Season two of Sort Of opens with a conversation between our protagonist Sabi and their close friend and confidante Bessy about love.
“It’s what I want, with everybody, not just my romantic relationships but like family and friends, with all the loves I have. Just, I want that uncomplicated Rachel McAdams love. That’s doable, right?” Sabi says. Bessy looks Sabi in the eye but says nothing, her silence speaking volumes in itself.
Setting aside that I don’t watch enough mainstream Western media to understand the Rachel McAdams reference, this conversation sets the tone for season two of Sort Of.
In many ways, this thread is the logical continuation of where Sabi’s story left off. The first season of Sort Of showed the journey of Sabi beginning to trust that they could be vulnerable with the people in the various parts of their life. The show opens with Sabi’s patchwork life as a nanny and bartender beginning to fall apart: they unexpectedly run into their mother Raffo and come out as trans to her; shortly after, Bessy enters a coma. With great nuance and care, Sort Of shows how Sabi, Raffo, Bessy’s husband Paul, and their kids Violet and Henry all must grapple with the events that have upended their lives. As the season ends, we see Sabi start to become comfortable with taking up space as themselves in the world, setting boundaries with Paul and their family, while also being more openly honest with Raffo, and, at the very end, finally admitting how important Bessy is to them.
A pivotal moment in season one is when Sabi meets Olympia at a party, which is also the first time we really see Sabi engage with queer community more broadly. Olympia is a trans femme who is inspiringly at ease with herself, and Sabi finds not only affirmation but also a path forward for themselves in her friendship. In the last episode of the season, Olympia encourages Sabi to let others in, to give Raffo a chance, and to be more honest with Bessy.
Season two starts some undefined period of time after the first ended. And in that time, Olympia and Sabi’s friendship has progressed from the pair spending substantial time together to Olympia approaching Sabi with greater distance. Sabi clearly wants their relationship to deepen, but Olympia seems to be looking for something casual and fun, and in the second episode Olympia introduces Sabi to her husband at a club. Sabi had just been speaking with Bessy about wanting an uncomplicated love, and it quickly becomes clear that, regardless of how personally important Olympia has been to them, any further relationship will be anything but uncomplicated.
It was hard for me to watch what feels like an unexplained shift in Olympia’s personality. She seemed so genuine in the first season, like a person who strongly valued honesty, so it’s unclear how she could lead Sabi on in this way. Seeing that their relationship has progressed and become more intimate (without, however, seeing how that happened) and then seeing it quickly fall apart in the span of just two episodes was incredibly unsettling. It felt both like the writers are trying to cover too much ground and also, unnervingly, real. Because it’s unclear how much time has passed between the two seasons, Olympia’s character can read as inconsistent. And, at the same time, Sort Of is aptly showing the hazards of dating, especially when you’ve come to idolize someone.
In many ways, this is what really defines the second season of Sort Of. It’s tantalizingly true to life and yet disappointingly uneven because it’s trying to do too much in too little time. One minute the characters feel real and in the next, they’ve grown or changed or deepend in some way that implies the passage of a substantial period of time, but just how life is pacing remains unclear throughout.
There are two relationships that especially suffer from this issue: Sabi’s relationship to Bessy and Sabi’s relationship with their father Imran. And, unfortunately for Sort Of, these are two of the most central relationships of the show and the second season, in particular.
Season one was notably marked by both Bessy and Imran’s absence: we see Bessy through other characters’ eyes in flashbacks and we hear about Imran from his family. That they both loom large in Sabi’s life is incredibly clear, which is why the first season climaxes with the imminent return of both, Bessy just out of the coma and Imran returning to Canada after Sabi’s cousin outs them. But the expectations set up around each of these characters in season one were markedly different and so the ways in which the second season fails to live up to those expectations also differs.
