Spoilers ahead *
In episode three of season two of Amazon’s Fleabag, our titular character sits at a bar with the recipient of her sister’s companies Business Woman of the Year award and presents one of the finest scenes of the show’s history. Belinda, played with a poised and alluring sensuality by Kristin Scott Thomas, tells our titular hero (the wondrous Phoebe Waller-Bridge) about how women are born with pain and, because of this learn, how to deal with and compartmentalize it while men need to seek the thrill of potential threat and agony, the kind of which found in sports and wars, to truly feel alive. However, in a rant that razes the ground over topics ranging from the infantilization of women specific awards gatherings to the pleasures and discomfort of menopause, the most striking moment comes in a little, tender aside, when Belinda mentions that the most exciting part of any party is when someone catches your eye, and you get to flirt. This speaks so much to exactly what Fleabag has been about from the raw and playfully painful first season to its lovesick concluding act, playing with the pain of needing interaction and attention as a way to dull or distract from the ache. Fleabag, for all of it’s raunchy humor, fourth wall breaking and frank sexuality, has been equally as about the thrill of the chase when it comes to flirting and, more accurately under the facade of Fleabag’s black trench-coat sex attire, the need to escape in it, as it has more significantly been about our innate need to be seen and the damage we’ll commit to ourselves in order to achieve that level of intimacy. It’s why Fleabag obliterated her life in season one and it’s why The Priest seeing through her glances to the fourth wall are so cataclysmic – she was always seeking that fleeting fulfillment she thought sex would grant her, that affirmation that she is wanted and has the capacity to be desired, no matter the faults she sees in herself. In ever so slightly opening up to her equally damaged Priest, our heroine had found someone who could see her clearly and love her all the same.
It’s why the heartbreak in season two punches the heart with devastating accuracy. It understands that what hurts us the most isn’t deception or a love tethered and frayed at both ends, but the missed opportunity of someone you know who would be so right and understands your eccentricities but because of that honest and real love you still need to let them go. Because, as well as they know you you know them, and know they won’t be happy kept from chasing their thread of happiness.
We say goodbye to the Hot Priest in the final moments of the season and, in an equally chill inducing blow, watch as Fleabag cradles the figurine she’s kept hidden away from her step-mother since season one, now knowing it’s of her passed mother, and bids the camera, the fourth wall peeking into her soul, goodbye. And isn’t it such a moment to treasure, her walking along with the purest love she’s ever experienced in one hand, waving farewell to that omnipresent version of herself who has allowed her to block herself from future love, while simultaneously having experienced the most adult heartbreak of her life with the belief that this time, she’ll be alright, and she’ll be alright alone.
The fourth wall and Bridge’s inquisitive eyes panning to stare directly at us have often worked to heighten her comedy to fantastic effect. While her silent glances of exasperation or seduction work tremendously, it’s often her more panicked or agitated moments that works the most. Case in point is a moment where she takes offence at her sister Claire casually dismissing certain salads garnishes as qualifying someone as an adult (“yes it does”) or her trying to diffuse her own impulsive mouth (“just don’t say it”). Similarly, the symbiotic relationship of character and audience has worked because of how it subverts our expectations. At the start it appears as if this is a “window into the soul” type venture, where her speaking directly to us will allow her to amplify her truth to allow us to get to know her all the more. But as season one first showed in the finale as she hides away from her past and therefor, us, the camera chasing her in dizzying excess, it’s less honesty and more so a way to keep the walls up, to keep her sheltered. It allows her to funnel her truth, yes, but in a way that tends to benefit her. It’s why whereas season one had her conversing with us often and openly, in season two we mainly get those panicked blips or silent, shared looks. She’s working through her trauma and trying to reclaim her life from her own self-destruction. When the Priest sees through her internal debates, or when she pushes the camera down as the two first have sex and then later, when she walks away from him, leaving her pain in the past, it’s all the more significant because these aren’t just narrative beats to move forward but, ultimately, to close a chapter on this character’s life.
The dynamics on the series continue to be richly drawn with a depth that is almost constantly astonishing. Her deceased best friend Boo’s presence lingers, most expressively shown in how the world either ignites in sunlight or plunges into gray with her passing memory and even Hugh Dennis, the bank manager from season one, returns to demonstrate how much lives can change. Fleabag’s relationship with her dad is as fascinating as always, him quick to point out that, while he doesn’t like her sometimes, he’ll always love her. However it’s the dynamics between the sisters – Sian Clifford is spectacular as the tightly wound Claire – and between Fleabag and Andrew Scott in a star making performance as the Hot Priest that singe the screen. The former, for it’s level-headed authenticity of what being sisters genuinely entails and all of the baggage, warmth and unspoken secrets, jokes and kinship that come along with it, and the latter, that challenges us with with knowing from the start that it will never end neatly but still making us as committed as they are to at least giving it a shot and putting the undeniable chemistry between Bridge and Scott to test. Bridge, Clifford and Scott are all award worthy, each possessing their own brand of barely contained mania that gives their desperately earnest searches for love so moving.
We might not have all lost a best friend to such dire and life altering circumstances as Boo’s, and certainly very few of us have fallen in love with the Hot Priest officiating our fathers’ nuptials to our obnoxious Godmothers, but many of us have endured a level of fatigue or sadness that comes from seeking assertion that we’re worthwhile, that we matter and are loved in spite of (and sometimes, maybe because of) our flaws. It’s these flaws that make Fleabag such a watchable protagonist, because even she can’t hide from her own shame and doubt forever, facing down ugly truths with a grim sense of humor and burgeoning responsibility. This is her life, they were her mistakes and maybe, with real effort, she can move forward.
In Hannah Gadsby’s stand up special Nanette, the comedian said something that brought this writer to tears in declaring “There’s nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” Fleabag is an urgently hilarious series drawing pathos from the minute details of sisterly dynamics, fiercely feminist driven dialogue that’s painful and self-reflectively honest, and sight gags such a cafe filled to the brim with guinea pig decor. This show wants you to laugh as much as it’s leading lady wants those around her to laugh. Often they do, usually at the expense of others, themselves or, most typically, at wildly inopportune moments. What makes the humor so effective is that it’s being delivered by a woman who trying to rebuild her life in a headfirst battle against herself Self-reflection is like scratching at a barely healed scab and finding your own truth is a momentous hurdle, one many of us are reluctant to do. Fleabag taunts us into facing down the inner ugliness, regards our faults with empathy, see’s our levels of gray as human and urges us to love, and do so completely.