The first season of Jane Campion’s darkly compelling crime drama, Top of the Lake, was heralded as an unexpected masterpiece. Elisabeth Moss delivered an incredible central performance as detective Robin Griffin, who returned to New Zealand from her new home in Sydney to care for her terminally-ill mother, but became entangled in the case of a missing girl—by way of paedophile rings, underground mephedrone labs, cult-like female communes, and the unreconstructed masculinity of backwoods small-town life. It shouldn’t have all quite held together, but the eerily beautiful South Island scenery linked these disparate stories with a dreamlike, almost mythic quality. And critics were more than happy to lay aside quibbles over improbable plot points, when the payoff was Moss’ instinctive, raw performance as a woman confronting the trauma of her past amid the seedy chauvinism of a rural police force.
The second season, Top of the Lake: China Girl, opens four years after the events of the first, and finds Robin back in Sydney, investigating the death of a young Thai woman who is found washed up on a beach inside a suitcase. To solve the case, Robin pairs up with the magnificently oddball pregnant detective Miranda Hilmarson (played by Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie), who drinks, smokes, and says things like “my gay friends think I look like a transvestite rocket man,” before she dons a space helmet and flicks the kitchen lights on and off, because “it helps me to relax”. Robin is searching, too, for her estranged teenage daughter, Mary, whom she gave up for adoption at birth. Mary, we learn, is in a relationship with a much-older brothel owner, Puss, who, in turn, masterminds a subplot involving the murky world of illegal surrogacy. There is also an exaggeratedly vile bunch of porn-reared man-children with self-appointed nicknames like The Fuckwizard, who gather in cafes to loudly co-write disparaging online reviews of the sex workers they have visited.
If this sounds more odd and disjointed than even the first season, it is. Critics have given its second outing much less glowing reviews—pronouncing it to be an ‘uneven’, ‘bizarre’, and ‘misguided mess’. But don’t let that put you off. It would be worth watching for Moss’ towering performance alone. Yet Top of the Lake: China Girl is also a surreal fairy tale transposed uncannily into modern urban life; a fever dream of motherhood and toxic masculinity that probes the emotional violence done by love, and the power it holds over us.
It is, honestly, a mess. The plot is very silly, but the series glosses over its numerous coincidences with a confidence that is endearingly brazen. It seems both to follow a dream logic, which is echoed by the woozy soundtrack and cinematography, and to assert that if its narrative is messy and unsatisfying, then that is because real life is messy. The show’s tone hovers on the borderline between realism and surrealism in a way that demands you just go along with it; and if you are prepared to, then Top of the Lake is comic, and tragic, and frightening, and mesmerising.
Critics have argued that it was an irrecoverable mistake to leave behind the Edenic scenery of the first season for the beachfront-apartment aesthetic of suburban Sydney—but I would argue that this is, perhaps, a very knowing decision. The first season felt utterly out of time, with myths and archetypes left to play freely in ancient forest: all mist rising from freezing waters and the suggestion of dark, elemental forces. If the second season deals with this mythic quality somewhat unevenly, by transposing fairy tale tropes of motherhood into the class and racial politics of illegal surrogacy, and setting the plot amid the casual sexism of the Sydney police force, then maybe that’s the point.
Maybe it has something to tell us about the ways in which human dramas and human emotions are trivialised and dismissed in twenty-first century culture, where Internet porn forms the basis of teenage sexuality, and middle-class couples order babies from migrant women as if from Amazon. There is a deliberate disconnect, here: we all, in a globalised, digital world, treat people callously—sometimes we choose to be careless of the human suffering that our consumerism is built upon. Which is more evil: to cause suffering knowingly, or to choose not to be aware of it? And what happens when all this runs up against the urgent, primal human need to love, and be loved?
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“Fuck love,” announces Miranda, half way through the series. “It’s a disease. People die from it.” Top of the Lake deals in the extremities of love, in which love itself is a kind of madness. The need for a baby can be experienced as a kind of madness—the need to be a mother, the need for a child to be yours at any cost. Destructive kinds of love run throughout the series like a dark, fairytale thread that leads into the wells of the unconscious.
