The first thing I thought when I started watching Season 2 of This Way Up was, I hope we get to watch Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan as arguing, supportive, joking, somewhat co-dependent sisters until they’re well into old age. I like to imagine all the ways the act will get richer, funnier, more nuanced, and snarkier as the years go by. And that pretty much sums up how I felt overall watching the second season: I just wanted to stay in this character-driven world that Aisling Bea has created, which is so funny, tender, compassionate, intelligent, and poignant. It will make you laugh and break your heart in the same breath, but without ever resorting to cheap tricks.
This season begins with Shona (Sharon Horgan) and Aine (Aisling Bea) mere seconds into an infrared sauna, which Aine says is “a bit like a confession booth, but less creepy.” They’re quite sure it’s not as hot as the reviews said. Shona says she’s been thinking of getting a fringe, and Aine whips her head around and says with a look of deep concern, “What? Why? Are you okay?” She wonders if Shona’s having doubts about moving in with Vish (Aasif Mandvi). It’s such a perfect response to someone suddenly mentioning they’re considering something as drastic as bangs. (Don’t do it Shona!!) Shona assures her, not at all convincingly, that she doesn’t have doubts at all about moving in or their upcoming wedding. Shona still hasn’t told Aine about her affair with Charlotte (Indira Varma) and you can see the way the secret eats away at her. Aine complains that—even with the lure of heated floors—she’ll never visit because it’s too far away (20 minutes by train), which is so deeply relatable. They discuss Aine’s upcoming date with Richard (Tobias Menzies), of which Shona doesn’t approve because he’s technically Aine’s boss. They bicker. Minutes elapse and they are less convinced that the sauna is a good idea. They pray. They bicker some more. They sweat. They fight over the one bottle of water. They sweat profusely. They laugh. Finally, they make it to the end of the sauna/torture session together. It’s kind of a metaphor for the entire series (not that the series is in any way a torture session) encapsulated in a four-minute opening.
Aine and Richard are positively giddy that his son Etienne (Dorian Grover) is going away to France, leaving them alone to finally consummate their relationship. I admit that last season I was also positively giddy about their relationship moving forward. But Bea does a deft job of balancing the excitement of a budding relationship with the awkward. It’s not just Richard’s social stiffness or his, erm, lack of stiffness in other departments. (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more!) It’s the ways in which Aine didn’t consider how their romantic relationship might impact her student-teacher relationship with Etienne, which she values so deeply. Or the way Etienne’s presence, even in his physical absence, comes between them. Or the way Richard is feeling overwhelmed with aging and raising a son he didn’t know he had until recently. And, as Aine gently points out, “all that gets compressed into your penis.”
When Aine is offered the chance to start her own school with James (Ekow Quartey), it’s interesting to watch how her priorities shift, and how that affects her romantic relationship. It’s also the small moments—like when Richard comments on how Aine is always so happy and her face freezes with the knowledge of how much he doesn’t know about her—that allow us to see all the possible imperfections in the foundation of their relationship. And how she thought being with him would make her feel less alone, but, in the dark, when he’s asleep and she’s awake, she is still lonely. All these things are treated so kindly, so humanely, so gently that even his erectile dysfunction doesn’t come across as sad or crass, but just as another complicated part of human existence. Richard asks if there are times when Aine doesn’t orgasm and she responds, “Oh. God. Yeah. ‘Course….Like, 90 percent of the times of always. You know, of for most of every…every woman ever. Always.” Which. I mean, first of all, this is just such good writing. And, second of all, have truer words ever been written? And third of all, this is just so fucking kind to both women and to Richard. When Aine gets up to leave after one of Richard’s non-climaxes she chuckles, gives his pelvis a determined fist pump, and says, “Yes we can!” Which is the most jovial and compassionate treatment of an uncooperative penis and the person attached to it.
And Shona as well, who, beyond mentioning her desire for bangs, refuses to speak about her emotions, is struggling with how to move forward from her affair with Charlotte. It’s unclear at first if she wants to be with Vish or is just determined to make it work with him, and the weight of her infidelity weighs heavy on her conscience. Her only way to cope is to shut down all her emotions, which is, you know, not always the best approach. (Oh, if you think this sentence is about you? You’re not vain. It probably is. Emotions are not tomatoes. It’s not a good idea to pressure seal them in a jar and stick them on a dusty, forgotten shelf. Nope. Serve those emotions up fresh. Slice them. Dice them. Talk. That. Shit. Out.) Shona also struggles in a real way with Aine’s potential success, or at least attempt at success with her plan for a school with James. It’s an honest portrayal of a person who loves her sister, but isn’t quite used to her being competent.
A lot of the things that work so well as storylines or even just as small moments in This Way Up would fall flat in someone else’s less skilled hands. There’s a scene with Aine and her roommate Bradley (Kadiff Kirwin) where he complains about her eating over the sink instead of using a plate that speaks volumes about love and sadness. It’s funny and heartbreaking and requires that the characters have backstories that go far beyond the twelve existing episodes. Or in Aine’s description of her “pile of shit boyfriend,” which is literally a pile of stuff on her bed that she wants an actual reason to clean up. There’s Shona trying to make space for herself in Vish’s modernist, isolated house that doesn’t seem to have space for her grandmother’s egg duck. And, oh my God, the moments in Aine’s classroom with her students, which I’m still hoping will someday become a spin off show of its own.
There’s Bea’s writing that never fails to cut to the quick with lines like, “I think men use vaginas as a place to store their unhappiness. Like a warm wet garage for their issues.” But for all its understanding of people’s sadness, This Way Up is equally about hope and hopefulness. It’s a show about unconditional love, about understanding, about acceptance, about forgiveness, and about finding so much joy and hope in between the moments of despair. Like the moment when Aine and Shona lay on Vish’s heated floor laughing and making heat angels and he, looking on as a disembodied video chat image from New York muses aloud that it’s like they’ve never been warm before. Or, as Aine says at one point, “I think that words can save you. You know, if you hear the right ones or if—if you know the right ones to use.” And thank fuck that we have Aisling Bea’s words who always seems to find exactly the right ones.