‘Secret City’ is an Australian series shown in mid-2016 by Foxtel Productions. After two years, it finally arrived on Netflix and has been attracting its fair share of viewers since last month, creating a buzz among avid watchers of American political thriller series like ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Mindhunters’.
The six-part mini-series is based on the novels ‘The Marmalade Files’ and ‘The Mandarin Code’ by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. The series is written by Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa, and Greg Waters.
The show has received good reviews by many critics and seems to have established a stable following on Twitter. While the show is in no way based on actual events, the fact that the author of the book which the series is based on is said to have worked as a journalist for a newspaper in Canberra in the late 80s gives the show some credence and plausibility.
I must admit that this is one of the few Australian shows I have watched and I think one of the first I am reviewing for this column. What I really like is that ‘Secret City’ explores similar corruption and conspiracies as some of my favourite American shows have, but the series has its own distinct flavour and twist. And honestly, I had no idea how and where Australian government runs its affairs until I binge-watched the series.
I was also not sure how a political international thriller would play out with Australia being the central player. It was really an enjoyable reprieve to get a new perspective on geopolitical diplomacy between the US and China, no matter how dramatised it was for entertainment purposes. The show did a really great job of getting the viewer see the fine line Australia must maintain on the international stage.
The pilot episode opens with a woman screaming “Free Tibet! Free Tibet! Return the Dalai Lama to Tibet!” and then lighting herself on fire. As people scream and the camera angle turns to what appears to be a smartphone footage from onlookers, the young woman falls over. Later on the episode, we discover that the young girl was an Australian on scholarship to China. While she survives her self-immolation, albeit covered in third-degree burns, she ends up in a Chinese dissident prison.
And assuming those opening sequences aren’t enough to keep one glued on theirseat, the next scenes are just as thrilling.
We see a guy named Max running from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, only to be found dead in the lake the next morning.
Journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv) happens to row every morning on the lake, which is how she stumbles on the case and becomes a key component to solving all the intertwining crimes – from student activism in China to Chinese students based in Australia and to the possible internal corruption inside the state capital.
Harriet is what we would call a hard-nosed old school journo ever so determined to not be hindered by the new media landscape of click bait and the lure of the 24-hour news cycle. Due to her tactics, she is far from loved by her colleagues in the industry.
Viewers would soon find out that she is in hot water with her editor because she has overstepped her boundaries in investigating the head of the Ministry of Defense, accusing him of misusing Labor Party funds. The editor wants her to cover human interest stories, to which she replies, “human interest stories are for people who love people. I hate people so I cover politicians.” This pretty much sums up how she works and lives.
Harry, as she is called by her friends, blatantly ignores the editor’s request and begins to solve the mysterious death of a young man found in the river. What she soon uncovers becomes the premises of the show’s “secret city” of interlocked political conspiracies and deceit.
Harry has an ex-husband Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman), who has come out as transgender woman after their divorce. Kim works for an intelligence agency as senior analyst and China expert at the Australian Signals Directorate (similar to the National Security Agency). Persuasive and tightly coiled, Harry’s connection to Kim has allowed her to gain inside information that puts both their lives at great risk.
The journo has collected some top secret evidence to Max’s death that is mysteriously erased from her phone. Knowing what ASD is capable of doing, she immediately knows Max’s death was no suicide and is even much bigger than what she initially suspected. She seeks answers from Kim which blows up both their lives.
Senator Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie), is a scheming Labor Party man with many skeletons in the closet. He is the man who Harry has suspected of misusing funds, but was never able to prove it. He has apparent pro-Chinese sympathies which put him at odds with Prime Minister Martin Toohey (Alan Dale) and the party’s rightwing powerbroker Catriona Bailey (Jacki Weaver). Paxton’s background is in question, especially when a picture of him being arrested in China leaks out. He has never disclosed his detention, in getting clearance from ASD, before being assigned to his current position.
Then there’s Weng Meihui (Eugenia Yuan), wife of the Chinese Ambassador, who we soon find out is secretly having an affair with Paxton. To be honest, the first episodes seemed like a massive plot gap because the scenes would let us see how easy it is to spy and gather information on anyone and anything without getting noticed. But trust me when I say that you just have to wait for everything to come together and you’ll see that the plot is not what it seems at all.
How are all of these affairs, connections, killings, protests and corruption connected to each other? And what do these things have to do with the Australian political activist who set herself alight in Beijing? How high up do these conspiracies and deceit go? What really is the “secret city”?
To find out all the answers to these confusions, spend the weekend binge-watching the six-episode ‘Secret City’ on Netflix. You’ll be glued to every scene like a book that you just can’t put down until you’ve read the last page.