There are rules for doing things at the Wentworth Correctional Center, the fictional prison in the Australian drama Wentworth. Rules that the women incarcerated should follow if they plan on making it to the end of their sentences in one piece. “Don’t touch anybody’s stuff. Be by your door for the count, and never press the panic button.”
To enforce these rules is the Top Dog, their queen of sorts, and Wentworth has seen its fair share of Top Dogs. (This show really does start feeling like Game of Thrones sometimes with the amount of changeover that occurs…and beloved character deaths.) The role of Top Dog is an exhausting one. As Franky Doyle puts it, “You never know who wants to fuck you or fight you…Try to feed the hop heads, work the screws, fuck off The Freak.” You are watched every second, and any sign of weakness can mean trouble.
So why would anyone want the job, or even keep it when they get hold of it? For Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) and Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva), it was for power and control. No one messes with the Top Dog (unless they are planning on taking over themselves), which means by having the position you also have the control over the drug smuggling that goes on.
This is not about Jacs or Franky though. Or even Kaz Proctor, Joan Ferguson, or Marie Winter. (As I said, they’ve had a big turnover in Top Dogs at Wentworth.)
This is about Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a character who has brought inspiration to countless fans that remain very vocal about her untimely departure. If you wonder how vocal, look up the twitter handle #BeaSmithDeservedBetter, but I digress. There are very few characters that could drive a fandom into mourning and still affect them years after their death happened—some to the point of not being able to continue viewing the series. Others that come to mind? Catherine Chandler in Beauty and the Beast, Lexa in The 100, and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Bea really is a “fully rounded” character, and it takes such a character to elicit such a strong response from people.
“You know from the very first day I’ve been here everyone thought I wanted something. To be in charge. To be in power. So they bashed me and manipulated me. They pushed me around and killed my daughter, and I don’t know why.” ~ Bea Smith, S2E8
When you’re the newbie anywhere, there are two ways your introduction can go. You can either try to exert your power, or you can keep your head down till you find the way of the land. From Bea’s early days at Wentworth, she wanted to stay low but instead was forced into situations that made her stand out.
All she wanted was to simply make contact with her daughter, Debbie, but she was denied by Franky until she became Franky’s drug mule. On the first attempt, Bea is caught and told by Governor Meg Jackson, the warden of the prison, that “women like you are a soft target.” Out of the gate, Bea is seen as weak and easily manipulated, and there’s a reason for that.
Bea Smith is a survivor who uses the appearance of weakness as her biggest weapon. No one ever thinks twice about people who are easily controlled. They write them off and use them when really, they should be the ones most feared. Those people are the ones who bide their time and then strike hardest.
Bea survived an abusive relationship with her husband Harry, by waiting. She went years of being beaten, sexually assaulted, and verbally abused because she wanted to keep up appearances for their daughter. When Bea finally fought back, she taped Harry up in their car and attempted to gas him because enough was enough.
After Debbie is killed by a heroin overdose given to her by Jacs’ son Brayden, Bea once again practices the art of patience in order to enact her revenge. She uses the same games of manipulation done to her.
She pushes Harry into attempting the first blow by belittling him the same way he’s belittled her: “the bastard who killed your little girl is out there, Harry, and he’s laughing. He’s laughing at you because you’re not man enough to teach him a lesson. You’re too much of a gutless coward to do what any man in your situation would have done already in a heartbeat.”
She befriends Jacs’ right-hand man, Simmo, to get close to Brayden by taking a page from Jacs’ playbook. She plants the idea of Simmo’s daughter falling into the same situation with Brayden as Debbie had to bring Simmo to her side. She manipulates both the new governor, Joan Ferguson, and Franky into believing that she wants the power of Top Dog when in reality, she’s using the showdown as a means of escape.
Through the entire process, Bea waits for the tension to rise, and prepares. Once she learns that you can’t handcuff someone with their wrists slit she begins taking pills, gotten from another inmate, to clot her blood in order to prevent her from bleeding out when she slits her wrists in the big showdown with Franky.
For someone who has been told that she is weak by many authoritative figures in her life, Bea Smith is quite possibly the strongest woman out there, and the most resourceful. Even in her twisted sense of right and wrong and self-administered justice, Bea fights for those she cares for.
When she learns that Jacs is planning on ganging (gang-raping) Franky, she attempts to stop it in a diplomatic way. She approaches Jacs and tells her how wrong it is. That nobody should have to go through what she plans to do. The others around the prison know it’s wrong, but they’re too afraid to acknowledge it. “You’re all lying about something. You all think that’s the only way to survive in here, but I’m not like that.” (Bea Smith, S1E10) Bea’s entire moral code rests upon doing what is best for those she cares about, by any means necessary.
During the reign of “Queen Bea,” her care is for the women. She focuses her attention on making prison life better for them. As Ferguson puts it, “Smith wants to improve these women, so do I. We just come at it from different angles.” Ferguson runs her prison like Matilda’s Trunchbull runs her school—with fear. Bea understands there needs to be some bark to her bite, but she is also willing to compromise…unless it’s drugs. Bea, up to that point, is really the only Top Dog that is anti-drugs (which is completely understandable, given the circumstances of how her daughter died).
