The only person I know in real life who loves Wentworth as much as I do is my mother, and what she loves most about it is Joan Ferguson. Joan is, as she has told me several times, “the finest villain in the history of television.” She is not alone in this opinion. Wentworth’s writers know they’ve got something special in this character, and have made her the show’s chief villain for four seasons. Their faith in Joan’s ability to create delicious conflict is well-founded, and much of that faith rests in Pamela Rabe’s performance, which is never less than mesmerizing. This episode opens with an extended scene of Joan getting her teeth cleaned, as if the writers are trying to hammer in the point that you can literally watch this character do anything and be fascinated.
YOU’RE NOT A REAL FREAK UNLESS YOU LOVE THE DENTIST.
Intercut with this scene is Vera, who is also a great believer in dental hygiene, but is somewhat less menacing about it.
BRUSHIN MA TEETH, BRUSHIN MA TEETH, REMEMBERIN THAT TIME I KILLED MY MOM.
The simultaneous tooth-brushing serves to point out, in case you have somehow managed to miss it over the last four seasons, that Joan and Vera are a lot more alike than either of them would care to admit. That theme comes up several times over the course of this frantically-paced (and unusually messy) episode.
As you’ll recall, last week Kaz was nearly killed in a van accident, but was rescued by Will Jackson. This incident forged a surprising bond between Kaz and Will, but seriously damaged Kaz’s already shaky position among the women. She returns this week with her arm in a sling, less capable than ever of enforcing order, and it is into this power vacuum that The Freak inserts herself. Or rather, she inserts a catspaw, in the form of Wentworth’s second most reliable villain.
Juice breaks a tooth early in the episode, which ends up being important to the plot, but you also know that she just likes to bleed on people whenever she gets the chance. Every time I have to write about Sally-Anne Upton’s performance as Juice, I click over to her IMDB page to reassure myself that she really is just acting, and is not actually that terrifying out of character. I am always soothed by what I find there.
WHAT A SWEET OLDER LADY. I’D TRUST HER TO HOLD A BABY.
Sally-Anne Upton, I’m sure, is a kind and gentle soul, but her performance as Juicy Lucy makes me feel like I am a child being kidnapped by a malevolent clown. In the past, Juice has always operated a bit like a crocodile, not really aspiring to be king of the jungle, just picking off the occasional unwary wildebeest at the watering hole. But this week, she makes her first real power play, which is spurred by the arrival of one of the most attractive women I have ever seen.
I LOVE YOU.
Her name is Iman, and I am really glad my girlfriend was not home when I watched this episode, because every time she appeared on screen, I said a lot of things that could be construed as cheating.
Joan slithers over to the new arrival and offers her friendship. Then she slithers over to Juice and suggests that if she were Top Dog, she could help herself to the endless buffet of attractive queer women Wentworth always hires as featured extras. Juice protests that she could never be Top Dog, because no one likes her (which, hey, know thyself). But Joan is like “No one has to like you, as long as they find you grotesquely terrifying! Look at Donald Trump!” To make her claim, Joan suggests that she and the boys rape the new inmate. Thankfully, Doreen overhears this plan, and fetches Franky, who intercedes before the assault can take place.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE TOP DOG TO BITE.
Up until this point, Juice is playing right into Joan’s hands. But she is armed with a piece of knowledge of her own: she saw Joan and Jake conspiring to undermine Vera. Thinking to use this information to bolster her claim to Top Dog, she goes to Vera and says she’ll tell her a secret in exchange for her support. Here is Vera’s response:
AH, LAUGHTER TRULY IS THE BEST MEDICINE. EXCEPT THE MEDICINE I TAKE FOR THE HEPATITIS WHICH YOU GAVE ME.
It’s one of those Shakespearean moments when everything could be different if only Vera hadn’t laughed. Because Vera reaaaally needs to wake up to Officer Jake’s treachery before it’s too late.
This week, Joan really starts fucking with Vera in earnest, by ordering Jake to make her emotionally dependent on him. He suggests they move in together, which Vera is initially resistant to, because she values her independence and privacy, and she just got the house to herself after killing her mom. But Joan tells Jake to keep pushing, because, according to her, Vera is deeply insecure and frightened of ending up like her mother. Now, both of those things are true, but Vera can admit to them and is working through them in normal human ways. And those things are equally equally true of Joan, who hasn’t the faintest idea that she is insecure and frightened.
So Jake keeps pressuring Vera, with this dubious “charm,” and eventually Vera gives in and invites him to come live in her house. (And not because she’s “damaged,” Joan. Because she has a normal need for human connection and a partner to investigate scary night time sounds.) But that’s not the only use Joan has found for Jake. Even as he’s supposedly figuring out what birthday present to give his girlfriend and boss, Joan orders him to fuck Nurse Radcliffe.
