Top of the Lake was brilliant, but it didn’t always make for easy viewing. Any story in which a 12-year-old girl ends up pregnant after being repeatedly sexually abused while drugged by a pedophile ring run by the local police chief, and in which the only detective seriously concerned with bringing the perpetrators to justice is a woman who herself was gang raped and impregnated at fifteen, isn’t going to be a cozy watch. It was a dark, and often-eerie tale of violence and trauma that interrogated institutionalised misogyny and endemic rape culture. Set against the stunning rural backdrop of New Zealand’s South Island, with fabulous performances from a cast led by Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, Academy Award and Palme D’Or winner Jane Campion’s TV directorial debut was as exciting as it was unapologetically feminist.
Now, four years later, we’re much more familiar with the concept of the superstar TV show. So, when it comes to the second season, Top of the Lake: China Girl, expectations are in some ways lower, while in other ways higher. How to follow season one? Well, first thing’s first, begin with a great cast. Keep Moss – now a household name, and one that, post-The Handmaid’s Tale, is pretty much synonymous with ‘feminist drama’ – in the lead role of Detective Robin Griffin; then add mid-career renaissance Nicole Kidman – hot off another of this year’s hit TV shows, Big Little Lies, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, and about to be seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer – and British actor Gwendoline Christie, of Game of Thrones fame.
When China Girl opens, Robin is back in Sydney, readjusting to life in the big city. Gone is the lush landscape of the show’s former setting; instead this is urban grit and grime with a seedy, sepia-tinged ’70s vibe. Despite her professional successes, Robin’s still carrying a lot of personal baggage – in addition to her ongoing preoccupation with the daughter she gave up for adoption seventeen years ago, there’s the more recent failure of the romantic relationship she’d reignited with her high school boyfriend Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) while back on the South Island. At work, she’s paired up with a junior policewoman named Miranda (Christie), and the obvious physical comedy of this little and large duo is a slightly strange, but not entirely unwelcome addition to a drama that otherwise tries to play it serious. Christie is a revelation in this role and a highlight of the show. As eager as a puppy, her aim is to learn and to please, plus she’s emotional and gushing in a way that’s both at odds with her imposing physicality – Campion’s very successfully making us re-think assumptions about femininity and size – and the demeanour of her introverted, inhibited partner. Watching the tension between the two is a delight; their complicated, antagonistic relationship is one of the most interesting depictions of female friendship that I’ve seen on contemporary screens. Less sophisticated, unfortunately, is the story of the actual crime that brings them together.
It goes like this: We’ve got a suitcase washed up on Bondi Beach containing a dead Asian woman, whom Robin and her team eventually trace back to Silk 41, one of the city’s brothels. The murdered woman’s name was Cinnamon, and she was pregnant, but there’s a catch: the foetus’s genetic material doesn’t match the mother’s. Then there’s Robin’s long lost daughter Mary (Alice Englert, Campion’s real life daughter), whom Robin, after much soul-searching, finally decides to make contact with – but not before we’re given a fly-on-the-wall view into Mary’s teenage angst-riddled world. Her ire is directed predominantly at her mother Julia (Kidman), who recently left Mary’s father Pyke (Ewen Leslie) to shack up with one of Mary’s teachers, Isadore (Marg Downey), a woman who seems so oblivious to the realities of life that it’s like she’s wandered straight out of GJ’s (Holly Hunter) commune high above the town of Laketop back in the first season, and whose only point in the story seems to be occasional and slightly uncomfortable comic relief.
Mary is everything her mother isn’t. From her insistence in quoting Germaine Greer to her rather hackneyed relationship with Isadore, Julia is a caricature of a Second Wave Feminist. Although it makes perfect sense that her daughter can’t stand her, it seems like lazy work on Campion’s part to have wasted Kidman’s considerable talents on this cartoon of a character – though she does deserve kudos for managing to convince Kidman to ditch her trademark blonde locks for the magnificent grey tresses she’s rocking here. Englert, by comparison, is intoxicating to watch. Her Mary is a tour de force, so absolutely convincing I struggled to work out if her acting was masterful or non existent. She’s so unhelpfully stubborn, so naively sure of herself – in short, the archetypal teenager – so completely taken in by her boyfriend, the vile Alexander ‘Puss’ (David Dencik), a German-born, greasy-haired autodidact who’s twenty-odd years Mary’s senior and who seems to think it’s appropriate to wax lyrical over a first dinner with said girlfriend’s parents about how the “destiny” of man is to “enslave women”. Julia, of course, is absolutely horrified by the news that her beloved daughter’s only ambition is now to drop out of school and become Puss’s obedient little wife, and she has my sympathy: this is one hell of a teenage rebellion. Barely a scene featuring Mary went by without me wanting to shake some sense into the deluded little idiot. Pyke meanwhile isn’t exactly happy about it either, but he’s more of a ‘bottle it up and seethe about it later’ kind of guy.
