Redfern Revisited

redfern-now-2The second series of Redfern Now was a stunner.  I’d had high hopes and high expectations for the return of this highly acclaimed television drama, and I was not disappointed.  I’d like to say that I enjoyed watching it as much as I did the first season, but somehow “enjoy” doesn’t seem to be the appropriate sentiment.  I admired it; I was blown away by the acting.  But each episode was extraordinarily painful to watch.  That is a testament to its power and success.  But it sure hurt.

The six episodes this year provided some continuity.  Leah Purcell reprises her role as Grace from the first episode of season one, in which she tried to care for her sister Lilly’s kids instead of going on a long-awaited family vacation.  This year, she’s still trying to take care of family, but the family this time is the Shields, Eddie, Nic, and Joel, whom we met last time around in episode four, which concerned Joel’s expulsion and loss of scholarship for refusing to stand for the national anthem at his school.

Indigo and Allie (Dean Daley-Jones and Lisa Flanagan), whose disturbed domestic relations were the focus of episode five last year, are back as well, and there’s still trouble.  Some of that trouble gets sorted out by the long-suffering Indigenous copper, Aaron Davis, and it’s wonderful to watch Wayne Blair in action again.  But Aaron is still haunted by the death of Lenny, the young troublemaker who pushed Aaron’s buttons too hard while in custody.

What’s equally intriguing is the way these characters’ stories get upended in the new season.  In the second episode of the new season, “Starting Over,” Indigo hasn’t changed much; he’s still violent and abusive.  Allie throws him out again, calling the cops to take him away after he bashes her in a fit of jealousy.  But I hadn’t expected to see copper Aaron fall in love with Allie, much less to discover that the attraction is mutual.  I found this episode to be one of the best in the series, not only because it satisfied the desire for a happy ending better than most, but because in the course of its single hour it offered up so many surprises, went in so many directions that I hadn’t seen coming.

Episode five, “Pokies,” offered its share of surprises as well in its continuation of the story of the Shields family in the days after Joel’s act of adolescent rebellion in last seasons’s “Stand Up.”  Last time around it was Eddie who seemed completely at loose ends.  He was a man searching for some shred of pride and who banked his own sense of self-worth on his son Joel’s academic promise, a promise that Joel’s recalcitrance threatened.  This time Eddie, approaching his fortieth birthday, takes pride not only in his son but in his job, and is surrounded at his birthday party by friends who clearly prize him.  This time, rather, it is Nic who is in trouble, gambling away the family’s finances at lunch-time sessions at the pokies, hiding her accumulating debts by sending dunning statements from creditors to her sister Grace’s address, cheating the other blackfellas at the cultural center where she works, and ultimately conspiring with a nephew to stage a robbery from the center to cover her losses.  It’s a simple narrative, simply told, and you can almost see the way that it’s going to unravel from the very first.  And yet, in another sense, the conclusion is left open-ended.  We know, in the final moment, what comes of Nic’s retreat to a hotel room where she overdoses on pills and alcohol, but we are not told how that action will play out in the dynamics of the family.  That much is left to our imagination.

Our imaginations also have to fill in the consequences of the strife that permeates “Babe in Arms,” the story of a mixed race couple with a new baby whose incessant crying slowly drives its mother Janine (Caren Pistorius) to the brink of unstable behavior.  Isolated, lonely, bereft, she walks down to the bottle shop one day and leaves the baby alone, crying, in their home while her husband Justin (Meyne Wyatt) is off downing a few beers in the wake of a bitter argument.  In the days that follow Janine is trebly burdened, by unabated loneliness, by grief at the loss of the baby, and by the suspicions of all around her.  Her sense of guilt prods her to ever increasing strife with Justin until she forces him to admit that he suspects her of having murdered the infant.  At that moment there is a bitterly ironic reversal, and we are left, as in “Pokies,” to work out for ourselves what will happen to the family dynamic in the future.

Season two opened with the story that probably generated the most headlines, tweets, and controversy of the year.  Richard (Oscar Redding), a whitefella, and his blackfella partner, Peter (Kirk Page) are raising their daughter together, but when Richard is suddenly killed in a traffic accident, his mother contests Peter’s suitability to be a father.  The specter of homosexuality in the Aboriginal community was not greeted with universal openness in the media once the episode had aired, to put it mildly.  The controversy the story generated mirrored the bitterness of the battle between Peter and Margaret (played against type by Noni Hazelhurst).

