It’s by no means the only issue with the series. Set against this much more conventional backdrop, the holes in Campion’s detective story are clearer, but the story and the dialogue have been heightened to the point of absurdist theater, as if to compensate. The first series saw Robin (Moss), a Sydney detective, tasked with finding a missing girl while visiting her hometown. Throughout her investigation, personal and professional concerns became increasingly entangled: The case required Robin to revisit her own sexual assault in high school, she was drugged and assaulted again by a colleague, and a primary suspect in the disappearance was revealed to be her real father. In China Girl, Robin is back in Sydney, four years later, investigating the death of a woman whose body was dumped into the ocean in a suitcase, and who appears, against all odds, to be linked to the daughter Robin gave up for adoption 18 years ago.
The primary antagonist in the show is misogyny, which seemed to have infected Laketop so perniciously in the first season that even an all-women retreat run by the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter) couldn’t endure it. “Are you a feminist? Are you a lesbian?” a drinker in the local bar asks Robin early on, before expounding on the sexual superiority of Thai women. Within the tight-knit rural community, which was deeply suspicious of outsiders, the hatred and subjugation of women had coagulated at every level, to the point where Robin’s boss, Detective Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham) was revealed to be not only a rapist but also the mastermind of a ring of underage prostitutes.
But in China Girl, set in the much larger city of Sydney, the show’s continued presentation of men as rapists, pimps, cheats, and murderers is so committed it starts to become comical. There’s a group of unprepossessing bloggers who run a website for rating sex workers online and meet weekly to debate their favorites (the primary character literally lives in his mother’s basement). Robin’s male colleagues either proposition her or disparage the appearance of her new partner, Miranda (Game of Thrones’s Gwendoline Christie). Even Robin’s ally, a criminal pathologist, fixates on her sex life, telling her he’d marry her if only he had a bigger penis. The real villain, though, is Alexander “Puss” Braun (David Dencik), a German immigrant and former academic who’s cartoonishly evil in a logic-defying way, as if the Joker ran a brothel and groomed underage girls for the sole purpose of torturing their parents.
As despairing as they are about toxic masculinity, the new episodes are fixated on the subject of motherhood—what it means, what it costs, and the lengths women will go to when they’re denied it. Campion based some of this on her own experiences, and the inclusion of her own daughter in the cast, Alice Englert, playing Mary, Robin’s biological daughter, amplifies the energy. Nicole Kidman, a new addition to the show, plays Mary’s adoptive mother, and the tension between the woman who bore a child and the woman who raised her casts an ugly kind of pall over proceedings. “You withheld from her,” Kidman spits in one of the odder scenes, sporting prosthetic teeth and a curly gray wig. “Mothers don’t do that. They reassure their children. That’s what they do.” This accusation—that Robin, who gave up the baby she had after being raped as a teenager, is selfish and a bad mother—is a hard statement to qualify, but it’s far from being the only head-scratcher.