The Conversations With Friends Ending Can’t Quite Save This Lukewarm Adaptation
By its finale, Conversations With Friends' queer, disabled love story between Frances and Bobbi is the best part of this uneven Sally Rooney series. Spoilers.
Warning: contains spoilers for the Conversations With Friends finale.
The Conversations With Friends limited series, an adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s debut novel, is a story about the many ways four people come together and fall apart over the course of a summer. The creators of the BBC/Hulu adaptation stripped so much of what was most interesting from the book—questions of whether Nick was predatory in his relationship with Frances, issues of class and money, Frances’ struggle with self-harm and self-image, even Bobbi and Melissa’s dynamic. But thankfully, Frances’s health concerns remain, as does Bobbi and Frances’ romantic relationship, albeit in an altered state. Both come in during the back end of the series, and are two of the most successful elements of the lukewarm adaptation.
While Nick is acutely cishet (and literally apologises for it), Bobbi is gay and Frances is bisexual. It’s stated outright in the book (where her romantic chemistry with Bobbi is more substantial) and implied on screen, but Melissa is also bi. Having three out of four main characters queer leaves no realistic way to end the show in relationships that aren’t queer, but finally foregrounding Bobbi and Frances’ relationship after largely removing both it and Bobbi’s impact on Frances’ life, as compared to the novel, feels like an important shift. It’s worth noting that when they get back together, like many queer people, Bobbi and Frances go out of their way not to choose the kind of domestic monogamy that they find banal, a structure that set up many of the book’s central conflicts.
When Frances’ undiagnosed endometriosis comes to a head and she passes out at university, she lets Bobbi care for her. She doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot of choice, but she could have resisted or insisted that Bobbi phone her mother. What transpires is an act of love and intimacy, Bobbi doing her best to joke and keep things light to allow Frances whatever measure of dignity she needs, even as they both reference a different kind of intimacy they’ve previously shared, which had also allowed Bobbi to see Frances undressed. There’s something uniquely vulnerable about being cared for while ill, especially with disability and chronic illness, when there are so many emotions tied up into it.
Unlike with Bobbi, Frances lies to almost everyone else in her life about her health and what she eventually learns is endometriosis. It’s not hard to see why: a medical professional downplays her pain, Nick mistakes her weak voice for a late-night drunken phone call, and she doesn’t want to be viewed as a “sick person,” whatever that means. But as we see her start to learn during the back half of the series, her condition isn’t going anywhere, and hiding it from the people she cares about won’t change her day to day reality. If anything, it means she shoulders the burden alone. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but one that will likely be familiar to disabled or chronically ill viewers whose condition is invisible.
In episode six, after leaving the hospital, Frances muses “What are you allowed to feel about something that probably wasn’t anything at all?” She could be lamenting the non-relationship that is her affair with Nick or thinking about the miscarriage that wasn’t, but it resonates strongly as a commentary on ongoing health issues and the particular emotional wound of the in-between world of a lack of diagnosis. Frances waits weeks, possibly even months, before she is diagnosed with endometriosis – but sadly, she’s actually lucky. In the United States, it typically takes four to 11 years to receive a diagnosis. One of the medical professionals tells Frances that “only one in ten women” has endo, but there’s nothing “only” about 10% of all women suffering, mostly in silence, from unbearable pain.
Dealing with medical news is tricky business, and it’s hard to know how we’ll react. No one has to be all things to all people, but Frances especially seems to have an all-or-nothing view of love and relationships, and she seemed to want to tell Nick, reaching out to him but falling short of telling him. That makes it seem like her keeping her health information from Nick is meaningful, and a significant hurdle to their ability to be happy together. Frances eventually admits as much, saying that she didn’t want to change how he viewed her and that she wasn’t sure if he would still care for her if she couldn’t give him a child.
The tenderness and care with which Bobbi helps Frances is moving, but perhaps the most devastatingly selfless thing she does is call Nick, because she knows that’s who Frances wants to see in that moment. She knows Frances needs to tell him about her health issues but doesn’t quite know how. It’s the move of a person who knows her best friend better than she knows herself. She puts Frances’ needs above her own. It’s the kind of sacrifice you make for someone you truly love. Thankfully, though it takes a while, Frances eventually realizes how much she loves Bobbi in the present tense, telling Nick during the final phone call of the series that she loved Bobbi the whole time.
Nick’s mental health looms larger in the original text, an ongoing topic of discussion and point of concern for him and Frances as well as him and Melissa. In the book, the question becomes whether it’s responsible or fair for a man in his 30s to rely on a 21-year-old he’s having an affair with to “solve” his depression, or at least keep it at bay, adding another twisty layer to the semi-transactional nature of his relationship with Frances (he also lends her money when she’s flat out.) Whereas on the show, it reads not as a problem Frances was meant to solve, but as a situation true partners work through together, serving as an indication of her immaturity that she cut and run. Both work, but the latter version fits the kinder, gentler version of on-screen Nick.
The show’s interpretation demonstrates yet another parallel between Frances and Nick and their communication failures, but also how they could be there for one another in the future. Both have health issues that they have complicated feelings about and try to hide from the other. But realistically, they won’t be able to have the kind of relationship they’re looking for without opening up.
The Finale Phone Calls
During her tense phone call with Melissa at the end of the series, Frances comes to the devastating realization of just how immature and what a destructive force she has been in Melissa and Nick’s lives, harming them in ways she hadn’t previously considered. Nick’s depression, something she had temporarily helped keep at bay, was back in full force. Frances had no way of knowing that and had been focused on her own health issues, grief, and reason for leaving the relationship, but Melissa’s perspective helped her realize that Melissa was a mature partner to Nick (and vice versa) in a way that she herself hadn’t been, because they stayed and worked through tough times together.
While Frances undoubtedly has growing up to do overall, her call with Melissa seems to have also kick-started another realization: she may not have been a true partner to Nick, but she was to Bobbi, and Bobbi was to her, even with everything they put one another through. Whatever had happened in their lives, they always came back to one another to work through their problems. They understood each other and saw each other in small moments, when no one else did, holding hands in Croatia, meeting eyes across a room. Bobbi caring for Frances, Frances writing spoken word for them to perform together.
Frances’ Final Choice
In the end, Frances’ final choice is left open to interpretation. She has found so much happiness in her life at school, work, and writing, with Bobbi and their friends. They have seemingly found a way out of the codependence that previously plagued their relationship, living instead with some degree of balance. With their final phone call, Frances clearly intends to resume a relationship with Nick and he reciprocates, but has she really learned her lessons? Hopefully she will be truthful to both Bobbi and Melissa from the get-go this time, and create some sort of boundaries to keep herself and Nick from collapsing in on one another. Moreover, if she wants a deep relationship with Nick, she needs to be as open and vulnerable with him as she wants him to be with her. Taking their final conversation as a cue for what their future may hold, it’s only after confessing what they were really feeling (including Frances telling the truth about her endometriosis) that they’re able to clear the air and make a path toward reuniting. Hopefully Frances can stand on her own two feet and remember what she’s learned so far, and above all, be honest with herself, Bobbi, Melissa, and Nick.
Conversations With Friends is available to stream in full now on BBC iPlayer and Hulu.