Phew. I’m going to need a minute because the Flack season 2 finale was… But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you were expecting the series to somehow mellow with age, well, you should probably go back and refresh your memory on the events of the first season. Particularly, how it ended with Robyn (Anna Paquin) torpedoing what little sobriety she had, banging Eve’s (Lydia Wilson) boyfriend at a closeted gay footballer’s wedding, finally managing to push her extremely kind and patient boyfriend away, imploding her sister’s marriage, and firing Melody (Rebecca Benson) for aspiring to be like her. Season 2 picks up soon after those events and plunges the characters into even more turbulent and fraught scenarios (which are absolutely still filled with coal black comedy and scathing wit), forcing them to consider the moral and ethical limitations (if any) of their career ambitions. At the same time, it peels back layers to peer into the deeply and compellingly flawed main characters’ personal lives, probing at disordered eating, romantic relationships, and family dynamics. Plus, it doubles down on its unrepentant takedowns of men who try to control women’s lives and bodies. In short, it’s just so damn good.
Robyn is making the motions of turning her life around, but her dead-behind-the-eyes stare is a clear give away that she lacks the desire, or maybe the resolve, to make any real change. She’s pregnant, but doesn’t know if the fetus is the product of schtupping Tom (Marc Warren) at the wedding or having sex with her ex-boyfriend Sam (Arinzé Keneaway)—who only recently found out she was secretly taking birth control while he thought they were trying to conceive. She’s living with her sister Ruth (Genevieve Angelson), who has kept Robyn and kicked out her husband because, as she explains to him, she doesn’t have a choice about loving her sister. Not exactly warm and cozy. Instead of snorting cocaine, Robyn’s gobbling down illegally procured Adderall like, well, like they’re lines of cocaine. Even American Mike (Oliver Lansley, who created and wrote the show), her very British drug dealer, has growing concerns about how quickly she’s building up a tolerance. (In my review of the first season, I wondered if her addiction was treated too lightly, but I was overall wrong. For all the cynical jokes the show makes about drugs, it’s absolutely serious about the destruction of addiction.) At work, she and Eve have a tense truce of sorts, but it’s entirely apparent that Robyn’s betrayal still gnaws at both their insides and pushes them apart like two negatively charged magnets—unwillingly sharing a sexual partner can do that to a friendship. What has kept Robyn afloat in the past was her ability to spin herself and her clients out of almost any situation. But as she sinks deeper into self-pitying and self-destructive behavior, she loses traction and begins to spiral out of control. Even though Robyn can be treacherous and vile, committing loathsome acts of subterfuge and sabotage to save herself from facing up to her extremely long list of mistakes and misdeeds, it’s impossible for me not to feel empathy for the obvious pain she lives with. Even as she stacks betrayal on top of betrayal until she’s teetering so precariously that it’s obvious she’s going to crash, I couldn’t help but hope she’d manage a way to climb down safely. I kept holding my breath, willing her to do better. Which says a lot about Anna Paquin’s portrayal, Oliver Lansley’s writing, and just (waves hands frantically) everything about the show.
Anyway, the bright side of Robyn’s descent into darkness (for us, not for her) is that it leaves room for other characters’ stories to develop, and the season is all the richer for it. I’m honestly so giddy to tell you about them that I don’t even know where to begin. Caroline, who continues to be an absolute powerhouse, reconnects with Duncan Paulson (Sam Neill), her ex-husband and silent business partner, and their relationship opens a window into Caroline’s life as a mother, grandmother, and lover. Her history as a young, single mother, unwilling to suppress her appetite for success, provides context for her controlled work persona. But seeing her outside of work also allows us to see how tenuous her hold on power is. How she is assailed with racist and misogynist comments, asides, and attacks. How she is constantly battling to maintain the upper hand in a world that would very happily see her lose. Inside the office, though, she keeps her employees in rapt and respectful terror. She calmly explains to Melody, Robyn, and Eve that, just like polar bears can smell a seal though six inches of ice, she can sniff out trouble among her ranks. I also dearly loved when she said she was “going to break into a sperm bank and forcibly impregnate [a reporter] with a fire hose just so I can murder her children.” Pure gold.
A chance encounter with Eve saves Melody from a life of obscurity and boredom pulling lattes for a living and reinstates her at the PR firm, this time as an assistant. With her more modest and whimsical clothes and wide-eyed innocence, Melody is still the counter-balance to Robyn and the other women. But this season, as Robyn’s benders and absences heap more responsibilities on Melody, we also see how her emotional intelligence, attention to detail, and forthright honesty can give her an advantage over her more cynical and jaded colleagues. At the end of last season I was deeply concerned that Melody would be used to demonstrate how the industry can drag even the most buoyant person down into the muck, but this season gave me hope that she’ll have her own path.
