Wentworth vs How to Get Away with Murder- Moral ambiguity in Female Leads

anti-hero: a central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.

Two of Television’s current excellent female anti-heroes are Governor Joan “The Freak” Ferguson and Annalise Keating. These characters, found on Wentworth and How to Get Away with Murder, are both sinister, dominating, and morally ambiguous. Pamela Rabe and Viola Davis are both phenomenal in their respective roles.

Wentworth Prison, Season 2, Channel 5 ...Episode 1....Ep 1 - Governor looks (1).jpg

They’re deceitful, menacing, tough and, above all, clever. They never reveal everything they know- they’re manipulative to the extent that no’one, not even the audience, ever knows what their true agenda is.

What makes these characters so incredible to watch is their moral ambiguity. Both are in positions of power over the dis-empowered- Prisoners and Criminals. The audience  is never quite aware if their actions are fueled by their conscience, or by ambition and self preservation. The writer of How to Get Away with Murder, Peter Nowalk, states that: 

“Justice is very complicated, viola-davis-how-to-get-away-with-murderand the justice system is much more corrupt than you would think it would be. So, in a certain way, I think Annalise feels like she’s being moral. She’s just standing up for the people who don’t get stood up for a lot.” 

While Annalise’s behavior may be justified by an inherent desire for justice, Joan Ferguson’s motivations seem to stem from a sadistic appetite for power and control. Known as ‘‘the menace of quixotic tyranny”, Ferguson’s Machiavellian nature is key aspect of her complex character. The power struggle between Bea and Ferguson throughout Seasons 2 and 3 is compelling to watch, and fuels the substantial success of this program.3409e45349ec9f6b3397bfe10e87a1d0_L

In both shows, the complexity of these characters are apparent from their first episode, however their “back stories” are gradually revealed over time, thus viola-davis-800allowing us perspective on their present actions. In How to Get Away with Murder, it’s not until episode 13, “Mama’s here now”, that details of Annalise’s childhood are revealed. We learn of her sexual abuse as a child, and thus are given an explanation for her strong desire to stand up for the disempowered. Ferguson’s backstory is less apparent, however we’re given hints through obscure flashbacks in episode 9 of Season 2. Such flashbacks allow the audience an interesting insight into her character by providing justification for her, previously cruel, actions.

By providing insight into the previous lives of these characters, we can understand their intentions and therefore their actions.ee68a9df1200997b07be8fb0bbdb9f29_L

How to Get Away With Murder has just released its first season, with a second due soon. The third season of Wentworth has just come out on Foxtel. Both shows are quite good, but are differentiated by their casts. The success of HTGAWM lies solely on Viola Davis’ stunning performance, however Wentworth’s entire supporting cast shine in different ways, making this fantastic show what it is today.

Jo Bradley

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