‘Complicated’ is a word rarely used to describe female TV characters, especially in the world of comedies. It’s a fact Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Aisling Bea are obviously all too aware of, their shows deliberately rejecting the age-old stereotypes normally associated with women in favour of flawed, but ultimately very relatable, female characters. In other words: real women. Yet one of the main reasons Fleabag (2016–2019) and This Way Up (2019–2021) are so innovative is that they dare to put sisterly relationships at the front and centre of everything else going on in the story, even if those relationships play out in very different ways throughout both shows.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Fleabag and Series 1 of This Way Up!).
Whether it’s Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and Claire (Sian Clifford) arguing before a feminist lecture, or Shona (Sharon Horgan) picking up an ungrateful Aine (Aisling Bea) after a stint in rehab, our introductions to these characters are immediately memorable, Waller-Bridge and Bea already having fun with their dysfunctional sisterly dynamics. These introductions also make something abundantly clear: these sisters have almost nothing in common with each other. From the way they dress, to their jobs, to their personalities, they are depicted as complete polar opposites, a fact that Fleabag and Aine seem all too aware of. They’re struggling to make ends meet and failing at life in general, but Claire and Shona have it all – high-powered careers, money, and loving partners. And yet Waller-Bridge and Bea approach the sisters’ contrasting lives in wildly different ways in their narratives, Waller-Bridge showing how distant Fleabag and Claire are because of their clashing personalities, while Bea portrays Aine and Shona as quite close. Indeed, in This Way Up, their lack of similarities doesn’t affect their ability to spend time together and have a laugh, even if the jokes they make are often at each other’s expense. Fleabag and Claire might share a few tender moments here and there (awkward hugs and general words of advice), but they’re certainly going to have to work at their relationship if they ever want to overcome their differences.
Although the closeness Aine and Shona have seems to represent the ideal sisterly relationship, Bea actually shows how it can occasionally be a hindrance for both of them. Aine constantly relies on Shona for support and to combat her intense feelings of loneliness, her dependence so much that at one point it causes her to have a panic attack when Shona leaves her for the evening. In fact, whenever Shona isn’t around, Aine tends to act rashly, whether that’s by sleeping with her ex or simply going for a walk around the park at night. When we learn that Aine was close to their father who’s passed away, Aine’s mental health issues and feelings of isolation become easier to understand, as does her reliance on her sister to make them go away. And of course, Shona always comes running when Aine asks her to (or whenever she checks her phone locator app and it tells her Aine isn’t where she said she’d be). Her support is touching, but even in episode one when Shona rushes back from an important work event to find Aine, we know something’s got to give between them. Indeed, towards the end of the first series, they’re further apart than they’ve ever been, Shona realising how stifled she is by Aine’s constant need for reassurance, while Aine’s loneliness comes back to haunt her. Without the balance that their relationship so desperately needs, both sisters find themselves at a loss, and unsure if they can ever move past their problems with each other.
Grief might be the only thing Fleabag and Claire can actually relate to in their relationship, the pair still reeling from their mother’s death 3 years prior, yet able to reminisce together about happier times with her. However, it’s the recent death of Fleabag’s best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) that is affecting her the most, the circumstances of which are gradually revealed to us via flashbacks throughout the first series. Boo’s sudden departure has left Fleabag alone in more ways than one. No business partner to run the failing café with her. No-one to share a late night glass of red wine with. No-one to guide her when she’s feeling lost. While Claire might not be a suitable replacement for all of that, she’s willing to help her sister in other ways, whether it’s simply asking Fleabag if she’s ok, or offering her the money she needs to save the café.
It’s this grand gesture that also marks the pair finally becoming closer – a moment that is sadly not to last thanks to Claire’s husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). When Fleabag confesses that Martin tried to kiss her, Claire is hurt, but immediately believes her sister, even telling her she’s going to leave him and take the work promotion in Finland that she’s been offered. Yet the next time they meet, Claire is back with Martin and distant with her again, Martin having manipulated Claire into believing the kiss was all Fleabag’s doing. That Fleabag had an affair with Boo’s boyfriend (the act that lead to her suicide) is the very reason Martin’s lie is all too easy to believe, and which makes it impossible for Claire to fully trust her sister. After all, if she’s done it before, who’s to say she won’t do it again? After Martin’s meddling and a final stand against her domineering stepmother (the brilliant Olivia Colman), at the end of series one Fleabag is a broken woman without the only other connection in her life that has been keeping her sane. Even the fourth wall has turned against her, Fleabag shying away from our judgemental gaze after we find out the truth about her and Boo.
While the conflict between Aine and Shona might not be as extreme as the problem facing Fleabag and Claire, they both seem like points of no return for the sisters. However, Waller-Bridge and Bea actually use these incidents to help them move past other issues in their relationships – a process that ultimately helps them reconnect on a deeper level. In This Way Up, Aine and Shona argue about their dysfunctional relationship in the last episode of the first series, both suddenly revealing their deep-rooted issues with each other. But later at Shona’s work event, the pair are finally able to talk candidly about Aine’s suicide attempt, Shona revealing she constantly worries about her, and Aine reassuring her she’ll never do it again. It’s the most moving scene of the whole series, and a beautifully realistic portrayal of sisterly love.
It takes a lot more than an explosive argument to reconnect Fleabag and Claire though, their relationship (and Claire’s trust) gradually building again throughout the wonderful second series. When Fleabag discovers Claire has had a miscarriage during their father (Bill Paterson) and stepmother’s celebratory meal, Fleabag covers for Claire by drawing all the attention to herself, claiming the miscarriage was actually hers. After a callous response from Martin (“like a goldfish out the bowl”) and a few flying punches, Fleabag suddenly finds Claire waiting for her with a taxi at the end of the episode. Her lie has shown Claire how much Fleabag still cares for her, even after a year without contact. Although they struggle to maintain this closeness throughout series two, once again Fleabag helps her in the last episode by making Claire understand that she needs to stop putting others before herself. Her own happiness is far more important than that. Rather than dismissing her sister’s advice, Claire finally realises she needs to be more like Fleabag – that occasionally you need to be selfish in order to get what you truly deserve. With her sister’s encouraging words, Claire builds up the strength to leave Martin and run to the airport to be reunited with the man (Christian Hillborg) she really loves. It’s a cliché act, but Claire reveals that the only other person she’d do that for is Fleabag – a touching moment that shows all is finally forgiven between them.
Fleabag and Claire might never be as close as Aine and Shona are. But in both shows, these sisterly relationships are the crux of the larger stories at play, their love and unwavering support for each other portrayed as far more important than their relationships with any of the male characters – a refreshing approach that makes these shows truly special. While the bickering, joking, and clothes borrowing certainly captures the nuances and realism of being a sister, it’s those poignant moments that stick with you long after watching, Waller-Bridge and Bea perfectly highlighting that precarious yet unbreakable bond, and how much you’d risk for it. And as a sister myself, that’s what makes Fleabag and This Way Up two of the most vital, exciting female-driven shows of recent years, especially when it’s obvious their creators comprehend this connection so well. After all, there are few who can better understand the love between sisters, than sisters themselves.
(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/television/feature/the-complicated-world-of-sisterly-love/)