We’re celebrating the baddest and most fascinating women of Wentworth – from both sides of the law.
This content was created in partnership with Foxtel.
There’s so much more to creating a great television villain than it seems. It’s easy to spend so much time on sculpting interesting, well-rounded heroes that the villain becomes an afterthought and ends up a cardboard cutout, just an empty shell for the protagonist to oppose. Even when more time and care is taken with the villainous side of the ledger, many creators have fallen into the trap of leaning too heavily on cliches or over-egging the “evil” to the point where you have a sort of cartoonish demon rather than a living breathing human being. On the other hand, you can’t go too lightly on the evil: making your villain too ordinary could be the worst sin of all, as it’s just going to bore people.
For anyone looking for a masterclass in the production of high-quality TV villainy, you could do worse than examine Foxtel’s epic series Wentworth, about to enter its much-anticipated denouement with “Wentworth – the Final Sentence”. This show has built on the legacy of groundbreaking villains developed by its forerunner Prisoner to create some of Australian television’s most fascinating, complex, and still deliciously wicked baddies.
We might as well look first at Australian TV’s most legendary monster: Joan “The Freak” Ferguson. Portrayed with memorable menace in Prisoner by Maggie Kirkpatrick, the creators of Wentworth resurrected her in possibly even more terrifying form. As played indelibly by Pamela Rabe, the 21st-century Freak is a truly horrific evildoer. Sadistic, ruthless and possessed of a frightening steely intelligence, Ferguson, who has spent time as both governor and inmate of Wentworth Detention Centre, is willing to do anything – up to and including multiple murder – to get what she wants, and to crush anyone who stands in her way. She is all the more chilling for the soft, quiet delivery of Rabe in the role: the icy control Ferguson has over herself is deeply unnerving, and when rage explodes out of the woman it’s all the more fearsome for the restraint with which her usual villainy is conducted.
But Ferguson wouldn’t be nearly so compelling a character if her evil weren’t tempered with glimpses into her life that make clear she is a human shaped by circumstance into something twisted and grotesque, rather than a rootless devil from Hell. The Freak is not a woman devoid of feeling or incapable of relating to another person: in fact we are shown how heartbreak and rejection earlier in her life have helped shape her, and how even now it is often her own warped variety of love that inspires her crimes.
Before there was The Freak, there was Vinegar Tits. Vera Bennett was the original chief antagonist in Prisoner, and although a sympathetic side was occasionally shown to her cold, officious exterior, in Wentworth the sympathy meter has been ratcheted up. In fact, Vera, played by Kate Atkinson, is more a hero than a villain when Wentworth begins, and even as she develops a harder edge, having the kindness and compassion knocked out of her by bitter experience, she is not always on the side of the baddies. But part of Wentworth’s genius is the ability to have one character “switch sides” almost without you noticing. Vera is the greatest exponent of one of the show’s most powerful themes: the question of how far a person will go to protect themselves, the people they love, or the things they value. Even Bea Smith, the indisputable heroine of Wentworth’s first four seasons, could be driven to dreadful deeds by necessity, and Vera is no different. Her journey throughout the series is the most gripping of any character, because we see the transformation from a person who always wants to do the right thing, to someone willing to do whatever it takes. Cruelty, deception and violence become part of her toolkit: at times she positions herself as Joan Ferguson’s nemesis; at others she seems more like her burgeoning protégé. The abuse she is willing to mete out to the inmates of the prison does not originate in a hateful soul: it grows in reaction to the abuse the whole world rains down on her. Villains are made, not born: Vinegar Tits proves it.
Of course sometimes villains take a more classical bent, and there’s no better illustration than Jacs Holt, played by Kris McQuade. Jacs, the big bad of Season One of Wentworth, was a perfect mob matriarch: vicious, calculating and delighting in exerting power. All fans will remember the thrilling shiver up the spine that came from hearing Jacs softly singing the old Prisoner theme song in Wentworth’s first episode – a simultaneous acknowledgment of the show’s roots and signpost of Jacs’s simmering menace. Jacs is the archetype of the criminal empress: she has established her domain in the prison, as she did on the outside, and the things she will do to keep hold of it are horrifying. Again, it’s not about inborn evil: it’s about the extremes of human nature itself, and the humanity within the atrocity is what makes every one of Wentworth’s villainous women – not just Joan and Vera and Jacs, but Marie Winter, Sonia Stevens, and even the brutish Lucy Gambaro – so watchable.
This content was created in partnership with Foxtel.