Se­crets and lies

A new Fox­tel se­ries looks at the rein­te­gra­tion of sol­diers into ‘nor­mal’ life af­ter the hor­rors of com­bat

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Fight­ing Sea­son,

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

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