Total Control Season 3, ABC review: dynamite

Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths excel in the opening episodes of the political thriller’s final run.

‘This is our turn now.’

As portrayed by the titanic Deborah Mailman in the third and final season of the ABC’s engrossing political drama Total Control, ferociously honest politician Alex Irving has learned a thing or two about popping the games played within the Canberra bubble.

Personal sacrifices have to be made to get things done. They cut deep, especially within the fatally compromised two-party system that favours nothing but entrenched power and the self-centred interests of the big money it backs up. And yet Alex must, because she refuses to lose sight of the bigger picture, fighting for First Nations peoples’ rights, above all, and the good of her constituents/ all Australians.

Which is why Season 2 saw Alex break the mould. Leaping on a very real story of tectonic shifts, politically, as Alex struck out solo as a kingmaking independent alongside frenemy and disgraced former Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (the also-excellent Rachel Griffiths).

Rachel Griffiths in Total Control. Image: ABC.

In so doing, she tore down one old beast in the form of Rachel’s slimy L/NP successor, Damien Bauer (Anthony Hayes), but also similarly moved against malignant Labor opposition leader Laurie Martin (William McInnes), instead manoeuvring to have the latter replaced by his political fixer Paul Murphy (season three co-director Wayne Blair, working in tandem with Sweet As helmer Jub Clerc), thereby moving the first Indigenous PM into the Lodge, but entirely dependent on the independent block.

All of which should mean a cosy ride this season, right?

House in disorder

LOLZ, of course not: this is politics, after all.

For one thing, both Alex and her campaign manager brother Charlie (the charismatic Rob Collins) were left literally bleeding (life) support after being attacked by her right-wing racist stalker. An assault that has left Alex visibly shaken. But there’s more to her subsequent panic attacks, as a claustrophobically terrifying MRI scan reveals, throwing a very real spanner into her political ambitions. Any perceived weakness is blood in the water to the sharks circling the halls of Parliament House, nursing their grudges, with Alex having accrued enemies aplenty.

Nor is the PM profusely and unendingly grateful to Alex for elevating him. After two years of shepherding a country that’s increasingly riven after the panic of the pandemic, bushfires, floods and nationwide upheaval, including the BLM protests, her habit of stealing the headlines and seeming inability to keep her house in order rankles Paul.

Alex’s teenage son Eddie is a chip off the old bloke, a tearaway with a good heart who’s more like his mum than she cares to admit. Haranguing him over his academic performance, his apple-falls-not-far-from-the-tree ability to insert himself into trouble for the right cause is apparent. Amusingly baiting a casually racist security guard so his non-Aboriginal mates can steal from the local supermarket, he also stands up for another First Nations student when the same guard and boofhead cops harass him.

A cracking moment, it causes further ructions when Alex is seen, rightly or wrongly, to use her position of power at the police station. Which makes the PM increasingly restless that his sometime ally is now a political liability, as she grandstands over forcing him to be more proactive in the flood response in her home state, despite him having brought an oft-brow-furrowed Charlie into his team alongside his always utterly unimpressed chief of staff, Sharon.

Top marks to Lisa Hensley for her exasperated snark delivery, replete with Hawaiian holiday jibe and the particularly withering: ‘Dump a bucket of shit the size of Queensland on the government and expect the PM to thank you for it?’

Money talks

There’s little loyalty in this game. Which is why the complicated chemistry between Alex and Rachel is one of Total Control’s greatest assets (with the incongruous nature of filming lower house sessions in Old Parliament House its weakest link).

Mailman and Griffiths are absolute dynamite together, navigating their fraught history – Alex ended Rachel’s leadership too, exposing her cover-up of Aboriginal deaths in custody – into a tentative partnership on the crossbenches. So much so that Rachel will invite herself over to Alex’s with a bottle of wine after a hard day at the inquiry into her actions as PM.

As written by Pip Karmel, Meyne Wyatt and Julia Moriarty, there’s a great deal of nuance in their relationship that acknowledges the brutal reality women face in politics and the double standards placed upon them. Their different backgrounds also allow Blair and Clerc to explore everything from fraught racial politics still raw in our post-referendum reality, to the class divides that are far too often (ridiculously) airbrushed out our national debate in this deftly handled drama.

But there are signs that a fresh divide will erupt between them even as theire strange bond strengthens in the final run’s opening episodes. They still want very different things, with Rachel determined to solidify her power within a new party structure, making overtures to Alex’s now-campaign manager Joely (Steph Tisdell).

And there’s a ticking time bomb left behind by Alex Dimitriades’ dubious think tank mover and shaker Nick Pearce, as uncovered by Catherine McClements’ roving investigative reporter.

Seems Rachel has fallen into the same prone-to-naivety trap as Alex. Always. Follow. The. Money.

With their independent funding now in question, only time will tell if either will be left standing or will be forced to pay the ultimate price when dust settles on this outstanding show.

Total Control Season 3 premieres on ABC iview on 14 January.


4 out of 5 stars


Deborah Mailman, Rachel Griffiths


Rachel Perkins

Format: TV Series

Country: Australia

Release: 14 January 2024