When Top of the Lake’s first season aired in 2013 it felt like a small revelation. To say it was the rare true-crime-inspired drama that actually cared about the humanity of its female characters would be an understatement. Writer and director Jane Campion may have lured you in with its central mystery, the pregnancy and disappearance of 12-year-old Tui Mitcham, but the show’s scope widened to map, from all nuanced angles, the vast experiences of sexual assault and harassment against women and, even more importantly, the ways to survive them.
But whereas the first season of Top of the Lake used the small, fictional New Zealand town of Laketop as a contained stage to explore these different intersections of misogyny, from the sexist comments of grizzly townies at the bar to pedophilia, in a way that felt intricate and refreshing, the show’s second season is far more flimsy. The slow pacing and gorgeous pastoral setting of the first season has been traded in for several messy narratives intertwining in Sydney and many characters and stretches of dialogue seem like they’re cut from Law and Order: SVU.
In the new season, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to Sydney and is investigating the murder of a young sex-worker and pregnancy surrogate—a Thai woman cringingly dubbed “China Girl” by the coroner—who washes up on the shore in a suitcase. When Robin’s male coworkers aren’t propositioning her for sex, they’re trying to undermine her at every turn. The minute she gets to the crime scene, an officer instructs Robin and Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), the rookie officer shadowing her, to fetch his jacket. A coroner tells Robin he’d try to marry her if he had a bigger penis, then gleefully suggests they eat steak after looking at the battered victim’s body. Meanwhile, a group of PUA-type nerds congregate in a café and judge sex-workers they’ve slept with on a site called “Hooker Raters,” and say things like “I just transcended the friend zone” when trying to pick up women.
Yes, nearly every man on Top of the Lake is cartoonishly horrible. But it’s admittedly fun seeing these male characters sketched so lightly, as if the show were a sort of reparations for the ways in which women in this genre are usually relegated to playing sexy second-fiddle to men.
The problem is that it’s not just the men of Top of the Lake that feel underwritten. There’s a strong critique of sex work at play, a pervasive problem in Sydney concerning immigrants on student visas and something Campion researched for this season. “Sexual tourism in Sydney from Asia has always really annoyed me, because I feel it’s so exploitative of people who don’t have the choices that we have and I felt like it should be something we should talk about or bring out,” Campion told the Guardian. But we barely learn anything about the show’s main victim, who worked at a brothel under the name Cinnamon, nor are the other women who work there developed as characters. Instead, in one episode, we hear from a disinterested, Prada-wearing advocate for sex-workers in the city, who tells Robin that “it’s safer to work in a brothel than walk home at night.”
At the same time, Robin finally connects with the daughter who she gave up for adoption as a teenager, who is now a teenager herself: Mary (played by Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert) with Nicole Kidman playing her territorial adoptive mother. Mary is in the midst of a bad-girl phase: she detests feminism as opposed to her academic mother and she dreams only of being a wife to her grotesque 42-year-old, pseudo-intellectual boyfriend Alexander who, in a crazy coincidence, also owns the brothel where Cinnamon disappeared. “You should hear him talk about Dostoyevsky,” Mary tells her father, breathlessly, and you want to die of embarrassment on her behalf. And it’s ultimately the affluent, white Mary whose experiences get the biggest spotlight when it comes to the women under Alexander’s increasingly volatile thumb.
All of this amounts to a new season of Top of the Lake where there is just too much going on (and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Robin is also dealing with a civil suit filed by Detective Al Parker, who she shot at the end of Season 1). It seems as if there were two stories Campion wanted to tell: an exploration into adoption and motherhood via a reunion between Robin and her daughter, and another about Asian immigrants within Sydney’s sex industry. But connecting them this way just doesn’t work, each part of the story begging for a tighter focus. Had Top of the Lake: China Girl settled on one or the other, this may have actually been a worthwhile sequel.