Secrets and lies
A new Foxtel series looks at the reintegration of soldiers into ‘normal’ life after the horrors of combat
Sometime in 2010, a platoon of soldiers returns from Afghanistan after a controversial mission marred by bitter mistakes and desperate cover-ups. Fighting Season is the fictional story of these men, the unfolding mystery of what really happened, and the impact keeping this terrible secret has on them and their families.
They’ve arrived home unexpectedly to a deserted airport, with three months left on their deployment. There’s anguish and disagreement among them — and some suspicion. Their entrance back is shadowy and somewhat clandestine as they talk of holding on to confidences from the combat in which they were involved and an incident likely to be investigated.
The soldiers are dealing with the death of one of their own, veteran section leader Captain Ted Nordenfelt, played in flashback by the gifted Ewan Leslie, killed two days before in a hardfought and controversial combat mission.
They are led by charismatic warrior Sergeant “Speedo” Collins, played with compelling intensity by Jay Ryan, a tough and abrasive soldier who, as the first episode unfolds, has trouble adjusting to civilian life while coping it seems with the unacknowledged symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. We’re led to believe that his boss, Nordenfelt, was also suffering, while aggressively leading his troops in a war where allied soldiers find it almost impossible to find anyone to fight, where everyone has a gun and anyone could be the enemy, and where all the hills have eyes.
As one of the returning soldiers says: “The first thing they tell you about this war? The first body you see won’t be a Taliban but an old woman or a kid.” This war is simply one of the strangest and most surreal conflicts in the history of combat, where the boots on the ground must confront the complexities of the country in which they fight, the moral as well as military maze they so viscerally encounter.
The six-part drama from Goalpost Pictures ( Cleverman, The Sapphires) is written by the accomplished Blake Ayshford ( Barracuda, Devil’s Playground), and it’s a compelling thriller centred around a possible conspiracy between the men, and at the same time an intense psychological drama where the lines between killer and family man, hero and victim, are constantly shifting. Ayshford calls it “a blend of genres — heartfelt emotional stories and highoctane action, because that represents the life that the soldiers and their families have.”
It’s directed in fine style by award-winning director Kate Woods ( Looking for Alibrandi), who returns to Australia after a decade in the US working on shows such as Law and Order: SVU, Nashville and Suits, along with Ben Lucas ( Wasted on the Young). Apart from Leslie and Ryan, the series also stars the accomplished Kate Mulvany, along with a diverse ensemble cast including Marco Alosio, Julian Maroun, Paul de Gelder, Sarah Armanious and Sabryna Walters, with veterans Rhys Muldoon, Lucy Bell, Lex Marinos, and David Roberts playing supporting roles.
As Ayshford suggests, the series looks at the difficult process of soldier reintegration into the social and cultural fabric of what they knew as “home” before they left for war, especially challenging in a war that has been running as long as the one in Afghanistan.
He adds that for many young professional soldiers being deployed is the most important thing they have done, probably the first time they have been completely free of their societal obligations and constraints. And the warrior culture of stoic self-sacrifice can corrode even the strongest marriage so that when they return soldiers such as these miss being entrenched in this important, defining world, anxiety disorders often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. As the series’ tagline says: “You don’t stop fighting just because you’re home.”
Here, soldiers often miss the closeness and co-operation that danger and loss can engender, personal interest subsumed into the group interest. (“Awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up,” wrote Sebastian Junger, who in his remarkable book War followed a single US platoon through a 15month tour of duty in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. “There are ancient behaviours in war — loyalty, inter-reliance, co-operation — that typify good soldiering and can’t easily be found in modern society.”)
As Ayshford’s script demonstrates so compellingly, soldiers are forever changed by the nature of what they became to survive war, and that new way of seeing the world can grind against all the familiar patterns of engaging with their families and communities.
The original idea for Fighting Season started several years ago at the departure gates of a US airport. Kylie Du Fresne, one of the series’ producers, and her Goalpost Pictures producing partner Rosemary Blight were travelling frequently. “Every time we were at an airport we would hear over the loudspeaker the call for military people to board their planes first, or they had their own airport lounge,” they say in the show’s productions notes.
“It struck us as really interesting that there is such an obvious recognition of serving military personnel, whereas in Australia they are completely invisible. At the same time we were seeing newspaper and magazine articles about PTSD in Australian soldiers and we started thinking that this was really interesting subject matter that hadn’t yet been explored on Australian television.”
As the series begins, this war has being going for more than six years, with Australian soldiers conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, searching for Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters and their bases. They call it “doing the job”, the soldiers also carrying out reconstruction and engineering projects.
By 2010, the continuing deployment of Australian forces on operations in Oruzgan province, a mountainous badlands that once was a Taliban stronghold, has produced increasing numbers of Australian casualties: nine Australians have already died on operations in Afghanistan from 2002 to the end of 2009. Nordenfelt is the 10th. (By early this year, Australia had spent an estimated $8 billion on its Afghan engagement, including civil and military assistance. Forty-one service personnel have been killed and 261 wounded.)
Each time they return home, most of them living in the Australian Defence Force housing compound in western Sydney known as “Army Town”, it’s a process that is less a “transition” than a transformation, with the soldiers finding their homes have often changed radically while they were away, becoming places strange to them, and their families almost aliens.
Soldiers, especially in a conflict as brutal and seemingly pointless as the one in Afghanistan, are forever changed by the nature of what they became to survive war, and as this series so compellingly dramatises, that new way of viewing the world can grind against all the familiar patterns of engaging with their families and communities.
This is especially true when they return desperately holding on to secrets, bound together by an unnerving tragic situation for which they all seem to bear some responsibility. As soon as they are back, the men are caught in a crisis of attempted connection and continual disruption that not all of them will be able to survive.
Vanessa Collins (Armanious) has already decided to leave her husband, after coping with his many deployments and dreading his return, his aggression and his determination not to seek help for a psychological illness that has him shouting in his sleep. This rotation, following Ted’s death, he’s more dangerous than he’s ever been. “When you’re home it’s like living with an unexploded bomb,” she tells him.
Ted’s wife Kim, an army engineer played brilliantly by Mulvany in a strong ensemble, becomes crucial to solving the mystery of her husband’s death, her insistent questioning of the men, their evasiveness and nervous curious hints as to what happened in Afghanistan, leading her to suspect a cover-up. If the shot that killed him came out of nowhere, why do his injuries suggest a close-range bullet? Why was he apparently alone when he was shot, who was covering him, were his men really hunkered down in an ambush somewhere else?
And why was there no so-called “death letter” in his belongings? (Death letters are traditionally written by soldiers after a bad dream, battle or attack, tucked into wallets, pockets, backpacks or, as in this case, footlockers; or sent home with the caveat that they’re only to be read if the author is killed.)
The grieving widow determines that her husband deserves more than to be forgotten, just another casualty of a pointless Australian war. Sunday, Showcase, 8.30pm.
A scene from Foxtel drama series Fighting Season, main; Kate Mulvany as grieving widow Captain Kim Nordenfelt, left