Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

China Girl goes over the Top with violence

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s been a whole presidential term since Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s first banshee wail echoed off American shores, and I think we can all agree things are going great. On television, at least. As the West scrambled up the other side of recession with as little accountability for those in power as possible, Top Of The Lake accompanied a wave of women’s stories that would interrogate power to various degrees on the small screen. Along with a thrilling uptick in structural experiments, these women’s stories would replace the macho antihero drama as the major movement of ‘10s TV. And riding the wave to become the decade’s number one television target was the tireless, torrential warp of patriarchy.

But just because a show has its heart in the right place doesn’t make it good. When hyper and hypercompetent politico Leslie Knope stops the comedy to say, “Men’s rights is nothing,” it’s choir-preaching, plain and simple. It doesn’t address the threat of a festering hate group on the eve of power, but it sure gets the applause anyway. It’s empty calories, substituting the challenge of comedy for the easy approval of sympathy. And while real liberals were applauding themselves, real reactionaries were spreading. Not that it’s a sitcom’s job to stop them. But we’re not going anywhere if we can’t see through the mirage. The early-mid ‘10s are an embarrassment of feminist bumper-sticker riches, from Orange Is The New Black to The Good Wife, Game Of Thrones to Mad Men, some lazy, some sharp, some destined for gifhood, some inflated into sharable essays. Think of Abby and Ilana on Broad City turning around to “smile” for some dirtbag on the street, their smiles produced by their middle fingers pressing their cheeks upward. Now there’s a gag with teeth.

Top Of The Lake is much more focused on women under patriarchy than men this time around, but tonight’s episodes get back to that inescapable fact: Patriarchy perpetuates male entitlement to the point of violence. Which is not only a valuable point but a cornerstone of the show. So why are the filmmakers so excited by the prospect?

“Chapter 3” climaxes with Robin’s rapist Al Parker attacking her in a side room at their negotiated sit-down. It’s torture from the moment it begins, with him surprising her alone in a room and locking the door behind him. The long, cruel tease continues: He chases her, invades her personal space, tells her he loves her, chokes her with his belt, throws her to the ground. Robin gets the upper hand eventually, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Then “Chapter 4” does something similar with Puss and Mary, her frozen with fear as he attacks her. He’s manipulating her into a night of prostitution on the streets, far away from the comfort and camaraderie she feels at Dang’s brothel, and on her birthday for the added kick. It’s a brutal pair of episodes, over-the-top and outrageous. Finally male violence is done disguising itself. Like Julia says, I’m gonna be sick.

The violence overwhelms everything else in the episodes, which begin with a somewhat subtler boundary-crossing. “Chapter 3” opens with a false confession, which Robin silently susses out. She’s followed out by her homicide overseer Stally, who wants to talk to her alone under the auspices of his authority over their case, but he doesn’t want to talk about work. He propositions her, and while she takes it in stride and rejects him, and while he accepts her decision, it’s an indication of the direction of the episode. Later he’s jogging in her neighborhood and asks again, this time flexible on the number of individual dalliances. Can he take no for an answer? I’d have a bad feeling about this in any event, especially on this show, but keep in mind Robin’s history at that department. She’s well-known for shooting her boss who allegedly raped her, and after the surveillance footage from Al’s attack, her account shouldn’t be in dispute. Robin has a trauamtic history of sexual violence from her boss. Nevertheless, Stally persists.

Al Parker’s return is shot with the sadism, if not the gore, of Game Of Thrones at its worst . He’s introduced from behind, director Ariel Kleiman leaving you in suspense about who it is, heightening the anticipation so it really lands. The fact that he’s paired with children is another little psychological game the show is playing with its audience, turning stomachs so that we really get the full impact of what’s going on here.

We couldn’t miss it. From the scene early on where Adrian grills Robin about what happened with Al and the repeated reminders since that he’s in a position to make her face him again and recount all those traumatic memories, we witness the revolting deference men command and the constantly questioned authority of women.

But “Chapter 3” rolls around in the muck like a pig. Al locking the door, Adrian repeatedly noticing he and Robin are both unaccounted for, Wenham twisting his face in effort as he removes his belt inches from Robin and then the sudden break into a knock-down drag-out brawl—it’s not art but wrestling: bathetic, symbolic, and uncomplicated. That’s certainly how it’s perceived on the monitors, first by the security guards and later by Robin’s colleagues, most of whom don’t see her as a full person so much as an object of story. They’re tourists to her pain.

The interesting element to this drama is what’s going on in Robin’s head, paralyzed but courageous, quick with an idea to get help, ferocious and vengeful when she finally escapes Al’s grasp. And what’s going on outside, where Adrian stays put despite his misgivings, another weak man like Pyke who’s too afraid to stick his neck out to potentially help things. So it’s building security that finally, and I mean finally, bounces into action. At that point I expected the sadism to go one step further, with security blaming the victim as the attacker, but as in Get Out, Campion and Lee spare us that final knife twist.

