Lisa McGee’s hit dark comedy Derry Girls wrapped up season three on May 18. While the announcement of a season three left me eager to see my favorite characters again, I was also confused, since the end of season two felt like the perfect end to both the season and the series.
The show centers around a group of five Catholic high schoolers growing up in Derry, Ireland, amidst the Troubles, an era of violent Irish political conflict during the latter half of the 20th century. The show beautifully blends the comedy and drama of high school with the horrors of the Troubles, often using real news footage from the period to ultimately promote hope for a better tomorrow.
The first season finale blended a large–scale bombing (much like the horrific bombing at Omagh in 1998) with oddball Orla’s talent show stepping routine. Despite inevitable ridicule, the rest of the crew joins Orla onstage, dancing with her to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” As they celebrate, the music fades out into a devastating news report of the bombing, accompanied by footage of the kids’ parents huddled around the television, taking in the news. “Dreams” by the Irish band The Cranberries begins playing as the camera shifts between the kids dancing and the parents mourning.
While it may sound like a bleak ending, Derry Girls is not just a tragedy; the show brilliantly blends the joys of youth with the tragedies of hardships.
Today, we experience too much uncertainty. We flip through news channels only to see devastating mass shootings, the difficulties of a pandemic, and the pressures of political polarization. While I can’t and won’t equate our current situation with that of the Troubles, I think it’s fair to say that we seem to have plenty of troubles of our own (note the lowercase “T”). Given the turmoils of today, Derry Girls gives an assuring message to young people: that the world can change. While everything feels out of our control, Derry Girls encourages viewers, especially younger ones, to look for the good among the chaos.
Derry Girls continues this message with its beautiful ending of season two, which detailed President Clinton’s visit to Derry in 1995. Within their group, the characters struggled with the knowledge that James, Michelle’s English cousin, would soon be returning to England. The episode ends with the girls sacrificing their front row spot at Clinton’s speech to see James, who has decided to stay in Derry. As the reunited gang walks home, they walk past a television displaying real footage of Clinton’s visit. The episode ends with Clinton’s speech as a voiceover, saying, “And so I ask you to build on the opportunity you have before you; to believe that the future can be better than the past; to work together because you have so much more to gain by working together than by drifting apart.”
Once again, the season ends on a note of hope. Derry Girls centers around children who were born in the middle of the Troubles; while conflict is all they’ve ever known, there is still faith that this seemingly permanent conflict can crumble.
Season three tragically broke from this script. Barely including historical aspects at all, Derry Girls seemingly sold out and became like every other high school drama, focusing more exclusively on intergroup dynamics instead of global issues and losing the message of optimism so critical to our modern world.
In the season finale, Clare’s dad is killed off right after Clare experiences her first kiss. The attempt to blend the rush of a first kiss with the immense grief of a parent's death strayed from the theme of "hope in the face of global tragedy" that had been so prominent during the first two seasons. With Clare’s dad being a minor character who appeared only a handful of times, the emotional pull of a major character’s death was nowhere to be found. Beyond this, the death felt incredibly rushed, like an emotional punch without the windup.
The final scene of the official season showed Clare, supported by her mom, the gang, and their parents, following her father’s casket. While the family is surrounded by friends, there is none of the promise present in the earlier finales. Instead of resolving season–long tensions with an infusion of classic Derry Girls bittersweetness, the audience was left whiplashed from a quick and underdeveloped death in the face of tragedy.
When unexpected devastation occurs, communities rally, support is given, and there is usually goodness despite the initial black mark of the incident. But in season three, Derry Girls refuses to let us see that positivity. We didn’t see the hours of comfort the gang would have given Clare or the ladies from church bringing dinners to the family. But it’s not that these kind actions “fix” death. Instead, they show us that we are not alone in our moments of despair. The world will continue to spin.
Fortunately, not all hope is lost for Derry Girls, as the day following the season’s end an hour–long special was aired. This special, set one year after the end of season three (the main characters are now newly 18), drives the plot back to the issues of the Troubles as the gang grapples with the Good Friday Agreement Referendum, an agreement that was meant to establish how Northern Ireland should be governed. The characters struggle and face intergroup conflict before ultimately all voting for the referendum—a choice billed as a positive step towards peace.
As the special ends, once again “Dreams” by The Cranberries plays while the camera flips between all of the show’s characters voting in the election. We watch real news footage of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister David Cameron apologizing for Bloody Sunday, while the main character Erin says, “So we have to be brave. And if our dreams get broken along the way, we’ll have to make new ones from the pieces.”
Derry Girls season three aired 50 years after the Bloody Sunday massacre on Jan. 30, 1972. While Bloody Sunday was significant, it was far from isolated. The Troubles would continue for more than 20 years after the tragedy, and hundreds of lives would be lost. The 50–year anniversary is tinged with the same bittersweet rosiness found in Derry Girls. It marks a time to mourn those who died on Bloody Sunday and throughout the Troubles as a whole—and it's also a time to recognize that Ireland is still recovering from the hardship it faced. However, it reminds us to look to the future and work to collectively build a better tomorrow.
Through so much hardship, death, and destruction—both during the Troubles and today—it’s easy to get lost in the dark. Despite it all, Derry Girls provides a glimmer of hope that we can take with us even during the greatest of uncertainties. While season three of Derry Girls couldn’t hold a candle to the first two seasons, the one–hour special makes a valiant effort to restore its earlier beauty and assure us that even in the worst of times, we can always find some good.