And then there is Eve, who is, quite simply, on fucking fire this season. One might even say that this season is All About Eve, if one were being kind of corny. She becomes a mentor of sorts to Melody, though she would, of course, vehemently deny it. While she holds Robyn at arm’s length, it is also obvious that she still cares deeply for their friendship. And don’t let her questionable hairstyle throw you—how did it go from so fine last season to so oddly thick and chunky this season?—this woman is going to make you rewatch numerous scenes just so you can hear her verbally slice someone into ribbons. Like when she tells an anti-abortion protester to “grow up…There are refugees drowning in boats. Families being carpet bombed. Tiny babies without enough water or basic vaccines. If you really care so much about life, then do something about that instead of sitting around here, on your ass, playing Candy Crush and shouting at women you’ve never met before. Those are actual lives. This was a fetus. So unless you want to take it and stick it up your ass and carry it around for nine months until it finally tears its way through your genitals, and trust me it will tear, then you don’t get a say in the matter.” A-fucking-men! Hallelujah! At another point she tells someone that “MeToo was about women cleaning out their dirty, inflicted shame drawers and displaying them for the world to stop other women from being passed around like soggy cigars.” See? On. Fucking. Fire. Anyway, while I could fill the next several pages with Eve quotes, I will move on.
In one episode we meet Eve’s mother (Doon Mackichan) at a hen night for Eve’s brother’s fiancé. Her mother is exactly as horrible as you might expect and talks about Eve having an “expiration date” for marriage. The hen night is held in a high end hotel, the room decorated in shades of pink, the other women dressed in pink or light colors, their hair long and styled into soft curls, their faces pushed into forced cheer and friendship. It is a level of hell, for sure. Eve shows up in a tight black leather mini-dress, her usual bangs slicked back off her forehead, black liner around her eyes. The hard, almost punk look combined with her mother’s barbed jabs highlight her vulnerability and loneliness in the world outside of work.
Eve is also mercilessly wooed by Gabriel (Daniel Dae Kim, a fantastic addition to this season), a very attractive billionaire who is building an electric plane with perhaps questionable romantic goals. As Caroline tells Eve, “Be wary of men whose pockets or dicks are too big, it makes their entitlement unbearable.” Sage advice, indeed.
As with the previous season, the series doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing utterly flawed and unapologetically ambitious women, but it also drives home just how fucked over by the system (that system being the patriarchy) all women are at all times. There’s an episode where an actress (Amanda Abbington) possibly fabricates a story about being sexually assaulted, which is abhorrent and puts Robyn, Eve, and Melody in the entirely unenviable situation of deciding whether to tank an innocent man’s life or give every asshole with a mouth-hole a reason to not believe women. And yes, the actress is peddling the story for clout and exposure, but she only needs the clout because as she aged rampant misogyny meant being passed over for parts. It’s not a justification of her behavior. I’m not saying fabricate lies to fight the patriarchy, but do recognize the insidious and undermining nature of the patriarchy.
This season also focuses a lot on motherhood, and how little space it can leave for women to tend to their own needs. Societal expectations just don’t leave a lot of room for women to be successful in their personal ambitions and in motherhood, you know? The third episode moves back and forth between the present and Robyn’s memories of her final days with her mother (Martha Plimpton, who is so well cast) before she commits suicide. Her mother shifts from conniving to wheedling to viciously mean to heartbreakingly pathetic and back again before finally landing on resolved and empty. At one point when she is alternately trying to apologize for her failings as a mother and to blame Robyn for being difficult, she says, “There was never very much of me in the first place. Motherhood just took all of it.” I guess we know this series’ answer to the age-old question of whether women can “have it all.”
Look, I don’t want you to get it twisted: This is not a show that’s going to hammer you with a message, like some After School Special. No, this is a show that delights in showing off the seedy underbelly of the PR and entertainment industry. It’s a show that takes incredible joy in people saying searingly cruel or otherwise appalling things without remorse or repentance. It’s a show that gleefully creates scenarios that reveal people’s dark secrets and sordid predilections, and then demonstrates just how far they’re willing to go in order to bury the evidence of their misdoings so they can maintain fame and power. But it also addresses, among other things, sexual assault, domestic violence, abortion, family dynamics, disordered eating, and addiction with a kind of tenderness and understanding. The characters are dysfunctional, damaged, often unkind people who make deeply, deeply questionable choices, but they are also so wholly human, so clearly wounded, so evidently lonely, and so desperate to be loved and respected that I, at least, admire and empathize with them to a greater degree than I do with more perfect characters.
While watching Flack I often think of Leonard Cohen’s well-worn line, “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” These women are full of cracks, which is exactly what makes them so compelling, interesting, and compassionate to watch. But also, Flack is just one helluva entertaining and addictive series that had damn well better get a third season after that absolute throat punch of a season finale.