Going off Book: Fleabag

Season one of Fleabag knocked me over, picked me up, and then broke me into a thousand pieces. It seemed semi-criminal that something so awkward and cruel and heart-breaking should also be so funny. It deals with grief and regret and being the family scapegoat and making terrible decisions and punishing yourself because you’ve done things to people you love that you can’t take back. And all that while also being so very fucking funny.

People often write think-pieces about the age of “prestige television,” an entertainment epoch marked by cinematic techniques brought to the “small screen” and show-runners taking advantage of the large-scale storytelling enabled by multiple hours of run-time. Fleabag, in contrast, felt like something more, a fully realized and complete unto itself work of art, with creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge using television as her medium.

Recently Fleabag returned for a second and final season that meets, maybe even exceeds, the quality of the first season. This second season has Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag trying to live a functional life while still being the channel for her family’s passive aggression and own myriad failings. She also finds a love interest in the Priest (Andrew Scott) thus bringing questions of faith to Fleabag’s attempts to sort her life out.

Part of what elevates Fleabag‘s exploration of faith is the depiction of its twin: non-belief. Fleabag is an atheist. The Priest drinks and swears, alludes to a family equally-if-not-more screwed up than Fleabag’s own, and clearly has his own checkered past full of dubious decision-making. Part of his appeal to Fleabag lies in the obvious comfort he finds in his faith, in his decision to live within but not of “the world,” in the way that faith allows him to escape and transcend his past. Early in episode four the pair walk down the street and talk about what comes after death. When Fleabag states her non-belief in an afterlife, the priest exuberantly (and adorably) exclaims, “Why?!? Why would you believe in something awful when you could believe in something WONDERFUL?!?!” At some level the Priest implies that it barely matters what’s “true.” If we have the ability to decide what to believe in, why not choose the lovelier option?

And Fleabag is not immune to the appeal of faith, of an out-of-the-box system for understanding the world. During the confessional scene in that same episode she begs for absolution, not from her sins but from the responsibility of figuring out the answers herself. But of course that’s not a choice that will work for her, which makes Fleabag and the Priest symbols, the twins of belief/non-belief, circling each other, drawn and attracted to each other like particles, changing and shaping each other through that interaction, ultimately unable to merge.

Image result for fleabag priest

But part of what elevates the season beyond mere symbolism is the powerful human connection it shows. As with season one, Fleabag regularly “breaks the fourth wall,” turning to the camera to explain her thoughts, share snarky commentary on the situation at hand, or give the audience various iterations of a knowing look. Fleabag is very, very good at using this device effectively but, still, it’s a device that has been seen before.

The innovation that season two brings occurs when the Priest sees Fleabag’s breaking of the fourth wall and calls her on it. He doesn’t know what’s happening but he recognizes that she’s gone somewhere else or done something to distance herself from what’s happening between them. It’s a startling moment when it first happens and transforms the direct-to-camera asides from being a narrative device to a personality trait. Fleabag the character now takes on new dimensions, as a person who avoids dealing with the situation at hand by stepping outside of it and winking at an imagined audience. If everything is a joke played to an audience then nothing has to really hurt. We now see the fourth-wall breaking as a coping mechanism for the protagonist.

phoebe waller-bridge GIF by BBC Three

With this switch, Waller-Bridge makes a genius move, deepening her already-profound creation by giving us a new, complicated character beat. But this moment also shows that the Priest sees her, in a way that no one else in her life does. He’s in tune with her, he’s interested in her, he’s able to be present in a way that she isn’t. It’s a deft signifier for the real connection between them, a connection that is sexy, romantic, and heart-breaking as hell. In this way, Fleabag and the Priest are not merely symbols but also complex, screwed up, and intriguing people in a complex, screwed up, and intriguing relationship.

There’s so much more to say about this show and its relationships, perhaps most notably that of Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford). I also want to give a huge shout-out to this season’s cameos from Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott-Thomas. There’s also more to say about dysfunctional families, about friendship, about coping with grief and remembering what is lost. And someone ought to write a dissertation on Fleabag‘s arrays of humor, how to perfectly wrap-up a show, and the realism that it brings to getting a really bad haircut. In sum, if you have yet to watch Fleabag, what are you waiting for?