The darkest love story of the show is that of Robin’s daughter, Mary (played by Campion’s own daughter, Alice Englert), and her manipulative, brothel-owning boyfriend Puss. Puss (played with relish by David Dencik) is a vilely comic creation, full of revolting faux-Marxist intellectualisms, and such baroque, grisly swagger that he seems to be a living embodiment of the dead cat strategy. He is a perverse parody of a certain attitude that purports to empower women by teaching them how to better manipulate a patriarchal system, beneficently schooling the young Thai women he employs in English phrases like “wow! Your cock is big,” and “bareback blowjob”.
Poor Mary, full of adolescent idealism, and an adolescent’s sense of class warfare, thinks Puss “lives his life at risk, and he is kind to the actual poor.” Mary’s adoptive parents, knowing little of her “professor friend”, worry over the age gap, and invite him over to dinner. “You should hear him talk about Dostoevsky,” Mary rhapsodises, painfully, to her father. “I mean, other people talk about reading, but he actually has. He can read whole passages off by heart. Do you like him, Dad?”
Top of the Lake flits between the tragicomedy of Mary’s infatuation, and genuine horror at the power Puss has over her. He is a grotesque character—the extravagance of his appalling behaviour would be boorish, alienating, even, were it not for the real and terrifying power he has to disrupt the lives of those around him, for as long as Mary continues to love him. Campion knows well that no one has more power of destruction and self-destruction than a teenage girl in love, and she perfectly captures the rising, swelling panic of parents becoming aware of their utter inability to force their daughter to see sense.
One of the more prominent criticisms of Top of the Lake: China Girl is that the series is too heavy-handed in its treatment of misogyny. It has been branded as “a parade of one dimensional grotesques” that “doesn’t help us understand how misogyny is ingrained in everyday life”. Campion has been accused of “beating” viewers “over the head” with didactic messages about gender inequality. But many of these criticisms—most of them made by men—themselves have a ring of ingrained sexism to them.
Reviewers have complained that Nicole Kidman, who plays Mary’s brittle, fear-frozen adoptive mother, is “made up with distractingly prominent freckles”. One reviewer found it preposterous that a young woman could be “irrational enough” to be “seduced” into an abusive relationship when the man in question was an “obvious prick”. The second season “stuffs” feminist themes “into every nook and cranny of every scene, mostly via dialogue instead of the sorts of hypnotically intense, even primal images that distinguished the original”, lament male critics, who seem to prefer their gender inequality implied through pretty camerawork, rather than—shock horror—through overt dialogue.
As I’ve already suggested, Top of the Lake shouldn’t be viewed purely as realism. But I’d put money on most women being depressingly familiar with the kind of casually degrading dialogue that permeates the show. If it is exhausting for viewers to run up against the same shitty banter and offhand sexism, again, and again, and again, then maybe that’s the point. If male critics are inclined to view the programme as an oppressive catalogue of male chauvinism, it would be nice if they could reflect for a moment on how exhausting it is to be, you know, an actual woman, where you can’t press the pause button when you’re a bit tired of being reminded about the colossal dimensions of male entitlement.
On a superficial level, the dialogue reads as a kind of master class in how to talk to women while managing to treat them like actual human beings, aimed at the kind of man who moans that it’s impossible to please modern women when feminists can’t even agree whether they still want guys to hold doors open for them. (Take notes from Ray, the pathologist.) On a deeper level, the dialogue demands to be paid attention to, because it shows how language works to strip women of their autonomy. White, wealthy interlocutors constantly overestimate the agency of Asian migrant workers, whether it’s the chorus of café fuckboys bragging about the ecstatic pleasure they’ve given to sex workers, or the childless Australian couples insisting that their surrogacy contracts are altruistic in nature. “We have a guest mother,” they explain to the police, unsure of their surrogate’s surname.
