There is a degree of irony in the title of the Australian TV series Total Control, which screened on the ABC late last year. When cast member Rachel Griffiths hit on the idea for a drama about an Indigenous woman senator, her proposed title was the far more provocative Black Bitch – and the show was referred to by that name till shortly before the premiere, when complaints on social media seemingly prompted a rethink.‘Black Bitch TV Series Renamed Total Control by ABC’, NITV News, 30 August 2019, <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2019/08/30/black-bitch-tv-series-renamed-total-control-abc>, accessed 13 May 2020. Its director, Rachel Perkins, has since claimed that calling the show Total Control was the plan all along, at least for the local market;Steve Dow, ‘Fighting Power: Total Control’, The Monthly, 24 September 2019, <https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/steve-dow/2019/24/2019/1569295416/fighting-power-total-control>, accessed 13 May 2020. her producing partner Darren Dale has given a slightly different account, implying that the creative team’s ‘aspirational title’ was vetoed from above.Darren Dale, quoted in Rochelle Siemienowicz, ‘From Black B*tch to Total Control – an Interview with Darren Dale of Blackfella Films’, screenhub, 10 October 2019, <https://www.screenhub.com.au/news-article/news/television/rochelle-siemienowicz/from-black-btch-to-total-control-an-interview-with-darren-dale-of-blackfella-films-258957>, accessed 13 May 2020.
One thing that might be gleaned from these mixed signals is that Total Control, like most TV shows, belongs to a group rather than to a single author. The credits list Griffiths, Dale and co-producer Miranda Dear as primary creators, with an additional ‘co-creator’ credit going to writer Stuart Page, a veteran of Australian television whose CV goes back to Blue Heelers. Though Page is the sole credited writer on four of the six episodes to date, he has resisted being viewed as the main driving force.Natalie Apostolou, ‘Deborah Mailman Seizes Power in ABC’s Total Control’, IF.com.au, 26 September 2019, <https://www.if.com.au/deborah-mailman-seizes-power-in-abcs-total-control>, accessed 13 May 2020. Griffiths similarly holds that the creative process was collaborative all the way: ‘Total Control had everyone pissing all over the place,’ she has said,Rachel Griffiths, ‘Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture’, 13 November 2019, Screen Forever website, <https://www.screenforever.org.au/news-all/hector-crawford-transcript>, accessed 13 May 2020. meaning this entirely as a positive.
Yet, almost in the same breath, Griffiths identifies Perkins as the ‘auteur’ of Total Control, a judgement that finally seems not unreasonable. Perkins, after all, directed all six episodes, which were shot together in the manner of a feature rather than successively; these episodes tell a single, fully serialised story, complete in itself even if enough threads are left dangling to justify a second season. Officially, Perkins co-wrote only one episode, but she is more broadly credited by Griffiths with adjusting the scripts to match her ‘deep understanding of Indigenous grassroots politics’ibid. – suggesting that she came as close to ‘total control’ of the final product as anyone did.
Adding to the irony, the show itself is deeply ambivalent on the question of how far an individual can work within a system, or multiple systems, and achieve a worthwhile goal. The heroine, Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman), is an Indigenous health worker and single mother from Winton in central Queensland – a real town that ‘plays itself’ – who finds herself facing down a crazed gunman at a regional courthouse; he shoots himself dead before her eyes, a trauma that hangs over the rest of the show without ever being fully addressed. As an inadvertent national heroine, Alex is ‘parachuted’ into the Senate by Liberal Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Griffiths), who has some genuine concern for Indigenous issues, but who is also looking to shore up her leadership in an election year.
With no recorded political experience beyond the local council, Alex has been thrown in the deep end – especially when plans are hatched for a US military base to be constructed on native-title land near Winton, and she is sent back home to negotiate the terms of the lease. A separate thread concerns the death of an Indigenous teenager, Marcie (Val Weldon), at a detention centre in the Northern Territory: Alex suspects a cover-up, but to confirm this needs the help of Marcie’s friend Jess (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), who is making her own parallel journey to Canberra as a hitchhiker.
