Home‘Derry Girls’ Netflix: Inside Season 3 finale, Chelsea Clinton cameo
‘Derry Girls’ Netflix: Inside Season 3 finale, Chelsea Clinton cameo
October 3, 2022
Warning: The following story contains spoilers from Season 3 of “Derry Girls.”
After three long, agonizing years, “Derry Girls” has finally returned to American television.
The nostalgic coming-of-age comedy, set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, follows a group of Catholic schoolgirls (and one boy) whose adolescent high jinks unfold against the backdrop of the Troubles.
The last time we saw the gang — aspiring writer Erin (Saiorse-Monica Jackson), her space-cadet cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), studious Clare (Nicola Coughlan), party girl Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and her English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) — it was late 1995 and President Clinton was visiting Derry to deliver a hopeful speech about the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland.
The third and final season, premiering on Netflix this week (after airing this spring in the U.K.), largely shies away from history and leans into ’90s nostalgia: There are pivotal episodes revolving around the Spice Girls and Fatboy Slim.
But the series finale, “The Agreement,” puts politics front and center. It is set in the spring of 1998, as the people of Derry are preparing to vote in a historic referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, which would eventually bring peace to Northern Ireland, while Erin and Orla are celebrating an equally historic milestone: turning 18.
Everyone in Derry is buzzing about the referendum and trying to understand what the agreement will mean. But the impending vote also stirs tension within the group after a surprising revelation about Michelle’s family. In a poignant montage set to — what else? — “Dreams” by the Cranberries, the people of Derry go to the polls to make history; meanwhile, Orla and Erin celebrate their birthdays with help from “The Commitments” star Bronagh Gallagher. A brief coda, set in present-day New York, features a surprise cameo by a certain first daughter.
The Times spoke to creator Lisa McGee, whose experiences growing up in Derry in the ’90s inspired the series, about her memories of the referendum, where she thinks the Derry girls might be today and the episode’s unexpected coda.
You have said all along that you imagined the series ending with the Good Friday Agreement. Tell me about why this seemed liked the natural conclusion for this story.
I always felt it was a three-[season] show. I wanted to show Northern Ireland growing up as the kids were growing up. That vote was probably the most mature decision the people of Northern Ireland ever made. I just thought there was a real opportunity to make that coincide with them all turning 18. I’m a little bit tricksy with the timeline. It doesn’t completely add up if you examine it. But I thought it worth trying to get both those things to collide — their first vote and their first taste of real responsibility.
Because for a lot of the series, these characters are sheltered from it. This is the first time they’ve gone, “God, maybe we need to be the generation that changes this.” Also, just around me [while writing] there was just a lot of gloom and depressing news. I remember thinking, “We did this incredible thing once.” I thought about how miraculous that vote was. I just really wanted to celebrate it.
Were you old enough to vote in the referendum?
I wasn’t 18 yet, so I just missed it. I wish I had. What an exciting first vote that would have been. But I remember my parents talking about it. It was a topic of discussion everywhere, in every household.
There’s a funny scene where Erin’s family tries to break down what’s in the agreement with an evidence board.
It’s obviously hugely exaggerated. All those booklets [explaining the agreement] did go to every house. In those days, you had to take a dictionary off the shelf to look up a word. I remember my parents and my aunts and uncles not knowing what a certain word might mean and looking it up. These were just ordinary, working-class people who engaged with that. I just feel so proud of that. But it was obviously hysterical, too, because people were arguing about it in a very funny way. You knew something major was happening.
I never realized it was actually put to a vote.
It was really remarkable because people were voting [to free] men who had murdered their relatives. There were victims of bombings who had been left with physical and mental trauma who were voting, knowing that the people who did that were going to get out of jail.
We learn that Michelle has a brother who is imprisoned for killing a man in an act of sectarian violence. How did you decide to reveal this information?
It became clear as I was writing the episode that I needed something else. Otherwise it was going to feel very bird’s-eye-view. That was created for this episode in the moment, but I felt confident when I looked back that it’s not contradicting anything I’d set up for Michelle through the series. I definitely needed to bring [the debate] right into the heart of that group, to explain the seriousness of it. The politics had always been in the background.
And it leads to Erin and Michelle having a big argument: Michelle wants her brother to come home, which horrifies Erin. Did you have conversations like that?
I remember that being the time I first realized my opinions were different from my friends’. When you’re a teenager, it’s all: “Aren’t our teachers awful? Aren’t our parents awful?” We’re all on the same side. So I remember being shocked by what some of my friends thought and believed.
I was definitely an Erin. I would have looked at things in that black-and-white, right-and-wrong way. Politically, that’s where my family sat as well. But I have friends who felt — and still feel — like Michelle. Our history, it’s a complicated thing. When people break it down, they think there’s two sides. But even on the nationalist side of things, there’s lots of different viewpoints.
