| Arts & Culture
Television ‘Bad Sisters’ Captures the Intensity of Having and Being a Sister
My sister is not my best friend. She is my sister. Those are fundamentally different relationships.
In the final scene of the first episode of Bad Sisters , Eva, Bibi, Ursula, and Becka sit in the yard of their family home. Their faces are revealed in slices by the flickering bonfire at their feet, rectangles of orange light highlighting a set brow, a strong jaw. The sisters argue in low, harried voices. Visually, they look as if they’re floating in deep space, a world unto themselves. Darkness cloaks them, warm and close around their shoulders. A vacuum emerges around the fire, an untouchable place where only the sisters exist.
Bad Sisters is a show about the lengths the Garvey sisters will go to protect each other. There’s Eva, the somewhat matriarch; Bibi, the sour and spiky second sister; Ursula, a nurse carrying on an affair; Becka, the baby; and Grace, wife of JP, otherwise known as the Prick. In the present timeline, JP is dead and the sisters are being hounded by two brothers who run a life insurance agency and believe JP was murdered. But then, the show shuttles backward, showing us the depth of JP’s depravity and letting us in on a secret: Eva, Bibi, Becka, and Ursula all conspired to kill JP without Grace knowing.
The plot begins as a joke. Huddled around the Forty Foot promontory after a chilly winter’s swim, the Garvey sisters moan about their terrible brother-in-law and fantasize about all the terrible ways they’d love to kill him. But as the show progresses, each sister experiences something that pushes her over the edge. JP quips one too many times at Eva about her infertility; he promises Becka a loan and then reneges after she signs a lease for her first-ever massage business; JP tricks Ursula into sending him a nude and uses it to taunt and blackmail her. One by one, we watch as each sister weighs the laws of the outside world—namely, don’t kill people —with the tenets of their sisterverse. Inevitably, each and every Garvey sister comes to the same conclusion: As long as they have each other, they can do anything, including get away with murder.
Say the idea out loud and you’ll feel how silly it is in your mouth: “Should I kill my sibling’s significant other to help them get out of an abusive relationship?” But as I watched each Garvey sister slowly be convinced of the validity of their murder plan, I recognized the switch in their faces. That heady mix of delusion and certainty, the searing knowledge that you will do whatever it takes even if it means dancing on the knife edge of very bad decisions—I know those feelings intimately. I know them because I too am a sister.
My first conspirator, my first competition, my first love and heartbreak. Mary is the person I have loved and hated most in my life. I was almost three when she was born. The story goes that while my parents tried to prepare me for the newcomer to our family, I first responded to the birth of my sister with voluptuous jealousy. When I saw my mom after she gave birth, I refused to come near her, punishing her with my distance. She offered me a donut—a chocolate old-fashioned, my favorite to this day—and I refused her, so deeply upset was I that she’d betrayed me by introducing a sister to our family.
But then, I saw my sister for the first time. Our meeting was not a saccharine one. There was no immediate hugging or kissing. Instead, I looked at my infant sister and responded, “Oh!” as if I’d known her all my life, “Pekie pie!” I, nor my parents, know what three-year-old me meant by pekie pie . But if I had to guess, I think I was trying to name her, to say it was totally normal, like breathing, that she would exist. Ours were entangled lives, like I’d simply been waiting in the hospital lobby for her to show up.
What I’m trying to tell you is that this isn’t some Hallmark-cotton-candy-matching-pajamas type of relationship. My sister is not my best friend. She is my sister. Those are fundamentally different relationships. When I say I have loved her and hated her, what I mean is that I would do illegal things to make sure she is safe and happy and that I have also pondered doing illegal things because she borrowed a sweater without asking. Our relationship houses moments of love that I am proudest of in my life: a cross-country Japanese train trip, winter walks that start with difficult conversations and end in understanding. It also houses my worst, most despicable and selfish ones. (Me, twenty-one, furious and swearing, pushing her, eighteen, violently in the middle of a busy Japanese sidewalk.)
Sisterhood was a world unto itself, a bubble where our relationship to each other dictated what was right and wrong. Our life of back-and-forth migration from Japan to the United States, our parents’ perennial arguments, the unspoken way at extended family gatherings we would inevitably end up drifting off to an unoccupied room to joke and moan; together, we made bewildering terrain familiar. In a world governed by maleness and whiteness, the sisterverse was a place mediated by us, two half-Japanese half-white American girls. Our logic, our safety, our concerns for each other—these were the considerations that reigned.