Woven through the complex plot are echoes of real events: Marcie’s death, for instance, recalls the use of tear gas at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014, which sparked a royal commission.Sophie Russell & Chris Cunneen, ‘Don Dale Royal Commission Reveals We Must Treat Young Better’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2017, <https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/don-dale-royal-commission-reveals-we-must-treat-young-better-20171120-gzoqt3.html>, accessed 13 May 2020. As for Alex, her entry into the Senate as a ‘captain’s pick’ parallels that of Indigenous athlete-turned-politican Nova Peris,Dow, op. cit. while a scene in which she mulls over her maiden speech incorporates a clip of the actual maiden speech of Mehreen Faruqi, Australia’s first female Muslim senator. Perhaps there’s even a hint of Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie in her military background and conservative views – some of them inherited from her staunchly royalist mother, Jan (Trisha Morton-Thomas), a member of the Stolen Generations who grew up on a mission.
The show’s most blatant departure from reality is the conception of Rachel Anderson as prime minister: can we really picture the Liberals being led by an unmarried woman, especially one who displays more than a trace of Griffiths’ bolshie streak? Still, here, too, there are real-world analogues: as a moderate, Rachel has more success at keeping her party’s hard-right flank at bay than her fellow Liberal Malcolm Turnbull ever did in his time as prime minister, while her conservative-chic style resembles former foreign minister Julie Bishop’s (cream skirt suits, pearls).
Above all, the show is pervaded by memories of the prime ministership of Julia Gillard, an unavoidable reference point for any effort to picture Australia with a woman in charge. Rachel is very much not Gillard, and yet she also is Gillard, whose portrait looms large at a key moment of the season finale; Griffiths’ voice – low, mordant, with don’t-fuck-with-me undertones – evokes without directly mimicking Gillard’s much-ridiculed twang. Both Alex and the PM are subject to misogynistic abuse, and the parallels here are not subtle: the phrase ‘ditch the witch’ circulates on social media, and an exchange in another context echoes broadcaster Alan Jones’ notorious statement about Gillard’s father having ‘died of shame’.See Lanai Vasek, ‘Tony Abbott Joins Chorus Condemning Jones’, The Australian, 30 September 2012, <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/tony-abbott-joins-chorus-condemning-jones/news-story/e0ed808e6e3f437b59397f343af7885b>, accessed 13 May 2020.
As for Perkins’ personal stake in all this, it is fair to assume that an Indigenous woman who has sustained a career in Australian film and television for almost thirty years is no stranger to politics in any sense. More specifically, Perkins was born and raised in Canberra, and, as the daughter of activist Charles Perkins, was ideally placed to observe the struggle for Indigenous rights from an early age.Rachel Perkins, ‘Director Rachel Perkins Calls for “End of Silence” on Indigenous Recognition in ABC Boyer Lecture’, ABC News, 16 November 2019, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-16/boyer-lecture-rachel-perkins-echoes-uluru-statement/11696504>, accessed 13 May 2020. It is plainly no coincidence that the Prime Minister shares a first name with two key members of Total Control’s creative team – and, given this, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence either that Alex has a brother named ‘Charlie’ (Rob Collins), a lefty academic who serves as her conscience even as she resents him for judging her from his ivory tower.
Given this wealth of allusion, it would be easy to treat the show as a straightforwardly didactic allegory – Alex’s struggles representing those of all Indigenous women, or even all marginalised people seeking to play a role in the public sphere. Complicating matters, though, is the way that the question of representation is raised overtly: Alex plays a ‘representative’ role as a politician (albeit an unelected one), but her shifting political allegiances are not to be confused with anything she may represent within the logic of fiction.
Indeed, the issue of what Alex ‘represents’ in this latter sense is far from straightforward. The show’s first episode lures us into expecting a populist fable in the Frank Capra vein, with Alex as the outsider who shows up the professional politicians for the phonies they are. At the urging of Jonathan (Harry Richardson), her slick chief of staff, she initially agrees to play by the rules – until the crucial moment of her first TV interview, when she slips off her shoes for added comfort, admits to suffering an anxiety attack and speaks out boldly over Marcie’s death. Back at the office, she learns that social media has dubbed her the ‘barefoot senator’, and that she’s become a national heroine all over again.