Did you know people like Michelle, who had loved ones in prison?
It’s a very small place, Northern Ireland. Everyone was touched by the Troubles in some way. I had friends who had relatives in jail and they got out after the Good Friday Agreement. And similarly, friends whose family died because of violence during that period as well.
It shows the importance of good leadership as well. John Hume, whom I reference in in the show a lot, was a politician from Derry. He really was one of us. People believed what he said. So when he said, “I know this is a difficult vote for some people, but this is the best way forward,” people trusted him. That’s kind of lacking as of late, that sort of leadership.
Erin is conflicted about how to vote and asks Granda Joe what he thinks about the referendum and he gives this beautiful speech, saying he hopes the Troubles will one day be a “ghost story” she’ll tell to her children. What inspired that?
For a long time, I didn’t want to write about the Troubles, and then I realized you can’t really separate that from our experience. It’s in our DNA. We are still haunted by it. The show has made me think about stuff that was always in the ether for me. It probably came out of me thinking how things are now — that mostly, it’s worked out. That speech is also an older person saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you.” Young people now are surrounded by older people just telling them: “Well, you know, in my day it was better.” This was an older person saying, “I’ve done my bit, now you do yours,” which I liked.
How did the Chelsea Clinton twist come about?
So me and my friends wrote this letter [to Chelsea in 1995] that we never posted. It was really stressful with COVID, everything was so difficult. I wrote this coda as a joke: I’m going to give you the most difficult thing to shoot at the last second. Everyone was like, that’s really funny, but obviously, there’s no chance we can do that. And the more we thought about it, we were like, let’s try. So I was on Twitter, slipping into American politicians’ DMs going, “How do I get Chelsea?” Just like a mad person. But luckily a couple of them had watched “Derry Girls” and knew I wasn’t completely insane. And eventually we just got a connection for her and she wanted do it. Then before we started filming, I actually met Hillary [Clinton], and I was like, I could have just asked you.
Were they fans of the show?
Chelsea was a fan. Hillary hadn’t seen it, but said her daughter had talked about it and she was going to watch it. I was like, “You should watch it because you know you’re in it, kind of.”
How did you play with the timeline?
In order to keep them under 16 while the Troubles were still going and 18 when the Good Friday Agreement happens, you’re sort of stretching time, then speeding it up. It doesn’t make sense if you examine it, but I need to make sense of it in my head or I couldn’t write it. So I like to think of it as Erin looking back on her life and it’s a wee bit blurry.
Sometimes it has to be a certain year, Troubles-wise, for these stories to work. But I want to do a quote from “Pulp Fiction,” which maybe won’t come out in Northern Ireland until the next year. If it’s good enough, you just have to go for it.
Clare’s father dies suddenly of an aneurysm in the second-to-last episode. What inspired this?
I wanted to do something devastating that could have happened to any girl at any time. Growing up, you were told you live in a dangerous place — danger, danger, danger. But that [a parent dying suddenly] actually happened to my friend when we were at school. The first parent dying just really shakes everybody’s world because you’re like, “We’re not safe from this level of pain.” And there was something nearly scarier about that. This could creep up at any time and it’ll be nothing to do with the political situation.
We don’t ultimately see how everyone votes in the referendum. But do you have ideas about how everyone would have voted?
How they all voted is in the script. It was a decision in the edit not to show it, because obviously [with] 71% [supporting the agreement], most of those people are voting yes. And we felt that it was not that interesting. And then if you show who chose to vote no, that’s a bit of a downer. So we decided only to show the kids. But, basically, in the script everyone votes yes. Our director just thought that was crap, so he made it a bit more interesting.
The concluding montage includes footage from 2010, when British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for what happened on Bloody Sunday in 1972 and admitted the victims were innocent of wrongdoing. Why did you want to include this in the finale?
I wanted to show us moving on. We see other glimpses of what was to come, the power-sharing assembly being set up, John Hume and David Trimble winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but Bloody Sunday was such an open wound for the people of Derry. The prime minister apologizing for it; that wrongdoing and pain being acknowledged after so many years, decades in fact; that the world would finally know what these men’s family members knew all along, that they were innocent: That was a powerful moment.
So I wanted to include those words from Cameron, they were important. I also felt I couldn’t end a show about Derry without commenting on what was our darkest day as a city. I also had the blessing of all the victims’ families beforehand, which was very important to me.
Do you think about where the girls are now? Presumably Erin is a writer — maybe in TV?
I like to say she’s a novelist, just to give her that little bit of distance. I think James makes documentaries about the Troubles. I think Michelle’s a DJ and on the side she’s a bookie. And Clare’s like a top barrister somewhere really cutthroat. And I think Orla is the coach for the equivalent of the Mighty Ducks, just making a really crappy team into world champions. I’ve probably overthought what they’re all doing.