November 5, 2021

Television

Power plays: ‘Total Control’ season two

By Anne Rutherford

Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths in season two of Total Control (2021) © Blackfella Films

Led by Deborah Mailman’s tour de force performance, the political drama’s second season homes in on truth-telling in the public sphere

In the finale of season one of the ABC’s award-winning drama series Total Control, Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths), outwitted by rookie Indigenous senator Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman), whom she had tried to double cross, finally drops the mask of benevolent paternalism and lays her cards on the table: “Peter was right – you really are a black bitch.” Back in the political fray in season two, Irving is introduced to a fellow participant at a major public forum. “Gay priest,” he says, offering his credentials. “Black bitch,” she shoots back, offering hers, not missing a beat. There is a ripple of pleasure in watching Irving take ownership of the slur constantly thrown at her by political adversaries and social media trolls alike. With a smart, straight-talking script, Total Control has plenty of moments such as this that leave little aftershocks rumbling in their wake. If you like your humour sharp and with a sting in the tail, Total Control is an exhilarating ride.

What we know from season one: Alex Irving, a fiery local activist from the small Queensland town of Winton, is drawn into the corridors of power in Canberra by an offer from the conservative prime minister. In the long, symmetrical white corridors of Parliament House, the wheels of power stray often from the straight and narrow, steered by the Machiavellian hand of the prime minister. Here, throughout the first season, Irving will be ruthlessly manipulated, betrayed, will strike back, will stick it to the PM, exposing her treachery and eventually unseating her, but the senator will return to Winton a pariah, to the disdain of the locals who see her as a turncoat, a lackey, a fraud.

When Rachel Griffiths first pitched the idea for the television series to producer Darren Dale at production company Blackfella Films, she described it as “operatic”. A political drama staged as a battle of wills between two women, Total Control’s first season strung the conflict along a taut emotional highwire, through sudden reversals of fortune and moments of great intensity, but the season was far from histrionic in concept or performance. The incisive script kept the drama grounded firmly in the realpolitik of the national parliament – the wheeling and dealing, backstabbing and jostling for power – and focused on the bold-faced attempts to blackwash the party machine with an Indigenous face while ruthlessly sidelining her concerns, keeping her inclusion tokenistic. This manoeuvring kept audiences riveted to the personal and political stakes of the tussle between the two protagonists, and attuned to the ramifications on the ground for locals in Winton – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and for the nation.

Season two, directed by Wayne Blair, brings a new invitation from Rachel Anderson, but this time Irving is no greenhorn and Anderson has plummeted from grace like a spent meteor. The skirmishes between them are far from over, but now they are on a more equal footing and the gloves are off, as Irving gives as good as she gets to the “privileged white bitch who drinks single malt whisky”. Mailman describes Irving as an incredibly complex character who is “flawed” and “unhinged” but has a strong moral compass and a “spine of steel”. She is committed to her family and community, and “takes no bullshit”. Irving tells it how it is. There’s plenty here that could hit a raw nerve, make some viewers wince if they’re tuned in to the recent recalibration of who gets to speak in the public arena and what they say.

The new season hooks into this zeitgeist of truth-telling: the smarmy leader of the Opposition’s uninvited pat on the shoulder of Alex Irving in the party room; the deaths in custody of two young Aboriginal girls to add to the nation’s tally; and the hothouse of rampant social media abuse and physical threats that suck the oxygen out of the air for any woman who stands up and speaks out; the slut-shaming, the condescension, the marginalisation and the ways these are ratcheted up to fever pitch against vocal black women. Real events, such as the racial vilification targeted at Nova Peris when she entered parliament and the gendered violence of the “ditch the witch” campaign against Julia Gillard, swirl around in the background of this series, but rather than weighing it down the astute engagement with the political context anchors the narrative and gives it punch, making it a thrill to watch.

Back in Winton, the community is in extremis due to drought, bank foreclosures, a lack of health services, and inadequate education and training, and the locals are forced to truck in bottled water while the big cotton farmers draw down the aquifer. Irving wangles an impromptu audience with new prime minister, Damian Bauer (Anthony Hayes), for a bunch of locals in the pub to voice their concerns. And what do they talk about? Having a beer and a shag. We watch this charade play out as Bauer, realising he is on speaker phone, flips instantly from supercilious disinterest to matey jocularity, acting out the blokey rituals that masquerade as rapport and social empathy all too often in Australian culture (the familiar performance of pseudo-camaraderie so reminiscent of the current incumbent), and then watch as Irving pulls the rug out from under the pretence, calling out the “stupid fools” for buying it.

