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In Fighting Season, traumatised Australian soldiers come home with a secret

Fighting Season.

In a six-part series, returned Australian soldiers come under suspicion over their captain’s death in Afghanistan.

There are any number of US films and television series about military life, from the outright soapy (Army Wives) to the downright scary (The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill). Indeed, one of the greatest comedies of all time was set in a war zone (M*A*S*H).

Perhaps it’s the expense, but down under, we have barely dipped our toes into this deep well of dramatic richness, largely confining our efforts to World War I (When We Go to War, Field Punishment No 1, Gallipoli).

It’s this lack, and the near-invisibility of Australian soldiers at home, that spurred producers Kylie du Fresne and Rosemary Blight to create Fighting Season (TVNZ 1, Saturday, 10.20pm, and TVNZ OnDemand), a story set in 2010 about a platoon of soldiers sent home from Afghanistan after the death in combat of their captain.

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It’s a mystery wrapped in a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) training video. The soldiers return to their families at the West Sydney military base with a story about the loss of their captain, Ted Nordenfelt (Ewen Leslie), that appears to have been worked out between them. What are they hiding? Was Sergeant Sean “Speedo” Collins (Kiwi Jay Ryan) involved, or is he covering up for another platoon member?

On top of this, Collins and the rest of the soldiers are clearly suffering from PTSD. They are having flashbacks, they can’t sleep, they fly off the handle and they cannot settle back into civilian life.

For his research, writer Blake Ayshford (Barracuda, Devil’s Playground) met soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and interviewed family members. “We could not invent some of the stories we were told,” Ayshford told Drama Quarterly. Producers du Fresne and Blight chose 2010, because Australian forces suffered heavy casualties in Afghanistan that year and the military was resistant to acknowledging PTSD.

“I hope it makes people think about what we’re asking modern soldiers to do and the risks they take – particularly mentally,” says du Fresne. “What they see and what they experience are outside the realms of experience of most Australians.”

Another Kiwi in the cast is Jay Laga‘aia, who plays a minister and the father of young soldier Isara’elu “Izzy” Ulalei. The story goes that Nordenfelt died saving Ulalei, who was hurt. He can’t remember much, but cracks begin to appear at Nordenfelt’s wake, when Ulalei tells Ted’s widow, Kim (Kate Mulvany), that he was “a prick”.

The scene is set for a volatile and tense six episodes.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.