• Post category:Television
  • Post last modified:August 7, 2023

Fleabag: Burying Grief and Fear


Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Photo: BBC

There’s a big speech in Barbie (2023) that America Ferrera delivers, a sort of lament over how every woman faces impossible demands and expectations in society. While there are many clever feminist ideas in the movie, that particular speech left me cold. It was one of those moments when the message became predictably obvious, and even a little bit disingenuous. Because, after all, much of what Ferrera says in that speech applies to boys and young men as well. Trying to please others, walking a fine line between too feminine/masculine or not feminine/masculine enough – all that is something most teenagers go through. It’s not a uniquely feminine issue.

What does hit harder though, I imagine, is Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s two-season portrait of a genuinely tormented young woman. 

A typical life as an urban single
Fleabag is not really the leading character’s name, but we never learn her real name throughout the series; it was something Waller-Bridge’s family used to call her. Her unnamed character runs a café in London and lives a typical life as an urban single, with sex taking up a huge part of her time. She has an irritable relationship with her family, including her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), an uptight businesswoman who’s married to an awful American (Brett Gelman); their aloof father (Bill Paterson) is about to marry an artist (Olivia Colman) who seems to loathe both his daughters.

Fleabag is also trying hard not to drown in grief after the death of Boo, her best friend whose boyfriend Fleabag slept with… 

Constantly breaking the fourth wall
Self-loathing in the extreme is a natural consequence after a tragic event like that, something Fleabag battles throughout both seasons, unsuccessfully using psychoanalysis and sex as ways to move forward. There’s also another weapon in her arsenal: Fleabag constantly breaks the fourth wall and makes a connection with us in the audience, providing a running commentary to the craziness in her life. It’s a coping mechanism, which is clear in the second season when the subject is broached by a therapist (Fiona Shaw) and Fleabag isn’t comfortable talking about it. Then she meets an odd but very attractive priest (Andrew Scott) who sort of notices her breaking the fourth wall (”What happened there, where did you go?”), startling Fleabag who’s never met anyone like that before. It’s an ingenious way of experimenting with the format of the series, but also using a very familiar trope in a fresh way that deepens our understanding of why Fleabag keeps resorting to it.

In one way, the character represents what Phoebe Waller-Bridge fears.

The idea for the series is grounded in Waller-Bridge’s own experiences and relationships, even if she’s always been careful to point out that Fleabag really isn’t her. In one way, the character represents what Waller-Bridge fears, a person whose cynicism risks throwing herself into an abyss if she focuses too much on the pressures society applies to a woman. Waller-Bridge took those thoughts and added a tremendous bit of darkness in the shape of personal grief, which frequently pops up in the first season only to develop brilliantly and compellingly in season two, as her affair with the priest begins. 

Fleabag started out as a one-woman show at an Edinburgh festival in 2013, but obviously there was enough material in Waller-Bridge’s mind for her to expand into a whole series. Hilarious, sharp and moving, it definitely had more food for thought than a simple speech could offer. Anchored by Waller-Bridge in the lead, it also had wonderful performances by Clifford, Colman, Scott – and, in a memorable episode, Kristin Scott Thomas as a gay businesswoman. 

Fleabag 2016-2019:U.K. 12 episodes. Color. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Sian Clifford (Claire), Andrew Scott (The Priest, 19), Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, Brett Gelman.

Trivia: Remade as a French TV series in 2019.

Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 18-19; Directing 18-19; Writing 18-19; Actress (Waller-Bridge) 18-19. Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series 20; Actress (Waller-Bridge) 20.

Quote: “I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.” (Waller-Bridge)

Last word: “The first series of Fleabag, when it came out in the U.K., the British press were like, ‘This is the filthiest, most overly exposed, sexually exposing show ever.’ They made out like I was naked the whole way through. I was like, ‘There is not a moment of nudity in the series.’ I just say stuff about my arsehole straight down the barrel. I think that makes people feel so naked, but the language was more naked than the actual performance.” (Waller-Bridge, GQ Magazine)

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