“This a love story” Fleabag turns to camera to tell us in her irreverent manner as the second series opens. It seems unlikely on the surface. Fleabag could be called a sex story. A being a bad friend story. A failing at adult life story. A toxic middle-class family who only express their emotions through passive aggressive comments about a restaurant’s food story. There’s plenty of all these things in Fleabag. Trying to place where the love is, is more-tricky.
However, as series two has unfolded, the idea of love and how it becomes so easily distorted has become more and more apparent. Whether it’s Dad’s gift of a therapy session voucher “incase you’re struggling” or Fleabag’s tearful despair at not knowing where to put all the love she has for her late Mum. All our characters struggle with love. Their destructive and self-destructive actions in response to this struggle veer from comedic to tragic at any turn. In this sophomore outing, Phoebe Waller Bridge strikes gold with her reflections on our deep anxieties. Her writing secures itself as tragicomedy of grand and epic proportion.
I am always singing this show’s praises. But what is it exactly about Waller-Bridge’s writing that has made Fleabag a cultural phenomenon? I think there are a number of features at play that help to make the show so compelling.
Most notably, most Fleabag of them all, are the asides. A key component since series one, Fleabag often raises an eyebrow to the audience or gives a wry look directly to camera. This device is fired at us with both comedic and tragic force and as an audience we cannot predict which it will be. The most powerful moments are when Fleabag’s glance does both. In a conversation with a therapist, à la birthday present from Dad, Fleabag is asked if she has any friends to talk too. In a flash she looks to camera, to us, winks and replies “yes”. It is a funny moment as Fleabag acknowledges our existence. However, this jolt of comedy is replaced by a wave of realisation. Fleabag really doesn’t have anyone to talk to. Especially now in series two after series one ended with all of her main relationships strained or torn away. The asides are not just a humorous gimmick, a display of post-modernist flare, but an insight into Fleabag’s thoughts. This allusion of reality encourages empathy with Fleabag even when we know what she is doing can only end badly.
Asides are a way to tell the audience something instantly. This is important given that each episode is only about twenty-five minutes long. Waller-Bridge’s scripts need to be nimble and lithe to pack in the laughs, tears and plot in so few minutes. The length of an episode provides limitations, given this it is remarkable how real the characters feel.
They are so artfully crafted that they represent certain types of people we see in life. Yet they avoid being crude caricatures. A favourite is the despicable Godmother played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. The liberal artist who greets everyone as “darling” is so carefully written that every line she utters serves as a passive aggressive dig or vain virtue signalling. It makes the audience squirm. Capturing this self-obsessed stereotype successfully is not about vague generalities but instead identifying and highlighting the many nuances that make the character annoying. Fleabag’s asides about Godmother turn that niggling irritation into bellyaching laughs as we have found someone to share our frustration with. Series two sees the introduction of a key new character, The Priest. As Fleabag’s new love interest he could have been a lazily sketched out lump of a character. Yet he too is strange and sad and funny and at times seems to misuse his authorial role. He listens to Fleabag. He notices when she breaks the 4th wall. (Does this mean he breaks the 5th wall? The 4th wall2? I’m not sure about the numbers, but it makes great TV). Having an equal sparring partner means that poignant ideas about love, sadness and anxiety arise amongst the sometimes brutal and flippant comedy.
This brings me onto my final point. The best addition to series two of Fleabag are the monologues. They punch through Fleabag’s brash persona from series one and give us an outpouring of emotion that has allowed the narrative to develop. I tried to pick a favourite monologue but could only bring myself to narrow down to two. First, is Kristin Scott Thomas’ speech to Fleabag about the pain women are born with and carry. Its sincerity catches the audience off guard and allows the pace to slow down and is a brief repose between exchange of rapid fire one liner conversation. The other, is Fleabag’s confessional, where she admits that all she really wants is for someone to tell her what to do. In a world where we are always tuned into the news, to our lives, to the lives of others we are obsessed with what we should be doing, who we should vote for, what we should wear. All we get in response is conflicting information. Fleabag’s confessional has captured the stress that inside, we are all riddled with and for that I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is some sort of soothsayer.
Fleabag is the pinnacle of TV, and you can watch and re-watch and re-watch all the episodes on BBC IPlayer.