your next binge watch: the new series of top of the lake

Your long, dark summer of Elisabeth Moss continues with her latest brilliant drama.

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24 July 2017, 7:45am

Elisabeth Moss wants you to have a really fucked up time of it this summer.

The star of the most disturbing TV show right now, The Handmaid's Tale, is about to double up on the darkness, when she returns in series two of Top of the Lake this week.

You might already be reeling from the scarily current themes of Margaret Atwood's parable about reproductive rights and theocratic dictatorship. But if The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian vision where women's rights are offered to men on a plate, then Top of the Lake: China Girl is a present day companion piece: a vision of the way in which the world works now for men's pleasure, to women's detriment.

Top of the Lake, with its battered wives, gang rape victims, rampant, everyday misogyny in rough pubs and police cells, is a grim reading of hegemonic masculinity. In the first series [spoiler alert] Moss, as police inspector Robin Griffith, investigated the disappearance of a young, pregnant teenager in rural New Zealand, a case that led her to uncovering an organised sex ring and to confronting her painful past at the hands of men.

The second series, which streams this week in its entirety, takes the audience into a world of sex work, internet porn and casual, everyday dehumanisation of women. It is pretty uncompromising stuff. Some of this is its star's doing. "I wanted it to be more challenging, to be darker and more fucked up," said Moss on the decision to reprise the role, speaking at a preview screening of the show in London earlier in the summer. "I wanted it to be something that was a step in a more challenging direction for all of us otherwise what is the point of going back?"

Read: Your next-next binge watch? Clique, the drama tackling female friendship, uni life and the class divide.

So Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion, director of Palme d'Or winning The Piano, changed time and location for series two, moving on four years from New Zealand to Sydney where Griffith is trying to rebuild her life. Moss's character does it in the only way she knows how: work. So when the body of an Asian girl washes up in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, Griffith's investigation leads her into the the world of Sydney sex trade, where immigrant girls on student visas work in brothels.

For Campion, the changes gave her an immediate opportunity to explore issues she felt incensed by. "The sexual tourism that is a part of Australian culture really repulses me. I really feel for those young women, that that's their way of having to use their bodies to make money," she said at the BFI preview in London. "It's ok if you want to do it that way -- but I don't know, it's really been an outrage for me, a personal one."

Another theme brought to the surface in Top of the Lake is motherhood. While on the case, Griffith meets the child she gave up for adoption at just 16. Mary, now 17, is played by Campion's 22-year-old daughter Alice Englert. The director wanted to explore motherhood in various guises. "As a woman I wanted to show that business of having babies is very fraught. It's not so easy," she said. "We're talking about life and death here."

The show may be bleak but it is not without a sense of humour. There is an irresistibly spiky turn by Nicole Kidman as Mary's adoptive mother, Julia. Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie rounds out the cast as a police cadet sidekick to Griffith, who is both comic foil and button pusher of her deeply wounded boss.

Top of the Lake: China Girl deeps dig in various ways. That gruesome discovery on Bondi Beach drags a lot else to light on motherhood to misogyny, exploitation to emancipation. The 'lake' of the title is now the Pacific Ocean; the themes the show explores feel as vast. Prepare to give up your summer to it, and dive into the dark.

Top of the Lake: China Girl streams from Thursday on BBC iPlayer.

Read: Stranger Things have just released a trailer for series 2 and it's all kind of amazing.

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Text Colin Crummy