Inside Story

Centres of gravity

Television | A mid-season shift of gear takes Total Control into different territory

Jane Goodall 8 November 2019 1122 words

Always convincing: Deborah Mailman in Total Control. John Platt

In the opening scene of the ABC’s six-part political drama Total Control, a ute draws up outside the Mount Isa courthouse and the driver emerges, brandishes a rifle and shoots. A woman crouches to attend the wounded victim, then stands to block the gunman as he closes in. He turns the gun on himself, and shoots again.

How many storylines might be drawn from this incident? Behind it, there’s a dismal tale of domestic violence and wider privation and stress. Media reports concentrate on the heroic intervention of Alexandra Irving (Deborah Mailman), a regional health worker from an Aboriginal community in the remote town of Winton. Two and a half thousand kilometres away in Canberra, prime minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) watches the drama on the news.

Three months later a young staffer arrives in Winton to prepare the ground for an important mission. Jonathan Cosgrove (Harry Richardson) is greeted at the door by Alex’s mother Jan, who is unimpressed at the sight of this outsider in white shirt and tie. But nothing fazes Cosgrove. He invites himself in for a cup of tea while he waits for her daughter to return from work and, observing the collection of royal portraits on the wall, engages her in agreeable chat about the Queen. “Ninety-three years old,” says Jan, “and never missed a day’s work in her life.”

Having knocked back Cosgrove’s overtures, Alex receives a visit from the prime minister herself. Unlike her staffer, Anderson dresses for the occasion in faded jeans and an Akubra. From her point of view, all the cards are now in place: a pressing policy matter involving native title negotiations with the Winton community; a vacancy in the Senate; an Indigenous woman with conveniently conservative values and proven qualities of grit and courage. Anderson won’t take “no” for an answer.

It’s a promising start to the series, with four interestingly balanced players about to embark on an enterprise fraught with political and personal hazards. And, given recent reports that the Queensland government has “quietly” extinguished native title over the Adani mine site, it’s topical. The challenge is to explore the political tensions in a convincing way.

Here, Deborah Mailman in the lead role is a major asset. Mailman is always convincing. As a new senator unversed in the ways of Parliament House, she needs to be advised how to dress, and what to say and not say. There is some nice interplay between her and Cosgrove, appointed her minder, who insists on protocols she has little interest in observing. Gradually, as the newcomer starts to impose her own rules, the cocky twenty-seven-year-old must confront his limits.

Mailman and Griffiths make effective counterparts, one grounded in the physical realities of a life on the land, the other shaped by the artificial environment of Canberra, groomed and poised for whatever occasion presents. Griffiths faces the more difficult task. Television drama offers an endless parade of prime ministers, presidents, queens and emperors. It’s as if no actor is really at the top of the profession until he or she has played a head of state, and it’s not an easy task: there’s a risk of creating a persona without enough psychological substance behind it. As Anderson, Griffiths is not entirely successful, evoking a version of Julia Gillard that is cooler and less vibrant than the original.

Anderson is something of an ice queen. As she battles with a brash, ebullient right-wing challenger to her position, she is more adept than, say, Malcolm Turnbull in negotiating the political trap, but along the way she dispenses with some of her principles — or is it just the pretence of them? — in order to retain her position. Alex, and the Winton community whose interests she represents, “are the collateral.”

By the end of episode three, midway through, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about where this was all going. Why start a series co-produced by Blackfella Films and directed by Rachel Perkins, only to subordinate the Indigenous storyline to an all-too-familiar portrayal of blood sports in Parliament House? “It’s another country out there,” remarks Indigenous affairs minister Kevin Cartwright (played by David Roberts as a cadaverous-faced Machiavel). If this is about bargaining between two countries, wouldn’t it be more interesting to make Winton, rather than Canberra, the centre of gravity?

In episode 4, the dynamics shift in just that way. While the prime minister is fighting for her political life, Alex learns that her mother has collapsed and died. She returns home to face a community that sees her as an agent of betrayal, and a sense of devastation that almost breaks her. It becomes clear that her mother has been the source of her strength in ways that go deeper than the family bond. Jan Irving was brought up on a reserve, where they belted her and lied to her about her own mother, who they said was dead. “She was never angry,” Alex reflects in a conversation with her brother, “but I fuckin’ hate ’em all.”

From here on, rage — Alex’s, and that of her brother and the betrayed community of Winton — becomes the driving force of the series. In Parliament House, anger is stringently controlled, channelled into heavily coded exchanges and strategically managed forms of vindictiveness; in Winton, it breaks open as an elemental force of clean fury.

Jan Irving makes one final appearance in spirit, but leaves an impression that galvanises the next phase of the action. Trisha Morton-Thomas, an Anmatyerr woman from the Northern Territory, invests her character with a presence that imprints itself on the memory. Rob Collins as Alex’s brother Charlie and Aaron Pedersen as a local ringleader give psychological depth to the two figures now closest to Alex, showing how the anger twists itself through different life courses.

Anousha Zarkesh, who was casting director for Mystery Road, has again shown her exceptional gift for matching actors and roles. In a location-based drama like this, with the presence of a community evoked in the drama, so much depends on a sensitivity to how individuals channel the natural and social environment.

Not everything is right about this series. The scripting is uneven. Some scenes are deftly managed, but the dialogue is sometimes heavy-handed and lacks pace. It may be a case of too many cooks. Four people (including Rachel Griffiths) are credited as co-writer/creators, and most series work best when the steerage is in the hands of one or two showrunners. Given the costs of producing drama like this, it would be good to see the series taken up in international markets, but the competition is fierce and scripting can be the make-or-break factor. •