‘The A Word’ Season 2 Finale: Beautiful, Heartbreakingly Honest Family Matters
Oh, The A Word. How casually devastating you are. While a show like This Is Us emotionally manipulates our feelings, The A Word lets its family drama work on us as a slow burn, leaving us with a complex and difficult conclusion to its second season. The cracks that we’ve seen in the Hughes family all season had to be dealt with, as well as the reality that the pull away from their homes in the Lake District can be a powerful one.
Manchester is always the place the family absconds to, for better or worse. For Nicola, it was where she carried on her affair that broke up her marriage to Eddie. Later, Eddie leaves for Manchester to explore new career opportunities and new relationships. It’s the location of Joe’s new school, one that is focused on his special needs, and it affords Alison the ability to take in the college studies that she was never able to do because she had baby at 18. But, the drive to and from Manchester also took a major toll on Alison and Paul’s relationship, and it was in Manchester at a gig that Paul first thought about life away from his family.
In its first season, The A Word followed Alison’s difficulty in accepting Joe’s autism, and then pivoted to her sometimes overwhelming need to make certain that everyone else could accept it too. It’s a drive she shares with her father Maurice — that desire to fix everyone and everything. But it grates on Paul, who is now the one struggling to accept Joe as he is. In “Same Deep Water,” he tells Alison that he can’t deal with her constant optimism, something that she says is a harder road to walk, but an essential one. In Season 1, Paul revealed his insecurity about not having fathered a “normal” child in an incredibly difficult but honest conversation. In Season 2, he becomes overwhelmed with what he sees as his failings — with Joe, with Alison, even with Rebecca — and becomes consumed by those feelings. His desire to walk away from his family seems extreme, but it also feels more simply like maybe he just needs a break to sort himself out.
Though Alison has been extremely practical about Paul’s breakdown (including her “understanding,” in different ways, why he wanted to have a “moment” with Sophie), when she sees his bag packed she can’t hold it in anymore. One of the most devastating lines of the second season was when Alison told Paul that if he was going to leave, to do it quickly. “I can’t wake up every day wondering if this is the day he’s leaving. I’m not that strong.” That may have, ultimately, been something Paul needed her to admit. Alison tries to make everything ok and make sure she stays in control, but what they both acknowledged first attracted him to her was that she needed him.
I could go on and on about the nuances of Alison and Paul’s relationship, the shifting of their emotions back and forth, how extraordinarily real Morven Christie and Lee Inglby make them, and how well Peter Bowker’s scripts detail the forced normalcy of these breakdowns (like how, even in the midst of the most difficult conversations between them, Alison and Paul have to show up and act like everything was ok at the talent show and in front of their kids). But The A Word has also done some really interesting work in exploring Eddie and Nicola’s relationship, particularly this season.
For most of Season 2, it seemed clear that Eddie wanted to come back to the Lakes. Firstly he was there all of the time, and secondly he dated an emotionally blunt woman in Manchester who was very reminiscent of Nicola. That family time reminded Nicola why she fell in love with him the first place, perhaps, and ultimately made a move to ask Eddie to come back to be with her and Emily. But Eddie hesitated, and ultimately, admitted that while he wanted to come back as Emily’s father and Nicola’s friend, he didn’t see anything else between them (at least, for now). It’s the first time we’ve really seen Nicola devastated, and it was jarring to hear Eddie express that reticence at being back with his family. But ultimately, Eddie still seems hurt by Nicola’s betrayal, and his scenes later enjoying himself in Maurice’s den showed a man who may finally be happy just as he is.
As for Maurice, Christopher Eccleston has been exceptional as always this year, and his relationship with Louise has been more or less head-spinning. There are certain things about their relationship that are very mature, and others that are childish (mostly on Maurice’s part). But it’s yet another example of a relationship that is realistically complicated, and of course made even more so by Louise’s cancer diagnosis and what that means for Maurice given his wife’s death. But now that Maurice has had his own health scare (which he will surely mostly ignore), it’s allowed Louise to not only see another side to him, but to face her own feelings about him in the wake of almost losing him. The show also continued its great track record of representation with Louise’s son Ralph who is — rightfully — not treated any differently by Maurice or anyone, and even sees him finding companionship with a girl who also has Down’s Syndrome (“not everything is about sex,” he hilariously tells Maurice when the latter offered to buy condoms).
The central figure in all of these revolving relationships, though, is Joe. Season 2 didn’t focus as much on Joe specifically as Season 1 did, but Max Vento again provided an essential portrayal of a boy who may feel like he’s living on the outside, but ultimately is the connecting factor of his family. “Same Deep Water” also made it clear that he has been deeply affected by the fractures in his family, particularly between his parents, as evidenced by his desire to have them all on stage together so he could sing specifically to them. Music has always been Joe’s language, with song titles and lyrics standing in for conversation. The choice of I Am Kloot’s “The Same Deep Water As Me” was a perfect choice for that final shot, too, as the family came together in that stunning Lake District backdrop.
As for that, the conversation between Rebecca and Joe was beautiful, not only because it was one of the rare times that we saw Joe really engaging with her, and not just quoting songs. Their connection is special, as she makes sure Alison hears — no one else can know what it’s like to be Joe’s sister, and to feel that sense of responsibility for him. But the close of that scene, when she tells him there is no away for the two of them, even though she might be somewhere else, was a really wonderful thing.
Alison joining them on top of that crazy camper van showed their unity, but it really didn’t feel complete until Paul arrived — though with some hesitation. His relationship with Alison and the family remains uncertain heading into (hopefully) Season 3. But if The A Word leaves us there, it does so on a mostly satisfying note. Those final lyrics mean something though, for Paul especially, but also for their family unit. All of them struggle with different insecurities and trying to find themselves and do the right thing. Who doesn’t? And the way that’s investigated is so beautifully rendered by this lovely gem of a show. Alison suggested being more like Joe, just “cutting away the shite” and seeing what really matters. It’s a good lesson. “Swim out to the ocean / Drown our thoughts out at sea / Dipped your hands in the water / The same deep water as me.”