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.