If you’re wondering whether or not to watch Wentworth’s season six premiere, the answer is: you already have. From start to finish, there is barely a moment of this episode that does not feel like a rehash of prior seasons, from fights in the shower, to justice meted out in the laundry, to mystery meat served up in the cafeteria. And while Wentworth can still rely on its ensemble (particularly Nicole da Silva and Kate Atkinson) to keep your attention, it’s unclear that this show has anything left to say.
That’s a painful thing for me to admit, especially since Wentworth recaps are a major source of traffic to my tiny website and I would love to be able to fluff them up with a bit more enthusiasm. But I’ve been recapping this show for six years, and it’s so much a part of me that I owe it and you and myself the honest truth. And the truth is that if this show doesn’t figure out where it’s going soon, then my relationship with it is nearing its end (try not to look too excited, Wentworth writers).
We begin with a quick recap of last season, which I had optimistically characterized as a “rebuilding” season in which the show was still finding its footing, post-Bea. When last we saw the ladies, Liz served Sonia a cup of poisoned chamomile, which which was the most age-appropriate revenge possible short of hiding her reading glasses or hiring the guy from Trivago commercials to kill her. Kaz was ready to re-assume Top Dog position and have another go at instituting her policy of nonviolence (violations of which would be punished with VIOLENCE). Vera finally realized that Officer Jake was as slimy and useless as a condom on a dildo and broke up with him, though he inexplicably refused to leave. Franky and Allie planned a prison break worthy of Rube Goldberg, Franky so she could prove her innocence and get back together with Bridget, and Allie so she could go study gender and sexuality in seahorses. Throwing a wrench in everyone’s plans, of course, was Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, who managed to piss everybody off by season’s end, so much so that Allie sacrificed her spot in the escape coffin so that Officer Jake and Will Jackson could sneak The Freak out instead. We concluded with the sound of dirt hitting Joan’s coffin as Will buried her alive, which is not the most auspicious ending for a show that plans to continue.
UNFORTUNATELY, WILL JACKSON HAS NEVER YET DISPOSED OF A SINGLE PIECE OF EVIDENCE THAT MANAGED TO STAY BURIED.
Before we do continue, I feel honor-bound to tell you all that Joan is alive. Of course she is. This show is going to kill off Joan Ferguson like Britney Spears is going to stop singing “Baby 1 More Time.” This show is going to kill off Joan Ferguson like McDonald’s is going to replace french fries with broccoli florets. Wentworth is a smoker trying to quit and Joan is that last pack they keep squirreled away “just in case,” so you can be sure that the first time this show gets a craving, they will dig her up as fast as they can.
Moving on, the season properly begins with the arrival of a new prisoner, Rita Connors (Leah Purcell, whom you might remember as Heather from Janet King). Rita’s introduction very closely mirrors Bea Smith’s first trip to prison, but whereas we initially saw this world through Bea’s wide, frightened eyes, we’re now seeing it through Rita’s hardened gaze. She’s seen it all before. (So have we.)
THE SHAWSHANK REPETITION.
Even before Rita enters prison, she is pretty well apprised of the situation inside, and that is because every TV channel, radio station, and newspaper in Australia is devoted to round-the-clock coverage of the goings on in Wentworth, which does at least sound like a welcome change from the current news cycle.
GOOD FOR THEM.
It is from these headlines that we learn that it’s been 48 hours since Franky and Joan escaped prison, investigators suspect they had inside help, and Mr. Channing has been fired as a result. This last piece of news is very disappointing, since Channing was one of the show’s most effective and underused villains, and setting up a conflict between the women and the system he represents could have provided some much-needed direction this season. At any rate, Rita checks into prison without incident, though she does insist on continuing to wear her motorcycle gang jacket.
Inside the walls, things are even more chaotic than usual, as all the prisoners have been confined to their cell blocks since the escape, and what’s worse, they’ve had their TV privileges revoked.
I DEMAND THE RIGHT TO WATCH THE NON-STOP COVERAGE OF THE DOWNFALL OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION.
In an attempt to quell the unrest, Vera orders a few prisoners to be reshuffled into new cell blocks, which is how we meet Ruby, who has some of the impish insouciance of an early-days Franky, but without any of the danger.
PIPE DOWN, DEGRASSI.
We learn a lot about Rita and Ruby during this episode, and all of it is confusing. First of all, they know each other, though they attempt to keep this fact a secret. Initially I assumed that Rita was Ruby’s mother, and was really disappointed in the writers for recycling the story of Liz and her daughter. However, it turns out that Rita is actually just Ruby’s very maternal big sister, so at the very least, the writers’ find and replace keys are still working.
We also quickly learn that Ruby is queer, because she calls Allie “sugartits” several times, though her delivery lacks a certain conviction.
YEAH, I’VE BEEN GAY FOR TWO WHOLE SPIDERMANS.
Ruby seems about as threatening as a 13 year-old going through her punk phase, but when she picks a fight with a prisoner named Spike (who seems to be channeling a young Juice) she nearly kills her, and, strangely, doesn’t seem to recollect doing it.
HOW DID YOU MANAGE THIS?
A TALL WOMAN WITH A PONYTAIL CLIMBED OUT OF THE DRAINPIPES AND DID IT. ALSO SHE CALLED ME JIANNA.
The shower fight is in clear violation of Kaz’s “no violence” rule, but Rita is determined to protect her sister, so she takes the blame (and the wholly unnecessary step of bashing her hand against the wall to make it look like she recently punched somebody.)