KEEP IT CLASSY, STRAIGHT PEOPLE.
There are so many villainous machinations afoot this week, and god forbid we leave Sonia out of the action. Sonia may be confined to a wheelchair after being attacked, but she’s still got a few tricks up her sleeves. This week she weasels her way into an old machine workshop, enlists Boomer to help her weld a lot of metal together, and come up with…flower boxes.
THEY’RE NOT JUST ANY FLOWER BOXES, THEY ARE FLOWER BOXES OF EVIL.
Don’t be too hard on Sonia, though. It takes time to work up to true super villain treachery. Next week she’ll be on to evil coat racks and then, who knows? Evil stained glass, maybe.
Franky, for her part, is lying low after last week’s spectacularly botched escape attempt, but she does stick her head up when she sees Allie buying heroin.
LOOK, I KNOW WE HAD A MOMENT, BUT ALL QUEER WOMEN HAVE TO HAVE A MOMENT BEFORE THEY MOVE ON TO BEING FRIENDS.
Franky makes a half-hearted attempt to dissuade Allie from using, but Allie shrugs her off. I was really worried for a minute there that Allie was using again, but no, she’s just stockpiling drugs, presumably so she can hotshot The Freak. In the grand tradition of terrible evidence-hiding on this show, Allie stores all the gear in a big, thick book that might as well be titled Revenge!.
COOL HOW YOUR ENTIRE PLAN DEPENDS ON NO ONE HAVING SEEN SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
Okay, I told you we’d get back to Juice’s broken tooth. Eventually, she is forced to go to the dentist, where Nurse Radcliff hooks her up to the laughing gas. Ah, but Nurse Radcliffe is being blackmailed by Joan for her little tryst with Officer Jake. So when she steps out of the room, in walks the most sadistic dentist this side of Little Shop of Horrors.
OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND SAY “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH”
Joan purrs that Juice has licked her last pussy, and proceeds to surgically remove the tongue that has terrorized Wentworth prison for five whole seasons. Juice is horrified, but when she escapes from the chair, still uses the experience as an opportunity to practice her favorite pastime: bleeding on people.
After this dramatic attack, Vera is like “So Juice, about that very important piece of information you said you had about me…?” But Juice, understandably, is not feeling very forthcoming at the present moment. And when Very returns to her desk, she finds a neatly-wrapped present, that I was initially afraid would be an engagement ring from Officer Jake, but turns out to be a play on that classic Andy Samberg-Justin Timberlake song.
IT’S MY TONGUE IN A BOX!
Though her Top Dog schemes came to naught, Juice was right about one thing: nobody liked her. So when word gets around that it was Joan responsible for her oral castration, there is a sudden groundswell of support for a new Top Dog. Right under Kaz’s nose, the ground shifts, and Joan takes power.
I HOPE THIS ICE CREAM GIVES ME A THOUSAND CAVITIES, THAT I MAY RETURN ONCE MORE TO THE DENTIST.
I believe this moment is the happiest we have ever seen Joan Ferguson, because elaborate gesture of homage, such as the ice cream ceremony, are the closest she can ever come to feeling liked.
But it’s a tough pill to swallow, even by Wentworth standards, that the inmates would so easily forgive Joan’s many past transgressions. And it’s hard to believe that after everything, this is all we’ve really been working up to.
I have nothing but appreciation for Pamela Rabe (and I have a secret horror that she will read these recaps and interpret my critiques of her character as critiques of her) but I do object to the way the writers use her like a skeleton key to open every narrative door. I most strongly object to a nagging suspicion I have that this show killed off Bea so they could keep Joan, which in chess terms, is like trading a queen for a bishop.
Joan Ferguson is an indisputably great villain, but she is the wrong choice to anchor the show, because Joan can’t change. Her pathology is the totality of her character. Think about it. Since her arrival in season two, Joan has reacted to changing situations, and unraveled in a lot of entertaining ways, but her substance is a constant. It’s been great working through her layers, but you don’t peel an onion expecting to find a piece of chocolate at the center. Unlike Franky or Bea or even Vera, Joan is only able to relate to people through dominating them (the one, never-repeated exception to this rule was Jianna). She thinks only in terms of power dynamics, which is why she’s just as happy being a prisoner as she was being the warden.
The brutal simplicity of Joan’s desires and the lengths she will go to to get them make her a great villain, but a horror movie villain. And like Freddie, Jason, and company, there’s only so many times you can kill and resurrect her before it all becomes a bit rote.
I think the writers must be aware of this, and I think Allie will be the one to take Joan down (though not with her ridiculous heroin plan). I know I will miss her, in all her strangeness (and queerness!), and I hope her demise is every bit as spectacular as her long and storied reign. But I hope it’s soon.
See you next week!