Producer Darren Dale has described Total Control as “purpose-led content for a broad audience”– content that sets out to explore social and political issues – but he is quick to point out that the creators were not seeking to make a “worthy” program and they were determined to avoid binary characterisations. As Dale says, “this is not House of Cards where they’re all rotten”. The production’s emphasis is on drama, and on building layers and complexity into characters and contexts.

Both social and geographical contexts are finely drawn in an aesthetic that maps out disparities of privilege and power with a keen eye for how we inhabit space. In season one, entering the parliament building for the first time, Irving, dressed all in black, steps through the white marble pillars, apprehensive, walking straight into the eye of the camera. White men in dark suits stride purposefully from one side to the other, criss-crossing the floor made of Paradise white marble with black granite squares crossed by straight lines; circles bisected by crosses and sharp-edged triangles. The newly fledged senator walks straight ahead. Axes of movement cut across each other, never parallel: it is a precise geometrical construction of non-belonging.

Season two marks out a broader canvas, moving across the city/rural divide and the divisions within the metropolis. In a year when “a tale of two cities” has often been invoked to describe Sydney’s social divides, exposed so starkly by the pandemic, the new season of Total Control integrates these disparities in a richly textured mise en scène. From the cluttered storefronts and bustling pedestrian streetscapes of Western Sydney to the floor-to-ceiling harbour views and luxurious white interiors of Anderson’s North Sydney abode, the physicality of spaces embeds the characters in a precise social and economic landscape. As the power dynamics ping-pong between Irving and Anderson, the set and costume design amplify the emotional ambience around them. The season opens with the former PM cast out of the vortex of party politics. “Nutcracker Anderson with hair that could stop a fucking truck” is now bereft, bedraggled and sobbing into her knees in her boat-like bathtub, a castaway marooned in the vault-like space of her designer bathroom, a tiny spot-lit white figure engulfed in a vast sea of tasteful grey tiles. Meanwhile, Alex Irving’s heels click across the expansive lobby of Parliament House, resounding like a drum beat, this time taking control of the space as she strides forward in all her blazing, raging glory to speak her piece direct to the journalists’ camera, big close-up filling the screen. But when Irving returns to dusty Winton, she comes back to a ramshackle fibro and corrugated iron house with patchy paint and cramped, dingy rooms – and a sceptical, derisive community. And in this season, both Anderson and Irving face the challenge of how to regroup, how to find a way to work into the crevices appearing in a changing political landscape where fracturing party allegiances open up new configurations of power.

Despite its skewering of smug, complacent politicians, the series is far from just pollie-bashing. There’s a strong commitment here to participation in the political process, and to working for change. As Rachel Griffiths describes it, the central question of the series is whether Alex, “carrying her own trauma, can hold it together in the system long enough to change what she wants to change. Can she survive? Is it worth the struggle to try to change things?” Griffiths describes both Irving and Anderson as “people trying to control their destiny”. Total Control is a drama of becoming: a coming to experience and empowerment for Irving, as a lightning rod of hope for her mob; and perhaps a coming to understanding for Anderson, though one always tempered by whatever game she is playing in an attempt to reclaim the political sphere.

In a recognition of the significance of this becoming and the radical hope it fosters, particularly for Indigenous nations, a pilot is underway to adapt the series for the US context, with William Jehu Garroutte, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, on board to write the script.

Deborah Mailman’s tour de force embodiment of Alex Irving showcases her versatility and power as an actor. Head-to-head with Mailman, Rachel Griffiths holds in a fine balance both the polished professional demeanour of Anderson as a master strategist who always keeps one hand under the table, and the character’s brittleness and, perhaps, her envy for Irving’s integrity. Mailman and Griffiths deliver performances of the same high calibre that won them AACTA awards for best actor and best supporting actor for the first season and propelled the program through to win best drama series. The strong supporting cast from the first season is boosted by some impressive newcomers in the second, most notably comedian Steph Tisdell who woos the camera with a powerful presence and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Total Control has a deft cinematic sensibility that puts it in a league with the top notch of international television. The series rewards a close viewing to appreciate the richness of the art direction and relish the razor-sharp script and the nuances of performance, and the stylish musical soundtrack. As Alex Irving says, “We’re a smart country. It’s time we stopped being so bloody stupid.” We need more intelligent, incisive dramas like this one.

 

Season two of Total Control airs on ABC TV and iview from 7 November.

Anne Rutherford

Anne Rutherford is a film critic and adjunct associate professor in cinema studies at Western Sydney University.

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