This article was previously published on Indiewire
Imagine a world where none of the rules apply. Justice is delivered via steam press, morality determined by motive, babies and inmates cohabit. That is the world of “Wentworth,” the Australian prison-drama — available on Netflix — stepping up to fill the Litchfield-sized void left after binge-watching “Orange is the New Black.”
On the surface, the similarities between “Orange” and “Wentworth” run deep. Both shows are set in a women’s prison, feature a tough brunette lesbian, a pregnant inmate, smuggling schemes, mother and daughter inmates, a character nicknamed Red, a transgender inmate, and a diverse cast, among other things.
“Wentworth” differs in its portrayal of female inmates and femininity, amplifying the many kinds of female badassery. Where “Orange” shows us that hope can linger despite incarceration, “Wentworth” is a far darker depiction of cynicism masked as realism. Both shows grapple with the ideas of motherhood, circumstances, and the search for purpose. However, the optimism of “Orange” is lost on “Wentworth’s” delineation of what happens when the search for meaning weighs down on a psyche.
For a show populated by women, “Wentworth” is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s gripping, graphic and savage. Women on television are seldom portrayed as violent; mostly billed as tame and maternal, or bitter and bitchy. The women in “Wentworth” are manipulative and vindictive , sometimes to the point of sociopathy. A surge of power is usually accompanied by a breakdown. There is a constant struggle between brutal emotionlessness and compassionate humanity within their prison-addled consciences and warped ethics.
The dedication to vivid storytelling is amplified through the fights, murders, plays for “top dog”, overdoses, blood, vomit, flesh-burning, and other cruel forms of punishment. It’s all shown in pornographic detail. “Wentworth” may have dance parties and close friendships, but there are also hands being smashed by machine weights and stabbings in the shower.
These women challenge every notion of the way women “should” look and act. “Wentworth” delivers a powerful feminist message. This is not a pedantic characterization of women as tameable victims. No one is apologizing for their actions and it is acknowledged that actions cannot be undone. The on-going power struggle is a highly intelligent game, wherein every move is an active, thought-out decision and every takedown is calculated.
“Wentworth” is mainly the story of Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a domestically-abused wife who tries to kill her husband by choking his lungs with carbon monoxide, but changes her mind at the last minute. The series follows the meek and broken-down Bea as she tries to survive — inevitably forced to step into an entirely new persona. The only choice in prison is to survive, at any cost. It would be easy to position Bea’s transformation as a corruption, but the irreverent Bea is much more respectable than the once-shaky housewife. Sometimes the lamb has to become the lion in wolf’s clothing.
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