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‘Fleabag’ is inappropriate, agonizing and magnificent

tv review

<p>Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Amazon Prime series “Fleabag” released its second season earlier this year.</p>

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Amazon Prime series “Fleabag” released its second season earlier this year.

Several weeks ago, I made the glorious choice to show my friend the very first episode of “Fleabag,” the British comedy-drama written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the eponymous Fleabag. The show recently won six Emmys, including surprise win “Outstanding Comedy Series.” Sitting in the back of Marketplace, the two of us watched Fleabag get a little too comfortable with a video of Barack Obama giving a speech. As we were sans earbuds, other people may very well have heard it too — though, quite honestly, it’s far more likely they heard our gasps and cackles.

Sharp, self-destructive commentary is one of the hallmarks of “Fleabag,” which follows the struggles of a young woman living in London. Who is Fleabag? She says it herself: “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist.” Throughout the show, Fleabag proves these traits several times over — yet her poise, charm and dark wit make her an utterly compelling protagonist. At the heart of it, Fleabag’s story is so magnetic because it is entirely hers, including all of her terrible decisions and dark secrets. The twisted autonomy of “Fleabag” is refreshing, powerful and inherently feminist. Rarely are women allowed to display such ribald, aggressive and independent behavior, in real life or television.

Another distinction of “Fleabag” is its liberal use of fourth-wall-breaking. A genuine rapport is established between Fleabag and the camera, a natural proxy of the audience, through humorous and quick-witted asides. We come for the funny antics that Fleabag puts on, but we stay because of remorse: The intimacy between Fleabag and the camera is what makes her seem like a redeemable character. In reality, the camera simply serves as a defense mechanism, a strategy for Fleabag to manipulate her reality in order to defend against her deep-seated anxiety and shame.

Just as with season one, the supporting cast fills out the series wonderfully, with strong acting and writing bringing to life some of the most distinctive personalities to ever grace the television screen. Olivia Colman continues her sublime turn as the passive-aggressive godmother to Fleabag, with Bill Patterson as Fleabag’s timid father. Sian Clifford and Martin Gelford, who play Fleabag’s uptight sister Claire and Claire’s deadbeat husband respectively, continue to struggle in their failing marriage. Two brief but brilliant performances are given by Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott Thomas, both of whom were nominated for an “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series” Emmy. “Fleabag” continues in the tradition of featuring repulsive, strange or severely flawed characters, all of whom speak to the pain of being profoundly scared of society’s expectations in the wake of unequivocal failure. Then, of course, there’s the Hot Priest...

“Fleabag” was initially meant to be a single season. In a interview on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” Waller-Bridge stated that she hesitated to reopen Fleabag’s story for a second series because, after the twist of the first series is revealed, Fleabag’s relationship with the camera closes. Waller-Bridge didn’t know how to reopen the channel — until the introduction of the “Hot Priest,” played by Andrew Scott. The Priest, as he is officially known, is the only character who notices Fleabag’s asides, much to her surprise. Clearly, Hot Priest is special: is he the only person to see Fleabag’s soul?

Hot Priest is introduced in season two as the charming and tempting officiant of Godmother and Dad’s wedding. Season two plays with Catholicism in the dynamic between Fleabag and Hot Priest, who find themselves dangerously attracted to one another, yet separated by the Priest’s vows of celibacy. Whereas season one culminates in an avalanche of emotion, season two seeps under your skin, slowly wrenching your heart out between the laughs. Waller-Bridge explores Fleabag from a different angle — unattainable love. Similar to Fleabag’s relationship with Claire, imperfection is a central aspect of her relationship with Hot Priest. Ironically enough, it becomes necessary for their relationship to further develop. 

In an interview with The Cut, Waller-Bridge states that, above all, “Fleabag” is about “the glory of being a woman.” Fleabag is a rare insight into the mind of a woman troubled by modern issues — sexual taboos, paying rent, running a business — who struggles to define herself in the midst of grief, sin, and pain.

Is it possible for Fleabag to end her self-destructive behavior, both in-story and meta-referentially? Many are clamoring for a third series, but personally, I believe Fleabag’s story is over. The last scene of season two makes this decision unquestionable. If we truly care about Fleabag, we need to let her return to her life. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to peel ourselves away from our screens and return to ours.

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