The New Republic

The Triumphant Return of 'Fleabag'

In a scene about halfway through the new season of "Fleabag," Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars in every episode, sits inside a confession booth in an old church. The fact that her character, Fleabag, is moved to confess to a priest is a kind of meta-joke for the audience. Because the show itself functions as one long confessional monologue, with the viewer as the protagonist’s personal sounding board as she strides around the streets of London, causing trouble. Waller-Bridge often turns directly to camera in the middle of a scene to add an aside or a nasty piece of commentary; she tells us everything she is about to do and everything she has done, no matter how depraved or desperate. Her eyes plead with the camera not to pan away.


Over the first season, which aired in 2016, we learn that her misdeeds -- sleeping around, drinking too much, stealing objects of priceless art from her father’s house -- are meant to mask her sadness. She is grieving the loss of the two women closest to her: her mother, who died of breast cancer, and her best friend, Boo, with whom she co-owned a guinea pig–themed cafe in London, and who killed herself by walking into traffic. If Fleabag were played by a more conventional actress, her spiral might feel cloying or gimmicky. But Waller-Bridge’s delivery is dry and detached, more elegant than enervating. Although she’s a millennial woman carving her way through an alienating urban environment, Fleabag has little in common with other recent characters in this mode, from mopey Hannah Horvath of "Girls" to the street-smart pratfallers of "Broad City." With her coltish humor, Waller-Bridge is better placed in a lineage of chic and cutting wits—more Noel Coward than Lena Dunham.


The second season of "Fleabag" reaches beyond debonair spikiness to something more complex and searching. Waller-Bridge takes the big questions her character struggles with -- Am I good enough? Can I ever forgive myself? Will anyone ever love me? -- and does something so unexpected with them that it is almost sublime. She brings in a priest, and by extension the subject of faith. Fleabag’s wandering takes on a spiritual dimension. She’s not just a messy woman who can’t get her life together. She is a lost lamb, seeking divine redemption.


When we meet Fleabag in the second season, she is still acting out. She kicks off the season by punching her sister’s husband at a dinner where her father and “stepmonster” announce that they are planning a fancy wedding. She is also looking for ways to make sense out of tragedies that seem senseless. At the same dinner, she meets a young priest with a scruffy, hangdog affect (Andrew Scott, best known for playing the villain Moriarty in the BBC’s "Sherlock") who is new to her father’s parish and has agreed to perform the wedding ceremony. She is drawn to him, both because he is a man she cannot have and because she sees him as a chance to fill her chaotic days with meaning and structure.


The season unfolds more like a romantic comedy than anything else. The supporting characters are still around, and they have their moments (a particularly funny scene happens when Fleabag’s sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), asks her to cater a posh corporate event, and Fleabag accidentally shatters a priceless award), but the real meat of the show is the tango between Fleabag and the Priest. The two dance around each other all season, growing closer even as they know that they can never be together. Fleabag takes a sudden interest in the Holy Bible, reading it in the bathtub. The Priest asks her to help him pick out his satin robes for her father’s wedding. But mostly, they spend a lot of time walking and talking. It is refreshing to see Fleabag make a friend; you can imagine how buoyant she must have been before her mother and Boo died. But even as Fleabag opens up to the Priest, she still cannot stop talking directly to the camera, her safety blanket.


The Priest notices this behavior and comments on it. We start to see that Fleabag addressing the audience is not a clever exposition device, but something she is doing in the real world to disassociate from reality. “Where did you just go? You went somewhere,” the Priest says to her during a conversation when she pauses to clarify a fact for the viewer. The camera had been a crutch for Fleabag, her way of disconnecting from her surroundings. The Priest cares enough to ask why she keeps drifting, a question that comes across as incredibly romantic in context.


As the sexual tension builds, the Priest suggests one night over whiskey that perhaps Fleabag might want to confess her sins. She’s been hiding a lot from him -- how Boo died, why she can’t stop punishing herself -- but she does not admit any of that. Instead, she recites a litany of her desires, a striking monologue that is pure Waller-Bridge, skating the fine line between weakness and danger. “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she says. “I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what to not joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them. I want someone to tell me how to live my life, because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”


By the end of her confession, Fleabag is in tears, but the Priest doesn’t offer her comfort. He later succumbs to Fleabag’s charms and breaks his sacred vows to spend a night with her. The two keep flip-flopping, in a constant exchange of control and dominance, until they need to make a final decision whether to walk away or stay together. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith for her, but he also doesn’t want to lose her. She wants to open herself up to love, but she also knows that he is cosmically unavailable. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it’s about letting go. In the final episode, Fleabag turns to the camera, and she asks it not to follow her. Wherever she is off to next, we cannot come along.

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