What Derry Girls Knows About Adulthood

Unlike a lot of recent TV, the show understands that growing up isn’t a choice.

The five main characters in "Derry Girls" walking somberly down a neighborhood street

This story contains some spoilers for all three seasons of Derry Girls.

After three uproarious seasons, Derry Girls, a television show about four teenage girls and one teenage boy living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has ended. There are logistical reasons for the finale: Many of the actors who play teenagers on the show are verging on or in their 30s; the show portrays the finite time period when the Troubles led to the Good Friday Agreement; and unlike their American counterparts, many U.K. shows rely on a single writer for all of their episodes (in this case, the indomitable Lisa McGee). If a writer wants to move on, they either identify a worthy successor or close the book.

But more important, Derry Girls is a coming-of-age story, which means it must end. When we meet Erin and her gang, they are 16 and starting a new school year. Their main challenges are adolescent ones through and through. The friends fight with their parents. They lie to teachers. They stress about upcoming tests. Theirs are universal concerns of growing up; they hunger for love, friendship, attention, freedom. But around them swirls a historic conflict, their mundane experiences peppered with announcements from the living-room television about bombings, prisoners, and, eventually, tentative peace talks and cease-fires.

By the show’s last episodes, the friends are 18 and about to leave school. Soon, they’ll be out of their telltale green-plaid uniforms, and out of one another’s everyday life. Some will be angling for university; others will look for jobs. Derry Girls, rooted in a bildungsroman structure, naturally finishes when its characters transition into adulthood. It also shows us that intentional endings matter. As the literary scholar Frank Kermode wrote in his book The Sense of an Ending, conclusions are important to us because they’re where we process the real, heartrending stakes of time moving forward.

The original Gossip Girl, Riverdale, and Skins were technically coming-of-age stories as well. But these shows kept the camera going even as the characters aged out of adolescence. The results were repetitive and insular stories. How many times could Chuck and Blair come together and fall apart? Though the cast changed every two seasons, Skins still circled teenage anomie, unexpected pregnancy, and excessive drug use like a myopic moth to a flame. Even the most recent season of Sex Education has begun to make me wonder when Otis, Maeve, and Eric will graduate, both from school and from our screens. By evading endings and repeating tropes, all of these shows peddle the same strange lie—that adolescence can last forever.

Not so in Derry Girls. In the first episode of its final season, mentions of peace talks flicker across Erin’s family’s TV screen. But what takes center stage is not the Troubles inching toward their end, but rather Erin and her friends stressing about exam results. We’ve felt test-related woes with the characters before—particularly in my favorite Derry Girls episode, which involves a dog peeing on a statue of the Virgin Mary—but these aren’t just any test results. They’re the GCSEs, which will determine where or if the characters will go to college. Even as hilarity ensues, the episode is imbued with an existential aura; this may be the last time these friends ever get up to no good while worrying about grades.

The show is well versed in the beats of an archetypal, young-people-and-their-hijinks narrative, and the visuals are often doused in warm, homey tones. In one episode, a slow-motion shot of the gang coming down the Quinn family stairway in Halloween costumes is reminiscent of so many montages of teens preening and primping before a big dance or party. But the fun is soon interrupted by news of a death. Suddenly, the script empties of the twittering chatter that soundtracks most scenes. As the friends move from the concert to a hospital, the visuals lose color, moving into shades of gray, blue, black, and white. When the episode ends, the friends hold one another in a dark hallway, shadows stretching around them.

At first glance, the turn is strange and jarring. Though the show has circled tragedy before—McGee, also the creator, has talked about treading the thin line between irreverent teenage comedy and sobering political sorrow—it has never put one of its characters in the direct line of fire quite like this. Death usually invades the effervescence through news on the TV or a school bus going through a military checkpoint. McGee has made a pattern of infusing the fizzy delight of youth with tastes of the outside world, but in this episode, loss isn’t an afterthought; it’s the un-funny punch line. Why give us such a tonal shift just as the series is coming to a close?

Yet in Derry Girls, this loss is a definitive punctuation. It asks us to consider the unpredictable events that push us over the threshold of adulthood. The gang can never go back to a time before this intimate brush with death. As Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle, and James transition into the adult world of endings, we too are invited to ponder the people and places we’ve left and will leave behind—including the show. Alongside the characters, we do the careful processing that Kermode called for; together, we say goodbye.

In the final moments of the series finale, James asks Erin how she feels about turning 18. She tells him that she’s excited but scared, that a part of her “wishes everything could just stay the same … forever.” As she speaks, we see Erin and her family at the polling station, voting on the Good Friday Agreement. The scenes are intercut with real footage of Margaret Thatcher speaking about the IRA, Bloody Sunday, and other moments in the Troubles. “I’m not sure I’m ready for the world,” admits Erin, the faces of her classmates, teachers, and community members soon flashing across the screen. “But things can’t stay the same. And they shouldn’t,” she continues. The scene shifts to the friend group walking out of the polling place together. We follow them, our eyes tracking as the beloved characters move out of the shot, out of the story, and into the future.