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.