This latest season of Wentworth has been a continuing rollercoaster of frustrating dead-end narratives and galling melodrama so hyped-up you’d think it was on the prison’s gear. But I watched it all, totally riveted, so who am I to judge? I just know it can do better, so this scattered, superficial storytelling is hard to digest. This show can achieve so much more than that.
First and foremost: Bea Smith is most definitely dead, and any hope we held on to throughout Wentworth’s hiatus was for naught. But at least we got to live in that state of optimism for a short while, despite the fact that nothing came from it. We have to take what we can get. But Allie is well and good, and possibly into Franky? A little bit suicidal? Way too confident about her injecting skills? All of the above, really. But I hope she gets written with a little more nuance next season - characters who believe they have nothing to live for and keep going anyway allow for some of the most engaging, complex narratives. And Allie deserves that depth of storytelling.
Joan Ferguson, conversely, is only becoming more inscrutable - but maddeningly so. I don’t know why she doesn’t care about her own happiness or wellbeing one bit as long as she’s able to make everyone else around her miserable, but she really needs to talk to someone about that. Preferably someone other than Nurse “Regina George” Radcliffe, who’s still inexplicably employed by this pitiful excuse for an organisation (I mean the prison, not the show) and acting as flippant and sour-faced as ever.
Liz is still acting like she’s lost all her marbles, and the directors this season have made Sigrid Thornton adopt so many histrionics as Sonia Stevens that it’s painful to watch - but impossible to look away. Maybe it’s Thornton’s magnetism? But really I think I’m just too fascinated by what the show might have her do next. Doreen’s been transferred to a prison in Perth so she can be closer to Nash and her son (and so Shareena Clanton could play Lady Macduff and Witch 2 in the MTC’s production of Macbeth) and Maxine’s been transferred to a hospital where she can receive better treatment to try to beat her cancer. Knowing that, I truly, truly hope the show makes some concerted efforts to up their diversity next season - and not just by making empty gestures. In my mind, at least, diverse casting (and writing) doesn’t have any value unless it honestly contributes to the narrative being told. Which might be an unpopular opinion, but good writing always trumps pandering, I reckon. And diversity and good writing don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Now, Katrina Milosevic has always been a shining light of this series, but Tammy Macintosh stepped up alongside her this season as another subtle scene stealer. And not through over-the-top dramatics or garish characterisations - Macintosh seems to have settled in to Kaz Proctor now, veering towards a pervasive hopelessness fighting with an unshakable passion and away from the angry, often indecipherable stereotype she embodied during her first season on the show. And, as usual, Milosevic took every outlandish (and insensitive) joke offered to her by these writers and turned them into piercing reflections in one of the most heartfelt, raw performances on the show.
(We know you have more integrity and heart - and skill - than anyone gives you credit for, Boomer. Don’t you let anyone convince you otherwise.)
Franky’s relationship with Bridget went up in devastating, glorious flames once Franky returned to Wentworth after being framed for the murder of her stalker and would-be attacker - and the man whose injuries sent her to prison in the first place. I desperately missed their fraught dynamic from the third season of the show, after they first came into contact with one another and fell hard and fast, but it seems like, after a taste of what a stable, healthy relationship with Franky looked like, Bridget simply couldn’t hack going back to the illicit power struggle that defined their first months knowing each other.
Franky then slips into a convoluted narrative of obsession, jealousy, and really questionable representations of refugees after being abandoned by Bridget (I can understand it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it). I can’t even wrap my head around what the show conjured up to explain Franky’s return to prison, but I can confidently say that it was a misstep, especially knowing what a spectacular actress Zahra Newman is (I’ve seen her in two different plays at the Melbourne Theatre Company and she gave beautiful, nuanced performances in each of them). Now, though, after being framed for a second murder, Franky (along with the ever mesmerising Nicole da Silva) is back in her default state as victim-hero-angel-of-vengeance running from the (corrupt) powers that be. That narrative (and how it’ll play out in the show’s next season) might not be a real challenge for da Silva, but she takes whatever’s given her with unbelievable grace and somehow always manages to spin that straw into gold.
Speaking of making the best of a bad situation: Vera really, really needs to get a wakeup call. Technically, she already has, but after watching her fall again and again for Jake’s excruciatingly terrible lies, I’m not entirely sure that Vera won’t end up in this same situation again - trapped in another web, just one spun by a different asshole. In her defence, I think Vera is honestly one of the most skilfully crafted characters on the show (no doubt in large part thanks to Kate Atkinson’s beautifully - and painfully - stripped-back performance) and it isn’t a large leap to make at all to imagine how someone who’s spent their entire life feeling unlovable and not being loved could grasp onto even the suggestion of love without any consideration of logic or self-preservation. Vera’s literally been to hell and back, and I just hope she doesn’t fall back down that rabbit hole next season. We need someone as (usually) rational and empathetic as she is in the disaster they call Wentworth.
And while we’re on the topic of disaster: I reckon the male guards at Wentworth would greatly benefit from taking some pointers from their counterparts on Orange is the New Black. Comparing the cardboard cutout of the essence of evil that is Derek Channing (whom I honestly struggle to look at whenever he’s onscreen) to the ball of human frailty embodied by Nick Sandow on Orange actually makes me mourn the state of Australian television. And I mourn because I know we can do better - we shouldn’t step back and accept that this is simply as good as it’s going to get for us. We have stunning, complex stories to tell - we just need to get the chance and the strength to tell them.
And you know what? I think we really are taking giant steps forward, as critical as this review might seem. In the waning moments of this latest season, Wentworth delivered a truly chilling - and revelatory - blow to its audience (in my mind, at least). It might have been the choice of music, or it might have been Pamela Rabe’s twisted portrayal of this character who’s found herself (in these latest seasons) walking around in the shell of an uninspired villain, but something about watching Joan Ferguson be buried alive really got to me. I didn’t want to feel sorry for her because I don’t know what she wants - what’s driving her, outside of a groundless desire to cause others pain. But in that moment, there were no answers, and Rabe - the writers - Ferguson - they were all able to escape, albeit briefly, the confines of pandering to what audiences want - of believing there is only so much you can do to challenge viewers before you lose them.
Trust me: we want to be challenged. That’s where the best stories come from.
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.