A grittier take on the female prison drama. More Oz than OITNB, Wentworth does a better job breaking new ground. Which is sad, for a 20+ year show.
Wentworth is an Australian TV show set in a women’s prison which details the struggles and triumphs found within. If it sounds familiar, that’s no surprise. Comparisons to Orange is the New Black are inevitable, though I’ll try to keep those to a minimum. To summarize for the “They are copying OITNB!” crowd, Wentworth is a reimagining of a previous series shown on Australian TV entitled Prisoner, which ran from 1979 to 1986. Long story short: they aren’t copying each other, so everyone shut up about it.
This is an overview of Series 5, so there may be some spoilers for new viewers. I suggest you watch Series 1-4 as quickly as possible; not because you’ll need to in order to understand my Caveman take on Series 5, but just because it’s really stinking good.
Before talking about the latest season of the show, it’s important to provide a bit of background info. The fourth series begins with a confrontation between Bea Smith (the show’s protagonist to this point) and the prison’s former warden, Ferguson, which was built up in Series 4. Bea confronts Ferguson as she attempts to leave the prison after her (bullshit) exoneration which included an intentional overdose of Bea’s girlfriend that has left her unlikely to ever wake up. When Ferguson stops Smith’s attack and breaks her arm, Bea responds by stabbing herself eight times and drops dead at Ferguson’s feet, leaving her to take the blame and reenter Wentworth once again as a prisoner. Bea Smith is dead. Not fake TV show, “eyes open right before the end credits” dead, but in a for real, “she’s really f**king dead” way.
With this big bit of spoiler (sorry) out of the way, we begin Series 5, whose central theme is this: can a micro-society survive without the threat of violence?
Karen Proctor, or Kaz, is one of the most interesting characters on TV. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of an American equivalent. First portrayed as the stereotypical “feminazi” of men’s rights activist lore, Kaz is part of the Red Right Hand that supported Bea Smith in what they incorrectly think as linked personal ethos, calling for violence against men who abuse women. When Bea Smith doesn’t fulfill her desired role for Kaz as a leader of a violence movement, it puts the two of them at odds and makes Bea a traitor. This is a common theme among members of a general group. How often is a member of a political party eaten alive for not being militant or “consistent” enough for the other members?
After being chewed up and spit out by “The Freak” in Series 4, manipulated into aiding a plan that produces yet more violence against women, Kaz begins to see the human toll behind radical movements that espouse ideology over the needs and desires of the very people they are attempting to help in the first place.
So when Ferguson reenters the prison following her confrontation with Bea Smith at the end of Series 4, Kaz takes a strong, difficult stand in declaring that nobody will be allowed to touch, talk to, interact or otherwise acknowledge Ferguson’s existence. She will be ghosted by the entire community in lieu of the usual punishment as a “human panini” (a common punishment in Wentworth’s community was having your hands placed in a steam press before the lid is closed). Kaz declares that there will be no more violence against women by women in her prison. While at their heart many of the women appreciate this approach, you can tell instantly few believe Wentworth can be run without violence and the threat of violence by the “Top Dog.”
This sadly proves to be correct as Kaz slowly loses control bit by bit when she is unable to come up with suitable sanctions that act as a real deterrent to inmates and factions that seek to test her desire to not punish through violence. The theme emerges: How do you battle someone who will do what you won’t, can’t, or are unable to do? How do you beat an opponent using every weapon at their disposal, whilst you have one arm tied behind your back?
As Kaz struggles she starts to see that for these women, many of which have learned this violent behavior, there is no way for a “top dog” to remain in power without the use and threat of violence. Ending the series with Kaz entering Ferguson’s cell to finish off what was begun when the inmates attempted to lynch her, the writers have completed a journey of Kaz from violent activist to conflicted leader to a true top dog, willing to fight with whatever weapons her enemies will use in order to preserve her vision. She enters that cell as a true Machiavellian leader.
What happens from there is yours to watch and experience.
Wentworth serves as an excellent jumping off point for a new feature here, examining the impact and meaning of modern feminism through the lens of traditional masculine views. It’s the first in a series of reviews that illustrate my hope to learn more and grapple with current biases via television and films that are centered around the experiences of women and predominantly created by them. We’re calling it The Great AWOKE-ening.