“I don’t want to be the reason you don’t shove crank into your veins. I don’t want that responsibility.” ~ Bea Smith, S4E5
It’s absolutely amazing to see the journey Bea has from domestic hairdresser to vengeful mother to badass Top Dog reciting such epic lines as “You don’t run this prison, I do.” It’s another thing to be able to break her down and really connect with her insecurities. In that, one goes from thinking they want to be her to actually understanding deep down that they already are her.
Bea is constantly saying that she is not a victim. It’s one of the first things she says to Kaz Proctor when she visits as one of Bea’s “fangirls.” Bea may want to think that she isn’t a victim, but she is. She is a victim of manipulation, a victim of abuse, and a victim of herself.
I am someone who has suffered from refusing to speak up about what goes on in my head. There is a stigma when it comes to mental health. Talking about it is taboo. I spent years dealing with the amount of self-blaming I did to myself. Whenever I did or got something wrong I would question absolutely everything. “Did I actually do it?” “What could I have done differently?” “Why am I so stupid?” I would always head into a downward spiral of self-blaming and it would cause my anxiety to skyrocket up. Small things would become bigger.
It took talking to someone to realize that this happened because I wanted to make sure everything was always perfect. As a kid, if I made sure my siblings said the right things, then the social worker wouldn’t take us away. As an adult, if I did everything right and to a T, then there would be no room for failure. I wouldn’t run the risk of having to lie to cover it up and I wouldn’t have let anyone down.
When watching Wentworth the first time, I sensed that I could relate to Bea Smith. I thought it was her incredible art skills (which are actually Danielle Cormack’s incredible art skills). Then, she started a relationship with a woman (more on that in a moment) and I thought that was my biggest connection with her. Then, I went back and rewatched so I could write this piece, and it occurred to me very quickly. Bea is constantly trying to please everyone and in the process making bad choices, and then beating herself up about it.
As part of Bea’s plan of escape to kill Brayden, she ends up involving her recently paroled friend, Liz, in a way that incriminates her and makes Liz have to return to Wentworth. Bea understood fully that Liz was in danger just before she originally left because she lagged (snitched) on one of her fellow inmates to the screws (guards). At first, when Liz is returned to Wentworth she’s placed in protection and Bea can relax with the idea that she’s safe. Then as punishment to Bea, Ferguson moves Liz back into general. Suddenly Bea, in the back of her mind, knows that she needs to correct this and protect Liz. When Liz is attacked by Boomer, the inmate she lagged on, Bea then blames herself for not stressing enough that Liz is off-limits.
The trust between the women is gone and Liz makes it known that it will take a lot for Bea to earn it back. Bea also understands this and tries to correct the situation in a few ways. First, she punishes Boomer (against Liz’s wishes), and then she plays mediator to repair Liz and Boomer’s friendship. After Liz’s daughter, Sophie, arrives at Wentworth, Bea, again against Liz’s wishes, attempts to get Sophie to be a little bit nicer to her mother.
Every time Liz tries to tell Bea to stop, Bea responds by getting defensive. It’s Bea’s way of trying to make peace with herself over her own mess-ups. I’ve done that. I’ve had an argument with my housemate and then tried to correct it by cleaning the house, or by trying to think of things to do instead of straight-up apologizing. Guess what? It never works.
When she discovers that Ferguson wants Franky specifically to be blamed for the drugs circulating around the prison, Bea decides to give her Franky’s current flame, Jodie, instead. This leads to Jodie becoming a victim of Ferguson, who tortures her to the point where Jodie agrees to attack Bea. When Bea discovers this, she tries to help Jodie because she knows that she herself was the one who put Jodie in that spot.
When Bea fails Jodie again after being drugged by Ferguson’s henchman Nils Jesper, and Jodie has a complete meltdown followed by stabbing herself in the eye with a pencil (because Ferguson verbally tortures her into doing so), Bea is faced with the fact that this battle between her and Ferguson is a losing one. Everyone involved from Liz to Jodie is becoming collateral damage, and that is the last thing Bea actually wants. “Doreen’s right. I picked a fight I can’t win. Because of me, Ferguson is picking you off one by one. She is beyond evil. I can’t beat her.” (Bea Smith, S3E9)
Given Bea’s position of Top Dog, all the guilt she has becomes intensified because she has no outlet for it. “What parts of yourself will you shut down to stay on top?” (Franky Doyle, S4E1) As said earlier, any show of weakness can mean the end of being Top Dog—the end of having the influence over the others. So instead Bea shows herself to the women and the staff of Wentworth as a woman who has grown cold with her anger towards what has happened to her. Then, in the privacy of her own cell, she allows herself to be vulnerable.
That battle of having a shield up is an exhausting one. I’ve carried that shield for years myself when I was around people. It’s the same shield I put up when I would have my social workers ask me, at weekly visitation with my parents, how I was feeling. The same one I put up when I get customers coming into my place of work and taking their anger out on me for asking them to simply follow the rules. You act like the words and actions don’t hurt, but in reality, they do.
