This Way Up, Fleabag, and the Complicated Love Between Sisters

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<i>This Way Up</i>, <i>Fleabag</i>, and the Complicated Love Between Sisters

Just two and a half years apart, my older sister and I haven’t always been close. We grew up in a big family—like, seven kids big—full of strong personalities, all vying for the same sliver of attention. Looking back now, the two of us were probably just too similar to enjoy each other’s company. But as we grew up, the hostility that felt so ingrained in our relationship as kids faded away, leaving behind one of the greatest friendships I’ve ever had. Our relationship isn’t perfect, of course, but the love I have for my older sister is different from my connection with anyone else in my life. No matter what, she’s there for me and I’m there for her.

It’s hard to write this kind of complicated love into a television script and actually make it feel real; but This Way Up, the heartfelt Hulu comedy series written by Aisling Bea, nails its representation of sisterhood.

Bea stars as Aine, a young teacher who landed in a rehab facility after a nervous breakdown brought her to the brink of suicide. In the opening scene of the series, her older sister Shona (played by the brilliant Sharon Horgan) comes to pick her up and bring her back home. Teasing the dynamic of their relationship, as well as the dark humor to come throughout the rest of the series, the scene is tense and funny as the women lightly harass the outtake nurse, bringing their shared sense of dry, Irish humor further out of one another with each comment.

It’s quickly established that Shona is the far more stable sister. She paid for Aine’s treatment (something Aine’s grateful for, if not feeling guilty for the high cost), has a successful job in finance, and has been asked to move in with her long-term partner, Vish. She’s always, always there for Aine, even going so far as to track her phone’s every location to ensure she stays out of trouble. Aine both loves and quietly resents relying on her sister; she falls back on the support but doesn’t want to be seen as a burden. Who does?

In Aine’s eyes, Shona’s life is perfect. Aine on the other hand, finds herself slowly readjusting to life. She loves her job as an English-as-a-second-language teacher, and is damn good at it, but still feels the tendrils of depression creeping back in during slow moments. The series follows Aine’s life after treatment and we see her trying hard to quell the darkness that threatens to bring even the happiest moments crashing down.

Aine’s use of humor to cope is a running thread throughout the show but there’s a scene in the first episode of This Way Up that has brought me near to tears both times I’ve watched the series. It’s not a moment of particular importance in the grand scheme of the show, but one that reminds me so deeply of my relationship with my sister that it’s lodged in my memory. In it, Aine has just been uninvited from her plans for the night and decides to show up at Shona’s, mere moments before she and Vish are leaving for an evening out. Crunched for time, Vish leaves while Shona skitters around her apartment getting ready and Aine does her best to distract her.

After Shona brings up the now-canceled plans, Aine snaps into jester mode, erupting into a lip-syncing routine with a toothbrush. It’s really not that funny a bit, but Shona dies laughing anyway. No matter how silly the joke, Shona finds Aine absolutely hysterical. The amount of times I’ve been brought to tears laughing at nonsense with my sister is impossible to even estimate. Shona’s gasping giggles as she leaves the apartment fade into Aine having a panic attack and suddenly the scene is even more real; Aine is so quick to put on a show, desperate to prove to Shona (and herself) that she’s not the depressed, suicidal version of herself she used to be. Epitomizing the way Bea balances humor and heart in This Way Up, this scene is a reminder of the infallible sisterly love at the center of the series and how hard it is to be vulnerable, even with the most important person in your life.

This dynamic—successful, “happy” older sister/mildly fucked-up younger sister—is all too familiar. I found myself texting my sister constantly while watching the new season of This Way Up that came out recently, dying to point out which bits I knew she’d get a kick out of and which ones I knew were painfully similar to our relationship. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen ourselves reflected so well, either.

Depending on who you ask, the Hot Priest may be the most memorable aspect of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece series Fleabag, but it’s the titular character’s connection with her older sister Claire that takes center stage in my heart. Fleabag is chaotic and depressed, trying her best to pick up the pieces to so many alienated relationships. Most importantly, her relationship with Claire needs work. Like Shona, Claire is also a financially stable and put-together woman who does whatever she can to appear the unerring older sister. When Shona and Claire compare themselves to their messy younger sisters, an amalgamation of emotions arises. They’re both protective of their little sisters, but feel guilty about coddling them. They want to be there for them, but fight against resentment building out of the dependence.

Aine and Fleabag, however, both try so hard to be singular, independent people. They do fall on their sisters for support, but are such guarded people they struggle to even allow the person they are closest to in the world in. Both of these characters live with the distance depression can cause. Despite having these strong support systems in their lives, the women are convinced of their utter loneliness. It can be impossible to fight the voice in your head that tells you it’s weak to ask for help, even from a big sister who wants to help.

The ways Fleabag and Aine process their emotions can be problematic at times. When Shona needs help, Aine struggles to take on the role of supporter. There’s a moment where Shona tells Aine that she acts like she’s the only one who’s ever been sad. “It’s annoying,” she says matter of factly. Fleabag, too, can be selfish in this way, almost always prioritizing her own mess above Claire’s. When managing depression for so many years, it becomes hard to see that anyone could possibly be as sad as you—especially not your older sister who has a seemingly perfect and put together life. More than anything, you don’t want to imagine they’re as sad because you know how much it hurts to be in that place.

Despite their natural affinities for self pity, both Aine and Fleabag make conscious efforts to repair and maintain their relationships with their sisters. At the conclusion of both This Way Up and Fleabag’s second seasons, our strong older sisters are struggling. Claire has finally left her atrocious husband and is terrified but excited to pursue a new love interest; Shona has just left a problematic voice message for her fiance that was meant for her business partner and former hook-up Charlotte. Fleabag and Aine, both having grown throughout their respective series, are finally able to support their older sisters, to see them as people who need help and are asking for it. The dynamic of their bonds are changing, and in both series the sisters are more willing to be open about their love for each other. In the case of Fleabag, Claire delivers the series’ most memorable line, telling her sister: “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.” Aine comes to Shona’s home and the two lay on the floor together, holding hands while Shona has a panic attack. Aine’s still cracking jokes, though this time she’s doing it for Shona’s sake. She belts out a song in a funny voice, singing “I never knew a sister like you, and when I think of you and you’re my sister, I feel proud.”

It’s hard to describe the love I feel for my sister. Our friendship has grown and changed over the years, yet every new fight or squabble brings us closer. In the two years since Fleabag’s second season premiered, there have been more than a handful of times that tension has been broken by one of us reminding the other they’re the only person we’d run through an airport for. We may live hours away from each other now, but when I watch This Way Up and Fleabag, it can feel like she’s right there.



Kristen Reid is a culture writer and TV intern for Paste Magazine. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.

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