Elisabeth Moss is a great actress who is also a great script reader, an invisible part of being a great talent. Between Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Top of The Lake, she has, with seeming effortlessness, starred in three excellent television shows, while other talented actors’ careers go wonky struggling to do the same—and that’s not counting her role as the President’s daughter on The West Wing. Moss is, knowingly or otherwise, drawn to women grappling with male power —Peggy Olson making it in the man’s world of 1960s advertising, Offred surviving in a sexist theocracy, Top of the Lake’s Robin Griffin solving sex crimes in misogynist Oceania —which only makes the incident, earlier this year, when she refused, initially, to call The Handmaid’s Tale “feminist” more curious: Her vocabulary may not be woke , but her taste is.
Moss’ taste has proved, this year, to be uncannily prescient. First, of course, was The Handmaid’s Tale, conceived before Donald Trump’s presidency but arriving after his election with the zeitgeisty force of a 10-story It Girl. Now, more quietly, comes Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. (Campion co-wrote all the scripts with Gerard Lee and directed two of the six episodes; the rest are directed by Ariel Kleiman.)Though it is set in present day Australia, not a dystopic near future, the series, which airs over three nights on Sundance Channel beginning Sunday, is concerned to an almost eerie degree with the same themes as The Handmaid’s Tale, including sexism as tangible as a punch in the face, a female underclass whose members are valued for their wombs, and the permutations of biological and adoptive motherhood.
In the majestic first season of Top of The Lake, Moss’s Robin Griffin returned home to New Zealand and began looking for a missing, pregnant 12-year old. It was a crime show, but a digressive and moody one, with time for a love story, gorgeous landscapes, a supporting character’s acid trip, and a gruff feminist guru, styled like Campion, who was largely ancillary to the plot. The new season trades offbeat New Zealand wilderness for a metropolis, natural beauty for Sydney’s highways and sodium street lights, a missing person for a corpse, and a Twin Peaks vibe for a Prime Suspect one.
Top of the Lake’s second installment picks up some years after the first, with a heartbroken and prickly Robin returning to Sydney and a police department awash with sexism. Campion is not going for subtly here. If ToTL were a drinking game where you took a shot for every instance of misogyny, you would be hospitalized by the end of the first episode. In the opening scenes, Robin is disrespected by a male cadet; a noxious colleague won’t stop hitting on her; her boss shrugs off her sexual assault. The show keeps dropping in on a group of men at a coffee shop, wannabe practioners of “The Game” who trade tips on prostitutes and talk with bravado, but fear contact with all women they aren’t paying. Meanwhile, the body of an unidentified sex worker, stuffed into a suitcase, washes up on Bondi Beach; her face is rotted beyond recognition, but enough remains to identify her as Asian, so the police nickname her “China Girl.” (In Australia, sex work is legal, but surrogacy is not.) Robin is given the case and paired with rookie officer Miranda Hilmarson (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie), the two women pawned off on one another, given a case nobody else wants. At least for now—one of Robin’s male colleagues warns her that he’ll pull rank and snatch the case away from her it starts getting any media attention.
China Girl is filled with plot to the point of ludicrousness—an old nemesis returns to settle a score with Robin in a fight scene that could be out of an action movie spoof—and occasional incoherence; Robin and Miranda’s up and down friendship seems to be missing a few beats. It is also full of coincidence: Robin hopes to contact her biological daughter, who she gave up for adoption after being gang-raped at 16. (In the first season, Robin said she would never meet her daughter because, if she, Robin, found out that was how she was conceived, she would kill herself.) That daughter, Mary (played by Alice Englert, Jane Campion’s own daughter), is now a hyper-precocious 17-year-old who is madly in love with the 40-something Puss (David Dencik), a stringy haired German iconoclast who is as sleazy a romantic partner as his name suggests. Dating Puss is not only a perfect way to alarm Mary’s recently separated parents, Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman); he also—and here’s that coincidence—lives in the brothel where the victim worked and is instrumental in parts of its business.
But for all of China Girl’s didacticism, it has great characters, a mischievous sense of humor, grace notes. Moss’ Robin is taciturn and in turmoil, silent and watchful in her angst, which is hilariously paired against Miranda, who dances around her apartment in an astronaut costume. The brothel’s sex workers are ancillary, but when they appear they do so as real people, eager to learn how to swim, fully aware of the drawbacks of their situation, mastering relevant English phrases like “bareback blowjob.”
Scenes bristle with rousing intellectual energy, as when Mary brings Puss to meet her family for dinner and the conversation degrades into the equivalent of highbrow plate throwing. Kidman’s Julia, resplendent in what I think of as Art History chic (you may recognize it as psychiatrist soignée)—grey curls, the Australian equivalent of Eileen Fisher, and well-chosen chunky, possibly ethnic, statement jewelry—faces off against Puss on the meaning of feminism. Julia teaches the subject at a private high school and has recently left her husband for a woman; her daughter currently despises her. Puss is louche, intelligent, and dangerous, an academic dropout and self-styled iconoclast who claims to live by a moral code that ultimately demands degradation for all. Talk of Puss’ scholarship soon veers off course, with him offering the opinion that “The destiny of man is to enslave women.” Julia counters that she studied “under Germaine Greer,” inspiring Mary to exclaim, “I hate feminism!” As Julia and Puss continue to butt heads, Mary explodes to her mother, “I am trying to survive your endless need for attention!” and storms off. Puss takes the opportunity to tell Pyke, “Your wife has the big balls of a new romance.”
As much as Mary despises Julia, she is also very much like her. When Mary and Robin first meet—another fantastic scene—Mary is jangly and high-energy, Julia’s imprint all over her. “I think you're amazing: you're so alive and so beautiful,” Robin tells her, and Mary sparks to Robin’s stillness, her concern, a different kind of maternal relationship. As the plot of Top of the Lake continues to churn, Robin does what she can to protect Mary, shedding some of her angst about being childless, to take on the vulnerability of having a child.
Top of the Lake: China Girl flogs the series’ recurring themes: Sexism, sexism, sexism, parenthood, parenthood, parenthood. What makes a mother? What makes a parent? What does it mean to bring a woman into this world? Does being a mother or a father abnegate our responsibilities to others? How can we be so kind to children but not the adults they grow up to be? Top of the Lake bolds, italicizes, and underlines this last question by reframing it as starkly as The Handmaid’s Tale does. How can we be so kind to babies, but not the women they grow inside?