When I say I have loved her and hated her, what I mean is that I would do illegal things to make sure she is safe and happy and that I have also pondered doing illegal things because she borrowed a sweater without asking.
Is Bad Sisters a cautionary tale about marriage, a warning about all the bad that can happen when we let interlopers into our world of sisters? Some of the most painful, frustrating moments of Bad Sisters for me was watching Eva, Ursula, Becka, and Bibi try to confront Grace about how horrible JP was. In one innocuous scene, Grace begs Eva to stay for dinner only to be interrupted by JP, who snipes that the best dinner guests are the ones that stay home. Before Eva can say anything, Grace interjects by saying she’s never had to take the garbage out once in their relationship. As JP’s sins become more egregious, Grace becomes more and more isolated from the women that love her most. By trying to justify the behavior of her terrible husband, she breaks with their childhood pact of closeness and puts herself in harm’s way.
It’s not just Grace, though, that deals with the meddling of men. Becka falls in love with one of the Claflin brothers who are investigating her and her sisters for potential insurance fraud. Ursula abandons her sister’s mid-murder plot to go be with the man she’s having an affair with. In one unsuccessful attempt at drowning JP, Eva is spotted by Gabriel, a man from work she once had a crush on. Men are everywhere in Bad Sisters , putting pressure and tension on the Garvey sisterverse. One needn’t be married to the Prick to have a man interfere with the laws of sisterhood.
Here I must confess that although I love my husband very much, and am very glad to have married him, I have more than once considered how to get out of my marriage elegantly because I couldn’t imagine a world where I could love him and my sister at the same time. I realize this is a ridiculous thing to say. The love I have for my husband and the love I have for my sister are vastly different. One is romantic. The other, something closer to feral. Both resulted in universes of care. For someone who has existed between cultures, continents, and worlds her whole life, balancing these two should have been easy. But instead, I despaired. How could I be all in for both of them? Didn’t love, the making of these worlds, require a single-minded devotion that left no room for another person? In my panic, marriage seemed like the worst thing to ever happen to my sisterhood.
One family vacation, I sat in the sticky back seat of a rented car. On my right was Jack. On my left was Mary. I felt torn in two. I wished that I had two heads, two sets of hands to turn to them, joke with them, talk in the parlance of our intimate lives. Outside, the sun unfurled itself on rough rock, sand, and salty water. It was a beautiful afternoon, but I was miserable. Later that evening, in a quiet moment alone, I stood outside of my hotel room, holding my elbows. Everything I did felt like a betrayal of my sister or my husband. In retrospect, this was extreme, a figment of my panicked imagination. As if each laugh, each conversation, each meal shared, all of these were choices that were taking me further away from the people I loved.
I no longer entertain escapist fantasies of ending my marriage for my sisterhood. This is the result of a lot of arguing, journaling, and therapy, but it is also the result of watching Mary and Jack get to know each other. Now, I cherish the memory of one of their first serious arguments, the way I sat in my bedroom frantically trying to write something, anything, on my laptop so that I wouldn’t run out and interfere in their fighting. Afterward, when the argument had run its course, we sat on the floor of the living room, eating Tous le Jours cake that Mary had brought over. On one side, my beloved sister. On the other, my husband. I recognized both of their post-argument faces because, in the past, it was me on the receiving end of this exquisite closeness, this quiet. But now, they were looking at each other. They joked and talked across me. They joked and talked across me. I watched as a new universe of care formed, smaller and still forming, but a universe unto itself all the same.
The final scene of Bad Sisters shows the Garvey sisters surrounded by darkness again, but this time it is a living, vivid one: the swirling waters of the Irish sea. Eva, Ursula, Bibi, and Becka tread water, calling out to Grace to join them. They are no longer hunched over a fire, trying to keep a secret between them. Now they are open, smiling, shouting their beloved sister’s name. When Grace does jump in, it is with exuberance stretched across her face. She is joyful, alive, diving into deep water with her sisters.
This is the second water-themed ending I’ve seen from Sharon Horgan, who stars in and developed the show. In her hit comedy series Catastrophe , written with comedian Rob Delaney, the two main characters end a rollicking four seasons by wading out into uncertain water. The scene cuts before we can tell if they’re enjoying a swim together or if they’ll be pulled under by a potentially deadly riptide. Like the foaming water off of the Forty Foot in Bad Sisters , both of these scenes signify the same thing to me. There are no easy answers—only the constant of swimming out into the unknown with and for people you love.