Jane Campion is known for many things: being the only woman to ever take home the Palme d’Or at Cannes; winning an Oscar for screenwriting for “The Piano”; and creating the kinds of complex female roles that actresses don’t come across very often.
She did just that for Elisabeth Moss, who stars in “Top of the Lake” as Detective Robin Griffin. The second season, subtitled “China Girl,” ended Tuesday night with back-to-back episodes that solved the second season’s big mystery while still leaving several tantalizing loose threads.
In the meantime, Campion has also gained a reputation for something else: creating some seriously screwed up male characters. With few exceptions, the men who populate the Sydney-set second season of “Top of the Lake” are disgusting brutes. This trend would be less conspicuous if most television and movies weren’t written by men about male heroes (and, occasionally, the women who love them). But “China Girl” is really about female relationships, especially mothers and daughters. And the men? Well, let’s review.
The show’s most obvious villain is Puss (David Dencik) whose nickname isn’t the grossest thing about him. He’s also a 40-something faux-intellectual who lives in a brothel, dates a 17-year-old and claims — to his girlfriend’s horrified mother, no less — that the “destiny of man is to enslave women.”
One of the only reliably kind men from last season, Robin’s love interest Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), reappears in “China Girl” (played now by Mark Leonard Winter), only to prove that he’s not the person we thought he was. He’s having an affair at his pot farm — on the day he’s supposed to marry Robin.
Then there’s Robin’s superior Stally (Christiaan Van Vuuren) who relentlessly hits on her with all the appeal of a used-car salesman, and his partner (Adam Zwar), who helpfully explains that Stally simply “doesn’t know a real no from a yes-no.” Then, in what amounts to chivalry on the show, he offers Robin his card and tells her to call him should Stally come over to her apartment uninvited again.
Robin’s boss Adrian (Clayton Jacobson) seems like a nice enough guy until he questions Robin’s account of her sexual assault and decides to have a baby with his girlfriend — even though he’s married to another woman. And there’s the whole crew of young dweebs who hang out at a cafe, taking advantage of the free WiFi while ordering water so they can work on a website that rates prostitutes at nearby brothels.
In an interview with the Ringer, Campion assured the reporter that the vile crew of techie nerds wasn’t nearly as far-fetched as they may have seemed to American viewers.
“Those disgusting dudes, they were researched,” she said. “Brothels are legal in Australia, and so these guys have created sites where they review them, in graphic detail. It’s beyond the imagination, how dehumanizing. It’s disgusting and hilarious to me. They want to make sure they and their buddies get their 80 bucks worth, or whatever.”
In other words, the misogyny on “Top of the Lake” is never about microaggressions. It’s overt and unmistakable.
To be fair, the female characters are hardly pristine, which is why they’re so appealing to the women who play them. Robin is brittle and standoffish, while her new partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) is an emotional powder keg. The daughter who Robin gave up for adoption (played by Campion’s real-life daughter Alice Englert) is an entitled brat and her adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman) is domineering and possessive, even of the husband she left for another woman.
Speaking of that husband — Pyke (Ewen Leslie) — he’s one of the good ones (unless, perhaps, there’s another season). True, he’s a complete pushover who isn’t great under pressure, but at least he’s sweet and thoughtful. He brings Mary breakfast in bed for her birthday and he’s been looking forward to her school’s father-daughter dance for two years. If he weren’t such a well-drawn character, he might appear to be the token nice guy sent to ward off any complaints of misandry. Though, if there are complaints, does it matter? After all, women have been confronted with broad, lame characterizations, brought to the screen by men, for ages. Isn’t turnabout fair play?
That’s how the stars of the show feel. Neither Moss nor Christie noticed the way men were portrayed until others pointed it out to them, and both laughed it off, according to Vanity Fair. To men, Moss said “China Girl” was a “taste of your own medicine. How’s that?” And Christie said, “That’s unlikely, isn’t it? We don’t normally see that in our TV dramas, do we?”
We certainly don’t.