Mid-way through the first episode of This Way Up, there’s a scene where I knew I would have to immediately mainline the entire six-part series. It’s not even a scene, really, just a brief moment. After helping her sister Shona (Sharon Horgan, probably best known for Catastrophe) apply tanning lotion, popping one of her back zits, and cracking a silly joke, Aine (played by series creator Aisling Bea) stands at the bathroom sink washing her hands. She glances up and, when she catches sight of her reflection in the mirror, a look of surprise, then sadness, then loneliness, then despair, and then maybe even disgust passes across her face before she looks away, shutting off the taps and shaking the water from her hands. It’s a small moment that passes in mere seconds. I almost missed it the first time, rewound and watched again. And then again. A whole story is told in that movement from wisecracking intimacy with someone else to utter loneliness and desperation and then back again to the present. Moments later, as Shona prepares to leave, Aine implores her to stay just one more minute. Standing in her shirt and tights, her underwear showing through the sheer fabric (she has just loaned her skirt to Shona for her night out), Aine holds a toothbrush to her upper lip, bristles pointed down like teeth, as she dances goofily and lip syncs to Bebe Rexha’s “The Way I Are (Dance with Somebody),” which plays tinnily through her phone. Shona laughs uproariously (watch this show for Hogran’s and Bea’s laughs alone—they are both full-throated and amazing) and then leaves. Left alone, Aine puts away the toothbrush and continues to try to dance until her breath becomes shakier and she slowly sinks down onto the floor, the music continuing to play over her barely controlled crying. The airy pop song—as is all the music in the series—is perfectly paired with the situation. The lyrics go: “I’m sorry I’m not the most pretty. I’ll never ever sing like Whitney…But I still want to dance with somebody.” It’s simultaneously entertaining and crushing.
That’s a lot, right? Am I making it sound overwhelming and bleak? Because it’s not. The show is just the right amount of drama, uncertainty, and longing mixed with comedy, steadfast love, and fulfillment.
After finishing a stay in a rehab facility outside London following a “teeny little nervous breakdown” (that very few people know about), Aine is working to find her footing in the world. She teaches boisterous ESL classes—which, if Ainsling Bea ever wants to make a spin-off show about that, I am 1000% here for it—where she uses the Kardashian sisters to practice words about family and fields questions about what happened to Mary’s lamb in the nursery rhyme. “What happened to the lamb? Mary had it. Past tense,” an older Chinese woman points out. The ESL classes are also a way for the show to explore questions around immigration through dark humor. Like when Aine exhorts her students to “fill out those worksheets by Monday or I will Brexit the lot of you.” Or when she tells her sister that no one understands the economy, which is why they blame “everything on immigrants.” And also when through more serious situations (though still with plenty of humor), like when she suspects one of her students has been the victim of a xenophobic attack. With her students, Aine is empathetic, funny, and capable; their presence seems to give her purpose and anchor her in the world, pushing away her demons.
And really, relationships and intimate connections are at the crux of everything in this show, and whether fleeting or deep, healthy or unhealthy, they are all empathetically and honestly depicted. In all of her relationships. Aine uses humor as a way to distance herself from difficult emotions, but there are also times when she lets her guard down. Both are uncomfortable to watch sometimes, like when she has a fumbling encounter with a man she knows from rehab. When he turns her down for sex, reminding her that they need to remain focused on getting better, she yells, “I know it all, but, God, do you ever just want to feel something for five fucking minutes?!” The conversation ends when he sighs resignedly, while staring at her chest and says, “They really are crackin’ boobs.” “I know,” she replies, drawing it out into a disappointed whine, with her brow still furrowed and mouth frowning. It’s funny and raw and I wanted to look away, but also see more (not of her breasts, though they were perfectly nice).
But it can also be transformative, like during the episode when Aine, Shona, and their mother from whom Aine has become estranged (and who played by Sorcha Cusak with all the piss, vinegar, charm, and foul language I aspire to have as an older woman) go to visit Shona’s boyfriend’s family. On the way home, Aine and her mother argue and joke and eventually have a gut wrenching conversation about mental health, postpartum depression, and mortality. Her mother asks that Aine call her more often, saying she’s lonely now that most of her friends have died. “Did you kill them?” Aine asks. And after a pause her mother responds, “Only Louise Gallagher. Because she was so fucking annoying.” And they keep walking, everything between them changed and still the same, arguing over who will pay the train fare back to London.
Aine banters and jokes with the young French boy Etienne, whom she tutors, but they also clearly bond over the sadness of having lost a parent. And with Etienne’s very repressed father Richard (played by Tobias Menzies, who will soon be gracing my eyes and yours eyes as Prince Philip on The Crown) she uses a steady stream of jokes (few of which he gets) to keep a distance while also flirting with intimacy and what appears to be a mutual attraction. I do so hope they have a second season to further explore and perhaps (ahem) consummate their relationship.
But by far the deepest relationship, and the hardest and most fun to watch, is with her sister, Shona, who carries with her the burden of Aine’s struggles. Shona worries about Aine endlessly, tracking her into the wee hours on her Find My Friends App and fretting over her every mood change. Shona’s panic, her fear that she’ll miss some important sign of Aine’s declining mental health, is so palpable that I was sometimes tempted to fast forward through those scenes. I’m proud to say I didn’t. The two of them move seamlessly from making each other laugh to bickering about the absolutely mundane to fighting about larger issues to comforting themselves with dogs that look like celebrities. Shona has her own concerns separate from Aine’s mental health in her relationship with her boyfriend Vish (he wants to move in together, she feels like moving in her toothbrush was a big enough step) and with a new (very intense) friendship/business partnership with Charlotte (Indira Varma, who I know best from Paranoid) that spool out slowly over the course of the series.
Again, I hope there is a second season for more of all of this. I want more of all the small moments and interactions that the show lets play out fully. I want more understanding of what happened to Aine to land her in a rehab facility and to know more about how she’s moving forward. I’d like to see more of the well-planned set design, where threads of colors run through scenes (and really the whole series), giving it a sense of visual cohesion and warmth.
And, yes, I want so much more of Aine’s acerbic wit, which cuts through everything to poke at the heart of the matter. Like when she yells in frustration, “A man goes mental and all of a sudden he’s Bob Dylan with a fucking guitar, but a woman has one more emotion than she should and all of sudden I’m Lindsay fucking Lohan. And no one wants to go out with Lindsay Lohan, even though I’m sure she’s a lovely person in real life.”