It’s the reason why Bea turns to self-harm and sinks into depression. There is no other outlet in a place where you are in a position of power and have to be turned up to eleven constantly. She can’t talk about that stress to Liz or her best mate, Maxine. They would only know about it to a point. They are still outsiders looking in. Plus, Maxine has slowly become more of a favorite among the women, and even though Bea knows she shouldn’t have to worry, she does. The only person who would understand is Franky since she’s had that position of Top Dog, and at this point, Franky has gotten her own parole.
“…it was about ‘Bea’s sensuality.’ Which is a very different thing because it was never about ‘is she gay, is she not?’ It was more about her allowing someone into her heart that she hadn’t done for a very long time and we had never been privy to on the show.” ~ Danielle Cormack (Curve interview)
When you are down in that deep depression hump, covered in the darkness of your own thoughts, it feels like there will be no end. You feel you have no purpose.
I went through a dark stage like that back in middle school. I was bullied day in and day out by fellow classmates, being called “Lezzo” or “Teacher’s Pet.” Constantly being asked, “Where’s the flood?” because my clothes never seemed to fit quite right. I was just put back into foster care and being moved from home to home where I had some foster parents call me “a troublemaker” just because I was a foster child. I felt that no one really understood what I was going through, because how many kids are taken away from their parents and separated from their siblings? I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could trust and so I closed myself off from letting people in, even when they tried really hard to reach me.
Those same feelings are very much where Bea is in the final leg of her story. She is depressed and without purpose. She hasn’t any family. The only friends she has are the women inside the prison who have shown that they would turn their backs on her at any given moment. She’s basically closed herself off from any connections, including romantic ones.
Romance and trust are touchy subjects already for Bea Smith. Her ideas on both are convoluted. The only romantic relationship she’s had to that point was with Harry, and look at how he treated her. She was led to believe that sex had to be forced and self-care would bring the memory of that force back to her subconscious. When it came to talking about masturbation or anything of a sexual nature she would become prudish.
This is why when Allie Novak (Kate Jenkinson) enters into her life Bea is thrown for a loop. Allie is Kaz’s right hand and fellow member of the Red Right Hand, the organization Kaz started in Bea’s name to enact revenge on abusers. She has no interest in power. Her only interest is to get close to Bea.
It’s through Allie that Bea finds that light in the darkness. That “I can fight this” momentum that has been missing from her since she originally attempted to take down Ferguson. It’s a closeness that Bea struggles with because she doesn’t understand what it is. Is it romantic feelings she’s having, or are they signs of potential friendship?
Allie is the one who gets Bea talking and expressing herself outwardly instead of self-harming. When Bea is placed into the slot (isolation) and Allie shortly follows, the two are able to really talk to one another. For the first time since Debbie’s death, Bea is able to reminisce about her in the way she used to when Debbie was alive. It allows Bea to vocalize her emotions and properly mourn—something that she hasn’t been able to do, because once Debbie died she was thrust into a tug-of-war battle between Jacs and Franky. Then, she had her mental breakdown following Jacs’ murder and sunk into her own mind where she bottled up the thought of Debbie to use as motivation for revenge and purpose to continue living. After, she couldn’t properly talk about it because now she was Top Dog, and the Top Dog can’t show weakness.
Allie taking the time to listen is a powerful gesture that Bea needed in order to be drawn back from the brink of her own self-destruction. It’s that moment after your first therapy session where you have properly opened up for the first time, and your insides feel so compressed but at the same time that pressure you’ve been holding on to for so long has finally begun to lessen. Afterward, you feel exhausted but also free. By having this moment it leads Bea towards having the courage to become free herself and step down from being Top Dog. She can finally see the power being too much for her, and too damaging. Bea saying that she’s done is the weight of her depression finally being lifted, and it’s visible as well because her entire demeanor changes.
Allie’s feelings toward Bea are genuine, which in Bea’s world has proven to be dangerous. Just like everyone else she’s cared about, Allie quickly becomes a target. Once again, the thing Bea loves most is used to harm her when Kaz leads her to believe that Allie was instructed to “prostitute herself” to Bea. Ferguson strikes the hardest when she “hot shots” Allie with heroin because, as Ferguson says, “let’s just call her collateral damage” (S4E12), and Bea is then forced to relive the moment she lost Debbie by watching it happen all over again with Allie.
We all know the feeling of ultimate love and ultimate loss. Bea Smith showed us that television can also help us interpret these emotions. She could have simply been just another character in another prison drama that has things constantly happening to her, but she wasn’t.
Danielle Cormack was able to look past the words on the page and bring the psychology that comes with Bea’s trauma to life. “It’s vital that the role of Bea is an anchoring one, and to be an anchor you need to be able to relate to your viewers,” Danielle mentioned in an interview with Curve Magazine. Bea’s personality and her flaws are what have allowed her to remain so memorable for so long. It’s why when she decides to sacrifice herself to finally stop The Freak (Ferguson), we understand that as much as it hurts, there was really no better way to have finished her story.