I’ve read quite a few reviews saying that this second series of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake is an unholy mess – characters are unlikeable, scenes are cringe-worthy and the male characters are all heinous brutes. But I really enjoyed the first two episode, which showcased an intriguing and very dark murder plot and some interesting character progression. In episode three however, things went off the rails in a big way.
There were a few things that I had problems with, but we’ll get to those a bit later. In the meantime, episode three was progressing nicely in terms of the investigation – Robin and Miranda, after finding out in episode two that their China Girl was a surrogate, did the rounds of the local IVF clinics, looking for couple that had been so desperate for conception that they would perhaps seek an illegal surrogate. Eventually they found the couple they had been looking for, but only by chance – a mentally disturbed woman was found walking the streets in an extremely distressed condition. A little more digging and they found that the woman was part of a couple, who had indeed engaged a surrogate to fulfill their dreams of having a baby.
We also saw Robin and Mary’s relationship grow. Mary, still under the influence of Puss, has revealed herself to be a bit of handful. Precocious, argumentative and pig-headed, she called her adoptive mother Julia – at a dinner date with her family and Puss that went all kinds of wrong – a ‘cunt’ while also revealing herself later to Robin to be a young woman suffering from extreme anxiety problems.
The episode finished in inexplicable style, with Robin confronting Al Parker, her nemesis from series one. Now in a motorised wheelchair (why was he in a wheelchair?), Parker attacked her viscously, strangling her with his belt in a waiting room before the hearing. Woah. Really?? This is when I started to question things – Parker had made the trip to Australia with his family in tow, intent to clear his name after Robin’s accusations. So what on earth was he doing attacking her – not just attacking her but coming very close to killing her – in a police station holding room with cameras all around? For a man looking to prove his innocence, he wasn’t doing a very good job of things. It just didn’t make sense.
I also thought that re-introducing Parker somewhat over-egged the pudding. Up to that point we were wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric and very dark procedural, with some intriguing side stories involving Mary, Julia and Pyke. As a character, Robin had enough on her plate to deal with and, as an audience, we also had plenty of meat on the bone. Her scene with Parker, however brutal and visceral, was superfluous, misplaced and, ultimately, not needed. It added nothing to the story – neither was there closer on Robin and Parker’s relationship from series one, nor did it have any effect on the China Girl case. Now, the repercussions might still come to light in episode five or six, but they certainly didn’t in episode four.
In fact, the inconsistencies continued. Right from the start. Robin requested a meeting with her boss Adrian, who insisted on Miranda being there. The two had fallen out, but I couldn’t remember an incident between the two. Yes, Robin was feeling some resentment because Adrian had announced that he and Miranda were in a relationship together but to my knowledge, there was no real incident between the two that kicked anything off. If anything, their friendship had been getting closer. Inexplicably, there was no real mention of the Al Parker incident either. Why re-introduce Parker if it wasn’t going to have any impact on the story or Robin’s state of mind. It was the kind of attack that would sideline anyone for months.
In fact, when we rejoined episode four, it felt like there was a strange jump in time.
Then we had Puss and Mary. With her 18th birthday approaching, Puss had been probing and goading her, pushing her buttons and questioning her sisterhood with the other girls in the brothel. Doubting her authenticity and her own place in the order of things, she began to move the idea of becoming a sex worker herself around her mind. Puss made sure it was gestating: “Look, I don’t want you do it, but if you really want to…”
My – and I would imagine much of the audience’s – initial thought was to scream at the TV and shout to Mary not to do it, and wonder why a young, intelligent woman could so easily be groomed and coaxed into something so horrendous. But this is Mary’s small world, and it’s her everything. She’s been without a mother and father she respects and Puss is the only one who’s shown her true love and devotion. Puss is the missing piece in her life, she thinks, and he knows it. And so he exploits it. Slowly but surely, he exploits and manipulates and controls her. This how predatory groomers work – they play the long game.
But Robin was closing in fast. They tracked down Brett (one of the nerdy computer bros), who told them about Puss at the brothel, and his girlfriend, Mary. Robin’s face dropped as she made the connection.
And then there was the scene at the beach. Mary was to be there, giving swimming lessons to some of the sex workers from the brothel, but Robin had asked Pyke (who she had been forming a friendship with… a romance on the cards, maybe?) to come along, too. I wasn’t sure whether Robin had engineered the whole meeting just so she could meet Puss and suss him out. Puss was indeed there, skulking and stalking the beach as everyone else was in the water.
When Robin got out of the water and sat with him alone, I assumed he was playing the situation perfectly – befriend him, gently question him and find out who he really was. But Puss was pure menace, immediately talking abut sex and how good Robin looked in the water. He leered and sneered and, finally, brutally attacked her (poor Robin, how much more can this woman take?) to the point where he embedded his teeth into her nose.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I knew that my birth daughter was hanging around a violent man twice her age, who lived in a brothel and was a suspect in a murder case, I’d want to follow this up pretty sharpish. Add on the fact that he had attacked you, causing you to go to hospital and have stitches, and investigating Puss and visiting the brothel would be number-one priority. But no, nothing happened. Robin went home, Pyke went home. Robin had told him at the hospital about the link between Puss, the brothel and the murdered sex worker. As a father you would have expected him to go apeshit, perhaps even visit the brothel himself and confront Puss himself.
Instead, on Mary’s 18th birthday, he woke her up and gave her a card and wished her a happy birthday, disappointingly shrugging him when Mary told him she probably wouldn’t be around for her birthday dinner.
She had decided that this was going to the day she scored her first trick but, because the brothel’s madam had despised the idea of Mary working there, Puss had taken her out to walk the streets. He was nothing more than a pimp.
We had plenty of harrowing, tough-to-watch scenes in these episodes, some needless, some crucial, and plenty of inconsistencies that made me tear what little hair I have left clean out. But there’s still something mesmerising about this drama – something atmospheric and seedy, something intriguing and addictive. Whether it’s the outstanding performances (Alice Englert as Mary is particularly good) or some of the characters or even the location, I’m not sure. There’s no doubt, though, that Top Of The Lake: China Girl is at its best when it focuses on the case in hand and the relationship between Mary and both sets of parents. Hopefully, the final two episodes will be more focused on these two elements because it sure as hell needs to be.
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