Foxtel’s Wentworth returned in all its melodramatic glory this week, promising a season full of violent confrontations, moments of pure devastation, lesbian dancing sequences that will make your heart soar, and the corniest of corny jokes. (“Personally, I can’t wait for the Big M,” Liz says in relation to a contraceptive program the prison is trying to introduce. “Choccy milk?” Boomer responds. I died.)
If you aren’t familiar with Wentworth, it’s Australia’s answer to Orange is the New Black, albeit slightly darker and more serious (sometimes too serious for it’s own good, but I’ll forgive it all its faults just for Franky Doyle’s hundred watt smile). The show started off its fourth season by introducing us to the new and improved Wentworth, now run by an affirmation band-wearing Vera Bennett and complete with yoga classes, nutrition workshops, and barbed wire on top of the fences. Oh, and Joan Ferguson down in isolation, no doubt plotting something sinister in her damaged, unstable mind. But has anything really changed?
Doreen doesn’t think so. “It’s this place, Liz,” she says at one point in the season premiere, struggling with the decision she’s made to send her infant son away to live with his father. “They can fix it up and paint it up all they bloody well like, but underneath it’s still evil.” Strong words about a recently renovated building, but if Wentworth has taught us anything, it’s that prison has the capacity to turn both inmates and guards into people they might not even recognise.
And while this change might be a blessing for some, for others it’s a slow, devastating downward spiral. Franky Doyle, played by the captivating, effervescent Nicole da Silva, was probably one bucket of grimy mop water away from completely losing her sanity - and humanity - to the prison before she got out on parole, and by the end of this episode it is abundantly clear that Bea Smith - the heroine of the show - is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, too.
Danielle Cormack captures a struggle in the season premiere that in the hands of a lesser actress could easily be lost to histrionics or crumble under the weight of depicting something so painful and so prevalent in today’s society. Cormack handles the issues of self-harm and mental instability with nuance and an unbelievable aura of empathy, though, and my heart broke for Bea before she even made that first cut, moments before the end of the episode.
To many viewers, it might not come as a surprise at all to see Bea unable to cope with what her life has become. She knows now that she’s never getting out of Wentworth, and her life before she was incarcerated was arguably more traumatic than anything she’s experienced behind bars. What did she do to deserve this fate? And is there anything she can do to get through it in one piece? The sacrifices she’s made to protect her fellow prisoners - the only family she has left - are nothing short of extraordinary, despite the fact that she’s also hurt the women around her in her attempts to seek justice. And this tension between her selflessness and selfishness, her need to protect herself and her desire for human connection, has unfolded brilliantly over the past couple of seasons.
We’ve seen Bea go from lying on the floor of the communal bathroom, completely naked, spread out as if she’s hanging on an invisible cross - overwhelmed by her need to “play Jesus” and everything that it’s cost her - to pushing away the younger woman - Allie Novak, played by the impressive Kate Jenkinson - who offers her the physical gratification she’s never received from another person. Will Bea finally find herself in a loving relationship this season? Or is she in too much pain - too consumed by everything that she’s lost or missed out on ever experiencing - to survive in this terrible, unforgiving world? Only time will tell, but I’m incredibly excited to see where they take Bea this season.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Franky, finally free and apparently living with a panty-stealing Bridget, as well as being spied on by her father, her parole officer, Vera, one of Ferguson’s cronies, or some combination of the above. And who can blame them? If I had the chance to watch Franky and Bridget dance like fools to 80s rock ballads and revel in domestic bliss, I wouldn’t pass it up, either.
Someone to love. Something to do. Something to look forward to.
Is that really all we need to be happy? All that these characters need to be happy? Doreen seems to latch on to that belief pretty quickly, and it sends Bea down a path of despair just as fast. But I can’t help but wonder whether having all three things would truly give these characters a chance at finding (and holding on to) happiness if they can’t do anything to escape their past.
Franky will never be able to erase her abusive childhood, her past crimes, or her time at Wentworth.
Bea will never get back the life - or the daughter - that she’s lost.
Vera will never be able to undo her contraction of Hepatitis C, and she will always be the person who spent almost half her life bending to the will of her mother and believing that she was somehow lesser than the people around her.
Joan Ferguson cannot bring Jianna back, and she will always be partially responsible for her death. And she won’t ever be able to escape her mental illness, either: she can only do her best to learn how to cope with it and accept who she is (and what she has done to the people around her).
These are all immutable truths, but part of what makes great storytelling (I think) is watching characters try to achieve the impossible, or fight back from what seems like a hopeless situation. This season premiere placed everyone in Wentworth (and everyone on the outside) in pretty dire straits, so let’s sit back and see just how indomitable the human spirit really is.
Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.