The second episode of this latest season of Foxtel’s Wentworth opens with what looks to be a fairly green lawyer sweating through his freshly pressed shirt. He has to come face-to-face with the infamous Freak, Joan Ferguson, who is admittedly quite an intimidating figure even when she’s locked in a cell, but I’m still kind of surprised that this lawyer couldn’t hold it together for the two minutes he spent talking to her.
I mean, Bridget Westfall was in the cell next to him getting accosted by a manic Kim Chang and managed to stay totally calm even as the younger prisoner was shrieking insults at her with crazed eyes and a bloody face. I expected better from you, young sweaty lawyer.
What I felt gave this episode its complexity was the moving (and at times incredibly intricate) character development it showcased, as well as an intriguing and subtle through-line about the relationship between the individual and the collective. Labelling Ferguson as a sociopath - someone who literally is not capable of putting another person before themselves - and using the show to illuminate the effects of prison - an environment that is perfectly equipped to strip anyone within it of their individuality - sets Wentworth up to explore this conflict, but they haven’t truly ventured into an exploration of it until now.
“You can’t pin it on me,” the comically over-the-top Kaz Proctor spits at Vera after instigating a stunningly hilarious nude protest in the prison yard. “It was the voice of the collective…”
The vast majority of the inmates at Wentworth seem to be all for introducing conjugal visits to the prison, but Proctor’s motivations go deeper than a desire for physical intimacy. To use a term that the show has coined before, she’s playing the “long game” in order to seek revenge for the wrong she believes Bea Smith committed against her. But she needs to merge her vengeance with a cause nearly all of the prison’s inmates can get behind if she wants to achieve her goal - she simply cannot go it alone.
Conversely, Bea Smith’s solution to this problem is one that benefits many, but hurts a few (possibly more), while keeping her in the good graces of both the inmates and the Governor. Vera immediately dismisses the idea of conjugal visits because of the potential cost of the pregnancies and abortions that she believes would result if the prison introduced them, so when she’s backed into a corner because of Ferguson’s determination to be released into the general population of the prison, Bea Smith makes a proposal: introduce conjugal visits to the women who participate in the prison’s new family planning (read: contraceptive) program, and she’ll make sure that no one goes after the Freak when she leaves isolation.
Good luck to her, I say, and let’s hope no one gets caught in the crossfire.
An incidental consequence of this deal, though, is the crestfallen expression on Sue “Boomer” Jenkins’ face when she learns that she’ll only be able to have conjugal visits if she goes on the pill. There is nothing Boomer wants more right now than to have a child of her own, and if she has to wait until she’s released from prison, it might be too late.
My heart just aches for this character who only last season lost the most important person in the world to her (not forever, but it’s hard to feel connected to anyone on the outside when you’re in prison). Now one more piece of hope has been ripped away from her because of this need to satisfy the collective, and I have to give serious props to Katrina Milosevic for taking a character who I can only assume the writers intended to be two-dimensional comedic relief and instilling that character with more heart, nuance, and depth than many of the characters on television today.
Meanwhile, Joan Ferguson is still as delusional as ever. “I don’t do laundry,” she informs Vera, attempting to make arrangements for when she’s released into the general population. But she still throws in snippets of rationality and wisdom, explaining to Vera that when she is out of isolation: “You need to be ready. This is going to impact on you as well.” No one can separate the fate of those around them from their own fate, and vice-versa. Perhaps a determination to do just that is what’s landed Joan in this dire situation. (Listen to your own advice, woman!)
Vera and Bridget have some fascinating interactions, deciding without hesitation to get rid of video evidence of Ferguson’s instability because she mentions Vera’s role in her own mother’s death and makes some creepily telepathic-like comments about Bridget’s parents and potential past sexual abuse.
This goes back to that timeless dichotomy: when do you put yourself first, and when do you brush your own wellbeing aside in order to better the lives of those around you? I’m not too sure about Vera and Bridget’s judgement in this particular situation, but it certainly is a relief to hear the Governor insist that she wants to take Ferguson down, but “not at any cost” - a stark contrast from both Ferguson and Bea’s relentless pursuit of what they want, and what they think is right.
My heart almost broke for Vera, too, with the way her insecurities surfaced in this episode. She stammers and hesitates when Bridget asks her if she wants to stay and have dinner with her, and she seemingly needs an excuse to say yes that isn’t about wanting company or comfort. And the pained expression on Kate Atkinson’s face as she finally brings herself to ask Bridget whether she thinks she’s anything like Ferguson gives us a rare and piercing insight into Vera’s troubled soul.
Now, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to Franky’s part in this episode, but needless to say she was her usual cheeky and emotionally-ravaged self. Seeing her sit across from Vera - a woman who used to dictate much of Franky’s life - and ask her to pass the salad and then the pepper was especially satisfying, and I loved her vocalisation of her inner turmoil so much that I just have to quote it here:
“It’s not easy…after being on the inside to know how to be on the outside…I love being free, but it scares the fuck out of me…and sometimes, like last night, I feel like it’s all gonna get ripped away, like it’s not really mine.”
Having things you love, and hope, and desire - all of this leaves you vulnerable, in a position to lose more than you might be able to cope with. And Franky’s fear of a loss of that magnitude puts her in a pretty dangerous situation. “Everything seemed clearer in prison,” she confesses to Bridget, “and the thought of that was comforting, so I went back.” Does prison become an attractive option when the alternative is having the freedom to make the wrong choice, to ruin your life, all on your own? I hope Franky doesn’t come to believe that, especially now that she’s reunited with her family.
No, Franky wasn’t being spied on by one of Ferguson’s hit men or her parole officer: it was her dad, wanting to tell her that she has a three-year-old half-sister. And I challenge anyone to watch Franky’s first meeting with her tiny younger sibling and not have tears in their eyes. Go on - I dare you.
At the end of the episode, Franky brings us back to the struggle between the power of the individual and the power of the collective. She explains to Bridget: “If I’m ever gonna learn how to live on the outside, I need to be able to stand on my own two feet.” And this move away from mob mentality - using the people around you to further your own agenda - might just be Franky’s salvation. Although I’m probably even happier than Bridget is to know that Franky isn’t breaking up with her. She’s just getting her own place, guys. No need to panic.
So, we’re left with no updates on Bea’s mental state, Maxine potentially having a malignant lump in her breast, and Ferguson finally getting her way and being moved into general. What a wild ride this show is, but if I can make some wishes for the coming episodes: more Allie making eyes at Bea, more Bridget facing off with Joan, and more awkward dinners between Bridget, Vera, and Franky, because that was just delightful.
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.