As an avid follower of two great British TV shows—“Downton Abbey” of course, but also “Last Tango in Halifax” which in my opinion is the better series—I’ve been suffering from acute delayed gratification ever since the new seasons of both started airing in the UK. Dodging spoilers and hanging on until PBS starts up “Downton Abbey” again didn’t pose a problem for me. But going tango-less, particularly since PBS has been dead silent about airing Season Two, was just too much. Fortunately a very kind soul posted each episode of the new season as it aired on youtube. Needless to say, for six weeks I couldn’t wait for Wednesday nights to indulge.
Unless you want to delay until PBS finally gets off its horse and imports “Last Tango” once again, you probably should stop reading at this point (horrors!). Because SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.
To be frank I was a little put off by the first episode, which relied heavily on the same trick that ended the show’s first season—a round robin of characters repeating a choice bit of information initially told in confidence. At the end of Season One it was Caroline’s relationship with Kate; this time around it was Gillian unwisely telling Caroline she had slept with John, the latter’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Caroline, in a combination of shock and a bit of residual possessiveness, spills this to Celia who repeats it to Alan, and so on. Much messiness ensues: as you can imagine, some characters fall out with each other and some really raw past history comes out.
But Sally Wainwright, creator and author of all six episodes, once again got the ship on an even keel and delivered some great storytelling. That family tree we see in the opening credits of the show expanded with the introduction of Celia’s sister, Muriel (Gemma Jones) who many years ago stole and married Celia’s boyfriend, post-Alan. While their issues were aired, they weren’t resolved, which hopefully will lead to Muriel’s return next season. We also met Ted, Alan’s brother now living overseas, who arrives for Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding after their secret ceremony at the registrar’s office.
Although their weddings bracketed the show’s second season, Alan and Celia took something of a back seat to their respective daughters. Gillian’s on-again, off-again relationship with Robbie, the messy denouement of her affair with John and some old business with her father figured prominently, as did her becoming a grandmother courtesy of 17-year-old Raff and his girlfriend. And on the other side of the family, Caroline, while very much in love with Kate, ran away from “out and proud” faster than the speed of light, resulting in a painful breakup.
But what ultimately made this season of “Last Tango” extraordinary were the performances of Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire as Gillian and Caroline. These two play a scene together like nobody’s business. From the first episode, when Gillian hesitatingly confides that she slept with John, to their drunken afternoon of wedding planning for their parents, to their comforting each other (prematurely) for being wall flowers at the wedding—it’s so real you feel like you’re eavesdropping. The scene when Gillian confesses the darkest secrets of her life to Caroline is a textbook of acting excellence: the way Nicola Walker delivers Gillian’s drunken but controlled narrative as Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline silently takes all this in was riveting. The morning after, with Gillian afraid of the impact and Caroline wrestling with why Gillian confided this in the first place, was just as skillfully done.
Best of all, Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding was a marvelous end to the season: Caroline’s graceful speech about her mother; Alan, backed by his choreographed grandsons, serenading Celia with an old country-western tune; and loveliest of all, Kate and Caroline reunited and snogging on the dance floor with the others reacting totally in character (Lawrence clapping his hand over his eyes in horror to the amusement of his friend Angus was the funniest). This is exactly why “Last Tango in Halifax” is the most enjoyable television show to appear in a long time.
Bravo to the BBC for ordering up Season Three. I can’t wait.