This Way Up is a story about depression, though it’s not a stereotypical depression narrative. It isn’t about a life breaking down or falling apart, it’s about what comes after that and how the pieces of a life can begin to be put back together again.
The six-part Channel 4 series follows Áine (Aisling Bea), an English-as-a-foreign-language teacher, as she takes up a new tutoring job with Etienne (Dorian Grover), a 12-year-old French boy who has just moved to London to live with his estranged father (Tobias Menzies) after the death of his mother. Áine helps grieving Etienne to open up: she’s funny, and well-liked by her students. However, she has recently survived a suicide attempt after a “teeny little nervous breakdown” and despite her quirks, her only friend is her older sister, Shona (Sharon Horgan).
Depression can be a roadblock in your interpersonal relationships – the shame, the loneliness, and the expectation that other people could, or should, ‘fix’ you. We see the first example of this for Áine early in the series, when she tries to have sex with Tom (Ricky Grover), a friend she met while in rehab. She’s in her flat alone on a Friday night – her plans have fallen through, her sister is busy, and even her therapist won’t pick up the phone. She’s lonely, so she calls Tom but he refuses to sleep with her: “I’m trying to fucking respect you here, you mug!” “God! Could you not have respected me after we had sex?” she quips back.
The reason for her advances soon becomes clear: “Don’t you ever want to feel something for five fucking minutes?” she asks. Áine would rather engage in casual sex than risk the vulnerability of a romantic relationship – there’s an underlying fear that her mental health renders her unlovable. “Who wants to go out with a bloody mad woman?” she exclaims to Shona at one point.
In her essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, Leslie Jamison writes that the twenty-first century woman’s pain “has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect, expose the shame of self-absorption without self-awareness… What shame are they sculpted from?” Áine’s shame manifests in her humour, a barrage of wisecracks and one-liners obstructing the truth.
Another reoccurrence in the series is the idea of getting ‘fixed’. In the opening scene of episode one, Shona is checking Áine out of a rehabilitation facility. “Is she fixed?” Shona asks the mental health professional, once Áine has left to take her things to the car. The response: “With people like Áine, we try to get them back to a place where they can care about themselves enough to take care of themselves.” At one point, Áine confronts her mother (Sorcha Cusack), who she hasn’t seen since her time in rehab. “I wanted you to come and get me, mammy,” she says, tearfully. I wanted you to come down to that place and take me out of there and take me home and make me better.”
We never find out the cause of Áine’s “teeny little nervous breakdown”, or why she attempted suicide. There is never any mention of a ‘why’, which is a refreshing angle for a narrative about mental illness. As much as you’d like there to be a specific root to your problem that you can identify and then neatly and cathartically pluck out, it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes, that’s just how things are.
Writing about female pain, Jamison adds: “We may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticised her illness and idealised her suffering, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t happen… How do we talk about these wounds without glamourising them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?”
This is what Bea does with This Way Up. The series ends with Áine going back to therapy for the first time in three months. “You know, I do want to get better,” she tells her therapist. “It’s hard, you know. The dailiness of it can be sort of relentless. All I can do is give it a go.” And she’s right: depression is relentless. It’s boring. It feels repetitive and futile and dull.
The series doesn’t end with Áine being fixed, but it ends with her feeling ready to try and fix herself. She helps Etienne open up and bond with his father; one lonely person recognises another lonely person, and they help each other. Focusing on the ‘after’, on the tiring work that goes into looking after yourself, This Way Up moves beyond stereotypical depression narratives – just because Áine has been to rehab doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have work to do. And this work is a choice, every day.
“How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Áine asks, her last joke of the series. “One,” she continues, smiling wryly as she acknowledges the corniness of her own joke. “But the lightbulb has to really want to change.”
Header image courtesy of Channel 4