“Frances is bisexual,” announces Bobbi (Sasha Lane), unprompted. The young woman in question, Frances (Alison Oliver), is shocked but not irked by the statement from her ex-lover and best friend, delivered nonchalantly to a couple they have only just met. In many ways, Bobbi’s declaration in the first episode of Conversations with Friends echoes how this adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2017 novel of the same name tackles sexuality: starkly, with unabashed clarity.
Following the 2020 adaptation of Rooney’s acclaimed Normal People, Conversations with Friends is another slow-burn, Irish-set series unfurling the complicated relationships of angsty millennials and packed with copious amounts of sex. At its core it’s a character study exploring the inner lives of four individuals and mapping out interpersonal relationships. The dynamics of gender and sexuality underscore the show, which centres on Frances, a 21-year-old bisexual woman whose antithetical desires are the catalyst for an examination of romance and dissection of monogamy.
The 12-episode BBC/Hulu limited series follows introverted poet Frances and self-assured Bobbi as they meet and are enchanted by an older couple: reserved thirtysomething actor Nick (Joe Alwyn) and accomplished author Melissa (Jemima Kirke). This quartet of characters begin dividing themselves into new couples, taking sides in a crumbling marriage that places a strain on Frances and Bobbi’s deeply rooted friendship. The narrative is less of a love triangle and more of a love square with sharp, pointy corners. Bobbi and Melissa fiercely bond, while Frances and Nick find themselves growing closer. After an intoxicated kiss, they embark on a secret affair that puts the brittle connections between all four characters under intense pressure.
The sharply observant portrayal of bisexuality in Conversations with Friends, which underscores the show from the first to the last episode, does not make for a core exploration but is gently braided into this story of 20s womanhood. With Frances out as bi and Bobbi out as a lesbian, both characters’ arcs evade any notion of a coming out story, which is immediately abandoned for a more mature tackling of sexuality. That’s not to say that Frances has everything figured out – far from it. While Melissa and Bobbi are open with their playful flirtation, Bobbi shrugging off her kiss with the married Melissa – “It just happened” – Frances seems uncomfortable at the revelation and lets the opportunity to share her own kiss with Nick slip through her fingers.
Frances’ bisexuality is integral to her character in Conversations with Friends without it having to be highlighted or ‘proven’. Nor is it a device for episodic conflict (that tension comes from the consequences of sex). Additionally, the show largely disregards the thought that Frances is straddling straight (with Nick) and gay (with Bobbi) worlds. Reductive portrayals of bisexuality often deem it a temporary ‘in-between’ while the individual ‘picks a side’. There is one scene in particular in Conversations with Friends which upends this outdated trope that frames bisexuality as an identity in flux. The quartet of characters are gathered outside a pub one evening after Frances and Bobbi’s poetry reading. Bobbi confronts Nick about playing a queer man on stage when he is straight. “You make it sound like gay is the destination and bisexual is a stop on the way. Not quite there,” she says. Nick weasels himself out of the conversation with apologies, but Bobbi’s opinion matters.
There is no Frances without Bobbi – they come as a package deal – and lingering emotions threaten to reignite their dormant romance. They are deeply flawed young women, sometimes to a narcissistic degree, who were lovers then friends. Their relationship may not be conventional or fit into a typical mould but their connection exists outside of heteronormative parameters. This adaptation of Rooney’s text asks what love looks like to each character and follows up by questioning what identifying with a specific sexuality means in relation to their connections with one another. Frances’ desires look different from ‘traditional’ notions and social constructs of romance and monogamy; there’s a sense of freedom that defines her relationships with both Bobbi and Nick. The sexual dynamics and intimate relationships that run across gendered lines in Conversations with Friends are united by desire, whether the lovers are wrapped in winter coats in Dublin or laid out on the beaches of Croatia.
On a mattress and between the sheets, limbs become indistinguishable stretches of flesh. As Frances and Nick commit to something that is increasingly difficult to deny or dig themselves out of, herein lies Conversations with Friends’ exploration of polyamory. With men or women, drunk or sober, sex becomes an act of communication for Frances. Bobbi recognises this as she erupts into giggles while asking Frances: “What’s it like having sex with a man?”
This is a show in which a young woman loves two people, one of whom is already in a committed partnership – so can that love be as valued? The gender of Frances’ two loves is not entirely unimportant but it’s hardly a consideration in how committed she is to each of them. The show’s aesthetically muted pondering of what meaning can be extracted from these partnerships conjures a new vision of romance. As the heavenly vocals of bisexual singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’ “Sidelines” play over the credits, Conversations with Friends looks beyond the traditional confines of relationships and is bookmarked by the resonant experience of bisexual womanhood.
Conversations With Friends lands on Sunday 15th May on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer.
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