This is just as corny as it sounds, but in the meantime we’ve been offered more than one credible perspective on the question of ‘authenticity’. The PM makes an unapologetic principle of assuming different stances for different occasions: fronting up to the media she’s all unruffled poise, while behind closed doors she’s casually foul-mouthed and prepared to give as good as she gets (elsewhere, a brief, unexpected nude scene offers a rare glimpse of her vulnerability ‘out of character’). A middle position is represented by Jonathan, a consummate insider who emerges as one of Alex’s staunchest allies. Young, charming and on the make, he’s also openly yet discreetly gay, lending him a faint ironic distance from the establishment he serves, a quality that in turn seems part and parcel of his political finesse.
As for Alex herself, she will find soon enough that a knack for dissembling is an essential in her profession – and even before that moment comes, we’re led to realise she was never quite the political innocent she was thought to be. In the early Canberra scenes, Jonathan serves as master of ceremonies, introducing Alex (and us) to the political game and its players; when he tags along to the native-title meeting in Winton, the roles are reversed, with Alex now the expert instructing him on the lay of the land. Here, too, there are pragmatists and hardliners, warring factions and deals to be struck – and here, too, patriarchal tradition is alive and well, obliging women to make a double effort to be heard above the men.
It’s here that we start to get a sense of the larger design of the show, arising not solely from the scripts but also from patterns of imagery that would necessarily be less coherent if a single director hadn’t been calling the shots. Loosely ‘representing’ black and white Australia respectively, Winton and Canberra are visualised in ways that accentuate the contrast between them: the former hot, dusty and run-down, where the latter is cool, pristine and modern. Yet these separate realms are also mirror images, as Perkins reinforces with visual rhymes, some near-subliminal and others insistent – like the parallel between Parliament House and Jan’s house in Winton, both framed in the same frontal, symmetrical way when Alex enters or leaves.
All this lends credibility to the conception of Perkins as the auteur of Total Control, which constitutes, on the whole, some of the strongest filmmaking of her career. As critic Raymond Durgnat might have put it, the story can be seen as an anagramSee, for instance, Raymond Durgnat, The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image, Horizon Press, New York, 1970, p. 229. of Perkins’ first feature, Radiance (1998) – which, not coincidentally, marked Mailman’s screen debut, with Morton-Thomas playing another of the leads. Based on the play of the same name by Louis Nowra, Radiance deals with three Indigenous half-sisters (the third is played by Rachael Maza) who reunite at their childhood home in north Queensland for their mother’s funeral: quarrels and revelations follow, till, at the climax, they burn the house to the ground, an effort to free themselves from the weight of the past.
To the degree that the PM can be seen as a counterpart to Jan, Total Control gives us not one but two ‘mother’s houses’ – both repositories of historical memory, for good or ill. In Parliament House, images of the past appear around every corner of the corridors of power, including a painting of the First Fleet’s arrival contemplated by Alex and the PM in separate scenes. In similar fashion, Jan has turned her home into a shrine to the Queen, which becomes a memorial to Jan herself after her off-screen death. The subsequent lyrical evocation of grief gives a sense that her spirit has entered into the walls and furnishings; a close-up of Alex’s foot on a rug harks back to the ‘barefoot senator’ theme – itself part of a larger pattern of foot and shoe imagery – while exemplifying the tactile awareness that is another Perkins signature.
These two houses are not the only locations in Total Control charged with meaning: in the crucial second episode, Alex is reminded of her responsibility to ‘our country and our culture’ by a female elder (played by actual Winton elder Joslin Eatts) who takes her to visit a sacred site with Jonathan still in tow. The opposed pole here is the American base that starts construction later in the season, and then is burnt down – like the house in Radiance – with the now-disillusioned Alex’s covert encouragement. Indeed, every location in the show has its own symbolic function and its own protocols, enabling countless scenes in which characters barge in uninvited, attempt to talk their way past gatekeepers or learn that insider privilege can itself be a trap.
In view of all this, it could be said that politics in Total Control is centrally a matter of negotiating who gets to be where, under what conditions. Alex’s ‘authenticity’, or naivety, lies in her willingness to approach these negotiations in good faith: her disillusionment comes when her hard-won native-title deal is dropped by the PM, now desperate to fend off a coup from the right. In the fallout, Alex likewise finds her ‘mob’ in Winton turning against her, posing the question of whether she fits in anywhere, or whether, like Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks)The protagonist of Chauvel’s 1955 film of the same name. – still the defining Indigenous heroine of Australian cinema – she fatally does not ‘know her place’, and therefore is out of place wherever she goes.See Jane Mills, Australian Screen Classics: Jedda, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2012.