Everything we heard about Imran in season one was rife with the implications of domestic violence, whether that’s actual physical violence, emotional abuse, control, coercion, or all of the above. So many South Asians know what this looks like — never out in the open but ever present — to the extent that there are entire Quora threads dedicated to the lasting harm so many of us continue to grapple with. And that violence is always grounded in a particular brand of patriarchy: one where fathers and husbands must, by definition, keep their wives, children, and most of all daughters in line; where sons must dutifully carry on the family’s legacy in their success and daughters must uphold the family’s honor in their modesty; where mothers and wives become the enforcers of everyone’s role so that things don’t get up to the head of the family, who will always react to transgressions harshly.
The subtext of violence was expressed repeatedly in the last few episodes of season one, and the gendered implications of that subtext are impossible to ignore, particularly as a South Asian viewer. There was Aqsa and Sabi’s utter dismay that Raffo left them a voicemail urging them to “jiyo apne zindagi” instead of dictating how they must dress and act, as she had their whole lives. Later, we see Raffo pushing Aqsa into the role of enforcer when she tells Aqsa to get Sabi to change their clothes because Raffo is afraid of her in-laws seeing Sabi in all their trans nonbinary glory. Caught in the middle, like so many first-generation South Asian older sisters, Aqsa tries to, in her view, reason with Sabi, not realizing the violence of her own ask. But Aqsa’s fear of imminent danger is also palpable, when she finally declares in frustration that if their father finds out, he’ll “take a giant shit on mom.” And we see that fear in Raffo’s eyes when her brother-in-law Shehraz walks through the door and takes in Sabi for who they are, next to a giant hole in what was the wall between the living room and kitchen. Even Shehraz says at the end of season one that Imran would “make everyone’s life hell” once he returns from Dubai.
And yet, Imran walks out of a shuttle from the airport smiling, greets his family — even offering Aqsa an embrace — before being confounded by Sabi’s appearance and meekly whispering, “Hello.” Who is this mild-mannered man, who acknowledges his daughter as an equal to the men of the family and simply looks away from the child he expected to carry on his legacy?
In the first couple of episodes, we get a handful of interactions that are more in line with what I would expect: Imran’s insistence that Aqsa clean up the table with the other women instead of Sabi and his sharp retort that Raffo is “trying to turn this house into a circus” between her choice in paint for the walls (after asking for her preference) and her “untamed children.” Both of these interactions were reminiscent of some of the behaviors I’ve observed from my own father, and it’s the kind of enforcement of patriarchy and emotional abuse I would expect from the character of Imran built up in season one. But by and large, aggression and abuse don’t define Imran’s character in season two, as we’ve been led to expect. His approach to handling Sabi is more subtle and manipulative: he forces Sabi to spend time doing manual labor with him as an electrician while making thinly coded comments about Sabi’s genitals. We also never really see his wrath expressed beyond these two surface-level statements.
(As a side note, if anyone in the Mehboob family directly antagonizes Sabi, it’s, surprisingly, Aqsa, and there isn’t ever really a coherent reason as to why. Throughout the season, it feels like there’s a conflict simmering between Aqsa and Sabi, but it’s never really confronted. Continuing the thread of inconsistent characterizations, Aqsa’s callousness to Sabi in season two, in terms of their identity and the complicated situation with their father as well as their finances, also feels at odds with her real concern when Sabi had by all appearances gone missing at the end of season one. Who is Aqsa and how does she view her sibling? And how does she feel about Raffo’s unexpected acceptance of Sabi’s identity, particularly as that squares with the lines that she herself has had to toe at the behest of Raffo? None of that is really explored. Instead, we see Aqsa as heartless and inconsiderate for most of the season — a portrayal given far too often to single South Asian women with progressive values, especially in South Asian media. I’m sure this wasn’t Sort Of’s intention, but it’s hard for me to not view this particular storyline from this particular lens.)
As the season progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Imran is, effectively, powerless over his family, even as Raffo, Aqsa, and Sabi continue to live in fear of him. There can be a certain amount of truth to that, as I’ve witnessed in my own life. As children grow up in Western contexts, making their own money and moving out, we can, sometimes, buy ourselves freedom from our repressive families. But the ambiguity of time in the show also makes that hard to parse and so, more often than not, it feels that Imran “isn’t really as bad” as we had been led to expect.
