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The future looks familiar in The Commons

The Commons (2019) Stan Original. Image supplied by Stan.

When I first watched The Commons (2019) in January 2020, Australia was on fire and reports of a mysterious new virus were starting to emerge out of China. At the time, I was struck by how prescient the show was about these events. The series is set in a near-future Australia where climate change is no longer a theoretical discussion and a pandemic of Chagas disease has infected millions worldwide. But I had no idea how accurate it would become about our resilience in the face of disaster, particularly here in my home state of Victoria.   

While The Commons is set in Sydney, the Stan original series is dominated by scenes that defined Victorian life this year. Characters don masks when dust and bushfire smoke suffocate the landscape. A strict border separates the city from the country, forcing regional refugees to apply for permits if they want to make the crossing. Drones survey the streets for residents’ safety, just like the drones that Victoria Police deployed during Melbourne’s lockdown to monitor public spaces. And the entire population is glued to breaking news conferences about a pandemic that has yet to be cured.

Watching the series again in late 2020, I see something recognisable in the way the characters adapt and forge on with daily life. It’s the same ‘keep calm and carry on’ optimism that helped Victorians tough out the January bushfires and four months of hard lockdown.

This attitude is embodied in protagonist Eadie Boulay (Joanne Froggatt), whose main goal is to have a child before she turns 38, which is the government’s cut-off age for affordable IVF. As a neuropsychologist, Eadie is luckier than most – she works in a modern, air-conditioned office and lives with her husband Lloyd (David Lyons) and stepdaughter Ivy (Inez Currõ) in a comfortable flat. Her brother Dom (Rupert Penry-Jones) is a pilot for a private helicopter rescue operation, giving the family access to perks that others – like Dom’s concierge Israel Latu (Dominic Ona-Ariki) – don’t have. The Tongan worker sleeps in his car underneath the building he services, while his wife and children are stuck in Sydney’s resettlement centre awaiting residency permits.  

While privilege undoubtedly fuels Eadie’s optimism, she is faced with some harsh setbacks. In the opening episode, she suffers a miscarriage a week away from her IVF deadline. Later, when she becomes a medical volunteer at the resettlement centre, she is confronted by the hopelessness of the refugees’ situation once she learns that most of them will be turned away, a blatant nod to Australia’s asylum seeker policy.

Rather than give into the impossible odds, Eadie enlists the help of family friend Shay (Ryan Corr) to mask her government fertility statistics so that her last viable embryo can be saved and implanted. She also puts her career on the line to smuggle Israel’s family out of the refugee centre before they can be deported to Tonga, which is uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. Eadie is determined to make choices that give her future meaning, even if she has to break a few laws.

This was an intentional choice on the part of creator Shelley Birse, who wanted to avoid “adding to the pile of those slit-your-throat kind of dystopian visions of the future, because we’ve got plenty of those.” Ever since the original Mad Max (1979) introduced the world to ‘Ozploitation’ (low-budget Aussie genre films that pushed the boundaries of censorship), it’s become standard for futuristic Australian films and TV shows to depict a lawless wasteland in which society has fallen apart. The protagonists of these projects, like ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) or Eric (Guy Pearce) of The Rover (2014), tend to be broken men who are fixated on revenge and willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. The Rover is even set around the same time as The Commons, ten years after an economic collapse has devastated the world, though Eric has long since given into his nihilistic impulses. “I murdered my wife, and no one ever came after me,” he tells a Sydney soldier when recalling the early days of the collapse. “You do a thing like I did and that should mean something, but it just doesn’t matter anymore.”

In contrast, The Commons explores how good people hold onto their decency when they have every reason to stop caring. Like many women today, Eadie questions her decision to have a child when the outlook for the world is so grim. The series forces her to face this choice in the fourth episode, when she accompanies a patient to regional NSW after a devastating category six storm and they find the woman’s missing child dead in a car. On her way home, Eadie breaks down in front of Dom and refuses her daily fertility treatment. “I’m struggling to remember why I thought having a baby when it’s like this was a good idea,” she sobs.

