Disclaimer: Underbelly is based on real events and real people. I realise there are some close to the people presented in the series who believe the show has portrayed them inaccurately. While the site and I encourage discussion about the article, show and events that it’s based on, if you have any complaints about the portrayal of people and events, please take it up with the network, not us. We are not responsible for the content of the show, and have no control over it. We’re just reviewing the show.
Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities is the prequel to Underbelly, set in the drug trade of the 1980s-90s It follows the ascension of New Zealander Terry Clark (Matthew Newton) as a drug kingpin and the rise of organised crime in Australia in the 1970s. Being about the drug trade thirty years ago, there’s not a lot of women of significant standing in the picture, and with one exception, they all in one way or another fit the girlfriend/wife/mistress and/or mother role. But despite this, there are several fleshed-out, interesting women who cover several shades of good, bad and ugly. The three main ones are as follows. (For the sake of simplicity, Underbelly refers to the original Underbelly series, and Cities refers to Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.)
Judi Kane (Kate Ritchie) is the wife of organised crime member Les Kane, who is violently killed shortly after being introduced. Her role so far has mainly consisted of looking after her children, but rather than coming across as a grieving, hysterical woman, she demonstrates strength, primarily in her determination to see her husband’s killer brought to justice. Yes, she’s frightened and upset, but she’s also angry and wants justice. She forms an alliance with the cop assigned to the case, Liz Cruickshank, another strong character in the series. So far, Judi hasn’t featured much, but I’m hoping the fact they signed up as high-profile an actor as Ritchie means we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.
Allison Dine (Anna Hutchinson) isn’t so much flawed as she is only marginally less a villain than her lover Terry Clark for the way she first condones, then supports, then plays an active part in his drug empire. She’s completely oblivious to the people whose lives are destroyed because of it – from the faceless victims of drugs and it’s knock-on effects to the cops, underlings and competitors that she knows Terry has had killed and badly injured, among others. Nor does she care how Terry’s wife feels when she flaunts their relationship in front of her. But she’s no spoilt mistress, pampered and without a thought in her head. She’s as indifferent to the pain caused by the drug trade as Terry is, and often demonstrates more initiative than him when it comes to smuggling in drugs, like when she suggests she act as courier – apparently in the 1970s Australian customs didn’t think attractive women were capable of being couriers and paid them no attention – and later on organises a whole ring of attractive female couriers. She is upset when she finds that Terry has had her ex-turned-snitch beaten within an inch of his life, but doesn’t leave him. This is a woman who cares only about Terry and money, and to hell with anyone who might get hurt in her pursuit of either. She matches Terry in his intelligence, selfishness and ruthless ambition, as well as his ability to be loving and generous to those she considers deserve it. It would have been so easy to play her as a two-dimensional bitch, but Hutchinson walks that fine line between victim and vicious to deliver a sympathetic villain.
Liz is an officer with the Victorian Police and dedicated to bringing down Terry and other purveyors of drugs. She’s courageous, compassionate and incorruptible. She manages to avoid the twin traps of being bribed by the money that are available to Terry and his minions, or being shunted off to rural stations by corrupt higher powers in the police force. Halfway through the series, she reluctantly makes the decision to leave the regular police force for a special anti-drugs squad. She’s sentimental enough not to want to leave the boss and colleagues that she trusts and admires, but practical enough to know she’s of better use in a better-equipped agency.
Her relationship with Judi is based on two women who want to see the downfall of the drug trade, and is played no differently than if they had been two men. Most of Judi’s scenes in Cities are with Liz, and the conversation never degenerates into the usual tripe about men. (OK, I lie. They often talk about bringing down Terry and his cohorts.)
Both Underbelly and Cities are narrated by Liz’s adult daughter, Jacqui (Caroline Craig, who plays a major role in Underbelly), who’s a child in Cities, so it’s peppered with references like ‘mum said this’ and ‘mum remembers that’. It could easily have come across as a reminder that Liz’s first role was as a mother, but instead, it serves to illustrate how much Jacqui admires her. Jacqui herself went on to become an officer in the same special anti-drug agency that Liz transfers to. Jacqui’s decision to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a courageous, compassionate and incorruptible police officer herself demonstrate what a positive influence and role model Liz was to her.
Cities definitely has its flaws, which I’ll get into in a later post. But given how easily it could have sunk its female characters into the roles of two dimensional wives, prostitutes and mothers, it’s refreshing to see such a standard of sometimes strong, sometimes deeply flawed but always realistic and nuanced women.