I have to be one of the biggest fans of the show Xena: Warrior Princess. I was coming of age when the show premiered. I cannot tell you how much this show changed my life. Coming into my own, as an LGBT teen, was rough in the 90s. I didn’t have a very supportive family, and I was in the closet to everyone else in my everyday life (minus my dear friend, Tiffany). What I did have was Xena. Stumbling across the show one Saturday, when it aired in syndication, on Fox (in my area), was one of the greatest discoveries of my life. Xena, Gabrielle, and their trusty and loyal group of friends made me realize that love comes in many different forms, and acceptance of who we are comes within ourselves. Xena: Warrior Princess has many other messages about feminism and equality, while featuring a plethora of strong female characters, but that is for another article.
So, I bet you’re wondering what exactly Xena has to do with a prison show, set in Australia. Well, both shows feature strong female characters, but even more, they feature the same actress. I cannot tell you the giddiness I felt when I discovered that the wonderfully talented Danielle Cormack was a part of this cast. Ashtyn, my girlfriend, kept raving about the show, and telling me how much better it was than Orange is the New Black. I should mention I thoroughly enjoyed OITNB, but let me tell you Jenji Kohan ain’t got nothin’ on the writers for Wentworth.
Indubitably, there will be comparisons between the two shows, but have no doubt as much as they have in common the shows are vastly different. Wentworth is the AHS: Murder House or AHS: Asylum to OITNB’s Glee. If OITNB and Oz had a baby, you’d have Wentworth…but only if you added in a side of The Sopranos. The women of Wentworth are smart, calculating, and deadly, and that includes the staff of the prison. Like OITNB women rule the show, but this is a side of women you’ve never seen.
Back to Danielle Cormack. On Xena Cormack was Ephiny, the strong, honorable, loyal sister-friend to Gabrielle, and an Amazon (Amazon Queen in Gabrielle’s absence) who taught Gabby how to fight. She played another small role (Samsara), on the show, but she will always be Ephiny to those of us who love Xena, at least in that universe. In Wentworth Cormack shows off her ability to morph into a completely different role with finesse. While I was ecstatic to see her name in the credits, she is virtually unrecognizable, as the curly haired, redhead, Bea Smith (Ephiny was a dirty blonde).
It is that sultry voice of hers that gave it away. Her voice is just as velvety as it was as Ephiny. As a 33 year old, I’m no longer that teenager who was trying to accept who and what I was. I know who I am. It is interesting to see the many women of Wentworth, including Bea Smith (who is old enough to have a teenager of her own), attempting to discover who they are.
Bea is a product of society, her environment, and the prison system. Wanting nothing more than to await her trial quietly, and without any trouble, she is quickly thrust into a prison environment that is dangerous, demanding, and deadly. Bea is forced to prove herself and her loyalty, getting herself into more trouble, in the process, but in prison, it is the prisoners against the guards, so if Bea wants to live, she has nowhere to turn, but to herself.
A mom, first and foremost, Bea will do anything for her daughter, Debbie. As the teen struggles to deal with the fact that her mom has been incarcerated, and she is stuck with the father who abused her mother to the point of attempting to kill him, Debbie begins to spiral out of control, herself. Unable to help her daughter, from prison, and unaware of how far Debbie has gone on her quest to forget, Bea must survive to get through to her trial, so she can, hopefully, reunite with Debbie.
The one area where Wentworth is similar to OITNB is in the fact that many episodes explore the pasts of individual characters within the prison. However, Wentworth looks at both the prisoners and the prison staff (or screws, as they call them in Australia). The staff’s backstory is equally as important as that of each prisoner. For the prisoners, you learn how they got into prison, and it humanizes them. OITNB does this, too, but I feel it is better executed, and ties in more to the overall story, on Wentworth.
The prisoners, a wily bunch, include Franky Doyle, who is gorgeous, but deadly (a shout out to the talented Nicole da Silva, who holds her own against Cormack), Doreen, a very nurturing and caring woman who ends up being a peer worker, Liz, the peer worker and mother of the group, Jacs, the deadly top dog, who comes from a crime family, Boomer, Franky’s right hand, Maxine, a transgender woman who is stronger than Boomer, but quickly befriends Bea, Simmo, Jac’s right hand (in and out of prison) who wants better for her daughter, Carly, than the life of crime Jac’s family offers, Kim, Franky’s girlfriend, Sky, a tweaked out junkie and henchwoman of Franky’s, Toni, the junkie friend of Doreen, and Jessica, the most creepy seductress/wannabe mother you’ll ever meet.
