Wentworth - Season 4, Episode 3: 'Prisoner'

Kristen Field


This episode was an unsettling one, mostly because of the questions it left unanswered about Wentworth’s supposed antagonist. The entire episode took place in the prison, with the exception of a handful of flashbacks to Joan Ferguson’s time in an institution for the criminally insane, where she was incarcerated before she orchestrated her transfer to Wentworth.

(Yes, I’m sorry, no appearances from Franky Doyle in this episode. But there is hope for next week.)

What intrigues (and frustrates) me most about Ferguson’s character is how quickly she shatters any perceptions you form about her. One minute you’re convinced that there is nothing redeeming about her, not a single aspect of her character that could make you believe that she actually has an ounce of compassion or human frailty within her. And the next minute she’s lying broken on the floor and you cannot believe you ever thought she wasn’t human - that she couldn’t be hurt like the people around her.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the fact that the show has set this character up in a way that makes it impossible to believe anything she says or take any of her actions (or reactions) at face value creates a pretty significant obstacle for us to overcome before we can feel any real empathy for her.

Watching Pamela Rabe give such an emotionally ravaging performance in this episode, I was still second-guessing my own feelings about her character’s plight: Why has Joan put herself in this situation? What is she trying to get out of it? Why has she chosen to open up to this character? What is her motivation here?

 Previous episodes have taught us not to trust Ferguson as far as we can throw her (and I imagine throwing her any distance at all would be no mean feat). But it seems as though more and more of Joan’s life - if not her actual self - is being stripped away with each new step her character takes - to what end, I have no idea.

Going back just a bit, I want to mention how much I love the dynamic between Vera and Joan. With Vera going from being resentful of Joan for getting a job she believed was rightfully hers but beyond her capabilities, to adulatory, to frightened, and then back to resentful over the course of the last couple of seasons, and with Joan going through a similar (but much more abstract) arc, I think there are infinite depths to be explored in how these two characters relate to each other.

‘You want to be seen as the good Governor, the fair Governor,’ Joan explains - with not a small amount of inexplicable condescension - to the woman who was once her protege, ‘but really you just want to be liked. It’s fatal, Vera. Surely I taught you that.’ Vera’s response aptly captures the way she’s compensated for putting others first - and doubting her own strength - for the majority of her life, while allowing for all the potential within a casual mention of the devastating consequences of ‘just [wanting] to be liked’ to settle over the scene, and the characters. ‘I learned nothing from you,’ Vera insists, and every bit of forced self-confidence in her demeanour is balanced with an equal amount of uncertainty: Do I have what it takes to carry out this job? Am I being manipulated? Is there really still time for me to turn my life around? Is it really possible for me to change?

A fascinating question, especially given what we see in the snapshots of Joan’s time in the institution. When the psychiatrist assigned to Joan’s case questions her about whether she’s ever been intimate, her only answer is: ‘I have no emotional bonds to speak of. I am alone.’ This overly demonstrative psychiatrist assures Joan that he will be able to get her to feel empathy for others, that she isn’t a lost cause, but I have to wonder whether Joan’s ‘damage’ - as they say in Heathers - is much more ingrained than that.

Taking a quick detour, the show finally got back to exploring more of Bea’s mental state in this episode. She ended up backed into a corner (as one often finds oneself in prison) after Joan was released into general, faced with either taking the former Governor down herself or waiting until one of the other inmates took action. Either way, the prisoners were going to lose their conjugal visits, making it just a matter of time before the inmates begin to challenge their leader. Will Bea even put up a fight when this happens? Or is she sick of being forced to choose between two horrible alternatives? I’m seriously anxious about the path Bea seems to be travelling down, but on a brighter note: thank you, Wentworth, for giving us a stunningly devastating scene between Allie and Bea at the end of this episode. Bea is in such a fragile place right now, treading (or stumbling along) a line between unbridled rage and complete apathy. If anyone can convince her that there’s still something of value in her life - that she’s still worth something - I think it might just be Allie.

 

The final moments of this episode are truly distressing, even borderline horrific. After witnessing two concurrent rape scenes (one in the present, led by the oh-so-charming Lucy Gambaro, and one in a flashback, perpetrated by - surprise, surprise - Joan’s psychiatrist) it’s hard to imagine that the show could get any more twisted. But it does.

‘I am no victim,’ Joan informs her psychiatrist after the act is done. ‘I am always in control.’ What this means, exactly, is still a complete mystery to me. Was Joan raped if she wanted to be raped, if it was all part of her plan to do whatever she’s set her mind on doing? In all fairness, I would unflinchingly consider what Franky goes through in the third season - at the hands of our favourite Lucy Gambaro - to be rape, no question, so it would probably be hypocritical of me to call what Joan experiences as a mental patient anything else. But - again, more dichotomies - Joan explicitly tells her would-be rapist: ‘We’re alike, you and I. We will do whatever it takes to get what we want.’ I am just so, so conflicted about all of this.

And sexual assault is one of the most raw, triggering topics you can broach - as an individual or as a show - so it’s probably only a recipe for more mess to delve any deeper.

I’ll just comment on two more things before I leave you to brood over this paradox of a show. Considering all the uncertainty surrounding Joan’s mental state, I thought it was fascinating to hear her refer to herself as a ‘lunatic’ in front of her psychiatrist/rapist. And finally, I’m completely torn between loving the potential for Kaz Proctor’s relationship with Joan and being totally freaked out by the final shot of the episode, showing Joan wearing a smile that is nothing short of pure malice and insanity. She’s covered in blood and was just viciously assaulted by a group of rabid prison inmates, but honestly, who wouldn’t crack under the weight of hearing an entire prison chanting for you: Freak. Freak. Freak. Freak.


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.