If this wasn’t already enough, another red flag is Puss’s unconventional living arrangement: his flat is in the same building as – surprise, surprise – Silk 41, and he takes a keen interest in the “education” of the girls working there. Piling coincidence on coincidence, Miranda confesses that she’s five months pregnant, the result of an affair she’s been having with her and Robin’s married boss. This endures until mysteriously she suddenly isn’t, and it turns out that she can’t have kids so she’s paid someone to do it for her. Wait a minute – remember Cinnamon and the foetus that wasn’t technically hers? What’s the chance that Silk 41 has a dodgy sideline in illegal surrogates? Surely there can’t be a host of desperate infertile couples in this city willing to do whatever it takes to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet? Just when Robin needs this question answered, lo and behold, a mentally disturbed woman (who has somehow escaped from a nearby psychiatric unit) is picked up by cops wandering down a local freeway while muttering something about her missing baby. I know I said they were playing it serious, but as the story progresses and the melodrama mounts, it’s hard to buy into the idea that what we’re watching bears any resemblance to reality, something that’s further undermined by how much the development of the plot relies of happenstance. Whereas the action of season one always felt organic, even during its most dramatic moments, China Girl comes across as forced and sensationalist.
I can’t deny it though, the latter element makes for compulsive viewing. Here’s where I confess that I binge watched the entire season in one go, late into the night. And that, rather than being put off by the bizarreness that comes out in episode three – I’m not even going to think about spoiling it for anyone who’s yet to have the pleasure – I found myself sitting up even straighter, all the more captivated. Rather confusingly, in many ways China Girl makes for better TV than season one; the plot is pacier, the characters larger and more full of life, and scene by scene there’s simply more happening. But take the time to actually tease it apart, and you realise that China Girl is nowhere near as refined and polished a story as that seen in the first season, and when it does reach toward a similar finesse, it gets confused, tangled in knots of its own making.
Puss, for example, lacks the kind of complexity that made season one’s baddies, Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan) – that rare breed, a self-flagellating “alpha ass” – and Al (David Wenham), the Janus-like police chief with his double life, so interesting. It’s not just that Puss’s misogyny, cod-philosophy and general vileness makes him completely unsympathetic, he’s also such an obvious sum of his parts it’s impossible to fathom what Mary ever saw in him in the first place, let alone what keeps her so completely enthralled. This seems especially weird since life dealt her a rare good male role model in the form of her beloved father Pyke, one of the few men on screen who’s not a complete jerk.
Since the very beginning, Top of the Lake has always been a show about motherhood – Tui’s pregnancy, the trauma of Robin’s own, the fact that the detective was in Laketop in the first place in order to spend time with her dying mother – and the preoccupation is still strong in China Girl. As Campion joked at a recent press conference, the show’s “not just feminist but fallopian.” But I’m dubious of this recent trend in storytelling in which female-led thrillers reduce their protagonists to little more than their biology. Take The Girl on the Train, for example, a story that defines its characters only in terms of their reproductive organs, in which being a ‘good mother’ is what each of the female characters aspire to, a standard the men hold them up to and which ultimately decides whether they live or die. Refreshingly, there was nothing so reductive about the first season of Top of the Lake, Campion instead presenting a complicated and nuanced portrait of the pushes and pulls of motherhood. In China Girl, however, it seems less a site of examination, and more a formulaic plot device. Until, that is, the eventual baddies of the season are revealed to be the small army of over-privileged women who blindly assume that maternity is their right, regardless of the cost to others. Sure, there’s a lone porn-addled geek roaming the city with a shotgun – remember how I said this was good TV; it is, so it needs a more traditional action-packed dénouement – but he’s collateral damage in more ways than one, a cliché of the kind we simply didn’t see in season one.
With regards to cliché, there are a variety of troubling stereotypes here, most glaringly of all in the show’s problematic attitude to race. As the title itself suggests – “China Girl” is the nickname the cops give the dead body before her identity or ethnicity has been determined – and several other gross generalisations are at play. The sex workers are all South-East Asian, while the punters – both the men who pay them for sex, namely the creepy band of geeks who only meet up IRL to snigger and rate their recent screws while demonstrating a pathetic inability to converse with any women outside of a transactional relationship; and the couples who pay them for their uteruses – are all white. The viewer is whipped up into sympathising with poor Mary when Puss pimps her out – incidentally, it only takes one blowjob for the poor little rich girl to realise she’s not cut out for life on the curb-side; precisely the kind of choice the other women simply don’t have – but expends no such energy on those stuck in this life day-in, day-out. The only saving grace is that it’s made pretty clear that the white women buying surrogates are a monstrous breed all of their own – or perhaps that’s just my reading of the situation.
So is Campion offering us a radical critique of maternal bondage? In the first season we were given stories about underage girls forced into motherhood by male abusers; here we’ve got young women so desperate they’re selling their own enslavement, a supply and demand economy created by women driven mad by their inability to fulfil what they think of as their ‘biological destiny’. Female subjugation comes in all shapes and forms, not all of them male, so I’m all for Campion condemning white female privilege – if that’s what she’s trying to do here; I don’t think it’s quite as clear as it could be. Regardless of her intent, the end result is a much bleaker narrative than that of the first season. Gone is the sisterhood of GJ’s camp, and so too the clear-cut victim vs perpetrator set-up: on the mean streets of the city, it’s dog-eat-dog when it comes to who’s got a working womb and who hasn’t.