

Mary has been raised by Pyke and Julia Edwards (Ewan Leslie and Nicole Kidman) and while they are cautiously amenable to Mary meeting Robin, the more urgent issue with Mary at the moment is that she has become infatuated with one “Puss” Braun (David Dencik).

Puss is 42 years old. He’s an oily hustler, deeply embedded in the porn and sex trade industries, and no one would trust him as far as they could throw him.

Except Mary. And opposition from all the grownups, of course, only hardens her 17-year-old determination to abandon previous plans for her life, like college, and become Mrs. Braun.

Robin only figures this out in increments, partly because Pyke and Julia are in the middle of a divorce and are at times distracted.  

The murder case, by contrast, takes a relatively linear course. Griffin’s superiors at first don’t see any way to solve it, but between her own bulldogging and the unlikely help of her inexperienced investigative partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie, below), Robin starts to find some salient clues.

Jane Campion, who created both Top of the Lake series, has given China Girl a different look and feel. Where the first was set against the lush countryside of New Zealand, much of this one takes place in buildings and the claustrophobic rooms of the sex slave trade.

The story itself is equally rich and complex, and the two series share at least one critical and defining trait: an aversion to traditional black-and-white character portrayals.

All the characters on the good side have unpleasant or off-putting moments. There are few of the little bonding moments that normally endear particular characters to the viewer.

That doesn’t mean we don’t like them, or don’t want them to win. We want them to unravel the poison threads that lead back to the murder of China Girl. We badly want Robin, Julia, and Pyke to convince Mary that “Puss” would drive her life off a cliff.

But in the Top of the Lake world, things rarely end cleanly, and little in Robin Griffin’s story to date suggests she’s likely to find happily ever after.

What she can do is survive, and keep doing whatever she can to make tomorrow better than yesterday.

Moss captures this exhausting game beautifully. We don’t always like her. We admire her, because we know that what she has, she has earned.

Top of the Lake: China Girl airs Sunday through Tuesday, two hours a night. It’s a good binge, old-school style.

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