Intentionally or otherwise, the two competing titles of the show sum up the tension that determines its structure. If ‘total control’ is what Alex strives for – starting with control over herself and how she’s seen – the label ‘black bitch’ implies that such control may be unattainable, her identity as an Indigenous woman constituting a scandal in itself. Again, this does not mean, for the show’s own purposes, that Alex straightforwardly ‘represents’ a marginalised group. Rather, her gender and colour – and even her weight – are attributes that, taken together, signify an excess potentially perceived as threatening precisely because it overflows the bounds of easy definition. Ironically, her faith in moderation and compromise only exacerbates this, ensuring that she fits neither a conservative mould nor a radical one.
Alex is caught between worlds: at the intersection, so to speak (that she ultimately shifts from the Liberals to Labor – and from the Senate to the House of Representatives, if she can win a seat in the upcoming election – is a punchline but not entirely a game changer). Her position is defined most fully in a sequence at the end of the third episode, exactly halfway through the season, which marks both the low point for her as a character and the high point of Total Control itself. Tired and stressed over her mother’s failing health, she arrives at Brisbane Airport – another halfway point, between Canberra and Winton – only to learn that her flight has been cancelled due to bad weather (‘There’s a storm coming,’ she has noted one episode before).
In a single take lasting over two minutes, she wheels her suitcase across to the nearly empty lounge, takes out her mobile, and receives two pieces of devastating news. First, a recorded message from Jonathan in Canberra informs her that she has been ‘shafted’ over the land-rights deal, leading her to scream, ‘Fuck!’ – briefly drawing the attention of some out-of-focus extras – and to bury her face in her hands. Second, she takes a call from Charlie in Winton; we are not privy to what he says, but her reaction – initial stoicism giving way to violent grief – leaves little doubt that she has just learned of her mother’s death. All this time, the camera has been tracking in on Alex, framing her frontally and head-on, while in the distance the last of her fellow travellers are leaving the building; in the moment before the credits, she appears, finally, to be all alone.
|1||‘Black Bitch TV Series Renamed Total Control by ABC’, NITV News, 30 August 2019, <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2019/08/30/black-bitch-tv-series-renamed-total-control-abc>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|2||Steve Dow, ‘Fighting Power: Total Control’, The Monthly, 24 September 2019, <https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/steve-dow/2019/24/2019/1569295416/fighting-power-total-control>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|3||Darren Dale, quoted in Rochelle Siemienowicz, ‘From Black B*tch to Total Control – an Interview with Darren Dale of Blackfella Films’, screenhub, 10 October 2019, <https://www.screenhub.com.au/news-article/news/television/rochelle-siemienowicz/from-black-btch-to-total-control-an-interview-with-darren-dale-of-blackfella-films-258957>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|4||Natalie Apostolou, ‘Deborah Mailman Seizes Power in ABC’s Total Control’, IF.com.au, 26 September 2019, <https://www.if.com.au/deborah-mailman-seizes-power-in-abcs-total-control>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|5||Rachel Griffiths, ‘Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture’, 13 November 2019, Screen Forever website, <https://www.screenforever.org.au/news-all/hector-crawford-transcript>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|7||Sophie Russell & Chris Cunneen, ‘Don Dale Royal Commission Reveals We Must Treat Young Better’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2017, <https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/don-dale-royal-commission-reveals-we-must-treat-young-better-20171120-gzoqt3.html>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|8||Dow, op. cit.|
|9||See Lanai Vasek, ‘Tony Abbott Joins Chorus Condemning Jones’, The Australian, 30 September 2012, <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/tony-abbott-joins-chorus-condemning-jones/news-story/e0ed808e6e3f437b59397f343af7885b>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|10||Rachel Perkins, ‘Director Rachel Perkins Calls for “End of Silence” on Indigenous Recognition in ABC Boyer Lecture’, ABC News, 16 November 2019, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-16/boyer-lecture-rachel-perkins-echoes-uluru-statement/11696504>, accessed 13 May 2020.|
|11||See, for instance, Raymond Durgnat, The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image, Horizon Press, New York, 1970, p. 229.|
|12||The protagonist of Chauvel’s 1955 film of the same name.|
|13||See Jane Mills, Australian Screen Classics: Jedda, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2012.|