In This Way Up’s first series, we met Irish expat Aine (Aisling Bea) as she was checking out of a mental health facility, eyes glazed over as she complained to the receptionist about the lack of a jacuzzi. Nearly two years later, series two begins with Aine reinvigorated, sweating it out in a lunchtime sauna with her sister Shona (Sharon Horgan). Progress towards Aine’s wants and needs is being made, it seems.
The Channel 4 comedy returns to our screens with a marked tonal shift. If the first series showed Aine desperately trying to hold things together in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, series two is about moving forward and learning to live with her depression. The difference between the series, Bea told The Independent, is like the difference between war and peace.
And for the most part, things do seem to be getting better. Aine’s frosty relationship with her mother is improving; her students still love her (wouldn’t you if your teacher used Love Island to teach English?); and there’s even a blossoming, if somewhat ill-advised, romance. Where before, these might have felt like a distraction from Aine’s precarious state, now they’re parts of her life she desperately wants to maintain.
Newly flourishing at the centre of the series is Aine’s relationship with Richard (Tobias Menzies), which has ramped up beyond vague flirting and chaste hand-holding now that his son Etienne is back in France. But neither party is being entirely honest about their mental wellbeing. Richard’s son’s mother had recently died in the first series, while Aine hasn’t even told him about the breakdown. “You lift me up,” Richard tells her. “You’re always so up.” For a split second, that glazed-over look returns as Aine blurts out a joke to deflect. Oh Richard, how little you know.
At the same time, Shona is making big steps, moving in with husband-to-be Vish (Aasif Mandvi) on the outskirts of London (a short overground journey, lamented by Aine with the words: “20 minutes? God, that’ll take me ages”). She’s settling into the world of heated floors and home renovations, but the lingering spectre of that kiss with co-worker Charlotte (Indira Varma) keeps rearing its head. Shona may seem to be the one with her life together – the job, the house, the wedding – but these things aren’t always able to cover up the cracks.
The sisters’ relationship remains the warm heart of This Way Up. There’s a generosity in Bea’s writing – she never judges her characters – and that care is only amplified by the electric chemistry between Bea and Horgan, whose sisterly bond remains startlingly realistic. When Shona laughs at Aine’s jokes, there’s a genuine joy in Horgan’s eyes.
It doesn’t hurt that Bea’s script is really, really funny. We watch them both attempt to sex up their lives, Aine attempting to give Richard a lap dance and Shona navigating the horrifyingly awkward world of Zoom sex with Vish. But the sisters are funniest when together, laughing at each other. In a wedding-dress shop, Aine promises her sister not to get “carried away” while dancing around in a bridal gown and tiara, while we also watch the pair try and hold a serious conversation, faces slowly reddening, in the sauna.
Series two somehow manages to be funnier, kinder and more heartbreaking than its predecessor, and is a perfect testament to Bea’s talent.
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