TV review: Secret City
An Australian take on House of Cards?
Secret City had obvious aspirations – to become the Australian take on House of Cards, tangled full of political intrigue, populated by characters you love to hate (or hate to love) trading witty, barbed lines interspersed with gorgeous shots of the Canberra skyline.
Well. At least the cinematography was there.
Secret City is very much a geopolitical thriller, focused on the rising tensions between China and the USA, and how Australia is getting caught in the middle. But it’s not all about the dry back-room dealings. By the first few minutes of Episode 1, there has already been one murder and one gruesome near-death – the show does not shy away from the most extreme consequences of conspiracies, and the dangers for those involved. And as some politicians seek to use global events as a lever to turn Australia into more of a surveillance state, other people outside the halls of power are beginning to uncover exactly what is being plotted in the name of their country’s “safety” and “security.”
Despite its rich source material – the series is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’ trilogy The Marmalade Files, The Mandarin Code and The Shadow Game – Secret City translates to the screen as an emotionally muddled, narratively disjointed, long six episodes.
Anna Torv stars as journalist Harriet Dunkley, a crusader without a cause, apparently more interested in barging into her editor’s office and demanding to get her way than anything else. And though the narrative rewards this more often than not, the payoffs somehow still don’t manage to make her come across as less petulant or, as we are supposed to accept, good at her job.
I’ll be the first to say that a huge part of great journalism can be about getting very lucky. It’s completely possible for career-making stories to “fall out of the sky” after a chance encounter or a random phone call. But Harriet has really unbelievable good fortune as she stumbles across various elements of the conspiracy while she’s going about her daily life. And the show just doesn’t do enough to establish that she’s pulling these links together where no one else could through her skill, talent, and drive. Instead, she is almost completely propelled from plot point to plot point by virtue of “being the protagonist.”
And while Harriet drives the narrative forward in her haphazard way, stumbling across the trail of an international intelligence conspiracy, the emotional core of Secret City should have belonged to Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman). Kim, a senior analyst in the Australian Signals Directorate and a transgender woman, is Harriet’s ex. After she came out, Harriet divorced her, though is certainly not above using her to get access to confidential files when it serves her purpose.
Kim had so much potential to be a wonderful character. She’s multifaceted and messy – as all the best characters in political intrigue thrillers tend to be – smart as a whip, driven as hell, anchored by a strong (if not always necessarily ethical) moral code, hopeful without veering into optimism, kind and cold in turns. And there is even a glancing attempt to reckon with the idea that Kim, through her work at the Signals Directorate, is directly contributing to the mechanics of the surveillance state that puts marginalized people like herself at greater risk.
Honestly, I wish Secret City had been focused on Kim rather than Harriet. As a character, Kim fascinates, while Harriet mostly just schemes and rages. But even as it was, it’s not too far of a reach to say that the entire conclusion of Secret City depends on a deep, complicated but fundamentally abiding love for Kim. A love which, unfortunately, was brutally absent from every other aspect of the show. And I am very much including the writer’s room.
*Major spoilers for the first season of Secret City continue below. Also, this portion of the article discusses violence against transgender people*
Watching Secret City, I felt like the writers had all attended an HR training session together and learned that sexually assaulting a trans woman in the workplace is bad, and decided to film a narrative PSA to that effect – but they clearly didn’t necessarily understand why; as in, that trans people are full human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
And while I think the show should not have cast a cisgender man to play Kim, rather than having a trans woman play the role, that is actually not my biggest problem with how her story was treated.
Kim’s storyline is just unrelenting trauma piled on trauma. Harriet treats her coming out as a personal betrayal and is incredibly cruel to her long after the fact, except when she wants something. She’s mistreated by her boss, still in love with a woman who can only mourn the husband she thought she married, and is eventually murdered by her new partner in an extended, violent scene that zooms in on every gory moment.
And even at her funeral, Kim is further degraded in death. All the eulogies and graveside conversations call her a man, and no one – not one person – dares to issue a correction. I had only “known” Kim for three episodes, and I couldn’t stop myself from loudly muttering “she” every time someone misgendered her while claiming to mourn her. Somebody had to. Harriet certainly didn’t step up in her defense, not even for a quiet correction or a flinch when Kim’s identity was repeatedly ignored and erased.
And after that, we’re supposed to believe Harriet loved Kim enough to willingly destroy herself in an all-consuming quest to avenge her death? I don’t buy it.
Secret City did return for a second season, with an even greater focus on the United States’ influence on Australia’s politics (and a very on-the-nose title: Under the Eagle). But political thrillers need more than just a convoluted, high-stakes plot to sustain themselves. They also need characters we can care about, whose motivations make sense, and who aren’t just going to be torn apart by the show itself as “revenge” for being who they are.
Secret City should have stayed a secret.