I don’t think it is the show’s intention to give a pass to a patriarchal abuser. In many ways, I think Sort Of is trying to tell a messier story about the intertwined nature of love and abuse in South Asian families. Exactly halfway through the season, Raffo sees Imran standing outside her dance class and is too afraid to go home so she calls Sabi. At the time of her call, Sabi had just set up a sort of date with Wolf, a new potential love interest for Sabi who could offer them that “uncomplicated Rachel McAdams love” but Sabi seems to feel ambivalent about him, romantically speaking (a different kind of complication with regards to love — sometimes you don’t love what you can have). And so Wolf and Sabi pick up Raffo, treat her to a meal, and then take her home. As she’s leaving, Wolf makes an astute observation: that sometimes, it can be hard for us to accept when people close to us change, it can be hard for us to allow them space to change.
The question I was left wondering after I watched this, though, was what does it mean to accept that an abuser has changed? What does it mean for a community at large and what does it mean for the specific people he’s harmed?
Sort Of tries to grapple with this, to some extent. At a later point, Imran takes Sabi to see the Imam. The set up as a viewer, and to Sabi, is incredibly clear: Imran wants the Imam “to fix” to Sabi. But instead, the Imam emphasizes that love comes with understanding, and so maybe the pair should try to understand each other. Afterwards Imran says to Sabi, “That Imam needs more training. You don’t need to understand someone before loving them. I don’t understand you at all,” just stopping short of saying that he loves Sabi — he is a South Asian father, after all. But the question of what Imran’s love — which, up to this point, has been defined entirely by control — means to Sabi is one the show only very briefly addresses.
And then, out of nowhere, in the very next episode, Imran dies. Shehraz explains that he’d had a stent placed a while back in Dubai and that Imran hadn’t wanted to worry his family about his health. But honestly, it’s hard not to feel like the show’s creators simply didn’t know what to do with him. I don’t think the writers could imagine a future in which Imran stays in the family and Raffo continues her own story of growth, effectively working towards repairing her relationship with Sabi. I certainly can’t. And that relationship — between Raffo and Sabi — is one of the complicated loves that the show is, rightly, invested in.
It is this open question, though, about how to make sense of Imran and Sabi’s relationship that leads to the jaw dropping cliff hanger. But before we can turn to that, we need to talk about Bessy.
We saw just glimpses of Bessy in season one, mostly from the other characters’ perspectives. She was struggling with her marriage to Paul, which is unsurprising, frankly, because — before Bessy’s coma changes him — Paul was incredibly self-absorbed. At some point, Bessy had begun fulfilling both her sexual and emotional needs outside of her marriage, as we learned about her affair with a man named Penny and also saw that she frequented Bar Buk to chat with Sabi on what seemed to be a regular basis.
To Sabi, Bessy is particularly important, the first person to ask their pronouns, to really see them for who they are before they even realized it themselves. And that Sabi is equally important to Bessy was implied in their one brief, uncomfortable interaction the night before Bessy’s crash. “I’m going to miss you,” Bessy said as she was leaving, because Paul had fired Sabi as the family’s nanny earlier that day, “Will you miss me?” The pain was clear in Bessy’s eyes when Sabi couldn’t answer the question. It’s clear that in season two, the show wants to follow the thread of this relationship. The season opens with Sabi and Bessy, after all.
The thing is, it seems like Sort Of doesn’t seriously want to contend with the highly unrealistic medical situation that it put Bessy in, in the first place. (Bessy’s bicycle crash does not even remotely follow how bicycle mechanics work, let alone the extremely unlikely odds of someone getting a serious head injury from a crash that does not involve a car.) We don’t know how much time has passed between seasons one and two, but Bessy went from barely verbalizing to sitting up and holding a full conversation. A couple of episodes later, she insists on leaving the medical center against the recommendation of her healthcare providers because she wants to be at home, but there clearly isn’t an around-the-clock care system in place for her. One, or at most two, episodes pass between her walking across the room unassisted, climbing a flight of stairs, and venturing out on her own.
