We’re three episodes into season 2 of Cleverman, which means it’s time to pop our heads up and see how it’s all going. Are the West brothers still handsome but awful (but not as awful as the white dudes)? Has it fixed its Women Problem? Are there still Significant Birbs?
Last year we managed to review every episode of season 1, but … real life, guys. It’s a thing. It’s really a thing.
The funny thing is that our reviews are, on the whole, quite positive, whereas I look back at season 1 now and think, “Promising show, lacks subtlety, could do better on women.” One of the bullet points on our fannish catastrophising post was:
What if season 2 of Cleverman doesn’t fix its issues with women, and also gives us more tedious white person nonsense?
What if, guys? WHAT IF?
I started to say that there’s much less white person nonsense in season 2, but actually, that’s a lie — it’s just more interesting white person nonsense. Mostly.
For one thing, Koen’s mate died offscreen between seasons. He didn’t really have much to contribute beyond a love triangle that ended when Ash was fridged, so it’s good to see the pruning of the narrative dead weight.
Also killed — on screen, by Araluen, and how we all cheered — was Minister Matthews. He’s replaced by a white woman, played with detached steeliness and magnificent hair by Rachael Blake. She’s better than Matthews, in that she is not actively going out and raping Hairy women, but she’s still complicit in everything. Minister Frith isn’t so much a character as a plot device, but I don’t think we need to know much about her — the cast is already so big, and it’s enough that she’s consummately professional in her pursuit of genocide.
She also gets lines like, “We get to say who lives here … and who doesn’t”, just in case you were concerned the series was suddenly taking a subtle approach to contemporary political commentary.
The other improvement — in terms of both white person nonsense and the show’s treatment of women — is that, come episode 3, Charlotte reclaims her agency and, in learning that she’s the unconsenting vessel for a human/Hairy hybrid foetus, becomes more than that.
I mean, for about five minutes — by the end of episode 3, Slade has been beaten (but not killed, alas) by Jarli, a Hairy warrior who grew up in the traditional ways, and Jarli has kidnapped her. Stay tuned.
In short: we still have white person nonsense, but it’s not as tedious as last year. Except for Slade, who is still the worst, and the only interesting aspect is that now Charlotte knows it.
Beyond Charlotte, it’s a mixed bag for the female characters. Teens Latani and Alinta are as yet minor presences, hiding out with Nerida in the suburbs, holding a homeowner hostage until he/Nerida give in to Stockholm syndrome and have a pash. This is a strange, stagnant storyline with a Terrible Twist which I think was actually made quite clear to audience members who don’t have White Male Face Blindness. I’m doing my best, okay? Unlike this plot thread.
On the other hand, Aruluen is reunited with her people and — eventually — her husband, and she gets to call Koen out and beat him up for betraying her family and causing their destruction. Since bashing up a semi-immortal is an exercise in frustration, she also calls out Auntie Linda for raising jerks like the West brothers.
(Sadly, after episode 2.1 she changes out of her evening gown and hoodie combo. I mean, it’s not exactly an outfit designed to blend in, but it was iconic and symbolic and I just love Aruluen, okay?)
Auntie Linda is still a voice of reason, but there’s also a revelation about her past which will dramatically change her relationship with Koen.
I’ve just spent 600 words being somewhat negative about the season. Here’s what I like:
Koen. In season one, he was the Asshole Chosen One, a trope we’ve seen way too much of in the superhero and fantasy genres. Now he’s embraced his role as Cleverman and is working to do the right thing, while also dealing with the consequences of his past behaviour.
To misquote Uncle Jimmy — spoilers, he’s back, kinda — “You can’t change the past. You have to find a way to deal with it.” This goes for Koen, but also for the Indigenous Australians, the Hairy people, and also the real world.
The other thing I love is the introduction of Jarli and the traditional Hairy People, who stayed in hiding and kept to the old ways. There are whole scenes where Kumbainggar is the only language spoken.
Jarli is headstrong, a bit arrogant, and curious about white people, but also eager for conflict. The elders of his tribe — who include a woman, for those of us who keep track of such things — urge caution, but they don’t know about his secret stash of technology. Jarli will be a catalyst for change, but whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.
The other great thing is that Waruu is still amazingly handsome. That’s basically his only redeeming quality at this point, but it’s not to be overlooked.
Other than being handsome, Waruu is very much into embracing Slade Industries and overseeing their latest development: a treatment which will transform Hairies into humans. It’s deeply chilling to see an Indigenous man praising forced assimilation, language erasure and cultural genocide — it’s meant to be, of course, and this is one of the times where Cleverman‘s lack of subtlety is the whole point — but it’s still uncomfortable.
Even more disturbing are Waruu’s gentle, respectful interactions with a Hairy woman who chooses assimilation. Those scenes are highlights of the season so far, and also the stuff of nightmares.
In fact, Waruu’s development and the whole assimilation plotline are so horrifying that when the Metaphorical Birbs turned up to stalk the West brothers, I was like, “Oh, hey, birbs, nice to see you.” What does it take for me to welcome a birb? HORRIFYING PLOTLINES WHICH ARE THINLY VEILED METAPHORS FOR REAL LIFE, apparently.
So, am I enjoying this season? So far, yes. It’s taking very small baby steps towards addressing the gender problems I had last year, but the quality overall has vastly improved — the dialogue is smoother, more polished, it’s easier to forgive the lack of subtlety because the overall writing is much better. I think Slade has been kept around for far too long, but I live in hope that he’ll die one day.
In conclusion, I’m awarding Cleverman season 2 (so far) a B+ — both for quality, and the multiple Metaphorical Birbs that keep turning up.