Kaz decides to make an example of Rita, but not with the familiar steam-press to the hand. Oh no, this is season 6, so it’s time to change things up. As little as possible. By using the sewing machine.
SNITCHES GET THREAD IN THEIR HANDS.
Obviously Ruby is going out of her way to protect her sister, but are we meant to find that admirable or pathological? Taking the rap for the beating was nice, but staging a biker gang robbery and deliberately getting arrested so that you can be put in prison together does not seem like a healthy way to have quality time. Also there are all these flashbacks about a prior time when Rita was a cop and was involved in a car accident with Ruby, but all it does is further muddy the already swampy water.
I totally get that Wentworth had to introduce some new characters this season, and I’m glad they chose women of color, since racial politics has always been an underexplored theme in this show, but this episode makes the amateur mistake of pinning most of its emotional moments on two characters we don’t know. Worse, both of them resist our attempt to get to know them, since they’re such a clumsy mix of contradictions: biker/cop and the Little Orphan Annie/Mike Tyson. I’m assuming they both have arcs ahead which will clarify things, but the primary emotion you want your audience to feel during a season premiere should not be “confused.”
The new characters take up a lot of screen time, but every moment that actually works is provided by our veterans. Some of it is old hat–Boomer booms, Liz fusses, Kaz willfully misunderstands feminist theory–but Vera at least always manages to make her neverending attempt to balance on the top of the Wentworth’s precarious pecking order look entertaining.
THE LESLIE KNOPE OF THE PRISON-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX.
For starters, Vera has to contend with Franky and Joan’s escape, and the investigators hovering around to determine who is responsible. Vera is pretty sure the culprit is Officer Jake, but can’t fire him until she has evidence. For his part, Jake insists he loves Vera, and the whole owing money to drug dealers/fucking Nurse Ratchett/secretly serving Joan Ferguson thing(s) were just a series of momentary lapses in judgement, which spanned the course of several years.
I MAY HAVE LOST THE KEY TO YOUR HEART, BUT I STILL HAVE SQUATTER’S RIGHTS.
Jake reaches way back in time to find his own evidence to use against Vera, ensuring that she can’t fire him. Because (and this is the real message of this show) in Australia, being a prison guard is the best career anyone can hope for other than being born with the last name “Hemsworth.”
Unfortunately for Vera, it’s about to get even harder for her to extricate Jake from her life, because, as she discovers at the end of the episode, she is pregnant with his baby.
OH GOD WHAT IF MY BABY IS ALSO A DICKHEAD?
Jake also drops in to let Allie know that Joan is dead (“dead”) in a patently ridiculous scene that not even Kate Jenkinson cannot pull off, in which she begs to hear a re-enactment of “every scream.”
WAS IT MORE “ACDC” OR “MARIAH CAREY HIGH NOTE?”
I just feel so bewildered by how well this show used to know Allie as a character, and how utterly they have lost the bravery and kindness that once defined her. I hope they find it again, because I could use some of it.
The only scenes of this episode that gave me that old teal thrill were those that followed Franky on the lam. Partly because they were the only moments in which a character’s stakes and motivations were clear, partly because Nicole da Silva injects humanity and ferocity into everything she does, and partly (and I hate to say this) because they had the least dialogue. Wentworth has never tried for Sorkinesque repartee, but this episode had all the verbal luster of IKEA instructions (“You are a smart young beautiful black woman”).
Thankfully, Franky doesn’t have anyone to talk to, because she is the target of a nationwide woman-hunt, which is one of the only times in life when it is disadvantageous to be strikingly beautiful.
CURSE MY UNFORGETTABLE FACE.
She briefly drops in for a visit at Bridget’s house, where they DON’T EVEN KISS, but at least reminds us that they still have a potent chemistry worth sticking around for.
BUTCHES GET CRUTCHES.
Also Bridget is on crutches but we don’t have time to find out why because the cops show up with some pointed questions about “the nature of their relationship.” Franky skedaddles and goes to the apartment of the woman who was actually guilty of the murder Franky is accused of, but fails to find any evidence to exonerate herself.
After another near scrape with the cops (each one of which is taut and well-directed), she sneaks back to the abandoned train where she’s been sleeping, looking like we all feel in 2018.
I MISS MY GIRLFRIEND AND BEA AND OBAMA.
After watching this episode, I walked in circles around my backyard and tried to remember what it was I used to love about Wentworth that I can no longer locate. Maybe I’ve just been doing this too long. Maybe the outside world has come to look so bleak that there is little in the way of escapism to be found in a prison drama. It’s probably a little of both. Mostly though, I think Wentworth changed. It changed, paradoxically, by staying steadfastly the same.
When I got on board this train, it was with the understanding that is was going somewhere, that it was not merely depicting violence and misery, but trying to learn something from it. That, fundamentally, is the difference between a prestige drama and a soap opera: the idea of a destination. For four seasons, our journey was Bea Smith’s journey, and it came to a spectacular and stirring conclusion that answered a lot of the questions the show originally posed about love, vengeance, and how to be free even when you are in chains. Since then the show has essentially been treading water, and that makes it a soap opera. A beautifully shot, masterfully acted, incredibly lucrative soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless. There’s nothing wrong with soaps, of course, and if the majority of Wentworth’s audience is happy with the familiar rhythm of shower stabbings and guard intrigue, then I guess this show should keep doing what works for it. But I remember a time when it dared to dream bigger, when it located its soul up in the clouds, not buried in the ground.
See you next week. (Promise.)