When Bea enters prison, Franky and Jacs are in the midst of battling for top dog. While Jacs was in the slot, Franky has taken over, but Bea’s arrival coincides with Jac’s release. As tensions flair, Bea must make a choice. She sides with Franky, as she is in her cellblock, but Jacs takes a special interest in Bea. Once Jacs starts threatening Debbie, Bea has no choice but to play both sides, hoping one of them will end each other, as she tries desperately to reach out to her daughter, who is quickly fading away from her.
Within the first few episodes, there is a prison riot, and people die, a lot, throughout the two seasons. This includes the prison staff. Their story is interwoven with the story of the prisoners, and they are just as fascinating. There is Vera Bennett, who is the deputy, and right-hand woman of the Governor (what they call the Warden of the prison, in Australia). Vera starts out mousy and skittish, and we learn she lives alone with a verbally and emotionally abusive mother, who manipulates her into having no life beyond the prison. There is Will Jackson, a former social worker who is the kindest screw in the joint. He has moments of anger that change his demeanor, but overall he just wants to help the women. Meg Jackson, his wife, starts out as the Governor, in the first season, but she is hiding secrets, and doesn’t last as Governor.
Erica Davidson becomes the Governor, and she stresses the need to help the women through compassionate programming; it is clear she has her own agenda, though. Franky is attracted to her, and let’s her know just how much, in the most vulgar of ways. Fletch (Matthew Fletcher), a screw, military vet, and the sometimes-best friend to Will, thinks the women deserve what is coming to them. At the same time, he is a somewhat likable character, at times. Passed over as Governor, he seldom likes the direction in which the prison is going. Linda Miles is the screw that is willing to trade information, and sometimes other things, with the prisoners. She is the most annoying of all the screws.
In the second season, Joan “The Freak” Ferguson becomes the Governor, and sets out to reform the prison. She is manipulative, harmful, and a force to be reckoned with; you wouldn’t want to be caught on her bad side. The worst of the worst, Ferguson has a vendetta, and she sets out to manipulate everyone around her, playing them like puppets. Whatever Joan wants, she gets, and she is more of a criminal than many of the women serving time. Freak, something Bea calls her near the end of the second season, is a throwback to the Governor of the show Wentworth was rebooted from, the popular, world renowned, Australian soap opera Prisoner: Cell Block H. That Governor was known as Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, and she was just as dangerous as Wentworth’s Joan.
A serious drama that explores the characters of these women, it also looks at just how depraved those working in the prison are. All of the characters are guilty of some crime, but some of them are on the side that is meant to enforce the law. Even Will, one of the kindest characters on the show, is involved in rampant drug use, snorting cocaine, and even coming into work after a night of using. Vera, who starts out innocent, is manipulated into becoming a criminal, but she seems to have little remorse, and with her backstory it was only a matter of time before she snapped.
Many of the women in the prison are victims of circumstance. Bea, most likely, would not be a criminal if her husband had not abused her. Once in prison, Bea becomes a victim of a dog eat dog prison system that leads her into doing horrible things to survive. Franky is a lonely, uncertain person who has little remorse for what she does, because she is so desperate to be top dog. It means she fits in and is loved. Raised without her father, with an abusive mother, she turns towards violence as a form of empowerment. Maxine is a victim of transgender hate, having defended herself when she snapped, during violence with her boyfriend.
My one caveat is a cisgender man who is an okay actor, but looks nothing like a transwoman, plays Maxine. I know there has been discussion about there not being too many trans actors in Australia, but as someone trans it just seems sloppy she has no visible effects of the feminization that occurs with the use of hormones. As a transman, myself, I find this inexcusable. This is the one area where OITNB gets things right, though the second season of the show featured so little of Sophia (played by the amazing Laverne Cox!), it was a damn shame! Maxine, on the other hand, is heavily embroiled in the action. With a smaller core group of women, Wentworth is able to highlight each woman’s story, but also keep them involved in the central plotlines, throughout each episode.
With the entire first two seasons on Netflix, now is the opportunity to watch this excellent show. If you’re expecting the kind of humor that OITNB delivers, you might be disappointed. Wentworth is pure drama, from start to finish. With a standout cast surrounding the talented and brilliant Danielle Cormack, who truly carries the show as any main character should, and well written, deeply evolving plotlines, this is one show you’re going to want to binge watch. I watched it in two days, and I don’t regret it. The only regret I have is that the third season won’t be released until mid-2015. The show debuted two months before OITNB in 2013, and tends to come out in April or May, each year. Let’s just hope Netflix gets it quickly, so that those of us in the U.S. can watch it, as soon as it comes out.
I am so glad I have found this series. I feel such joy at reconnecting with a show that features the great Ephiny. I feel like I’m watching an old friend.
Wentworth Season Three, where are you? After the ending of Season Two, I’m dying to see what happens next.
Oh…and just one more thing. All Hail the Queen!