Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen This Life Episode 208, “Destruction as Creation.”
In last week’s episode of This Life, the Lawson siblings became suspicious that Oliver (Kristopher Turner) may be living with bipolar disorder. In Sunday’s new episode, “Destruction as Creation,” written by Céleste Parr, parents Gerald (Peter MacNeill) and Janine (Janet-Laine Green) are brought up to speed, and the entire family rallies around him.
“Everyone’s sort of able to bolster each other with their struggles, and it’s easier to do that when everyone’s being upfront about their struggles,” says Parr.
The Montreal-based writer co-wrote her first episode of the season, “Communion,” with showrunner Joseph Kay, but this time she was writing solo. Well, sort of.
“It’s really as collaborative as ever,” she explains. “I’d say I may have had a little bit more confidence to assert convictions about the way a scene might play out . . . But, overall, we work as a team, so the lines of authorship are always kind of blurry. Every episode is really assigned to all of us. With love, from all of us.”
Parr joins us by phone to tell us more about Oliver’s mental illness and what surprises to expect from the Lawson family over Season 2’s final episodes.
The entire family learns that Oliver is bipolar this week. Is this a turning point for him?
Céleste Parr: It’s a turning point for Oliver in terms of recognizing to what degree he can handle this by himself. He’s such a solitary person and such a private person, but he’s forced to acknowledge the role of mental illness in the events of the last episode—the fire and the damage and the way that it has a ripple effect, waves of damage, spreading out to Gerald, and sort of having to confront the way that it’s affected Romy, and the way his secretiveness and his insistence on not burdening other people with it probably exacerbated his difficulties and the pain and concern of the people around him. So now that that’s out in the open, he can sort of relax a little bit around it, and he has a really great support network around him.
Did you have many discussions in the writers’ room about the way the show wanted to depict mental illness?
Yeah. In any case, with any character, we want to be true to that person’s struggles, so I think in the case of a mentally ill character, it’s not just that you want to be authentic or sensitive about it, you also want to be aware of portrayals of mentally ill characters in other fiction. You want to be true to the way that they’re often misportrayed and made into caricatures, or sometimes made into criminals and want to really show how this illness enriches [Oliver’s] life in some ways and how it really hinders him in other ways. You want to be sensitive to it and to not create a sense of shame around it.
Romy’s secrets come out in this episode. She tells Natalie about wanting to live with Oliver, and David finds out she’s been freelancing. Is she going to be more open with her parents now?
I feel like Romy has been, on the one hand, asserting her agency where people have failed her. So she’s saying, ‘OK, I can’t count on these people. I’m going to take care of things myself.’ But she’s also been doing that in such a way to say, ‘Hey, notice me, notice this.’ So even though she was hiding and lying, I think she was doing it with probably the subconscious intention of asking to be seen and called on it. So now that she’s made that point to Natalie and David, she won’t have to hide or lie. I think she will start to be given the freedom that she needs and the support that she needs.
David tells Romy he will have to split his time between his two families but won’t abandon her this time. Is he finally ready to step up?
I think a lot of the work for this scene to fly in Episode 208, a lot of that work was done during his road trip with Kate in the previous episode, and seeing him differently with his wife and showing that he isn’t just sort of flitting in and out as he pleases. He actually is a man who is torn. Emotionally, he is torn and he’s in limbo.
His talk about how his feelings of guilt about failing one family, it sort of keeps him outside of things with everyone, and so here he is having these difficult conversations, and a lot of what he’s allowing himself to do is to not throw his hands up in the air and say, ‘I’m a disappointment, so I’m outta here,’ but to accept that he is going to be disappointing to everybody. If he allows himself to be a little disappointing to everybody, he can also step up for everybody, and derive a lot of fulfilment out of that and drop his, ‘Aw shucks, I’m such a disappointment’ thing. At a certain point, if you become too complacent in that—and I think he had become too complacent in that—it’s like he’s performing his guilt to himself. Eventually, he has to stop playing that one note and step up on all fronts.
Maggie takes the huge step of telling Raza she is in love with him, but he says he doesn’t feel the same way. How is she going to handle that rejection?
Awkwardly. Maggie is someone who always just jumps into things, and I think when you’re making that kind of admission to somebody, you should probably think about the fact that you live with that person. If it doesn’t go well, that apartment could feel very small. That’s how that’s going to go. Suddenly, the walls are going to close.
Caleb’s car got impounded, he lost his tuition money, and then he suddenly ran off to join Flood Relief. What’s going on with him?
I think Caleb’s been setting himself up for this downward spiral, and I think, in having messed up on all fronts, now he’s sort of free. I think it’s very telling about him—and Emma points this out—they could use him at home, and ultimately that’s who Caleb is, he is a caretaker.
At the end of Episode 204, we see him take off because he needs to figure out who he is outside of this role at home, and then really kind of flying the plane into the mountain at school and with the rideshare at work, and then being free from all of that, being free to do whatever he wants. I think it’s telling that his instinct is still to say, ‘I’m a caretaker,’ to exercise that in himself outside the pressures and the baggage of feeling disappointing, feeling like he hasn’t been able to measure up at home, to go somewhere else that’s not loaded with that baggage but still carry that role forward because that is who he is at heart.
Nicole and Beatrice have another tense encounter. What was that like to write?
Joe and I spent about a hundred thousand hours talking about that scene, and what’s happening in that scene, and trying to get to a place of recognizing that these are both women, two mothers who want to protect their children from feelings of shame about their families and how to do that. So both of them are coming at it in a way that is wanting to be protective of their children and also being very vulnerable as women, and both of them being kind of right and having to recognize that in one another if they want to move forward. They both are interested, they both are here for the same purpose but it feels like cross purposes.
That was a hard scene to write. It was like playing chess with myself and having to cross the table and look at the pieces and go, ‘OK, if I was Beatrice I’d go here,’ and then go back to the other side of the table and go, ‘Now what’s open?’ And also feeling vulnerable myself and trying to connect through all those layers of fear and pain and uncertainty and vulnerabilities. That’s a lot of layers to talk through and be heard and be understood.
Natalie’s doctors tell her that doubling the dose of her cancer drug could present grave dangers to her and lessen the quality of her life, but, of course, if she doesn’t double it, she will fall out of partial remission. Can you give any hints about what she chooses to do?
I can say that a lot of what we talked about when we were discussing this episode—and Natalie’s arc in general, especially as far as her illness is concerned—we talked a lot about this idea of maintaining. She seems to be doing well, her side effects are manageable, she’s in partial remission for now, but I think a lot of what is going to shape her decision about this is in what ways her illness is affecting her ability to live her life rather than just maintain or bide her time.
I think a really big awakening for her is, all this work she’s been trying to do to protect her children from what’s going to happen to her, and trying to make sure that they’re going to be OK, and through that process of trying to control all of that, she actually has been missing so much in terms of what her children are going through. So if that’s what’s happening, then what is she really doing?
There are only two episodes left. What are you most excited for viewers to see?
I’m very excited for them to see the bravery of everybody, the bravery and the boldness of everybody. There’s a lot of surprises, so it’s really hard to say anything . . . It’s all exciting because we get to see different facets of all these characters as they’re spun in unexpected ways.
This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.