30 July, 2018 in Reviews
A review by Davey Thompson
I was a little slow to get on the Wentworth train. A close friend was telling me, for at least two years, “Davey, you have to see this show!” But he wouldn’t tell me much else about it except that it’s good.
From the few stills I saw, it didn’t read as something I would gravitate towards naturally. I told him so, but he kept insisting. After rolling my eyes repeatedly, then relocating interstate, I finally gave in and started watching series one via Presto (RIP, it was beautiful while it lasted).
I came out of the very first episode feeling like I’d wasted two years of my life not being a Wentworth fan. I was hooked, and it was the simplest detail that got me.
For those who aren’t aware, Wentworth is a revival of the legendary Australian series Prisoner… only better. Debuting on Network Ten in February, 1979, Prisoner wrapped up before this reviewer was even born, and the only glimpses us 90’s babies got were the random re-runs Network Ten would choose when they needed to fill a 30-minute slot.
By today’s standards, Prisoner comes off as camp. TV dramas were essentially filmed as plays back in those days, and we hadn’t yet entered the renaissance era that The Sopranos kick-started. Thanks to this movement, and shows like The West Wing, we now tell stories on television screens with the same scope and depth we expect from a feature film. Fast-forward to 2011 and Wentworth is like Prisoner had a baby with Breaking Bad, only Breaking Bad is the one raising the child.
Wentworth is a like a meticulously played game of chess, with as much betrayal and misdirection as Game of Thrones, only here instead of across continents, most of the action is contained within prison walls. During these power plays, anticipating much of the characters’ actions comes down to being able to read the subtle hints in body language and understanding tone.
These details speak absolute volumes to First Nations people. Leah Purcell, the legendary Australian actor, writer and director who has recently joined the cast of Wentworth, joked about being able to perform her scenes with no dialogue.
In Aboriginal communities we can have entire conversations with body language and facial expressions, and Wentworth really tapped into that early on. These intricate details of human interaction weren’t exclusive to the First Nations characters, but my own personal radar for this behaviour was going off like a frog in a sock.
In the earlier seasons, there are a small handful of First Nations characters sprinkled throughout, with Shareena Clanton’s Doreen Anderson being the only prominent one. This doesn’t represent the makeup of Australian prisons today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are dramatically over-represented in our prison system, to the point where we are the most incarcerated minority group in the world. Government policy enabled the genocide of our people. Though we only account for 3% of the total population of this continent, we make up roughly 28% of the population within our correctional centres (according to the 2017 census).
These are hard facts to swallow, but it’s the history of our country.
We often find ourselves detached from empathy when talking about criminals. Wentworth reminds us that we could easily find ourselves in their cells, through tragic circumstance.
An empathy machine, the writing is fantastic. Every action has a reaction and sends waves through the narrative. Without spoiling too much, a lot of the plot revolves around the forced removal of Aboriginal children from care and Aboriginal deaths in police custody. These are both issues that have been very hot political topics since I was born, and yet the ramifications of these real-life events are still affecting us today. Wentworth knows this and shows us how long this pain can haunt the people involved, both prisoners and their imprisoners.
With the sixth season currently airing, we are introduced to three major new characters, completely shifting the dynamic. Two are Koorie, and since when can we say we’re the majority of anything? Rita Connors and Ruby Mitchell, played by Purcell and Rarriwuy Hick respectively, bring brand new blak energy to the prison, with both women in for very different reasons and bringing their own agendas.
Writing Aboriginal characters that are integral to the plot is a rare achievement on Australian screens, especially if they’re female. There’s years worth of interviews from First Nations actresses saying they don’t often get to play roles that empower themselves, let alone the First Nations people watching. Well I can tell you that seeing two phenomenal actors in the vanguard of the best Aussie drama on TV at the moment is incredibly empowering. I’m so here for it.
It’s not only what we see on screen that counts. Shows are put together by a team of people who collaborate on the many different aspects of the end product we see on TV. The history of our nation has unfortunately put Aboriginal people on the back foot, trying to catch up and get involved in these conversations. Wentworth has been proactive in changing this.
The showrunners have delivered a fantastic, punchy series that is dripping with detail, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats until that one amazing hour on a Tuesday night where we get one step closer to the conclusion.
I can’t help but feel like I wouldn’t have wasted so much time NOT watching the show from its first episode if I knew how rich this storytelling was, and how it connects to me. With rumours buzzing that next year could be the final season, perhaps you should jump on the Wentworth train and see what you’re missing out on?
Thanks to Stephen Russell for his continued support and mentorship of Davey Thompson through YIRRAMBOI Blak Critics 2018.