Unfortunately, the weakness of the story line itself didn’t help to defend the show against its critics.  Margaret takes Peter to court, and it looks like a certainty that he won’t prevail.  When the couple’s friend Lorraine (Deborah Mailman, radiant as ever) gives him a stern speech, advising him to knuckle down, do his homework, and build a strong legal defense, I had hoped that her homily would put some backbone into the plot line as well as into Peter, but it wasn’t to be.  Peter comes into the courtroom essentially unprepared to do anything but make an emotional declaration of his love for his daughter.  The judge is moved and grants him custody.  Perhaps family courts in Australia succumb to these heartfelt appeals more easily and commonly that they do here in America, but I remained unconvinced of the realism of the outcome.  And I wasn’t any more convinced by the seemingly magical rapprochement between Peter and his lover’s mother with which the episode ended.

A similar sense of an ending too easily contrived weakened, for me, the season’s final episode, “Dogs of War,” in which a spate of common burglaries sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy.  The police recommend that the burgled households buy a dog to ward off future attacks.  Derek (Bruce Carter) takes the advice, and brings home a German shepherd that is a both a pet for his two children and a watchdog.  Across the street Tenile (Katherine Beckett) demurs, but her father Ernie (Ernie Dingo, looking fit and handsome) shows up unexpectedly to install security devices for her.  Ernie is a Vietnam veteran, and angry man haunted by nightmares of his experiences in the war and in denial about the lumps on his larynx that are causing him to cough up blood.  Ernie’s nightmares repeatedly set the new dog across the street to barking at night.  The dog in turn wakes the baby in the house next to Tenile and Ernie.  The baby’s parents, Jimmy and Susie, are enraged and frustrated.  One morning, the police show up when the dog is poisoned; horrifyingly, Derek’s young daughter is poisoned as well.  Ernie ferrets out the culprit, but the process seems too pat and simplistic, too engineered to produce harmony and salvation.


At the heart of all these stories, as was true of season one, is the idea of community and the individual’s relationships within it.  In the first series the very community of Redfern itself seemed almost to be one of the characters.  The action often took place in the same streets from episode to episode; the giant Aboriginal flag mural loomed over the action, and the same cast of recurring minor characters provided a thread of continuity among the stories.  Often the plots revolved around the relationships, not just among the Redfern denizens themselves, but between those citizens and the larger forces of social welfare or the police with which they dealt as part of daily life.

In season two, there is a subtle shift in the way in which these themes are elaborated.  The stories this time are more tightly focused on smaller units, on families or on a small group of individuals.  I was struck by the notion that the stories that are told in season two could be told in almost any suburb in any city.  They are stories of individual strife, of psychological tensions; they are less bound up in the uniquely Aboriginal experience, in the fabric of the place called Redfern, than they were in the first series.

Janine, the lonely new mother in “Babes in Arms,” struggles because she is an outsider, and the victim of racism: she is left to fend for herself because she is a white woman in a black community; she doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t belong.  Peter struggles because he’s gay much more than because he’s Aboriginal.  Mattie, in the fourth episode, “Consequences” has been the victim of a bigamous father, but the scene of her betrayal is only incidentally Redfern and the fact that the other family is white seems of minor consequence to the psychology of the characters who struggle to deal with the father’s transgressions.

I’ll admit to being a little uncertain how I feel about this development.  In some ways, I am disappointed to see the particular give way to the universal, for the character of the suburb itself, the history that is implicit in the streets of Redfern, was a powerful element in the first season.  On the other hand, the new stories broaden the scope in some ways and show us the community in different lights, less anchored to a classic view of Redfern as a locus of oppression and more a collection of human beings with aspirations and burdens that they share with a larger cross-section of society.  In the end, I think I am happy with the direction the series has taken, if only because it shows that the creators are willing to take risks, to try to shed new lights on the community, and to refuse to play to the critical success alone that greeted the debut a year ago.  In short, the second season of Redfern Now demonstrates that the complexity, the creativity, and the humanity that powers the narrative engine are healthy, self-critical, and alive.  Taken together, the two seasons truly represent a landmark in Indigenous storytelling.

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