“Top of The Lake” Offers Nicole Kidman as a Queer Mom, Brienne Of Tarth, Elisabeth Moss, and So Many Terrible Men

Top of the Lake‘s first season saw Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, return home from Sydney to rural New Zealand to care for her sick mother, only to end up working a case when a pregnant 12-year old girl washed up ashore, dead. All kinds of things wash up after that, ghosts-from-the-past type things, like the sexual assault Robin experienced on her prom night and how the men who did it still live there, walking around like they deserve to be alive. She reunites with an old boyfriend who is sometimes charming but is also quite clearly a terrible person. There’s this colony of women living by the water in storage crates and they’re all basically disciples of GJ, a sort of guru played by Holly Hunter. The man Robin works under is a terrible, disgusting human being. It’s moody and atmospheric and the skies are grey and people are bad and I was RIVETED. It was critically acclaimed and the legendary writer / director / producer Jane Campion was begged to make another season. So she delivered.

Season Two, “China Girl,” premiered in the UK last year and on Sundance TV this week. The entire season is now on Hulu. If you don’t have Hulu, it’s $15.99  on Amazon.

After Season One, Jane Campion got an email from Gwendoline Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth) asking to be cast in a sequel, if there ever was one. She was added to the ensemble as Officer Miranda Hilmarson, who serves as Robin’s number two. Nicole Kidman got in touch too, visiting Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee, and accepting a relatively small role, just to be involved. That’s why we’re here now talking about it —  Nicole Kidman plays Julia Edwards, the Eileen Fisher-clad mother of Mary, the child Robin gave up for adoption after her assault. Julia and her husband Pyke are getting a divorce because Julia fell in love with Isadore, the French teacher at her daughter’s school. Julia is an academic who is very serious about feminism and Mary is very upset about the “lesbian thing” but also preoccupied because Mary’s fallen in love with an abusive 42-year-old asshole named Alexander who deserves to suffer the full heat death of the universe entirely upon his pathetic greasy soul. Julia falls into a lot of cliches — self-righteous, touchy-feely, emotionally inconsistent — but they’re familiar ones, ultimately, familiar ones that remind me of people I’ve known.

Season Two sees Robin back in Sydney, where she’s immediately saddled with a new case — the victim is a young pregnant Asian female who washes up on the beach, in a suitcase. But this time nobody has reported her missing and nobody knows who she is. I mean, we do. We see her body dumped off the edge of a bluff at the top of the first episode by two humans involved with running Silk 41, a brothel. We see the client who can’t let go of the fantasy world in which “Cinnamon” had real feelings for him and wanted to vacation together on the Gold Coast. But it takes Robin a little bit to find out what we already know.

This show is likely relevant to your interests if you are drawn to high-brow crime television, as I am. It’s understated and frustrating and twisty and full of great performances. But damn, despite this being unfortunately realistic, there are just so many terrible men doing and saying terrible things in this show. It’s painful to witness this constant barrage of misogyny against Robin, especially when she starts dealing with it by going very Offred on us, responding to all of this with silence. It’s a fair and understandable reaction for someone who faces this treatment so regularly, of course, but as a viewer this means you’ll spend a lot of time yelling at the television. Of the six or so hours I spent watching this, only the fourth and the sixth episode enraptured me like the first season had. The rest of it was often messy, with some improbable coincidences, a very inconsistent dynamic between Robin and Miranda, and, like I said, so many more terrible men than I usually am forced to confront in an average evening.

The dead woman is Thai, but before she’s been identified, the police label her “China Girl.” It’s a troubling if barely satirical choice in that context, more troubling still as the title of the series because every woman of color with a speaking role in “China Girl” is woefully undeveloped. The personalities of the individual Silk 41 employees seem more intentionally crafted than I’ve observed in similar crime stories involving Asian immigrant sex workers, but that bar is set so low, it’s practically underground.

The first episode sees the girls giggling and fawning over Alexander, who is teaching them English. As I mentioned, Alexander is a detestable human being I can barely even buy a lovestruck 17-year-old being drawn to, let alone a group of smart and experienced sex workers. There’s also a transgender sex worker who is accepted as one of the girls by her co-workers, which was refreshing, although she is referred to as “ladyboy” to clients — but sex work industries catered towards cis men are notoriously immune to any standards of political correctness / decency and probably will always be, so it makes neutral sense in this context despite being hard to stomach. As the story progresses it seems like something of a statement is being made, about the exploitation of the Thai women’s bodies as prostitutes (which is legal in Australia) and commercial surrogates (which is not), but it’s too subtle to count as successful.

“Campion’s perspective here is something like Sally Struthers’s in all those Save the Children infomercials: sympathetic but othering,” writes Inkoo Kang in The Village Voice. “China Girl’s real focus is on (white) motherhood.” Kang continues:

The juxtaposition between Mary’s exploitation and the Asian sex workers’ plight — and China Girl’s clear interest in the former above the latter — renders this second season a panicked defense of white innocence rather than the demonstration of intersectional empathy it was probably meant to be.

Also, one of my least favorite tropes w/r/t queer female characters happens in the last three minutes. Nobody dies or anything. But uh, just a heads up for y’all. ‘Cause I care about you.

In conclusion, the acting is phenomenal, and if you liked Marcella, The Fall, Big Little Lies and/or The Killing, you will probably be unable to resist the urge to watch this, and that may or may not be a positive experience.


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Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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6 Comments

    • Has Elizabeth Moss herself come out and said she’s “anti-gay”? I think not, quite the converse, actually.

      I detest nearly all of the Christian denominations and plenty of non-Christian religions for the same reasons.

      So are you going to drop any media that features Catholics in it? Personally, I’m not so bigoted as to conflate anyone with their religion, particularly one they were brought up (or brainwashed) in. If they make statements *affirming* the shittier parts of their religion, fine, reject their work on that basis.

  1. This is a great summary and outlined a few of my issues with this series. I watched it almost all in one sitting which demonstrates it is pretty compulsive viewing but yeah, there were a few problems with it which you mention. Also, the final scene v much frustrated me (who’s at the door?! Is [redacted for spoilers] OK??). Nonetheless… I’d probably still watch another series because I love crime drama and whole style/atmosphere of the show.

  2. Yeah, this show is very hard to digest.

    Riese, I agree with all the issues you pointed, and I must add that I hate when a series with criminal plot ends and leaves us with an impotence feeling! I’ve felt so impotent throughout the entire season and that final interaction that you mentioned (last 3 minutes) was the cherry on the cake for me! Nicole’s character plot was so cliche and so poorly handled that I felt ashamed and sad for her, because she deserves a well developped and written role.

    One other thing that I have to take out of my chest is that there was no chemistry between Miranda and Robbin AT ALL! I know that they were not supposed to like each other but even when they did, it still wasn’t convincing enough!

  3. I was kind of obsessed with the first season of this show and was pretty disappointed with this one! I was hoping AS would write about it and this is very on point. For me part of the problem was also just that the setting of the first season was so surreal and isolated that it made the high drama and intertwining of every single plot line and relationship more believable somehow. Also I actually really liked the boyfriend from the first season and was mad about how they got rid of him!

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