It’s hard not to feel like Sort Of just wants Bessy “to be better” so that the show can move forward with its story about complicated loves. Throughout season two, Bessy spends far more time trying to make sense of how she’s ended up married to, in her words, “a white dude” than she does actually contending with her physical or cognitive limitations. (And even the bit of that we do see, she “overcomes” each of those limitations one by one.) This leads to both a confused and, at times, frustratingly ableist story.
On the one hand, despite Bessy’s miraculous recovery, we’re being asked to believe that her decision making has been impaired, that she’s acting on impulses — which is why she leaves the medical center without telling anyone about her decision, why she invites her ex-girlfriend to her house without thinking through the potential consequences for her kids, why she kisses Sabi. But on the other hand, she’s holding thoughtful and coherent conversations with people every step of the way.
Honestly, it’s hard to know what to make of any of it. Is Bessy compassionate and caring or selfish, and how much of the balance between those has been tipped by her crash, both the physical ramifications of it as well as the emotional toll? The show can’t seem to make up its mind. There are moments sprinkled throughout that feel like they’ve been thoughtfully crafted, but as with Olympia, the sum total feels a little scattered and like it’s being driven more by the ending than by the logic of storytelling and characterization.
When Imran dies, Bessy is unable to attend the funeral because (for once!) she’s having a particularly bad day with her symptoms. But later that evening, she feels well enough to try to attend the opening for the club that Sabi, 7ven, and Wolf have started over the course of the season as a replacement for Bar Buk.
Sabi reflects on how badly they needed Bessy that day, how they wanted to tell her so badly how conflicted they felt throughout the funeral because of what was expected of them on so many levels. But Bessy has made things complicated because she kissed Sabi. Eventually, Sabi shares that the whole day, people have been telling them, “how much their dad loved them.”
And Bessy, without skipping a beat, asks, “Did you love him?” — a question that breaks Sabi.
“That’s like such an obvious question, and no one asked me,” they reply through sobs.
As a viewer, it comes as a bit of a surprise, though, that Sabi can’t answer Bessy’s question. There’s pieces of the story as to what exactly the relationship between Sabi and Imran was throughout the season, but the connections aren’t there. There’s too many inconsistencies in Imran’s character and simply not enough time devoted to Sabi’s internal struggle for this question to feel like the obvious conclusion to the season.
And similarly, what comes next, also feels out of character for both Bessy and Sabi — though not out of nowhere. From the very beginning, the question of what Sabi and Bessy’s relationship actually is has been left open but also uncertain.
One of the things I loved about season one of Sort Of was how it showed a variety of relationships and the significance they all have on Sabi’s life without feeling the need to romanticize every one. I didn’t realize it at the time, when I first watched Sort Of, but this implicit message really drew me to the show. And of the many relationships in Sabi’s life, the one with Bessy is incredibly precious. It’s a deep connection of the kind that can be hard to come by.
What I realized in watching season two of Sort Of is that, in spite of my relatively new found peace with myself around being single, this is still a tender subject for me, and also that I desperately want to see stories that center nonromantic relationships as the focal points of people’s lives. And so, to watch Sabi return Bessy’s earlier advances and kiss her just before the show cuts to the end credits, it’s hard not to feel like something has been lost in the pursuit of telling a story about how there are no easy, uncomplicated loves. I shouldn’t fault this show for telling the story it wants to tell rather than the one I want to see, but it’s so hard not to after the shift away from themes that resonated so strongly with me in the first season.
Despite the faults and inconsistencies in season two, I really do want to know what happens next. Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo are telling a captivating, if somewhat uneven, story that focuses on so many characters who hold so many identities that aren’t often represented in media. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.