Mary is also spared. She might finally be coming around, seeing Robin’s love and recognizing that’s not what Puss gives her. But not before spending her birthday night on the streets, which results in at least one blow job to some guy in a car who won’t pay and a punch to the face from the man she thinks she loves. At least she’s clear enough to call Robin for help, and Robin’s sharp enough to give her advice in code. On the ride home, Mary finds a picture of Cinnamon in Robin’s car. “Is this girl in trouble?” she asks. There’s a double-meaning there. Cinnamon was indeed in trouble. She was depressed and living with a violent man named Puss whom certain Marys might be familiar with. But Mary tellingly takes “in trouble” the other way. “Why, what’s she done?” She must see herself that way, in trouble in terms of punishment, when her entire family knows she’s in trouble in terms of danger. Back at Mary’s she breaks down. She can’t leave Puss, she cries. Robin holds her and comforts her and they fall asleep together. It’s a start. It’s good for Mary to see that she has someone in her corner who will always help her, and to see more functional relationship like Robin and her brother Liam and Miranda than Pyke and Julia and their elephants in the room.

That’s still not all the violence. When Robin and Mary get together for their beach day, to teach the girls to swim, Robin meets Puss. It’s the clearest example yet of how much an operator he is. He keeps telling Robin how sexy she is while clumsily trying to neg her. She’s a hell of a lot stronger than he is, so she’s not the least bit persuaded by his act. Think about who is, indentured sex workers who don’t speak English and a teenage girl. Some master manipulator. Anyway, this being the dark before the dawn in the three-night saga of China Girl, Puss attacks Robin, too, biting her nose and yelling at her for abandoning Mary. Pyke and Mary come to the rescue, but Mary still defends Puss over his damaged background, and Robin decides not to press charges for her sake.

And I haven’t even mentioned Brett, the guy at the escort rating club who loved Cinnamon. He seems relatively sweet, but in a way that reminds me of something Joan says on Mad Men when Pete tells her the client who has propositioned her isn’t so bad. “He’s doing this,” she says. Likewise, Brett may be lovey-dovey and he may be a much better person than the leader of their he-man woman-haters club. But he’s doing this. He’s objectifying women as a hobby, if not a profession (it’s not clear if these guys run a site or what). And after he helps set Robin and Miranda on the right track, as they walk away he parts the window curtains with a gun, talking to himself about whether or not to shoot them. (Well, he thinks he’s talking to the phantom Cinnamon in his head, a twisted parallel to Robin being haunted by the memory of the baby she gave up.) It’s the kind of shocking silliness you’d expect on a much less sophisticated show, although unlike the return of Al, Brett’s about-face generally folds into the show’s extremity without compromising its other values.

The China Girl case is less about solving a murder than leading us through scenarios that reflect on the real drama, the far more compelling and challenging issue of how Robin can help Mary, and the plight of the Thai sex workers. As Top Of The Lake has it, the gravity of patriarchy may stunt men, but it demands absolute dominance of women—a misery it treats at its worst with bizarre excitement.

Stray observations:

  • “Chapters 3 & 4” were written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and directed by Ariel Kleiman.
  • I love how Isadore tries to sympathize with Puss, and Julia misinterprets everything she’s saying to use against him. Isadore says his story is about rescue and ruin, and Julia goes, “He’s gonna do that to you, baby. He is dangerous, and evil.” Isadore says his story was like a fairy tale. Julia agrees. “Like a psychopath.”
  • Mary storms out, but not before berating her mother. “So shove your conventions and your respectability up your cunt, Julia, where nothing ever has lived, where everything dies.” Mary’s just trying to hurt Julia, but it speaks to the idea of motherhood being exclusively tied to the womb, in that it’s an argument worthy of a spoiled brat.
  • Robin: “I have a daughter I think about every day of my life. Every day. Every fucking day.”
  • Notice Brett’s mother also acts like she’s just happy to be part of her child’s life, rather than trying to raise him right.
  • Julia: “Michaela, I love the tux! I really do.” Mary: “Should I be wearing a tux?”
  • I was wondering when it was gonna get there. Mary talks about turning 18. She can legally drink now. Puss adds, “And have sex.” She tells him she already could do that. He continues, “And sell sex.”
  • The father-daughter dance is an old-fashioned custom taking some fire nowadays, but its presentation in Top Of The Lake isn’t especially cynical. The dads Harlem Shake, there’s no extraordinary protectiveness or too much affection, everyone seems to enjoy the occasion just the right amount. Everyone except Puss, of course. “I thought I was your old man.”
  • Robin intones over a photo of Cinnamon, “Poor mother. She has no idea.” Cut to Mary in a brothel asking for some time on the floor.
  • Mary has ideals (although to what extent they’re even her ideals is up for debate). The workers at Dang’s have lived experience: hard work, training, rape. It’s similar to the conflict between Isadore’s airy-fairy interpretation of Puss’ life and Julia’s much more understandable visceral repulsion to this sleazy, self-pitying brothel landlord. What’s the conflict between the abstract and the physical really all about? The adoptive mother vs. the birth mother.
  • Dang: “Once you choose this, it’s forever.” She may just be trying to scare Mary straight, but on a show like this, it comes off awfully moralistic.
  • A person of interest asks Robin if a dog bit her nose. “Yes and no.”