'Go deeper, go darker': Elisabeth Moss returns to the anguish of Top of The Lake
It was the unlikely setting of waiting for take-out food at a Japanese restaurant in Queenstown in 2012 that sparked one of this year's most anticipated television events.
With filming under way on the first season of Top of the Lake, three of the show's pillars, its creator, writer and director Jane Campion, producer Emile Sherman and lead actor Elisabeth Moss, were at the same venue picking up fuel after the day's filming.
"We had to wait together, so we sat at the table and we started doing 'what ifs?'," says Campion. "'What if they moved to Thailand? What if they did this? What if they did that?' And that was the first time I ever [thought about a second season] because it's such hard work, you know? You don't really want to do it to yourself again."
Fast-forward five years and the hard work behind the acclaimed, award-laden crime drama has indeed spawned a second outing. Moss reprises her role as the complex, driven, demon-ridden detective Robin Griffin, alongside a strongly competing ensemble.
Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie joins the cast as eager policewoman Miranda Hilmarson. Campion's real-life daughter Alice Englert is Mary, a combative, rebellious teen, exasperating her adoptive parents Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman).
The first season was an incomparably gripping immersion into a harsh New Zealand landscape of mystery and menace, centred around a missing, pregnant 12-year-old girl.
Both Kidman and Christie, as huge fans of the first season, personally approached Campion about appearing in a second should it happen. It seems absurd now there would have been any question over the continuation of such a lauded, triumphant and game-changing series.
"We really didn't know that it would be as successful as it has been," Campion says, in typically understated fashion about the series she describes as "a little boutique kind of event".
Moss, the current much-touted hallmark of quality TV off the back of season one and this year's searing The Handmaid's Tale, says the success of Top of the Lake was down to viewers readily embracing a show that raised the bar so high.
"It's a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, and allowing it to have its own tone," she says. "This show has a tone and a mood that is unlike anything else, and that was fully allowed to bloom in the first season and the audience loved it. That's one of the great achievements of this show.
"In season two, if anything, it only goes deeper into those directions and into that tone. It's that Jane Campion kind of thing, where it's dark but it's kind of grossly hilarious at times."
Both seasons carry the unmistakably singular voice of Campion and her long-time collaborator and co-writer Gerard Lee. In person, the pair share an intimate, symbiotic kind of droll patter, bantering sparring partners since they met at film school in the 1980s. As Campion says, they're like "a singlet and undies in a dryer going on and on forever".
She says this season moves more closely with the undercurrents of the pair's preoccupations in real-life, "not just made-up psychopath stuff, you know. For us, It's about our lives, parenting, kids, being mothers and fathers…"
"And we're passing it off as a detective story," interjects Lee.
Top of the Lake: China Girl switches the action from remote New Zealand to the urban trappings of Sydney. The lake is replaced by the ocean and Bondi Beach, where the crime narrative is triggered by the discovery of a washed-up suitcase containing the body of an Asian girl.
At a Q&A screening in Sydney this month, Campion admitted that season two's title is slightly off-kilter in that the lake is now largely absent, but that producers urged her to keep Top of the Lake to continue the momentum of the "brand".
"I did comfort myself that I have a little bit of a dream about a closing series which would return [to the lake] and which will make us feel better about our title," she says.
There is a fleeting glimpse of the lake in New Zealand in season two, but it's Sydney that holds the spotlight. It's far from a depiction of glossy harbour life. Instead it goes deep under the skin of the city: its dingy rented share apartments, the seedy world of the city's brothels and sex trade, and its schmick middle-class enclaves.
The story follows Robin's return to Sydney and police work as an escape from personal tragedy in New Zealand. Her trajectory is a great source of season two's disorientating twists. Far from the triumphant feminist icon we'd hope would emerge from season one, she's broken, failing, flailing.
It's peak Campion: turning our heroic, fearless warrior into an imperfect, often pitiful, ordinary soul.
On the set on a blustery winter's day in Bondi last year, Moss spoke about how her proviso for signing up for season two was that Campion challenged her with new emotional territory.
"Just the idea that I wanted it to get, I believe I used the words: 'I want her to be really f---ed up.' I was like, 'I wanted it to be f---ed up, Jane'," she says, banging the table for emphasis. "I was like, 'go deeper, go darker'."
Motherhood and fertility are vastly heightened issues in season two. Surrogacy appears across several threads, as does the agony of IVF treatment and the quiet, solitary trauma of miscarriage.
But for all its deeply harrowing content, there are equal moments of hilarity – that Campion-Lee strain of darkly inappropriate humour seeping frequently through the story.
One of the major sources of that humour is Christie who, particularly in the first few episodes, is a buffoonish comic foil to Griffin's professional coldness.
Christie says she relished playing such a richly drawn character.
"[What] is synonymous with Jane Campion's work is that through all the strangeness it gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour," Christie says. "It gives us a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality."
Primarily a filmmaker, Campion, until Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled this year, had been the only woman to win the Cannes Palme d'Or, for The Piano in 1993, which also scored her an Oscar nomination. However, she says it's irrelevant to her whether she's working in film or television.
"I'm always happy to do work if I can do it well," she says.
Season one sold to 71 countries on its 2013 release, but Campion says she doesn't feel any pressure to win similar commercial success with China Girl.
"I don't understand what success is," she says. "All I try to do is a good job. There is no other gear."
WHAT Top of the Lake: China Girl
WHEN BBC First, Sunday, August 20, 8.30pm