'Mum' Asks Whether We Get A Second Act

I am daily insulted by the truth underlying a throwaway line in Joshua Ferris's Then We Came To The End: "You see them every day — nondescript women with a bulge just above the groin, slightly double-chinned. Perpetually forty. Someone's mother, you think."

Like the mom jeans that contain them, mothers are a sort of carry-bag for the children they created, and the mess that comes after. So presents the star of the BBC's incredible TV show Mum (available now on Amazon through a BritBox subscription), Cathy, a middle-aged mum who has recently been widowed. There is no telling the years of accumulated psychic weight signified by her mom jeans, but you imagine that if she were to go out and purchase, say, a light muslin dress, she might float away.

In the first two seasons, we watch as characters blow through Cathy’s (Leslie Manville) middle-class town home. Cathy’s adult son Jason, his son’s girlfriend Kelly, Cathy's in-laws, her brother Derek, and her brother’s snooty girlfriend Pauline (who isn’t pretentious, she just happens to like posh things... like the Tate. Tennis. Skiing. Kent.) invite themselves in, critiquing Cathy’s clothing and furniture, critiquing the house itself.

The camera watches from across the street, taking in a tableau of doors and windows opening and shutting, Cathy's inner life seemingly exposed to the neighbors. The only person who bothers to knock is Michael (Peter Mullan), the long-time friend of Cathy and her late husband. Michael stands waiting on the threshold, smiling at her through the idiocy of everyone else. He is also single with grown children, and feels somehow homeless set against Cathy's overflowing home. Or perhaps that's where he belongs.

Leslie Manville stars as Cathy in 'Mum.' BBC/Amazon Prime.

Cathy is perpetually folding laundry, tidying the living room, making hors d'oeuvres, tucking her thoughts away and washing dishes while those dependent on her — a cantilevered mess of de facto extended family played by Sam Swainsbury, Kelly McGrillis, Dorothy Atkinson, Ross Boatman, and others — allow her to gently tend their lives (even the fridge beeps at her, ahem). Now that her husband is gone, they seem to think, what else can she do but mother? In Michael's kind face and grumbly Scottish accent, we see the possibility for Cathy to be something else, though Cathy's son Jason makes it clear he objects.

Two people rummaging through a fridge and scooping stew from the pressure cooker — can we dream of anything more?

The question propelling us along is how much can we hope for once we’ve traded our lives for motherhood. The scatterplot of answers given by Mum peaks in the season two hug between Cathy and Michael, which remains truly the most erotic thing I have ever laid mine eyes upon. In a scene out by the clothesline, Michael suggests that, there being so much stew ("styoo") on hand, he might stay for dinner. Cathy wraps her arms around him without a word in those enormous jeans, Peter Mullan’s eyes crinkling in acknowledgement, his lips pressed into a line, forty years of longing tamped down. "There's rice," says Cathy as she returns to pegging up flannies to dry. The episode finishes on the two of them in the kitchen, just two people rummaging through a fridge and scooping stew from the pressure cooker — can we dream of anything more?

Michael, played by Peter Mullan, waiting forever for Cathy out by the clothesline. BBC/Amazon Prime.

Season three removes us to the extremely fancy manor Derek’s girlfriend has airbnb’d for his 50th birthday in Kent (Pauline: "... Kent."). There, the full extent of Cathy's life is beautifully apparent. The obligations, responsibilities, and pieces of history fill every room, an elaborate mess forcing Cathy and Michael into separate twin beds, and out the front door, where they trace circles around each other across the gravel. There is a pool ("I was just out by the pool. There is a pool." offers Pauline) too cold for anyone to swim in.

Quintessential numpty Kelly is pregnant and believes no one is aware, even as she munches on chips, sips constantly on a water bottle, and spends good chunks of time vomiting into the toilet, but in the veiled questions she poses to Cathy "for a friend" there are the beginnings of an understanding about what it is to become a mum. Pauline, knowing Derek means to propose, makes a last-ditch attempt to win back her rich ex-husband, clinging to her tailored suits and silky blouses as she tries to ward off the trappings of commoner life. To imagine having as little as Cathy disgusts her. And then there are Cathy's in-laws, relics of the time before with their bum joints and distaste for badminton — a stand in for Cathy's moral confusion about moving on with her husband's friend.

"Kent" — Pauline. BBC/Amazon Prime.

But the most complex piece of the human pyramid is Cathy's Large Grown Son Jason, who is not over his father's death, two years on. Cottoning onto the relationship between Cathy and Michael, he continues to freeze out Michael ("don't think so mate"), and gaslight his mum, telling her she's confused. She needs looking after. In these moments, the show is never hysterical; a mum is used to holding the emotions her family aren't ready to handle. In one of the more incredible scenes, Jason breaks down as Cathy sits, self-contained, on her child-sized bed, allowing her son to sit in his own grief, separate from hers.

As with all good comedies, we are headed to a party: "Twenty morons who have so little do they'll come all the way here to celebrate the birth of Derek," as Cathy's father-in-law puts it. Absent those twenty morons, we are left with Cathy at the center of the universe, wondering if she will put herself first for once, set down the crackers, and dare leap into the water.