Two episodes in, I was sure Top of the Lake: China Girl had the potential to not only surpass the quality of its predecessor, but end up as one of the best television seasons ever produced. I’m afraid I got a little too excited too quickly. This is the sequel series to the miniseries Top of the Lake, which was shepherded into television four years ago by the brilliant Jane Campion. It was a beautiful miniseries about a troubled detective looking for a missing child in the most remote corners or New Zealand. This second adventure translates the action to the beaches of Sydney, Australia, and while its opening chapters confidently set off to explore a number of fascinating subjects -motherhood, misogyny, prostitution-, the series doesn’t quite manage to bring them all together in the home stretch. It is ultimately a disappointment, albeit an ambitious one.
It’s a bit ironic that China Girl suffers from loose ends and plots that resolve in disappointing anti-climax, because one of my few complaints about the original series was the fact that its conclusion was a little too neat and tidy. In that original story, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to her hometown of Laketop, a community nestled between giant mountains, and is wrangled into solving the case of a missing child. Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) is a twelve year-old girl who runs away from home after she gets pregnant. Things get complicated from there. We learn Robin was herself a teenage rape victim, that she gave up the resulting child to adoption, and that Tui’s story is connected to her own past in a way she didn’t anticipate. It’s a lonely show, in which the scale of the New Zealand mountains clash with the tiny specificity of human psychology. In the end, Robin solves the case, and gets a bruised but beautiful paradise of her own.
A paradise that collapses in on itself before the second season even begins. Now Robin is trying to get over the trauma of what she lost by diving back into detective work in the big city. There are two things Robin is preoccupied with throughout this second season. First, solving the murder of an unidentified woman who washes up the Australian coast stuffed in a suitcase. Second, reconnecting with the daughter she gave up all those years ago. The girl has grown up to be Mary (Alice Englert), a truly conflicted teenager who lashes out against her divorcing parents (Ewen Leslie and Nicole Kidman) by dating a creepiest 42 year-old German called Puss (David Dencik). Of the main characters, Mary is the only one that knows Puss lives in the brothel where the washed up corpse used to work. Things get complicated from there.
Campion and her collaborators (most importantly co-writer Gerard Lee and co-director Ariel Kleinman) are clearly going for complexity here. They try to create characters that are hard to read and put them in situations that don’t allow for easy reactions, but what initially comes off as complex ends up feeling like a shapeless contradiction. It’s a show with all the elements of great television, they’re just off in the calibration. There are a number of truly excellent scenes, especially early on. The scene in which Robin meets Mary for the first time feels incredibly honest. As does most everything having to do with Robin’s relationship to her case partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), which elegantly flows from hilarious to moving. Otherwise, the characters in China Girl tend to act in ways I haven’t seen any human act before, and the show suffers for it.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship between Mary and Puss. He is presented to us as a truly grotesque human, talking about how he is a feminist before asking Nicole Kidman about her tits. He does much worse things than that, and while everyone recognizes the man as a monster, Mary refuses to leave him. She’s in love. “You don’t know him like I do”, she repeats over and over. And we don’t. Why Mary could see in this man is beyond comprehension, even if you recognize that teenagers are known for making bad decisions. The same puzzlement extends to the way Mary’s parents react to the situation. They land somewhere between acknowledgement that her kid is lashing out to resignation that she’s probably going to be swallowed into a prostitution ring. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, prostitution is legal in Australia, but I just don’t understand the characters’ reactions.
You can sense that a more generous glimpse into the characters’ inner lives would have gone a long way for a show with such a convoluted storyline. How convenient is it that Robin’s daughter has a relationship to the brothel involved in the case she’s trying to work? This sort of plotting is easier to accept when it feels like a tool to get at character and theme. Character, as explained before, is a little shaky here. But what about theme? I’d say what Campion is most interested here is the concept of motherhood. The dead woman turns out to have been pregnant when she died. Miranda is also pregnant. And there’s, of course, Robin’s re-connection with Mary. In this regard, the show seems to be focused a little too much on Robin’s perspective. This is frustrating on a couple levels, the first is that the character of Mary’s mother is underserved. This is irritating not only because that means Nicole Kidman doesn’t get enough to do, but because it comes off as particularly cruel given how kindly the character of Mary’s dad is treated. The relationship between Mary and her mom seemed ripe for resonance at the beginning, but doesn’t really go anywhere.
The other frustrating aspect about the show’s overwhelming focus on Robin is the way it relegates its victim and the other prostitutes to the background. The victim eventually gets a name, but never appears as herself. Only as a corpse or an erotic fantasy. The other prostitutes function more as a commenting unit than as individual humans. Their personalities are never really developed (their faces are the only thing that helps us tell them apart), so they end up feeling more like an accessory to the show’s themes rather than characters. This is particularly problematic since they are essentially the only major characters of color in the show. There is lip service paid to the fact that these women are exploited by western society (and not only sexually), but it doesn’t feel meaningful. The show isn’t interested in them as human the way it is in its white characters.
I would like to end by addressing this last “problematic” element. The demand for more, better stories that reflect the lives of racial minorities is loud. The lack of representation is still a problem. Most people suggest that the way to solve the problem is to encourage and sponsor more stories told by people of color. I agree with those people, I think this step is fundamental. I also think there’s another step to it. I think white filmmakers must also recognize their whiteness as part of their identity. No one can escape identity politics, and while I see why white directors would want to avoid getting involved in the sensitive topic of representation and race, I think they must. White people played a role in creating these systems of oppression, and they must play a role in dismantling them.
I’m not quite sure why I decided this was the place to write down my views on this issue. Top of the Lake: China Girl isn’t exactly a monumental work of racism or anything like that. It is a very ambitious show, often rewarding, and often frustrating. But I just can’t help but wonder what kind of show we would have gotten if Jane Campion and her collaborators would have gone in to humanize and explore the prostitutes the way they did Robin and some of the other white characters. It’s impossible to say if it would’ve been a better show. But the effort might have been worth it in and on itself.