With suffocating precision, the script pins down the patriarchal sleight of hand that endows women with the illusion of choice, with one hand, even as it takes it away on the other. In one scene, a murder suspect (who we later find out, tellingly, to be a fantasist) lays out a false confession to the murder of a sex worker. “So I, um, I tucked her up in this beautiful picnic blanket,” he says of her body. “I carried her out into the water… and then I just let her drift off into the oncoming tide,” he claims, awarding her more agency dead than alive.
Again and again, we see men’s inability to hear the word “no”. Stully, a Sydney cop, repeatedly asks Robin out for “seven or eight of the best nights of your life,” growing increasingly desperate at each refusal: “I could change your mind”; “look, you don’t have to answer me now—take your time”. “You can pick the number!” he cries, after another no, as if choosing the exact number of sexual encounters constitutes an acceptable level of female consent. Stully grows angry, and is ordered to leave the room by his friend, who apologises to Robin on his behalf: “just so you know, he can get a little fixated on women, so you might want to keep your distance. See, there are ‘no’s that mean ‘yes’—all of us guys get plenty of yes-no’s—Stully doesn’t know a real ‘no’ from a yes-no.”
The dialogue builds a wall out of male entitlement, until the viewer gets a sense of almost physical oppression from men’s utter refusal to acknowledge women’s experience or their inner lives; the exhausting, madness-inducing experience of not being listened to—really listened to. Moss wordlessly expresses an extraordinary range of emotions with barely a flicker of her face, as she listens to the locker-room rhetoric of the men around her, and we can tell that they don’t register it one bit.
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Perhaps Top of the Lake’s critics are confused by the ways in which the series blends deliberate caricatures of masculine tropes with an undertone of genuine violence. The most violent set-piece of the series sees Robin confronting Al Parker, the skin-crawlingly Trump-like New Zealand superintendent who reappears after drugging and attacking Robin in the first series, and attacks her for a second time. Reviewers have described the scene as the “low point” of the sequel, finding it improbable that ‘tough detective’ Robin would not just leave the room when confronted with her attacker, and declaring it to be outright implausible that she didn’t fight back harder and sooner. But this is an unforgivable criticism of a character responding to trauma—attitudes like this, which refuse to understand why women might freeze in the presence of their rapist, are dangerous, and spill over into real-life attitudes towards sexual assault.
Parker’s dialogue during the scene appeared to stretch critics’ credulity, and was dismissed as “so silly that it was almost comical”. Here’s the thing, though: villains rarely acknowledge that they are villains. It seems unbelievable, but a huge amount of men who commit sexual assault are genuinely unaware that what they did is rape. “My feelings for you were genuine. They were pure. I love you—I can’t help it, but I do,” Parker tells Robin. He touches her lip and Robin spits “don’t”, physically shaking with revulsion and disgust. “What a creature,” Parker whispers, wide-eyed and aroused.
His dialogue is silly? Well, yes. It is monstrously ridiculous. The appalling sexism of which men can be capable is inherently ridiculous; it also leads to real violence. Sexists are pathetic, and it is a fundamental paradox that the effects of sexism are anything but. We see this, too, with the story arc of Brett—he of the brothel-rating café misogynists. Brett is a pathetic, tragi-comic manchild living in his mother’s basement, with stained tissues under his bed, unable to form genuine human relationships unless simulated through the “girlfriend experience” package offered by sex workers. He’s also a man with a gun, who murders someone.
In real life, murderers rarely act like Bond Villains, building elaborate personas from the acknowledgement of their own evil. Brett’s narrative bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Elliot Rogers, who killed six people in a shooting spree motivated by “retribution” against women who had sexually rejected him. Misogyny is pathetic. Misogyny kills people.
Male entitlement is a kind of confidence trick: the swagger and bravado, and the sense of superiority that many men have over women, is fundamentally unearned. Just as Puss only has power to hurt those around him because Mary loves him, structural misogyny only ‘works’ if a sufficient number of people act under the assumption that sexists have merited the superiority they claim for themselves. If there are scenes in Top of the Lake that don’t quite have the ring of truth to them, that seem too obviously sexist in their sexism to be plausible, then perhaps that is exactly the point. It is outrageous that so many men think they can behave like this; but they do.