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The A Word: Season 3 - Episode 6 and series review

The A Word

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

THERE are few programmes more rewarding on television than The A Word right now. Peter Bowker’s beautifully observed drama ended its third season with another richly absorbing and emotionally compelling episode, capping a truly memorable season.

The final episode had everything: comedy, drama, tragedy and feel-good elements. But where some shows feel contrived in the way they allow all of this to unfold, The A Word feels authentic. Its cast is so good, its writing so rich, that spending time in the company of this ensemble is like spending time with people you genuinely love.

The sixth episode will be remembered for how Joe (Max Vento), the autistic child at the heart of the series, ultimately stepped up to save his pregnant sister, Rebecca (Molly Wright), from having to give birth by the road-side. It was a special moment, brilliantly realised.

To be fair, Rebecca’s impending birth had been hanging over the episode from the start given how heavily pregnant she was. But her decision to visit Joe’s school and talk to his classmates paved the way for her to be with Joe, driving them both home, as her waters broke.

Joe observed this and took note of her painful groaning. Yet while, initially, he seemed unable to cope, even placing his hands over his ears, he eventually got out of the car and started walking, headphones over his ears.

When he was eventually stopped by a passing motorist and his wife, Joe was able to explain – in his own inimitable fashion – what was happening. Hence, the rescuing couple were able to call an ambulance and notify Joe’s mum and stepdad, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby) – that the baby was on its way. As ever, Vento displayed the mixed emotions of his character brilliantly.

The birth, somewhat predictably, gave everyone the chance to come together for the final moments of the episode, as they awaited news of the delivery and all had a moment of personal reflection. But – again – The A Word never seemed disingenuous in the way that it presented the emotions at play, or manipulative. If anything, the warmth on display gave rise to a happy-sad kind of joy… a tear-jerkingly poignant final few moments that were as happy as they were, kind of bittersweet (another thing this series excels in).

Christopher Eccleston’s Maurice had to remove himself after suffering a bout of tears upon seeing Joe meet his new ‘friend’ for the first time. But my own heart skipped a beat as Joe allowed the newborn to wrap his hand around his finger, as babies do. It was a heart-meltingly great moment.

But this was the kind of small gesture that The A Word excels in delivering virtually every episode… sometimes repeatedly. I’ve already gushed about episode 3 and its note-perfect ending.

While the first episode of this series was also a gem.

In truth, I could have written about every episode in terms of superlatives. The penultimate offering, for example, focused on the marriage of Ralph (Leon Harrop) and Katie (Sarah Gordy), the Down’s Syndrome couple whose story has become every bit as affecting as Joe’s.

This one delivered a particular humdinger in the moment between Ralph and surrogate dad Maurice, when the former told the latter that he was actually ‘better’ than a dad. It was a beautifully observed and played moment, with Maurice delightfully declaring that he would keep that comment to himself. But you could tell how much it meant to both of them… and, in turn, how much it meant to the audience.

Not everything is as smooth and celebratory, however. There is tragedy, too – equally as well handled.

The fledgling post-divorce relationships that both Alison and Paul embarked on in this series both came to premature conclusions. For Alison, in particular, this felt very sad given how much of an impression Ben (David Gyasi) has made on this series.

As Ben laid his feelings on the line for Alison, she could only admit that she wasn’t quite in the same place – past relationship failings and the near memory of a 20-year marriage standing in her way. She liked Ben… just not enough to save the relationship.

Given the bravery and dedication Alison has exhibited throughout the series in her devotion to Joe, another series would have delivered her the happy ending she undoubtedly deserves. But life isn’t quite so simple or rewarding. And Alison’s confusion was painfully sad.

Likewise, the tentative – or just plain awkward – relationship between Paul and Sarah (Gemma Paige North) – the latter calling an end to it owing to her need to go slow and exercise caution. Paige North could have easily turned Sarah and all of her neuroses into a caricature… someone comedic and none too complex. But there was a tragedy to Sarah’s grappling with herself that was, again, beautifully played and realised.

Hence, while The A Word certainly puts autism and its challenges front and centre, this is also a wide-reaching series that embraces all forms of mental health issues and disability, as well as what it means to be human (and flawed with it).

In its writing, it unearths so many unspoken truths surrounding issues that seldom get the screen time they deserve. And it delivers heroes as flawed human beings, capable of feeling frustrated or misunderstood. As the parent of an autistic son, there is so much to draw strength and reassurance from. As well as hope.

As for the cast members, there isn’t a bad performance among them, with the likes of Molly Wright’s consistently sensitive portrayal of Rebecca another of its unsung heroes. Her arc, this series, has been just as compelling as she grapples with impending motherhood and her increasingly complex relationship with her mother, Alison.

Likewise, Travis Smith as the autistic Mark Berwick, whose desire to join the army at the start of this series was quickly thwarted. But who shared a terrific sequence with Joe, during a failed trip to an animal park, and another of the season’s heart-warming moments in his promotion to head waiter at Paul’s restaurant and bar.

I could go on but, suffice to say, The A Word is one of those series that resonates on so many levels. It’s a special series that we can only hope will return for a fourth series.

Related: The A Word: Season 3, Episode 3 and its note perfect drama

Season 3, Episode 1 review

Lee Ingleby interview

  1. Thank you.I couldn’t have put it better myself.Superb television.

    peter david jenkins    Jun 11    #
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