The ethics around her choice are also highlighted when she keeps her pregnancy a secret from her husband, knowing he would disapprove, and when she shares scenes with children, who aren’t coping well with the state of the world. This is yet another reality we saw paralleled in Victoria this year, where there was a 72 per cent spike in the number of teens seeking emergency mental health care because of the bushfires and lockdowns. Eadie’s stepdaughter Ivy doesn’t see the point in sitting her exams or celebrating her birthday when the world “has a use-by date,” an experience that became very real for Melbourne’s class of 2020, who missed important milestones like 18th birthday parties, driving tests and formals, and struggled to reengage with school after lockdown ended.

Ivy (Inez Currõ) and Eadie (Joanne Froggatt) in The Commons (2019). Image supplied by Stan.

But Ivy proves that she still cares deeply about the future when she joins the fight to protect Israel’s family. And this is where The Commons separates itself from The Rover and Mad Max by capturing society’s resilience, because characters like Eadie and Ivy don’t give into their defeat or retreat into solitude when their optimism falters. Instead, they call on their community to help them when they see injustices taking place. In the season finale, Eadie refuses to leave the hospital when the Latus are held against their will. Ivy films a violent confrontation between border patrol and the Latu children on her phone, streaming it live to thousands of followers, who soon flood an underground car park in solidarity and rage. The series doesn’t have an easy answer to Eadie’s dilemma around having children, but it does suggest that we shouldn’t be punished because of forces outside our control. 

Of course, given her family’s comfortable lot in life,it’s easy to argue that Eadie’s hopeful outlook is a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Eadie ultimately succeeds in helping the Latus because of her brother’s connections, but there are hundreds of refugees in the centre who won’t be this lucky. It’s also worth noting that Eadie and her brother are migrants themselves, but they’re accepted wholeheartedly into the community because they’re British, white, English-speaking and wealthy, while the Latus are dismissed by the government because they come from a poor Polynesian nation. This contrast is perfectly encapsulated in a storyline that involves Dom buying an isolated farm out in the country so that he and his family can escape Sydney if society breaks down. At the same time, Israel becomes so desperate to protect his family he lets his kids participate in a vaccine trial that will make them infertile if it gets them out of the resettlement centre. Eadie and Dom, as ‘palatable’ Anglo migrants, are free to access fertility assistance, have children and make choices about how they tackle future disasters. Migrants like the Latus can only protect themselves if they give up their bodily autonomy to the government.

Here in Victoria, we saw this inequality play out during the early stages of Melbourne’s second lockdown, which ran from July 8 to November 9, 2020. Those in affluent suburbs such as Toorak flouted quarantine rules by escaping to holiday homes on the Mornington Peninsula, while those in the housing commission flats of North Melbourne and Flemington were barricaded inside their apartments by police. Fortunately, like Eadie’s family and friends, Victorians banded together in outrage to film officer misbehaviour and supply residents with boxes of food, and while that didn’t solve the situation, it did make a point to government officials that won’t be forgotten. It’s refreshing that the series, which could have taken the bleak route established by its predecessors, reflects this more hopeful reality of community resistance and togetherness and ends on a (mostly) triumphant note, with Eadie embracing her pregnancy and the Latus free to stay in Australia.  

The Commons’ message about small acts of kindness bolstering everyone’s resilience couldn’t be clearer. After the year we’ve had, it’s hard to disagree with that. In Australia, Victoria especially has been tested, but we haven’t devolved into the gritty, Mad Max-esque reality that the Australian screen once imagined. Despite the strangeness of the restrictions we were asked to live through, we supported each other through the worst of things by sending care packages, putting teddy bears in our windows and meeting up with friends for our mandated hour-long walks. The result was virtual elimination of the virus in Victoria. As of December 7, we are 38 days COVID-free. Much like the characters in The Commons, we showed each other that a happier version of the future is possible, if we fight for it together.     

Emily Tatti is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings and Virgin Australia Magazine, among others. You can read more of her work on her website